Race to the Top: Failure in Connecticut, success in neighboring Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island

On February 17, 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the economic stimulus package. It cost the United States a total of $787 billion of which $4.35 billion were appropriated to a fund referred to as the Race to the Top Fund (RTTTF).

The RTTTF consisted of grants that states could compete for by implementing reforms in their educational policies that would encourage significant improvement in student achievement by closing the achievement gaps, increasing the percentage of high school graduates, and preparing them for their careers or undergraduate studies – whichever each individual student would want to pursue right after getting a high school diploma. The competition for grants was designed in a way that gives states flexibility in implementing their K-12 reforms by having two phases of funding where states that received funding in Phase 1 could not participate in Phase 2, while Phase 2 grants were available to states that had not participated in Phase 1 or were rejected funding in Phase 1.1 Therefore, both states that were slow in implementing their reforms and states that failed earlier in the Race to the Top (RTTT) competition were eligible for funding.

There were six criteria for states in order to receive funding from the $4.35 billion federal program – state success factors, standards and assessments, data systems to support instruction, great teachers and leaders, turning around the lowest-achieving schools and three general commitments which include making education funding a priority, ensuring successful conditions for high-performing schools and demonstrating other significant reform conditions. Each of these criteria was given different importance thus putting more emphasis on greater academic achievement by both students and teachers and more focus on principals’ performance (138 points) and less emphasis on the development of statewide data systems (47 points), for example.2

Connecticut participated in the RTTT competition for grants in both phases, and lost in its effort to benefit from the program. Meanwhile, all three of its neighboring states – Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island – were successful in receiving parts of these federal grants. As Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN) Chief Executive Officer Alex Johnston said in reaction to the results, Connecticut was “surrounded by winners… that have all the challenges we have.”3 ConnCAN is an advocacy group that stands for fundamental policy reforms of Connecticut’s public schools.4

National statistics show that Mr. Johnston is right. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the achievement gap between black and white students in public schools concerning mathematics is 32 percent at grade 4 and 38 percent at grade 8 in Connecticut, 25 percent at grade 4 and 40 percent at grade 8 in Massachusetts, 26 percent at grade 4 and 32 percent at grade 8 in New York, and 23 percent at grade 4 and 34 percent at grade 8 in Rhode Island. When it comes to reading, the achievement gap between the two racial groups of students in public schools is 34 percent at grade 4 and 30 percent at grade 8 in Connecticut, 31 percent at grade 4 and 25 percent at grade 8 in Massachusetts, 26 percent at grade 4 and 29 percent at grade 8 in New York, and 29 percent at both grade 4 and grade 8 in Rhode Island.5 The NCES also compared the achievement gap between Hispanic and white students in public schools in both mathematics and reading. In mathematics, it is 26 percent at grade 4 and 34 percent at grade 8 in Connecticut, 26 percent at grade 4 and 34 percent at grade 8 in Massachusetts, 17 percent at grade 4 and 32 percent at grade 8 in New York, and 28 percent at grade 4 and 31 percent at grade 8 in Rhode Island. When it comes to reading, the achievement gap between the two racial groups of students in public schools is 33 percent at grade 4 and 27 percent at grade 8 in Connecticut, 30 percent at grade 4 and 28 percent at grade 8 in Massachusetts, 22 percent at grade 4 and 27 percent at grade 8 in New York, and 31 percent at grade 4 and 26 percent at grade 8 in Rhode Island.6

The NCES data on Connecticut and its neighboring states indicates three consistent characteristics – that by the time they reach their high school level education the achievement gap between white students and students of the two minority groups widens in New York public schools, that it widens in mathematics in all public schools, and that it tightens for Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island in reading. Therefore, ConnCAN CEO Alex Johnston’s statement that Connecticut has all the challenges that Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island have is correct. 

Final Results

In Phase 1 Connecticut ranked 25th with 344.6 points out of 500 possible points when only two states – Delaware (which was granted $100 million) and Tennessee (granted $500 million) – were approved for RTTT grants. In Phase 2, when ten applications were approved for funding, Connecticut improved to 379 points but remained 25th in the ranking and therefore didn’t qualify for funding again ending up without benefiting from the federal program.7

Its loss in Phase 2 is more resounding for two reasons. The first is that its neighboring states – Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island – were among the ten winners, while the second reason is that the three states ranked very high – distant first (with 471 points), second (464.8 points) and fifth (451.2 points) respectively.

Method of Evaluation

As mentioned above, there were six criteria based on which the final result is calculated, and all of them are valued differently. Of the 500 possible points – 138 came from commitment toward better teachers and principals, 125 was the highest score given for school reforms and demonstration of success in raising the level of education and closing achievement gaps, 70 came from developing and adopting common standards and assessments, 55 points were given for additional commitment toward a better schools system, 50 points was the maximum for success in turning around the lowest-achieving schools, and 47 points were given for development of statewide data systems.8 Each state’s application went through five technical reviews on all six criteria after which the average was its score.

The total of 500 points was completed by 15 points for demonstration of a high-quality priority plan that would emphasize on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). This priority is understandable considering the abundance of jobs that generate from science, technology, engineering and mathematics.9

Failure Where

In order to score 72.2 less points than its closest neighboring state from the data – Rhode Island – Connecticut must have lagged behind on least one of the six criteria from the RTTT. A comparison between the four states’ evaluations conducted by their five reviewers in both tiers is necessary in order to determine which criteria cost Connecticut the most points in its bid for the federal grants. Since Connecticut didn’t qualify for Tier 2, its results from Tier 1 will be compared with the results of Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island from both Tier 1 and Tier 2. Where there is no clarification about the tier means that the specific technical reviewer gave the specific state the same number of points.

 

State success factors (Connecticut): 73 (Technical Reviewer 1), 103 (2), 104 (3), 97 (4), 103 (5)

State success factors (Massachusetts): 105 (1), 115 (2), 120 (3), 120 (4), 115 (5 – Tier 1), 117 (5 – Tier 2)

State success factors (New York): 104 (1), 103 (2), 98 (3), 115 (4 – Tier 1), 120 (4 – Tier 2), 115 (5 – Tier 1), 117 (5 – Tier 2)

State success factors (Rhode Island): 99 (1), 103 (2), 104 (3), 98 (4), 104 (5)

 

Standards and assessments (Connecticut): 69 (1), 67 (2), 68 (3), 70 (4), 68 (5)

Standards and assessments (Massachusetts): 70 (1), 70 (2), 70 (3), 70 (4), 69 (5)

Standards and assessments (New York): 70 (1), 70 (2), 70 (3), 70 (4), 70 (5)

Standards and assessments (Rhode Island): 70 (1), 70 (2), 66 (3 – Tier 1), 70 (3 – Tier 2), 70 (4), 70 (5)

Data systems to support instruction (Connecticut): 22 (1), 30 (2), 28 (3), 29 (4), 28 (5)

Data systems to support instruction (Massachusetts): 45 (1), 41 (2), 47 (3 – Tier 1), 45 (3 – Tier 2), 45 (4 – Tier 1), 44 (4 – Tier 2), 47 (5)

Data systems to support instruction (New York): 45 (1), 47 (2), 40 (3 – Tier 1), 43 (3 – Tier 2), 47 (4), 47 (5)

Data systems to support instruction (Rhode Island): 47 (1), 47 (2), 46 (3), 47 (4), 47 (5) 

Great teachers and leaders (Connecticut): 79 (1), 87 (2), 84 (3), 92 (4), 101 (5)

Great teachers and leaders (Massachusetts): 106 (1), 125 (2), 135 (3), 131 (4 – Tier 1), 134 (4 – Tier 2), 134 (5)

Great teachers and leaders (New York): 112 (1), 130 (2), 132 (3 – Tier 1), 135 (3 – Tier 2), 123 (4 – Tier 1), 131 (4 – Tier 2), 121 (5 – Tier 1), 130 (5 – Tier 2)

Great teachers and leaders (Rhode Island): 124 (1), 124 (2 – Tier 1), 114 (2 – Tier 2), 124 (3 – Tier 1), 127 (3 – Tier 2), 116 (4), 117 (5)

Turning around the lowest-achieving schools (Connecticut): 33 (1), 38 (2), 39 (3), 30 (4), 43 (5)

Turning around the lowest-achieving schools (Massachusetts): 50 (1), 50 (2), 45 (3 – Tier 1), 48 (3 – Tier 2), 131 (4 – Tier 1), 134 (4 – Tier 2), 134 (5)

Turning around the lowest-achieving schools (New York): 50 (1), 47 (2), 47 (3 – Tier 1), 50 (3 – Tier 2), 47 (4), 45 (5)

Turning around the lowest-achieving schools (Rhode Island): 50 (1 – Tier 1), 45 (1 – Tier 2), 50 (2 – Tier 1), 45 (2 – Tier 2), 50 (3), 47 (4), 44 (5)

General (Connecticut): 47 (1), 44 (2), 47 (3), 48 (4), 49 (5)

General (Massachusetts): 48 (1), 52 (2), 50 (3), 51 (4), 49 (5)

General (New York): 46 (1), 52 (2 – Tier 1), 49 (2 – Tier 2), 52 (3), 52 (4), 52 (5)

General (Rhode Island): 55 (1 – Tier 1), 53 (1 – Tier 2), 54 (2 – Tier 1), 52 (2 – Tier 2), 52 (3), 55 (4), 48 (5)

STEM (Connecticut): 15 (1), 15 (2), 15 (3), 15 (4), 15 (5)

STEM (Massachusetts): 15 (1), 15 (2), 15 (3), 15 (4), 15 (5)

STEM (New York): 15 (1), 15 (2), 15 (3), 15 (4), 15 (5)

STEM (Rhode Island): 15 (1), 15 (2), 15 (3), 15 (4), 15 (5)

It appears that Technical Reviewer 1 was the main reason for Connecticut to be much behind its neighboring states. Comparing its other four grades with whichever four grades of fifth-place Rhode Island there is no substantial difference in the overall performance of the two states. According to Technical Reviewer 1, the Connecticut plan lacked clarification on how its ambitious targets were set, and participation of the local education authorities (LEA) in the RTTT was deemed doubtful. Technical Reviewer 1 also criticized Connecticut for having not allocated enough funds for turning around the lowest-performing schools, a distinguished effort to close the achievement gap, while it allocated a lot of funds to support leaders and teachers. The reviewer also saw little reference to turning around the lowest-performing schools.10

Data systems to support instruction, though a not very significant criterion to qualify for RTTT funding, was another area where Connecticut did a lot poorer than its neighboring states. In this case, however, all technical reviewers estimated the state poorly. Technical reviewers criticized the state for having not completed all twelve elements of the America COMPETES Act, for having allocated $1.7 million for staff work at the state education agency which was deemed insufficient to create a system compatible with the Race to the Top program, and for having failed to give any specifics on how to use data to improve instruction.11

Great teachers and leaders was the criterion that gave the plurality of points in the RTTT competition. It was also the criterion where Connecticut failed the most compared to its neighboring states. Even its highest score of 101 given by Technical Reviewer 5 is lower than the lowest score that one of its neighbors – Massachusetts – was given – 106 by Technical Reviewer 1. While, according to the technical reviewers, Connecticut did well on providing high-quality pathways for aspiring teachers and principals including their equitable distribution to school districts throughout the state, they didn’t see its application for RTTT funding as being clear on subject assessments. The technical reviewers were also not impressed with the state’s student growth evaluation including addressing English-language learning needs for minority and poor students. Moreover, they viewed teacher and principal evaluation as ineffective and inefficient with annual targets which, according to them, were incompatible (to be implemented during the 2013-2014 school year which is considered late) with the RTTT or confusing overall.12

Turning around the lowest-achieving schools is another criterion where Connecticut did comparatively worse than its neighboring states. Moreover, the technical reviewers again pointed out one particularity in its application that they found in the other criteria of low achievement – lack of specificity. According to them, the state lacked specificity in how to accomplish its goals, one of which is how five of its twenty-three schools identified as the lowest 5 percent in terms of achievement would select one of a total of four intervention models from the RTTT designed to turn them around. Another problem in the state’s effort to turn around the persistently lowest-achieving schools – the area from this criterion that made the difference between Connecticut and its neighboring states – was that it had not implemented any of the four RTTT models.13

Standards and assessments, STEM and general were three criteria where there was negligible difference between Connecticut and its neighboring states. Unfortunately these were the areas where the Race to the Top program put too little emphasis on compared to its emphasis on success factors, and teachers and leaders – two criteria where Connecticut lost the competition, especially in the teachers and leaders criterion where the state lost a lot of points.14

Conclusion

All of the problems connected with Connecticut’s application for RTTT funding largely prevented the state from having benefited from the federal program. Nevertheless, this application process is likely to be necessary for Connecticut politicians in their future efforts to secure federal funding for the state’s schools system. They will be likely to know that more clarification and more specificity will be needed in order to gain access to a federal program of the likes of the Race to the Top.

 

Endnotes

 

1Race to the Top Program. Executive Summary (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2009)

 

2Race to the Top Program. Executive Summary (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2009)

 

3 Robert Frahm, Connecticut watches neighboring states win ‘Race to the Top’ (Connecticut Mirror, 2010) See Paragraph 10

 

4 About Us, A vision for Connecticut (Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, 2011)

 

5 Statistical Analysis Report, Achievement Gaps. How Black and White Students in Public Schools Perform in Mathematics and Reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, 2009), pp. 13, 21

 

6 Statistical Analysis Report, Achievement Gaps. How Hispanic and White Students in Public Schools Perform in Mathematics and Reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, 2011) pp. 19, 27

 

7 Race to the Top, Phase 2 Final Results (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2010)

 

8Race to the Top Program. Executive Summary (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2009)

 

9Race to the Top Program. Executive Summary (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2009)

 

10Race to the Top Connecticut Application. Technical Reviewer Form – Tier 1. Connecticut Application #2300CT-6 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2010)

 

11Race to the Top Connecticut Application. Technical Reviewer Form – Tier 1. Connecticut Applications #2300CT-6, #2300CT-10, #2300CT-7, #2300CT-4, #2300CT-5 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2010)

 

12Race to the Top Connecticut Application. Technical Reviewer Form – Tier 1. Connecticut Applications #2300CT-6, #2300CT-10, #2300CT-7, #2300CT-4, #2300CT-5 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2010)

 

13Race to the Top Connecticut Application. Technical Reviewer Form – Tier 1. Connecticut Applications #2300CT-6, #2300CT-10, #2300CT-7, #2300CT-4, #2300CT-5 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2010)

 

14Race to the Top Connecticut Application. Technical Reviewer Form – Tier 1. Connecticut Applications #2300CT-6, #2300CT-10, #2300CT-7, #2300CT-4, #2300CT-5 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2010)

 

 

 

Data above taken from:

 

Race to the Top Connecticut Application. Technical Reviewer Form – Tier 1. Connecticut Applications #2300CT-6, #2300CT-10, #2300CT-7, #2300CT-4, #2300CT-5 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2010)

 

Race to the Top Massachusetts Application. Technical Reviewer Form – Tier 2. Massachusetts Applications #3100CT-8, #3100MA-4, #3100MA-6, #3100MA-7, #3100MA-5 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2010)

 

Race to the Top New York Application. Technical Reviewer Form – Tier 2. New York Applications #3650NY-6, #36500NY-4, #3650NY-8, #3650NY-5, #3650NY-11 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2010)

 

Race to the Top Rhode Island Application. Technical Reviewer Form – Tier 2. Rhode Island Applications #4150RI-6, #4150RI-11, #4150RI-5, #4150RI-8, #4150RI-10 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2010)

 

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