March 2010 Archives

In This Race, A Lot of Second Place

It's good that the Department of Education held the line in naming just two round one Race to the Top (RTT) winners. After the dismal decision to name 16 finalists, this was an important corrective (even if I've doubts about the signal sent by the two winners that emerged). Perhaps going from 16 to two was the plan all along, or perhaps public reaction usefully stiffened ED's spine. Either way, the outcome was better than I had feared. I've conflicting reactions to the round one result. Not only do I think RTT is a good idea in principle, but I ...


Dennis Van Roekel's Happy Dance

Who would've thought it? If you'd told me a week ago that Secretary Duncan would've named just two Race to the Top (RTT) round one winners, I would have thought it a triumph and a really important marker. Now, less than 24 hours later, I can't help but view the announcement as an enormous disappointment. Secretary Duncan yesterday set the unfortunate precedent that nothing matters for RTT applicants so much as the ability to beg, wheedle, and cajole lots of signatures of support from school boards, superintendents, and union locals. States like Florida and Louisiana, which had bold and action-packed ...


The Race to Kumbaya

Perhaps they should have called it the "Race to Consensus" or the "Race to Stakeholder Buy-In." Upon hearing there were only two round one Race to the Top (RTT) winners, I thought Duncan deserved some credit for recovering his footing after the fiasco of naming 16 round one finalists. Then, when I heard the two were Delaware and Tennessee, I had second thoughts. And they brought to mind my observation from a few months back (and restated this morning) that the numerical marker was a terrific tool for Duncan. All he had to do to get laurels was limit the ...


Spin, Mr. Secretary, Spin!

Like the Energizer Bunny, our earnest Secretary of Education just keeps going. The Race to the Top (RTT) winners are slated to be announced this afternoon, and a rumor from a reliable source has it that there will be just three winners. That would be good news. Given his unfortunate penchant for talking bigger than he delivers, and all the ink already spilled on RTT, you'd think Duncan might let the results speak for themselves. After all, just about everybody--other than his flacks, love-struck media types, and state officials eager to curry favor--thought his decision to name 16 round one ...


On the Road with RTT...A Few More Thoughts

Yesterday, I offered three thoughts that had struck me regarding Race to the Top (RTT) as I flit around the country talking about my new book, Education Unbound. For what it's worth, here are a few more thoughts. I'm increasingly convinced that the energy devoted to RTT has focused state reform communities on dreaming up plans that demand more resources and new investments. Even in the most far-sighted locales (and perhaps especially in these) one result has been a massive distraction from asking how to use the bleak budgetary environment that looms into the middle of the next decade as ...


On the Road with RTT

Andy Smarick's dazzling new "AEI Education Stimulus Watch," bringing readers up to speed on all things edu-stimulus, is out today. It provides a vivid look at the Race to the Top (RTT) landscape; in particular, combining Andy's principled enthusiasm for RTT with his careful attention to how the program is playing out. Readers will find especially useful his attention to the challenges of program design, ED execution, and political gamesmanship. (Full disclosure: As the report's title implies, it is written for and published by my AEI Education shop). I found Andy's piece especially thought-provoking, as I've been on the road ...


Of Secret Lists and Special Treatment

I am among those (including, apparently, Rep. David Obey) warning that failure to sensibly insulate Race to the Top (RTT) from political officials and pressure poses risks to the credibility and sustainability of the centerpiece of the Obama administration's ed reform agenda. Now, in a development ripe with irony, Chicago Breaking News has raised a ruckus in Chicago with its report that then-Superintendent Arne Duncan's staff kept a list of politicians' school requests. The report has raised concerns about political favoritism and lack of transparency. Chicago Breaking News reports: "While many Chicago parents took formal routes to land their children ...


Edu-Jargon Fun: Back to the RTT Apps

I eased up on Race to the Top (RTT) a bit last week, but the aftermath of Nancy Pelosi's weekend healthcare porkfest has resurfaced all of the concerns I have previously raised (such as here and here) about the failure to concretize criteria for evaluation and review or to adequately insulate the judging and awarding from political appointees. As Terry Ryan points out, emerging specifics about all the healthcare dealing that the administration did last week raise unnecessary and unfortunate questions about whether some of the $4.35 billion in taxpayer funds devoted to RTT may have helped buy votes ...


Ten Questions for the Secretary of Education: Redux

A year ago, I penned a piece asking then-new Secretary of Education Arne Duncan ten questions about the challenges of promoting the administration's reform agenda and spending stimulus dollars wisely. With more than $100 billion in stimulus funds and a slew of promises about transformative change and increased transparency, the queries were intended to help observers figure out how much stock to put in the Secretary's bold talk. I looked back the other day, curious to see how he'd fared. I'll just say that I was not impressed. But I'm less interested in my take and more curious in how ...


College-Ready... and Then?

For all my concerns about No Child Left Behind's grandiose ambitions and misguided hyper-prescriptiveness, its profound contribution was the wealth of information that's now available on graduation rates and student achievement. Given that, it's striking that Uncle Sam spends vastly more on higher education than K-12 but that higher ed now desperately lags when it comes to even minimal, user-friendly transparency. If students or parents want to know how graduates from this college or that one fare, or even where students are more likely to graduate, it's ridiculously hard to find good information. Fortunately, a handful of analysts have taken ...


Book Club: I'll See You After Class

It's been almost twenty years since I taught in a K-12 classroom and more than a dozen years since I last supervised student teachers. So, readers probably appreciate that I tend not to have a lot to say when it comes to classroom instruction. But I recently picked up a new book, Roxanna Elden's See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers, which I wish had been around when I started teaching. Elden, a teacher down in Miami-Dade, skips the treacle and talks straight, with a heavy dose of practicality, a dash of cynicism, and wry humor. I dug ...


John Covington Gets It Done

A few weeks back, I wrote about Kansas City superintendent John Covington. Having inherited a district plagued by a $50 million budget shortfall, half-filled schools, and lousy performance, Covington rejected the familiar "muddle through" strategy and proposed radical surgery. He urged the board to shut-down half the district's 61 schools and cut a quarter of the staff. Last week, in a 5-4 vote, the board backed his proposal to shutter close to 30 schools, sell the district's downtown central office, eliminate 700 out of 3000 positions, and require teachers at six low-performing schools to reapply for their jobs. For more ...


The Good Kind of Schizophrenia

When the Obama administration released its proposal for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind on Saturday, I had two immediate, conflicting reactions. The first was that the administration deserves kudos for sketching a vastly more modest conception of Uncle Sam's role and for dramatically scaling back NCLB's attempts to fix K-12 schooling from Washington. Indeed, I'd have expected this sensible stance to be a bitter pill for Kati Haycock and the champions of "the feds should fix it" legislation (more on that in a moment). The second reaction was puzzlement at what seems a schizophrenic vision of the federal ...


Common Standards: Questions About the Road Ahead

This week, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers released the draft English Language Arts (ELA) and math standards they've developed in their Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI). I don't have much to say on the standards themselves, though I am a big fan of the thoughtful folks who spearheaded this effort. Even when I was in the classroom or writing about instructional practice, I was never all that confident I could distinguish good standards from bad (it's pretty much the same reaction I have to rubrics for professional assessment). That said, I had ...


Why Diane and Duncan Are Making the Same Mistake

Yesterday, I had the honor of hosting my dear friend and esteemed colleague Diane Ravitch at AEI for the first forum on her new book. Those interested can read about and watch the event here later today. As readers are likely aware, Diane's book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, has created quite a stir--due largely to her argument that accountability and school choice, two ideas with which she had long been associated, have been "hijacked" by MBAs and foundation types and have served as ineffective, destructive distractions. On her Bridging Differences blog and elsewhere, Diane ...


RTT Finalist Instructions: Dog-and-Pony Show Edition

Race to the Top (RTT) finalists have been issued instructions for their big upcoming trip to Washington, the one where they'll put on their dog-and-pony shows for reviewers and Department of Education staff. The instructions raise fresh grounds for concern about how much care Department officials have devoted to bolstering the credibility of this $4 billion grant competition and buffering it from political considerations. Department officials reviewed the instructions with finalists in a hush-hush phone call last Friday, but a couple of sources who were on the call and who share the commitment to "maximum integrity and transparency" that our ...


The 81 Percent Effect

A couple weeks ago I pointed out that one could predict with 77% accuracy the amount that states asked for in Race to the Top (RTT) funding by looking at only two things, neither of them related to the state's RTT application. The first is state student enrollment, and the second is the size of a state's reported 2010 budget shortfall. At the time, I expressed doubts about what this might mean regarding RTT's ability to change the way the federal government and the states do business and for President Obama's State of the Union promise that, under RTT, "Instead ...


Just How Racist Are You, Anyway?

I was inclined to tag this post, "How intellectual conformity stifles 'diverse' thinking." But that seemed a bit long-winded. Anyway, here's the deal. The Politics of Education Association has decided on a theme for its special Education Politics Series issue of Vanderbilt University's Peabody Journal of Education. The theme? "Post-Racialism in the K-12 and Higher Education Arenas: The Politics of Education in the Obama Administration Era." An interesting topic--though the editors quickly try to fix that. Editors Enrique Aleman, Andrea Rorrer, and Laurence Parker laboriously seek to explain the special issue's purpose (as only three jargon-besotted academics can). They write: "As...


What the RTT Finalists Heard

Curious what the Department of Education letter to the Race to the Top finalists actually said? Well, wonder no more. A couple of thoughtful sources have passed on copies of that Golden Ticket, and I'm pleased to share it in the spirit of our earnest Secretary of Education's desire for "unprecedented transparency." In full, the letter read: Dear Colleague, Congratulations on your selection as a finalist in the Race to the Top grant competition! As you know, you are asked to bring a team of up to five individuals to Washington, DC to present on your Race to the Top ...


Racing to the Jargon: Finalist's Edition

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 ...


Go New York

Sixteen Race to the Top finalists, huh? Secretary Duncan has repeatedly told us to watch what he does, not what he says, once declaring, "It's going to be a very, very high bar. People won't believe it until we do it. Obviously, hold us accountable for sticking to that." Okay, I'm watching. On his signature program, the one that made palatable a hundred billion dollars in subsidies for the status quo, Duncan just declared that 40 percent of the applicants are finalists. So, I'm watching, but so far I'm not impressed....


Edu-Reform Kim Kardashian Style

So, the announcement of the round one Race to the Top finalists is upon us. In the run-up, a pernicious parlor game in edu-policy circles has been "name the RTT finalists." It's played in D.C. and Denver, New Orleans and New York... really, anywhere you get more than two edu-wonks together. Thankfully, it's about to come to a close. Unfortunately, it'll be followed by "name the RTT winners." Sigh... If the exercise were just tedious, I'd let it go. But the whole game, and the mindset it reflects, is actually far more harmful than that. It turns school reform ...


Update: RTT Apps Not Searchable

An update to the point mentioned in my last post that the Race to the Top applications on the Department of Education's website are scanned PDFs that aren't searchable. A former government employee was surprised and indicated that the way the applications are currently posted does not appear to make them accessible to visually impaired readers. Thus, beyond merely being a nuisance to read, this may also make them in violation of the federal government's own policies and standard practice regarding web accessibility for the disabled. As I've noted before, a successful process hinges on high levels of transparency and ...


More RTT Fun Facts

One of the things about Race to the Top is the number of folks who have shared with me the wonders of state plans without having had much chance to read them. I can't say I blame them, as perusing the apps feels a lot like searching a haystack for the proverbial needle. The apps feature hundreds of pages of edu-jargon, claims of dubious credibility, and thick appendices of uncertain utility. Those poor reviewers, tackling this chore with their frail rubrics and overdressed point system. Complicating matters is that the Department of Education, by scanning in the various state apps ...


A Few Fun Facts From the RTT Applications

With the announcement of the round one Race to the Top (RTT) finalists upon us, I can only say I'm glad I declined the invitation to apply to be an RTT reviewer. For those who have had a chance to peruse the applications, you know what I mean. For those of you who haven't, it's worth a look. The notion that any responsible person can read these and determine which deserve how many points on a given criteria... well, good luck. In any event, here are a few fun facts that emerge when perusing the mounds of words. • The total ...


Getting Ahead of the Curve in Kansas City

Across the nation, districts are only enduring the first phase of what is likely a several year stretch of tough budgets. Why? First, property taxes account for so much of school spending, residential real estate prices are only now bottoming, commercial properties will be falling into 2011, and states adjust valuation on a rolling basis. This means the impact of the real estate bubble likely won't fully play out until 2014 or so. Second, thus far, districts have been cushioned by more than $100 billion in stimulus funds. Third, going forward, K-12 is going to be competing with demands for ...


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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