U.S. Department of Education

Measure Race to the Top by the Students, Not the Skeptics

This week the U.S. Department of Education released the report, Fundamental Change: Innovation in American Schools under Race to the Top (RTTT). Before a crowd of 600 students and teachers at Boston’s Jeremiah E. Burke High School, Arne Duncan defended the $4.3 billion reform incentive, passed as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. “This is not some ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment, not even close,” Duncan told students, “But there’s been vitally important progress.” Had Duncan invited skeptics, he could have packed a much larger hall. Since 19 states qualified to gain pieces of the financial windfall, critics have taken on elements of the program from new standards, to teacher evaluation, to elements of the competition that encouraged states to experiment with charter schools in struggling districts. I teach in Tennessee, a state which joined Delaware to win the first grants from RTTT. I write today from a state whose education landscape is significantly different from the one I taught in prior to 2009. RTTT has affected families across Tennessee. The initial economic impact was half a billion dollars of investment here, and the long-term implications are only now becoming evident. I believe that Tennessee won Race to the Top because we already had a head start on other states in reforming our public schools. Tennessee had been using value-added scores to evaluate teachers since the early 1980s, while other states scrambled to come up with evaluation systems in 2010. For more than 10 years prior to Race to the Top, Tennessee’s governors and education commissioners had worked with leaders from other states to develop Common Core State Standards.

Putting Tennessee Kids on Top

It’s one thing to win a lot of money. The trick is using it well. The success or failure of RTTT will depend not on the amount of money our state received but on the performance of our kids. In this area, data shows impressive gains since the victory. Tennessee ranked as the fastest-improving state in the nation in 2013, based on NAEP test data, and though 2015 scores were flatter overall, Tennessee is still on track to make the leap from the nation’s lowest quintile of education systems to the top half. The biggest reform since RTTT, Tennessee Promise, which offers high-school graduates two years of free community college, may not have happened without the dramatic upswing in performance that students in the Volunteer State have shown. When we compare test data from 2015 with 2010—the year RTTT reforms began implementation statewide, the numbers are astounding. Compared to 2011 results, over 131,000 more Tennessee kids tested at grade level in math, and nearly 60,000 more in science, in 2015. Every seat in the University of Tennessee’s Neyland Football Stadium could be filled with kids who have gained math proficiency since Race to the Top. Vanderbilt’s Hawkins Baseball Field would be packed for every SEC home game just to fit in all the extra students who are testing on grade level in science. The RTTT numbers that count are the numbers of additional students who are learning. As Secretary Duncan stated, this is no time to chant, “Mission Accomplished,” but it is perfectly appropriate here in Tennessee to raise several stadium-sized cheers.    
James Dittes teaches English and German at Station Camp High School in Gallatin, Tennessee. He is a national fellow with America Achieves.
James Dittes
James Dittes teaches English and German at Station Camp High School in Gallatin, Tennessee. He is a national fellow with America Achieves.

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