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The Expanding Race to the Top Brand: Just Because a Hammer Worked Once Doesn’t Mean Every Problem Is a Nail

By Sara Mead — November 08, 2012 3 min read

Yesterday, I shared some concerns about the Early Learning Challenge Round 2 “competition” currently underway. But, as I mentioned at the end of the post, my concerns around ELC Round 2 aren’t just about this “competition, but also reflect deeper concerns about the extension of the Race to the Top brand--in both ELC and RTT-D--to programs that are in fact very different than the original Race to the Top.

As I mentioned yesterday, the ELC Round 2 seems to operate with no expectation that applicants would have made progress on the goals in their applications over the past year. That’s very different from the first two rounds of RTT. In 2010, several states passed legislation or made significant policy changes between the submission of their unsuccessful RTT Round 1 grants and the deadline for RTT Round 2 grants--and did so with the explicit goal of improving their chances in RTT Round 2. That was possible because the original Race to the Top was primarily about changing state policy conditions on key administration priorities--standards, assessments, intervening in low-performing schools, teacher evaluation, charter schools. Yes, states had to create plans for what they’d do with the Race to the Top money, but the bulk of the application points were focused on states’ policies, not their plans. And the policy changes that RTT motivated were the primary source of its success--one of RTT’s designers even quipped that the major impacts of RTT were over before the funds went out the door.

But Early Learning Challenge is, for the most part, not about state policy. It’s about infrastructure, programs, and money. Outside of Florida, which became eligible for a grant (that it still didn’t win) by voting to accept Obamacare funds for maternal and child home visiting, there were very few opportunities for states to make “policy changes” that would significantly improve their chances of winning Early Learning Challenge Grants--all the more so because the competition criteria were not released until after most state legislatures had gone home. Looking at the structure of the applications, states could earn point primarily for two things: 1) Work they had already done (for which RTT ELC had no incentive value), and 2) What they said they “planned” to do with federal funds (and anyone watching RTT Round 1&2 implementation knows how that works out). Take away the federal funds, and that potential impact disappears, which is apparently why the 2012 RTT Round 2 application includes no expectation that states demonstrate progress on their plans during the past year with existing funds.

I fear that RTT-D is likely to suffer from a similar problem. Districts, by their nature, don’t have the same ability to enact robust policy changes as states can, and as a result RTT-D applications rest even more heavily on district practices, plans, and promises than RTT-ELC did. In that respect, RTT-D much more closely resembles a traditional grant competition (albeit an unusually complex and cumbersome one) than it does the original RTT.

Given Tuesday’s election outcomes, the Race to the Top concept is likely to remain part of the federal education policy scene for the next four years. The administration’s desire to apply the successful (and closely associated with President Obama) Race to the Top brand to as wide a range of initiatives as possible is an understandable one. But just because a hammer worked well once doesn’t mean the next challenge you want to tackle is a nail. In spreading the RTT mantle over initiatives and competitions that have very little in common with the original Race to the Top, the administration risks watering down and ultimately undermining the original success of its signature brand.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook 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.