Race to the Top
Limps to the Finish Line

By serious reformers’ rankings, Colorado and Louisiana lead the states in education reform. So how did they lose out?


Frederick M. Hess

That was another $4.35 billion poorly spent. Last week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the winners of the second and final round of the administration’s heavily promoted and widely cheered Race to the Top school-reform program. Unfortunately, after all the headlines and hullabaloo, the results were so dismal they threatened to bring the entire exercise into disrepute. Heralded education-reform states Colorado and Louisiana were left out in the cold, while Duncan bizarrely found himself naming Ohio, Maryland, New York, and Hawaii among the ten round-two winners. (Tennessee and Delaware had been named round-one winners this spring.)

Several of the winners clearly trail the pack on key reforms that Duncan had said RTT would reward. When it comes to state data systems, the Data Quality Campaign has ranked the states: Hawaii tied for 17th, Maryland tied for 35th, and New York tied for 48th. When it comes to the clarity and strength of the states’ charter laws, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has rated Ohio 26th, Hawaii 34th, and Maryland 40th. On teacher policy, the National Council on Teacher Quality has graded the states, with Ohio and New York each earning a D+, Maryland a D, and Hawaii a D–.

Meanwhile, less than a month ago, Duncan described Louisiana as “leading the way” with data systems that monitor teacher-preparation programs and student performance. Louisiana has been ranked a top-ten state for teacher policy, data systems, and charter schooling. Colorado enacted the single most important piece of legislation to come out of the RTT process — its remarkable Senate Bill 191, which overhauled teacher evaluation and tenure and introduced a smart statewide framework for gauging teacher performance. (In announcing the results, Duncan did say that Colorado “will continue to be a national leader.” Presumably, it will just have to lead from the rear.)

Conservative education analyst Chester E. Finn Jr. concluded that the review process didn’t reflect “what’s really going on in these states and the degree of sincerity of their reform convictions.” Andy Rotherham, veteran Clinton education hand and key Democratic education thinker, acknowledged that there were “raised eyebrows”; specifically, he anticipated questions about “how New York went from not meeting the absolute priority for the competition to being a winner,” and noted concerns about “reviewers that didn’t reflect the administration’s avowed reform priorities.” Colorado’s lieutenant governor, Barbara O’Brien, fumed, “You can’t say it’s an objective process. . . . I just have no confidence in this process the U.S. Department of Education has put together.”

This was largely a bed of Duncan’s own making. Last year, the administration opted for a competition that primarily rewarded grant-writing prowess and allegiance to the fads of the moment rather than concrete structural changes. Skeptics warned that the administration’s hurriedly assembled contest was not equal to the weight it was being asked to bear and raised questions about the murky criteria for judge selection, ambiguity of the scoring process, emphasis on promises rather than accomplishments, and preference for “inclusive” efforts rather than focused ones.


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