Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Race to the Top Anniversary

February 25, 2011

Two years ago, President Obama launched a “Race to the Top” to improve education in America. In that short time, the program catalyzed unprecedented reforms to help all students graduate college- and career-ready. 

But if President Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan rented the concert hall, credit goes to governors and state policy-makers for making the music. Even before a single dollar was awarded, states began changing the way teachers are evaluated to incorporate student performance, removing restrictions on the growth of charter schools and developing better data systems to track student progress.

For example, Tennessee is creating an “Achievement School District” to turn around the lowest-performing schools. North Carolina is developing 10 “anchor schools” focused on teaching science, technology, engineering, and math as innovation labs and teacher professional development sites. And in Colorado, state leaders adopted the most sweeping changes to teacher evaluation in the nation.

These changes—and dozens of other innovative improvement efforts across the United States—are vitally important to ensuring that young people are prepared to succeed and that our nation is competitive in the 21st century.

Two years later, however, nearly every state still faces a serious budget deficit. Balancing the books means making tough choices—but it shouldn’t mean giving up on improving education. Recently, Bill Gates spoke to the nation’s education chiefs about the need to raise student achievement during a time of shrinking budgets. He outlined our nation’s central challenge: “For more than 30 years, our costs have risen while performance stayed flat. Now we need our performance to rise while spending stays flat.”

To achieve this, we have to stop spending money on what we know doesn’t work and make informed, productive investments that help to improve student achievement. Research shows that teachers make a bigger impact on student achievement than any other variable in a school. Yet nearly all teachers receive pay increases based on their education and length of service—not how effective they are in helping students achieve academic growth.

These choices add up to big investments. Schools spend nearly $15 billion per year in compensation for teachers who have earned master’s degrees. Yet numerous studies show that having a master’s degree makes little contribution to student achievement.

One of the most costly decisions school districts and states make is to set arbitrary limits on class size. Beyond the early elementary grades, there is no strong research linking reductions in class size to significant educational impacts. In fact, a North Carolina study (PDF) found that having a strong teacher, rather than weak one, had an effect on student test scores 14 times greater than reducing class size by five students.

Relaxing class size restrictions would free up the resources that schools need to train and retain effective teachers—and for technology that could allow teachers to individualize instruction. Increasing class size by just one student nation-wide would save billions of dollars. That money could be used to give highly effective teachers a real raise for teaching additional students and help good teachers become great. A study of Washington state teachers (PDF) found that 83 percent of teachers surveyed preferred a salary increase of $5,000 over having two fewer students in their classes.

At the Gates Foundation, we are supporting research to understand what makes a great teacher and tools to support effective instruction (PDF). We’re also listening to teachers about what they need to focus on what matters most: the success of their students. These projects can inform states and school districts as they develop policies and realign budgets to focus on improving effective teaching.

Challenging long-held assumptions about how our schools are organized and funded will not be easy. But it will be necessary if states are to continue down the path of reform paved by the Race to the Top.

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