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Diane Ravitch’s Blog: The Big Idea Behind Race to the Top

Have you every wondered what “Race to the Top” was supposed to accomplish? Did it mean that we would be first in the world if we opened more privately managed charter schools, closed down more public schools (especially in Black and Brown communities), evaluated all teachers by test scores, and adopted the Common Core standards? If so, that clearly didn’t happen. Did it mean that the states who followed Arne Duncan’s instructions most faithfully would surge to the top of the NAEP tables? That didn’t happen either.

Be it noted that a “Race to the Top” is a bizarre metaphor for education in a democratic society. In any race, only a few reach the top, while most are left behind in the dust. That would seem to be a repudiation of the principle of equality of educational opportunity. For sure, it throws the goal of equity away.

For those who want to know what Race to the Top was really about, we have it straight from the horse’s mouth. Joanne Weiss wrote an article in 2011 that laid out the big idea that animated the nearly $5 billion program. Weiss was selected by Arne Duncan to run RTTT. Previously she had been CEO of the NewSchools Venture Fund, an organization dedicated to supporting and funding charter schools and charter chains. After the RTTT was completed, Weiss became Duncan’s chief of staff. You can’t get much closer to the action than Weiss was.

Weiss’s article was published on the Harvard Business Review blog. She called it “The Innovation Mismatch: “Smart Capital” and Education Innovation.” The problem she identified as most crucial in American education was the mismatch between capital and the culture of the consumers. There was little incentive to innovate when the market was so fragmented.

She wrote:

The capital markets that fund education innovation — both for-profit and nonprofit — are largely broken. When for-profit investors fund technology solutions, they naturally seek good returns on their investments. To deliver those returns, developers cater to the largest possible market: large urban and suburban K-12 districts.

Unfortunately, these districts are notoriously weak consumers. They often buy technology and pursue innovation based on relationships and networking, rather than based on effectiveness. Given the relative dearth of valid, reliable measures of student achievement, few innovative programs can demonstrate their efficacy – so why not select solutions sold by someone you’ve worked with for years, or buy the products that come with the best give-aways, or purchase from the company everyone has heard of? The result is a large-scale market of technological mediocrity. High-quality solutions do not rise to the top – and effectiveness is neither recognized nor rewarded.

To make the market attractive to innovators–both for-profit and non-profit–the market needed to be consolidated. There were too many “homegrown, fragmented, one-off programs.” The question was how to scale up the marketplace for innovation, and Race to the Top was the answer.

Technological innovation in education need not stay forever young. And one important change in the market for education technology is likely to accelerate its maturation markedly within the next several years. For the first time, 42 states and the District of Columbia have adopted rigorous common standards, and 44 states are working together in two consortia to create a new generation of assessments that will genuinely assess college and career-readiness.

The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.

Thus, with almost every state using common standards and common tests, and with a massive data warehouse to track student and teacher progress, entrepreneurs would be attracted to work in a national marketplace, where their products would reach a national consumer base. This was the promise of Race to the Top and Common Core. It would enable entrepreneurs to market their products more efficiently and with greater success.

This idea was a first for the U.S. Department of Education. Never before was a major program launched by the federal government with the specific purpose of creating a national marketplace for entrepreneurs to hawk their wares to the schools.

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Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. She is the Co-Founder and President of the Network for Publi...