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Missouri's "Nudge" to the Top?

For this week's edition of "What's Inside the (State Name Goes Here) Race to the Top Application," I bring you Missouri, my home state.

As far as I can tell, Missouri hasn't really been on anyone's radar screen, either as a leader or laggard in the field of 41 contenders for Round One of the $4 billion grant competition. For that reason, and my own interest in seeing whether my hometown school district--Cape Girardeau Public Schools--had signed onto the state's brand of reform (it did), I dug into the 299-page application.

I could hardly get past the opening paragraph of the narrative. See if you can:

The Race to the Top has provided an unprecedented opportunity for Missouri to bring its citizens together, to identify common goals and to develop a plan for a decade of educational reform designed to give Missouri's children a competitive edge in tomorrow's international competition. Our vision for reform embraces the notion advanced in the book, Nudge, where Thaler and Sunstein outline the need for "choice architects" to subtly steer choices toward positive results while leaving people, districts and schools "free to choose." We know that if Missouri's public schools are to be the best choice for our citizens, they must produce the best results. This Race to the Top competition has provided the "nudge" Missouri needed to pick up the pace.

Uh, what? "Choice architects?"

I certainly empathize with the writers of these applications who had to gin up attention-grabbing opening lines, but I'm not so sure this one will stand out for the right reasons. Should I have known this book, "Nudge?" I don't. Will the Race to the Top judges know it? Maybe.

But I'm probably dwelling too much on the petty. Let's turn to a meatier part of the application.

It looks like one of Missouri's main strategies for delivering on the array of Race to the Top reforms is to completely restructure its state department of education from a single, centralized entity based in Jefferson City, the state capital, into a series of decentralized "regional centers" around the state. Those regional centers would be designed to focus on the particular needs of the schools and districts they are assigned to serve. The entire education department would be reorganized around the four reform priorities outlined in RTT: effective teachers and leaders, use of data systems, adoption and use of common standards and assessments, and turning around low-performing schools.

While the state highlights the work it is doing with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to beef up the oversight of its stable of 30 or so charter schools, it's important to point out that charters are only allowed to operate in Kansas City and St. Louis. That prohibition alone will keep them from earning the full 40 points that having "charter-friendly" conditions are worth and may just keep the Show-Me State from emerging much beyond the middle of the pack of applicants.

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