A Hessian Matrix

The town vandals now what to know what’s up with all these broken windows?

Over at the AEI blog my friend Rick Hess, who like a few others spent much of the spring in a effort to undermine trust and confidence around ‘Race to the Top’ (in Rick’s case while earnestly bleating that competitive grant programs need trust to work), wants those of us asking questions now to vindicate him for his earlier comments.  But he overlooks a key distinction:  Hess wasn’t just arguing that the initiative might have programmatic issues of the kind many are now discussing (and discussed after Round 1.)  Rather, he was also implying the strong possibility of conflicts of interest and self-dealing.  Sure, he went out of the way to say he wasn’t impugning Joanne Weiss or Jim Shelton or anyone else, but would then follow that with lines like this:

“will [they] be in a position to reassure even skeptical observers that the process has been fair and meritocratic…. whether the program is sufficiently insulated from political machinations that even mean-spirited skeptics would have trouble finding cause to wonder about manipulation and private agendas.”

It’s the classic, ‘of course I’m not saying that’….but I’ll write about that a lot anyway, because that is important, and we have to pay attention to that, and did I mention that some people, but most definitely not me, think they’re up to that?’  At the same time, Hess was also making noise about questions about reviewers being picked for political reasons and other issues that didn’t come to pass.

So it’s worth pointing out that for its problems, and in addition to the policy changes it’s produced so far, Race to the Top has set a standard for transparency in a grant competition by releasing pretty much everything associated with the competition.*  It’s one reason people can go over the reviews in such detail.  Meanwhile, if anything it was the desire to bend over backwards to appease this sort of concern that is likely the root of the RTT scoring problems.  The political appointees Hess worries about were in such a box they couldn’t influence the program – even when the public interest arguably would have been better served had they done so – and couldn’t pick a field of reviewers uniformly deep in the work because they would have been attacked for conflicts of interest.  In other words, this throw up whatever and see what sticks style of advocacy (and in fairness the Department of Education pays too much attention to it) is no small part of the problem here.

*While we’re on this, Hess has never resolved the inherent contradiction in arguing that the program should be free from influence while also calling for real-time ways for outsiders to influence the process.   In retrospect, despite the scoring problems, allowing for a play-by-play view into the process would have been a disaster.  The grant process needs some changes but not that one.

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