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Race to the Top’s Impact on Student Achievement, State Policy Unclear, Report Says

By Alyson Klein — October 26, 2016 3 min read

There’s no hard-and-fast evidence that Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s $4 billion, signature K-12 initiative had a long-term impact on student achievement or state policy, according to a report released Wednesday by the Institute for Education Sciences, the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm.

“Differences in student achievement between [Race to the Top] states and other states may be due to other factors and not to the program said Lisa Dragoset, a senior researcher at Mathematica, which performed the evaluation for IES. For example, she said, Race to the Top states differed from other states before receiving the grants in a number of ways, and “other changes that occurred at the same time as [Race to the Top] reforms may also have affected student achievement.”

What’s more, the report concluded, it is difficult to discern whether Race to the Top had a long term impact on state policy. While there were differences between states that got the grants and those that didn’t, other factors could explain those differences. For instance, some states embraced policies encouraged by Race to the Top even before the grants were allocated.

“It is not clear whether the [Race to the Top] program influenced the use of policies and practices promoted by the program in [Race to Top] states,” the report says. “Although some differences between [Race to the Top] and other states were observed, other factors could explain those differences. In particular, some differences in use of policies and practices promoted by RTT existed prior to states’ receipt of [Race to the Top] grants.”

Race to the Top rewarded states for embracing policies like rigorous standards, revamped data systems, dramatic school turnarounds, and teacher evaluation through test scores. Nearly every state applied for one of the grants and ultimately, 11 states and the District of Columbia were declared winners. The department gave smaller awards to an additional seven states that just narrowly missed winning one of the original grants. See the full list here.

Mathematica took a look at states that won the grants in the earlier round, states that won the smaller awards later, and states that didn’t win Race to the Top at all. Here’s a graphic that summarizes the report’s findings on Race to Top’s impact on policy, based on interviews with state officials in the spring of 2013.

Key takeaways:


  • The original Race to the Top states were more likely to use policies and practices promoted by the program than states that didn’t get any Race to the Top money in four areas: school turnarounds, rigorous standards and tests, creating conditions for charter school success, and improving educator effectiveness.
  • There weren’t big differences between states that got the grants and those that didn’t when it came to creating data systems to measure student achievement and build state capacity.
  • States that got the smaller grants were more likely than non-Race-to-the-Top states to adopt the program’s policies in one area: teacher effectiveness.

So what do the report’s conclusions mean for the program’s future?

Nothing. Congress has already gotten rid of the program and made it virtually impossible for any future secretary of education to resurrect it.

The Obama administration tried to get a permanent authorization for the program in an early version of legislation that eventually became the Every Student Succeeds Act. But lawmakers rejected that idea, and for good measure, stopped providing funding for Race to the Top. What’s more, ESSA even specifically bars the secretary of education from using competitive grants to influence states when it comes to teacher evaluation, school turnarounds, or standards.


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