Unattainable Goals: Study Shows Missteps of Race to the Top

In September, the Economic Policy Institute and the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education group released “Mismatches in Race to the Top Limit Educational Improvement,” a study showing that the funding goals Race to the Top (RTTT) required of states are out of reach and mismatched with the policy’s aims.

RTTT is a competitive grant program intended to encourage and reward states that create conditions for education reform. These conditions include expanding charter schools, creating standard curricula across all districts and developing extensive teacher and principal evaluation systems. Announced in 2009, RTTT was supposed to guide states in creating positive and reformed educational environments, and to serve as a better reform plan than George Bush’s No Child Left Behind.

However, many of the 11 states and the District of Columbia that received RTTT funding are experiencing setbacks due to unrealistic promises and unexpected challenges.

For example, RTTT pushed states to implement their reform strategies within a compressed, four-year timeline, making it extremely difficult to implement an effective teacher or principal evaluation system. Additionally, states receiving RTTT funding reported that the provided federal funds were too small to make substantial changes in their schools. Educators have made requests for additional funding, but due to the current federal education spending levels, these funds are not available.

Despite funding issues, resource restrictions, inadequate piloting and revision time periods, many districts pushed forward with implementing their reform programs. In the first two years alone, grantee states changed their plans 25 times, resulting in many teachers and principals being evaluated on data largely unrelated to their efforts.

RTTT also presented schools with the task of closing opportunity and achievement gaps that rarely begin in or can be controlled by schools, such as race- and income-based gaps. Grantee schools set lofty goals to address these issues; however, reaching these goals would be virtually impossible even with longer timelines and more funding.

The mismatches in Race to the Top ideology and practice have led to delays and counterproductive implementation of key components of the plan. One of the largest outcomes of Race to the Top is the Common Core State Standards, a widely criticized plan to standardize learning outcomes for all 50 states. While many educators see the potential benefit in producing a set of common standards, the accelerated rollout of the Common Core in all but a handful of states runs the risk of not providing adequate time for piloting and revision.

AFSA fully supports efforts to allocate funds toward the betterment of our nation’s schools; however, when creating reform, attainable goals and timelines must be established with room for change and input from our educators. Only then will we truly provide our public schools with the support and tools they need for effective and meaningful change.