Skip to content
April 15th, 2016
Education • Finance

Race To the Top (RTT): reforming education in key American states

President Obama took office in 2009 with the intention of reforming several areas of the economy and civil society. Central to these was RTT, an initiative to bring innovative reforms to schools through competitive grants to selected states. RTT’s goals included higher levels of student attainment and a narrowing of “the achievement gap”.

The initiative

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), was a piece of legislation designed to stimulate the economy, support job creation and invest in critical sectors, including education. ARRA invested US$4.35 billion in a fund for Race to the Top (RTT), a competitive grant programme. In exchange for dramatic changes to their education systems, it awarded 11 states and the District of Columbia tens or hundreds of million dollars over four years, after two rounds of competition.

States pledged to accelerate student performance, while adopting more rigorous academic standards, and to rate teachers and principals in part on students' performance. To be competitive, states also had to do away with limits or bans on charter schools, open alternative routes to certification for teachers, and improve teacher preparation programmes.

A third, much smaller, competition awarded seven states smaller sums for projects of a more limited scope.

The overall aims of the RTT programme were to:

  • Encourage and reward states that created the conditions for education innovation and reform.
  • Achieve significant improvement in student achievements and outcomes.
  • Close achievement gaps.
  • Improve high school graduation rates.
  • Ensure that students were prepared for success in college and careers.

This entailed implementing plans in four areas of educational reform:

  • Adopting suitable standards and assessments.
  • Building data systems to measure student progress and inform teachers and principals how teaching could be improved.
  • Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals.
  • Turning around the lowest-achieving schools.

ARRA therefore supported investment in innovative strategies that were most likely to lead to improved results for students, long-term gains in school and school system capacity, and increased productivity and effectiveness.

The challenge

When President Obama took office in 2009, he was concerned about the low levels of educational attainment in schools and the impact that might have on the US’s place in the global economy. As part of the federal economic stimulus package (responding to the financial crisis of 2007-08), he sought to address many challenges, including the inequality of achievement between schools in wealthier and lower-income areas.

The public impact

An evaluation of the results concluded that “by 2014, winning states had adopted, on average, 88 percent of the policies, compared to 68 percent among losing states, and 56 percent among states that never applied.” [1] It summarised the public impact as a qualified success: “no single test provides incontrovertible evidence about its causal effects. The overall findings, however, indicate that Race to the Top had a meaningful impact on the production of education policy across the United States”.

The evaluation also stated that after the conclusion of RTT “all states experienced a marked surge in the adoption of education policies. And legislators from all states reported that Race to the Top affected policy deliberations within their states. While it is possible that Race to the Top appeared on the scene at a time when states were already poised to enact widespread policy reforms, several facts suggest that the initiative is at least partially responsible for the rising rate of policy adoption from 2009 onward.”

Stakeholder engagement

The RTT was launched by the Department of Education (ED) through funding provided under ARRA. ED was the principal stakeholder, being solely responsible for designing and operating RTT. The other main stakeholders were President Obama, who was personally committed to ARRA and its aims to stimulate growth and attainment, and the states that received the RTT funding along with those of their employees who were engaged in education, such as principals and schoolteachers.

After the enactment of ARRA, Congress did not make any conditions for the programme's design or administration. “From an operational standpoint, Race to the Top was nearly entirely the handiwork of ED.”

Political commitment

The Obama Administration was deeply committed to ARRA and its proposed areas of investment and revitalisation, of which RTT was one. This commitment was channelled through ED, which funded, launched, promoted and monitored RTT. Even after the initial funds had been exhausted at the end of Phase II in 2011, further funding was provided for the third phase by Congress on the insistence of President Obama.

Public confidence

There is a broad confidence of the majority of the American electorate in the Obama Administration, as evident from its victory in the 2012 presidential elections. However, there is no information on how the general public responded to RTT, although there is evidence that some staff had little confidence in the programme. Delegates to the National Education Association (NEA), the union of school and college educators and support staff who are engaged in public sector education, brought a vote of ‘no confidence’ in the RTT in 2010.

Clarity of objectives

The objectives of the act were clearly stated and defined (see The initiative above) and formed a cogent vision for education reform, taking in student attainment, closing the achievement gap, engaging principals and teachers, and seeking ultimately to prepare pupils for further education and their entry into the job market.

As a Center for American Progress article stated at the time: "Race to the Top, one of President Obama's signature education initiatives, seeks to move the needle on student achievement. In his words, ‘It's time to stop talking about education reform and start actually doing it. It's time to make education America's national mission.'” [2]


The RTT programme was designed by the Federal government as part of the ARRA stimulus package. It was backed, therefore, by a major piece of statutory legislation. It was funded by the federal government - through ARRA - thus making it fiscally workable.

However, there were doubts about the feasibility of its success, for example: "with one exception, every grantee state promised to raise student achievement and close achievement gaps to degrees that would be virtually or literally impossible even with much longer timelines and larger funding boosts”. [3]


There were effective measurement functions involved. In order to receive a federal grant, each competing state had to present its case to ED, which had a points system based on a number of parameters to evaluate each case. For example,' Great Teachers and Leaders' contributed a maximum of 138 points, while ‘Turning Around the Lowest-Achieving Schools' offered 50 of the maximum total of 500 points,

There was a continuous monitoring process of each state's progress, through annual performance reports, accountability protocols, and site visits by ED. “Each winning state's drawdown of funds, then, depended upon its ability to meet the specific goals and timelines outlined in its scope of work." [4]

The department also hired three well-respected research firms to conduct a comprehensive evaluation. However, there is no information on the adaptations made to the policy on the basis of the measured outcomes.


The basic objective behind RTT was to apply innovative reforms to education in selected states. ED was the key player and assisted the states in writing their applications by offering technical assistance through webinars and workshops, and non-profit organisations, such as the National Council on Teacher Quality, published informative reports.

It had a proper mechanism in place to monitor the progress, analysed the applications for grant by states in a systematic manner, and provided funds to the winning states. Even the states who were unable to win an RTT grant (for example, California) as well as the ones that did not apply (for example, Alaska) reformed their education systems

Legislators from all states reported that RTT affected policy deliberations within their states and that the states were largely aligned with ED in supporting RTT. However, as indicated above (see Public confidence), the NEA.

The Public Impact Fundamentals - A framework for successful policy

This case study has been assessed using the Public Impact Fundamentals, a simple framework and practical tool to help you assess your public policies and ensure the three fundamentals - Legitimacy, Policy and Action are embedded in them.

Learn more about the Fundamentals and how you can use them to access your own policies and initiatives.

Explore the Fundamentals