Program Review: Education's Race to The Top

This report, the latest in a series responding to the Act's mandate, updates and adds new information on the use of Recovery Act funds on employment and training programs.

What GAO Found

The Recovery Act established the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund and required the Department of Education (Education) to use it for, among other purposes, “State Incentive Grants” to states that make significant progress in meeting specified education-related objectives. Education subsequently established the Race to the Top (RTT) grant fund to implement this. In 2010, Education awarded 12 states nearly $4 billion in RTT grant funds to spend over 4 years. A state’s RTT application and scope of work included the state’s plans for development and implementation of teacher and principal evaluation systems by participating school districts. These systems assess teacher and principal effectiveness based on student academic growth and other measures, such as observation of professional practice.

Six of 12 States Fully Implemented Their Evaluation Systems by the 2012-2013 School Year

By school year 2012-13, 6 of 12 RTT states fully implemented their evaluation systems (i.e., for all teachers and principals in all RTT districts). However, their success in fully implementing by the date targeted in their RTT applications varied. Three of these states met their target date while three did not for various reasons, such as needing more time to develop student academic growth measures. The six states that did not fully implement either piloted or partially implemented. The scope of pilots varied. One state piloted to about 14 percent of teachers and principals while another piloted to about 30 percent of teachers. State or district officials in four of the six states expressed some concerns about their readiness for full implementation.

Most RTT States Cited Challenges with Developing and Using Certain Evaluation Measures, Addressing Teacher Concerns, and Building Capacity and Sustainability

Officials in most RTT states cited challenges related to developing and using evaluation measures, addressing teacher concerns, and building capacity and sustainability. State officials said it was difficult to design and implement rigorous student learning objectives—an alternate measure of student academic growth. In 6 states, officials said they had difficulty ensuring that principals conducted evaluations consistently. Officials in 11 states said teacher concerns about the scale of change, such as the use of student academic growth data and consequences attached to evaluations, challenged state efforts. State and district officials also discussed capacity challenges, such as too few staff or limited staff expertise and prioritizing evaluation reform amid multiple educational initiatives. Officials in 10 states had concerns about sustaining their evaluation systems.

Education Supports RTT State Implementation Efforts Through Monitoring and Technical Assistance

Education helps RTT states meet their goals for teacher and principal evaluation systems through a new monitoring process and through technical assistance. Education officials said the RTT monitoring process differs from other monitoring efforts in the frequency of contact with the states and the emphasis on continuous improvement and quality of RTT reforms. Officials from 8 of the 12 RTT states expressed generally positive views about Education’s monitoring. When states have not demonstrated adequate progress, Education has taken corrective action. For example, Education designated two states as high-risk, which resulted in additional monitoring. Education provides technical assistance through a contractor; officials from 10 RTT states told us assistance related to evaluation systems was generally helpful. Education officials said they plan to provide RTT and nongrantee states with more information to support their efforts.