By EMILIE EASTMAN for Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Is the federal government's unprecedented $250 million grant to Maryland for education reforms working? Depends on who you ask.
A Maryland Department of Education spokesman says the Race to the Top grant, part of President Barack Obama’s national education initiative, is a success. But a recent report highlights the program’s failings. Some Maryland counties are scrambling to meet goals, and some teachers had to start the school year without fully-formed curricula.
Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, a research group convened by the Economic Policy Institute, gathered Race to the Top data from Maryland, the District of Columbia, and 10 other participating states, including surveys of district superintendents, interviews with education leaders, and published studies.
“What we found was not very promising,” said Elaine Weiss, the organization’s national coordinator.
Race to the Top was launched in 2009 as an incentive for states to meet federal education goals. States competed against one another for a shot at more than $4.35 billion in grants. Key objectives were improving student achievement, increasing high school graduation rates and reducing the disparities between high and low performing schools.
But according to the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education report, most participating states lack the time and resources needed to make significant changes, leading to frustrated teachers and delayed or even counterproductive implementation of Race to the Top components.
“Many [states] are experiencing substantial setbacks due to unrealistic promises and unexpected challenges,” the report said.
The biggest challenges Maryland faces involve staffing technology projects, and implementing the new teacher and principal evaluation system which uses student test scores to judge teacher performance, according to a 2013 U.S. Department of Education report.
But according to William Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education, these findings are not necessarily a cause for alarm.
“We’re in very, very good shape,” he said. “It’s a massive undertaking.”
Reinhard said Maryland is no longer in danger of losing approximately $40 million of the grant funding – a measure the U.S. Department of Education threatened earlier this year if the state did not meet certain conditions related to the teacher and principal evaluation system.
“We’ve added a lot more professional development, rolled out new curriculum and spent the last three years getting prepared for it,” he said. “We’ve come a long way.”
Duane Arbogast, chief academic officer for Prince George’s County public schools, said he considers the program a success in his county. Prince George’s County received more than $23 million in Race to the Top funds – the second-highest award in the state.
“Race to the Top came at a really good time for us,” Arbogast said. “We actually saw an increase in student performance.”
The funds were able to sustain or provide seed money for several education initiatives in Prince George’s County, including the Advanced Placement International Baccalaureate Program, a college preparation program that offers college-level courses and research and community service opportunities.
“In this case, size does matter,” Arbogast said. “ If we didn’t get the amount of money we got, Race to the Top wouldn’t have been that helpful for us.”
But some counties that received a smaller portion of the grant, like Anne Arundel County, are scrambling to meet program goals and criteria.
“We have jumped through hoops just to meet the requirements,” said Richard Benfer, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County. “You can’t do everything they’re asking. The people who make these decisions aren’t in the classrooms with the kids.”
Some teachers in Anne Arundel had to start this school year without a fully-formed curriculum, he said.
“It’s still not finished, but teachers have to teach,” he said. “It’s not that teachers can’t write curriculum, it just takes too long.”
A recent survey from the Maryland State Education Association found that 72 percent of teachers in Maryland do not feel prepared for the new evaluation systems, and 64 percent do not feel adequately prepared to implement the Common Core - a set of academic standards that went into effect this fall across most of the nation.
None of the teachers who were asked for comment would speak on the record about this topic.
Betty Weller, President of the Maryland State Education Association, views these challenges as symptoms of a complex transitional period and not necessarily a failing program.
One positive outcome from Race to the Top is the increased focus on education reform, she said.
“It has started a lot of conversations about public education,” she said. “It has caused us to focus more on adequate professional development for people.”
But Weller said she has also received feedback from educators overwhelmed with the lack of time and resources to make required changes. She predicts a drop in test scores and increased teacher frustration over the next few years as schools adjust to new methods of teaching and evaluating.
Whether or not the program is working has yet to be seen, Weller said, and right now it is too early to tell.
“It’s like looking at a painting that’s half done and trying to determine whether it’s going to be good or not,” she said. “It’s an evolutionary process. Education isn’t a stagnant thing.”