Newest Race to the Top Competition Overlooks Equity

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The U.S. Department of Education’s newest Race to the Top competition rightly focuses on the critical role school districts play in implementing the policy priorities of the original Race to the Top competition: raising standards, building better data systems, evaluating and supporting teachers and principals, and dramatically transforming the lowest performing schools. However, the personalized learning environment that is the centerpiece of the district competition has the potential to widen achievement gaps. As explained further in our comments, such an approach, on its own, could unintentionally undermine rather than advance the goals of Race to the Top.

Raising achievement and closing gaps requires educators to focus on meeting the needs of each student. But this singular focus on personalization also ignores the other critical levers for improvement such as ensuring equitable funding and equitable access to a rigorous, college- and career-ready course of study, effective teachers, and fair discipline policies.

Ed Trust's comments focus on how the Department of Education can use these levers to promote the Race to the Top policy priorities at the district level. Specifically, we recommend that the district-level Race to the Top require districts to analyze equity in four areas:

  • funding between high-poverty and low-poverty  schools
  • access to effective teachers
  • fair discipline practices that do not disproportionately impact students of color, low-income students, or those students with disabilities, and  
  • participation in college- and career-ready courses of study.

We recommend that districts select two of these areas in which systematic differences in opportunity exist for different groups of students, set ambitious but achievable goals for remedying these injustices within three years, and develop a plan for reaching their goals. Annually, districts should also be required to publicly report on progress toward reaching their goals.

Further, the current proposal treats districts that apply alone and those that apply in consortia the same. For very large districts, this provides a disincentive to collaborate because their award would be so much smaller than if they just applied alone. Therefore, we recommend that the Department of Education change its award structure such that each district with 30,000 or more students that joins a consortium receives a $25 million grant if the consortium’s application is approved.

Districts have a unique and significant role in our school systems because they set the conditions for improvement or low achievement. They should thus be focused on ensuring that they operate in an equitable manner for all students. It would be a missed opportunity, and unfortunate for millions of students, if this competition fails to require districts to close gaps between student groups while also ensuring sustained achievement gains for all students.

— Lynn Jennings