Just this week, ED announced the creation of (yet) another RTT, this time for school districts. My only reaction to reading the info on this new Race to the Top-District was, "You have...got...to...be...kidding." It's like they read all their admiring press clips from RTT, strenuously tuned out any criticism or lessons learned from the, um, uneven track record when it comes to implementation, and wanted to see whether they could take the hubris meter up to 11 (with apologies to Spinal Tap).
Look, I feel for the folks at ED. I like them and I know their hearts are in the right place. And I know they're in a hurry to do the right thing. Heck, they waived rulemaking to make sure there are new winners and these new dollars are pushed out before December 31. So let's just stipulate all that good stuff.
What haven't they learned? As I've noted before, "My reticence [on RTT] 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."
More specifically, here are six lessons, (all of which were studiously ignored):
1. As even Obama allies have pointed out in Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit, programs like RTT are most likely to have an impact when they establish bright lines and where it's clear whether supplicants have or have not acted (by lifting charter caps, removing data "firewalls," etc.).
2. Supplicants will promise all kinds of things in order to win money, whether or not they intend (or will be able) to deliver.
3. Having a lot of categories leads to punch-list applications that yield vague, promise-strewn plans with lots of room for problematic judging, incoherent implementation, and foot-dragging by reluctant parties.
4. Bold RTT efforts are compromised by giving union leaders quasi-veto authority over plans, with much of the baleful influence coming when "winners" move to implement plans that rely on airy pledges.
5. These competitions consume limited bandwidth at the leadership level, distracting leaders from implementation of ongoing efforts.
6. RTT led states to focus on dreaming up new ways to spend money and to distract from questions as to how to spend existing funds better.
So, given all that, what has ED brought forth this time around? A new competition focused around vague principles that offer few, if any, bright lines; that asks for grand promises about things like "personalized learning;" that features 17 categories of punch-list excitement; that requires a union sign-off; that will require districts to design elaborate, impressive-sounding plans (or find funds to hire consultants to do so); and that will once again get local leaders focused on the promise that new money may be in the offing.
However well-intended, this thing promises to become a mess, accidentally adding to reporting requirements, federal demands, and strictures. I'd be far more gratified to see ED working with states and districts to identify where existing federal rules get in the way of smart leaders, encourage them to spend funds foolishly, or otherwise impede the kind of dynamic problem-solving that ED is so keen to encourage. If they were interested, I could suggest a number of places where ED might start.