Race to the Top

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Race to the Top, abbreviated R2T, RTTT or RTT, is a multi-billion dollar U.S. Department of Education competitive grant program to support education reform and innovation in state and local district K-12 education. It was initially funded with $4.35 billion by the ED Recovery Act as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and was announced by President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on July 24, 2009.[1]

The stated goal of the Race to the Top grant program was to encourage and reward states that were:

creating the conditions for education innovation and reform; achieving significant improvement in student outcomes, including making substantial gains in student achievement, closing achievement gaps, improving high school graduation rates, and ensuring student preparation for success in college and careers; and implementing ambitious plans in four core education reform areas.[2][3]

Since making its first awards in 2010, the Race to the Top program has provided over $6 billion to 24 states and D.C. through three phases of the flagship competition, and 20 states during the three rounds of the "Race to the Top--Early Learning Challenge." In 2012 the Department launched the first "Race to the Top--District" program, which has now funded 21 states in two rounds of the competition. About 80 school districts across 21 states and D.C. have received about $500 million to support plans for college and career readiness programs, which included implementing common standards. For the fiscal year 2015 the department's budget request included $300 million for a new "Race to the Top Equity and Opportunity" competition that would provide incentives and resources for states and school districts with persisting opportunity and achievement gaps.[4]

Award competition

In order to be eligible to compete for the awards, states needed to enact four types of reforms:

  • Adopt standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace, and to compete in the global economy.
  • Build data systems to measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how to improve instruction.
  • Recruit, develop, reward, and retain effective teachers and principals, especially where they are most needed.
  • Turn around the lowest-achieving schools.[2]

State applications for funding were to be scored on selection criteria worth a total of 500. The criteria and points awarded are listed in the table below:[2]

Selection Criteria for RTT Awards
Criteria Points
A. State Success Factors 125 total
Articulating state's education reform agenda and local education agency (LEA) participation 65
Building strong statewide capacity to implement, scale up, and sustain proposed plans 30
Demonstrating significant progress in raising achievement and closing gaps 30
B. Standards and Assessments 70 total
Developing and adopting common standards 40
Supporting the transition to enhanced standards and high-quality assessments 20
Developing and implementing common, high-quality assessments 10
C. Data Systems to Support Instruction 47 total
Fully implementing a statewide longitudinal data system 24
Using data to improve instruction 18
Accessing and using State data 5
D. Great Teachers and Leaders 138 total
Improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance 58
Ensuring equitable distribution of effective teachers and principals 25
Providing high-quality pathways for aspiring teachers and principals 21
Providing effective support to teachers and principals 20
Improving teacher and principal preparation programs 14
E. Turning Around the Lowest-Achieving Schools 50 total
Turning around the lowest-achieving schools 40
Intervening in the lowest-achieving schools and LEAs 10
F. General Selection Criteria 55 total
Ensuring successful conditions for high-performing charters and other innovative schools 40
Making education funding a priority 10
Demonstrating other significant reform conditions 5
Prioritizing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) 15
Source: U.S. Department of Education, "Race to the Top Executive Summary," issued November 2009.[2]


States were eligible for a range of different funding award amounts depending on their share of the federal population of children between the ages of 5-17. The amounts ranged from $20–75 million up to the highest Phase One award range of $350–$700 million. Only the four largest states (California, Texas, Florida, and New York) were eligible for this highest award. The majority of first-round applicant states were not expected to receive funding.[5]

Round 1

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

The District of Columbia and 40 states applied for Round 1 funding before the January 19, 2010 application deadline. On March 15, 2010, 15 states and the District of Columbia were named as finalists. The highest scores in the first round belonged to Delaware, with 454.6, and Tennessee with 444.2. The lowest score received was 135.8 for South Dakota in 41st place.[6] [7] On March 30, 2010, Delaware and Tennessee were selected to receive the first awards of $100 million and $500 million respectively.[8]

Round 2

The District of Columbia and 38 states applied for Round 2 funding and the deadline for application was June 1, 2010. On August 24, 2010, 10 out of the 19 finalists were awarded grants. In total, $3.325 billion was awarded to a total of ten states. Florida and New York were each awarded the highest level of funding with awards of $700 million. The District of Columbia and Rhode Island were each awarded the lowest level of funding with awards of $75 million.[9]

Round 3

Round 3 was divided into two application stages with Part I due on November 22, 2011 and Part II due on December 16, 2011.[10] Only applicants that were finalists for Round 2, but did not receive funds were eligible for Round 3. On December 23, 2011, seven states were awarded Race to the Top funds bringing the total number of recipients to 22. A total of $200 million was awarded to a total of seven states in Round 3. Illinois received the highest level of funding with an award of $43 million. Kentucky and Louisiana were awarded the lowest level of funding with awards of $17 million.[11]

Alaska, North Dakota, Texas and Vermont did not apply during any round of applications. Alaska and Texas also did not adopt Common Core Standards.

Other awards

The Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Fund was awarded in two stages. In Round 1, California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington were selected to share $500 million in funding designated to improve early learning in their states.[12] Five states that were finalists in Round 1 of the ELC received grants in Phase 2. Funds ranging from $30 million to $52 million were awarded to Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin.[13]

For the 2013 Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge competition, the Department of Education announced that they had received 17 applicants, and had chosen six winning states: Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. However, due to insufficient funds each grantee was to receive 98.6 percent of its requested amount.[14]

The Race to the Top-District Competition invited school districts to apply for funds by demonstrating how they can personalize education for all students in their schools. For a list of winning school districts in 2012 and 2013 see the U.S Department of Education, Awards -- Race to the Top District (RTT-D).


Hawaii is the only state that received Race to the Top competitive grants and has not requested additional time to implement the mandatory education system reforms. Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Tennessee have received approval for an additional year to implement these reforms. The Department of Education withheld $9.9 million in funding for Georgia because their merit pay system does not include teacher evaluations.[15] Florida is experiencing delays in implementing teacher evaluation systems as a result of several pending lawsuits.[16]


The following states took actions to make their applications more competitive after the first round:

  • Illinois lifted a cap on the number of charter schools it allows.
  • Massachusetts made it easier for students in low-performing schools to switch to charters.
  • West Virginia proposed a merit pay system that includes student achievement in its compensation calculations.
  • Forty-eight states adopted common standards for K-12, which have come to be known as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).[17]

Common Core State Standards

Adoption of CCSS was accelerated by an August 1, 2010 deadline, after which states would not receive points toward round two applications. In addition, the White House announced a $350 million federal grant funding the development of assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards. States that adopted these standards stood the best chance of winning, although technically the actual Common Core standards were not explicitly part of any federal initiative, according to the corestandards.org website.[18] Others claim that the grants were a powerful incentive in getting CCSS implemented, and that these grants allowed the Department of Education to circumvent federal laws that prohibit the federal government in Washington from interfering in education at the state and local level. These incentive grants were very helpful in shoring up education budgets in cash-strapped states after the financial crisis of 2008.[19][20][21]


Education advocate Diane Ravitch

Despite 40 states applying for Race to the Top funds, criticism of the contest has been widespread across the political spectrum.

  • Former Assistant Secretary of Education and education advocate Diane Ravitch was an early opponent of Race to the Top, claiming that it would not improve education.[23] Ravitch criticized Race to the Top as "permitting the privatization of public schools," allowing "schools to be labeled by their test scores" and also predicted that "many schools in poor and minority neighborhoods will be closed."[24]
  • Former Virginia Governor, Bob McDonnell withdrew Virginia's application for Race to the Top funds on May 26, 2010. Virginia finished 31 out of 41 applicants, leading McDonnell to withdraw the state's application. In an interview following Virginia's withdrawal, McDonnell said, "The problem is one of the criteria is to adopt a common core set of standards -- academic set of standards -- to get the points you need to be competitive and we can't do that. We've had a great set of standards here in Virginia for 15 years and we think that common set of standards ought to be a floor not a ceiling...They would require us to reduce the quality of Virginia standards and we just can't do that." McDonnell also felt that the requirements were "too burdensome."[25][26]
  • In April 2010, the liberal Economic Policy Institute released a report that found the selection of Delaware and Tennessee to be subjective and arbitrary.[27] The report also suggested that the second round of applications could be subject to "gaming" and that "such gaming is unlikely to reflect an actual improvement in the education policies of applicant states. We recommend instead that the Department abandon this complexity, and move to a simpler “pass/fail” system for the next round of the competition."[28]
  • In 2013, the Economic Policy Institute released a report that claimed Race to the Top was limited in what it could accomplish. Citing the Round 1 award winners of Tennessee and Delaware, the report claimed that states could not achieve what they had promised even if given additional time and funding.[29] The report also found that Race to the Top failed to address important factors for low student achievement including environmental factors outside of school and increased distrust between teachers and school administrators.[30]
  • In June 2010, a group of civil rights organizations including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the National Urban League, the Rainbow Push Coalition and three other organizations released a joint statement that claimed the fund could further disadvantage minority students.[31]
  • In September 2010, the conservative American Enterprise Institute released a report that found the Race to the Top scores did not match ratings of the states from outside, independent sources.[32] The AEI report also found that the scores may have been influenced by political circumstances within the state.[33]
  • Truth in American Education, a nonpartisan parent group, has criticized Race to the Top's incentives to implement longitudinal student data systems. This group claims these systems erode the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and the Pupil Protection Rights Act. Race to the Top expands the definition of "authorized representatives" from federal, state or local educational authorities allowed to receive personally identifiable information to any entity designated as an authorized representative by these authorities. This expanded definition could be utilized to include agencies such as public health agencies, state employment offices or even private entities that have been deemed authorized representatives.[34]

See also

External Links


  1. U.S. Department of Education, "President Obama, U.S. Secretary of Education Duncan Announce National Competition to Advance School Reform," accessed June 30, 2014
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 U.S Department of Education, "Race to the Top Executive Summary," issued November 2009.
  3. Note: This text is quoted verbatim from the original source. Any inconsistencies are attributed to the original source.
  4. U.S. Department of Education, "States Continue Progress During Second Year of Race to the Top," June 13, 2014
  5. Wall Street Journal, "States Race to Apply for U.S. Education Funds, " January 29, 2010
  6. U.S. Department of Education, "Race to the Top Phase 1 Final Results," March 30, 2010
  7. Wall Street Journal, "Education Finalists Picked," March 5, 2010
  8. CNN.com, "Tennessee, Delaware schools to get Race to the Top funds," March 30, 2010
  9. Ed.gov, "Nine States and the District of Columbia Win Second Round Race to the Top Grants," August 24, 2010
  10. Ed.gov, "Race to the Top Phase 3 Application Overview," accessed February 27, 2014
  11. Ed.gov, "Department of Education Awards $200 Million to Seven States to Advance K-12 Reform," December 23, 2011
  12. Education Week, "Challenges Lie Ahead for Early-Learning Grant Winners," January 3, 2012
  13. Ed.gov, "Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge," accessed February 27, 2014
  14. U.S. Department of Education, "Race to the Top--Early Learning Challenge," accessed June 23, 2014.
  15. Politico.com, "Time, not money, at issue for Race to Top states," March 19, 2014
  16. Atlanta Journal Constitution, "Florida teachers file lawsuit today to stop evaluations that rely on test scores," accessed March 19, 2014
  17. Washington Post, "Virginia's stance against national standards is a blow for students," June 5, 2010
  18. 'corestandards.org, "Myths about Implementation," accessed June 30, 2014
  19. U.S. Department of Education, "Higher Standards, Better Tests, Race to the Top," June 15, 2009
  20. [U.S. Department of Education, "Race to the Top Assessment Program," June 24, 2010
  21. The Washington Post, "How Bill Gates pulled off the swift Common Core revolution," June 7, 2014
  22. Office of the Governor, "Gov. Perry: Texas Knows Best How to Educate Our Students," accessed February 27, 2014
  23. Huffington Post, "Obama's Race to the Top Will Not Improve Education," August 1, 2010
  24. Diane Ravitch.net, "What Race to the Top Has Accomplished," October 6, 2012
  25. Think Progress, "McDonnell falsely claims that Race to the Top would force Virginia to lower its academic standards," June 1, 2010
  26. Washington Post, "McDonnell on MSNBC: Race to the Top too burdensome," accessed February 27, 2014
  27. Huffington Post, "James O'Keefe's Newest Target Appears To Be A Small, Progressive Economic Think Tank," October 17, 2011
  28. Economic Policy Institute, "LET’S DO THE NUMBERS Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” Program Offers Only a Muddled Path to the Finish Line," April 20, 2010
  29. Washington Post, "Report: Race to the Top isn’t delivering big results," September 12, 2012
  30. Economic Policy Institute, "Mismatches in Race to the Top Limit Educational Improvement," September 12, 2013
  31. RainbowPush.org, "Civil Rights Groups Call for New Federal Education Agenda," accessed February 27, 2014
  32. Source Watch.org, "American Enterprise Institute," accessed April 10, 2014
  33. American Enterprise Institute, "Politics and the Scoring of Race to the Top Applications," September 10, 2010
  34. Truth in American Education.com, "Privacy Issues and State Longitudinal Data Systems," accessed April 8, 2014