Why I’m Feeling Sorry for Sec. Duncan

(This post also appears on Rick Hess Straight Up.)

Since its inception, I’ve regarded Race to the Top (RTT) as an important and valuable idea, but I also spent much of last fall and winter arguing that the administration’s program design was not equal to the weight it was being asked to bear (what with its murky criteria for judge selection, ambiguous scoring system, focus on promises and grant-writing rather than accomplishment, and the remarkable emphasis that Secretary Duncan placed on union “buy-in” in round one).

Unfortunately, the bill has come due. I actually feel more than a little sorry for the Secretary now that his big race has limped to a disheartening close. Faced with bizarre round two RTT results that identified New York as the second-most accomplished reform state and Hawaii as the third–and that found Louisiana and Colorado out of the money altogether–Duncan had two bad choices. He could either take the scores at face value or he could override them and deal with an ensuing firestorm. This is what we call a lose-lose proposition.

The list of winners must’ve spurred a run on antacid at the Department of Ed. After all, several are clearly in the back of the pack on things Duncan has spent the past year touting. When it comes to state data systems, the Data Quality Campaign has ranked states based on the completeness of their data systems. Hawaii finished tied for 17th, Maryland tied for 35th, and New York tied for 48th. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has rated Ohio 26th, Hawaii 34th, and Maryland 40th among the states when it comes to the clarity and strength of their charter laws. Hawaii’s third-place finish must be especially galling, given that Duncan has himself been critical of Hawaii’s teacher furlough policy, which dropped 17 school days from the calendar. Oh, and by the way, when it comes to teacher policy, the National Council on Teacher Quality has graded the states, with Ohio and New York each earning a D+, Maryland a D, and Hawaii a D- (NCTQ is a tough grader, but still…).

Meanwhile, Duncan’s got a firestorm in New Jersey, which finished out of the money by three points due to the inclusion of budget information for the incorrect year on page 260 (costing it five points) and the state having been savaged by a reviewer who repeatedly fixated on New Jersey Education Association opposition. For now, Democratic legislative leaders are using the foul-up to blast Governor Chris Christie. But I suspect that the folks at ED are fretful that Christie’s response is ultimately likely to resonate as an indictment of RTT as a triumph of grant-writing style over substance. Christie’s take? “The first part of it is the mistake of putting the wrong piece of paper in,” he said. “But the second part is, does anybody in Washington, D.C. have a lick of common sense? Pick up the phone and ask us for the number.”

It must’ve been painful for Duncan to tell strong-willed reform leaders like Colorado state senator Mike Johnston and state chief Dwight Jones, or Louisiana’s state chief Paul Pastorek or New Schools for New Orleans honcho Sarah Usdin, “Sorry about that, but go check out Hawaii’s reform agenda.” I can’t imagine Duncan enjoyed the phone call with Colorado Senator Michael Bennet or is looking forward to his next encounter with retiring New Orleans superintendent Paul Vallas.

After all, back in June, Ed Week‘s Leslie Maxwell noted that Louisiana and Colorado had set the standard when it came to walking the walk on teacher quality: “Unlike top contenders Colorado and Louisiana, California did not pass statewide legislation that would mandate a complete redesign of teacher evaluation systems.” Colorado enacted the single most important piece of legislation to come out of the RTT process–its remarkable Senate Bill 191 (arduously carried by Mike Johnston) which overhauled teacher evaluation and tenure and introduced a smart statewide framework for gauging teacher performance. The judges’ verdict? Two reviewers trashed Colorado on teacher quality. Whoops.

And less than a month ago, Duncan described Louisiana as “leading the way” with data systems that monitor teacher preparation programs and student performance. Double whoops.

Oh, and word is trickling in from assorted leaders in these and other states that some are furious about how this whole thing played out. They feel they’ve been steamrolled by winners that made empty promises and played fast-and-loose with the facts. Their teams are demoralized, they worry that their supporters are going to say “the hell with it,” and they can’t fathom how the judges made their determinations. At least one Democrat senator who holds a seat on the HELP committee has indicated a desire to make life unpleasant for Duncan.

Our heroic Secretary has tried to keep up a brave face. He’s chattered about the “breathtaking amount of reform” he sees, reported on the “phenomenal courage around the country,” and promised that Colorado “will continue to be a national leader” on ed reform (presumably, it’ll just have to lead from the rear).

On Tuesday’s press call announcing the winners, though, Duncan was reduced to justifying Hawaii’s win because of the state’s apparently impressive presentation and enthusiasm during its dog-and-pony D.C. visit. (Duncan strategically skipped over Hawaii’s current lack of a permanent state chief, a reliable statewide data system, or any substantial record of accomplishment on teacher quality–and the fact that a new governor will take office in January).

When announcing round one winners Tennessee and Delaware, Duncan went to great pains to note that the two states had 100% or near-100% sign-offs from their local teacher unions. Not surprisingly, the judges listened. The result? Winners North Carolina, Ohio, and Hawaii had 100% of their union locals sign off on the proposal. Losing states like Colorado and New Jersey suffered because they couldn’t get enough union locals to submit vacuous pledges of support. Colorado had just half of its union locals on board, and New Jersey just 1%. Duncan signaled, the judges complied, and abiding by their scores meant rewarding the go-along-to-get-along states. Whoops again.

For my money, the most pressing lesson for reform-minded state leaders from all this is that, should there be an RTT round three, they should take care to seek out the consultants and grant-writers who worked their magic in Ohio, Hawaii, and Maryland.

Like I said, this week I’m feeling sorry for our earnest Secretary.

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