Suzanne Tacheny-Kubach On State EAOs & RTT

Yesterday Alice Cain discussed how RTT was about more than money.  Today PIE-NET’s Suzanne Tachney shares the view of state advocacy leaders about the competition.

No Safety In Numbers?

By Suzanne Tachney

Last week, Eduwonk and I traded emails on the relevance of the Eastern flavor of the Race to the Top winners. Did you notice that seven of the twelve winning states are stops on the Amtrak Acela line to Washington DC? Now that’s the stuff of conspiracies!  I did. He thought it was coincidence.

Seriously, I don’t buy the chatter about rigged outcomes for political gain either. If the Colorado scores tell us anything at all, these raters were not of one mind enough to conspire.

The PIE Network and others have complimented Secretary Duncan for a refreshing approach to policymaking that valued competition and merit. That’s credit still due. Race to the Top leveraged significant changes in state laws (by the Wall Street Journal’s account, at least 23). But then it’s especially puzzling why the list of round two winners is a mishmash of solid reform leaders and mediocre plans while bolder strategies were stiffed?

Those of us who work in the education change business have faced¬–and will face again–the dilemmas inherent in this kind of policy; its therefore worth some reflection on some of the basic tensions that reform advocates always need to balance in order to use these mechanisms to drive change.

The first is between comprehensive, whole system policy verses policies that pull systems toward desired outcomes. Why is this a choice? Good policy is good communications and to entice change, it must convey crystal-clear priorities. RTTT’s scoring system gave points for edgy issues that put political leaders in harm’s way, but awarded as many points for the softball stuff that appeases the status quo crowd. The result was a cost for every bold move.

A second is always a conundrum for reformers: balancing between demonstrated results with process requirements. This has been discussed extensively with the consensus that RTTT focused too much on the latter. But there’s one “process” consideration I wish we could find a way to consider more: the differences in state contexts that just make it harder to accomplish something in one place verses another. One example, it’s much easier to change teacher effectiveness laws in right-to-work states.

Another example, comparing buy-in by percentage created a much higher test for states like California, with over 6 million students, than for much smaller states. And California’s second round plan that offered an urban district coalition would have served more poor and minority students than smaller states with near 100 percent participation. (In fact, many of the districts in that coalition serve more students alone than some winning states!) But the rules didn’t allow for recognition of such innovative but unanticipated solutions.

The final tension may have garnered the most ink: balancing the need for the appearance of objectivity vs. the need for leaders to exercise judgments. The RTTT process erred on the side of the former and as a result, some incredibly bold leaders are now flapping in the political winds. And if we don’t learn from that mistake, the reform movement can’t hold ground.

The biggest problem here is that putting numeric values on raters’ subjective judgments is not the same thing as scientific measurement, yet in politics, we often treat it like it is. Joe Williams of Democrats for Education Reform argues that Duncan should not have reversed those scores and, given how the rules were initially established, he’s right. The credibility of the whole problem would have been compromised.

Problem is, calling a state like Maryland, which has been hostile to charters and played it safe on most of the other criteria, also dulls RTTT’s credibility.

If the Administration has a shot at a round three, some thoughtful reflection on improving the rules would do a great deal to resharpen RTTT’s competitive edge. Plus, isn’t that what we urge schools to do¬¬–reflect on practice to improve it?

Some fixes are simple: best practices in scoring performance assessments offer a credible approach to the inter-rater problems we saw in Colorado. The tougher balancing act is allowing some way for the Secretary to weigh in the same way judges have limited authority to overrule juries when its clear they aren’t following the rules. That would certain invite critique, but if built into the rules upfront, that critique usually won’t last more than a news cycle—and we know that critics will get their say in that news cycle no matter what policy makers do.

Given that, why not make the right call rather than the safe one? After all, the safe calls aren’t the ones that foster change.

Suzanne Tacheny Kubach is the Executive Director of the PIE Network and a former member of the California State Board of Education. Other PIE Network leaders reflect on Race to the Top in the PIE Network’s Newsletter Game Changer.   Andy Rotherham helped launch PIE-NET.

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