Education’s Race to the Top

With schools in crisis nationwide, states scramble to apply for Obama's controversial education grants program.

By Julianne Hing Jun 01, 2010

Today is the deadline for phase two of "Race to the Top," the federal competitive grants program that awards cash to states adopting the Obama administration’s education reform agenda. Two dozen states are expected to file their applications for a chance at the $4 billion pot of money, but more than 10 states are sitting out this round as they’re unable or unwilling to meet the stringent requirements.

While the program has mostly gone under the radar, it’s drastically changing the face of education.

Race to the Top was introduced last summer by Education Secretary Arne Duncan as a solution to the country’s education crisis. Although based on a similar program he had put into play in Chicago, the national program has been controversial from the start.

What’s gotten the most pushback has been the program’s strategy of firing and retraining teachers and principals and tying teacher pay to student performance. According to Education Weekly, one study of a pilot program Duncan spearheaded in Chicago couldn’t determine any measurable change in students’ test scores when they were connected to teacher pay.

Teachers themselves claim that the "Race to the Top" program solidifies the primacy of test scores in a way "No Child Left Behind," introduced in the Bush administration, only began to. They also say it’s unfair to tie their performance–and their students–to tests that change annually.

Delaware and Tennessee, the lone winners in the first phrase of "Race to the Top," sent in applications with new promises to link teacher pay to student performance. Delaware promised to tie 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to their students’ test scores.

The "Race to the Top" program also requires school districts to overhaul failing schools with controversial "turnaround" models–a pet project of Duncan’s. This model calls for some variation of shutting a poor-performing school down and in some cases firing the entire school staff, or in others, calling in a charter school to replace the public school that was once there.

"What underlies a lot of what you’re seeing is a move away from the value that every child deserves the best education possible, and a move toward education as a competitive goal," said Amina Luqman-Dawson, the Senior Policy Strategist with Justice Matters, a racial justice education group.

Despite the well-publicized achievements of charter schools researchers have yet to document that they do a better job than public schools over the long term.

More states are taking issue with the prescriptive demands of Sec. Duncan’s brand of reform. Last week, Virginia became just the latest in a slew of states that are not willing to compete for the $4 billion in education funds. Virginia specifically took issue with the national curriculum standards, and many other states, facing vocal pressure from teacher unions, are unwilling to link a teacher’s tenure to their students’ test scores.

The sour economy has left many cash-strapped states desperate for funds. The "Race to the Top" program capitalizes on that and enables the Obama administration to push change in education it otherwise would not be able to do. Whether or not these changes will really serve the students who need them most is still unclear. Meanwhile, states will keep scrambling for more money.