Final lap for Race to the Top

After winning $119 million in federal Race to the Top money almost four years ago, supporters and critics in Delaware agree it’s too soon to tell whether the education grant was a success or failure.

However, Paul Herdman, president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, says the state is on the right track.”I would say it’s a success in terms of the initial intent, which was to serve as a catalyst for transforming the system.”

Herdman is a founding member of Vision 2015, a coalition of education, business and government leaders with its own reform plan for Delaware’s schools. Vision 2015 helped the state win the money; money that was supposed to deliver “world class” results.

“The purpose was to look at Delaware and say, ‘Could there be some dramatic, transformational change?’ How we do business in terms of how teachers work together, what standards we set for our kids, for adults in the system, and I think all of that has happened,” Herdman said.

With the majority of the money spent, Race funds went towards improving poorly performing schools, known as Partnership Zone schools, improving early education programs, as well as towards a controversial teacher evaluation program, largely based on standardized test scores.

The other side

John Young, a Christina School Board member and outspoken critic of many of the state’s education initiatives, including Race to the Top, believes for all of the money that’s been spent, the state has yet to see a significant return on its investment.

“I would’ve taken the money and gone after a much more comprehensive attack on social supports, rather than investing in testing,” Young said. “It’s hard to learn when you’re hungry… To leap over all of that and to rely on a test score to then tell me how a school is doing just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Not a believer in standardized tests, Young feels too many of Race’s initiatives are overly reliant on test scores and assessments.

“I think we absolutely should use tests. They should be designed by the teachers and the practitioners that are working with the children everyday… and the ultimate measure is how many make it to [grade] 12, how many graduate, how many to college,” he said.

Critics, like Young, also point out national and state test scores, achievement gap numbers and graduation rates have remained largely flat since the state won Race to the Top.

“I don’t want to sugarcoat the fact that because there’s been this catalytic change and it’s taking a while to fully be realized that it’s been a magic bullet or a magic wand and sort of everything has disappeared. But the reality is that there are significant changes for real kids,” retorted Herdman, who says in the last couple of years, 10,000 more students have become proficient in reading and math according to Delaware’s latest assessment test results.

Delaware’s Dept. of Education says it still has between $10 million and $12 million remaining in unused Race to the Top money. The state has asked, and the federal government is considering granting Delaware an extension, a fifth year, to spend that money.

WHYY explores the issue with our content partner Delaware Today magazine on FirstFriday night at 5:30 p.m. and again at 11 p.m.

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