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Race to Top provides unique opportunities

Aug. 24 marks the one-year anniversary of Georgia’s win in the Race to the Top grant competition. The Richmond and Burke county school systems have been a great partner in the state’s implementation of our Race to the Top plan. Developed by education stakeholders from across the state, Georgia’s plan provided an unprecedented opportunity to invest $400 million in reshaping our education system. I have long supported the principles set forth in Georgia’s Race to the Top plan and look forward to using it as the vehicle to advance my goal of ensuring our graduates are college and career ready.

Over the last year, we have made significant progress toward this goal, particularly in the areas of measuring teacher and leader effectiveness, implementing rigorous standards for learning, and providing opportunities for educators around the state to implement innovative ideas to improve student achievement.

As we all know, an effective teacher in the classroom is the most important part of a child’s education. For too long, annual teacher evaluations have held little meaning because nearly all teachers receive a passing score, regardless of their impact on student learning. High-quality teachers receive little or no reward, and low-performing teachers remain in the classroom without intervention.

As a result, reforming our teacher evaluation system is a core piece of our Race to the Top plan. Representatives from the 26 Race to the Top partner school districts have led discussions on how to improve our teacher evaluation system to ensure that it holds teachers accountable in a fair, diversified way. It will include several measures of teacher quality, including classroom observations, academic progress of students and student surveys. The resulting system will be piloted in those 26 districts in the 2011-2012 school year.

We have also made progress toward implementing the Common Core Georgia Performance Standards (CCGPS) for language arts and math, our name for the Common Core State Standards. Representatives from states across the country, including Georgia, developed these internationally benchmarked standards to ensure that a student’s location does not impact what he or she is expected to learn. We have joined 42 other states in this effort because it is critical for our students to compete in the national - and global -- marketplace, and we will fully implement the Common Core during the 2012-13 academic year.

Another bright spot in our Race to the Top efforts has been our Innovation Fund. The $19.4 million fund was set up to support partnerships between K-12 schools, higher education, businesses and nonprofit organizations to develop innovative approaches to improve student achievement, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Several weeks ago, we awarded the first round of Innovation Fund grants to five applicants. These proposals included plans for charter schools that emphasize the importance of STEM, hands-on learning opportunities for students using cutting edge technology, and recruitment and training programs to place effective teachers in schools across Georgia where they are most needed. This fall, we will accept applications for a second round of grants. I am confident that successful grants can be scaled to schools throughout the state.

Significant progress has already been made, and Georgia will continue to implement meaningful education reforms that will have long lasting and positive impacts on our students and our state. However, I believe that significant improvement in student success cannot occur unless we broaden our focus to early childhood education. A large amount of a child’s life trajectory is determined before he or she steps into a kindergarten classroom. As a result, my office, along with the Department of Early Care and Learning, is applying to the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge this fall. This federal grant will enable us to leverage further support for early childhood education, particularly increasing access and quality across the state.

Looking back over the past year, it is clear that Race to the Top has provided a unique opportunity to rethink how we educate Georgia’s students. I look forward to seeing our Race to the Top plan continue to come to fruition to ensure that all students graduate from high school, achieve success and are competitive with their peers throughout the United States and the world.

Nathan Deal is governor of Georgia.