Stroll to the Top

On March 29, the Department of Education announced the first-round winners in its Race to the Top (RTTT) competition. The $4.35 billion grant program has been hailed by liberals and conservatives alike for its potential to encourage states to improve their K-12 schooling. Yet while the incentive-fueled program shows promise, its sputtering engine has not matched its sleek exterior.

RTTT, a pet project of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, dispenses grants to states based on their submitted plans in four areas: adopting standards and assessments for measuring student performance; building better data systems and using them to improve educational outcomes; raising the quality of teachers and principals through recruitment and training and by rewarding excellence; and fixing bad schools. The suggested methods are sure to infuriate and inspire just about every interest group, including as they do merit pay, charter schools, and an extensive reliance on test scores.

Money-hungry states struggling with budget shortfalls, savvy marketing, and the administration's embrace of some controversial reforms, such as charter schools and expanded use of statistical measures, lent this race an outsized glamour--even though $4.35 billion is less than 1 percent of the $600 billion the U.S. spends annually on K-12 schooling (of which, in a normal year, about one-tenth is federal money). The two first-round winners, Delaware and Tennessee, collected $600 million between them, leaving Duncan with $3.75 billion to parcel out to second-round winners this September.

Money-hungry states struggling with budget shortfalls, savvy marketing, and the administration's embrace of some controversial reforms, such as charter schools and expanded use of statistical measures, lent this race an outsized glamour

Delaware's and Tennessee's plans were serious, and notable for their commitment to using student test scores in evaluating and paying teachers. But, as the Washington Post observed in a story headlined "In Race to the Top, It Helps to Wear the Union Label," their applications were most noteworthy for obtaining nonbinding pledges of support from 100 percent of superintendents, school boards, and teachers'-union locals (well, 93 percent of union locals in Tennessee). By contrast, early favorites like Florida and Louisiana suffered when unions and school boards denounced their bold proposals.

The National Education Association expressed its delight at the outcome, crowing, "Department of Education Sends Clear Message That Collaboration of All Stakeholders Is Key." The president of the Florida Education Association pounced, saying that if Florida reformers were serious about winning round-two RTTT dollars, they had better scrap an ambitious teacher-quality bill then before the legislature that would, among other reforms, institute merit pay for teachers and phase out tenure. Unsurprisingly, if unions are given an effective veto over reform plans, not much true reform will take place.

Duncan's March announcement followed months of insistent praise for RTTT from many corners, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Times columnist David Brooks giddily enthused last fall, "President Obama understood from the start that [RTTT] would only work if the awards remain fiercely competitive. He has not wavered." While the rapturous reception is being taken as a sign that Obama has gotten education right by marshaling the centrist coalition he promised in 2008, the prosaic truth is that while RTTT is a good idea, its broad appeal is due largely to its looking more reform-minded than it actually is.

The funds for RTTT were included in the February 2009 "stimulus" at the request of the White House. The unprecedented $4.35 billion kitty dwarfed all previous federal educational-grant programs. To spearhead the effort, Duncan recruited the respected Joanne Weiss, COO of the influential and reformist NewSchools Venture Fund. Weiss expanded RTTT's four areas of focus into 19 priorities, with each state's plan to be rated based on how thoroughly it addressed each priority.

The secret of the program's appeal is that many conservative observers are so taken with its support for charter schooling and merit pay that they fail to note that it embodies two very different flavors of reform. The first one cracks open systems that have been hampered by restrictive policies, such as caps on the number of charter schools; many of these reforms will find favor on the right. Yet the second one, overlooked but more prevalent, is the familiar reform by-prescription, with the feds urging states to adopt current modish approaches to school improvement or professional development such as "school turnarounds" or "cultural competency professional development" (which, as Ohio explained, equips teachers to negotiate "the cultural and gender context of students affected by poverty, gendered expectations, race, and class").

A few of the 19 priorities rewarded states for moving on measures such as charter schooling and merit pay, with states earning 40 points (out of a maximum total of 500) for supporting high-performing charters and 58 points for using student-achievement results to improve teacher and principal effectiveness. But the vast majority of the points are awarded for compliance with often woolly federal criteria: 65 points for articulating an agenda and securing local buy-in, 10 points for prioritizing education funding, 20 points for providing effective support to educators, and so on. If you're not entirely sure what these categories entail, welcome to the club; they reward states for procuring signatures of union support, for spending more on schools, and for adopting impressive-sounding professional schemes.

Andy Smarick, a Bush Education Department veteran who has painstakingly reported on RTTT, recently observed, "All this talk about revolutionary state change has really been overstated." While RTTT enthusiasts talk of states' lifting caps on charter schooling or removing "firewalls" that prevent student-achievement data from being linked to teachers, he noted that "the full story of states' legislative changes is more complex and less exhilarating." No state that previously prohibited charter schooling has enacted a new charter law to attract RTTT funds, and while Wisconsin technically relaxed its data firewall, it still prohibits student achievement from being used in teacher evaluations. Smarick explained this resistance to major changes as a consequence of union influence: "The problem is how much states had to give up to get that union support and buy-in."

Forty states and the District of Columbia ultimately applied for funds. Texas famously passed, with Gov. Rick Perry noting that the award for a winning application would cover two days of school operations and would entail significant costs to set up and run the various required schemes. In particular, Perry recoiled at Duncan's insistence that RTTT applicants promise to replace their math and reading standards with new "voluntary" common standards. (Puts a new twist on "voluntary," no?)

Since the bulk of RTTT is about promising to comply with voguish nostrums, it should not be surprising that applicants demonstrated their commitment with voguish jargon. New York's finalist-worthy 908-page application promised to create "clear, content-rich, sequenced, spiraled, detailed curriculum frameworks" for new assessments. (A "spiral curriculum" is one that, instead of covering the various elements of a subject--e.g. fractions, decimals, geometry, and so forth in mathematics, or different parts of the world in geography--in depth, one after the other, repeatedly gives them a once-over-lightly treatment, going a little deeper each time.) Massachusetts's finalist-worthy application touted its focus on "developing and retaining an effective, academically capable, diverse and culturally competent educator workforce." Delaware's winning application used the phrase "professional development" 149 times in 235 pages.

There were plenty more grounds for concern. Every state exceeded the recommended page length or budget guidelines, leaving reviewers to compare massive and massively dissimilar compendia. Applications averaged well over 500 pages, ignoring guidelines that narrative should be less than 100 pages and appendices no more than 250. States were wildly inconsistent about budgets. The proposals were littered with all manner of things, including excerpts from Aesop's fables and Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Duncan's decision to name just two first-round winners and demand more from the others alleviated some concerns that standards would be too low. Some observers wondered, though, whether it was also meant as a signal that wangling lots of signatures from reluctant unions and school boards would be critical to how states would fare in round two.

The competition may also have caused the postponement of necessary large-scale structural reforms. In the midst of a sustained fiscal crunch, RTTT encouraged state officials to dream up new spending plans. It gave them a welcome excuse to avoid the less pleasant tasks of identifying inefficiencies, and it has distracted attention from the pruning of K-12 budgets and rethinking of unaffordable pension and health obligations.

After round-one winners were named, observers finally looked more closely at the applications. Points of concern quickly surfaced. New York's application called for racing to the top by purchasing dozens of desks at $1,800 to $3,000 a pop, along with "executive chairs" at $550 each. Wisconsin was found to have lied on its application when it declared that nothing in state law restricts "the number of children who can be served" by charter schools; in fact, Wisconsin law caps online charter enrollment at 5,250 students a year. Many more such examples will be surfacing.

So with round two looming and the president pushing to make RTTT permanent, there are several lessons worth keeping in mind. First, on the whole, RTTT is a good idea. The unsatisfactory Bush-era experience with No Child Left Behind--a grandiose bit of federal legislation studded with rigid and often incoherent rules and directives that led to a disheartening mix of mindless compliance, game-playing, and evasion--made clear that Uncle Sam is better off using carrots than sticks when it comes to school reform. Offering federal dollars to encourage state leaders to clear room for reformers makes sense--assuming that their reforms make sense.

Second, the reason carrots are better than sticks is that the feds can make states and school systems comply with the letter of the law, but not with its spirit. Given that it matters how, and not just whether, states embrace reforms like merit pay and school choice, it makes good sense to encourage the willing rather than compel the reluctant. If the government requires a school to, for example, make its buildings fire-safe, it doesn't matter whether the school wants to or not; complying with the mandate means the goal is achieved. But if policymakers resistant to charter schooling or merit pay are required to support such policies, the result will be half-hearted and half-baked measures that will both disappoint and lend ammunition to defenders of the status quo.

Third, the administration's RTTT priorities, especially the push for "stakeholder buy-in" (meaning, essentially, union approval), threaten to reward talkers rather than doers. The administration placed too much emphasis on modish solutions and too little on freeing up calcified systems.

Finally, RTTT needs to be buffered from Education Department politicos if it is to be a credible, sustainable program. As it stands now, the process gives political appointees almost unfettered ability to set the rules, select reviewers, name winners, and allocate dollars.

Given that state-level reformers are routinely stymied by bureaucratic rules hard-wired into state statutes and policies, smart federal policy can play a critical role in providing cover and support for innovation. With a serious overhaul, RTTT just might be the rare program that delivers on its promise.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto/Carolina K. Smith, M.D.

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