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Race to the Top Provided Strong Lever for Obama Education Agenda

Education watchers can—and do—argue over whether President Obama's Race to the Top grants have improved education for American students. But as a straight policy lever, a new study of Race to the Top finds that the competition had a big impact.

In a study released this morning, William G. Howell, an American politics professor at the University of Chicago, and colleagues found that even states that did not apply for, or did not win, part of the $4.5 billion federal Race to the Top pot, were significantly more likely to adopt policies that aligned with the competition's requirements after 2009.

"This was a small amount of money attending to a lot of policies that were controversial, and the Obama administration saw a huge return on this," Howell said. "For $4.5 billion dollars you see states all over the country taking up these things."

Howell and his colleagues tracked, from 2001 to 2014, the implementation of statewide laws and policies in 20 areas that explicitly aligned with Race to the Top's requirements, including: systems to measure student achievement growth; teacher and principal evaluations that took student achievement data into account, and the lifting of caps on the expansion of high-performing charter schools. 

They found states in general adopted few of those policies before the competition—unsurprising, considering how controversial topics like teacher evaluation and charter schools have traditionally been. Yet the researchers saw a rapid increase in the proportion of those 20 Race to the Top-aligned policies adopted by states in the years after the competition opened. The chart below details how the pick-up rate changed over time, with 0 equaling no policies adopted and 1 meaning all 20 were adopted.

The effect was, as might be expected, strongest for winners, who were slightly more likely to adopt those policies in the year just before the competition, and adopted significantly more of the total package of policies than states that did not apply for Race to the Top, 88 percent versus 56 percent.

It made sense that winners were also early adopters, Howard said, because the competition weighed both states' prior education reforms and their planned future reforms—"not just promises, but how credible those promises were."

"What a lot of states were doing was adopting policies to appear more competitive in subsequent rounds of competition," he said, "but it also set in motion new pressures. It focused reformers and gave a lot of media attention to a small set of policy issues the President wanted."

Race to the Top had 'massive' effect on education debates

Howell also asked state legislators, as part of a nationally representative survey of legislatures, what role the federal grant competition played in their education policy debates during that time. A third of the respondents reported Race to the Top had had a "big" or even "massive" effect, while only 19 percent thought it had played no part in lawmakers' education discussions.

Much of that effect may come from the context in which U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan launched the competition: in 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession, when most states were cash-strapped and scrambling for federal help. But Howard noted the competition may also have proven a solution to state and local criticism of "unfunded federal mandates" that spurred multiple lawsuits after the passage of No Child Left Behind. 

Competitions like Race to the Top, Howell said, could be particularly useful for President Obama and future administrations, even in better economic times:

"[The policies enacted are] less likely to be vulnerable to judicial challenges than NCLB was ... [and] they pave a pathway from the President to the political bodies that have primary responsibility for education policies, the states, and districts."

An essay in the forthcoming fall issue of Education Next previews the study's findings and provides a map of Race-to-the-Top-related policy changes in the states. A longer version of the study, which focuses more specifically on how Race to the Top may have caused the state policy changes, is under review at a separate peer-reviewed journal.


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