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Was Race to the Top Effective?

Note: Andrew Saultz, assistant professor of educational leadership at Miami University of Ohio, is guest posting this week.

Many have written off Race to the Top (RT3) as a federal overreach, or as incentivizing policies that they fundamentally disagree with (like charter schools, Common Core, or tying teacher evaluations to student test scores). In this post, my goal is not to argue with any of these folks. Instead, I hope to evaluate RT3 by its stated goals and help readers think about how RT3 is still impacting state policy.

What were the goals of RT3?

Let's review the stated goals of RT3.

1. Encourage states to create conditions for education innovation and reform.

2. Reward states that do so.

3. Achieve significant gains in student outcomes (i.e., improving high school graduation rates, closing achievement gaps).

Did RT3 lead states to change policy?

RT3 changed state policy in substantive ways. For example, from 2009-2012, 36 states and Washington, D.C., changed their teacher evaluation policies. This is particularly noteworthy because teacher evaluation policy is an incredibly politically contentious issue. Additionally, no state had formally adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) prior to the first announcement of RT3 in 2009. Currently, 43 states and the District of Columbia have signed on to CCSS. Absent a mandate, there has never been a federal policy within educational policy that has been able to leverage this amount of change in such a short time frame.

Did RT3 reward states that changed policy?

Some states were at a significant advantage due to the policies they had in place when RT3 was announced. For example, Tennessee, which was one of two states to win an award in round 1, had an advanced statewide data system prior to RT3. It was no surprise, then, that the state did well in a competition that incentivized this reform. Of the 47 applications for RT3 over the three rounds, only 19 states were awarded funds from the US Department of Education (USDOE). In short, it is tough to decipher whether the USDOE rewarded states for changing, or gave money to states that had a history of these reforms prior to the competition.

Did student outcomes improve in states that won awards?

I'm skeptical that RT3 has impacted student achievement for three reasons. First, RT3 has been in place in for either three years (Tennessee and Delaware) or two years (the 10 round two winners). This is not enough time to adequately implement policy, let alone evaluate its effectiveness. Second, many of the reforms have not been fully implemented, like the CCSS and new teacher evaluation systems. Further, there are a lot of differences between the states that won RT3 grants and those that didn't. In this regard, researchers should study the effectiveness of specific policies, like Common Core or teacher evaluations, rather than RT3 as a whole.

Changes after the competition

Many people have analyzed the amount of policy change during the RT3 competition, and others have tracked the progress in states that were awarded funds. However, there has been a lack of reporting on how RT3 has continued to impact states that did not earn awards.

For example, Washington was one of only nine states without charter schools when RT3 was first announced in 2009. Washingtonians rejected statewide efforts in 1996 (I-177), 2000 (I-729), and 2004 (Referendum 55) to allow charters. The State House passed charter legislation in 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, and 2004, but each effort failed in the State Senate. In 2012, however, voters narrowly passed Ballot Measure 1240, which allowed for charter authorizers to open schools in Washington. What changed? Why would voters who had turned down statewide efforts on three occasions in 8 years change course?

To explore this question, I talked with officials in the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, officials in the state legislature, and educational policymakers throughout the state. A major reason Washington was not awarded an RT3 grant was the lack of charter schools in the state. Policymakers emphasized how the failed RT3 application was used as evidence for the state education system falling behind other states. In other words, they were convinced that RT3 helped pass charter school policy statewide, even after the competition was over. Perhaps RT3, then, is continuing to lead to state policy changes.

What can we conclude about RT3?

  1. It was very effective at changing state policy quickly.
  2. It created more policy dialogue for comparing state educational systems.  
  3. Claims about effects of RT3 on student performance are premature.
  4. It continued to provide a rationale for changes to state policy after the competition.

Reasonable people disagree about the role of the federal government in educational policy, as well as about the various policies embedded within RT3. What is clear is that RT3 effectively changed state policy very quickly and continues to have a strong influence on policy discussions at the state level. Tomorrow, I will shift gears to discuss why the US Department of Education revoked Washington's ESEA waiver and how state policymakers responded.

--Andrew Saultz

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