Racing to the top, or running in place?

Winning federal money doesn’t mean you’ve improved education

By Patrick R. Gibbons
  • Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Last year, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan introduced Race to the Top (RTTT), a competition for $4.5 billion in awards to states for adopting serious education reforms — in areas like charter-school support, teacher evaluation and fixing low-performing schools.

At the end of round one, Delaware and Tennessee were the only two winners, most notably beating out Florida. This surprised many education reformers, since achievement growth in the sunshine state has been the nation's most impressive. Florida's Hispanic, African-American and low-income students, for example, all tie or outscore Nevada's statewide average for all students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress fourth-grade reading exam.

Even before round one ended, Nevada's hopes of winning some of the remaining $3.9 billion in round two were much in the news.

But if Nevada does apply, serious problems exist. First, RTTT scoring appears arbitrary. One reviewer penalized Florida, simply asserting — contrary to fact — that "[Florida] is closing its achievement gap, in part, by letting the top flounder." Actually, even among Florida's most proficient students, achievement continues to grow.

Second, scoring is biased in favor of big political promises — not results. Indeed, improving student achievement merited a mere 30 points out of 500. Participating in creating, and then promising to adopt, the controversial Common Core standards was worth 40 points, while acquiring school-district, union and other "stakeholder" support garnered 70 points.

Ironically, for Nevada this may be auspicious, as the state hasn't really demonstrated an ability to significantly improve student achievement. Promises — true or empty — and union support may be all the state can offer.

Indeed, making big promises, writing a clear proposal and having union support are the name of the game. Delaware and Tennessee had the support of 100 percent and 93 percent, respectively, of local bargaining units. Florida had the support of just 8 percent. This cost Florida second place — and hundreds of millions of dollars.

RTTT also appears to deemphasize charter schools and teacher evaluations. Charter-school laws in Delaware and Tennessee do not surpass Florida's. In fact, according to the Center for Education Reform, Tennessee's charter-school laws are worse than Nevada's.

Additionally, of the 16 finalists only four, including Florida, promised to create meaningful teacher-evaluation systems using student testing data. Delaware's teacher-evaluation proposal actually would let teachers set their own goals for students — making the evaluation meaninglessly subjective.

Finally, Common Core standards are problematic. While they are worth 40 points on the application, no evidence suggests that they improve student achievement. Even national-standards supporter Sandra Stotsky, of the University of Arkansas, has found the Common Core math and English standards to be weaker than those in California — a state that performs worse in K-12 education than Nevada.

To education reformers, Race to the Top has been a major disappointment. All the good reform ideas Duncan and Obama talked up turned out to be completely deemphasized by the round-one results.  

Race to the Top, so far, has been an exercise in wasted time and effort.

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. This article first appeared in the May 2010 edition of Nevada Business. For more information visit

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