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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 think Duncan deserves credit for drawing the line at two winners. While I've harped on what I deem an unfortunate emphasis on stakeholder buy-in in Monday's result, I don't want to shortchange Delaware or Tennessee. Both states put forward substantial plans, boast noteworthy reform agents (shout-out to Delaware's Paul Herdman, in particular), and deserve recognition for their efforts. Two other finalists that boasted similar levels of buy-in didn't make it across the finish line. And I sympathize with the Department's notion that widespread buy-in is key to driving systemic change (I don't buy it, but I get it). Moreover, I don't wish to accidentally fuel the notion that the Department's push for reform-minded buy-in is tantamount, at least in the minds of states and union locals, to the ability of recalcitrant unions to torpedo state RTT plans.

At the same time, I fear that there's a temptation to imagine that stakeholder buy-in and sweet, painless, and comforting consensus around vague principles and jargon-laden promises is synonymous with real change. I fear that journalists, ed schools, local business leaders, and professional associations are only too eager to celebrate consensus, but that it will prove simply a recipe for more of the same. I fear that the dramatic plans proffered by Tennessee and Delaware may look intriguing on paper, but will amount to far less than advertised by the time that most reluctant superintendents, school boards, and union locals have had their say. And I fear that unions or boards which say, "We're only signing on if you soften or drop X," may indeed wield the whip hand in those states jockeying for round two RTT funds.

All that said, there's some interesting fallout from Duncan's decision. In the last day and a half, I've heard more than a few mutterings that some state ed leaders feel ill-used. Of course, none of this grumbling will make its way to the public square, where officials worry that an intemperate remark might cost them in round two of RTT, in i3, or in any number of other ways with an administration in charge of an unprecedented array of TARP and ARRA programs.

I've been told there are at least a couple of annoyed governors who feel they came on bended knee to plead for funds in a contest where two-thirds of the finalists may never have been in play. There are state chiefs who painstakingly assembled their teams, did mock presentations, flew into D.C. for Aspen Institute training sessions, and then made their pitch for ED--and who now wonder whether the whole exercise was just window dressing. And more than a few folks out there wonder why the Department opted to name so many more finalists than expected, if Duncan intended to go so low on the number of winners.

And that's apart from questions about the judging process and the reviewers. Observers have already pointed out some of the peculiarities in the judging. The question has been asked as to why and how Duncan decided that Georgia didn't clear the bar (which is distinct from the question of how Georgia managed to finish third).

Some RTT enthusiasts think bringing sixteen finalists to town for two medals was clever stage management. They've told me that giving the fourteen other finalists a whiff of winning will help impel them forward. It's possible. And it might well play out that way in some states, such as Ohio or Colorado (for a bellwether, track what happens in Colorado with State Senator Mike Johnston's closely watched teacher quality bill).

Nobody's likely to gripe in public. And the happy fates of Delaware and Tennessee mean that Rep. Mike Castle and Sen. Lamar Alexander, at a minimum, won't be doing any bellyaching. But this sure was a curious way to backstop reform-minded state leaders. And, now that some of those leaders feel both jilted and instructed to do more to get local boards, superintendents, and unions to sign onto RTT, we'll see what happens as they pursue the $3.5 billion available in round two.

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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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