Race to the Top Has Unique Role to Play in Reforming Schools for the Future

Cross-posted from the TheHill.com.

The Race to the Top program has fundamentally redefined the education landscape in America. With less than 1 percent of the annual K-12 education spending in our country, the program has given states the incentive to lead reform in a comprehensive and collaborative way. Race to the Top has helped advance reform more in the past 18 months than any other program in the history of the Department of Education.

To sustain the momentum established in other states, President Obama has proposed $1.35 billion for Race to the Top in fiscal year 2011. The money would continue to support reforms in deserving states that were not funded in the first two phases of Race to the Top. It also could create a grant program that could drive reform at the local level by inviting districts to create their own roadmaps for reform. 

This money is absolutely essential to sustain the momentum created over the past year and a half. Race to the Top and other federal reform initiatives have unleashed an avalanche of pent-up reform activity in states and communities across the country. We need to continue to support that important work by extending funding for Race to the Top.

With the $4 billion available to support statewide reforms under Race to the Top, the Department of Education has funded 12 exemplary applicants. But these grants haven’t satisfied states’ desire for reform. A total of 46 states submitted bold, comprehensive plans for reform. With hard work and collaboration, governors, state education chiefs, state and local lawmakers, unions and other stakeholders worked together to advance reform. Like the 12 applicants that won grants in the first round, many of these states are ready to move forward. They are ready to put their bold plans to work to support student success. 

Even before Race to the Top made its first grant, states showed their commitment to reform. Starting early last year, 48 states worked together to create standards that prepare students for success in college and careers. In a few short months since those standards were finalized, 35 states and the District of Columbia have adopted them. Forty-four states have formed two consortia to create the next generation of assessments that will measure student progress toward those standards. These tests will give teachers the data they need to help students succeed and will give parents the information they need to understand if their students are on track to graduating high school ready for college or the workplace. Race to the Top is supporting this work under its $350 million assessment competition. 

Under Race to the Top, states are advancing other areas of reform. They are creating models of how to recruit, train and evaluate teachers and principals. North Carolina will provide incentives to draw teachers to the schools where they are most needed — offering to pay for graduate education and housing. Other states are doing the tough work of turning around their lowest-performing schools, and they are developing data systems to track and report progress. The District of Columbia is expanding access to high-quality early learning programs. All Race to the Top states have created comprehensive plans to prepare students for success in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the fields that will be vital for success in the 21st century economy. 

While the first round of Race to the Top has focused on statewide reforms, I also am seeing unprecedented commitment to reform from school districts and community groups. The department has received unprecedented response to other reform competitions. More than 1,700 districts, higher education institutions and nonprofits submitted applications to the Investing in Innovation (i3) program, and more than 300 communities applied for planning grants under the Promise Neighborhoods programs. The president has requested additional funding for i3 and Promise Neighborhoods to support these efforts. 

But Race to the Top has a unique role to play for local reforms. It can support districts that are dedicated to creating comprehensive plans for reform that raise standards, improve the effectiveness of teachers and principals, use data and turn around schools. Just as the Race to the Top state competition has created 12 models for how to create statewide reforms, a local competition could create local examples of districts leading the way with bold comprehensive strategies. 

We are committed to promoting reform for the long haul. Race to the Top has laid the foundation to turn around our economy and ensure our country’s prosperity for decades. We must sustain that momentum and continue to provide the financial incentives and support for reform through Race to the Top and other programs. 

Arne Duncan is the Secretary of Education