U.S. Department of Education

Looking Back on Race to the Top With Clear Eyes

The U.S. Department of Education released a report today examining the impact of the federal Race to the Top competitive grant program. In the report’s introduction, Secretary Arne Duncan called it a “groundbreaking approach to federal grantmaking” that “unleashed an incredible amount of courage and creativity.” Andrew Ujifusa has a solid rundown of the report’s hits and misses over at the Politics K-12 blog on Education Week. Graduation rates are up, more kids are taking AP exams and college enrollment has improved in a number of Race to the Top states. The report also emphasizes other changes, like stronger, reform-focused leadership at the state level; improved data systems; more robust teacher evaluations that are being used to drive development; and prioritization of investments in states’ lowest-performing schools. Even as a close observer, I was surprised at how much Delaware and Tennessee stood out among the high points sprinkled throughout the report. Their progress validates their first-round wins. But I also think it suggests that having a head start with the Common Core was beneficial and that we should expect continued improvement in other states as they catch up.

Not Blinded by the Fandom

It’s no secret that  I’m a fan of Race to the Top. But that doesn't mean I’m unable to be critical, and certainly success hasn’t been a clean sweep. After making steady progress over the past two decades, NAEP scores lagged this year, and given the fact that most states are only now transitioning to the new Common Core assessments, it’s too early to point to much hard evidence of improved student achievement only five years after the first grant award. I think it’s fair to point out a number of places where, if the department had it to do over again, they would have take different approaches. Maybe they should have sequenced priorities better to help states and districts manage the transition of adopting higher standards, new assessments and system-wide accountability. Maybe there should have been more focus on  curriculum reform.

If We’re Being Critical

Where I think critics of Race to the Top veer off is attempting to strip away context from their evaluations. Arguing that Race to the Top produced little progress is disingenuous. The legitimate debate for pundits centers on two questions:
  1. Was the progress made worth it in the face of pushback and unintended consequences that resulted and;
  2. Was the progress made sufficient, relative to other options?
To the first question, no doubt there have been consequences and side effects that were unforeseen at the outset. But reasoned analysis requires making a distinction between the noise and confusion associated with change and lasting negative consequences. I think it’s too early to be able to do that. There is no question though that state chiefs were always going to face political blowback if they “ broke with tradition” and pushed hard for transformative change. Leaders always do. Such pressure isn’t unique to Race to the Top. And how much should the amount of the investment factor into our analysis? According to Ujifusa, Andy Smarick said in response to the report that “$4.35 billion in taxpayer funds is a whole lot of money if more urgency and cooperation were the goals.” But is it really?

Don't Be Fooled by the $

Consider that the U.S. spends over $600 billion annually on public education. Those funds are spent almost entirely on maintaining the static system that has existed for decades, and  failed to prepare over half of our students to master the core knowledge and skills they need to be successful in college and beyond. Now consider this: Have you ever tried to move something that has been in its place for a long time? Race to the Top was never meant to fix public schools completely. It was meant to spark change in a stagnant system that never seems to stop resisting transformation. Considering the enormity of the task, it’s a wonder that what amounts to less than 1 percent of total education spending, a paltry sum in context, resulted in any change or progress at all. It’s not that there shouldn’t be vigorous debate about the efficacy of Race to the Top and what  we should learn from it. But whether you think Race to the Top was impressive or not, we cannot let it be the end of the conversation around education reform. We must continue to be bold because as a country we are nowhere near providing high-quality educational opportunities to every child. Let’s keep having that conversation about change, and what it takes to make it happen with urgency.  
Eric Lerum has been working on public education issues for over a decade. Most recently, he led the policy efforts at StudentsFirst as the vice president of national policy.
Eric Lerum is the vice president of growth and strategy for America Succeeds, where he leads the organization’s efforts to amplify the business leader voice in support of improving public education. Eric has over a decade of experience in strategic planning, partnership development, and advising state and local policymakers regarding public education issues. Most recently Lerum led the policy ...

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