With the Department of Education’s release of its latest Race to the Top competition—this one focused on school districts instead of states—there has been a slew of pieces about whether these types of competitions are good ideas and around what the federal government does well and poorly in education.

Given the overriding focus in this particular competition around moving beyond one-size-fits-all schooling toward a student-centric model—a central goal of my work—there has been an assumption by many that this must be, on balance, a step forward.

The truth is more complicated, however.

I am excited that the Department has specifically highlighted that the creation of a student-centric education system is a necessary goal. I believe that is a great use of its bully pulpit.

I have some concerns, however, over whether this competition can meaningfully accomplish this aim or if it might even create an unintended backlash against it. As the executive director of Innosight Institute, I submitted comments on the specific rules of this competition. They reflect our concern that a competition ostensibly designed to create a student-centric, personalized education system focuses too much on teaching instead of learning; has as one of its key metrics of success “attendance,” which could be at odds with a competency-based learning system and is, at best, an input correlated with student success that is not causal of it; and is too prescriptive of specific inputs instead of focusing on desired end outcomes and leaving room for innovation.

In general, this view may not be surprising given that we have made a point of pushing policymakers to focus on moving to outcomes-based policies as opposed to input-based ones. In many respects, I share AEI Director of Education Policy Studies Rick Hess’s worry that all too often these competitions fall back on things that are easy to measure rather than those things that are truly important. Hess’s admonition that the federal government does certain things well—such as exercise influence from its bully pulpit; create transparency and better information; and fund basic research—makes good sense.

I suggest adding one overarching construct as well. Those policies that create the basic conditions for innovation around student learning—even if they aren’t necessarily focused on student outcomes in and of themselves—are important. The original Race to the Top, for example, incentivized states to lift their caps on charter schools (which Hess has said is something the federal government can do well because it establishes a clear, bright line). Lifting such a cap does not guarantee improved student achievement—as Hess I think would note, just because the federal government can cause a state to lift its cap on charters does not mean that the state will do chartering well; the state won’t necessarily approve any charter schools nor will it necessarily have strong authorizing bodies that approve and sustain good charters and close bad ones. But we know that with a cap in place, none of these things could happen either. Given today’s education system, eliminating the cap is an important step toward creating sound conditions for innovation—both disruptive and, in this case, sustaining. Although it has taken a while, charters have gradually caused highly populated school districts to compete and implement sustaining innovations by running a portfolio of schools as opposed to one-size-fits-all school models (and because this is a sustaining innovation, our theories suggest that ultimately districts, not charters, are where the majority of American students will continue to be educated). Federal policies creating sound conditions for a highly functioning education system make sense, even if those policies cannot guarantee good execution.

There is a potential downside here, however. If the stated or assumed intent of these “market-condition” reforms is that in and of themselves they will be effective, then these sorts of policies might be problematic. As Hess has written, the federal government has shown time and again that it cannot mandate that entities implement reforms effectively. The lousy implementation of these types of reforms can therefore easily tarnish or create a backlash against them, even if they were never meant to guarantee success in and of themselves—a risk that Race to the Top invites.

Beyond creating the conditions for innovation, this understanding makes it important that for any competition of this sort, it is important to be clear that not everything will be successful. Failure is a critical part of innovation and improvement. Today the venture capital industry assumes that over 80 percent of its investments will fail, for example, and although we think it is possible to do better in predicting ultimate success in the private sector, society swings the other way in public education, as we don’t tolerate any level of risk and failure. Building capacity in districts and creating cover and space for them to innovate—knowing that perhaps most of the innovations will fail—is critical.

There is a real question, however, if the federal government can be the one to create this capacity for innovation in districts. The question emerges because of the legal requirement that the federal government make the rubric by which it will award winners as objective as possible, so that there can be no accusation of favoritism or cronyism. By default this means that the federal government must measure those things that are measurable. Given that the competition is around judging plans for innovation, not the actual results of the innovation, those measurements must focus on inputs built around tightly prescriptive theories of change. That is, barring omniscience, selection criteria such as “the extent to which the applicants vision will translate into increased improved student performance and equity” are impossible to prove until one has actually done just this. The necessary effort to systematize the competition around inputs then, by definition, works against innovation—which leads in part to the challenges we see in the current Race to the Top District draft rules.

This begs another question, which is that if the federal government is going to be severely hampered in its ability to run a prize that helps districts build capacity for innovation, why not instead run prizes that reward actual improvement in student learning after it has been done? This prize—or bonus—would in some sense be the true carrot to the No Child Left Behind stick. It could be given on an ongoing basis to the top districts with a certain percentage of Title I eligible students that showed the most improvement in a given period of time (and had not accomplished this because their results had slipped in a prior year for the purpose of making their gains appear more impressive). To do this right, we would need good outcome measures that captured true individual student learning growth along a variety of dimensions, which would have to look quite different from our current assessment system. This requirement would incentivize districts and states to move such systems—true competency-based learning systems that could prioritize growth for each student. And ultimately it is this that would encourage districts to experiment and implement different innovations to bolster student learning to realize the prize.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.