Race to the Top, Six Years Later: A Massachusetts Case Study

Less than a month into his presidency, President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), legislation that aimed to stimulate the economy with investments in several critical sectors, including education.

The legislation dedicated more than $4 billion to the Race to the Top fund for the endowment of state K–12 education reform grants.

The four-year competitive grants require states to show concrete, comprehensive plans toward creating conditions for education innovation and reform. To be eligible for the grants, states must adopt Common Core State Standards, establish effective accountability systems for measuring success, support teacher professional development, and invest in the lowest-performing schools.

To date, 19 states have been awarded Race to the Top grants.

Successes and Challenges

After six years, it’s still too early to tell definitively where the fund was most successful, but states awarded grants are beginning to show progress toward fulfilling their specific initiatives. States are reporting some growth in ELA (English language arts) and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) proficiency, improvements in graduation rates and college acceptances, and stronger professional development for teachers and administrators; they are also creating new data systems to track their successes.

In Massachusetts (one of the first-year winners of the Race to the Top grant), for example, proficiency rates in ELA and mathematics for school years 2010–2011 through 2013–2014 were either mixed or static — except in tenth grade, when rates increased notably. Achievement gaps in specific subgroups decreased significantly, however. The achievement gap between white and black students and white and Hispanic students decreased by 2.5 percent for each group, evidence in part that the state’s pledge to support and track low-performing schools is working for many students.

As awardees move beyond the four years of funding they received from the Race to the Top grants, one of the biggest challenges they face is keeping their programs running after funding ceases. States like Massachusetts will need to find ways to leverage new funding, most likely from local statewide sources, to continue their programs. Successful states, through their reform efforts, will have built new local partnerships that can serve as strong building blocks for future collaborations and further program developments. And participating students — the aim is — will continue to thrive.

The Importance of Early Education

As part of the program, the U.S. Department of Education also offered Race to the Top — Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) grants, which aimed to increase enrollment in early education programs among low-income children, facilitate the creation of high-quality early learning programs, and provide for assessments in line with National Research Council standards.

Because of the Obama administration’s focus on pre-K, much research has been conducted on the impact of high-quality pre-K programs; most studies show that children who receive strong education during ages 3 to 5 are more ready to learn at the outset of primary education than their peers who did not have that benefit.

Projects like “Resources for Early Learning,” which promote early childhood education, are challenged by the impending lack of funding. The multimillion dollar project — a cache of more than 2,500 digital resources for early childhood educators in Massachusetts, produced by the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) and WGBH — was successfully launched in the fall of 2013.

Striving to meet the requirements of the RTT-ELC grant guidelines, EEC’s and WGBH’s “Resources for Early Learning” is ambitiously comprehensive. It includes nine-month ELA and STEM curricula for children ages 3 to 5, as well as activities for babies from birth to age 33 months, all targeting children’s cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development, and all fully aligned with state standards. It also provides a set of professional development videos aimed at supporting early childhood learning educators regarding best practices in STEM, inquiry-based learning, and ELA practices, as well as additional resources for child care centers, parents, and caregivers. It’s one of the most comprehensive set of digital pre-K educational resources available in Massachusetts — and the resources are free.

For programs like “Resources for Early Learning,” it’s critical that such initiatives continue to be promoted so that early learning educators, parents, and caregivers are aware that these resources exist. “Resources for Early Learning” has been positively received, but will need to find new sources of financial support now that funding through the grant has ceased. The program is now tasked with finding money to sustain promotional and outreach efforts.

A Look Back and A Look Forward

Critics of the Race to the Top fund often compare the policies of the program to President Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation, deriding them both for demoralizing educators — in part because they are compelled to “teach to the test” — and encouraging the privatization of public schools. Critics are convinced that the Race to the Top fund will ultimately demonstrate little progress toward improving education.

Programs like “Resources for Early Learning,” however, show that the Race to the Top fund has encouraged and spurred on creative new programs that incorporate current research on what works best in education. Challenged by meeting the goals of the Race to the Top program, states have been compelled to create materials that offer a true step toward education reform.

The scope of the Race to the Top fund’s aims is wide, and states have had to work hard to meet the ambitious range of goals under the grant. Now that grant funds have been used up, states will continue to struggle to find funding for education and support for their ambitious programs. In the coming years, more of the successes and challenges of the Race to the Top program will be readily apparent and move from being up for debate to open for discussion.

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