The Root: Will Anyone Win In 'Race To The Top'? It's one year after the first round of President Obama's education-reform program, Race to the Top. Cynthia Gordy of The Root examines the program's progress, and argues that while success for the program looks unclear, the participants still believe their plans are worth a try.
NPR logo The Root: Will Anyone Win In 'Race To The Top'?

The Root: Will Anyone Win In 'Race To The Top'?

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks on the Race To The Top program at an elementary school in Falls Church, Virginia last January. A year later, the success of the program remains unclear. Pool/Getty Images hide caption

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U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks on the Race To The Top program at an elementary school in Falls Church, Virginia last January. A year later, the success of the program remains unclear.

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Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.

There's a new conversation bubbling up these days at Howard High School of Technology in Wilmington, Delaware.

"We've been researching best practices, visiting other schools to learn about programs that have worked for them, and we are constantly talking about what's best for our students," says assistant principal Clifton Hayes. "Vice President Biden coming by last week to celebrate was just the icing on the cake."

It's been one year since Delaware, along with Tennessee, won the first round of the Obama administration's Race to the Top competitive grant program. Funded by the Recovery Act and designed to spur bold education reform, the program makes $4.35 billion available to all 50 states — but only if they agree to certain guidelines for improving their education systems, such as raising academic standards and boosting support for the lowest-performing schools. Winners of the competition's second round, announced last August, include Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C.

"In each successive round, we've leveraged change across the country," President Obama said in a speech at the National Urban League conference last summer, extolling Race to the Top. "It's forced teachers and principals and officials and parents to forge agreements on tough and often uncomfortable issues — to raise their sights and embrace education."

But the program has also been a lightning rod for controversy. Opponents see it as budgetary blackmail that forces states to change their education laws based on the administration's ideas — and call the U.S. Education Department's jumble of reform strategies, like expanding the number of charter schools and merit pay for teachers, misguided at best. Race to the Top's structure as a competition, civil rights groups further contend, stacks the deck against poor and minority students, who will be left at the bottom.

The criticism, however, doesn't faze Race to the Top's freshman class. One year into laying the groundwork for their winning plans, which launch fully this fall, education officials in Delaware and Tennessee profess excitement about potentially transforming their public schools.

Finding the Right Remedy

So far, both Delaware, which received $119 million for the next four years, and Tennessee, which was awarded $500 million, have improved their systems for monitoring academic achievement and graduation rates. Both states have also recruited and trained new science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teachers, boosted their proficiency standards and changed how they evaluate teachers, tying a portion of each evaluation to student progress.

"Right now, 98 percent of teachers in Delaware are evaluated as satisfactory," Paul Herdman, president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, a public-education nonprofit that helped with the state's Race to the Top proposal, told The Root. Meanwhile, Delaware's overall graduation rate of 65 percent (it's just 50 percent for African-American males) is below the national average of 69 percent. "I don't believe there have been over 10 people in the last several years that have ever lost a job around teacher evaluation or poor performance," Herdman says.

That challenge — what to do with ineffective teachers and principals in Delaware — has also started to be tackled under Race to the Top. Last year, officials identified for overhauls — which include eliminating some staff members — four schools performing in the state's bottom 5 percent. Two of those schools serve predominantly black students in the heart of Wilmington. This year the state will name six more to overhaul. The numbers sound small but actually represent 5 percent of the 200 schools in Delaware, America's second-smallest state.

The first four schools that are designing turnaround plans, which roll out this fall, have required teachers and administrators to reinterview for their jobs. Two principals have already stepped down. Beyond staff evaluation, each school is partnering with consultants, hired using Race to the Top funds, to take on its own mixed bag of reforms, including performance pay for teachers, "attraction bonuses" of $5,000 to draw more effective teachers and other new programs that have worked at charter schools.

Tennessee has also confronted the challenge of reforming its lowest-performing schools, with about 190 targeted so far for interventions out of 1,693 total in the state. Chronically failing schools, with low proficiency and graduation rates going back more than a decade, may be subject to takeover by the state this coming school year.

"For those schools, the state would create its own school district to either directly run, or use outside agencies like charter schools to help provide services," Rachel Woods, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Education, told The Root, adding that Tennessee has greatly expanded charter school options under Race to the Top.

The majority of low-achieving schools identified in Tennessee thus far have developed their own turnaround strategies. Some opted to get rid of their entire faculties and have new administrators in place, while others picked from a range of tactics to suit their needs — longer school days, for example, more days for teacher development, and bonuses for teachers and principals if they meet certain criteria.

Ken Foster, executive director of the Memphis Education Association, a union group for Memphis teachers, is not quite sold on the mix-and-match nature of individual school reforms. His district, which has a student population that is 86 percent African American, is home to several of the targeted schools.

"We've only been doing this since August of last year, so it's too early to say whether or not any of these things will be successful," Foster told The Root, noting that the teachers union worked with the district on some of the policy changes. "The Race to the Top money was put out there to try experimental things, and Tennessee was willing to step out there and try them. I'm not convinced they will work, but maybe it's time to put it to rest whether they will or not."

Read the rest of Cynthia Gordy's article at The Root.