What is Race to the Top and How will it Benefit Public Schools?

Updated April 20, 2017 |
What is Race to the Top and How will it Benefit Public Schools?
We provide an overview and current status of the Race to the Top program that was designed as an incentive and funding program to promote education reform in public school districts across the country.
Photo Credit: BarackObama.com
Race to the Top, the education reform championed by the current administration, is now in full swing. States across the country have received funding from the program, in exchange for changes to their public education systems that would benefit the students in those states. While some are touting the success of the program already in its early stages, others are voicing concern that the program is not doing what it was meant to do.
An Overview of the Program
Race to the Top was introduced by President Obama in 2009, as a competitive fund to promote school improvement on both a state and local level. At that time, $4.35 billion was pledged in what the White House called the “largest ever federal investment in education reform,” according to the Washington Post. State governments were called upon to submit plans for education reform in order to gain a portion of the funding pledged for the program.
The White House website stresses four key areas of reform for Race to the Top funding criteria, which include:
  • Improvement of assessments and more rigorous standards for schools
  • Turn-around of failing schools through increased emphasis and resources
  • Support that allows teachers and staff to be more effective
  • Better methods for tracking progress of both students and teachers
Each state had the opportunity to submit a plan to the U.S. Department of Education for education reform, keeping these four criteria in mind. Since the program was launched, 46 of 50 states have submitted plans and a number of those states have received funding from the program. The funding will go directly to implementing the reforms outlined in each state’s plans.
To date, the U.S. Department of Education has awarded Race to the Top funding to 19 states that have submitted reform plans. The total number of students served in those 19 states, who would see the benefit of the additional funding, was more than 22,000. Of that number, 45 percent of all students in grades K-12 and 42 percent of all low-income students in the country were represented. Many more states have submitted plans, and are currently working with the federal government to bring their plans in line with Race to the Top expectations.
Progress in Race to the Top States
The Washington Post also reported that a large number of the jurisdictions that have received Race to the Top funding are making significant, positive progress. Of the 12 jurisdictions that received the first grants, nine are on par to reach their benchmarks in the third year of the four-year grants. However, three areas are failing to make the grade, according to federal officials. Those three include the states of Maryland and Georgia, as well as the District of Columbia.
None of the three have yet been asked to return Race to the Top money, although Georgia was recently placed in the “high risk” category. The federal government is committed to helping all three jurisdictions bring their reform up to par, but U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan also said that a large part of the responsibility lands on the jurisdictions themselves.
The District of Columbia is currently experiencing issues with school turnaround, seeing reform efforts pay off in just one of the 13 low-performing schools the district had committed to turning around. In addition, administrators in D.C. have been delayed in producing a website teachers can use for development and resources, as well as an online database for tracking student progress.
States Show Commitment to Reform
According to the website for the U.S. Department of Education, Race to the Top is an essential element in education reform today. The website says that individual states showed their commitment to reform long before the first grant was ever awarded, by submitting comprehensive plans to bring about reform in their own schools. In addition to the individual plans put forward by nearly every state, 48 states also worked together to produce standards that would ensure students graduating from high school would be properly prepared for college and careers.
The U.S. Department of Education website also explained that Race to the Top funding could eventually be expanded to a more local level. Individual districts that show an interest in education reform, and produce viable plans to produce those reforms, could also qualify for funding in the future. Additional funding has been requested for these local movements to ensure education reform continues at all levels.
Not All Rosy for Race to the Top
While the current administration continues to champion the benefits of Race to the Top, not everyone agrees that the program is producing the desired effect. The Huffington Post reports that many students, parents and teachers are growing increasingly disenchanted with the program. In Seattle, Washington, teachers have launched a boycott of standardized testing at Garfield High School, stating the tests do not accurately reflect what students are learning in the classroom. They are also protesting use of the exams for the assessment of teachers, stating the tests were never designed for this purpose.
Elsewhere, parents and students are seeing schools close as a part of Race to the Top mandates. In some areas, this leaves students crossing gang lines and traveling extended distances to get to new schools. At least 10 cities have now filed civil rights complaints with the U.S. Department of Education, alleging school closures discriminate against minority and low-income students.
Despite concerns, Race to the Top will continue – at least into the immediate future. Time will tell whether this new approach to education reform will eventually have the desired effect of providing students nationwide with the highest quality education possible.

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