Even Its Fans Are Having Second Thoughts About Race to the Top

(This post also appears on The Enterprise Blog.)

Last Tuesday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced round-two winners in the $4.35 billion Race to the Top (RTT) program. By Tuesday night, there was outrage that admired reform states such as Colorado and Louisiana had lost while head-scratchers such as Hawaii, Maryland, and Ohio won. By Thursday, there was grumbling that some judges had savaged Colorado for failing to attach a copy of Senate Bill 10-191, and that presentation skills had helped determine the results. By Friday, the big story was not the contest but New Jersey Governor Christie’s decision to fire his commissioner of education for misrepresenting what efforts had been made to inform the RTT reviewers about a paperwork error in the application. It all brings to mind something I noted last winter: that RTT was a good idea that could all-too-easily go south.

All of this has pushed even Andy Rotherham, my good friend and an influential Democratic education policy operative, to concede substantial problems with the once-heralded RTT program. Andy writes:

A general consensus has emerged that again there were problems with the scoring. Not the sensational political tampering claims that some people are trying to allege, there is no evidence of that, but rather problems with the process. Those problems are at once more mundane and a lot more far-reaching.

Andy, who is credited with authoring a Brookings white paper that helped inspire RTT, points out that “In the case of Race to the Top, while it wasn’t a disaster, there were enough problems that some people favorably inclined … are now asking if the federal government, with all the political and substantive constraints upon it, can really run a reliable high-stakes competition.” He notes that numerous conflicts of interest made necessary a “sub-optimal” pool of reviewers. He observes that panels which helped states prep for the contest frequently appeared more knowledgeable and incisive than the actual RTT reviewers and that they paid more attention to “the guts of the applications and the connective tissue that really makes plans like this rise or fall.” He continues, “Likewise, the actual reviewer comments and scoring variances … don’t always inspire confidence, to put it gently.”

He concludes that RTT was “constrained by a flawed process” and urges Duncan to convene some kind of commission to dig into the problems and challenges, including, “What are best practices for ensuring reliability among and between reviewers? … Is more training needed, and if so what kind? What else has to change if substantial amounts of federal aid are to be allocated this way?”

All of this is terrific and I’d regard it as gratifying if Andy and other Democratic reformers hadn’t pooh-poohed these same questions as a paranoid attack when I raised them last winter. At the time, I wrote:

RTT lacks even modest safeguards because the administration has moved forward with a lack of attention to several crucial elements. The degree to which political appointees were involved in hand-picking reviewers is not clear. Reviewers selected by Education Department officials have been ceaselessly bombarded through the media with clear signals as to which states those same officials think should win. And despite the fact that they are working with novel criteria that include many obvious tensions, it’s not clear how reviewers are supposed to translate thousands of pages of narrative and vague promises into the intricate point system Education Department established.

Back then, I offered a list of questions for Secretary Duncan to answer in order “to alleviate these concerns.” Those questions were roundly dismissed as irrelevant or persnickety by administration supporters. Some of those questions included:

•    What criteria were used to select reviewers?
•    What constituted a conflict of interest in selecting reviewers?
•    What kinds of instructions were given to reviewers?
•    How much weight are the reviewers supposed to accord to the boldness of promises the states make versus the credibility of those promises?
•    What will constitute states failing to deliver what they promised? What are the consequences?
•    What are the “finalists” expected to say during their dog-and-pony show visit that they haven’t already said in the tens of thousands of words in their applications?

Might’ve been nice if would-be reformers had sorted through these questions before we gave away $4 billion, rather than after.

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