The Race to Declare Victory

There are some who might say that the New York Times is an unofficial press office for the Obama administration. I’m not going to say that, but a new Times editorial about the federal ”Race to the Top” education contest would certainly support such a characterization.

Today, it just so happens, I have piece on the Daily Caller pointing out how Secretary of Education Arne Duncan seems to think that just saying, constantly and unreservedly, that RTTT has worked will forestall any debate about whether that is actually the case. The Times’ editorial uses exactly the same tactic.

First, here’s the big pronouncement that, no matter what actually ends up happening with RTTT, it is already a major success:

[E]ven if the program ended today, it already has had a huge, beneficial effect on the education reform effort, especially at the state and local levels.

Really?

To support it’s coronation of the program, the only statistic the Times offers of even slight heft is that “more than a dozen states adopted new laws intended to comply with the rules of the program.”

That is hardly impressive.

For one thing, there are fifty states – thirteen or so isn’t that many.

More importantly, as I point out in the Daily Caller and have noted previously, it appears that most of these legal changes that have been made will have scant practical impact beyond making states more competitive in the RTTT. And there is little reason to believe that even if the changes are potentially meaningful, states will enforce the changes once the states have gotten – or been turned down for – RTTT funds. After all, evasion of any real accountability has been the name of the game for decades.

But you don’t even need to find the changes that states have actually made to see what a Plastic Man-like reach the Times is making. Just look at the other evidence it cites to support its pronouncement:

To apply for grants, state political leaders and education officials had to confer with the leaders of local school districts in ways that were often new to them. Even for states that don’t get grants, the new contacts and conversations will be helpful as education reform moves forward.

Now, if this $4.35 billion program were called Network to the Top, or Chat to the Top, this might make me feel like a well-rewarded taxpayer (though I’d sure like to see some concrete evidence that it opened up myriad new channels of communication). But this is supposed to be drastically raising standards and achievement, not email volume.

Here’s the other major RTTT accomplishment:

It clearly has broadened interest in the rigorous new national standards proposed last month by the National Governors Association and a group representing state school superintendents. That atmosphere could give the new standards, which reflect what students must know to succeed at college and to find good jobs in the 21st century, a real chance of gaining broad acceptance.

Without even getting into the dubious assumption that the draft Common Core State Standards are of high quality, or the very weak empirical case that national standards are beneficial, this point is actually very damning of Race to the Top.

The only reason that RTTT has “broadened interest” in national standards, as the Times so euphemistically put it, is that states essentially had to sign onto the common standards effort to compete for RTTT dough. If they hadn’t had to, many states probably would not have suddenly developed an ”interest” in the national standards push.

This gives the lie to the logically challenged – but oft-repeated – assertion that adopting national standards is “voluntary” for states: It is voluntary only if they want to give up millions of taxpayer dollars. It also suggests that states are in RTTT for the money, which Secretary Duncan has warned they had better not be.

So has RTTT been a huge success? Absolutely not, and it seems the more its defenders insist that it has, the more clear it becomes that they are wrong.