Feds’ Misguided Demands in Race to the Top Create Expensive Policy Disaster that Damages Schools and Further Strains Education Budgets

Taken together, two important reports released on Thursday, September 12, paint a troubling picture of the plight of school districts facing complex demands with little money as the school year gets underway.  The first is from the Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education and examines the evidence on the impact of the federal Race to the Top Competition (RTTT) now three years into its implementation:  Mismatches in Race to the Top Limit Educational Improvement.  The second is the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities‘ look at the trend in states’ expenditures for public education: Most States Funding Schools Less Than Before the Recession.

The Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education’s report traces the history and implementation of the federal Race to the Top program, the federal stimulus program launched in 2009 as a grant competition for states with the goal of “creating conditions for innovation and reform.”  The U.S. Department of Education judged grant applications according to how school districts would pledge to adopt standards and assessments, build data systems that measure student growth, tie teacher evaluation to students’ standardized test scores, and pledge to turn around the lowest scoring schools through closing schools, charterizing schools, and replacing the staff.

While the report’s author, Elaine Weiss frames her conclusions about the implementation of Race to the Top with a mass of facts and measured language, overall the report depicts a policy disaster.  The report concludes that RTTT was designed to address the wrong issues; it made things worse for teachers and schools in many places; it cost a lot of money that could have been better spent in the Title I formula program; and it failed utterly to accomplish its stated goals of closing achievement gaps by race and economics, increasing high school graduation rates for black, brown and very poor children, and significantly improving the performance of teachers.

Weiss explores the literature about the out-of-school factors that drive opportunity gaps: poverty, disparities in early childhood experiences, disparities in access to physical and mental healthcare, food insecurity, increased residential mobility among poor families, disparities in chronic absence from school, after school and summer learning loss when there is not enriched programming outside of school, and myriad additional factors that accompany concentrated poverty.   RTTT addresses none of these challenges.

Evidence abounds also that Race to the Top’s strategies for addressing in-school shortcomings are not helping and have instead been damaging in many cases to the very schools and neighborhoods being targeted.  Describing reforms implemented under RTTT in  Washington, D.C., the report charges: “On the whole, changing school staff is unlikely to produce real, sustained improvement.  Results from ‘reconstitution’ in District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS)—replacement of the principal and/or substantial proportions of the teaching staff—suggest the lack of effectiveness of this practice… DCPS reconstituted 18 schools between 2008-2010.  Of those, two have closed, and 10 have seen their test scores decline further…”

Weiss continues,  “With its focus on in-school policies that target and assess only a narrow set of academic issues, Race to the Top’s policy agenda fails to address multiple opportunity gaps that drive the majority of achievement gaps.  Even in the best of circumstances, then, Race to the Top could not achieve what it sets out to do.  That  mismatch is exacerbated by the initiative’s mandate that states fix a complicated, expensive set of problems on the cheap and in an unrealistically short period.”

In each of the winning states grant writers over-promised what states would be able to accomplish:  “In sum, virtually every state has promised to raise student achievement to levels higher than those of the currently highest-achieving state and/or to close race-, income-, and disability-based gaps to degrees that have never before been accomplished and that theory suggests may be actually impossible.  All of this is to be attained through the addition of roughly 1 percent to states’ education budgets over just four years.”  None of the states has come close to what it promised; many have made little progress, which should, perhaps not surprise, as the report documents that the turnaround plans required by the federal Department of Education in RTTT’s design are not aimed at deep causes of unequal school achievement.  Our nation will have to address poverty outside of school and the unequal funding of public schools that compounds the ravages of poverty.

Among the most worrisome in the report is the depiction of states’ struggles to evaluate teachers by their students’ test scores.  All twelve states are way behind their projected timelines because nobody has yet been able to develop a fair, reliable econometric or value-added system for evaluating teachers.  In this area, RTTT is reported to have harmed the schools and teachers serving vulnerable children:  “Race to the Top aims to improve the quality of the teacher pool by enhancing recruitment and retention strategies and using data-driven evaluations to inform teacher practice… Overall, however, they have increased their reliance on hiring young, non-certified teachers who rarely stay long enough to become proficient, rather than developing a strong corps with staying power.  And while they have invested heavily in linking student test scores and other measure of ‘growth’ to teacher effectiveness, as promised, states have devoted the bulk of the effort to identifying effective teachers to be rewarded, and ineffective teachers to be eliminated, rather than focusing on the vast majority in the middle who would benefit from targeted feedback, coaching, and professional development.”

Finally the dollars states sought when they submitted their elaborate grant proposals are meager, averaging only 1.21 percent of the budgets of the states that won the original competition.  The second report, from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), puts the pitiful size of Race to the Top grants in perspective.  “States’ new budgets are providing less per-pupil funding for kindergarten through 12th grade than they did six years ago—often far less.  The reduced levels reflect not only the lingering effects of the 2007-2009 recession but also continued austerity in many states.”  Here are the facts according to CBPP: 34 states are providing less funding per student in 2013-2014 than they did before the 2008 recession; 15 states are sending less per student funding to local school districts this school year than last year; and in most states where state per-student funding has increased for this school year, it has not increased enough to make up for cuts that have occurred since 2008.  CBPP adds: The precipitous decline in property values since the start of the recession, coupled with the political or legal difficulties in many localities of raising property taxes, make raising significant additional revenue through the property tax very difficult for school districts.”

These are desperate financial times for school districts.  The CBPP report creates a very clear context for one of the conclusions of Broader, BOLDER’s report on Race to the Top:  “The sharp decline in resources and capacity due to the recession, budget cuts, and restructuring led many states to seek the RTTT funds, but the $4 billion spread across (the winning) states amounts to an average increase in state education budgets of just over 1 percent.  Yet, at the same time the agreements require substantial new investment.  This contrast between requirements and the resources to meet them has emerged as gaps in state capacity across several areas.”

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Feds’ Misguided Demands in Race to the Top Create Expensive Policy Disaster that Damages Schools and Further Strains Education Budgets

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