Report: Race to the Top isn’t delivering big results

September 12, 2013
(President Barack Obama delivers remarks on "Race To the Top" at the Department of Education with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, left, in Washington, D.C. Friday, July 24, 2009. Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
President  Obama delivers remarks on Race to the Top with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in 2009. (Lawrence Jackson/White House)

The Obama administration’s signature education initiative, Race to the Top, can’t deliver much educational improvement in America’s public schools because there is a huge mismatch in its mandates and what is actually possible to accomplish with the provided funding and requirements, according to a new report released Thursday.

The title of the report precisely explains what it is about: “Mismatches in Race to the Top Limit Educational Improvement.” Written by Elaine Weiss, the national coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education, a project of the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute, the report looks at how states that won in the early rounds of the Race to the Top competition implemented it in the first three years of their four-year grants.

Special attention is paid to the development and implementation of new teacher and principal evaluation systems, which were mandated by the Education Department to be based in part on student standardized test scores (despite the fact that many testing experts say this is not a reliable way to make such assessments). It says:

Heightened pressure on districts to produce impossible gains from an overly narrow policy agenda has made implementation difficult and often counterproductive.

Race to the Top is limited in how much it can actually accomplish, the report says,  because:

* States made promises to the federal government in exchange for Race money that they could not meet even with more time and money.
— Nearly every state wound up delaying implementation of its mandated teacher evaluation systems because it had not had enough time to develop new rubrics, pilot new systems, and/or train evaluators and others.
— Delaware, for example, was one of several states that promised to have all students score proficient” on standardized tests by 2014.
— The amount of money that states received was only a tiny percentage of their education budgets and not nearly enough to make the required changes.
— Race to the Top states sometimes rushed implementation and, in states such as Ohio and Tennessee, had to scale back their initial promises.

* The actions that the Education Department required states to take in exchange for Race money failed to address some of the most important reasons for low student achievement.
— Research clearly shows that most of the achievement gap is driven by factors outside school.
— Important in-school factors, such as funding equity, were not adequately addressed by Race to the Top.

According to the report, those districts that have faced the most severe challenges in implementing Race to the Top heavily serve low-income and minority students, especially large urban districts. It also says:

States and districts that laid strong foundations for change, including making teachers real partners, and making union–management collaboration fundamental to the success of reform, have seen the most progress, have encountered the fewest bumps, and seem more likely to sustain gains. District and school culture, which varies tremendously within and across states, also plays a role in determining whether implementation efforts are succeeding or struggling.

Race to the Top is the $4.3 billion education initiative announced by President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan in 2009. States could receive part of that money in exchange for promising to do favored reforms, including expanding charter schools, adopting a new, common set of academic standards, and revamping educator evaluation with systems that would include standardized test scores. Critics argued early on that such a narrow focus of reforms would not yield much change in academic achievement, but the administration went ahead anyway. Though most states didn’t receive any Race to the Top money because they either didn’t apply or their applications were rejected, they still went ahead and made many of the requested reforms anyway in hopes of winning the cash.

There are interesting details in the report about Race to the Top implementation in Tennessee, where the author describes  ” ‘a culture of fear’ in which superintendents and others who are at the forefront of implementation are afraid to speak out for fear of retribution.”  Here’s more about Tennessee and its Race implementation, from the report:

Parents cite the increased amount of class time devoted to test taking as one indication of the new and undesired direction of Race to the Top. One parent with whom we spoke reported that her 8-year-old daughter, an advanced third grader, devotes roughly 25 days of her school year to test taking. Teachers tell the mother that 30 days is about average, and this excludes extensive additional time devoted to preparing for the tests. This increase is reflected in the growing cost of the tests. Since RTTT implementation began, Tennessee has tripled payments to the testing company Pearson; annual costs have risen from just over $7 million in 2009 to nearly $22 million in 2013 (Tennessee Central Procurement Office n.d.). By 2012, the state will have paid Pearson a total of $115 million, including a $55 million amendment signed in 2012 that indicates optional development of a K-2 standardized test, as well as test practice materials. (Tennessee Central Procurement Office n.d.).

Other findings in the report:

  • States have focused heavily on developing teacher evaluation systems based on student test scores, but not nearly as much on using the evaluations to improve instruction, as intended.

  • Because state assessments tend to test students’ math and reading skills, attention has been focused mostly on those subjects, potentially to the detriment of others. States have also struggled to determine how to evaluate teachers of untested subjects and teachers of younger students, a critical issue, given that they constitute the majority of all teachers.

  • While some states have developed smart strategies to recruit talented professionals to teach subjects and/or teach in schools that are underserved, the vast majority of alternative certification money and effort has gone to bringing young, largely uncredentialed novices to teach in disadvantaged schools.

  • Districts heavily serving low-income and minority students, especially large urban districts, face some of the most severe challenges. Tight timelines and lack of resources compound RTTT’s failure to address poverty-related impediments to learning. Heightened pressure on districts to produce impossible gains from an overly narrow policy agenda has made implementation difficult and often counterproductive.

Weiss said in the report that she used Department of Education state implementation reports as well as research by other organizations and her own reporting.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | September 12, 2013