Race to the Top Moving at Slower Pace for New Jersey

John Mooney | May 29, 2013 | Education
After frantic pursuit of federal funds, state takes more deliberate approach to putting initiatives in place

Drama and deadlines marked New Jersey’s bids for funding in the first three rounds of the federal Race to the Top competition. But it has been a slower process putting some of the initiatives in place once the state finally secured the funds.

New Jersey was awarded $38 million in late 2011 on the third try in a competition that cost one state education commissioner his job and ultimately gave the state a late start in several federally funded programs dealing with teacher evaluations, curriculum and testing reforms, and school choice.

Half of the money is to be distributed to school districts through a grant program, officials said. And the state application’s emphasis on revamping teacher evaluation has drawn much attention throughout New Jersey, drawing criticism from some who say the state is moving too fast.

But the bulk of remaining initiatives to help districts review and, if necessary, revamp their curriculum and instruction remain a work in progress, as the state has extended timelines and shifted funds.

The state Department of Education under Commissioner Chris Cerf has won three amendments to its application from the U.S. Department of Education in the last year, with the latest approval coming last month.

The amendments are not unusual, with other states seeking as many as a dozen changes to their plans. Illinois, another state that won funding in the same round as New Jersey, has sought and won five amendments from the federal government.

For New Jersey, the goal has been to buy some time and flexibility.

In the latest amendment, for example, the state is shifting $1.2 million to fast-track completion of the new Instructional Improvement System (IIS) that would provide districts with lesson plans and other curriculum help to align with the impending Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

The bulk of that money – more than $1 million – will go to hiring additional staff and outside consultants to complete the work on the IIS, according to the amendment approved April 29.

In addition, the state won approval in early April to extend some deadlines for the new Model Curriculum, a sometimes-controversial project that could replace the curricula in some of the state’s lowest performing schools.

The math and language arts portions of the Model Curriculum have been finalized and are posted online, officials said, but other sections pertaining to science, social studies and other subject areas are targeted for completion in late 2013 and 2014.

“In creating the model curriculum for the CCSS, the State learned that the process was more time consuming and required greater attention to detail that originally anticipated,” read the federal government’s approval letter on April 4.

“Furthermore, the State experienced difficulty in finding both internal and external expertise and capacity to complete this work on time and with high quality. NJDOE has proposed to shift funds to support activities to ensure the State has capacity to meet the goals of this project and new timelines.”

State officials said they were confident the work was mostly proceeding on track, saying much of it has been completed and others are only going through expected adjustments.

“The Race to the Top funds have allowed us to build capacity in some key areas, such as the launch of new educator evaluation systems and continually improving charter accountability,” said Justin Barra, the department’s Chief Policy and External Affairs Officer.

“As with any grant, we have made some slight modifications to timelines and funding allocations as we work to provide even more academic resources to educators through curricular supports and other online resources.”

New Jersey is just one of many states trying to live up to its ambitious promises in the high-profile applications, with the federal government so far acquiescing, experts say.

“The (federal) department is really trying to work with states and help them fit round pegs into square holes, if you will,” said Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C.

The breadth and scope of meeting the requirements of the new Common Core standards and their testing, due in 2014-15, has been especially daunting, she said.

“Everyone has had their spots where having problems meeting their aims with this,” said Ferguson, a former federal education official under former President Clinton. “It’s not easy stuff they have set out to do, and we have to be realistic.”