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Prof. Manna's Sober, Savvy Analysis of Race to the Top

If the Republicans take the House next week, as many pundits expect, it's unlikely the administration will win its hoped-for rounds of additional RTT funding. At least, that's the signal being sent by John Kline (currently in line to chair the House education committee) and by a slew of GOP House candidates running to rein in federal spending.

Yet, even in that case, RTT will remain very much with us for years to come. First, the administration is stuck ensuring that states implement their vague, grandiose plans, and that paper assurances of union and school board "buy-in" translate into reality. Given that more than half of the RTT winners will have new leadership come January, these new executives may not opt to abide by their predecessors' promises. The question of what ED is prepared to do to ensure that states live up to their murky promises looms large. Second, RTT is also likely to be an issue in the run-up to 2012. Education is sure to be a talking point for the Obama campaign, as his efforts on schooling have long been proffered as crucial evidence that he's a centrist. Considering the plaudits RTT has received, we can be sure that the program will get more than its share of attention. Third, while RTT is unlikely to be re-upped in its present form, there's a good chance that competitive grant programs will be a bigger chunk of federal education spending in years to come.

On all these counts, it's worth checking out Paul Manna's just-published white paper on RTT. Manna takes a smart, hard look at RTT as a competitive grant program--asking what we can learn from RTT, where RTT got it right, and where RTT failed to learn from previous experiences with such programs in other federal agencies. Manna, a professor at the College of William & Mary and one of the nation's most astute scholars of federal education policymaking, shies away from cheerleading or snarkiness. Rather, in Competitive Grant-Making and Education Reform: Assessing Race to the Top's Current Impacts and Future Prospects, he considers the successes and the challenges of RTT with a sober eye, seeking to elucidate its design and execution and to draw lessons for any such future efforts. (Full disclosure: Manna's piece is published by my AEI shop and is part of my "Education Stimulus Watch" series, the same series that featured several first-rate analyses by uber-RTT tracker Andy Smarick.)

Manna flags five key takeaways for federal education officials to take under advisement for future programs:
- Design competitions with more focused goals and applications that are easier for states to complete and reviewers to evaluate.
- Continue efforts to promote transparency and expand them during the RTT implementation phase.
- Do not assume that knowledge transfer from RTT winners will always be desirable or easy.
- Expect that the winners will not deliver on all their promises and so be willing to claw back funds when the winners stumble. Consider making those recaptured funds available to states that just missed the winners' circle.
- Use substantive student outcomes, not just policy outputs, to judge state success.

As Manna cautions, ED should keep in mind the likelihood that some winning states "were really just engaged in a 'race to the trough' rather than a race to the top." He explains that for all the enthusiasm that RTT has garnered for encouraging states to change policies, "It is hard to assess whether those changes represent genuine commitments from state leaders or simple legislative gamesmanship to better position states to receive federal money." This matters much, because the real question is whether officials will make use of these new levers, much less defend them against political pushback.

Such questions deserve careful scrutiny, especially inside ED, and Manna's piece offers essential context for making sense of them. Whatever administration officials may think, public sentiment on RTT and the administration's record is not all roses and sunshine. Whiteboard Advisors' monthly poll of education "insiders" reports that their mix of federal officials, policy wonks, association executives, and state officials see a chance that a Republican House would open an investigation into concerns about RTT and i3 scoring (partly as payback for Democratic investigations of Reading First).

Whiteboard also reports that insiders were "skeptical about some Race to the Top decisions as well as the process itself... 80% believed the scoring issues with [RTT] were significant and 68% believed the same for i3." Worth noting is that approval for the administration's handling of education declined to 59% in October from 80% in July. (Full disclosure: I participate in the Whiteboard survey as one of the "insiders.") Given that ED has seemed remarkably disinterested in hearing critical feedback or in discussing potential mistakes or design problems with its signature programs, savvy, even-handed analyses like Manna's can take on an outsized import.

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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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