Race to The Top in Massachusetts : Questions, No Answers Yet


A little more than a year ago, on August 24, 2010, Massachusetts political and educational leaders stood proudly as the state was awarded $250,000,000 in Phase II Race to the Top Funds. Although there was criticism from groups like the Pioneer Institute that perhapsthe state had lowered its high standards in order to qualify for this national education grant, it was hard to find an official with a negative thing to say. "We've had the talent, commitment and the dedication, and now we have the funding we need to dramatically improve every student's educational experience" said Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray as part of a press release that perfectly summed up the mood of the day. The question was, and continues to be, how much of this money is actually going to schools and children, and how much is going to administration, overhead, and consultants. Most importantly, has Race to the Top been effective so far in its stated purpose in helping create better teachers and classrooms?

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts created some of the most rigorous standards for elementary and secondary education when it passed the Education Reform Act of 1993. While the state consistently ranked high in academic performance, it often did not match up well in rankings of states with lower standards. The Race to the Top program strongly encouraged states to adopt common national standards if they wanted to be successful in their bids for these funds. Some states, like Virginia, decided to drop out of the process rather than lower their standards. After much debate, Massachusetts decided not to follow their lead and to accept the national standards known as the Common Core. They did, however, supplement these standards to make them more rigorous when they were added to the state’s curriculum framework.

Race to the Top was signed into law by President Barack Obama on February 17, 2009 as part of the Recovery Act. It has four stated purposes:

•Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy

•Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction

•Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and

 •Turning around our lowest-achieving schools.

To achieve these goals, Race to the Top emphasizes training and accountability of teachers, school districts, and the state.

According to the appendices of the successful application by Massachusetts, the Commonwealth is putting a lot of resources toward this program. In addition to the quarter of a billion in federal Race to the Top money, the state is redirecting approximately $33.8 million (19% of the budget) and 53 full time employees (10% of current staff) in current state and federal education money toward the program goals. The appendices also lay out how they intend to spend the grant money, and almost 40% of the $250,000,000 is going towards new personnel and consultants:

Personnel and fringe benefits $16,873,927 (6.7%)

Consultants $71,757,531 (28.7%)

Other direct costs (travel, supplies, etc.) $5,334,604 (2.1%)

Total $93,966,062 (37.5%)

As always when government money is spent, the questions of is this the proper use of government money, could this money have been spent more effectively, and will the program be effective are raised. The evaluation progress of the first year is currently wrapping up. The U.S. Department of Education's Implementation and Support Unit (ISU) recently visited Massachusetts, and plan to issue a progress report in November 2011. [Editor's Note: UWS will provide an update on the report when it is released]

In addition, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary maintains a dedicated Race to the Top page on their website that allows the public to track the program’s progress.

Although no hard data have been published on whether Race to the Top has been, or will be, effective in improving the performance of Massachusetts teachers and students, it is clear the state has placed nearly all its educational eggs in its basket. Future articles will examine the ISU report when it is published and whether the heavy use of consultants and administration was the proper use of these funds.

Stephen Holmes, UWS Correspondent

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