POLITICS

Race To The Top Competition Deemed 'Impossible' In New Report

09/12/2013 10:00 am ET | Updated Sep 24, 2013

President Barack Obama's signature education initiative, the Race to the Top competition, is "impossible" at best and damaging at worst, argues a new, controversial report.

The 100-page report, released Thursday, argues that policies should tackle the effects of poverty while simultaneously making schools better. By not targeting out-of-school factors like nutrition and parental income, the report says, and by focusing on teacher evaluation systems that often result in harsh consequences without much useful feedback, Race to the Top goals are severely mismatched with its policies.

RTTT had recession-addled states compete for hundreds of millions of dollars each. In exchange, states had to promise to do things like institute higher academic standards; lift the ceiling on the number of charter schools allowed; and -- perhaps most controversially -- evaluate teachers in accordance with students' standardized test scores. States jumped at the opportunity to get more money, and some dramatically changed the way they deliver education.

The Broader Bolder Approach, which co-produced the new report in conjunction with AASA, an association that represents school districts, is a coalition of academics housed in the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. Broader Boulder Approach experts have long argued that solely targeting things that happen within schools cannot alleviate the additional academic barriers faced by low-income students.

"Some states said, 'We're going to cut achievement gaps in half in four years,'" said Elaine Weiss, the national coordinator of the Broader Bolder Approach. "This is impossible. It's never been done." Cutting the achievement gap in half, Weiss said, took 30 years, No Child Left Behind, the war on poverty and desegregation.

Promises like this one, the paper argues, undermine educational advancements and learning achievements among poor and minority students because they drive parents and teachers to frustration with rushed timelines.

And states are already way behind. "Many are experiencing substantial setbacks due to unrealistic promises and unexpected challenges," the report's authors wrote.

In 2009, the Obama administration tucked the RTTT competitive grant initiative into the massive stimulus bill. Since then, the U.S. Education Department has credited the measure with spurring over 100 state laws that have changed the face of American education.

In the report, the groups assert that three years after the kickoff of the RTTT competition is an opportune time for a critical assessment of the program. The Education Department releases its own RTTT report cards, which grade states on the implementation of their promises, but the paper claims these reports are insufficient because they "do not investigate on-the-ground realities or reveal major challenges." Grant funding for RTTT ends in 2014 -- so states have one year left with the program's funding.

Even before its official release, the report garnered strident criticism from some in the education reform movement, a group that promotes policies included in Race to the Top. Democrats for Education Reform released a statement calling the report "junk science" and accusing the authors of "intellectual dishonesty of the worst kind."

Charlie Barone, Democrats for Education Reform policy director, criticized Broader Bolder Approach for ignoring the "success stories" of Race to the Top. "We're disappointed that a collection of experts would spend so much time and effort criticizing initiatives that are in their very early stages of implementation," he said.

The report is the latest iteration of the age-old debate around how to unwind the tangled knot of education and poverty.

The Education Department is pushing back against the report's assertions, according to a statement a Department official sent to The Huffington Post. "It is too early to measure the student-level impact of this innovative program, but even at this point, we are seeing promising signs, as states pioneer systems to raise standards, strengthen teaching, and prepare students for college and career," he wrote. "No one ever doubted that change this big would be hard, and while we have worked with states to make necessary adjustments, the big picture is that states’ efforts are largely in keeping with the scope and timeline of their plans.”

Weiss said her group is sounding the alarm now because the country is at a critical juncture before implementing the Common Core, a new set of learning standards in English and math that stress depth over breadth.

"Ratcheting up standards that much and attaching standards this quickly could potentially be even more disastrous than what we see now," Weiss said. "We want real discussion about the fact that rush and urgency are not the same thing and should not be conflated." (Education Secretary Arne Duncan is allowing states to apply for waivers that will let them delay the consequences associated with new Common Core-aligned tests for a year.)

"This is really a plea at a moment where we have the opportunity not to blow it," Weiss said.

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