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Thomas Friedman Loooves 'Race to the Top'... Should You?

The NYT's Thomas Friedman is at it again. Last Sunday, with his customary humility, he opined in "Obama's Best-Kept Secrets," "While I don't know how Obamacare will come out, I'm certain that my two favorite Obama initiatives will be transformative." One of the two was Race to the Top (the other was the President's push to boost mileage standards for cars and trucks).

On the one hand, Friedman cheerleading for ambitious federal programs is no surprise. After all, he's the guy who has damned the frustrating, pluralistic, federal design of the American system, saying on Meet the Press in 2010, "It's why I have fantasized...what if we could just be China for a day?" On the other hand, Friedman treats dubious assertions as established fact. He suggests that 4,500 union affiliates signing meaningless pledges is a game-changer. He repeats, without qualification, Duncan's claims about miraculous results on school turnarounds and student discipline. Ignoring broken promises and eye-popping tales of implementation headaches and bureaucracy that a reporter could tackle, he blithely announces that "even states that did not win [RTT] have been implementing their proposals anyway."

As voters weigh President Obama's first term, it seems a good time to offer a slightly more acerbic take on RTT. (For more on this, interested readers can wade into the details by checking out the raft of 2010 RHSU columns on RTT or AEI's "Stimulus Watch" analyses of RTT and related edu-spending.) First off, RTT was unquestionably an interesting and symbolically powerful application of federal power. It did move states in some potentially significant ways. But it also fueled a new wave of federal rule-making, beefed up education bureaucracy, undercut efforts to boost cost-effectiveness, camouflaged billions in spending to prop up the status quo, and ultimately did far more to encourage states to seek unenforceable pledges of union "collaboration" and to champion professional development than to promote structural change.

RTT's stated goals were to strengthen standards and assessments, use a more data-driven approach to evaluate students and educators, improve teacher and principal quality through better recruitment and rewards, and turn around the lowest-performing schools. The mechanism would be, in effect, a contest, with $4.35 billion in edu-stimulus grant money awarded to the states that did the best job of addressing the federal government's 19 priorities in their grant applications.

The program garnered bipartisan support; right-leaning voices like New York Times columnist David Brooks and the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal praised the Obama initiative. Some of the praise was warranted. Race to the Top offered state leaders the leverage they needed to uproot restrictive, rent-seeking policies favored by unions-such as caps on the number of charter schools or statutory data "firewalls" that prohibited states from using student achievement data to evaluate teachers. Indeed, Race to the Top encouraged 13 states to pass charter school laws or raise charter caps, and 11 knocked down their data firewalls.

But RTT's limitations and problems may have outweighed its benefits. A few of the 19 priorities rewarded states for moving on measures such as charter schooling and merit pay, with states earning 40 points (out of 500) for supporting high-performing charters and 58 points for using student achievement to improve teacher and principal effectiveness. But the vast majority of the points were awarded for compliance with often woolly criteria: 65 points for articulating an agenda and securing local "buy-in", 10 points for demonstrating they were spending more on schools, 20 points for supporting educators, and so on. Since the bulk of RTT was about promising to comply with voguish nostrums, it should not be surprising that applicants demonstrated their commitment with voguish jargon. Delaware's winning Round 1 application used the phrase "professional development" 149 times in 235 pages. Federal officials pushed states to embrace modish trends such as "cultural competency professional development." Ohio's application explained that such training equips teachers to negotiate "the cultural and gender context of students affected by poverty, gendered expectations, race, and class."

The result was a competition that did more to reward grant-writing prowess and allegiance to the fads of the moment than meaningful, structural changes. Race to the Top turned into a bonanza for consultants, with state plans offering hundreds of pages of indecipherable jargon and unenforceable, poorly articulated (but nevertheless expensive) reform schemes. The potential influx of new cash turned the heads of state officials away from questions of how to cut spending wisely and well, and got them focused on dreaming up new programs for the promised influx of new dollars. I remember getting calls from state officials thrilled to have an excuse to avoid the less pleasant tasks of identifying inefficiencies, and to focus instead on dreaming up jargon-laden new initiatives intended to excite the judges.

And let's not even get into questions about the judging criteria, the quality of judges, or the reliability of the process. All I'll say on that count is that readers should check out Steven Brill's book Class Warfare. Even Brill, largely an enthusiast when it comes to the Obama edu-reform agenda, depicted a pretty depressing picture when he explained how RTT judging actually played out.

Inevitably, RTT has failed to live up to the grand promises. Every one of the first- and second-round winners has failed to follow through on key assurances and delayed some part of its grant implementation-- and yet all continue to collect their federal awards. Many of those winners were dubious choices to begin with. States like Ohio, New York, Maryland, and Hawaii had dismal track records in areas that the administration purportedly valued. On charter school laws, for instance, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools had Ohio ranked 26th, Hawaii 34th, and Maryland 40th. On the National Council on Teacher Quality's State Teacher Policy report card, Ohio earned a D+, as did New York; Maryland earned a D, and Hawaii a D-. Meanwhile, the program rests on the presumption that new governors and state superintendents can or should cheerfully agree to embrace promises made by predecessors eager to shake loose federal funds. After November 6th, we may see a lot of reasons why thoughtful observers would do well to keep these messy realities of our federal system in mind.

RTT was an interesting idea and has had some positive effects, no doubt. But its legacy is much more of a mixed bag than Friedman suggests. And, after all the excitement of '08, it's a little disconcerting that this is the best Friedman can do when touting "transformative" Obama initiatives.

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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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