Standards Opinion

Five Years of Race to the Top: Where Are We?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — July 29, 2014 3 min read
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We are five years into living the reality of Race to the Top. Certainly, a five year initiative merits evaluation, especially since it has a large sum of money attached and has disrupted education nationally. Minimally, in that regard it has made a difference. But, is a difference success?

How Should RTTT Be Evaluated?
Should it be, as the design intended, based upon student achievement, specifically in ELA and math? Should it be an analysis of the adopting states and schools districts in regard to the extent of Common Core Standards implementation? Should it include an upward trend in teacher evaluation ratings? Or, is the evaluation far more complicated than any one of these or all of them collectively? We think so.

The Race to the Top, is a multi-billion dollar attempt at improving education by offering money to states and districts in exchange for compliance to policies including teacher evaluation based in part on student outcomes, improved state data systems and more aggressive school turnarounds. If they included the adoption of the Common Core Standards in their application, schools and districts had an advantage. Common tests, early childhood education, personalized learning, and a focus on rural schools were included in years that followed. What we also know is that there has been a great deal about all aspects of the Race to the Top in the news, and much of it has been negative.

New legislation can provide financial incentive for policy implementation. In fact, we often object to new mandates without related funding. Let’s step away from already formed biases and look at the intentions of the legislation.

Schools can ...and must...get better at meeting the needs of the students and preparing them for their adult lives following their years in K-12 systems. The architects of the plan think that and we agree. Perhaps common assessments given across the country can make some difference in the standard we set for students in our country. Perhaps increasing the amount of pre-school opportunities for students living in poverty, having more robust data systems to analyze student achievement results, and investing in rural as well as city schools all can make a difference. And, perhaps, it takes more than legislating change to make a difference. But, it is obvious to those who labor in schools and districts RTTT has leveraged the momentum of change.

The Heavy Lifting Is Done Locally
That is where the heavy lifting is happening. Ultimately, the success of RTTT will be determined by the hands and hearts of each district and building leader and the teachers in the schools. Leaders are responsible for understanding the changes that need to be made and creating the safe and generative environment in which they can happen. They are, we contend, building the time and space for learning new practices, where risks can be taken, and abilities improved. Teachers are, indeed, learning new curriculum practices and standards, struggling with the mixed blessing of being evaluated, in part, by the ability of their students to learn this new way and achieve on assessments that may be designed in a new way. Yes, we must wait for data but there is a lot of action on the ground right now.

The heavy lift is in the hands of the districts and that, ironically is the good news. Each district, with its own community, its own culture, its own strengths and challenges, still has some local control. How RTTP is implemented locally depends upon local leadership. Focus, commitment and a hefty dose of courageous leadership demands an inward journey. That journey includes deeply knowing who we have become and how we lead. Has the RTTT been truly led or diligently responded to? Might it be fair to include a look at how leadership implemented the RTTT in their districts?

Before Concluding Success or Failure Agree on the Measures
Before we conclude the success or failure of the initiative, let’s be sure the assessment of it includes all aspects of the implementation. It has abandoned reform at the fringes and disrupted the very heart of our work: curriculum and teachers. As educators, we believe that attention to the intersection of curriculum, teachers and children is right...unless the system itself is no longer working. Then there needs to be an even deeper re-envisioning. But, for now, let’s spend some time figuring out what will measure RTTT success before we conclude success or failure. Let’s not allow this assessment bring us to another version of “throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

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