Race to the Top spending hasn’t translated to most classrooms

lbonner@newsobserver.comDecember 29, 2013 

The state has used most of the $400 million federal Race to the Top education grant it won three years ago to upgrade technology, revamp teacher training, and change teacher and principal evaluations.

As the Race to the Top grant period ends – it’s set to conclude next summer, though the state is asking for an extension – some goals for broad improvements in student performance have fallen short. Incentives such as vouchers for systems to lure better teachers got little use.

While graduation rates are up and above targets, proficiency on national standardized tests has not risen as quickly as promised. The percentage of high school graduates enrolling in post-secondary programs went down rather than increasing. Some achievement gaps actually widened.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said students are learning more than they ever have in public schools and cases where results have fallen short of goals comes from application writers being “too aspirational.”

“We knew we were facing a time when we had fewer resources and more students, but we said, ‘Let’s be aspirational,’ ” Atkinson said.

North Carolina was one of 12 winners of a national competition, securing $400 million in 2010 to be used to advance public education through technology, teacher training and evaluation, changes in classroom standards, and a focus on low-performing schools.

The state will not have spent about $25 million of the grant by the end of next summer, partly because some goals weren’t reached and in other cases because technology programs are behind schedule. The state is asking to extend the program by one more year.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education praised North Carolina’s progress. An official in the office said in mid-December she could not speak to how the state was doing in improving student performance because a third-year analysis was not complete.

Behind-the-scenes efforts continue

Some of the biggest grant-funded changes are largely invisible to the general public.

The state has found an effective way to deliver ongoing education to teachers, said Trip Stallings, a co-manager of the state Race to the Top evaluation team at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at N.C. State University.

But surveys found that teachers were having trouble translating the grant goals to the classroom while juggling many other changes in state policy, according to the evaluation.

Stallings said teachers are getting the professional development they should be getting, but it may take another year or two to see the impact.

That’s a good reason for the state to extend the grant for another year, he said. “It may take a year or two longer to have the effect they want it to have.”

Training to help struggling schools increases

Grant money paid for summer institutes for teachers and principals where they were trained in the new Common Core standards. Regional coordinators were hired to work continuously with districts and schools.

More than 90 subject-matter workshops were held in person and online, Atkinson said.

The state Department of Public Instruction office that helps struggling schools expanded its scope and used the grant to double its staff.

The District and School Transformation office works with the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent, and 12 of the lowest-performing school districts. The state evaluation found that in the first two years of grant funding, test scores in schools that were part of this effort improved more than at other schools.

Changing principals at underperforming schools was a condition of the grant, and in the beginning of the grant period, 87 school principals left their posts.

The state is also building an education Internet “cloud” for data and learning materials and a statewide system for parents, students, teachers, and administrators called Home Base.

Vouchers to lure teachers go unused

Some smaller projects went bust. Districts didn’t use the $5,360 vouchers available to lure good teachers to low-performing schools.

Teachers could use the vouchers for tuition, student loan payments and housing. Last year, only a dozen teachers got them.

In 2012, only 35 of 106 schools eligible to receive bonuses for improved student performance received the extra $1,500 per teacher. Students improved, but not enough for staff to get the extra money, the evaluation states.

Teachers said they didn’t know about the incentives, and even if they had it wouldn’t have changed the way they worked, the evaluation states.

The N.C. Teacher Corps, a program to help recent college graduates or mid-career professionals become teachers, fell far short of its goals in getting teachers into classrooms.

Not all the $400 million will be spent by mid-2014. Some project budgets, such as the teacher recruitment project, will have money left over. The grant proposal also assumed 3 percent staff raises, but that money wasn’t used.

The state wants to use about $25 million after the official grant period ends to extend its professional development project and provide more intensive support for some of the low-performing schools.

‘Faster and further’

If federal officials allow the state to shift money the way it wants, the state will have spent about $37 million on helping the lowest-achieving schools, $36.7 million on professional development, and $32.2 million on Home Base.

Atkinson said the federal grant allowed the state to move “faster and further” in implementing State Board of Education priorities.

She predicted that Home Base would be a “game changer” that teachers use to find lesson plans and share ideas.

“I definitely think the money has been put to good use,” Atkinson said. “Without the dollars from Race to the Top, we would not be as far along as we are in the use of technology in our schools.”

Bonner: 919-829-4821; Twitter: @Lynn_Bonner

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