Ask Mr. Mullenholz…About Race to the Top!

Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow Greg Mullenholz answers teachers’ burning questions about education policy. In this issue, he takes on Race to the Top (RTT).  

Teacher Question (TQ): What is Race to the Top (RTT)?

Mr. Mullenholz:  RTT is an historic opportunity to support ideas and policies that will lead the way for school reform for the coming decades. RTT awards grants through a competitive process designed to encourage and reward states that are creating the conditions for education innovation and reform. The program provides funding in addition to federal formula for programs such as Title I and IDEA.

Through the RTT competition, states developed progressive plans aimed at achieving student outcomes, like making substantial gains in student achievement, closing achievement gaps, improving high school graduation rates, and ensuring that students are ready for college and careers. States demonstrated a commitment to four areas of reform:  adopting college- and career-ready standards that will help students compete in the workplace and global economy; building data systems to measure student growth and success and inform teachers and school leaders about where to concentrate instruction; recruiting, rewarding, developing, and retaining effective teachers and principals (especially where they are most needed); and turning around persistently lowest-achieving schools.  

TQ:  Which states are participating in Race to the Top?

Mr. M:  The first round of RTT set a high bar, and only two states were awarded grants:  Tennessee and Delaware. During the second round, states improved their plans, and nine states and the District of Columbia received grants. These include:  Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Rhode Island. Currently, six states are competing in the third round, and they include:  Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

TQ:  Is RTT part of the Common Core?

Mr. M:  No. States do not have to adopt the CCSSO’s Common Core State Standards to receive RTT funds.  They do have to show that they have standards for student learning that are preparing students for success in college and careers and that other states are adopting those standards. 

The Common Core State Standards were a state-led effort and were not created or funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The Department has funded two consortia who are working to create next-generation assessment systems that are aligned with the standards.  

TQ:  Why should states have to compete for education funding? 

Mr. M:  While states do have compete to receive RTT funds, it represents a small portion of the overall federal education budget and less than 2 percent of the overall amount spent on K-12 schools over the course of a year. The vast majority of federal funds allocated to states and districts come through formula programs that are provided to every state on the basis of need, not competition. The purpose of the competition is to provide further incentives to states to make needed reforms to improve student learning.

TQ:  What is at stake for students and teachers in the third round of RTT?

Mr. M:  In RTT’s third round of K-12 funding, only states that were finalists in the previous rounds are eligible for grants. Those states stand to share in $200 million dollars, and the winners will be released next week. Depending upon the size of the state’s population, each state stands to be awarded between $12 million and $49 million dollars. However, there is more at stake than money. Race to the Top seeks to spur reform in the states by providing states the funding and ability to create a culture conducive to the continuous improvement of student learning. As Secretary Duncan noted, “Race to the Top round three will enable these states to further their reform efforts already underway and help them get better faster.”

TQ:  How will RTT affect my instruction?

Mr. M:  If you are in a state receiving Race to the Top funds, you should see a comprehensive effort to reform the schools in your state. The activities will include using data to evaluate learning and to develop and support teachers and school leaders. The standards in your state should help you to focus your instruction and to broaden the curriculum and instruction so that you don’t find yourself relegated to teaching to ineffective bubble tests.  Teachers in the lowest performing schools should find increased attention, support, and funding to close gaps and raise student achievement.  Consequently, more of your students should graduate from high school and go on to be successful in higher education or a career. 

If you are not in a state receiving Race to the Top funds, you are likely to experience many of the benefits listed above. The competition itself has stimulated reform in a number of states and districts, regardless of whether or not they have received an RTT grant.


  1. Hi, I’m a teacher in Hawaii. We won RTTT money, but the contract our state and union agreed upon has vague definitions of what evaluations will be. The contract was subsequently voted down.

    Does an evaluation exist? I have read the Danielson model. Is that what RTTT is going with?

  2. I whole heartedly agree that we should be building data systems to measure student growth and success and inform teachers and school leaders about where to concentrate instruction. Why this has not been implemented is beyond me. How can we go where we are going if we don’t know where we are at. More power to you all.

    Concerned citizen and mommy,

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