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Education Funding

Ed. Dept. Report Touts Race To Top Program’s Impact

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 01, 2015 6 min read
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Over the past five years, schools used their share of $4 billion in federal Race to the Top competitive-grant money to make significant progress in areas including state data systems and instructional resources for teachers, says a new report from the U.S. Department of Education about the Obama administration’s signature K-12 initiative.

The 76-page report, “Fundamental Change: Innovation in America’s Schools Under Race to the Top,” highlights success stories, particularly when it comes to changing practices among teachers and better results for students. In the latter category, it touts rising graduation rates in states that received the first two rounds of Race to the Top funding, as well as higher passing rates by students taking Advanced Placement courses.

But the Nov. 10 report—which focuses on the $4 billion distributed to 11 states and the District of Columbia under the first two phases of the program—leaves out, or only briefly addresses, several controversial issues where recipients stumbled or backtracked. Chief among them: teacher evaluations and policies linked to the Common Core State Standards, especially assessments.

In prepared remarks delivered at Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Boston the day the report was released, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offered a mostly positive overview of the program, mixed with some humility.

‘Unintended Consequences’

“I know that implementing these changes was really tough, and that few of [the states] received the support they wanted,” Duncan said. “My administration, recognizing the urgency of change for today’s students, pushed a lot, fast. We haven’t gotten everything right, and we’ve seen unintended consequences that have posed challenges for educators and students.”

Duncan wasn’t specific about “unintended consequences” or missteps. But nearly all of the Race to the Top recipients struggled with crafting teacher evaluations that took into account student outcomes. And many experienced serious political blowback connected to the standards, in some cases with major consequences for state leaders. Plus, indicators of student achievement in the report don’t paint a uniformly glowing portrait.

Duncan himself acknowledged in his remarks that declining scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress aren’t encouraging.

“I think Race to the Top is going to have a tough legacy to disentangle,” said Jeffrey Henig, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, who focuses on education and politics. “There’s no question states are doing some things differently now because of Race to the Top. Whether those things were the right things to do I think is questionable.”

It’s also an open question, he said, “whether those adoptions that have taken root will hold, absent the continued Race to the Top support.”

The Race to the Top program was launched as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 and came to include a number of variations, including those focusing on early-childhood education and personalized learning. The first two phases of the program included $4 billion in grants to a dozen state recipients, as well as $360 million to fund two consortia of states designing tests aligned to the common core.

In exchange for the grants, the 12 recipients had to agree to focus the money on several policy initiatives that included new teacher evaluations and a commitment to new standards, which in practical terms meant that states decided to shift to the common core. More broadly, state education departments, administrators, and educators were expected to find new ways to collaborate with each other and with local stakeholders on implementation and to improve student achievement.

Recipients got the grants on the condition that they commit to four main courses of action:

• Establish high, challenging learning standards aligned with readiness for college and careers;

• Develop and support effective teachers and leaders;

• Create data systems and use technology to inform and enhance instruction; and

• Turn around the lowest-performing schools.

The Race to the Top money in the first two rounds ran out this past summer, although some states’ grant-related work ended last year.

“Every Race to the Top state made progress toward meeting the goals established in its application,” the report says.

Tough Issues

On the issue of shifting to new standards—specifically the common core—the department highlights EngageNY, the collection of professional-development and instructional resources developed in New York state, as well as the 700 coaches in Tennessee who trained 45,000 of their fellow teachers on the new standards over three summers. And Florida got a nod for its bank of formative-assessment items that helped teachers figure out if students were on track to meet math standards.

But shifting to new tests to measure students’ grasp of the common core has been difficult in many states.

And Race to the Top itself contributed to a fair bit of political heat on state schools chiefs in states that got the grants, including Tennessee’s Kevin Huffman, who left his post nearly a year ago, and John Barge, who is no longer Georgia’s chief. Altogether, only two Race to the Top states (Massachusetts and North Carolina) have the same chief as they did when the program began. That’s led to political turmoil and, often, implementation issues.

Teacher Evaluation

Teacher evaluation through student outcomes has been one of the toughest nuts to crack not just for Race to the Top states, but all states. But that turmoil doesn’t get much play in the report. Instead, it places a heavy emphasis on teacher and principal feedback. Delaware, Massachusetts, and Tennessee, for example, are highlighted for relying on teams of teachers and administrators for ongoing feedback.

The report does, however, recognize the “anxiety among teachers, school leaders and key local stakeholders” the new evaluations caused. It also acknowledges “significant challenges” posed by these new evaluations systems, as well as the more general remark that some states were “not initially well postioned to make rapid changes.”

And now that the one-time funding has run out, it’s not clear what that means for the future of programs that began under Race to the Top.

“Every day, we are talking about what we’ll no longer be able to do,” said Nora Carr, the chief of staff for North Carolina’s 72,200-student Guilford County district, in an interview with Education Week earlier this year.

Student Achievement

As for objective results that the Obama administration wants to attribute to the grant program, the report says the graduation rate among the 12 Race the Top grantees rose to 79.9 percent in the 2013-14 school year from 76.5 percent in 2013-14.

That’s progress, but those students in Race to the Top states are still lagging behind the most recent national graduation rate of 81 percent for the class of 2013. Graduation rates for black and Hispanic students increased at slightly higher rates than the figure for all students in Race to the Top states, although they still trail their white peers.

In addition, the report says that the number of students in those states who took Advanced Placement exams rose 17.2 percent, to 1.3 million, from 2011 to 2015, and the percentage who scored 3 or higher (qualifying for college credit) rose 20.8 percent, to a total of 771,000, from 2011 to 2014.

A version of this article appeared in the December 02, 2015 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept. Touts Race to Top’s Impact, Tiptoes Around Stumbles


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