Race to the Top: Will education's "moon shot" fall short?
For the past few months, national education news has been dominated by coverage of the U.S. Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” initiative, a new $5 billion competition among states that’s focused on promoting innovation and change. But will the program, which has been touted as education’s “moon shot,” be able to meet the massive expectations?
The answer is: likely not. Much as I would like Race to the Top to be a massive success, my sense is that it probably won’t be. The money being given is too small an amount, the economic crisis is too strong a force, and longstanding political realities will get in the way.
And if Race to the Top falls short, the end result will be disappointment and—I fear—further delays in fixing larger federal education laws like No Child Left Behind. The federal government will have, once again, overpromised and under-delivered.
To its credit, the Department of Ed. fought for and won a respectable slice of stimulus funding for education. Even before he had been confirmed, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his team made sure that there was money in the stimulus bill for education, and that a chunk of it—roughly 5 percent—was focused on innovation rather than filling budget holes.
And, even during the economic crisis and the health care debate, the department kept education reform in the news. The secretary’s listening tour and his weekly “Read to the Top” read-aloud events in Washington were surprisingly effective in winning positive news coverage. An August Politico.com feature even called Duncan a “kingmaker.”
It remains unclear, however, just how much change $5 billion and a ton of press coverage can leverage. Even before the money has been awarded, a few states—Illinois among them—have changed their laws to improve their chances. However, many haven’t been willing or able to make the required changes. And while $5 billion sounds like a lot of money, the reality is that K–12 education is a $500 to $600 billion industry.
As a result, it’s unclear just how many states will apply for Race to the Top funding, and how much they’ll get. At least a few states—California, New York, and Wisconsin are mentioned most frequently—may be ineligible because of their “firewall” laws preventing the use of student achievement data in the evaluation of teachers. The application process is estimated to take states more than 600 hours to complete. This is not an easy task for understaffed state agencies already struggling to fulfill NCLB and state requirements.
Still, the Gates Foundation is helping 15 states apply for the funding, supplying them with consultants and advice about how to best make the case for their state. (The Gates Foundation won’t name the states, but the list is supposed to include Ark., Ariz., Fla., Ky., La, Mass., Minn, N.C., N.M., N.Y., Ohio, Pa., Tenn. and Tex.) Insiders estimate that more than 20 states will end up applying. If all were approved, each state would get roughly $250 million. More likely is that 10 to 15 states will get approved in the first round, for potentially much higher amounts.
Even then, however, prospects for real change seem doubtful. There’s no guarantee that the money will be spent on what Duncan wants done.
Last but not least, Duncan’s reform agenda may be substantively ineffective. His team presented its agenda—raising charter caps, developing better data systems, linking student data to teacher evaluations, extended instruction—as consensus changes backed by research rather than ideology. In reality, the Race to the Top priorities reflect a particular, narrow agenda. I hope that they can make a difference, but I’m not nearly as confident as the Duncan team appears to be in the items that they’ve chosen.