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Quentin Wilson Headshot

Race to the Top: A Step in the Right Direction

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Walk into your local school district office over the next week and, chances are, you will run into an administrator (or four) rushing to meet the October 3 deadline for submitting the district's Race To The Top (RTT) application. More than 400 school districts, or consortia of districts, have indicated they intend to submit an application and vie for a share of the $120 million available in this round of funding.

RTT is President Obama's signature education initiative, designed to encourage and support education innovation and reform. More than four billion dollars is allocated to the initiative, of which the $120 million tied to the October 3, 2013 deadline is targeted to local school districts (most of the RTT dollars are allocated on a statewide basis).

With such large amounts of dollars in play, and the education of our children at stake, there is bound to controversy. Teacher evaluation, for one, is a highly-charged lightning rod for RTT disagreement. Amid those disagreements, however, we shouldn't lose sight of the RTT broader philosophy, which is focused on evaluating results and rewarding practices that show evidence of success.

Education is historically a local endeavor. That should not change. But, there is an important role for the federal government in helping local officials identify and implement practices that are known to be successful. RTT, with its focus on evaluating impact, can do just that.

For example, one of the main selection criteria in the current RTT competition is Preparing Students for College and Careers and includes myriad criteria related to tracking student progress and, if necessary, making adjustments to ensure students graduate college- and career-ready. Districts with high-quality plans to collect and utilize data for these purposes are more likely to receive RTT dollars than districts that do not.

That philosophy -- evaluating results and rewarding effective practices -- is one we can all support, regardless of our personal opinions on the hot-button issues.

While it may seem obvious, this approach is anything but. Even at my own nonprofit organization, ALL Management Corporation, fully embracing evidence-based allocation of resources has required a journey. But, now that we have traveled that path, the results speak for themselves. Our Career & College Clubs program spread from 8 schools to 160 schools in less than five years not because we had it 'figured out' from day one, but because we are constantly collecting data, evaluating results and allocating resources to the most effective practices.

Race To The Top takes a similar approach to the allocation of federal dollars to education. It isn't going to change the landscape overnight (the education sector doesn't alter course quickly) but it is a step in the right direction.