Race to the Top’s Round 2 Winners, And Why They Matter

Still, there's very little that's organic or local about the education reform movement.

By Julianne Hing Aug 24, 2010

After a flurry of leaked announcements this morning, the confirmed numbers from the Department of Education on today’s winners of Phase 2 of Race to the Top are in. They are:

    • District of Columbia: $75 million. Score: 450.0
    • Florida: $700 million. Score: 452.4
    • Georgia: $400 million. Score: 446.4
    • Hawaii: $75 million. Score: 462.4
    • Maryland: $250 million. Score: 450.0
    • Massachusetts: $250 million. Score: 471.0
    • New York: $700 million. Score: 464.8
    • North Carolina: $400 million. Score: 441.6
    • Ohio: $400 million. Score: 440.8
    • Rhode Island: $75 million. Score: 451.2

The winners and ranked points might not mean much from afar, but we’ll dig into those in a second. For a little background, these ten winners were pulled from a list of 19 finalists. All in all, 48 entries have been submitted to the Department of Education for its $4.35 billion competitive grants Race to the Top initiative. After Delaware and Tennessee were the sole winners of Phase 1 earlier this year, the Department of Education had $3.4 billion left to disburse to 36 Phase 2 applicants.

Money is awarded to states that show a strong commitment to the Obama administration brand of education reform, which includes adopting common standards and assessments; building data systems to measure and track student performance; strict teacher evaluation methods and a commitment to doing away with under-performing schools.

"Every state that applied has done the hard work of implementing a comprehensive education reform agenda," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said on a press call with reporters. According to him, in this latest round of RTTT states saw an average of a 30-point jump from their Phase 1 scores, which Duncan took as a sign of improvement from the first round of competition.

Duncan praised all the entrants for their "tremendous courage and tremendous innovation" in the crafting of their applications. "We’ve unleashed the amazing creativity and innovation," Duncan said. "I’ve always said, sometimes jokingly, the best ideas are never going to come from me and never going to come from anyone in Washington. They are always going to come from the local level."

While his remarks may have been heartfelt, the reality of education reform right now is quite different. There is very little that is organic or even local about the current national movement to overhaul the public school system. The federal government has been able to aggressively drive education reform in a top-down fashion with the flagship Race to the Top program and in so doing, bypass interference from Congress.

In the education world, "innovation" and "creativity" are often code words for a state’s willingness to adopt the mainstream education reform agenda, which in the Obama adminstration’s expression calls for submission to specific policies about how teachers are evaluated and compensated.

Sean Cavanaugh at Education Week has a first-take at the results, and points out that there are some themes among the winners: Florida won $700 million, and was likely being awarded for passing a new set of teacher accountability provisions and for instituting stricter standards for how to restructure struggling schools. The Duncan model calls for failing schools to submit to one of four turnaround models which mandate some combination of mass firings of all teaching staff, restructuring, or a charter school takeover.

States are currently embroiled in debates over how teachers should be evaluated: many teachers, parents and activists feel that teacher evaluation mechanisms that tie a teacher’s job security to their students’ test scores only further cements the primacy of standardized test scores in the school systems. Unions disagree with provisions that allow districts to do away with tenure and fire teachers with no recourse in two years if their students’ test scores do not improve.

After losing out in Round 1 of RTTT, New York passed laws that raised the state cap on charter schools and planned "partnership zones" for failing schools. Both D.C. and Rhode Island adopted teacher evaluation policies that allow for a teacher to be judged in part on the performance of his or her students’ test scores. The ideas may be self-initiated, but states that don’t adopt the Obama-Duncan plan don’t win money.

"Education has to be non-political," Duncan said. "All of us have to unite behind getting better results for children," because the current state of American public education was "morally unacceptable and economically unsustainable." "People have to be willing to challenge the status quo."

And here again, a bit of parsing: any group found resisting Obama administration reforms is often accused of clinging to the undefined and much-maligned "status quo." That the current education system is woefully broken is uncontroversial, but there is little consensus around the solutions. But those who opposes the mainstream education reform movement are often accused of stalling progress. This leaves little room in the debate for Race to the Top and Duncan education reform skeptics, of which there are many.

Race to the Top critics have said that forcing states to compete for money undermines the very basic civil right that all kids in America have to a quality education. The $3.4 billion disbursed in this second round of Race to the Top will only be shared by 13 million students around the country in nine states and Washington, D.C. The majority of the country will lose out on the much-needed funds. They also take issue with the policy demands states are forced to adopt.

"We ran out of money at ten," Duncan said when asked about how the funding cut-off was decided. Duncan repeatedly worked some version of that refrain into his remarks in the course of the phone call. If he had more money at his disposal, he would have been glad to have given away more. It was his bid for Congress to fulfill his request for another $1.35 billion to renew Race to the Top for a third and fourth round. When pressed for details about how far down the list of other finalists he’d have gone, if he had as he wished, "five billion dollars by tomorrow," Duncan chose not to elaborate.