MIAMI - A year after Florida was put on warning for falling behind on its $700 million Race to the Top grant projects, U.S. Department of Education officials say the state has regained its momentum.
A Department of Education report released Friday concludes nearly all projects are on track with Florida's amended timelines. Ninety-eight percent of the grant funds are being budgeted for contracts. In the first year Florida struggled to issue them in a timely manner.
The initial delay meant the state faces an aggressive timeline on an ambitious education reform agenda. The report concludes Florida should focus on making sure that contractors who get funds from the grant - aimed at improving student achievement - do high quality work.
"Florida has made encouraging progress toward implementing its plan, and we want to see that growth accelerate in the second half of the grant," U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.
In the second year of carrying out the grant, the state adopted Common Core State Standards, a set of uniform benchmarks for math and reading, in kindergarten; began utilizing new teacher and principal evaluation systems; and provided professional development and new teachers as part of its plans to turn around low performing schools.
Florida was one of 11 states and the District of Columbia to receive a share of the U.S. Department of Education's $4.3 billion in Race to the Top money in the first two rounds of the competition. The state wants to double the percentage of incoming high school freshmen who graduate and go on to earn at least a year's worth of college credit; cut the achievement gap in half; and increase the percentage of students scoring at or above proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress by 2015.
Florida's strategic plan also focuses on improving instruction. The Student Success Act, passed in 2011, created a new teacher evaluation system that uses student growth data and ties compensation to evaluation results starting in the 2014-15 school year.
In its goal of ensuring students are prepared for college, Florida adopted the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. Over 40 percent of the Race to the Top money is being used to train teachers and assist in the transition to the new standards, which will be in place in all grades by 2013-14.
The state has begun using its new teacher and principal evaluations and developing new models for teachers in hard-to-measure subject areas like physical education, music and art.
In year two, Florida also awarded grants to Miami-Dade and Duval county school districts to hire 800 new teachers in low-performing schools by the 2014-15 school year. The state also organized summer academies to provide instruction on reading, math, science, career and technical education and leadership to 1,600 teachers at struggling schools.
"We are very happy to report they've made tremendous progress," said Ann Whalen, director of policy and program implementation for the U.S. Department of Education.
In year three of the four-year grant, Florida will continue rolling out the Common Core standards and work on revisions to its teacher evaluation system. Despite the overall improvements, the report notes there are still challenges ahead. They include collecting timely data on teacher evaluations and opening more charter schools.
"We will continue to work closely with Florida to ensure they are enacting reforms that will improve student achievement and empower teacher to prepare all students for college and careers," Duncan said.
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