The Race to the Top program—a $4.35 billion pool of money of which every state in the country can compete for a share—has only been around since it was introduced in late July. A comment period followed that extended into late August and the first phase of applications is expected sometime in December, with a second phase scheduled for next year.

While there's a chance some elements of Race to the Top could change, as Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his staff pores through the suggestions and comments to see if any are worth incorporating, there's plenty of information available for experts and education officials around the country to offer their initial opinions about what's good and not so good about Race to the Top.

There's Much to Like About Race to the Top

That's the general consensus shared by most states and education experts. "If it is done right," said Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4-million strong American Federation of Teachers, "it can promote innovation and promote promising ideas."

Race to the Top focuses on four areas—or "assurances"—that each state is expected to include in its application for grant money. Those assurances include:

  • improving the quality of teachers and the distribution of excellent teachers
  • having standards in place to improve teaching and learning
  • using longitudinal data systems to improve student and teacher performance
  • making sure all students have qualified teachers and improving achievement in low-performing schools

That's the main vision behind Race to the Top—together with an emphasis on charter schools—and education consultant Adam Gamoran said the program makes sense.

"He (Duncan) orchestrated a funding system so states are required to demonstrate progress and plans to qualify for these funds," said Gamoran, director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, the largest and oldest university-based research center in the country. "His use of the funds is aligned with the priorities in (Race to the Top). In my view these goals are very good ideas, so there's a good chance Race to the Top funds will lead to improvements."

But Concerns About Charter Schools, Testing Assessments and Rural States Remain

Even supporters of Race to the Top have some concerns about the enormously involved program. Just how involved is it? In its own draft guidelines released in July, the Department of Education estimated an application would take 642 hours to put together. Just how long is that? Well, there's only 720 hours in all of September.

Charter schools

There has been considerable concern about the focus on charter schools as an alternative to boost student performance.

In Iowa, there are only 8 charter schools in the state, and a law that caps the total at 20. Officials like Jeffrey Berger, chief financial officer who also is in charge of governmental relations for the education department, wonder why have charter schools been anointed as the savior for public education?

"If you look at charters specifically, there's no evidence that the mere designation of charters means much, as far as education," Berger said. "Those charters that do well have good teachers and good resources."

Weingarten of the AFT issues a familiar refrain regarding charter schools:

"(T)he issue is not whether we should have charter schools but do you have good ones and are they accountable like public schools. The issue we've seen—whereas 17 percent of charter schools do better than the public schools in the neighborhood—34 percent are doing worse than public schools in their neighborhoods. We want to level the playing field. We're not against charter schools, but accountability should be present."

Rural States

Another concern about Race to the Top deals with the question of whether the program takes into account the unique circumstances of rural states.

Armando Vilaseca, Vermont's commission of education, will say that "rural states have some different issues." But he doesn't feel Race to the Top is unfair. "I think when you are secretary of education and you look at this thing in a national perspective, that you need up looking at the large urban areas. And that makes sense," Vilaseca said.

Officials in Montana aren't so sure.

"In Montana we have so many small school communities that the notion of introducing a charter school on top of that really doesn't make any sense," said Madalyn Quinlan, chief of staff in Montana's Department of Public Instruction. "Even in our urban areas, our largest school district has 15,000 kids. It just doesn’t seem to make sense in Montana."

Quinlan, who says state officials could decide to not even submit an application, wonders how rural states can remove poor-performing teachers or potentially close down problem schools. "There isn't a whole new group of teachers ready to move in. That's not the situation in Montana. We're working to build capacity."

How do you improve struggling schools? Gamoran, the education consultant, sees this as the toughest of the four assurances for the states to handle. "We do not know the answer to how to turn around low performing schools. Of the four priorities, by far the hardest one is turning around chronically low-performing schools. If this were easy we would already be doing it."