December 17, 2013

New Study Argues Race to the Top Pushing States to the Middle

by Katie Tipton
HSLDA Legislative Assistant

Three years after the Race to the Top (RTTT) competition spurred 40 states to promise to adopt the Common Core State Standards, the only independent study of RTTT’s efficacy has condemned the program as a failure.

In a report released on September 12, 2013, Dr. Elaine Weiss, the national coordinator of the Economic Policy Institute’s Broader, Bolder Approach to Education Campaign, finds that RTTT is failing to improve education policy for three reasons.

First, states made such extreme promises in their RTTT applications to increase student achievement and decrease achievement gaps that even with more time and funding, they will not be able to meet their articulated goals.1 Dr. Weiss observes that some states promised to increase expected college entrance rates three times the pre-RTTT baseline.2

Additionally, Dr. Weiss argues that there has been neither sufficient funding nor enough time to meet RTTT's professional evaluation requirements. Many states have had to set back their goals for developing rubrics, testing new systems, and training evaluators.3

Second, Dr. Weiss contends that as implemented, RTTT does not address the most fundamental issues of the American education system. RTTT has focused on teacher evaluation in English language arts and mathematics and consequently compromised the utilization of new teacher evaluation systems to improve achievement in other subjects. Further, RTTT does not incentivize states to directly address the achievement gap between socioeconomic groups.

Rather, increasing the pressure on school districts to demonstrate higher achievement without tackling issues related to poverty, such as health, nutrition, and lack of parental involvement, might be widening the achievement gap. Dr. Weiss states, “Heightened pressure on districts to produce impossible gains from an overly narrow policy agenda has made implementation difficult and often counterproductive.”4

Finally, the pitfalls of RTTT have disgruntled many education professionals and stirred conflict between unions and management. Dr. Weiss explains that largely due to growing micromanagement by states, “teachers and principals report increasing distrust of their district and state leaders, and districts report multiple conflicts with state officials.”5 Dr. Weiss notes that swelling resistance from teachers unions protesting the dearth of resources and the severe penalties for teachers who do not meet evaluation expectations is hindering continued implementation of RTTT’s requirements.6

The U.S. Department of Education has rejected Dr. Weiss’s study, asserting that there has not been enough time for the merits of RTTT to be realized.7 But the Department fails to address the concern that states rushed to implement untested, unproven systems of evaluation, testing, and curriculum, and the continued use of these flawed methods is unlikely to cure their ills. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education has criticized both Georgia and Hawaii for failing to deliver on the lofty promises presented in their applications.8

Ironically, RTTT is perpetuating the same problems that its predecessor, No Child Left Behind, ushered in: as states “race to the top,” many school districts are stalling in the middle as subjects other than math and science are neglected, untested curriculum is thrust before students, teachers without sufficient training are forced to administer assessments, and teachers are evaluated according to unforgiving standards for progress.

HSLDA believes that this study showing the failures of RTTT is not surprising. Whenever Washington, D.C., tries to advance education reform from the top down, it is doomed to fail. Parents, teachers, and local school districts, not education bureaucrats in Washington, should be making critical decisions about education reform.

As the inadequacies of RTTT continue to be exposed, the inability of a one-size-fits-all policy to fix America’s sputtering education system is further proven. American education will be able to improve only insofar as teachers and local school districts are allowed to decide how to help particular students in particular communities. Race to the Top does not permit this approach and will likely stunt improvement for many years.

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Additional Resources

Notes

1. Elaine Weiss, 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 (Washington, D.C.: Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, 2013), 7, accessed September 19, 2013, http://www.epi.org/files/2013/bba-2013-race-to-the-top.pdf.

2. Ibid., 18.

3. Ibid., 6.

4. Ibid., 7.

5. Ibid., 64.

6. Ibid., 7.

7. HSLDA contacted the U.S. Department of Education for comment on this story, and received the following statement on September 12, 2013, from the Department: “Race to the Top, from the start, has been an invitation to states to reinvent their educational systems in ways that serve the needs of students, teachers and families far better. States brought forward ambitious, multi-year plans that will last well beyond the grant period, and we have worked with them in a spirit that combines accountability with flexibility. It is too early to measure the student-level impact of this innovative program, but even at this point, we are seeing promising signs, as states pioneer systems to raise standards, strengthen teaching, and prepare students for college and career. No one ever doubted that change this big would be hard, and while we have worked with states to make necessary adjustments, the big picture is that states’ efforts are largely in keeping with the scope and timeline of their plans. The Department will continue to work with states to support what is working, to make necessary adjustments, and to understand where we can learn and improve.”

8. Race to the Top: Georgia Report, Year 2: School Year 2011-2012 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2013), 4, accessed September 19, 2013, http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/performance/georgia-year-2.pdf and Race to the Top: Hawaii Report, Year 2: School Year 2011-2012 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2013), 4, accessed September 19, 2013, http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/performance/hawaii-year-2.pdf.