Is Race to the Top Working?
One year after the first round of Obama's education-reform program, it's clear that there is no silver bullet for success. But the winners say their plans are worth a try.
Michael Holzman, a research consultant for the Schott Foundation, argues that a competition with winners and losers has no place in federal education funding. He explains that entering Race to the Top alone was expensive, with states hiring groups of consultants to build their proposals.
"By doing it as a competition, they ensured that poorer states that most needed the money didn't get it," he told The Root, pointing out that states with large communities of color, such as California, Louisiana and Mississippi were overlooked. "If you look at the states that got the money, they were all states that were doing pretty well."
While Holzman agrees with the program's outlined priorities of teacher evaluation and improving the country's lowest-performing schools, he disagrees with many of the prescriptions. "The most egregious example is the push for charter schools," he said. "The research shows clearly that charter schools aren't any better than standard-issue public schools. But the federal government is saying, 'Here's this thing that we know isn't any better than public schools, and we're going to make you do it.' "
The Tennessee Department of Education's Woods counters the criticism by saying that her state has invested in high-quality charter school models, such as KIPP, that have already proved successful in certain parts of Tennessee. "I think our strategies are proven, but they're proven on a very small scale," she says. "You won't find whole states that have successfully moved from the bottom to the top in terms of national performance. But Tennessee has been low performing for a very long time, so this is an opportunity to try to make improvements in a quick period of time by implementing dramatic reforms."
Herdman, with the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, admits that there isn't a large body of research proving that his state's plan will be wholly successful. "But we do have a lot of evidence that shows the current strategy has not worked," he says. "We have a moral obligation to do something. There is a level of risk in this, but I think there's enough evidence to suggest that it's a risk worth taking."
The Difference a Year Makes
Casual observers may expect drastic improvements one year after the announcement of the first Race to the Top winners, but state officials insist that they have used the time to lay their foundation, with the real work getting started next school year.
"One thing that's changed is that we have realistic expectations," Daniel Cruce, chief of staff for the Delaware Department of Education, told The Root. "The kind of instant gratification that people want to see in one year is part of the problem. What they will see is that our schools have plans now that are unlike anything they've ever done before, and that's the way you build actual sustainable change."
That said, Delaware and Tennessee must still work under a tight timeline -- just three more years now -- to pull themselves out of their educational slump. Despite the many naysayers, controversy and endless questions, they remain optimistic that they can do it.
"There's a sense of urgency now," says Hayes from Wilmington's Howard High School of Technology, describing the new energy in his community. "And we actually have the resources needed to move forward. I feel really good about the direction in which we're headed."
Cynthia Gordy is the Washington reporter for The Root.