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What GAO Found

The Department of Education's (Education) Race to the Top (RTT) program encouraged states to reform their K-12 educational systems, but states and districts faced various capacity challenges in implementing the reforms. RTT accelerated education reforms underway and spurred new reforms in all 19 RTT states and in an estimated 81 percent of districts, according to GAO's surveys of RTT grantees and districts that received RTT funds. At the same time, states and districts noted various challenges to their capacity to successfully support, oversee, and implement these reform efforts. For example, about one-quarter to one-third of RTT states reported that their greatest challenges involved obtaining support from stakeholders such as teacher organizations. In contrast, districts primarily reported that their greatest challenges involved financial and human capital capacity, especially with competitive compensation and standards and assessments. Additionally, rural districts reported facing greater challenges than urban and suburban districts. Education is to assist grantees in achieving successful project outcomes according to its grants handbook, while holding them accountable for their RTT reform plans. Yet, GAO found no specific activities tailored to rural needs in areas grantees identified as most challenging. A better understanding of the capacity challenges rural districts face could help Education better target its technical assistance to districts that need it the most.

In response to GAO's survey, many RTT states reported that technical assistance from Education officials and its contractor was more helpful than other RTT resources, such as web-based materials. Ten states also reported they would benefit from additional support in areas such as training and professional development. Education created a new office to oversee and provide coordinated support to RTT and other programs, and intends to develop office-wide coordinated technical assistance policies. Federal internal control standards note that adequate policies help ensure that actions are taken to address risks to achieving an agency's objectives. However, Education has not determined the type or amount of technical assistance to be provided and its policies are still being developed. RTT's $43 million technical assistance contract ends in June 2015, which may create a gap in assistance to states. Unless Education focuses on technical assistance activities that states found most useful, it risks providing ineffective assistance to programs supporting these education reforms.

GAO's panel of RTT and grant experts identified key lessons learned, such as leveraging existing funding flexibilities under federal formula grants, to help address capacity needs and sustain reforms when RTT ends in September 2015. Districts and schools may not, however, be using these flexibilities to their fullest extent, in part because of uncertainty about what is allowed under federal requirements. Federal internal control standards state that information should be communicated in a form that enables an agency to achieve its objectives. Education lacks time frames for finalizing and disseminating new guidance for states to clarify federal formula grant flexibilities; and recognizes the need for, but has not developed guidance to help auditors better understand these flexibilities. Such guidance, when finalized, may help states and districts sustain education reforms, thereby raising student achievement – a primary objective of reform.

Why GAO Did This Study

Education created RTT under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. From 2010 through 2011, Education awarded $4 billion in competitive grant funds to 19 states to reform core areas of K-12 education. RTT states also committed to building capacity to implement and sustain reforms. GAO and others previously reported that capacity challenges had adversely affected RTT implementation and could hinder efforts to sustain the reforms. GAO was asked to further examine these challenges.

This report examines: (1) the effect of RTT on reform and capacity challenges states and districts faced, (2) how helpful Education's assistance was to states in building and sustaining capacity, and (3) lessons learned that could inform future reform efforts.

GAO surveyed all 19 RTT states and a generalizable sample of RTT districts; held an expert panel; reviewed RTT applications, progress reports, relevant federal laws and regulations, and literature; and interviewed officials from seven selected states and districts, chosen based on survey responses. GAO selected expert panelists based on research or experience with RTT, capacity issues, and federal grants.

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GAO recommends that Education incorporate into its coordinated policies technical assistance grantees found most useful, target assistance to rural districts, and issue guidance to help states and auditors with funding flexibilities. Education did not explicitly agree or disagree with GAO's recommendations, but outlined steps to address many aspects of them.

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Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Education 1. To help ensure that states are better able to sustain RTT reforms and that Education can effectively support other grant programs managed by the Office of State Support, the Secretary of Education should direct the Office of State Support to fully implement and incorporate into its coordinated technical assistance policies and procedures the types of support that would be useful in sustaining RTT reforms and providing effective support to grantees in other programs supporting education reform that the Office of State Support oversees. These could include: (1) providing individualized technical assistance to states, such as that currently provided by Education program officers; (2) facilitating communities of practice to promote opportunities for collaboration across states; (3) providing professional development (or training) throughout the grant period, as opposed to only during the early stages of the grant; (4) making training more easily accessible by conducting training locally in their respective states, when possible; and (5) to the extent permissible in the context of federal and state requirements and restrictions, exploring the possibility of assisting states in identifying skilled contractors to help implement reform efforts.
Closed - Implemented
In 2015, Education stated that the Office of State Support drafted a technical assistance plan with input from stakeholders that addresses all of the suggestions in this recommendation. In September 2017, Education provided a "Draft Conceptual Framework for OSS Technical Assistance Plan" dated March 2016, which the agency confirmed to be a final version. In January 2018, Education provided support of its many activities, including webinars, written documents, and a technical assistance website that addresses our recommendation. Many of these sites include detailed information on practices that will support grantees and other states in supporting RTT reforms and efforts.
Department of Education 2. To help states address capacity challenges as they sustain comprehensive education reforms similar to RTT, the Secretary of Education direct the Office of State Support to take steps, such as: (1) providing ongoing individualized technical assistance to states to help them target assistance to rural districts, particularly in the reform areas that were most challenging for rural districts; (2) finalizing and disseminating guidance to be included in Education's toolkit to help states leverage federal formula grants to sustain education reforms; and (3) clarifying and improving understanding of how funding flexibilities in existing formula grants could be used to support education reform efforts to help states and the audit community address impediments to using formula grants in different ways.
Closed - Implemented
In 2015, Education stated that it expected to release a toolkit for states and districts on ways to leverage federal grants to sustain educational reforms. In 2017, Education provided non-regulation guidance and powerpoint slides that provides this information rather than a toolkit. Specifically, the guidance includes material to help states leverage federal formula grants to sustain education reforms, and clarifies how funding flexibilities in existing formula grants could be used to support education reform efforts with respect to using formula grants in different ways.

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