Studies Cast Doubt on Race to the Top

Two recent studies have shown that Race to the Top, the Obama Administration’s signature education initiative to help states close achievement gaps, has not lived up to its billing.

The first, by Elaine Weiss of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, argues that a lack of time, resources, and tools to address opportunity gaps puts the goals of the states out of reach. The report, Mismatches in Race to the Top Limit Educational Improvement, focuses in particular on what has proven to be a major challenge for many states: the development and implementation of new teacher and leader evaluation systems.

This assessment draws three main conclusions about Race to the Top after three years:

  • States made unrealistic and impossible promises
  • RTTT policies fall short on teacher improvement and fail to address core drivers of opportunity gaps
  • RTTT shortcomings have spurred state–district and union–management conflicts that hinder progress

Overall, this assessment finds that a key tenet of Race to the Top—that a state hold teachers and schools accountable before helping them establish foundations for success—is deeply flawed. The push to do too much too quickly with too few resources has led teachers, principals, and superintendents to express frustration and stress. Most critical, many of the major problems limiting student and school success remain unaddressed.

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Another study, this one by the Government Accountability Office, argues that by the 2012-2013 school year, 6 out of 12 Race to the Top states fully implemented their evaluation systems for teachers and principals. But even those states that have implemented the changes have had a varied success. Three of these states met their target date while three did not for various reasons, such as needing more time to develop student academic growth measures. The six states that did not fully implement either piloted or partially implemented. The scope of pilots varied. One state piloted to about 14 percent of teachers and principals while another piloted to about 30 percent of teachers. State or district officials in four of the six states expressed some concerns about their readiness for full implementation.

Officials in most RTTT states cited challenges related to developing and using evaluation measures, addressing teacher concerns, and building capacity and sustainability. State officials said it was difficult to design and implement rigorous student learning objectives–an alternate measure of student academic growth. In 6 states, officials said they had difficulty ensuring that principals conducted evaluations consistently. Officials in 11 states said teacher concerns about the scale of change, such as the use of student academic growth data and consequences attached to evaluations, challenged state efforts. State and district officials also discussed capacity challenges, such as too few staff or limited staff expertise and prioritizing evaluation reform amid multiple educational initiatives. Officials in 10 states had concerns about sustaining their evaluation systems.

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