Race to the Top Wasn’t

We’ve just marked the fifth anniversary of Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s signature education initiative. When launched, the $4.35 billion competition drew bipartisan cheers and was lauded as an example of getting school reform right. Five years on, I see it more as a monument to paper promises, bureaucratic ineptitude, and federal overreach.

The U.S. Department of Education launched Race to the Top in 2009, with funds from that year’s big stimulus bill. The legislation called for states to develop plans to improve data systems, adopt “career-and-college ready” standards and tests, hire great teachers and principals, and turn around low-performing schools.

At that point, the Obama administration could have told the states, “Put forward your best ideas, and we’ll fund the most promising ones.” An approach like that would have taken federalism seriously, funded states that were committed to their proposals, and followed the path the Reagan and Clinton administrations adopted so effectively when it came to welfare reform.

Instead, the administration dreamed up 19 “priorities” that states would be required to address. Most of the priorities were actually a pedantic list of familiar talking points, including professional development, standards, ensuring an “equitable distribution” of good teachers, and so on. Perhaps most tellingly, the administration let states know they’d ace three of the 19 priorities if they promised to adopt the brand-new Common Core and its federally-funded tests.

In practice, Race to the Top was driven by its bureaucratic application process. Applicants produced hundreds of jargon-laden pages in an attempt to convince the Department-selected reviewers that they would do what the administration asked. As one reviewer described it to me, “We knew the states were lying. The trick was figuring out who was lying the least.”

Racing to meet the program deadlines and hungry for federal funds, states put forward 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 included bizarre appendices replete with missing pages, duplicate pages, and everything from Maya Angelou’s poetry to hundreds of letters of support from anyone else who might sign a paper pledge. (If you missed them at the time, go back and peruse the RHSU columns that I wrote on all this in 2010, with the heroic assistance of Daniel Lautzenheiser.)

Not surprisingly, given the nature of the exercise, winning states relied heavily on outside consultants funded by private foundations. This meant that in-house commitment to the promised reforms could be pretty thin. As a result, successive governors, legislators, and state superintendents often had limited interest in seeing them through. It shouldn’t surprise us that every one of the dozen winning states has come up short on its promises.

Race to the Top also had two major flaws that went mostly unnoticed at the time. First, dangling $4 billion in federal funds at the height of the Great Recession turned out to be a great way to distract state education leaders from dealing with stuff like belt-tightening and underfunded pensions. The dollar signs were enticing enough that folks largely ignored the fact that the value for winners of the 4-year grants amounted to about one percent of a state’s annual K-12 budget. It was still enough to focus plenty of state education leaders on dreaming up ambitious new spending programs in 2009 and 2010.

Second, the Common Core, which might otherwise have been a collaborative effort of 15 or so enthusiastic states, was transformed into a quasi-federal initiative with lots of half-hearted participants who signed on only for federal dollars. This fateful decision lit the fuse that now threatens to burn down what once seemed to be an innocuous effort. Given that Race to the Top also pushed states to hurriedly adopt new teacher evaluation systems and specifically to use test results to gauge teachers, not-ready-for-primetime evaluation systems are now entangled with the Common Core and new state tests. The result: the sugar high that Race to the Top used to fuel reform in 2009 is likely to be undone, and then some, by the legacy of half-baked, federal compulsion.

What President Obama termed “the most meaningful education reform in a generation” has proven, for my money, to be more a cautionary tale than a model.

-Rick Hess

This first appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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