The Educated Guess will consume many kilobytes in coming months writing about Race to the Top and related, $5 billion federal competitive grant programs that Education Secretary Arne Duncan is hoping will spur innovation in the states.
Education reform has always been Washington’s biggest shaggy dog, and, for now, Race to the Top is wagging it. What’s surprising is how a relatively small amount of the $100 billion stimulus money for K-12 is already changing conversations nationally, with states changing laws on charter schools and data restrictions (California) to position themselves to pursue grants. Serious discussions about national standards for reading and math, teacher evaluations, and strategies for turning around low-performing schools are happening in Washington and in state capitals. If nothing else, Race to the Top has, for the moment, broken through the polarized debate over No Child Left Behind.
But Race to the Top have also generated considerable opposition. Some of the criticism is legit: There is a long checklist of requirements that states must meet to qualify, and some of these have little to do with the program itself; it’s Duncan’s leverage to force change.
And some critics say the prescriptive draft regulations are at odds with the program’s goals: to let a thousand flowers of reform bloom.
But in California especially, critics – particularly the California Teachers Association and some Democratic legislators — have mischaracterized Race to the Top, perhaps to discourage the Legislature from acting and the state and school districts from earnestly applying.