'Race to the Topâ€™'for education a flop, report finds
Mismatches in Race to the Top Limit Educational Improvement
Lack of Time, Resources, and Tools to Address Opportunity Gaps Puts Lofty State Goals Out of Reach
By Elaine Weiss
Broader, Bolder Approach to Education
September 12, 2013
This report aims to inform current policies as well as policies under debate at the federal and state levels. We hope that lessons conveyed here will encourage the adoption of the positive steps taken in a few states and districts and help states navigate challenges as they enter their final year of Race to the Top. These lessons pertain as well to the many more states that are beginning to implement requirements to attain waivers from No Child Left Behind. Finally, the lessons can help guide a stronger, more thoughtful rollout of the Common Core State Standards. President Obama would like to leave as part of his legacy substantial improvements in U.S. education. Recognizing the flaws inherent in Race to the Top, reversing the damage it has done, and enacting more comprehensive education policies in the administrationĂ˘€™s second term could make that legacy a proud one. Ă˘€”From the Executive Summary
Read the full Report at the EPI website
'Race to the TopĂ˘€™'for education a flop, report finds
By Nirvi Shah
The Obama administration's signature $4 billion Race to the Top initiative, designed to spur far-reaching education reforms across the country and raise student achievement, is largely a failure, an analysis released Thursday concludes.
Most winning states made what the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education labeled "unrealistic and impossible" promises to boost student achievement in exchange for prizes that were ultimately paltry in comparison with their pledges.
But three years in, Race to the Top hasn't spurred states to address what really is behind students' poor academic performance: poverty and the associated lack of opportunities that accompany it, said Elaine Weiss, national coordinator of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education. Her group advocates for a more targeted focus on poverty over the current slate of education reforms involving testing and accountability.
The Department of Education rejected the report's conclusions, saying it's seeing promising signs of improvement in student achievement in Race to the Top states and warning that it's too early to draw sweeping conclusions. Some state officials also said they are finding the competition useful.
"No one ever doubted that change this big would be hard, and while we have worked with states to make necessary adjustments, the big picture is that states' efforts are largely in keeping with the scope and timeline of their plans," an Education Department spokesman said. "The department will continue to work with states to support what is working, to make necessary adjustments and to understand where we can learn and improve."
Race to the Top was created by the 2009 federal economic stimulus program. In two rounds of competition, it awarded 11 states and the District of Columbia with tens or hundreds of million dollars over four years in exchange for dramatic changes to their education systems. States pledged to accelerate student performance even while adopting more rigorous academic standards and to rate teachers and principals in part on students' performance. To be competitive, states also had to do away with limits or bans on charter schools, open alternative routes to certification for teachers and improve teacher preparation programs. A third, much smaller competition awarded seven states with smaller sums for projects of a smaller scope.
The Race to the Top brand has been lent to other competitive grant programs run by the department, too, including contests for district-level grants and state grants focused on early childhood education. Another Race to the Top competition awarded grants to groups developing tests for the Common Core academic standards.
Congress should allocate resources across states and schools rather than repeatedly diverting some of that money to competitive grant programs in the midst of an ongoing recession, said Noelle Ellerson, associate executive director for advocacy and policy for the American Association of School Administrators. That would go further toward helping all students but especially those who are from low-income families or have disabilities -- the children who are the main focus of federal education policy.
Although AASA has disliked Race to the Top since its inception, Ellerson said the new report "just happened to find there were mismatches" between state goals and their capacity to deliver, its policy agenda and policies that actually close achievement gaps and other progress reports to date and the reality as unearthed by Weiss.
But if Race to the Top is a failure, is the Education Department truly at fault when states are the ones that chose to chase the cash?
"When you look at the kind of commitments states made, you do wonder why they did that," Weiss said. She attributes their decisions to political pressure and a money mirage.
"It looks like a lot of money, and there was public pressure to do it -- leaving $500 million on the table was unacceptable," she said. Indeed, when New Jersey bungled its application, Republican Gov. Chris Christie fired the state education commissioner after being publicly flogged for flubbing a chance to snare $400 million in Race to the Top cash.
The report drew conclusions by culling U.S. Education Department progress reports; district superintendent surveys and interviews with dozens of teachers; parents and other education leaders. However, a first-round winner, Tennessee, which snared a $500 million award, said none of those interviews included anyone from its state Department of Education.
Tennessee needed sweeping changes to its education system, Education Department spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier said. The state has ranked near the bottom of the country in math on federal exams, and a majority of students in the state require remedial courses when they go to college.
"It is simply not viable to maintain the status quo, and we are proud that we have moved aggressively to change results for our students and families," Gauthier said. "Tennessee has been recognized nationally as a leader in improving public education, and in many ways, Race to the Top created the environment for us to accomplish this work with broad support from a variety of stakeholders."
Gauthier said the state hasn't made all the strides in student achievement it hoped to by this point in the grant period, but growth has been steady, and "while we attribute that growth to a variety of things, we absolutely believe that Race to the Top initiatives, such as our teacher evaluation system and the extensive professional development we have given to teachers through the grant, played a part."
But Weiss said her research yielded questions about Tennessee's testing system and concerns that the improvement in student performance couldn't be taken at face value.
In its own progress reports, the Education Department has noted states' struggles to deliver on all the promises made in exchange for Race to the Top money. It has flagged some winning states, including Georgia and Hawaii, for not delivering on what they promised. Another federal agency, the Institute of Education Sciences, won't complete its evaluation of Race to the Top for another two years.
Others were more blunt in their criticism of the Race to the Top critique.
"The report released today by the Broader, Bolder group shows the extent to which adults invested in blocking needed education reforms will go to defend their interests. This is intellectual dishonesty of the worst kind by very smart people who know better," said Charles Barone, policy director of Democrats for Education Reform. "To call this junk science is an insult to junk. Fred Sanford is turning over in his grave."
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES