In The Times David Brooks gushes over Race to the Top as a model for center-out government.   He’s largely right but there are two big outstanding questions on RTT that we won’t know the answers to for several years:

First, how durable will the policy changes be?  Will states relax things when the money is gone and/or will “loser” states undo the reforms they put in place in an effort to win? Prize theory is built on the idea that the progress generated in an effort to win is built upon.  That idea has not been fully tested yet in the public/political sphere.

Second, will the policies work?  Right now education policy knows more about what doesn’t work at scale (e.g. the current pay system, across-the-board class size reduction, etc…) than it does about what works.  So RTT is a bet on a theory of action, that (h/t Churchill) is the worst one except for all the others.  There will be a lot of learning as it goes but anyone expecting a ten-strike is going to be disappointed and that shouldn’t be the standard anyway.  Brooks makes a great point when he describes RTT as opening the door for reform.

Matt Miller asks the $5 on $600 question in The Washington Post and says, “more please!”

Meanwhile St. Petersburg Times’ Ron Matus breaks a big story:  Side agreements around Race to the Top between local districts and their unions.  He focuses on Florida but rumors about this abound.   Two big implications here.  One is, per the point above, plans to bailout after the money is gone threaten the durability of RTT because the initiative is about sustainable reforms not one-time hiccups. Second, in the interest of a fair competition the reviewers have to have full transparency about what states are up to.   Side agreements create a situation where there can be two states with seemingly different degrees of local commitment that do not accurately reflect the facts on the ground.   For instance state A may have 50 percent coverage and no side agreements and state B 75 percent and some side deals.   On paper without knowledge of those deals state B looks better but state A may in fact have the more durable plan.   Ed Week has smart coverage here.

Sherman Dorn has a ridiculous post on this.  First he wonders if I have a hidden interest in skewering Florida.   Umm…I would have disclosed that to Matus, who also asked, he’s not a rookie.  As I’ve noted in past posts about RTT and states, I advised a bunch of states, formally and informally, on RTT (including Florida) but have no interest in any specific outcome except a clean competition since it becomes impossible to offer good policy or strategic advice if the rules are not the rules.  I also think that allocating some federal money on a competitive basis for large reforms is a promising strategy and too many more Brill-like accounts and that’s going to be nearly impossible to do.  And I’ve written in the past that I like Florida’s approach and would like to see them win.  So, if any interest, I guess I have one in papering over things for Florida, which I kinda blew by talking to Ron on the record…oh well.

But they don’t need me to paper over their issue because they have Dorn to do it for them.  He does rhetorical gymnastics to argue that these side agreements somehow are not an issue even though they would constrain districts and by extension the state and by extension the reform plan.  The language in some of them clearly says that districts do not have to modify local contracts based on the state’s RTT application. Earth to Dorn:  That’s an issue given how this competition is supposed to work.  Here’s an even more basic question which Dorn asks but fails to answer:  If these agreements have no bearing on the state’s application or implementation then why go through the laborious exercise of crafting them…duh.

Arne’s Perfect Game? Harder issue is how the Secretary can deal with this without opening a huge can of worms.  He could let it ride but that’s an obvious risk.   He could require state AG’s to submit an additional certification, but as Steven Brill showed these are not bulletproof either in no small part because of how complicated the applications are.  Short of that he could ask states to provide more context but this could raise additional complications around interstate consistency.  Or, he could allow the reviewers to access this information but that would undo one of the most important controls on the scoring — keeping the reviewers grounded in the actual applications not all the noise around them.  Not an easy call at all…Beer summit with Duncan and Selig?

4 Replies to “RTT-Palooza!”

  1. Andy, how can the USDOE make valid judgments about states’ commitments to reforms without having all the details before them regarding these side agreements?

    A state that allows such agreements that would effectively scuttle the reforms either during the course of the grants or after they’re paid out is simply not in the same position as a state that is requiring (with requisite buy-in) ongoing implementation of the reforms.

    This is exactly why I criticized RTTT in the beginning for being too geared to what’s promised on paper, not what’s actually done and not what’s actually improved in terms of actual increases in student achievement.

    I don’t see this as a close call at all. The peer review committees had better get their hands on all such relevant data, or they’re digging their own graves.

    Talk about gaming the system! Sheesh.

  2. Simple solution: Make it the first question for each state “interview.” Videotape interview. Instruct all applicants that if the answer is yes, they need to bring copies to pass out.

    I’d be surprised if state leaders would want to be on tape denying any side agreements, if indeed they’d made any. You don’t need the AG.

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