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Tough Love for RTT

I like the intuitions guiding Race to the Top (RTT) and the companion Investing in Innovation (i3) fund. I do. I'm a fan of charter schooling, improved data systems, rewarding effective teachers, and a bunch of the other ideas in play. I believe K-12 schooling spends too much time regarding our $600 billion a year in public funds as an entitlement, and too little time thinking about investing wisely and strategically. And I believe the feds can play a useful role when it comes to promoting transparency, overcoming collective action problems, and providing political cover for state and district leaders eager to lead the way.

That said, I've been quite critical of much the Obama administration has done when it comes to RTT and i3 (for example, here and here). This is because I fear that RTT and i3 are well-intended but sloppily conceived and problematically executed efforts to promote ideas I have spent much of two decades championing. I fear that the Department of Education's efforts on this front, despite the adoring early coverage (such as David Brooks declaring RTT a "quiet revolution"), may ultimately do more harm than good for efforts to promote smart transformation.

For those of you who have drank heavily of the administration's Kool-Aid and don't buy it, think back to the enormous popularity of NCLB and Reading First in the early going. Both programs were motivated by much that was sensible and desirable. Yet, today, NCLB is a poisoned brand and Reading First is a footnote. Arguably, both accountability and reading instruction are worse off today than if their champions had never "won" those Bush-era legislative victories.

Nor is my concern with the individuals heading up RTT or i3. I've long known, liked, and respected Jim Shelton, the man tasked with heading up i3. I barely know Joanne Weiss, the RTT chief, but people I trust regard her as exceedingly smart and enormously competent. I am willing to grant their capacities and good intentions and those of their colleagues.

My reticence is due to concern that it's extraordinarily difficult for the feds to play an effective, disciplined, and constructive role. Far more likely, I'm afraid, are good intentions dragging down good ideas, fueling cynicism, and ultimately strengthening the hand of the status quo.

The administration's education reform strategy is built around competitive grant programs that push states and districts to change. This requires getting two big things right: what states and districts are pushed to do, and how this is done. On the first count, I am deeply concerned that the Department's 19 (!) RTT priorities represent a kitchen-sink approach that encourages gamesmanship and empty promises. I am also concerned that the 19 priorities constitute an incoherent stew of things on which the feds can and cannot constructively lead. But those are topics for another day.

What I want to focus on here, to offer a bit of context for future posts, is the issue of how the Department is pursuing its aims. In shifting from formula-driven funding to "reform"-minded programs (like Reading First, RTT, or i3), it is crucial to establish a credible process that will bear the slings and arrows of frustrated members of Congress, ticked-off state officials, and journalists bored of the "ain't it cool" storyline. I see no evidence that the Department of Education has spent much time on this.

Rather, the Duncan team's self-righteousness, impatience with skeptics, and frantic pace have meant little time or interest in building a process that will be credible and sustainable. This is a topic I shall be addressing with some frequency in the next few weeks.

We have seen a jury-rigged, opaque process touted as one of "maximum integrity and transparency." We have seen no inclination to acknowledge missteps or potential problems. We have seen little or no public dispute. We have seen reasonable skepticism denounced in strong terms. And we have seen an utterly conventional emphasis on public relations and quick wins.

The issue is not the virtue of Shelton or Weiss, much less that of Secretary Duncan or President Obama, but whether they will be in a position to reassure even skeptical observers that the process has been fair and meritocratic. It is whether the program is sufficiently insulated from political machinations that even mean-spirited skeptics would have trouble finding cause to wonder about manipulation and private agendas. That is where a clear, coherent, credible, and transparent process is essential.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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