Education gets a cameo in Washington Post Ombudsman Patrick Pexton’s much chattered about column urging Post reporters to apply more scrutiny to the Obama administration in advance of this fall’s election. He writes,

Has [President Obama’s] Race to the Top education initiative worked?

It’s a question that’s at once obvious but also illustrative of a common problem with these exercises.  Race to the Top was a competitive program spending $5 billion encouraging states to make dramatic changes to their policies in an effort to win a share of the money.  It also includes a parallel competition for a new generation of student assessments. I’m all for scrutiny of something like this but “has it “worked?” will lead to summary judgments divorced from the reality of the program.

As of right now you’d have to say that – despite the problems in some states – Race to the Top worked incredibly well.  It catalyzed an unprecedented amount of change in state education policies across a range of issues.  And both testing consortia are working away at their tasks.  But will those changes be durable? Will they lead to improvements in student outcomes? Will states actually implement the assessments in a meaningful way? Too soon to tell and it’ll be too soon to tell in November, too. We’ll know in a few years just not by the election. To be clear, this isn’t an argument that it’s all unknowable for the election. There are plenty things that the Administration has done on education that lend themselves to judgements this year – efforts to rein in for-profits in higher education, their blueprint for No Child Left Behind reauthorization and failure to get Congress to consider it, or the school turnaround program, for example – my point is merely that not everything does and Race to the Top is a good example of something that doesn’t.

So I’d suggest a more useful approach would be to admit where the grade is honestly an incomplete and instead describe the strategy the Administration is pursuing and it’s advantages and drawbacks and contrast that with the strategy the Republican nominee will pursue and it’s advantages and drawbacks. That won’t give you a convenient verdict but will highlight the big differences between the various theories of action right now and inform chioces.

More generally, this highlights the tension between social science and journalism (pdf). The latter is more concerned with time-bound judgements, that’s the inherent nature of the business, and the former with ensuring the most accurate answer possible – even if that means waiting an – often inconvenient – while to figure that out.  In different ways both are unsatisfying, politics and policy move in the present but short-term treatments of larger issues can be wrong, sometimes seriously so.

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