The American Enterprise Institute released a special report this week, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of President Obama’s signature education initiative: “Race to the Top.” The author, Paul Manna, looks at the incentive structure underlying the competitive federal grant, whose mission is to put the country on a new path focused on educational results, high achievement, and reduced achievement gaps between groups.

While the author recognizes that it’s too early to make a definitive claim to the program’s success or failure, Manna identifies four reasons for caution in being overly optimistic as to the program’s ability to improve public education in America:

  1. the sincerity of states applying to the competition,
  2. the coherence and quality of the states’ applications
  3. the assumptions that states made about their capacity to implement their plans
  4. the need to make challenging political decisions to sustain the more difficult elements of reform

Manna suggests:  

It is worth pondering whether RTT [Race to the Top] applicants were really just engaged in a “race to the trough” rather than a race to the top. There may have been widespread efforts to change state policies in response to RTT’s requirements, but it is hard to assess whether those changes represent genuine commitments from state leaders or simple legislative gamesmanship to better position states to receive federal money.  

Effectively executing RTT initiatives will require mustering administrative capacity and altering bureaucratic routines-two actions that are often difficult to accomplish for large government organizations, such as state education agencies and local school districts. […] many political forces, including changes in state leadership coming in the 2010 elections, could derail states’ efforts to follow through on their promised plans.  

Nowhere in the rubric were states required to promise that student-achievement gains would increase by some overall amount or at a certain trajectory by the end of the four years that winners had to spend their RTT money.  

Manna seems very skeptical of the educational improvements to be expected from Race to the Top, and rightly so. The incentives provided by federal grants too often steer grantees towards compliance, rather than outcome-oriented action. In order to evaluate this particular federal program we should focus on the outcomes achieved, such as higher student performance, improved school culture, and the ability of graduates to find and retain employment. Only time and appropriate data collection will tell whether RTT stands for Race to the Top or Race to the Trough.