Race to the Top was the Obama administration’s signature education initiative. Initially greeted with bipartisan acclaim, it has figured in debates about issues ranging from the Common Core to teacher evaluation to data privacy. Five years have passed since the U.S. Department of Education announced the winners in the $4 billion contest. What can the competition and its aftermath teach us about federal efforts to spur changes in schooling?
Joanne Weiss, former chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and director of the federal Race to the Top program, argues that the initiative spurred comprehensive improvements nationwide and in numerous policy areas, among them standards and assessments, teacher evaluation methods, and public school choice. Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, whose books include Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit: Lessons from a Half-Century of Federal Efforts to Improve America’s Schools, contends that the competition rewarded mainly grant-writing prowess and that policymakers should be wary of top-down efforts to spur innovation.