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Evaluating Race to the Top As It Nears the Finish Line

By Alyson Klein — April 13, 2015 3 min read
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Years from now, when folks look back on the Obama administration’s K-12 agenda, there’s a good chance that the first four words that will spring to mind will be: Race to the Top.

Quick refresher: The program, which winds down in September, offered $4 billion in grants to states that were willing to embrace certain education priorities, including dramatic school turnarounds, teacher evaluation through student outcomes, rigorous standards and assessments, and comprehensive state data systems.

The program was wildly popular when it was first rolled out, with nearly every state applying for a grant, but has since fallen so far out of favor that even the Obama administration isn’t making a pitch to see it enshrined in law.

So how did the U.S Department of Education do when it comes to implementing this one-of-a-kind grant program? There were some things that could have gone better when it comes to state and district support, according to a report by the General Accountability Office or GAO (aka Congress’ investigative arm.)

For starters, the department needed to do a better job of tailoring its technical support to rural grantees, who expect to have a much tougher time sustaining Race to the Top education redesign efforts than their urban and suburban counterparts. All three types of districts expect that financial considerations will be the most difficult considerations in trying to sustain Race to the Top work, since the money will run dry this year in most places.

Great chart below:

What’s more, about a third of Race to the Top districts told the GAO that their biggest challenge in implementing the grants tended to be getting stakeholder groups (such as teachers’ unions) on board with the plans. (That’s despite the fact that buy-in level played a big role in whether a state was even awarded a Race to the Top grant.) And districts reported that technical assistance from the Education Department was the most helpful resource the feds had to offer. GAO recommended that the feds do a better job of communicating to districts how existing formula grants (think Title I) can help sustain Race to the Top efforts once the money has dissipated.

Still, overall, district officials were more likely to report that Race to the Top had a positive impact on local education redesign efforts, with 81 percent of districts surveyed by the GAO reporting that the money spurred change.

More in this chart:

So how could things go better in the future? The GAO has some ideas for the department, should it run any more competitive grant programs, including offering more individualized help to states, allowing for more collaboration among grantees, providing professional development to state officials throughout the grant process (not just at the beginning), and helping grantees find good contractors (that could be tricky. Remember Reading First?)

UPDATE: Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who requested the report, said it confirms her views that it’s better to pump federal dollars into formula grant programs (like Title I) than competitive programs (like Race to the Top.)

“When the Race to the Top Program was first created, there was a lot of excitement and interest from states seeking to improvement their education systems,” she said in a statement. “As this report demonstrates, even those states that won grants are struggling to ensure gains can be realized over the long term. Lasting change can be achieved more equitably through formula grant programs. That is what this report confirms and that is what I hear from my school superintendents and administrators in Connecticut. That is the direction in which we should go.”