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What the Ed. Dept.'s New Race to the Top Report Reveals, and What It Avoids

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 12, 2015 10 min read
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Schools used their share of $4.3 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 U.S. Department of Education report published Thursday 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. (More on that below.)

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

But the report leaves out, or only touches on briefly, several controversial issues where states stumbled or backtracked. That’s especially true with respect to teacher evaluations and policies linked to the Common Core State Standards, especially assessments.

The Race to the Top grants highlighted in the report focused on the $4.3 billion in federal funds distributed to 11 states and the District of Columbia. There were other variations on Race to the Top, but the grant funds dealt with in the report were the first the U.S. Department of Education handed out.

In exchange for the grants, states 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.

UPDATE: But Andy Smarick, a partner at the Bellwether Education Partners consulting firm, was skeptical about the real impact of Race to the Top, writing in an email that in many respects it illustrated the “classic difference between motion and progress.”

He said that the report seemed to focus less on measurable improvement and more on the new relationships the grants have helped to create between teachers, administrators, and others, and how the grants have refined and enhanced their energy.

“I have to say, $4.35 billion in taxpayer funds is a whole lot of money if more urgency and cooperation were the goals,” Smarick wrote.

Was It Worth It?

In prepared remarks slated to be delivered Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was to offer a mostly positive overview, mixed with some humility about Race to the Top. (A separate Education Department study on the School Improvement Grant program also was released on Thursday.)

“I know that implementing these changes was really tough, and that few of [the states] received the support they wanted,” Duncan said in the prepared remarks. “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.”

But Duncan wasn’t specific about “unintended consequences” or missteps. What are some challenges that have dogged Race to the Top?

For one thing, nearly all of the Race to the Top states struggled with crafting teacher evaluations that took into account student outcomes. And many experienced serious political blowback 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.

What did states focus on?

States received 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.”
  • “Developing and supporting effective teachers and leaders.”
  • “Creating data systems and using technology to inform and enhance instruction.”
  • “Turning around the lowest-performing schools.”

And here’s how those funds were parceled out for those priority areas, as well as funds for districts and other areas:

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. (Click here to see the award amount for each state.)

New Standards Prove a Tough Test

On the issue of shifting to new standards, specifically the common core, the department highlights EngageNY, the set 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. That major issue isn’t really addressed in this new report.

The Education Department sunk $360 million into two testing consortia, Smarter Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Although PARCC and Smarter Balanced weren’t part of the Race to the Top grants discussed in the new report, they were funded through a separate Race to the Top grant, and are tightly linked to the work the states in question did with respect to standards.

But four of the states that received the grants the report focuses on (Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Tennessee) decided to ditch the PARCC exam for either 2014-15 or 2015-16, while Massachusetts is still undecided about whether to officially adopted PARCC as its state exam. New York has no plans to use that test despite belonging to PARCC at one time. CORRECTION: I initially wrote that the Empire State is still a PARCC member, but it’s no longer listed as one on PARCC’s website. North Carolina, meanwhile, is still a member of Smarter Balanced, but has so far held off on using the exam.

While reviewing the common core may not have the same impact as switching assessments, it’s also worth noting that three Race to the Top states—New York, North Carolina, and Tennessee—are formally reviewing the standards. Florida and Georgia also made changes to the common core, albeit relatively minor ones.

There’s one other related angle here: Race to the Top contributed to a fair bit of political heat that hit state chiefs.

It might have gotten hottest for former Tennessee chief Kevin Huffman, who left his post nearly a year ago. But it also made life difficult for 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 Travails

Teacher evaluation through student outcomes has been one of the toughest nuts for Race to the Top states—and states nationally—to crack. 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 get shout-outs for relying on teams of teachers and administrators for ongoing feedback. Delaware teachers and state leaders teamed up to create “rigorous and comparable” measures of growth in non-tested subjects. And Tennessee, as well as Rhode Island, also earn plaudits for using tools such as annual teacher surveys and allowing districts certain levels of flexibility.

“For example, based on feedback from key stakeholders in Rhode Island during the first year of implementing its evaluation system, state leaders streamlined and reduced the number of observation components, student learning objectives and yearly observations for the second year of implementation,” the report states.

The report does recognize the “anxiety among teachers, school leaders and key local stakeholders” the new evaluations caused. It lauds the Reform Support Network, which offered technical assistance from the Education Department on the grants, for its creation of an Educator Evaluation Communications Toolkit that equipped states with strategies for talking about the evaluations.

But despite that acknowledgment of the treacherous environment for new evaluations, it’s worth stressing that evaluations were perhaps the biggest conflict many states have faced, both internally and with the Education Department.

Many have argued that tying student test scores to teacher evaluations at the same time that states were shifting to new standards and assessments was misguided. That’s a point of view the department has recently begun to formally acknowledge, as it has given states more flexibility and time in aligning evaluations to test scores since mid-2014. (Don’t tell that to Washington state, though.)

About a year ago, seven states got clearance to get the longest-possible extensions of their NCLB waivers, which the department began offering after Race to the Top. Among them were just four of the 11 states (plus the District of Columbia) from Race to the Top: Florida, New York, North Carolina, and Tennessee. And you earn a gold star if you’ve been able to follow the tangled twists and turns of teacher evaluations in New York.

The report does acknowledge “significant challenges” posed by these new evaluations systems, as well as the more general remark that some states were “not initially well positioned to make rapid changes.” But that’s a brief mention of this enormous policy and political challenge for states.

When The Money Went Away

Remember something else: Race to the Top grants have ended. And although state education budgets have recovered, they haven’t rebounded to the level many might have hoped for.

Last year, the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that even though states are gradually rebuilding their education budgets, the majority had not restored K-12 per-student spending to pre-recession levels. That included Race to the Top winners Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. (The District of Columbia and Hawaii were not included in the think tank’s analysis.) The other six Race to the Top states did increase their spending levels, from Ohio’s $13-per-student increase to Delaware’s $475-per-student hike over the past eight years.

Early indications for fiscal 2016 point to more of the same steady-but-sluggish funding increases. And 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.

Student Achievement and Other Stats

As for objective results that the Obama administration wants to attribute to the grant program, Duncan planned to highlight in his speech that the graduation rate is a big metric in the report. And the department has something to brag about on that score when it comes to Race to the Top; below is a chart for graduation rates for all students in Race to the Top states by graduating classes:

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.

And as we’ve discussed recently on the blog, it can be risky business to attribute rising graduation rates to Race to the Top or policies from Duncan, or any other education secretary for that matter. In addition, graduation rates are a “lagging indicator” of successful policies or any other action.

The report’s information about Race to the Top states’ college enrollment also presents a mixed picture. Delaware showed the most improvement. But only four other states showed increased rates of enrollment in higher education between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years:

Finally, there are numbers for students who passed Advanced Placement exams. Check it out below:

UPDATE: “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.”

So is the new Race to the Top report a useful encyclopedia of what states did to help schools with the grant money? Or is it essentially a shiny pamphlet?