Obama officials tout Race to the Top, saying it has unleashed ‘enormous positive change’

The Obama administration on Tuesday credited its signature K-12 education program, Race to the Top, for unleashing “enormous positive change” in public school classrooms across the country.

In a conference call with reporters to mark the fourth anniversary of the creation of Race to the Top, the White House’s Domestic Policy Council director, Cecilia Muñoz, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan rattled off examples of what they said was proof that the $4 billion competitive grant was driving “dramatic change.”

A report on Race to the Top released by the White House on Tuesday was far more positive about the program than the Education Department’s own progress reports, which have regularly pointed out that, while some states have made headway, others have had trouble spending their money and lacked the capacity to follow through on the changes they promised in order to win their grants.

The administration created Race to the Top in 2010 with $4 billion appropriated by Congress to help stimulate the economy after the 2008 recession.

It offered tens of millions to cash-strapped states if they adopted education policies favored by the administration. These policies included adopting more-rigorous academic standards in math and reading, using student test scores to evaluate teachers and principals, and getting rid of bans or limits on public charter schools.

Eleven states and the District of Columbia won grants in the first round of the competition, and seven other states were named winners in a second round.

Race to the Top marked a turning point in the way the Education Department used competitive grants. Just to compete for the money, states had to adopt the Obama policies, even changing laws in some cases in order to be eligible for the contest — a point Duncan underlined.

“The $4 billion we put into Race to the Top is less than 1 percent” of the amount spent on education annually, he said. “It has sparked innovation in places that did not receive a nickel.”

The program has drawn fire from a range of players: Teachers unions, school administrators and members of Congress have argued that is unfair to give money to some states and not others. Other critics oppose the policies promoted by the administration, saying they are unproven.

Muñoz said Race to the Top had clearly sparked improvements.

“Four years later, we see the results,” she said. “Race to the Top grants helped spur reform and change that were so badly needed in our schools.”

She pointed to the fact that high school graduation rates are at a record high, at 80 percent, and that in 2013, students recorded the highest math and reading scores on a federally administered test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, since that test was first given in the early 1990s.

But federal researchers have suggested that the high school graduation rate is likely due to a soft economy, because students tend to stay in school when they don’t have opportunities in the workforce. And while the NAEP scores are the highest they’ve been in 20 years, they have been incrementally increasing since 2005, growing by one or two percentage points a year.

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, called the administration’s efforts a “PR stunt” that doesn’t prove Race to the Top is working.

“It proves the administration is clumsily trying to take credit for the extraordinary education reform movement happening in our nation’s schools,” Kline said.

The White House report on Race to the Top comes as President Obama is seeking $300 million from Congress in the fiscal 2015 budget to create a new iteration of the contest, which would give grants to states to close the achievement gap between poor and privileged students.

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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