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White House Touts Race to Top Success, But Report is Light on Data

UPDATED

Race to the Top—the Obama administration's most high-profile education initiative—has helped states improve teaching and learning, and expand programs that help prepare students for higher education and the workforce, according to a glowing, glossy, 11-page report released by the White House Tuesday.

But the report, which reads more like a promotional brochure than a policy document, contains very little hard data and ignores a number of Race to the Top hiccups, including delays in tying teacher evaluation to student outcomes that have plagued grant winners like New York, Maryland, and Georgia. The Peach State, in fact, had a sliver of its $400 million Race to the Top grant withheld because of this issue. The White House report also neglects to detail difficulties in turning around low-performing schools among Race to the Top winners such as the District of Columbia, Ohio, and Rhode Island. 

And it ignores the fact that 11 of the 12 states—all of the winners but Hawaii—are taking an extra year to finish their work. Overall, the first round of Race to the Top was financed at $4 billion, plus $350 million to help states develop tests aligned with new standards. 

The report also highlights gains in the National Assessment of Educational Progress by Race to the Top winners including the District of Columbia and Tennessee. It's notable, however, that of the dozen early Race to the Top winners, only six—Delaware, Tennessee, New York, Florida, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia—produced statistically significant gains on the NAEP since 2011, according to the NCES data. And NAEP scores have been trending upward overall for roughly the past decade, making it difficult to credit Race to the Top—which didn't come along until 2010—for those gains. 

The report notes that Advanced Placement coursetaking is up by 13.2 percent since 2011 in Race to the Top states. And it says that the percentage of students in Race to the Top earning scores on AP tests that will qualify them for college credit has increased 15.5 percent in the same time period. But it's hard to tell how impressive those numbers are—the report does not give comparable data on either point for non-Race to the Top states. 

And even some of the successes the report pinpoints seem like stretches. For instance, the report pats Louisiana on the back for bolstering AP course-taking faster than any other state in the country, with a 60.3 percent gain. It's notable, though, that Louisiana won a second-round consolation-prize award—it wasn't one of the main Race to the Top winners.

The report mentions that states have adopted higher, uniform standards but steers clear of specifically crediting Race to the Top with furthering the Common Core State Standards. That link has proved politically dicey for the Obama administration recently. Instead, the report focuses on how states, including Tennessee, are using their grants to help educators prepare to teach to new, higher standards.  

Otherwise, the report is thin on data and heavy on anecdotes about interesting strategies employed by Race to the Top winners. For instance, it praises coaches in Tennessee that are helping students transition to the common core. And it highlights a Florida initiative aimed at giving students more access to opportunities in STEM fields. 

"Race to the Top was merely a vehicle for unleashing local developed ideas and activities," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on a press call Tuesday. "It enabled [states] to make leaps that they would not have been able to make without these resources."

UPDATE: Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, apparently doesn't think much of the report. 

"The administration's latest PR stunt doesn't prove Race to the Top is working, it proves the administration is clumsily trying to take credit for the extraordinary education reform movement happening in our nation's schools," he said in a statement. "A program operated at the sole discretion of the secretary of education will never be the foundation for real progress in education."

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