Disappointing First Leg in Education's Big Race

Amid much fanfare, the president last year launched the Department of Education's "Race to the Top" (RTT). Funded with $4.35 billion in stimulus dollars, the competitive grant program urged states to comply with 19 federal priorities and dramatically expanded Uncle Sam's role in school reform. And, as opposed to the first $100 billion in education stimulus spending, the president promised in the State of the Union that RTT would reflect a new sensibility: "Instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform."

Our earnest secretary of education, former Chicago school superintendent Arne Duncan, repeatedly bragged last year how tough he would be. He promised, "It's going to be a very, very high bar. People won't believe it until we do it. Obviously, hold us accountable for sticking to that." The rhetoric played well, with RTT garnering raves from David Brooks and the Wall Street Journal.

Well, Duncan had his first test last Thursday, when the first round of RTT finalists were announced. And Duncan failed in grand fashion. The contest was about as tough as winning a trophy in peewee soccer. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia were named finalists, out of 41 applicants.

As opposed to the first $100 billion in education stimulus spending, the president promised in the State of the Union that Race to the Top would reflect a new sensibility: "Instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform."

In giving a finalist billet to more than a third of the applicants, Duncan disappointed even Democratic reformers. Old Clinton hand Andy Rotherham, a prominent education reformer who frequently rises to the administration's defense, deemed it "sort of an 'uh oh'" moment. He thought the inclusion of Ohio and New York was "not a great sign" and judged that the administration had honored other applicants, like Illinois and Colorado, that "were arguably bubble states at best." Joe Williams, the New York–based executive director of Democrats for School Reform, described himself "baffled" by the Empire State's inclusion.

The New York and Ohio cases pose particular problems in that neither is regarded as especially reform-minded but both have reportedly brought political muscle to bear on RTT. It was reported last fall that New York Sen. Chuck Schumer told constituents that they could relax, because he'd been assured that New York would be a finalist. And recently it was reported that Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio, facing a fierce reelection contest in a key electoral state, was leaning on Rahm Emanuel to make sure Ohio scored some RTT swag.

When one actually takes a look at the applications, the situation gets even uglier. The Department of Education asked states to document everything in their proposals and issued guidelines that applications should total no more than 350 pages. The result? Every state exceeded the guidelines, with no consequences. States padded their applications with hundreds of pages of letters of support, research papers, jargon-laden memos, and curricula. New York, for instance, included 156 pages of letters of support. It's not clear whether states whose consultants produced less voluminous applications were penalized for their failure.

And those oversized applications were stuffed full of trendy educational buzzwords and catchphrases. New York's 908-page application, for instance, guarantees, "an intense focus on curriculum and meaningful professional development based on student performance; data-driven instruction where teams develop individual student action plans based on data from formative and interim assessments; differentiated professional development and coaching based on data." It pledges "clear, content-rich, sequenced, spiraled, detailed curricular frameworks" for new assessments. And it promises "to support differentiated professional development closely linked to student growth data, identify coaches and mentors using effectiveness ratings closely tied to student growth data, and build data-driven feedback loops between professional development, coaching/mentoring activities, and teacher effectiveness." All that "professional development" talk portends sops to the teachers' unions, of course.

A huge part of the problem here, which has been mostly overlooked, is that RTT embodies two visions of reform. The first cracks open systems hampered by anachronistic bureaucracies and policies; thus the enthusiasm for encouraging states to knock down data firewalls or to lift charter-school caps. These measures don't tell states or local officials what to do with their newfound freedom; they merely create the space in which to act.

The second vision is a reiteration of the familiar progressive predilection for prescriptive reform. For example, RTT requirements demand that states explain how they will use data to improve instruction, intervene in low-performing schools, provide effective support to teachers and leaders, and so on. This vague list of demands for compliance with what the federal government deems the best practices of the moment accounts for 85 percent or more of RTT scoring.

Whereas bureaucracy-busting measures tend to be cut-and-dry--states either did or did not enact certain reform legislation--the bulk of RTT is about promising to do things. Since this kind of compliance is about plans and intentions rather than actions, it's a call to stack up catch phrases and jargon in lieu of action.

Talking a good game raises expectations. Duncan talked a lot of trash, but pulled up lame in the first leg of his big race. We'll see if he can do better on the next lap.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the Director of the Education Policy Studies at AEI.

iStockphoto/Carolina K. Smith, M.D.

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