No Clear Winner Yet in “Race to the Top”

Stock image -- classroom Establishing “Innovation Funds” for community partnerships that enhance learning, creating professional development programs more aligned with federal education expectations, and establishing new frameworks for teacher evaluations are among the ways states awarded Race to the Top (RTT) grants have begun to used their share of the $4 billion given by the federal government in 2011 to improve K-12 school quality and effectiveness.

First-year state progress reports were released by the U.S. Department of Education in January. But according UConn’s Tammy Kolbe, an assistant research professor at the Neag School of Education’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, it’s far too early to speculate on the effectiveness of these or any reforms funded by the one-time grants—though it’s not too early to create an RTT evaluation plan. In fact, it’s essential.

“Winning states came up with plans for change, but do they have the capacity to implement that change, or ensure that it’s meaningful, long-term change, rather than just a short-term fix?” said Kolbe, lead author of “And They’re Off: Tracking Federal Race to the Top Investments From the Starting Gate.”

Written with University of Maryland education policy studies professor Jennifer King Rice and published in the January issue of Educational Policy, the article examines the influence of federal education priorities on grant proposals, explains grant parameters and how funds were awarded, outlines both winning states’ and the government’s intents, and stresses the need for a benchmarked evaluation system.

“Five to 10 years from now, we’ll need to have a tool that allows us to determine whether these grants made a difference; whether this money mattered. Establishing baseline expectations will be key to determining whether states achieved the significant and comprehensive education innovation, reform and improvements that RTT  grants were intended to provide,” Kolbe said. “This was no small lump that was distributed. It was a significant—historic—distribution of grant funds larger than any state has ever seen before.”

Funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and managed by the U.S. Department of Education, RTT  was designed to “reward” states with concrete plans and actions to:

  • Significantly improve student outcomes
  • Close achievement gaps
  • Improve high school graduate rates
  • Better prepare students for college and career success

Forty-six states (including Connecticut) and the District of Columbia competed for the funds which, when the 12 winners were chosen, led to grants of between $20 million and $700 million distributed over a four-year period. The application process was extensive and the competition fierce, with some states going as far as to change laws, regulations and teacher contracts to make themselves eligible to apply, or more likely to win, an award.

Winners were Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Tennessee.

“But is competition the best way to award funds designed to improve poor educational systems? States with more resources are very likely going to have the ability to put together better grant proposals than those with less resources,” Kolbe explained, “which means the needier state may not get the grant—though one of the hopes for RTT is that it will have a trickle-down effect. That non-RTT states will see what RTT states are doing, and then look at how they can make similar changes in practice within their cost and resource restraints.”

Tracking states’ RTT fund plans and progress is the federal education department’s Implementation and Support Unit, but local leaders need to track and monitor states’ progress, too, Kolbe said.

“If RTT pans out as it was intended, local districts and states will have effective best-practices and programs to use as models to meet specific needs,” Kolbe said. “But we need time to watch and see. Several RTT states plan to use the funds on short-term projects, but will that allow them to sustain needed educational improvements over the long haul? Also, will continued economic challenges affect states’ abilities to sustain long-term change?”

“There’s also the issue of whether this kind of sizeable federal investment in education reform was a good one to make,” Kolbe added. “Can large grants better move states and localities closer to achieving national goals for public education?”