Race to the Top Redux

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Like a basketball player who masters the crossover dribble and uses it ad nauseum, even when the effects have worn off, so is the U.S. Department of Education in announcing the newest iteration of its Race to the Top program.

To recap: Back in 2010, the department launched the original Race to the Top initiative, a $4 billion grant competition in which states competed on a variety of Obama administration-approved reforms such as turning around low-performing schools and revamping state data systems. The competition received early applause from a wide array of sectors as an innovative way to marry liberal support for increased funding for schools with conservative visions of competition. It also attracted attention from leading political pundits, including a ringing endorsement from New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Ultimately, 46 states plus the District of Columbia competed, and 12 won funding, with President Obama touting RTT in his 2011 State of the Union address as “the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation.”

There were skeptics, to be sure. But at the very least, supporters could say that the first iteration of RTT was a novel approach to federal involvement in K-12 schools that generated substantial buzz nationwide.

"Given the department’s tendency to run the same program time and time again, one would think it’d be a little more certain of the likelihood that RTT-District (or any iteration of RTT) will ultimately pan out as expected."

The attention wasn’t to last. Since then, the Education Department has run the risk of turning into a one-trick pony, utilizing the same program over and over. (This despite the fact that it’s currently unclear whether this style of grant competition, especially if run at the federal level, will realize the department’s myriad goals.)

To begin with, a follow-up “bridesmaid” round of RTT doled out $200 million to seven additional states that failed to win the first time. Then, the department initiated RTT-Assessment, which provided $350 million to fund consortia of states developing student-learning assessments. Next, the RTT-Early Learning Challenge set aside $500 million to reward states’ efforts in early-childhood education. And now, just last week, the department announced rules for yet another iteration, RTT-District, in which school districts (as opposed to states) will compete for $400 million in funding. It’s unclear whether the president will mention this in his next State of the Union speech, or really whether anyone outside the Beltway even noticed.

Final tally: five competitions, three years, over $5 billion.

A few thoughts on the process:

First, there’s no guarantee that all the various Race to the Top initiatives will ultimately achieve the intended result. There are real challenges when it comes to implementation, for example, with several winners from the state competition reportedly falling massively behind on their plans. Questions remain on what will happen to funding if states fail to implement promised reforms. Given the Education Department’s tendency to run the same program time and time again, one would think it’d be a little more certain of the likelihood that RTT-District (or any iteration of RTT) will ultimately pan out as expected.

Second, there’s no indication that the department has given any attention to earlier concerns about program design. Take just two examples.

One involves the sheer number of goals the department has set forth for each round of RTT. The inaugural Race to the Top had states competing on 19 different priorities on such far-ranging issues as identifying and rewarding effective teachers, supporting charter school growth, developing data systems to measure student performance, and turning around low-performing schools. Each of those priorities is, in its own right, remarkably thorny, likely requiring a complex and costly solution. (By way of comparison, Indiana’s Putting Students First plan, the Hoosier State’s bold education reform agenda passed in several bills last year, zeroes in on just three priorities.) The department’s draft proposalRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader for RTT-District is equally expansive; there are currently more than a dozen areas on which districts will be scored. With this much of a reach, it seems more likely that districts will pad their applications with empty promises in order to make a quick buck than engage in a concerted effort to address the most pressing needs in their own schools.

Another example. Once again, an RTT competition emphasizes collaboration between all involved stakeholders, including the district superintendent, the local teachers’ union president, and the local school board president. Yet it’s questionable that this will end with the “bold, locally directed improvements in teaching and learning” the Education Department craves. Far more likely, it will stifle the potential effects of those very reforms, because by their very nature “bold” reforms involve pushing against a well-established status quo and vested interest groups, which have every reason to push back.

A final thought, and most important of all, is the outstanding question of the proper role of federal involvement in K-12 schools. The guiding assumption behind each iteration of the Race to the Top is that Uncle Sam can dangle a pot of money to guide and cajole states and districts into adopting an array of administration-approved school reforms. Many of these reforms are very good ideas, with states and districts working to establish better data systems, turning around low-performing schools, and crafting policies that reward effective teachers. And yet, in the fanfare surrounding RTT, there has been remarkably little attention paid to whether or not the feds can actually play a constructive role on this front, or if these particular goals are better left to other actors.

This isn’t to say that the federal government doesn’t have a role to play in K-12 education. It does, surrounding such issues as sponsoring research, ensuring constitutional protections, and promoting transparency.

Rather, it’s to recognize that ours is a large country with a tradition of federalism and a highly fragmented school system—50 states and roughly 14,000 districts, each with its own unique set of concerns, priorities, challenges, and attributes. As such, while the federal government can set broad targets and promote public goods, it is far less equipped to run the day-to-day business of individual schools—and heavy-handed efforts from Washington, even with the best of intentions and surrounding “good” ideas, often fail to play out as their proponents hope.

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