Innovative Program Spurred Meaningful Education Reform

Much has been said about the impact of the Race to the Top program—some good, some not so good, some accurate, some less so. Because Race to the Top aimed to drive systems-level change, it’s still premature to reach firm conclusions about its impacts on outcomes for students, although that’s the verdict that ultimately matters most. Yet enough time has passed for a first take on the policies that Race to the Top helped pioneer. What did it seem to get right? What did it get wrong? And what does this mean for future policies? To those of us who were there, the intent was clear: Race to the Top was designed to identify those states with compelling ideas and viable plans for improving their educational systems, fund them, learn from them, and share their lessons widely.

A lot has changed in the five years since the program was launched. Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have new, higher standards pegged to college and career readiness. As states aimed toward these higher targets, many began by ratcheting up their proficiency bars (see “States Raise Proficiency Standards in Math and Reading,” features, Summer 2015). Virtually all are replacing their old fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills, tests that contributed to both low expectations for student learning and bad teaching practices, with significantly stronger assessments. A January 2013 report from the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing confirms that the majority of questions on tests funded by Race to the Top gauge such higher-order skills as abstract thinking and communications. A good teacher is now recognized as someone whose students learn and grow, with 38 states revising their policies on educator effectiveness to include measures of student growth or achievement as one of multiple factors in teacher evaluations. Finally, charters and other public school‒choice policies—strengthened in 35 states—continue to empower parents to seek out the best educational opportunities for their children.

Given that there were only 12 Race to the Top winners (and seven runners-up who got small grants), it’s pretty clear that the program had an impact even in states that did not get grants. These states, awarded no new funding, could easily have reverted to their previous educational policies. But overwhelmingly, they chose not to (see Howell “Results of President Obama’s Race to the Top,” research, Fall 2015).

Race to the Top used a number of innovative strategies to encourage comprehensive reform. First, contrary to the “federal overreach” label, Race to the Top was a large-scale state empowerment program. It packaged reforms that were happening already, albeit slowly and unevenly, in states across the country, and it provided incentives to states to accelerate the pace and reach of these activities. From higher standards and 21st-century assessments, to educator effectiveness and the turnaround of failing schools, Race to the Top’s program elements were anchored firmly in the good work of states and districts. As a result, states were able to tap into existing constituencies’ support for the ideas, enthusiasm for the agenda, and pent-up creativity around the work.

Second, as Patrick McGuinn pointed out in a 2010 American Enterprise Institute paper, Race to the Top “shifted the focus of federal education policy from the [state] laggards to the leaders.” It moved away from the notion that federal policy is designed chiefly to prevent bad actors from doing harm, and it set its sights on excellence. It urged idea-rich, capable states to define and navigate paths to educational excellence, and in so doing, to blaze trails that could show the way for other states.

Third, Race to the Top treated education as a “system” rather than as a collection of discrete “silos.” Whereas past reform efforts generally targeted one element, Race to the Top asked states to build comprehensive and coherent education agendas across four key pillars or “assurances.” That ambitiousness was risky and bold, and it had downsides (read on). But state systems of education consist of interconnected policies and work streams, and if related elements don’t move forward in tandem, the efforts often fail to have impact.

Fourth, Race to the Top recognized that the politics of education reform are tough. So it rewarded states for enlisting districts and local communities in designing and implementing the plans; it encouraged states to build political support across key constituencies and across sectors; and it provided political cover for state and local leaders to push forward ideas that could be controversial.

Finally, Race to the Top used transparency to advance knowledge, share ideas, and counter politics. Everything—from states’ proposals to reviewers’ comments to revisions and later to amendments—was posted for states to learn from, researchers to analyze, the media to probe, and the public to watchdog. Further, this commitment to transparency underscored, in both red and blue states, that this competition wasn’t about politics. It was about education, and the best proposals would win.

So, what did Race to the Top get wrong? First, while “comprehensive and coherent” are good goals, Race to the Top expected states to take on a lot, and for many, it was too much, too fast. The result was messy, incoherent implementation in too many places and that understandably frustrated educators and parents and undermined some of the good work that was being done. In an ideal world, new standards would have been rolled out together with aligned curricula and professional development. The new instructional practices demanded by the standards would have been reflected and reinforced through teacher observations, with feedback given by trained coaches and principals. And student growth would have been introduced thoughtfully into teacher evaluation systems based on new measures aligned to the new standards. The sequencing of complex new initiatives matters a lot, and Race to the Top didn’t do enough to guide states in how to think it all through.

Second, the competition included too many criteria, the result of a desire to support states’ varied innovative efforts and to enable stakeholders and advocates to see themselves reflected in the work. The heavily weighted criteria (for example,
implementing standards, improving teacher and principal effectiveness, turning around the lowest-achieving schools, supporting high-performing charters) formed a coherent and comprehensive core. Other criteria offered options, but these too often exacerbated implementation challenges and contributed to a sense of a dominant federal perspective.

Third, Race to the Top did not do enough to mitigate competitors’ tendencies to overpromise in order to win. The competition advised applicants to develop plans that were “ambitious yet achievable,” and the reviewers were trained in how to evaluate the feasibility and credibility of plans. But these alone were insufficient backstops. And the federal rules that should have added teeth to the process, such as peer review and the withholding of grant funds for nonperformance, were wobbly at best.

It’s worth noting two critiques that pundits love, but that I largely reject: that Race to the Top was “too prescriptive” and that it epitomized “federal overreach.”

The criticism that the competition was “too prescriptive” is perhaps best summed up by Rick Hess’s suggestion in a July 2014 EdWeek blog post that rather than offer up its own criteria, “the Obama administration could have told the states, ‘Put forward your best ideas, and we’ll fund the most promising ones.’” It’s an attractive-sounding idea. In fact, the administration considered that approach, but rejected it because of the host of unintended negative consequences that let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom grant making would have had. Reviewers would have had no basis for comparing plans and determining scores, leading to inevitable charges of politicization and favoritism. Further, lacking political cover to implement the tougher reforms, states would likely have proposed weak, politically easy work with little or no impact to show for their efforts or taxpayers’ dollars. Finally, lower-capacity educational agencies craved more guidance, not less; they needed an application that, like a template, walked them through design. A total greenfield would have been a barrier for many.

The “federal overreach” critique of Race to the Top typically cites two things: the feds “forced” their hand-picked list of reforms on the country (see also “too prescriptive” above) and the feds “coerced” states to adopt the Common Core.

Any charge of coercion that is lobbed at a voluntary program is dubious on its face. Yes, Race to the Top put significant money on the table when times were tough, but every state got its pro rata share of $100 billion in Recovery Act funds, distributed by formula with virtually no strings attached. That was the lifeline. Race to the Top was the hard work states could choose to sign up for or not (and a number of states chose “not”).

What is worth acknowledging is that the administration didn’t anticipate that providing incentives to adopt college and career readiness standards drafted by the states would be seen, politically, as a threat to local control. Well before Race to the Top, a broad bipartisan coalition of states had come together under the aegis of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to design and implement the Common Core State Standards. By May 2009, two months prior to the announcement of the preliminary Race to the Top guidelines, 46 governors and chiefs had already signed a memorandum of agreement that encouraged the federal government to “provide key financial support” for the Common Core State Standards “through the Race to the Top Fund” and the development of common assessments. Using Race to the Top dollars to support this state-led effort, at the request of states’ governors and chiefs, seemed like a wise use of funds at a key moment of need.

Nonetheless, the reasons that the administration failed to anticipate the backlash do not counteract the fact that a backlash has occurred. In the end, will Race to the Top have contributed to the undoing of the Common Core? Or will it simply be a footnote in the complex narrative of how the U.S. aligned its expectations for students with the demands of college and the workplace? I would place money on the latter. More than 40 states have maintained their commitment to high standards, arguing compellingly and openly for them. In addition, Race to the Top helped fund a new generation of high-quality, online assessments designed by states and educators to evaluate students’ progress toward college and career readiness. And it helped states fund strong new curricula, instructional materials, and professional development resources tied to these new standards, all now freely available to educators across the country.

Finally, I roundly reject the suggestion, as stated by Rick Hess, that “Race to the Top may have done as much to retard as to advance its laudable goals.” Detractors quote one another and cite oversight reports’ minor findings out of context, but offer no evidence that Race to the Top slowed adoption or implementation, much less retarded student achievement. And while it’s premature to reach any conclusions about Race to the Top’s impact on student outcomes, ambitious Race to the Top adopters, such as Tennessee and the District of Columbia, are posting encouraging student gains.

On balance and despite its imperfections, Race to the Top spurred important work that had a significant impact, both in states that won Race to the Top and in states that did not. All 46 state applicants and D.C. developed comprehensive education agendas to which their stakeholders were committed. States changed laws and regulations in an attempt to create policy environments that were more conducive to innovation and improvement. Many state agencies modernized, reorganizing around the work of helping districts and students succeed rather than around the work of passing funds down and compliance reports up. Access to technology increased, new materials were developed, and an ethos of collective learning and improvement started to emerge.

Governors and commissioners are leading their states through some of the biggest education changes since desegregation, spurred in part by Race to the Top. Neither the states nor the federal government got everything right. This is hard work; it’s disruptive, messy, and sometimes uncomfortable; and states and districts struggle to build the capacity needed for implementation. But I am hopeful that, on the other side of this hard work, states will find that they’ve changed the trajectory of learning for their students for the better. That will be the true indicator of success.

This is part of a forum on Race to the Top. For an alternate take, please see “Lofty Promises But Little Change for America’s Schools” by Frederick M. Hess.

This article appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Weiss, J., and Hess, F.M. (2015). What Did Race to the Top Accomplish? Education Next, 15(4), 50-56.

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