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UPDATED: Race to the Top Finalist Presentations: Points for 'Courage'?

Given Education Secretary Arne Duncan's statements yesterday that any one of the 16 finalists could win a coveted Race to the Top grant, it drives home the point of how important the in-person presentations will be later this month.

After all, Duncan has said "very few"—as in less than half—will actually win these awards when they're announced in April.

Apparently, the point spread is so close that these state presentations, in which teams of five will make their closing arguments to the peer reviewers, will determine who wins millions, and who leaves empty-handed.

Based on my conversations with folks at the department about the judging process, these presentations will inform the scores peer reviewers assign to each application—and peer reviewers can go back and change their scores based on what they hear.

So what does Duncan want to see in these presentations? Things like "validation", "capacity," "commitment," "courage," and "heart-to-heart conversations." These are the words he used during a conference call with reporters yesterday.

These are definitely Arne-isms. But using the crude, 500-point grading scale that clearly outlines the path to winning, there are no points for "courage" or "heart" as such. The peer review process, based on a clear rubric, is a rather mechanical process that protects the department from claims of favoritism. So the question is: How much will the touchy-feely parts of these presentations influence points? Some state teams may be more likeable than others. Some will have better presentations. Some will have more persuasive speakers.

There may be states entering this final portion of the Race to the Top that start out farther behind in points, but leapfrog ahead because of their presentations. Others that start out ahead could falter.

This signals the importance of the department revealing not only the final scores for each of the states once the awards are made in April, but what their scores were when the list of finalists was determined—or, in other words, the scores before the presentations took place.

UPDATE: The uber-responsive folks at the Education Department say that the scores and comments that were given before and after the presentations will be made public. So we will be able to see how the presentations influenced a state's standing—and kudos to the department for making this clear now.

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