Grading Race to the Top

Five years have passed since the Obama administration announced the winners of the $4 billion Race to the Top (RttT) contest, a major federal initiative designed to stimulate education reform among the states. In that time supporters have argued that the program encouraged meaningful education reform, while critics have countered that it promised a lot but changed little. Now William Howell, the Sydney Stein Professor of American Politics at Chicago Harris, has put that argument largely to rest with a research article in Education Next.

Howell’s overall findings indicate that RttT has had a substantial impact on education policy across the United States. “The evidence suggests that by strategically deploying funds to cash-strapped states and massively increasing the public profile of a controversial set of education policies, the president managed to stimulate reforms that had stalled in state legislatures, stood no chance of enactment in Congress, and could not be accomplished via unilateral action,” Howell writes.

The article confirms observations by officials in many participating states. Consistent with the paper's findings, Illinois State Senator Kimberly Lightford noted, “I think Race to the Top was our driving force to get us all honest and fair, and willing to negotiate at the table.”

Specifically, RttT was designed to encourage higher state standards, create new data systems, improve teacher effectiveness, increase college readiness, stimulate charter-school expansion, and strengthen low-performing schools. In applications for federal funding, states were asked to describe their current policies and outline their goals to meet the initiative’s criteria. Across the three phases of RttT, 18 states and the District of Columbia won awards that ranged from $17 million to $700 million. 

In order to see if RttT stimulated the adoption of education reforms, Howell and a team of researchers examined whether a statewide governing body had actually enacted (not just proposed) upwards of 33 qualifying policies each year between 2001 and 2014. They found that states enacted reform policies at a much higher rate in the aftermath of RttT than previously. 

Between 2001 and 2008, the year before RttT was authorized, states, on average, enacted about 10 percent of proposed school reform policies. Between 2009 and 2014, however, they enacted 68 percent of them. Between 2001 and 2008, states that won an award, those that applied but did not win, and those that never applied were nearly indistinguishable from one another. But by 2014, winning states had adopted 88 percent of the recommended reform policies on average. States that applied but did not win had adopted 68 percent of them, and even states that never applied had adopted 56 percent of these policies. Howell and his team conclude that the process of applying to the competitions by itself, plus the increased media attention given to RttT policies, generated momentum behind policy reform. 

Howell also found that winning states were more likely to raise their proficiency standards after RttT was authorized, suggesting that RttT’s influence carried over into the implementation stage of education policymaking. RttT did not accelerate previous trends in charter school enrollments. The growth in charter school enrollments in winning states, however, continued to climb at a higher rate than charter growth rates in other states. 

The article, which appears in the Fall 2015 issue of Education Next, features an interactive map showing the percentage of RttT policies implemented from 2001 through 2014, state by state.  

Howell clarifies that the study "does not assess the efficacy of the particular policies promoted by the initiative, nor does it investigate how Race to the Top altered practices within schools or districts. Rather, the focus is the education policymaking process itself; the adoption of education policies is the outcome of interest." In that regard, he finds, the federal initiative has been a success.

"The surge of post-2009 policy activity constitutes a major accomplishment for the Obama administration," Howell concludes. "With a relatively small amount of money, little formal constitutional authority in education, and without the power to unilaterally impose his will upon state governments, President Obama managed to jump-start policy processes that had languished for years in state governments around the country. When it comes to domestic policymaking, past presidents often accomplished a lot less with a lot more."

This article was adapted from a press release published by Education Next on July 14, 2015.