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June 08, 2011
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The “Race to the Top” education initiative is one of
President Obama’s most vaunted domestic-policy successes. The name itself
connotes progress, forward movement, even competition. And there’s plenty of
substance for the president to brag about: Forty-six states and the District of Columbia
signed on to rigorous common standards; dozens of states got serious about
teacher evaluations; key jurisdictions removed caps on charter-school
expansion. This is what New Yorker contributor Steven Brill called “a
sweeping overhaul” of the system.
With the Department of Education proposing a new $5 billion Race to the Top–style
competitive grant program aimed at teacher policy, however, it’s worth taking a
closer look at Race to the Top’s results. When you do, the scorecard changes
Did the 2009–10 period, in which states were competing for Race to the Top
funds, see the most reforms ever enacted? No. That distinction belongs to 2011,
after the 2010 midterm elections swept historic Republican majorities into
office in state after state.
Start with teacher evaluations . In
2009, no state specified ineffectiveness as grounds for the dismissal of a
teacher (incredible but true!). By 2010—in part because of Race to the Top—four states did (Colorado, New
York, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island). But in
2011—after the main Race to the Top competition was long past—eleven states
joined the club (Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts,
Michigan, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wyoming).
Or take “last in, first out” policies—i.e., basing layoffs on seniority
rather than effectiveness. In 2009, only Arizona
prohibited school districts from basing teacher layoffs on seniority. Colorado and Oklahoma
followed suit in 2010. And then, in 2011, the issue really took off, with seven
more states jumping on board, most of them Republican strongholds: Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, Tennessee, and Utah.
And of course, 2011 was also the “year of school choice,” with seven states enacting new
voucher or tax-credit programs (Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin)—versus just two each in 2009 and 2010.
Race to the Top wasn’t meant just to catalyze legislative changes. Winning
states made bold promises about implementing the reforms they’d enacted, and
Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, issued stern statements about
their intention to pull dollars away from jurisdictions that fell short. How
has that effort fared?
In short: not so well. Eleven states and the District of Columbia won first-round grants
of up to $700 million from the $4 billion Race to the Top pot in 2010,
promising to deliver a range of ambitious programs and results. A little more
than a year later, every one of those grantees has amended its plans at least
once, with the Department of Education
approving a grand total of 47 amendments to date. Maryland
asked for another year to finish its teacher-evaluation system, while North Carolina opted for
a more modest teacher-retention bonus program. Time and again goals have been
lowered and timelines extended. When in late 2011, in response to Hawaii’s stalling, Duncan
finally threatened to cut off the Aloha
State’s funding, it
marked a sharp and belated shift from the dozens of accommodating letters of
approval his department had sent to states wavering on their commitments.
Scaled-back ambitions are only half the problem: Many states seem to have
barely started putting their plans in motion. As of May 2011, a year after the
first Race to the Top awards, just over $80 million of the $4 billion in
funding had actually been spent. While it’s at least reassuring that states
haven’t been burning through the money, the urgency of the “Race” petered out
once the awards were made. With the latest round of grants awarded with little
fanfare, the Obama administration’s signature effort is losing steam.
So the Race to the Top was good for education reform. But
the 2010 election, it turns out, was much, much better.