President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have promoted Race to the Top as a key to fixing our nation’s education woes. Opponents of the flagship federal initiative depict it as bad education policy “on steroids.” As national coordinator of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education and former superintendent of Boston Public Schools, we see Race to the Top as more complicated than either of those perspectives. A comprehensive report on the first three years of Race to the Top implementation released recently by Broader, Bolder Approach to Education explains why, overall, it has worked well here in Massachusetts. It also highlights the major challenges that most states have encountered, and the policy implications of both those successes and problems.
To win Race to the Top grants, states had to promise to raise academic standards and develop new ways to evaluate students’ progress toward these standards. They also had to develop better student data, and use these data to evaluate teachers and principals (and, sometimes, entire schools). Enacted thoughtfully, with sufficient time and resources, these changes can boost achievement. Massachusetts was well-positioned to do this, having spent 20 years investing in strong standards, meaningful assessments, and high-quality professional development to help already strong teachers better support their students.
Other states did not make these investments; indeed, most applied for Race to the Top funding to plug holes left by cuts made over the prior few years. As a result, districts found themselves without the state support or local capacity needed to enact big changes. In Ohio and Tennessee these cuts continued even after they received funding. This led to reduced salaries for Tennessee’s teachers, who were already among the nation’s lowest-paid. Meanwhile, smaller districts in Ohio pulled out of Race to the Top because the tiny budgetary boost would not compensate for the new investments it required.
Race to the Top also advances alternative routes to certification as a means of strengthening teaching corps. Recognizing that low-income schools, which need the strongest teachers, have the most difficulty recruiting them, Massachusetts leveraged Race to the Top funds to provide teachers in disadvantaged districts with time and funding to obtain the additional training that would better prepare them to help non-English speaker, minority and low-income, and special needs students succeed. States like Ohio, Tennessee, Delaware and other states took a very different route, relying increasingly on Teach for America recruits who lacked the experience and training critical to success in low-income schools in particular.
As the former leader of a BPS alternative certification program, Tom understands the potential benefits of new routes to teaching. He focused on developing teachers in hard-to-staff STEM subjects, placed them under the supervision of strong principals, and offered real incentives to stay for three or more years and to gain masters degrees in teaching. These factors contrast sharply with the weaknesses of TFA and similar efforts.
The agenda advanced by Race to the Top also illustrates the fundamental mismatch between most federal education policies and evidence of what works. Race to the Top focuses virtually exclusively on teacher and principal effectiveness and curricular standards — factors that, while important, have been shown to account for no more than one fifth of race- and income-based achievement gaps.
Massachusetts understands the need for comprehensive education policies that address out-of-school factors. Indeed, a core part of its efforts to raise standards involved pairing those standards with comprehensive student, family, and school supports. Gardner Elementary School in Boston, for example, laid the foundation for a sustainable, long-term road to improvement by engaging parents, teachers, and community leaders from the start in a comprehensive plan to ensure student health and enrichment. We believe that this is the best way to attain substantial, sustained change.
No other state has taken an approach nearly as comprehensive. The result is superintendents who feel intense pressure to achieve the impossible with little acknowledgement of the added hurdles they and their students face daily. Secretary Duncan has the ability, and the responsibility, to change this. The Department of Education should never have approved goals like closing achievement gaps by 50 percent in four years, knowing full well that it was not providing the tools to close those gaps. As it assesses Race to the Top implementation, works with states on NCLB waivers, and guides implementation of the Common Core, the Dept. of Ed must put foundation-building first, be realistic about time and resources needed, and make student supports a core component of, rather than an optional addition to, higher standards and greater accountability.
Elaine Weiss is national coordinator of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education. Tom Payzant is former superintendent of Boston Public Schools.