State Still Implementing Measures From Education Grant That Ended Last Year

Ben Scafidi
Ben Scafidi 

KENNESAW, Ga. (Nov 15, 2015) — Georgia Milestones test results to be released this week by local school districts are among the most visible evidence to parents of how a package of federally-funded initiatives have changed public education in the state.

A year after the federal Race to the Top grant ended, known as RT3, the state is still putting into place the final parts of the wide-ranging education program.

While the Milestones exams were not specifically part of Race to the Top, they were developed in coordination with the program as a replacement for the previous end-of-course tests given to students. The Milestones are designed to test mastery of the course revisions coming from Race to the Top with higher overall standards.

Among the Race to the Top components are the controversial Com­mon Core curriculum and teacher assessments tied to the Milestones.

In 2010, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue and then-state Superintendent Kathy Cox gushed about how the $400 million grant would help Geor­gia implement ambitious plans for improving public schools. Federal officials awarded Georgia the competitive grant because of the promises made in its application.

“This is truly a unique opportunity to implement a Georgia-created plan that will accelerate our work in improving student achievement,” Perdue said.

The money, part of the Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, was to help Georgia raise its standards, implement a database to track students their entire school careers, adopt teacher assessments based largely on student performance and upgrade the preparation of future teachers.

Twenty-six school districts volunteered to be test sites, including Richmond County. Then the new ideas were rolled out statewide.

The successors to Perdue and Cox were lukewarm if not outright hostile to parts of the program. At the same time, conservatives rallied against the Common Core curriculum, calling it federal interference bankrolled by out-of-state interests intent on imposing liberal values.

As a result, Gov. Nathan Deal watered down some aspects of Common Core, such as the plan to participate in a national consortium to manage student testing. Superintendent John Barge dragged out the teacher-assessment component, as has his successor Richard Woods, who recently relaxed the requirement that an administrator make yearly in-class observations of every teacher.

Still, much of the program has been implemented. Most observers say it’s early to give a comprehensive judgment.

“I think they probably did have some innovative approaches to education, but, as with most government programs, the rules were so difficult that the benefit that we’ve gotten out of that is far less than hoped,” said Kelly McCutchen, the president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Angela Palm, a lobbyist with the Georgia School Boards Association, has a similar opinion, though for different reasons. The direct impact is hard to gauge, she said, because other changes in state education policy were also occurring, such as the mandate that all districts chose how much state oversight they wanted.

“It did drive change faster in the states that got the money than it would have otherwise,” she said.

Some of those changes are still in the pipeline. For example, the program funded a test in Fulton County and the city of Marietta of different ways to compensate teachers. Though neither test has been fully implemented, the Education Reform Commission that Deal appointed is considering instituting their approaches in the comprehensive funding revision it will recommend to Deal and the Legislature in coming weeks.

Another example is the evaluation of colleges that produce teachers. Those schools will be graded, beginning this academic year, based on the performance of students taught by graduates of each college.

Overall, Palm says some of the Race to the Top innovations will remain in place, but not most of them.

“If they were going to continue everything from the Race to the Top, it would take a lot more money,” she said.

Before legislators make a sizeable funding commitment, they need more proof that it works, according to Ben Scafidi, an economics professor at Kennesaw State University and a frequent critic of public education.

“As an economist, I want to see the rigorous evaluation that will be released in summer 2016. In that study, they have the data and research methods necessary to ask whether the extra (Race to the Top) funding given to the lowest-performing schools actually improved student outcomes,” he said.

An evaluation of the Race to the Top program cited by many education observers was conducted late last year by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a spinoff of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. It noted the initial lack of communication and coordination with teachers and education groups but said both issues were eventually resolved.

It also said that while the state has generally done a good job implementing the program, more must be done to build on those improvements.

“Georgia needs a new strategic plan to continue its vision,” the report said. “The RT3 grant provided a roadmap for reform for the state to follow. That roadmap is close to becoming out of date.”

-The Augusta Chronicle