New study identifies failures of federal Race to the Top program

Published on Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A landmark new study of Race to the Top finds few successes and many more missteps in the implementation of the Obama administration’s signature education initiative. In the report, Elaine Weiss, national coordinator of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, argues that Race to the Top has done little to help most states close achievement gaps, and may have exacerbated them.

Race to the Top (RTTT) is a competitive grant program intended to encourage and reward states that are “creating conditions for innovation and reform.” When the program was announced in July 2009, the U.S. Department of Education asserted that participating states and districts “will offer models for others to follow and will spread the best reform ideas across their states, and across the country.”This report, titled “Mismatches in Race to the Top Limit Educational Improvement: Lack of Time, Resources, and Tools to Address Opportunity Gaps Puts Lofty State Goals Out of Reach,” draws three main conclusions about RTTT:

  • States made unrealistic and impossible promises
    • With one exception, every grantee state promised to raise student achievement and close achievement gaps to degrees that would be virtually or literally impossible even with much longer timelines and larger funding boosts.

    • Virtually every state has had to delay implementation of its teacher evaluation systems, due to insufficient time to develop rubrics, pilot new systems, and/or train evaluators and others.


  • RTTT policies fall short on teacher improvement and fail to address core drivers of opportunity gaps
    • States have focused heavily on developing teacher evaluation systems based on student test scores, but not nearly as much on using the evaluations to improve instruction, as intended.

    • Because state assessments tend to test students’ math and reading skills, attention has been focused mostly on those subjects, potentially to the detriment of others. States have also struggled to determine how to evaluate teachers of untested subjects and teachers of younger students, a critical issue, given that they constitute the majority of all teachers.

    • Districts heavily serving low-income and minority students, especially large urban districts, face some of the most severe challenges. Tight timelines and lack of resources compound RTTT’s failure to address poverty-related impediments to learning. Heightened pressure on districts to produce impossible gains from an overly narrow policy agenda has made implementation difficult and often counterproductive.


  • RTTT shortcomings have caused state–district and union–management conflicts that hinder progress
    • The tight budgets that led many states to apply for RTTT funding have proven problematic as state education budgets, and staff, are reduced just as more resources and experts are needed.

    • The heavy focus on evaluation and punishment over improvement has made teachers, principals, and superintendents suspicious and has reduced support for RTTT.

    • States and districts that laid strong foundations for change, including making teachers real partners, and making union–management collaboration fundamental to the success of reform, have seen the most progress, have encountered the fewest bumps, and seem more likely to sustain gains.
To read the full report, go to www.boldapproach.org/report.

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