The Best and the Brightest

Looking back at President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative

In July 2009, President Barack H. Obama announced the program that has become his signature contribution to education policy: the Race to the Top initiative. Through this initiative, states were able to fill out applications that demonstrated their commitment to national education standards, and the highest-scoring states were granted a share of federal funds. Ultimately, programs like Race to the Top represent the best means of achieving educational advancement in the United States, and competitive grants should be used more frequently in fostering progress. Nonetheless, a number of changes can improve this already effective program in its future incarnations.

First, Race to the Top reflects President Obama’s focus on the right means of improving education nationwide. Studies have consistently shown that teacher effectiveness represents one of the best indicators of classroom performance, and the most extensive component of the Race to the Top application asked states about their plans for improving teacher quality. At the same time, Obama’s initiative did not ignore the difficulty of evaluating teacher performance; another lengthy section of the application asked states about their plans for developing assessments that accurately test students’ knowledge. This focus on teacher quality coupled with assessment methods represents the two-pronged approach that should be adopted in facing America’s education crisis.

Nonetheless, seven civil rights organizations have criticized Race to the Top by arguing, “If education is a civil right, children in ‘winning’ states should not be the only ones who have the opportunity to learn in high-quality environments.” According to these organizations, the government should adopt “conditional incentive grants” that award money to all states that achieve desired educational standards. One problem with this approach is that it hasn’t worked; 80 percent of the funding programs employed by the Department of Education are conditional incentive grants, and they haven’t persuaded states to implement the reforms desired by federal officials. But for whatever reason, the competitive model adopted by Race to the Top convinced 48 states to apply for the grant and implement the proposed changes.

In addition, competitive grants encourage states to adopt reforms without requiring additional federal expenditures. States make reforms simply to improve their application (as they did in Race to the Top), which prevents the national government from distributing its already short supply of money to any state that has adopted even the bare minimum required for a conditional grant. This gives rise to another significant benefit of competitive grants: States are encouraged to adopt reforms that go above and beyond the threshold requirements, since their goal is not just to meet minimum standards that guarantee federal funding but to develop more impressive plans than competing states.

One problem with Race to the Top relates to its imposition of federally supported reforms on locally administered school districts. For example, Texas Governor James R. “Rick” Perry refused to submit an application to Race to the Top, arguing that Texas had already developed innovative reforms to respond to unique statewide conditions; subjecting these reforms to uniform federal standards would thus prevent local experimentation in finding the most effective means of improvement. But the great strength of Obama’s program is that it allows Perry and other governors to make decisions like his refusal to apply; it doesn’t impose federal standards but incentivizes them. Race to the Top is particularly beneficial for underperforming states that have consistently low educational requirements; national standards and incentives represent the best means of bringing these states up to higher levels, since “local experimentation” has historically failed to do so.


But Perry is right to note that federal standards sometimes fail to account for high-performing districts that have not followed the federal guidelines in achieving their success. The other governor who refused to apply for funding—Governor Robert F. “Bob” McDonnell of Virginia—wrote a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan ’87, which stated, “Virginia’s standards actually exceed those [required by Race to the Top] in most areas, and to be competitive for a [Race to the Top] grant under the current rules, we would have to lower our standards.” The rules for Race to the Top specifically discourage states from devoting more than 15 percent of their application to reforms that go beyond the “common standards” outlined by federal officials. Limits like this 15 percent rule directly discourage innovation, for which states should be rewarded rather than penalized.

The Race to the Top grant does little if its use of federal standards to improve underperforming schools comes at the expense of lower standards for the nation’s best schools. In the future, applications should be evaluated on a more discretionary scale that encourages innovation and values school districts that have achieved successful results, even if those districts have used methods that diverge from the federal standards. One of the consistent trends of America’s public school crisis is that it fails its best and its brightest—its best teachers, its best students, and its best schools. Unless the Race to the Top program begins to reverse this trend, it is unlikely to provide the answer to the nation’s most pressing educational challenges.

Peter M. Bozzo ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears biweekly.