Feds Cite NJ’s Progress in Implementing ‘Race to the Top’ Initiatives

John Mooney | June 13, 2014 | Education
But U.S. Department of Education report on implementation of $38M grant also cites cumbersome policies and bureaucracy

New Jersey’s handling of the “Race to the Top” grant it received in 2012 has earned praise in a federal report, but it also cited examples of how the state’s policies have slowed school-improvement initiatives.

The U.S. Department of Education yesterday released reports on a half-dozen states that receive grants in the second year of the “Race to the Top” funding competition, including the $38 million bestowed on New Jersey.

Overall, it said the state had made progress in putting in place the various programs promised in the state’s grant application, including the eventual implementation of the new Common Core State Standards and other accountability measures for teachers and schools.

The detailed 19-page report cited a significant narrowing of the state’s achievement gap in certain areas since the award of the grant, as measured by standardized tests.

But the report’s release coincides with ever-increasing debate over the state’s education policies. While it stayed clear of addressing the polarizing politics, the report still offered a cautionary tale of how bureaucracy can slow even the best-intentioned efforts.

For instance, the federal report cited the state’s slow public-bidding process and its effect on efforts to provide additional teacher resources, a centerpiece of its “Race to the Top” application.

The report also noted delays in hiring of curriculum experts as part of the roll-out of a model curriculum – all against tight deadlines set by the federal government.

“It is striking just how many ambitious reforms New Jersey is attempting simultaneously and how rapid the timeline for implementation is,” said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor at Drew University who has closely followed federal education policy.

McGuinn said it was noteworthy that only half of the state’s school districts had even participated in the programs dictated by the grants.

“Clearly, (state and local) capacity issues are complicating implementation,” he said. “This is very different kind of work than they have done in the past and requires new kinds of staff, skills, and resources.”

State officials acknowledged that there have been some delays, but said significant progress has been made.

“Overall, New Jersey received a positive evaluation,” said Mike Yaple, the state Education Department’s communications director. “We faced obstacles that delayed a few programs, but since then we’ve worked to overcome those obstacles.

“In the big picture, the report acknowledges that student achievement in New Jersey is improving, the achievement gap is narrowing, and the graduation rate is increasing,” Yaple added.