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Grading Race to the Top on Its Merits

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As we celebrate the fifth anniversary of Obama's Race to the Top competition, many of us are contemplating whether or not it was a success. After much reflection, I decided to write an opinion piece assessing it on its merits. Toward the end of the piece, I will issue a letter grade (A-F) denoting the result of my evaluation.

Touted as Obama's education reform magnum opus, Race to the Top aims to sustain successful teachers and principals in school districts across the nation. It is also responsible for the adoption of common K-12 teaching standards. Per the competitive component of this 'race,' states receive points for fulfilling certain criteria, such as performance-based standards for teachers and principals, showing fidelity to nationwide standards, encouraging charter schools, and the like.

At least, this is how it works in theory. Generally speaking, though, the Race to the Top initiative has raised standards for learning and emphasized college and career readiness. Each year, the program gives even more in federal funding to states that prepare plans for reforming their student offerings. The program has allocated more than $4 billion among 19 states for developing plans to improve learning standards, teacher effectiveness, and struggling schools. The states granted the funds represent 42 percent of all low-income students in the nation, too, making the initiative an effective way to close the achievement gap and equalize funding in areas where schools may struggle based on their geographical location.

It all sounds good in a condensed summary, but upon closer review, Race to the Top has not had the intended impact. Critics of Race to the Top argue that its emphasis on high-stakes testing is untrustworthy - and I am inclined to agree. As the grant period comes to a close, 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. 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 have gone unused by the districts.  In 2012, only 35 of 106 schools eligible to get 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 their 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.

Although it is not the silver bullet that many believed it would be, Race to the Top is definitely a step in the right direction when it comes to education policy reform. Under President Obama's and Secretary Duncan's watch, the U. S. education system is experiencing something that it hasn't experienced in ages -- genuine progress. Although we have many more miles to go, we have to remember that Rome was not built in a day. The issues that continuously plague our public education system took decades to get that way and will probably take several more decades to fix. Again, my opinions are just that, my opinions.

Solely on its merits, I will have to give Race to the Top a solid B. Race to the Top is not a failure; it just has not turned out to be the golden child its intentions promised. There is room for improvement, especially when students are still tested using antiquated assessment measures. Although Race to the Top has not lived up to the hype, what President Obama and Secretary Duncan have been able to accomplish in five years is nothing short of amazing.

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.

What do you think? Has Race to the Top been a success? What grade would you give it?

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

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The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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