A Sober Reflection of Race to the Top Results

On sober, morning-after reflection, let me say this about Race to the Top. Arne Duncan deserves at least a B for initiating and persevering with it. With a relatively small (by federal standards) amount of money, he has catalyzed a large amount of worthwhile education-reform activity in a great many places. And the directions in which he has bribed the system to move are important directions to move in. This wouldn’t have happened without the program’s competition-style design, with states vying for (relatively) scarce money. (It helped, of course, that states and districts are desperate for money!)

But determining the outcome of a high-profile grants competition is a tricky, risky undertaking. Had the Duncan team opted to use their own judgment, the outcome might have been better in terms of who won, but he would have been accused of playing mid-term-election politics and surely the White House (and influential Democrats on Capitol Hill and in the statehouses) would have inserted themselves into that process. Meaning that the outcome might not have been better.

Instead, the administration opted for strict adherence to “peer review” of the written applications that states submitted (as well as oral presentations, etc.) This is not a satisfactory system, either, as it is swayed by the selection of reviewers (not all of whom share the Secretary’s reform priorities), by the criteria and instructions given to them (and how they interpret those criteria), and by skillful grant-writers who are fully capable of asserting claims, plans and promises that the actual applicants (i.e. states) have no genuine commitment or capacity to carry out. This was already a major problem 25 years ago when I worked at the Education Department and it has steadily worsened since then.

As a result, the distribution of “winners” and “losers” deserves no better than a C when graded by what any serious education reformer (including, I am confident, Arne Duncan) knows has actually been going on–and is likely to go on–in our state capitals and school districts. Some places that don’t deserve it are being rewarded. Some that merit gold medals for their reform efforts and plans are instead punched in the nose.

But many of the winners do deserve to win. And most of the losers deserved to lose. So the outcome, while worthy of no honors grade, is no failure, either. And with its (relatively) paltry 5 percent of the money, Race to the Top, on balance, is doing American kids a lot more good than the 95 percent of the education “stimulus” funding that wasn’t part of it.

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