Is Race to the Top President Obama’s Greatest P-20 Education Accomplishment?
As we celebrate Barack Obama’s Presidency, I have been thinking more and more about his record on education. More specifically, what was his greatest accomplishment when it comes to P-20 education? Personally, I consider Race to the Top to be his greatest P-20 accomplishment. After much reflection, I decided to write an opinion piece, assessing it on its merits. Toward the end of the piece, I will issue a letter grade (A-F) denoting the results of my evaluation.
Touted as Obama’s education reform magnum opus, Race to the Top aimed to sustain successful teachers and principals in school districts across the nation. It was also responsible for the adoption of common K-12 teaching standards. Per the competitive component of this ‘race,’ states received points for fulfilling certain criteria, such as performance-based standards for teachers and principals, showing fidelity to nationwide standards, encouraging charter schools, and the like.
At least, this is how it works in theory. Generally speaking, though, the Race to the Top initiative has raised standards for learning and emphasized college and career readiness. Each year, the program gave even more in federal funding to states that prepare plans for reforming their student offerings. The program has allocated more than $4 billion among 19 states for developing plans to improve learning standards, teacher effectiveness, and struggling schools. The states granted the funds represent 42 percent of all low-income students in the nation, too, making the initiative an effective way to close the achievement gap and equalize funding in areas where schools may struggle based on their geographical location.
It all sounds good in a condensed summary, but upon closer review, Race to the Top has not had the intended impact. Critics of Race to the Top argue that its emphasis on high-stakes testing is untrustworthy – and I am inclined to agree. As the grant period comes to a close, it is clear that reform has fallen short – particularly when it comes to student performance. A few areas that have not lived up to Race to the Top goals include:
College enrollment. While graduation rates are above target, the number of high school graduates enrolling in college or some other form of post-secondary learning has actually decreased. Proficiency on standardized testing nationwide did not rise as quickly as promised, either.
Unused vouchers. To attract better teachers, Race to the Top grantees were allowed to be used for vouchers created to lure high-performing teachers to low-performing schools. These vouchers have a relative amount of freedom-for-use attached, with vouchers being allowed to pay students loans, tuition, housing, and other options. Unfortunately, many of these vouchers went unused by the districts. In 2012, only 35 of 106 schools eligible to get bonuses for improved student performance received the extra $1,500 per teacher.
Poverty still too big a player. Many of the states receiving funding were targeted that way because of higher-than-average low-income students, or those living in poverty conditions that impacted their educations. The fact that Race to the Top did not address overemphasis on standardized testing and teacher accountability is a problem, according to people like Elaine Weiss of Broader, Bolder Approach to Education. Weiss’ group calls for better focus on poverty and the issues that accompany it, especially in urban classrooms.
To be fair, the biggest grant-funded Race to the Top changes are largely unseen. They are invisible to the general public. Some things are simply not cut-and-dry, or able to be seen in the short term. Some of the grant money that was distributed paid for summer institutes for teachers and principals where they were trained in the new Common Core standards. Technology improvements like building Cloud infrastructures are still in their infancy and have not truly been realized just yet. It is also too soon to see what positive changes recruiting high-quality personnel will have.
Although it is not the silver bullet that many believed it would be, Race to the Top was definitely a step in the right direction when it comes to education policy reform. Under President Obama’s watch, the U. S. education system is experienced something that it hasn’t experienced in ages — genuine progress. Although we have many more miles to go, we have to remember that Rome was not built in a day. The issues that continuously plague our public education system took decades to get that way and will probably take several more decades to fix. Again, my opinions are just that, my opinions.
Solely on its merits, I will have to give Race to the Top a solid B-. Race to the Top is not a failure; it just has not turned out to be the golden child its intentions promised. There is room for improvement, especially when students are still tested using antiquated assessment measures. Although Race to the Top has not lived up to the hype, what President Obama has been able to accomplish in eight years is nothing short of amazing.
What do you think? Has Race to the Top been a success? What grade would you give it?