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Race to Top: An Antidote to NCLB?

The Race to the Top competition has come under its share of criticism for its scoring system and its allegedly heavy-handed influence on state and local school policy. But one of the program's clearest legacies so far has been the break it makes from the No Child Left Behind Act's "compliance culture," a scholar argues.

In a new paper, Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science and education at Drew University, in New Jersey, sees a lot of potential pitfalls with the competition. But he also says that the $4.35 billion program's use of a high-profile competitive grant process succeeded in shifting the focus in ed policy from "laggards to leaders."

"In many ways, RTT is an attempt to circumvent the perceived failings of No Child Left Behind and in particular the law's reliance on coercive federal mandates and the compliance culture it fostered at the state level," McGuinn writes, in a paper published by the American Enterprise Institute. "NCLB forced states to change many of their educational practices, but political resistance and capacity gaps at the state level meant that these changes were often more superficial than substantive."

Backers of NCLB would probably argue that it was created with much different goals in mind than RTT—and that it deserves credit for casting more light on the woeful performance of many schools and individual student groups, and setting tougher and more uniform standards for them. And, of course, state and local governments could face their own "capacity gaps" in putting in place their RTT plans, as McGuinn acknowledges. There will be plenty of opportunities for states and local districts to game the system by slipping and sliding away from the grand promises they made in their winning applications, he says.

"States have a long history of being very good at manipulating the system to ensure formal compliance with the letter of the law," McGuinn explains, "while minimizing the changes required in state education systems."

A year, or two, or five years from now, what will have been the impact of Race to the Top?

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