Racing to the Jargon: Finalist’s Edition

As I note on Rick Hess Straight Up, yesterday’s announcement of the Race to the Top round one finalists prompted me to take another look at just what these exemplars promised.

It’s rarely been noted that RTT actually embodies two schools of reform. The first type of reform cracks open systems hampered by anachronistic statutes and policies. Thus, the enthusiasm (including my own) for RTT encouraging states to knock down data “firewalls” or lift charter caps. These measures don’t tell states or local officials what to do with the newfound freedom; they merely create the space in which to act. These are among the kinds of measures I tout in my new Education Unbound book as ways to create greenfield conditions.

However, there’s a more prevalent and conventional side to RTT that’s received less notice, namely, reform by specific prescription. For example, the requirements that states use data to improve instruction, intervene in low-performing schools, and provide effective support to teachers and leaders. This list of vague federal prescriptions is a call for compliance with what the Department deems the best practices of the moment and probably accounts for 85% or more of RTT scoring.

Whereas greenfield-style measures tend to be cut-and-dry–states either did or did not enact certain legislation–the prescriptive bulk of RTT is about promising to do things. Since this kind of compliance is about plans and intentions rather than actions, it’s harder to demonstrate. The usual result: proving commitment by piling up consultant-provided buzzwords and jargon. And the RTT apps are no exception.

New York’s 908-page application included some choice phrases. It promises, “An intense focus on curriculum and meaningful professional development based on student performance; data-drive instruction where teams develop individual student action plans based on data from formative and interim assessments; differentiated professional development and coaching based on data” (page 6).

It also declares that it will create “clear, content-rich, sequenced, spiraled, detailed curricular frameworks” (yes, five adjectives) for new assessments (page 10).

And, impressive for the sheer amount of jargon that could be wedged into a single sentence, New York’s app 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” (page 144).

Illinois’ 831-page application has a couple unique features. In a sloppy cut and paste job, the last three pages of appendix E2-2 are the same as three pages in A1-1. Both sections are titled “Illinois Partnership Zone: Transformation Criteria.” The application further boasts that “This is our path forward; it is unmistakably aggressive, distinctly sustainable, and it will be implemented successfully” (page 12).

The introduction to Ohio’s 874-page app boldly declares, “There is no better place to invest federal dollars to improve student outcomes than Ohio. The state is well-positioned to deliver more dramatic improvements in student achievement, faster and with greater certainty, than any other state” (page 11). (I’m curious to hear what the Fordham Institute’s Terry Ryan thinks of that).

As for Massachusetts, reviewers will be pleased to note that the state is, “Developing and retaining an effective, academically capable, diverse and culturally competent educator workforce” (page 13) and working to “reinforce the role of the principal as instructional leader and emphasize the importance of strategic, data-driven leadership” (page 116).

And one more, just for fun. Hard to believe that Wisconsin’s exertions failed to earn it finalist status. The application weighed in at a cool 664 pages. As you may recall from earlier in the week, this is the app that managed to use “professional development” 217 times. But that wasn’t all Wisconsin’s consultants had up their sleeve. No, sir! The state also made terrific use of “convene,” promising a stunning array of convenings for various and sundry (and ill-defined) purposes. The state promises to convene, to pick just a few:
• “The Milwaukee Public Schools Innovation and Improvement Advisory Council…” (page 69)
• “Regional economic workforce development groups…” (page 91)
• “A summit on education…” (page 93)
• “Faculty teams in English language arts and mathematics…” (page 104)
• “The Next Generation Assessment Task Force…” (page 535)

And, wait, that’s not all. The two-year plan to “Ensure that Wisconsin’s standards are college and career ready,” includes two additional convenings, “dissemination, discussion, and feedback sessions,” a pilot program, and a 6-month revision period before implementation. Remember the old joke about “I’d like a nothing burger, please?”

This list is anything but exhaustive. If you get a chance to take a look, would love to hear your own favorites–as I’m confident there’s hundreds or thousands of sentences funnier than anything I’ve proffered here.

[Please see the blog entries here and here and here and here and here and here and here for more discussion of the Race to the Top finalists.]

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College