Why Race to the Top Worked

April 14th, 2014

In spring 2010, Delaware was one of two states to win the first of Race to the Top’s four-year grants, making this month’s anniversary an appropriate time to ask whether the multi-billion dollar project has been worth the taxpayers’ money.

The results show that four years after the Obama administration rolled out its signature education initiative, Race to the Top (RTTT) is working, and policymakers in Washington should replicate its approach of improving opportunities for our students. When you put aside politics, this model should resonate across the ideological spectrum.

While states have long known that we must build on our progress in education to stay competitive in our changing economy, we have not had the resources to pay for some of the necessary up-front costs. RTTT provided funding at a scale only possible from the federal government, while recognizing that the best ideas come from the ground up, not from Washington. It offered states the opportunity to lay a comprehensive foundation for the future, tailored to meet their individual needs, while holding them accountable for results.

And we’re making progress.

In Delaware, one of our signature investments was to build a world-class data infrastructure, while training our educators and administrators to use the new tools productively. With the support of RTTT funds, every teacher meets for 90 minutes a week with a small group of peers to review data and discuss which lessons have helped their students. This has allowed us to more closely track the progress of our students’ performance, and to better understand which teaching techniques produce the best outcomes.

Having the best possible data also allows for new initiatives that target students with the best resources for their individual needs. We have identified all students likely to succeed in college, along with those at the greatest risk of missing out on opportunities. In partnership with the College Board, we sent information and resources to all college-ready students. Low-income students received application fee waivers. This year, every college-ready student in Delaware applied.

Foundational changes are also required to attract and retain the best educators, particularly in our highest-need schools. RTTT funded a recruitment website that gives applicants a one-stop resource to find and learn more about education jobs throughout the state. Its launch in select school districts dramatically increased their pool of applicants. And with the help of legislation passed by our General Assembly, we are elevating our teaching profession by raising the bar to be admitted into and graduate from our educator preparation programs. RTTT has funded grants to these programs to improve the training of prospective teachers.

The list goes on and we’re starting to see results. The number of students proficient in English and math increased by 11 percent and eight percent respectively over two years, and the state’s dropout rate hit a 30 year low. Meanwhile, fewer of our freshmen are falling behind.

Delaware is not alone. As a result of RTTT, states across the country are transitioning to more rigorous standards, while finding more effective ways to turn around low-performing schools. Teachers and leaders are receiving better preparation, feedback, and support. And students are receiving more opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math.

While RTTT has been criticized for not distributing funds equally across the country and creating winners and losers, the competition was one of its greatest strengths. Many more states than ultimately received a grant developed comprehensive improvement plans for their schools, but only the best plans were funded, spurring creativity and ensuring judicious use of tax dollars.

It has directly benefited even those states that did not receive a grant. As the Center for American Progress has found, RTTT is “creating conditions for innovation, strengthening educator quality along the career spectrum, and pushing other states that did not receive funds in the same direction.”

RTTT has also been criticized as unsustainable. But it’s clear that this model can create lasting change because we can maintain our progress at a fraction of the cost. Sustaining Delaware’s effective initiatives each year will cost less than the $10 million in up-front costs for our data system alone.

Thanks in large part to our talented and dedicated educators, we’re moving in the right direction, but we still have a lot of work to do. Our youth will be well served if we apply Race to the Top’s lessons moving forward.

This blog post was originally published on The Huffington Post.

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