Race to the Top:

Reform Efforts Are Under Way and Information Sharing Could Be Improved

GAO-11-658: Published: Jun 30, 2011. Publicly Released: Jun 30, 2011.

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In the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Congress required the U.S. Department of Education (Education) to make education reform grants to states. Education subsequently established the Race to the Top (RTT) grant fund and awarded almost $4 billion to 12 states related to developing effective teachers and leaders, improving the lowest-achieving schools, expanding student data systems, and enhancing standards and assessments. This report, prepared in response to a mandate in the act, addresses (1) actions states took to be competitive for RTT grants; (2) how grantees plan to use their grants and whether selected nongrantees have chosen to move forward with their reform plans; (3) what challenges, if any, have affected early implementation of states' reform efforts; and (4) Education's efforts to support and oversee states' use of RTT funds. GAO analyzed RTT applications for 20 states, interviewed state officials, visited 4 grantee states, analyzed states' planned uses of grant funds, and interviewed Education officials.

State officials GAO interviewed said their states took a variety of actions to be competitive for RTT grants. Of the 20 states GAO interviewed, officials in 6 said their states undertook reforms, such as amending laws related to teacher evaluations, to be competitive for RTT. However, officials from 14 states said their reforms resulted from prior or ongoing efforts and were not made to be more competitive for RTT. While officials in all 20 states told us that applying for RTT took a significant amount of time and effort, several of them also said their state benefited from the planning that the application process required. Grantees plan to use RTT grant funds to implement reforms in four areas. The largest percentage of state-level RTT funds will be used to increase the effectiveness of teachers and leaders. GAO interviewed officials in 8 nongrantee states who said they expect to continue implementing parts of their RTT plans, though at a slower pace than if they had received a grant. Most grantee states have faced a variety of challenges, such as difficulty hiring qualified personnel, that have delayed implementation. As a result, as of June 2011, about 12 percent of first-year grant funds were spent, and some projects were delayed several months. Some state officials said they expect to spend more funds soon and may seek Education's approval to reallocate some first-year grant funds into later years. Education has provided extensive support to grantee states and has begun monitoring. Education assigned a program officer to each state to assist with implementation and has developed ways for grantees to share information, such as hosting meetings on specific initiatives. Some officials from nongrantee states said they would find this information useful, but they were generally unaware of these resources or were unable to access them. GAO recommends that the Secretary of Education (1) facilitate information sharing among grantees on additional promising practices and (2) provide nongrantee states with related information. Education agreed with the first recommendation and partially agreed with the second; GAO modified that recommendation to clarify how Education can provide that information to nongrantee states.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Education has taken steps to facilitate Race to the Top grantees' sharing of promising practices on key topics of interest the department had not addressed at the time of our report. Since our report was issued, Education has established Communities of Practice to address multiple topics, such as turning around low-performing schools and stakeholder communications and engagement. According to Education, the department established these Communities based on feedback grantees provided in a survey as well as on-going discussions with grantees. Each Community engages in activities, such as webinars or publications, to share promising practices. The department oversees the activities of each Community by managing a workplan that includes the target dates for each activity. In addition, the department communicates these activities to members of each Community of Practice via emails and calls as well as a monthly update to all grantees with upcoming dates and events.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the lessons learned from RTT are shared with all states, and not only grantees, the Secretary of Education should facilitate grantees' sharing of promising practices on key topics of interest that the department has not yet addressed, such as the design and implementation of data systems to improve instruction.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department, working with Race to the Top grantees, has created several resources, including guidance documents, webinars, policy briefs, and case study reports, and made them available to all states, including non-grantees, on a departmental website. For example, the Department issued a brief on aligning college- and career-ready content standards with frameworks used to observe educators, as part of a teacher evaluation system. The resources address multiple topics including teacher effectiveness, turning around low-performing schools, and developing instructional improvement and data systems. As a result, lessons learned from Race to the Top may benefit all states in their efforts to implement similar reforms.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the lessons learned from RTT are shared with all states, and not only grantees, the Secretary of Education should provide nongrantee states with information from the department's existing mechanisms, including the secure grantee Web site and communities of practice.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education


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