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Dan Morris

A Race to Where?

A big story in education right now is the Race to the Top, something Chadwick Matlin described as a grand experiment in behavioral economics: a big incentive (or cudgel, really) of millions in federal dollars to force states to enact the Obama administration's education reform agenda, which is driven almost entirely by market principles and values: entrepreneurship, innovation, deregulation, and the most punitive form of accountability. This is why conservatives like Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and now a Washington Post columnist, love this agenda. Gerson gives it an A+. The federal government is expanding the bounds of privatization at the local and state level, and school leaders must form coalitions of the willing, or else.

Well, the first group of finalists for the Race to the Top has been announced. But as Matlin pointed out months ago, the Race to the Top is really a Slide to the Bottom. There's only $4 billion overall that will be awarded--a relatively small amount, when you remember that virtually all states are expected to compete and the winners are supposed to use the money to do very costly things like lengthen school days, increase standardized testing, and undertake more rigorous, data-driven performance assessments of teachers and school leaders (nevermind that data is hardly a panacea.)

Leaving aside certain questions about the desirability and likely effectiveness of this reform agenda (don't worry, we'll address those questions another time), there are two problems here: 1) states that win the funds won't receive nearly enough to do much good and may even be penalized for not showing enough "progress" ; 2) states that lose the funds will remain just as cash-strapped as ever and unable to pursue real improvements to public schools. Even before anyone assesses a single outcome, this is an experiment that has already failed.

And the whole thing looks worse when you read the actual applications for Race to the Top funds, an exercise that Frederick Hess recently undertook and described here. (Yes, that Frederick Hess.) He mentions that 85 percent or more of the RTT scoring is based on "compliance with what the Department [of Education] deems the best practices of the moment," and yet compliance is judged by promises to do certain things with the money, almost as if the statements in the applications are to be read as actions already accomplished (what the philosopher J.L. Austin would have called performative statements.) Hess reveals that states have simply shown their commitment to enacting reform by "piling up consultant-provided buzzwords and jargon." On a number of substantive policy issues, I disagree with Hess, but here he's done painstakingly close reading like no one else, and it's just the sort of reading necessary to question where this Race is headed:

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-driven 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).

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)

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Posted at 6:09 PM, Mar 05, 2010 in Education
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