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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.

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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.

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"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.

The first four schools that are designing turnaround plans, which roll out this fall, have required teachers and administrators to reinterview for their jobs. Two principals have already stepped down. Beyond staff evaluation, each school is partnering with consultants, hired using Race to the Top funds, to take on its own mixed bag of reforms, including performance pay for teachers, "attraction bonuses" of $5,000 to draw more effective teachers and other new programs that have worked at charter schools.  

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Tennessee has also confronted the challenge of reforming its lowest-performing schools, with about 190 targeted so far for interventions out of 1,693 total in the state. Chronically failing schools, with low proficiency and graduation rates going back more than a decade, may be subject to takeover by the state this coming school year.

"For those schools, the state would create its own school district to either directly run, or use outside agencies like charter schools to help provide services," Rachel Woods, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Education, told The Root, adding that Tennessee has greatly expanded charter school options under Race to the Top.

The majority of low-achieving schools identified in Tennessee thus far have developed their own turnaround strategies. Some opted to get rid of their entire faculties and have new administrators in place, while others picked from a range of tactics to suit their needs — longer school days, for example, more days for teacher development, and bonuses for teachers and principals if they meet certain criteria.

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Ken Foster, executive director of the Memphis Education Association, a union group for Memphis teachers, is not quite sold on the mix-and-match nature of individual school reforms. His district, which has a student population that is 86 percent African American, is home to several of the targeted schools.

"We've only been doing this since August of last year, so it's too early to say whether or not any of these things will be successful," Foster told The Root, noting that the teachers union worked with the district on some of the policy changes. "The Race to the Top money was put out there to try experimental things, and Tennessee was willing to step out there and try them. I'm not convinced they will work, but maybe it's time to put it to rest whether they will or not."

Left at the Bottom

It is precisely the idea of Race to the Top as an "experiment" that has its critics calling foul. Last summer a coalition of advocacy groups, including the NAACP and the Schott Foundation for Public Education, released a report slamming the initiative.

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"For far too long, communities of color have been testing grounds for unproven methods of educational change," said the report, which accused the Obama administration of promoting quick fixes instead of focusing on closing gaps in resources and alleviating poverty. "We therefore urge an end to the federal push to encourage states to adopt federally prescribed methodologies that have little or no evidentiary support — for primary implementation only in low-income and high-minority communities."

Michael Holzman, a research consultant for the Schott Foundation, argues that a competition with winners and losers has no place in federal education funding. He explains that entering Race to the Top alone was expensive, with states hiring groups of consultants to build their proposals.

"By doing it as a competition, they ensured that poorer states that most needed the money didn't get it," he told The Root, pointing out that states with large communities of color, such as California, Louisiana and Mississippi were overlooked. "If you look at the states that got the money, they were all states that were doing pretty well."

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While Holzman agrees with the program's outlined priorities of teacher evaluation and improving the country's lowest-performing schools, he disagrees with many of the prescriptions. "The most egregious example is the push for charter schools," he said. "The research shows clearly that charter schools aren't any better than standard-issue public schools. But the federal government is saying, 'Here's this thing that we know isn't any better than public schools, and we're going to make you do it.' "

The Tennessee Department of Education's Woods counters the criticism by saying that her state has invested in high-quality charter school models, such as KIPP, that have already proved successful in certain parts of Tennessee. "I think our strategies are proven, but they're proven on a very small scale," she says. "You won't find whole states that have successfully moved from the bottom to the top in terms of national performance. But Tennessee has been low performing for a very long time, so this is an opportunity to try to make improvements in a quick period of time by implementing dramatic reforms."

Herdman, with the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, admits that there isn't a large body of research proving that his state's plan will be wholly successful. "But we do have a lot of evidence that shows the current strategy has not worked," he says. "We have a moral obligation to do something. There is a level of risk in this, but I think there's enough evidence to suggest that it's a risk worth taking."

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The Difference a Year Makes

Casual observers may expect drastic improvements one year after the announcement of the first Race to the Top winners, but state officials insist that they have used the time to lay their foundation, with the real work getting started next school year.

"One thing that's changed is that we have realistic expectations," Daniel Cruce, chief of staff for the Delaware Department of Education, told The Root. "The kind of instant gratification that people want to see in one year is part of the problem. What they will see is that our schools have plans now that are unlike anything they've ever done before, and that's the way you build actual sustainable change."

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That said, Delaware and Tennessee must still work under a tight timeline — just three more years now — to pull themselves out of their educational slump. Despite the many naysayers, controversy and endless questions, they remain optimistic that they can do it.

"There's a sense of urgency now," says Hayes from Wilmington's Howard High School of Technology, describing the new energy in his community. "And we actually have the resources needed to move forward. I feel really good about the direction in which we're headed."

Cynthia Gordy is the Washington reporter for The Root.