Lofty Promises But Little Change for America’s Schools

In July 2009, it wasn’t just about the money. The $4 billion (to be spent over four years) amounted to less than 1 percent of what K‒12 schooling spends each year. But Obama administration PR and the allure of free money combined to turn the exercise into catnip for state leaders. Media outlets were infatuated: Education Week ran stories with titles like “Racing for an Early Edge,” and national newspapers ran op-eds with headlines such as USA Today’s “Race to the Top Swiftly Changes Education Dynamic” (penned by former Republican Senate majority leader Bill Frist). A news search finds more than 19,000 mentions in 2009‒10, dwarfing even the mentions of “single-payer health care” during the midst of the Obamacare debates!

Some of the enthusiasm was certainly deserved. Race to the Top was fueled by admirable intentions, supervised by talented people, and reflected a great deal of sensible thinking on school improvement. In theory, it had much to recommend it.

In practice, Race to the Top was mostly a product of executive branch whimsy. The ARRA specified only that the federal government should encourage states to improve data systems, adopt “career-and-college-ready” standards and tests, hire great teachers and principals, and turn around low-performing schools. Beyond that, the Obama administration enjoyed enormous discretion. It could have designed a program that told the states, “Give us your best ideas, and we’ll fund the states that are pioneering the most promising approaches.” (Some thoughtful federal officials suggest such an approach isn’t viable—that prescriptive federal requirements are essential for political and practical reasons. That even the brightest minds can’t design a program to spur “innovation” except by relying on top-down directives highlights the problematic nature of the enterprise.)

Instead, the administration proposed 19 “priorities” that states seeking Race to the Top funds would be required to address. States could earn points in each category by promising to follow administration dictates, with the most successful states winning the cash. Few of the priorities entailed structural changes. Instead, they mostly emphasized things like professional development, ensuring an “equitable distribution” of good teachers and principals, “building strong statewide capacity,” “making education funding a priority,” and so on. Perhaps most fatefully, states could ace 3 of the 19 priorities by promising to adopt the brand-new Common Core and its federally funded tests.

Race to the Top was driven by a bureaucratic application process. The demands were so onerous that the Gates Foundation offered $250,000 grants to 16 favored states to help hire consultants to pen their grant applications. Racing to meet program deadlines, states slapped together proposals stuffed with empty promises. States promised to adopt “scalable and sustained strategies for turning around clusters of low-performing schools” and “clear, content-rich, sequenced, spiraled, detailed curricular frameworks.” Applications ran to hundreds of jargon-laden pages, including appendices replete with missing pages, duplicate pages, and everything from Maya Angelou’s poetry to letters of support from anyone who might sign a paper pledge. As one reviewer described it to me, “We knew the states were lying. The trick was figuring out who was lying the least.”

The competition rewarded grant-writing prowess and allegiance to the fads of the moment. Indeed, a number of the dozen winners clearly trailed the pack on the hard-edged reforms that Race to the Top was supposedly seeking to promote. When it came to state data systems, charter school laws, and teacher policy, winning states like Ohio, Hawaii, Maryland, and New York finished well back in the pack on rankings compiled by the Data Quality Campaign, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the National Council on Teacher Quality. When announcing round-one winners Tennessee and Delaware in March 2010, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took pains to note that the two states had nearly 100 percent sign-offs from their local teachers unions. Reviewers took the hint, and states like Colorado and New Jersey got hammered for not collecting enough unenforceable assurances from their unions.

In the end, the effort suffered for its emphasis on promises rather than accomplishments, ambiguous scoring criteria, and murky process for selecting and training judges. Conservative analyst Chester E. Finn Jr. concluded that the review process didn’t reflect “what’s really going on in these states and the degree of sincerity of their reform convictions.” The reliance of winning states on outside consultants and grant writers also meant that the commitment of key legislators, civic leaders, or education officials to the promised reform agenda could be pretty thin.

Every one of the dozen winning states has come up short on its promises. As early as June 2011, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the dozen Race to the Top winners had already changed their plans 25 times. That same GAO report noted that officials were beset by challenges that included a “difficulty identifying and hiring qualified staff and complying with state procedures for awarding contracts…. Officials in the states we visited—Delaware, New York, Ohio, and Tennessee—said they experienced other challenges that led to months-long delays in implementing 13 of 29 selected RTT projects.” Hawaii’s continued failure to do what it had promised on teacher evaluation earned it “high-risk” status in 2011. By that early date, Florida had already made more than a dozen changes in promised deadlines, including a multiyear delay in teacher evaluation and a one-year delay in training principals for turnaround schools.

In 2012, the Obama-friendly Center for American Progress (CAP) reported, “Every state has delayed some part of their grant implementation.” As they sought to hit federal timelines, states fumbled on everything from the Common Core to teacher evaluation. As CAP researchers said one Florida reporter told them, “Only a handful of districts feel like they’re prepared to do [new teacher evaluations]. Most feel like they’re rushing.”

The Economic Policy Institute observed in 2013, “A review of the student-outcome targets set by states…reveals that all are extremely ambitious, but virtually none is achievable in any normal interpretation of that term.”

Despite a mediocre track record of school improvement, Ohio was a winner, partly for its “simple, yet bold, long-term aspirations,” including “a near-100% high school graduation rate from schools teaching at internationally competitive standards,” elimination of achievement gaps, and higher-ed completion rates “that are among the highest in the nation and world.” In spring 2015, the Columbus Dispatch observed, “Four years and $400 million later, Ohio has met one of five goals for the federal Race to the Top grant program. The state…fell short of reducing achievement gaps for minority students, improving reading and math scores as compared with the best-performing states, and increasing college enrollment. Although most goals were not achieved, state education officials focused on the positive in their final Race to the Top report.” Ohio still received its full complement of federal Race to the Top funds.

For all of his threats and bluster, Secretary Duncan has never withheld a nickel from a Race to the Top winner as a result of these violations. (As of April 2015, the U.S. Department of Education was still temporarily withholding a final $10 million earmarked for Georgia because officials had quibbles with elements of the state’s performance-based compensation system. But by this point, Georgia had already been on Duncan’s naughty list since 2012 without consequence.)

As Drew University political scientist Patrick McGuinn noted in 2010, “It is one thing for RTT to secure promises of state action, another thing for states to deliver promised action, and another thing entirely for their action to result in improvements in educational outcomes.”

So, what lessons can we draw five years on?

First, Do No Harm. The need to pursue proposals like Common Core testing and test-based teacher evaluation on federally determined timetables wound up creating new divisions and supersizing blowback. For instance, the Common Core, which might have been a collaborative effort of 15 or maybe 20 enthusiastic states absent federal “encouragement,” became a quasi-federal initiative with lots of halfhearted participants. In pushing states to hurriedly adopt new evaluation systems that specifically used test results to gauge teachers, Race to the Top also ensured that many not-ready-for-primetime systems would be hurriedly rolled out and entangled with the Common Core and its associated tests. The most telling example may be in New York, where the simultaneous effort to change testing and accountability fueled intense concerns about how the tests would affect teacher job security, engendering fierce backlash and strong teachers union support for the “opt-out” movement.

Build Reliable Infrastructure. It was no fault of the Obama administration, but the infrastructure to do Race to the Top well simply didn’t exist. Criteria for who should judge and how they should do so were made up on the fly. The need to do this in a hurry, along with conflict-of-interest rules, made it hard to assemble a first-rate pool of reviewers. U.S. Department of Education officials also had to combat concerns about the review process appearing too “political.” In the future, clear norms regarding reviewers, criteria, use of evidence, and institutional autonomy should be established before such programs are created.

Execution Should Be the Measure. The right measure for a program like Race to the Top is not how many states promise to undertake an action, but how many do it well. This is especially important when the goals are admirable but ambiguous, like improving professional development, educator preparation, or turnaround efforts. Whether states change these things matters much less than how they do so. That caution was too often ignored at the time, and has been too overlooked in the aftermath.

Seek to Eliminate Impediments. Race to the Top’s emphasis on expansive promises forced reviewers to try to divine the hearts and minds of state officials. A simpler, more fruitful course is to emphasize observable actions, particularly those that remove obsolete impediments or regulations. Such a course reflects a more humble vision of the federal role—one that believes Uncle Sam is better at helping states extricate themselves from yesterday than at telling them how to succeed tomorrow. In the case of Race to the Top, while much attention was paid to accomplishments like lifting charter caps or removing data firewalls, such measures accounted for well under one-quarter of Race to the Top’s points.

Reward Pioneers. While its marketing suggested otherwise, in practice Race to the Top used funds and public pressure to induce states to promise to adopt a slate of prescriptions. In many places, this led to a rushed adoption and ensured that many policies were executed poorly, undermining public confidence and support. That is a poor strategy for prompting innovation or improvement.

Beware of Opportunity Costs. The Obama administration dangled $4 billion in federal funds at the height of the Great Recession and linked them to states demonstrating that they’d “prioritize” education spending. At a time when states could have been using the crisis to focus on finally doing something about underfunded pensions or much-needed belt-tightening, they were preoccupied with dreaming up new spending proposals. Opportunity costs don’t just come in policies pursued and tabled, but also in the debates that policymakers should and don’t have.

The public imagination is often captured by the fact of a federal program, but what matters in a realm as complex as schooling is how programs actually work. In 2009 and 2010, proponents embraced Race to the Top as a singular triumph—enthralled by the symbolic statement that reformers had stormed the nation’s capital. Yet, five years on, even a well-wisher can conclude that Race to the Top may have done as much to retard as to advance its laudable goals. The admonition that “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish” may never be more relevant than when Washington has bold ideas about how to improve America’s schools.

This is part of a forum on Race to the Top. For an alternate take, please see “Innovative Program Spurred Meaningful Education Reform” by Joanne Weiss.

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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