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Still a Stretch: Why Race to the Top Spending Is Stunted

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One of the education issues that President Obama has been the most vocal in reforming is America's need to lead the world in number of college graduates. His administration's Race to the Top initiative has already earmarked $4 billion for 19 states (serving 22 million K-12 students) to reform public education programs to improve technology, raise teacher accountability and heighten learning standards. Another 34 states have modified their laws to better reach these goals, and 48 states total have developed career and college-ready standards.

It all sounds good in a condensed summary, but upon closer review, Race to the Top has not had the intended impact. As the grant period comes to a close this summer, it is clear that reform has fallen short - particularly when it comes to student performance. A few areas that have not lived up to Race to the Top goals include:

College enrollment. While graduation rates are above target, the number of high school graduates enrolling in college or some other form of post-secondary learning has actually decreased. Proficiency on standardized testing nationwide has not risen as quickly as promised, either. There are exceptions, of course. North Carolina secured $400 million in 2010 to be used to advance public education through technology, teacher training and evaluation, changes in classroom standards and a focus on low-performing schools. The state still has about 25 million unspent dollars of the grant and is asking to extend the program by one more year. In 2013, the U.S. department of Education praised N.C's progress.

Unused vouchers. In order to attract better teachers, Race to the Top grants are allowed to be used for vouchers created to lure high-performing teachers to low-performing schools. These vouchers have a relative amount of freedom-for-use attached, with vouchers being allowed to pay students loans, tuition, housing and other options. Unfortunately, many of these vouchers has gone unused by the districts. In 2012, only 35 of 106 schools eligible to receive bonuses for improved student performance received the extra $1,500 per teacher.

Poverty still too big a player. Many of the states receiving funding were targeted that way because of higher-than-average low-income students, or those living in poverty conditions that impacted their educations. The fact that Race to the Top does not address overemphasis on standardized testing and teacher accountability is a problem, according to people like Elaine Weiss of Broader, Bolder Approach to Education. Weiss' group calls for better focus on poverty and the issues that accompany it, especially in urban classrooms, and believes that without that specialized attention in Race to the Top grants, the true problem of K-12 Americans becoming college graduates will never be addressed.

To be fair, the biggest grant-funded Race to the Top changes are largely unseen - at least so far. They are invisible to the general public. Some things are simply not cut-and-dry, or able to be seen in the short term. Some of the grant money that has been distributed has paid for summer institutes for teachers and principals where they were trained in the new Common Core standards.
Technology improvements like building Cloud infrastructures are still in infancy and have not truly been realized just yet. It is also too soon to see what positive changes recruiting high-quality personnel will have. In North Carolina, principals at underperforming schools have been replaced with better candidates to the tune of 87 percent. Race to the Top is not a failure; it has just not turned out to be the golden child of promise of its intention. As the grant period comes to a close, it will be interesting to see if these issues are debugged and if more money is allocated.

Has Race to the Top impacted your state positively?

Dr. Matthew Lynch is the author of the recently released book, The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching. To order it via Amazon, please click on the following link.

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