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“Race to the Top”: an irrational way to run education policy

The Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” competition among states for federal education funding was problematic from the start – and now its inherent irrationality is starting to show.

The administration is offering $4.35 billion to states that it deems are the most innovative in reforming their education programs. Last week, the White House selected two states, Delaware and Tennessee, to receive $600 million. That surprised most observers, who expected more winners and that all or most of the money would be awarded. There will now be a second round, with the winners to be announced in September. Education secretary Arne Duncan said they selected only two states so as to keep the pressure on other states to implement deeper changes.

There are many problems with the “Race to the Top”. For a start, the 500-point scoring system is opaque and extremely complicated – so much so, that it appears totally arbitrary and politicized. As Colorado’s governor, Bill Ritter, told the New York Times, “It was like the Olympic Games, and we were an American skater with a Soviet judge from the 1980s.” Indeed, it appears that a number of states are tired of jumping through the Obama administration's hoops, and are going to drop out. South Carolina’s superintendent of education said, “Spread [the money] over four years, with all the federal expectations that come with it, and you have to ask whether you have the time and capacity to gear up again for the arduous work of filing a new proposal.”

Running a competition from the White House enforces a top-down, monolithic approach that stifles initiatives led by teachers, schools and communities. As Colorado’s Ritter noted: “People judging our application may not have appreciated that in the West there is a great deal of local control. Many tiny school districts don’t like federal mandates. So even as I believe that school reform is important for our country, it’s also important that people in Washington understand that one size doesn’t fit all.”

Furthermore, the contest is divisive. It is clear that the administration favors those states that gain support for reforms from school boards and unions. State officials are now blaming unions for losing, saying they stand between them and funding.

Finally, and most importantly, it should be recognized that the “Race to the Top” is a stunt standing in for an education policy. It has subservient states scrambling around, hoping in vain for a few crumbs from the table of the master federal government. By definition, “Race to the Top” – which rewards only a few states - is not a solution for the public school system nationally. Like the charter school movement – which, if a state is supportive of, produces a higher score under the Obama system (allegedly) – the contest might lead to isolated improvements, but it does nothing for the majority of students.

Moreover, by promoting reforms like charter schools and teacher evaluations, it suggests that technical fixes are all that is needed. In fact, as Alex Standish argued in an American Situation guest post here, we need a broader change in the culture that endorses knowledge attainment and supports teacher authority.

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