Today, Ed Week reported that President Obama plans to expand Race to the Top by $1.35 billion in fiscal year 2011 and include school districts in the competition for additional funds to support reform practices. While details for the expanded program have yet to be released, a White House official interview in the story stated that the administration considers Race to the Top (RttT) a successful program it hopes to continue. But we at Ed Money Watch believe that the indicators of success mentioned, primarily state legislative changes like lifting charter school caps and strengthening school improvement measures, lack the rigor necessary to justify an additional $1.35 billion for the program so quickly; these legislative changes do not indicate that Race to the Top has actually improved student achievement.
Essentially, the administration claims that Race to the Top is sufficiently successful to justify additional funds because it has encouraged (though some would claim forced) states to make significant legislative changes to improve their reform landscape. In fact, it’s practically impossible to ignore the near daily news reports about various governors signing significant education legislation (see here, here, and here for examples). While these may be important accomplishments for charter schools, student-level data usage, and school improvement, they are not direct signals of Race to the Top’s success. Rather, they suggest that states are under enough financial duress that they are willing to make substantial efforts to win anywhere from $50 million to $700 million in additional federal funding.
It is impossible to truly determine Race to the Top’s effectiveness until states are able to link student achievement growth with the programs implemented with RttT funding. At this rate, states won’t likely be able to do so until the end of fiscal year 2011 or later when RttT programs are better established and student outcomes can be measured. Calling the program successful without demonstrating actual impact on student achievement cheapens the goal of Race to the Top and undermines the administration’s emphasis on results-based spending.
This all speaks to a greater issue with Race to the Top – stakeholders seem to care more about how states stack up on the administration’s reform element check list than what programs and interventions the states actually propose in their RttT applications. Both the administration and the media are so wrapped up in the policy changes happening in the states that few are discussing the actual content of each state’s application. Hopefully, after today’s first round RttT deadline, that conversation will shift somewhat.
Ed Money Watch does not mean to suggest that Race to the Top can not or will not succeed. It is highly possible that the activities funded by the $4.35 billion grant program will improve academic achievement in the states that receive funding. Similarly, the priorities outlined in the Race to the Top application could prove to be key elements for reform (admittedly, the jury is still out on some of the favored practices). However, using state level legislative changes as justification for expanding the program by more than 30 percent seems to distract from the real purpose of Race to the Top – to dramatically improve student achievement.