The race to nowhere: President’s education plan looks like more mediocrity

by Frederick M. Hess

collegeJuly marked the fifth anniversary of Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s signature education initiative. Enacted during President Obama’s honeymoon, the $4.35 billion competition drew bipartisan hosannas and was hailed as an example of getting school reform right. In truth, Race to the Top presaged much that Obama has gotten wrong when it comes to education. The administration’s missteps included turning the Common Core into a quasi-national program, igniting partisan opposition in the states while prodding pliant states to move reforms on Obama’s politically driven timeline. A monument to paper promises and bureaucratic ineptitude, Race to the Top was more a cautionary tale than a model to be emulated.

The Department of Education launched the “race” as a grant program in 2009, with funds from that year’s $900 billion stimulus bill. Of the $120 billion set aside for education, the administration was able to carve out that $4.35 billion to promote reform. The other $100 billion-plus in education spending went to help states and districts duck hard choices, for a year or two, and maintain unsustainable outlays.

As passed by Congress, the legislation language for Race to the Top invited states to put forward detailed plans to improve data systems, adopt “career-and-college ready” standards and tests, hire great teachers and principals, and turn around low-performing schools. The Obama administration could have told the states, “Put forward your best ideas, and we’ll fund the most promising.” Such a strategy would have taken federalism seriously and funded states committed to their proposals.
Instead, the administration came up with 19 “priorities” that states would be required to address. The priorities were a pedantic list, including professional development, the “equitable distribution” of good teachers and so on. Perhaps most tellingly, the administration let states know they could pretty much ace three priorities if they promised to adopt the brand-new Common Core curriculum and its federally funded tests. Race to the Top wound up relying on an application process which required states to compile hundreds of jargon-laden pages in an attempt to convince the reviewers that they would do what the administration wanted.

Hungry for federal funds and driven by the application deadlines, state education agencies threw together proposals stuffed with pages of vague, hard-to-follow promises. The list was long was and fairly amusing, including such grant-writing gems as:

  • “Using a network approach enables strong implementation with fidelity by facilitating local practice-sharing and collaboration, establishing mechanisms for continuous communication and follow-up … increasing access to expertise so that questions can be answered more quickly than if they were to be channeled through the Department.”
  • “The State will be better prepared to leverage improved policies, processes, and technologies in support of linking high quality teacher, student and assessment data to be used for teacher and administrator evaluation systems, professional development planning, evaluating and identifying effective instructional practices and using data at the classroom level to guide and inform instruction.”
  • “Facilitate local Reform Working Group dialog sessions across the state to engage all local stakeholders in meaningful local dialog to engender deeper understanding of education reform.”

The applications included bizarre appendices, replete with missing pages, duplicate pages, and everything from Maya Angelou poetry to hundreds of letters of support from anyone else who might sign a vacuous pledge. Meanwhile, the winning states relied heavily on high-priced education consultants paid for by private foundations. This reliance on outsiders meant that commitment to the promised reforms was often tissue thin, with subsequent policymakers only modestly interested in seeing them through.

It should not surprise that the winning states have failed to live up to their promises. Not only did every winner fail to fulfill the promises it made, but fully a quarter of the winning states actually saw their fourth-grade math or reading scores decline on the National Assessment of Educational Progress between 2009 and 2013.

Race to the Top also has two huge flaws that went mostly unnoticed at the program’s inception. First, the allure of $4 billion in federal funding at the height of the Great Recession did much to distract state education leaders from overdue belt-tightening and restructuring. While the actual amount that states could claim was fairly modest (about 1 percent of annual K-12 outlays for the winning states), it was enough to consume the limited bandwidth of officials atop state education agencies. State education leaders spent much of 2009 and 2010 missing a chance to address underfunded pensions or ineffectual spending while spending their time dreaming up ambitious new programs in their pursuit of temporary federal funds.

Second, federal inducements to adopt the Common Core ensured that the program, which would otherwise have been a collaborative effort of perhaps a dozen or 20 enthusiastic states, was transformed into a quasi-federal initiative with lots of halfhearted participants. By also pushing these states to hurriedly adopt new teacher evaluation systems and make aggressive use of test scores to gauge teachers, the administration managed to ensure that not-ready-for-prime-time systems would be entangled with the Common Core and new state tests. The result: Whatever brief boost Race to the Top gave to school reform in 2009 is likely to be undone, and then some, by the ill effects of half-baked federal pressure.

Obama has termed Race to the Top “the most meaningful education reform in a generation.” Well, Race to the Top may have bolted out of the gate to big cheers, but it’s now looking more and more like a steady walk to mediocrity.

Frederick M. Hess Resident Scholar and Director of Education Policy Studies at American Enterprise Institute

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