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Race to the Top Is Five Years Old, But Did It Actually Improve Student Achievement?

Race to the Top just had its fifth birthday and almost all of the $4 billion in federal cash states were awarded under the programs has been spent. 

So did the program actually move the needle on student achievement? Did the money make a difference in states that had it and states that didn't? We'll know all those answers...eventually.

The Institute of Education Sciences, the U.S. Department of Education's independent research arm, is working on a report on the program, but we won't know their findings until next year, at the earliest. Researchers will also be taking a hard look at the impact of another key Obama initiative—the School Improvement Grant program, which got $3 billion in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the law that created Race to the Top.) 

At the time Race the Top was first rolled out, some researchers noted that many of the policies it favored—especially boosting charter and evaluating teachers based on test scores—didn't have a strong scientific base to back them up. Similar sentiments were expressed about SIG. 

For the Race to the Top study, researchers will be comparing policies and practices in the dozen states that won grants to those states that applied for grants but weren't awarded them. They'll also look at whether student outcomes actually improved in RTT states. Chiefly, the study will include incorporate information from interviews with officials in all 50 states, and take a close look at data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Of course, many say Race to the Top's biggest impact was its ability to change laws and policies even in loser states. So it would seem that a program evaluation would only paint part of the picture when it comes to Race to the Top's success (or lack thereof).

The SIG evaluation will look at 525 schools in 20 states, including analyses of both student achievement data and interviews with folks implementing the controversial program. But lawmakers are already underwhelmed by early results, and the program has gone through major legislative changes that opened the door to way more flexibility at the state level. (The department is expected to outline just what those changes actually mean in coming weeks.)

The evaluations wrap up in September of 2015, but there's no word on when the final report will come out. That means, overall, that we won't get access to a rigorous look at two of the Obama administration's earliest and most important policy initiatives until the tail end of the president's tenure.

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