Not Falling Behind, But Pulling Apart: Race to the Top Reflects Broader U.S. Education Problems

This blog is co-authored by Noelle Ellerson, Associate Executive Director, Policy & Advocacy for AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

Since the 1983 release of A Nation at Risk, policymakers have asserted that US students are falling behind their international peers, with dire consequences if we do not improve. The result has been three decades of increasingly high-stakes "standards-and-accountability" reforms, which rely on rigorous academic standards and test-based evaluation systems to hold schools and teachers accountable for student progress. As a comprehensive 2011 National Academy of Sciences report found, there is no evidence that this strategy has produced any meaningful improvement. Moreover, a series of recent reports suggests that we have been misinterpreting A Nation at Risk. Our education system is not so much falling behind as it is pulling apart, and the past decade of heightened accountability measures has likely further widened the gaps.

The Equity and Excellence Commission's February report, For Each and Every Child, points to poverty and inequities as core hurdles to U.S. educational improvement. It focuses on the long-neglected issues of school funding equity and state school finance systems, and its core recommendations include more equitable school finance, access to preschool, and comprehensive student supports. Soon after that report's publication, the Council on Foreign Relations released the newest report in its Renewing America Scorecard series. Its findings echo those of the Equity and Excellence Commission: "The real scourge of the U.S. education system -- and its greatest competitive weakness -- is the deep and growing achievement gap between socioeconomic groups that begins early and lasts through a student's academic career" (Strauss 2013). The report uses data at each point in the education trajectory -- from preschool through college -- to illustrate that the United States is not so much falling behind as it is pulling apart.

Achievement gaps, then, are not the real culprit. Rather, they are symptoms of the true problem: an underlying set of opportunity gaps. Only by alleviating these opportunity gaps can we thus expect to see substantial narrowing of the race- and income-based gaps in test-scores, graduation rates, and college attendance and completion that have long dogged American education.

The Department's flagship initiative, Race to the Top (RTTT), aims to tackle the achievement gaps head on. Unfortunately, by focusing on the symptoms instead of their root causes, the policies advanced by Race to the Top are more likely to widen opportunity gaps than to narrow them. Our joint report, which provides a comprehensive analysis of the first three years of RTTT implementation, confirms this prediction.

States that won RTTT grants pledged to raise academic standards, develop new assessments, and use students' scores on those assessments to grade teachers, principals, and even entire schools. They also promised to expand access to charter schools, to open new paths to teaching, and to "turn around" their lowest-performing schools. Enacting these changes, using an average of 1 percent of their education budgets, they said, would greatly boost student achievement over four years and cut race- and income-based gaps by half or more. BBA's interviews with district superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and others discovered, however, that the combination of scarce resources - exacerbated by major cuts states made leading up to RTTT - and lack of time to plan and pilot - has more often exacerbated problems than provided solutions. Rushed enactment resulted in evaluation metrics that neither measure educators' effectiveness nor help to improve it. Insufficient staff capacity to compensate for principals' new responsibilities means that many novice and struggling teachers are getting less support and guidance, while experienced veterans contend with added, unhelpful paperwork. High-poverty urban districts, in particular, are burdened with ever-higher expectations coupled with insufficient resources and lack of RTTT tools to address the hunger, illnesses, stress, and lack of readiness that students bring to school every day.

Exceptions to these findings highlight the potential for RTTT to prompt needed changes in the right contexts. In Massachusetts, it has helped high-needs districts further enhance an already-strong teaching corps by targeting teacher preparation and support. In smaller, relatively well-off districts in Ohio, RTTT funds have allowed districts to hire long-term substitutes that free veteran teachers to develop new curricula and student learning objectives, or to establish comprehensive family-outreach efforts. However, these districts' stronger starting positions and unique capacity also emphasize the reality that, without the right foundation for change, union-management collaboration, and the recognition that opportunity gaps drive achievement gaps, RTTT is likely to do more harm than good.

As states roll out the Common Core State Standards, the lessons learned from this report will be particularly critical. Until the federal government takes a comprehensive approach to education - acknowledging and addressing the powerful impact of out-of-school factors on student success - we will only marginally narrow achievement gaps. We must pair higher standards with supports so all students can viably reach for them, and be realistic regarding timelines and resources. If not, U.S. education will continue to pull apart.