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Thirty-five states and Washington, D.C. submitted applications today for the second round of President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top competition, with a few states deciding the race isn’t worth winning.

Delaware and Tennessee were the lone winners in the first round of the competition in March, beating out 14 other finalists. The two states will receive a combined $600 million, with another $3.4 billion available in the second round for what is anticipated to be another 10-15 winners, to be announced this fall.

Massachusetts Race to the Top
Courtesy Milken Family Foundation

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan conceived of Race to the Top as an education “stimulus” for change. The program rewards states that promise to raise achievement using the Obama administration’s preferred methods: adopting common core standards, promoting charter schools, linking teacher pay to student performance and turning around low-achieving schools. The unprecedented federal intervention into local schools has been welcomed by some cash-strapped states, but it’s also meeting resistance from high-achievers like Minnesota and Massachusetts, which wonder whether the second round of Race to the Top is even worth winning. Minnesota applied the first time around but declined to do so in the second round. Massachusetts applied in both rounds.

“There’s a lot of disappointment and anger in Massachusetts that our outstanding track record in education reform was not recognized,” said Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary. Massachusetts often tops state education rankings based on its performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also called the “Nation’s Report Card,” but it failed to make the grade in the first round, finishing a distant 13th when first-round winners were announced on March 29th.

Education officials and academics in Massachusetts worry they’ll have to “dumb down” their rigorous academic standards to comply with Race to the Top guidelines. Virginia pulled out of the competition last week because it doesn’t want to adopt common standards it deems inferior to its own.  For the same reason, Texas never even applied in the first round.

Though Massachusetts lost out in the first round – in part because it wouldn’t commit to adopting common standards – the state is now vying for a second chance at a $250 million grant. Adoption of common standards counts for 20 points out of a possible 500.

Massachusetts is proud of its detailed and rigorous state standards. The math standards require elementary school students to solve word-problems involving fractions, decimals and percents. By seventh grade, students solve simple algebraic equations and analyze linear change with two variables. In English Language Arts, third-graders learn grammar by identifying basic parts of speech, and fifth-graders explore hyperbole and similes. Ninth- and tenth-graders are expected to “use knowledge of Greek, Latin, Norse mythology, the Bible and other works often alluded to in British and American literature to understand the meaning of new words.”

Still, Massachusetts officials have since considered adopting the new common standards to bolster their application, causing anguish among those who believe the state’s standards are the nation’s best and shouldn’t be compromised.

Different standards

Massachusetts boasts some of the best academic standards in the nation. Compare Massachusetts’ standards with those of Idaho – a state that isn’t highly regarded for its standards.



Grade 1: Identify the current President of the United States, describe what presidents do, and explain that they get their authority from a vote by the people


Grade 5: Name President and Vice President of the United States and the United States senators and congressional representatives from Idaho.


Grade 6: Identify when India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Central Asian republics first became independent countries and explain how independence was achieved. Explain the relationship of the Central Asian republics to the former Soviet Union.


Grades 6-9: Give examples of the different routes to independence from colonial rule taken by countries.




Grades 9-10: Use knowledge of Greek, Latin, and Norse mythology, the Bible, and other works often alluded to in British and American literature to understand the meanings of new words.


Grade 10: 1 Apply knowledge of roots and word parts to draw inferences about new words.




Grades 1-2: Identify parts of the day (e.g., morning, afternoon, evening), week, month, and calendar.


Grade 2: Recite the months of the year, in order.


Grades 3-4: Describe, model, draw, compare, and classify two- and three-dimensional shapes, e.g. circles, polygons – especially triangles and quadrilaterals – cubes, spheres and pyramids.


Grade 4: Compare and contrast a cube and a rectangular prism in terms of the number and shape of their faces, edges, and vertices.

– by Sarah Butrymowicz

Sources: Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Idaho State Department of Education

Tennessee, a historically low-achieving state, won about $500 million in the first round with an application that garnered bipartisan and teachers’ union support for, among other things, basing 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation on student performance data. The other state to win in the first round, Delaware, which also ties teacher evaluations to student test scores, is receiving about $100 million.

“I found it amazing that those two states won the Race to the Top,” says Paul Peterson, director of the program on education policy and governance at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “I know there’s more to Race to the Top than setting high standards, but I found it totally bizarre that Massachusetts has the highest standards in the nation and didn’t win anything.”

Peterson oversaw a recent study that gave Tennessee an “F” and Delaware a “C-” for watering down their state achievement tests. Massachusetts earned an “A” because its test, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), is thought to be very rigorous.

Massachusetts has some built-in advantages, including the fact that its students generally come from families that are wealthier and better-educated than much of the rest of the United States. But Massachusetts officials say they still face difficult challenges. The achievement of the state’s black and Hispanic students lags behind that of Asians and whites, a longstanding problem that the state is trying to address in its second-round Race to the Top application.

Secretary Duncan praised the states that applied. “This took a lot of hard work and political courage,” Duncan said. “It required administrators, elected officials, union leaders, teachers and advocates to work together and embrace a common reform agenda. Every state that applied now has a blueprint for raising educational quality across America.”

But some states have already dropped out. Minnesota gave up after the first round when teachers’ unions blocked state legislation linking teacher pay to student performance. Vermont won’t apply because of the requirements to expand charter schools and link teacher pay to performance. Kansas bowed out for similar reasons.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement today that some states didn’t work well with teachers’ unions. “What is especially troubling about the states that failed to work with teachers unions is that, as teachers well know, the common denominator for all good schools is an environment where the adults work together on behalf of the students,” Weingarten said.

Despite the various challenges, many states scrambled to become more competitive by today’s deadline. Last Friday, the New York Assembly voted to more than double the number of charter schools in the state, in hopes of winning some $700 million. New Jersey’s largest teachers’ union last week reversed its opposition to merit pay for teachers and announced it would support the state’s application to improve its chances of bringing $400 million to the state’s cash-strapped schools.

Connecticut passed a new education law that its two major teachers’ unions helped craft. It requires teacher evaluations to be based partly on student performance. Rhode Island, without an endorsement from the state chapter of the National Education Association, submitted its second round application, hoping to win $75 million.

Massachusetts strengthened its application by passing legislation in January allowing more charter schools. In addition, the state board of education is considering how to link teacher pay to student performance.  The Massachusetts Teachers’ Association – the state’s largest union – has endorsed the state’s Race to the Top application. The state’s other teachers’ union, the Massachusetts branch of the American Federation of Teachers, did not.

The biggest fight in Massachusetts is about common core standards. In March, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers unveiled specific grade-level standards in reading, writing and math that the Obama administration hopes all states will adopt. But Massachusetts education officials in the administration of Gov. Deval Patrick had doubts about the rigor of the proposed standards and declined to commit to adopting them in the first round. Now, they say they’ve pushed to improve the standards and will consider signing on to them.

The Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank that favors charter schools and has long pushed for rigorous state standards, is incensed. “It will be nothing short of educational folly if the Patrick administration discards this hard-won legacy for a bag of money,” Jamie Gass, director of the institute’s Center for School Reform, wrote in an email.

The Patrick administration has also said it is exploring the development of national assessments as part of Race to the Top. The Pioneer Institute voiced concern that officials would scrap the MCAS in favor of a national test. Education officials in Massachusetts deny any plan to scrap the test, but this week the state senate approved an amendment affirming the current policy requiring students to pass the tenth-grade MCAS to graduate.

Gass believes the state standards are at the heart of what many call the “Massachusetts Education Miracle.” Almost 20 years ago, a Democratic legislature passed, and Republican Gov. William Weld signed, the Education Reform Act of 1993. The landmark legislation was the state’s response to a call for reform that had begun ten years earlier with the 1983 Nation at Risk report, which warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity” in U.S. schools.

The 1993 Massachusetts bill poured hundreds of millions more dollars into schools, in return for the schools agreeing to raise their standards and enforce those standards through testing. The state rewrote its curriculum guidelines, detailing grade-level content for local school districts. For example, high school students today must analyze the characters, structure and themes of classical Greek drama and epic poetry. The legislature also instituted rigorous testing for both students and teachers.

Student achievement in Massachusetts soared. In 2007, the math scores of Massachusetts fourth-graders rivaled those of traditionally top-scoring Taiwan and Japan on the world’s largest assessment of international achievement, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

The Fordham Institute, a Washington-based conservative think tank that generally supports the types of reform promoted in Race to the Top, periodically issues a study on state standards. In its latest study, which looked at 2006 standards, Massachusetts earned straight “A”s in English, math, science, U.S. history and world history. By contrast, Tennessee received a “D” in English and math, a “B” in science, a “C” in U.S. history and a “D” in world history.

Under the Tennessee standards studied in the report, elementary school students aren’t even required to master basic computation without calculators, which students use beginning in first grade.

The Fordham Institute also judged the proposed common core standards, giving the math standards an “A-” and the English Language Arts standards a “B.”

This year, Tennessee education officials put into place new standards that closely match the proposed national guidelines. “I do not think that will be a difficult switch for us to make,” says Amanda Anderson, a spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Education.

Linda Noonan, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which promoted the 1993 reform act, supports the Massachusetts Race to the Top application because she believes it could push the state to new heights of academic achievement.

“There are clearly people concerned that the sky is falling and that any change is a step backward,” she says. “We feel that we can’t ever stand still. We’re the best of a poor-performing bunch.”

Ricki Morell is a freelance writer based in Boston. Susan Sawyers of The Hechinger Report contributed reporting to this story.

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  1. Readers should know that a revised draft of the Massachusetts ELA standards and a revised draft of the Massachusetts mathematics standards will be posted on the Department’s website ( by next week. These drafts were begun in 2008 as part of a regular cycle of reviewing and revising standards documents. They were put on a shelf when Common Core’s initiative began. The ELA draft was finished in November 2009 and sent to Common Core’s draft writers to use as they wished.

    They are important because they show the direction in which Massachusetts was going in order to improve and strengthen its already good standards of 2000/2001. These are the standards that the public should be comparing to Common Core’s final versions. Sandra Stotsky

  2. The article indicates that student achievement “soared” after the implementation of Ed Reform in 1993. I am wondering what that is based on. Though it appears to me that math scores have improved significantly since 1992 on the NAEP tests (average of about 25 points), it appears that little progress has been made in reading. Since 1992, NAEP reading scores for Mass have improved by 8 points for 4th graders and 5 points for 8th graders. On a 500 point scale that doesn’t strike me as much.

    Jack Hall

  3. What the author of this article does not include is that Tennessee revised all of its math, science, and language arts standards effective the 2009-2010 school year. The evaluation of our standards were based on the 2006 version. Granted, our state standards in 2006 were deficient.

    As a member of the committee in Tennessee that revised and rewrote our math standards, I imagine the Fordham Institute will have a different “grade” for Tennessee’s standards if (and when) they reexamine them.

  4. Ninth- and tenth-graders are expected to “use knowledge of Greek, Latin, Norse mythology, the Bible and other works often alluded to in British and American literature to understand the meaning of new words.”


    All of our MA school’s 10th graders are proficient on 10th grade MCAS.

    And I can tell you, zero know any Norse mythology.

    Love, Thor.

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