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Was Race to the Top Too Much of a Race?

Adam Edgerton
Thursday, November 10, 2016
College- and Career-Readiness
Common Core State Standards
Standards Implementation

With the Obama administration drawing to a close and the Department of Education partially retreating from 15 years of highly active, interventionist education policy, it seems an appropriate time to analyze the effects of the signature Obama education policy, Race to the Top. 

Building upon the Bush legacy of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Race to the Top (RTTT) incentivized states to adopt new college- and career-readiness standards (often discussed by the general public using the umbrella term of “Common Core”).  It is hard to dispute that it was successful at this goal.  Through a 500-point rubric, the Department of Education awarded $4.35 billion dollars of economic stimulus funding to 19 states.  Unlike NCLB, RTTT was not legislative but regulatory in nature; Congress played no role in setting priorities, as it did with No Child Left Behind.  Secretary Duncan and the Department of Education took the lead, with the president himself making the announcement in June 2009.

The rhetoric of “race” is also critical, as successful Phase 1 applicants had to adopt the standards by August 2010, only a year after the release of the RTTT rubric.  States that did not meet this deadline lost out on Phase 1 money, as was the case in C-SAIL partner state Massachusetts, which received later funding in Phase 2. The Department of Education subtracted 15 points from the Massachusetts application when it missed this deadline.  Implementing a public comment period for the standards caused this delay.  Thus, by framing RTTT as a contest, it influenced the speed with which states passed legislative changes to reap financial rewards.  This language of racing to address a “social emergency” is common rhetoric in education reform, since children do not get a second chance to receive a quality education.

RTTT was clearly a short-term success, as its primary goal was to galvanize states to adopt new standards, assessments and evaluation systems.  But will it be a long-term one?  A quick glance at the current landscape of state assessments reveals a puzzling trend.  Twenty-one states are now using one of two Common Core-aligned consortia assessments (either PARCC or Smarter Balanced).  But only 8 of those states actually won an RTTT grant13 states currently using these assessments never won any RTTT money.   This fact alone is shockinghow can it be that receiving federal funds designed to increase adoption made it less likely that a state is using those assessments six years later?  RTTT may or may not bear primary responsibility for resistance to the new tests, and we may never be able to know for certain, but unanticipated negative trends are certainly worth further investigation. 

The consortia themselves are clearly in perilPARCC, originally boasting 25 members, is down to only 8.  Smarter Balanced has fared better, losing only 6 members, from 21 down to 15.  These numbers too are unsettling, as millions of dollars of federal money went to bolster these organizations, only to result in withdrawal and backlash in the years since RTTT funds were first awarded.

In rushing to implement standards and aligned assessments to meet federal guidelines, did states unintentionally undermine the stability of both? 

There are undoubtedly many reasons behind the Common Core backlash, including a marked failure to engage parents and other community stakeholders in standards adoption, which the Every Student Succeeds Act aims to correct.  But the C-SAIL partner states, particularly Massachusetts and California, provide two interesting case studies to answer a simple question:  In the case of RTTT, did haste make waste?  In rushing to implement standards and aligned assessments to meet federal guidelines, did states unintentionally undermine the stability of both?  Massachusetts, often seen as an education leader nationally, used Phase 2 RTTT money as one rationale to roll out new standards, tests, and evaluations, aligning its policy environment with the 500-point federal rubric.  Yet the political environment in the commonwealth has shifted dramaticallya ballot question was proposed (and defeated in court) to repeal the new standards.  Seeking a compromise position, the commonwealth has now opted out of PARCC and will create its own assessments.

Regardless of whether this decision is the best course forward, when states throw out consortia tests wholesale, the cost of designing new tests is significant.  This new, unanticipated cost calls into question whether incentivizing standards at the federal level was the most effective means of implementing them, or whether states would have been better off following the example of Texas and never starting the race in the first place.  Consider also that the initial authority for cross-state standards arose after the historic Charlottesville summit of 1989, where governors, instead of the President and the Secretary of Education, took the lead and set the agenda.  The current political tension around the Common Core suggests that federal leadership may be counterproductive.  Could this tension have been avoided or minimized through a slower rollout?  Perhaps Massachusetts could have even saved money in the long run if it had never applied for RTTT, which will depend on the final cost of implementing the PARCC replacement, MCAS 2.0. 

One fact is known: the federal government invested substantial resources in encouraging states to join PARCC or Smarter Balanced and provided a short window of time for state legislators to act in order to receive funds.  This haste may have created unexpected long-term instability when we compare states.  California, by contrast, did not win RTTT funds.  During C-SAIL interviews, one California educator described losing as a “blessing in disguise” because it allowed California to move at its own pace and create a consensus through implementation.

Much more investigation is needed to determine whether there is evidence to support these assertions.  But through C-SAIL’s Implementation Study, we have a unique opportunity to contrast RTTT winner and loser states, as well as states like Texas that never applied.  Findings could have broad policy implications for the next administration as it considers its own signature initiatives.  If rolling out new standards and assessments too quickly has long-term negative effects, such lessons could be applied to a broad range of future policy initiatives.