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7 Lessons From Race to the Top

Over at Education Next, former Race to the Top honcho Joanne Weiss and I have a lively exchange on that program's legacy. Joanne is relatively upbeat; me, not as much. You can find my take here and Joanne's here. I talk a bit about the lessons learned, but space constraints mean the focus is more on our competing perspectives on Race to the Top. So, let's take a moment to ask what lessons we can draw, five years on. At least seven come to mind.

First, Do No Harm. The pressure to pursue proposals like Common Core testing and test-based teacher evaluation on federally determined timetables wound up creating divisions and spurring blowback. For instance, the Common Core, which might have been a collaborative effort of 15 to 20 enthusiastic states absent federal "encouragement," became a quasi-federal initiative with lots of half-hearted participants. This fateful decision helped turn a potentially innocuous effort into a divisive battle. The result: the breakthrough wins touted so avidly by Race to the Top enthusiasts in 2010 and 2011 now look much more like pyrrhic victories—shot through with design flaws, tainted by federal compulsion, and compromised by half-hearted follow-through.

Execution, Not Action, Is the Goal. The right measure for a program like Race to the Top is not how many states promise to undertake an action, but how many do it well. This is especially important when the goals are admirable but ambiguous, like improving professional development, educator preparation, or turnaround efforts. Whether states change these things matters much less than how they do so. That caution was too often ignored at the time and has been too overlooked in the aftermath.

Reward Pioneers, Not Groupies. While its marketing suggested otherwise, in practice, Race to the Top used funds and public pressure to induce states to promise to adopt a slate of federal prescriptions. That is a poor strategy for prompting innovation or improvement. However, the kind of contest that the Obama administration initially promised has more to offer. Such a program would forego a broad slate of prescribed reforms, ask states to put forward their boldest plans, and focus unapologetically on pioneering states with a track record of accomplishment.  

Build Reliable Infrastructure. It was no fault of the Obama administration, but the infrastructure to do Race to the Top well simply didn't exist. The need to create an ad hoc mechanism for administering and judging the contest made it hard to ensure that judging was thoughtful, fair, or credibly removed from political considerations. Meanwhile, concerns about appearing too "political" led Department of Education officials to operate the program at arm's length (making it tough to do anything about capricious judging). In the future, clear norms regarding reviewers, criteria, use of evidence, and institutional autonomy should be established before such programs are created.

Seek to Eliminate Impediments, Not to Secure New Promises. Race to the Top's emphasis on expansive promises rewarded grant-writing over action. A simpler, more fruitful course is to emphasize observable actions, particularly those that remove obsolete impediments or regulations (e.g., charter school caps or data firewalls). Such a course reflects a more humble vision of the federal role—one that believes Uncle Sam is better at helping states extricate themselves from yesterday than at telling them how to succeed tomorrow. In the case of Race to the Top, while much attention was paid to accomplishments like lifting charter caps or removing data firewalls, such measures accounted for well under one-quarter of the contest's points.

Beware of Opportunity Costs. The Obama administration dangled $4 billion in federal funds at the height of the Great Recession and linked them to states demonstrating that they'd "prioritize" education spending. At a time when states had a window to tackle structural challenges, they were preoccupied with dreaming up new spending proposals (in pursuit of prizes that typically amounted to less than one percent of a state's annual K-12 spending). It's hard to overstate how much even this relative pittance distracted state educational leaders from a rare chance to address entrenched programs or tackle underfunded pensions.

Paper Pledges Are Not "Buy-In." School improvement is invariably better off, in the long run, when reforms have committed in-state backers. Unfortunately, Race to the Top treated paper pledges as a proxy for buy-in. The contest rewarded states that collected lots of paper pledges from unions and school boards. The result was problematic on three counts: it made it easy to overestimate actual buy-in, punished states that were willing to move aggressively with a limited number of districts, and rewarded vague plans that finessed tough questions in order to get more sign-offs.

The public imagination is often captured by the fact of a federal program, but what matters in schooling is how programs actually work. Back in 2010, Race to the Top was celebrated as a singular triumph. Yet, five years on, even a sympathetic observer can judge things much more harshly. This mixed legacy holds many lessons, ones that can teach us much if we're willing to learn them.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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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