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Georgia educators ‘Race to the Top’

States will hunt for millions of stimulus funds in contest

POSTED: December 12, 2009 11:30 p.m.

Georgia’s public schools — and some local leaders — are competing in their own version of "The Amazing Race."

But instead of globe-trotting around the world like contestants on the reality TV show, the schools are competing for funds from a $4.35 billion pot of stimulus funds.

Hopefully, a portion of that money will instead help keep kids’ minds globe-trotting.

In the Race to the Top, states are competing for $4 billion to spur comprehensive education reform. About $350 million more is up for grabs for states who pitch the best proposals to reform or reinvent assessments to gauge student achievement.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who will be in Atlanta on Monday for listening and learning sessions with educators, is overseeing the administration of the $4.35 billion in federal stimulus funds — an unprecedented federal boost to finance a competitive overhaul of American education.

And as Georgia public schools struggle to pay teachers and maintain academic programs — on top of anticipating a $39 million cut this spring — the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top becomes a large carrot dangling in front of educators.

Kathleen Mathers, executive director of the Governor’s Office for Student Achievement, said Georgia’s population puts it in a category poised to win between $200 million and $400 million from Race to the Top, which would be awarded over a three- to four-year period. She said although there’s much speculation that about a dozen states will secure funds from the race, the U.S. Department of Education has not released a number.

Georgia has two local educators on its Race to the Top committee who are helping the state seek a slice of that coveted pie.

Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed Will Schofield, superintendent of Hall County schools, and Lissa Pijanowski, associate superintendent of Forsyth County schools, to serve on the state’s Race to the Top committee. The comprehensive reform portion of the race comprises four committees: improving standards and assessments, developing great teachers and leaders, creating longitudinal data systems and boosting lowest achieving schools.

Schofield serves on the lowest achieving schools subcommittee with Charles Knapp, former University of Georgia president, and Penelope McPhee, president of The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation in Atlanta, among others. The group is charged with the task of devising a plan to improve the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools, Schofield said.

Pijanowski is on the roughly 20-member subcommittee responsible for developing a plan to consistently improve principal and teacher effectiveness based on performance. The "teachers and leaders" portion of the plan makes up the largest part of the state’s application, she said.

Georgia: A leader in the pack?

Mathers and Schofield said they believe Georgia’s charter school-friendly approach, state standards-based curriculum and support in linking teacher evaluations to student achievement makes Georgia a frontrunner in the race.

The state’s Race to the Top proposal also gained support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation selected Georgia as one of 15 states that received $250,000 in consultation resources in August.

"Georgia sits pretty well in terms of being able to capitalize on some of this money," Schofield said of the $4.35 billion. "Georgia has a lot of pluses as far as the request for proposals for the Race to the Top grant."

He said, however, that the Race to the Top is by no means a "silver bullet" for education.

"I think we need to get out of the tinkering mode," he said. "I think we’re going to have to look at a much wider and deeper systemic change to schools. ... I think it has the potential to stir people in different ways. It has the potential to be a piece of the solution."

Mathers said Race to the Top is not an open competition from the federal government. The U.S. Department of Education has clear rules that ask states to reform education in four areas, and outlines 19 areas that need to be reformed to win federal money.

She said the governor’s office plans to submit the state’s proposal on Jan. 19 in the first Race to the Top phase. Phase one winners will be announced in April, and funds will begin flowing shortly thereafter, she said. The second phase deadline is June 1, with winners announced in September.

Working together

To develop better leadership in underperforming schools, Schofield’s group is considering $5,000 to $25,000 bonuses for the most seasoned teachers or principals who take jobs in the state’s lowest-performing schools.

"No one’s going to up and move their family for a $3,000 bonus, but $25,000 — that’s starting to make people think a little bit," he said. "... My concern is, how do we do that in a defensible way?"

The group is also looking at merit-based pay, where student performance and test scores play a role in determining educator salaries.

But Schofield said he’d like to see committees take a step further and develop more flexibility in student learning time rather than the standard 180 days. He proposes a move-when-ready approach that would quell parents’ most common complaint: "You’re boring my kid to tears."

His pitch for any individualized learning program could allow a high-achieving student to move on to more advanced material regardless of whether the student’s classmates had mastered the concept. The flexibility also could allow 200 days of school for students who need more time to master the state standards, he suggests.

While some of Schofield’s ideas may not fill a niche in Race to the Top, perhaps his ideas will gain more traction in Georgia’s pursuit of a separate $50 million stimulus-funded grant for innovative education.

Pijanowski said her subcommittee is developing a way to allow business professionals easier access to become teachers or principals. The plan could allow a biology major without a degree in education to teach high school biology, or allow a proven business leader to be a school principal.

"We have some alternative pathways for them to be certified and get into the classroom, but how can we streamline that so we get those content experts into classrooms as well as even people with great leadership potential?" she said. "... It is a very innovative proposal and one that is very different than what we traditionally subscribe to."

Setting standards

Mathers said another plus for Georgia in the Race to the Top is its support of the controversial Common Core State Standards that asks states to develop a curriculum that has at least 85 percent of the Common Core State Standards. Perdue is a co-chairman on that committee, she said.

"The idea is that all states would be teaching from the same curriculum blueprint," she said. "It is voluntary, but it is taken into consideration in the Race to the Top competition."

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state-led process to develop a common core of state standards in English-language arts and mathematics for grades K-12, according to the initiative’s Web site. Mathers said the initiative also pushes for a national assessment, which would allow an "apple-to-apple" comparison of students’ test scores across states.

Schofield said he’s long been a proponent of national standards and assessments, and would even support international assessments.

"To be about the only industrialized nation without national standards ... it just seems to be a poor use of our resources," he said. "I think the national standards should be out there, and that’s the bar we all should be shooting for. If a local district chooses not to use them, then that’s their prerogative."


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