Is Race to the Top Working?

One year after the first round of Obama's education-reform program, it's clear that there is no silver bullet for success. But the winners say their plans are worth a try.

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There's a new conversation bubbling up these days at Howard High School of Technology in Wilmington, Delaware.

"We've been researching best practices, visiting other schools to learn about programs that have worked for them, and we are constantly talking about what's best for our students," says assistant principal Clifton Hayes. "Vice President Biden coming by last week to celebrate was just the icing on the cake."

It's been one year since Delaware, along with Tennessee, won the first round of the Obama administration's Race to the Top competitive grant program. Funded by the Recovery Act and designed to spur bold education reform, the program makes $4.35 billion available to all 50 states -- but only if they agree to certain guidelines for improving their education systems, such as raising academic standards and boosting support for the lowest-performing schools. Winners of the competition's second round, announced last August, include Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C.

"In each successive round, we've leveraged change across the country," President Obama said in a speech at the National Urban League conference last summer, extolling Race to the Top. "It's forced teachers and principals and officials and parents to forge agreements on tough and often uncomfortable issues -- to raise their sights and embrace education."

But the program has also been a lightning rod for controversy. Opponents see it as budgetary blackmail that forces states to change their education laws based on the administration's ideas -- and call the U.S. Education Department's jumble of reform strategies, like expanding the number of charter schools and merit pay for teachers, misguided at best. Race to the Top's structure as a competition, civil rights groups further contend, stacks the deck against poor and minority students, who will be left at the bottom.

The criticism, however, doesn't faze Race to the Top's freshman class. One year into laying the groundwork for their winning plans, which launch fully this fall, education officials in Delaware and Tennessee profess excitement about potentially transforming their public schools.

Finding the Right Remedy

So far, both Delaware, which received $119 million for the next four years, and Tennessee, which was awarded $500 million, have improved their systems for monitoring academic achievement and graduation rates. Both states have also recruited and trained new science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teachers, boosted their proficiency standards and changed how they evaluate teachers, tying a portion of each evaluation to student progress.

"Right now, 98 percent of teachers in Delaware are evaluated as satisfactory," Paul Herdman, president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, a public-education nonprofit that helped with the state's Race to the Top proposal, told The Root. Meanwhile, Delaware's overall graduation rate of 65 percent (it's just 50 percent for African-American males) is below the national average of 69 percent. "I don't believe there have been over 10 people in the last several years that have ever lost a job around teacher evaluation or poor performance," Herdman says.

That challenge -- what to do with ineffective teachers and principals in Delaware -- has also started to be tackled under Race to the Top. Last year, officials identified for overhauls -- which include eliminating some staff members -- four schools performing in the state's bottom 5 percent. Two of those schools serve predominantly black students in the heart of Wilmington. This year the state will name six more to overhaul. The numbers sound small but actually represent 5 percent of the 200 schools in Delaware, America's second-smallest state.

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