How the Race (to the Top) Was Won (Part 1 of 2)

Race to the Top (RTT), the foremost education policy instrument under the Obama administration, was introduced in 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The first two winning states, Delaware and Tennessee, were announced in the spring of 2010. At that time I wrote a paper about RTT for a policy class but didn't blog about it. Since RTT has continued with more rounds of state competition and a new RTT program for school districts, I hope there's still some relevance in sharing some of what I learned about RTT and what states did to score well on their applications.

Using policy definitions developed by McDonnell and Elmore (1987), RTT is a near-perfect example of an inducement, where money is exchanged for action. Inducements are a simple model:

RTT adds a layer of policymaking to this simple process. In the model below, the state departments of education have all policy instruments at their disposal. The inducement exists between the federal and state policymaking bodies, and not necessarily between the state and the local education authority (LEA). (The new RTT for districts will obviously change this arrangement.) Regardless of the instrument(s) used by the states, the goal, as defined by the U.S. DoE, is for states to "[lead] the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reform" (U.S. Department of Education, 2010d). Additionally, the DoE clearly states that "Creativity and innovation are rewarded in this competition" (U.S. Department of Education, 2010c. p. 15).

In the ideal RTT scenario, the competition would look like this:
  1. The U.S. DoE rewards the states with the most promising reforms.
  2. Winning states would enact and enforce new education policies.
  3. The effects of the new policies would be measured.
  4. Policies that prove to be successful would be replicated by other states.
There are two significant problems with emphasizing creativity and innovation in RTT. First, creativity and innovation necessitates deviation from proven reforms. You can't be creative by saying, "We're going to do what we know works." Delaware and Tennessee's "innovative" reforms (a label worth questioning) may have helped them win Phase 1 of RTT, but it may some time before we know if the reforms perform as intended. Implicit in the RTT competition is an assumption that established, effective reforms are too few, too expensive, or too difficult to scale, so RTT challenges states to create new reforms that might be cheaper or more easily implemented. This creates a condition where RTT money gets awarded for the potential of a policy, and not its past, proven effectiveness.

The second problem with emphasizing creativity and innovation is that RTT was not structured as an brainstorming, anything goes kind of policymaking process. RTT comes with a detailed scoring rubric, and any state wishing to score well obviously wrote policies to satisfy the rubric. How does that encourage creativity or innovation? In addition, states or districts applying beyond the first round will likely replicate the highest-scoring applications from Phase 1. This means that policies developed as part of RTT Phase 2 and later are likely to be less diverse, less creative, and less innovative, but no more proven.

So how did states manage this balance of creativity versus scoring high on the rubric? Thankfully, the rubric, the applications, and the judges' scorecards are all publicly available, so we can see exactly what each state proposed in their application. The analysis in this post will answer the following questions:
  1. Where in the RTT rubric could states score the most points?
  2. For the portions of the RTT rubric identified in #1, which states scored highest?
  3. For the states identified in #2, what did their application propose and what were the judges' comments?

Race to the Top Scoring

Here is a summary of RTT Phase 1 scoring:

Selection CriteriaPoints PossiblePercent of TotalAverage Score (Points)Average Score (Percent)Standard Deviation (Points)
A. State Success Factors12525907218.03
B. Standards and Assessments701461889.63
C. Data Systems to Support Instruction47933707.04
C. Data Systems to Support Instruction47933707.04
D. Great Teachers and Leaders13828916621.5
E. Turning Around the Lowest-Achieving Schools5010367211.19
F. General5511376812.96
Competitive Preference Priority 2: Emphasis on STEM15311736.73
(Source: U.S. Department of Education, 2010a, 2010b)

Looking at how the points on the rubric are allocated, it's clear that for any state to do well they'd need to score well on Section D, "Great Teachers and Leaders." It was worth 28 percent of the 500 total points, and we now can see that of all the sections, the fewest points (as a percent) were awarded in this section. That means there was a lot of potential upside here, and we can dig into the details of "Great Teachers and Leaders" to see which states scored best. In the table below you'll find all the subsections of Section D, along with the scores of the eight states (DE, TN, GA, SC, RI, KY, LA, and KS) who had the top score (in bold) in at least one of those subsections.

Overall RttT Phase 1 Rank1236891129
(D) "Great Teachers and Leaders" Score86%83%81%82%88%80%89%63%
(1) Providing high-quality pathways for aspiring teachers and principals82%71%70%74%84%94%89%32%
(2) Improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance87%91%86%91%94%76%90%56%
  (2)(i) Measuring student growth88%100%48%88%80%84%96%56%
  (2)(ii) Developing evaluation systems85%91%81%89%96%83%91%68%
  (2)(iii) Conducting annual evaluations92%100%96%90%100%58%92%68%
  (2)(iv) Using evaluations to inform key decisions86%87%91%93%93%76%89%45%
(3) Ensuring equitable distribution of effective teachers and principals85%74%87%73%79%73%90%89%
  (3)(i) Ensuring equitable distribution in high-poverty or high-minority schools83%68%93%68%92%72%88%85%
  (3)(ii) Ensuring equitable distribution in hard-to-staff subjects and specialty areas88%82%78%80%60%74%92%94%
(4) Improving the effectiveness of teacher and principal preparation programs81%90%73%81%90%77%86%66%
(5) Providing effective suport to teachers and principals95%75%75%79%84%92%84%80%
(Source: U.S. Department of Education, 2010a)

Just by reading the titles of the subsections above, you can recognize some of the most contentious areas of education policy we've seen the past several years. So not only is this part of the RTT application about high points, it's high-stakes. If the greatest opportunity for improvement in education truly lies in this area, it will be critical to get these policies right. In Part 2 of this post, we'll look at each subsection and the application from the state with the highest score in that area. Some of the policies are sound, but some aren't, and sometimes the judges' comments indicate divergent interpretations of both the application and the rubric.


McDonnell, L. M., & Elmore, R. F. (1987). Getting the job done: Alternative policy instruments. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 9(2), 133-152. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Education. (2010a). Detail chart of the Phase 1 scores for each State. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Education. (2010b). Race to the Top Scoring Rubric Corrected. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Education. (2010c, May 27). Race to the Top Program: Guidance and Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Education. (2010d, April 16). Race to the Top Fund. Retrieved June 6, 2012, from