Checking in on Race to the Top
(The Root) — 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.