Tag: race to the top

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.

First to the “Top”

Congratulations Delaware and Tennessee – you’ve won the Race to the Top beauty contest! Of course, the grading was subjective and will be disputed by lots of states that haven’t won. Well, haven’t won yet – there’s a second round to this, remember.

So what do the victories for Delaware and Tennessee mean? The edu-pundits will no doubt be reading deep into the results over the coming days, trying to determine what they portend for the future of RttT, federal education policy generally, and politicians across the country.  And there are some juicy political leads worth following, including the possibility that the winning states were chosen because they have Republican congress members who could be pivotal in getting bipartisan support for the administration’s No Child Left Behind reauthorization plans.  

All of this, though, will ultimately miss by far the biggest point about RttT: The most beautiful promises and laws mean nothing unless they are implemented, and history offers little reason to believe that even the finest parts of the RttT winners’ applications will be brought to bear.

Despite over forty years of federal education interventions, and nearly two decades of state-level standards-and-accountability reforms, academic achievement has stagnated. Long-term National Assessment of Educational Progress scores in mathematics and reading for our schools’ “final products” – high-school seniors – have been almost completely flat since the early 1970s, and fourth and eighth-grade “main NAEP” reading scores released just last week demonstrate the same awful trend since the early 1990s. This despite a 123-percent increase in real, per-pupil funding since 1970.  

Quite simply, no degree of legislative tinkering within the system has produced lasting improvements because those who would be held to high standards – teachers, administrators, and bureaucrats – have by far the most political clout in education, and they’ve hollowed out anything “tough” that’s been tried. The only thing that will move us powerfully forward – as extensive research on educational freedom demonstrates – is empowering parents to bypass education politics by freely choosing schools that have the autonomy needed to compete and innovate.

Unfortunately, that kind of reform wouldn’t gain a state so much as a point in the Race to the Top. And the limited choice – charter schools – that could get a state some points? According to the Center for Education Reform, Delaware only gets a B for its charter school law – a grade based generally on how free and competitive charter schools can be – while Tennessee gets an atrocious mark of D.

There’s nothing beautiful about that.

Run Away from ‘Common’ Education Standards

A couple of days ago, Fordham Institute president Chester Finn declared on NRO that conservatives should embrace new, national education standards from the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Today I respond to him on The Corner, and let’s just say it’s clear that neither conservatives, nor anybody else, should embrace national standards.

Oh, one more thing: I shouldn’t have to keep saying this to savvy Washington insiders like the folks at Fordham, but when the federal government bribes states with their own citizens’ tax money to do something, doing that thing is hardly voluntary, at least in any reasonable sense. 

For more wise thoughts on the national standards issue, check out this interview with Jay Greene, and this Sacramento Bee piece by Ben Boychuk.  Oh, and this interview with yours truly.

Is “Race to the Top” Handwriting on the Wall?

As freedom-minded folks have been celebrating major setbacks for Obama Care, campaign-speech control, and lots of other attacks on liberty, some have been sounding the alarm over the insidious “Race to the Top” contest. A couple of siren blasts I just caught are well worth taking in yourself, one by the Heartland Institute’s Robert Holland and the other by Colorado Board of Education member Peggy Littleton. In particular, the writers think they see the handwriting on the wall in the de facto requirement that states promise to adopt as-yet-unwritten “common” (read: national) standards to compete for RTTT funds.  As Littleton writes:

We already know that the federal government, or at the least consortiums of states, wants to develop assessments to assess the Common Core. The scary progression continues… National Common Core, common assessment, will inevitably lead to a national curriculum.

Is nationalizing – and thereby federalizing – the curriculum the Obama administration’s goal? RTTT sure as heck makes it seem that way, but we should have an even better idea soon: the administration wants Congress to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act this year.

And so it may be coming to pass: Perhaps, ironically, because of this week’s revolt against Washington, we might be heading for another power grab by Washington. And this time, we shouldn’t expect anything close to unanimous Republican help fending it off. 

Can Scott Brown’s Election Stop the Federal Takeover…of Education?

Yesterday, I wrote about President Obama’s proposal to extend the Race to the Top program, this time letting school districts completely bypass state governments and apply directly to the feds for funding. I pointed out that the proposal was one among several troubling signs that Obama intends to put Washington fully – and, of course, unconstitutionally – in charge of American education.  At the time, I didn’t realize how right I was.

When I was writing yesterday I was basing my comments on documents from the White House’s website and hadn’t yet read the details of what went on at the President’s photo-op announcing the proposed extension. I sure wish I had: At the dog-and-pony show, the President just came right out and said that he wants to push aside states – mentioned by name was famous holdout Texas – that dared to invoke the Constitution and not participate in a program that was, Constitution or no Constitution, supposed to be voluntary.  

“Innovative districts like the one in Texas whose reform efforts are being stymied by state decision-makers will soon have the chance to earn funding to help them pursue those reforms,” intoned the President. 

Fortunately, Texas Governor Rick Perry wasn’t about to be cowed: “I will say this very slow so they will understand it in Washington, D.C.: Texas will fight any attempt by the federal government to take over our school system.”

So it’s pretty certain now, more so even than just 24 hours ago: President Obama wants to federalize American education.

Thankfully, a lot can clearly happen in 24 hours. Yesterday’s election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts could very well send shockwaves of fear through the ranks of Democratic (and maybe even Republican) legislators in DC, who might finally get the message that Americans just don’t like federal takovers. Heck, perhaps even the President will get the message. If so, then maybe even something as relatively small as a $1.35-billion scalpel designed to cut through states and get right at districts could be seen as too dangerous to handle.  

That’s speculation, of course, but we should know a lot more  in just, oh, the next 24 hours.

Race to Domination

Today’s the day that states must submit their applications to the U.S. Department of Education to compete for round-one “Race to the Top” grants. But no worries if your state’s a little behind: Not only will there be another application round for the $4.35-billion dash-for-cash, but as President Obama announced today, he wants a $1.35-billion sequel to what was supposed to be a one-time, stimulus-funded contest.

The important question, of course, is whether sponsoring this race is worthwhile for federal taxpayers. The clear answer is no.

Sure, in response to RttT states have been raising charter-school caps, allowing teachers to be evaluated using student performance, and instituting other changes, but they’ve done little of real substance. Just raising caps won’t make it much easier to get good, competitive charter schools since most of the charter-supply problem revolves around over-regulation and painful authorization processes. And while states have eliminated prohibitions on using student test results to evaluate teachers, they haven’t done much to actually base teacher evaluations on student performance or other meaningful metrics.

What has RttT done that is of substance? Unfortunately, push yet more power into federal hands, forcing  states and districts to jump through all manner of hoops for a chance to get back some of their citizens’ money. Indeed, it is becoming painfully clear that President Obama intends to put Washington firmly above the states in the hierarchy of education power.

For his $1.35 billion RttT expansion, President Obama plans to allow districts to directly compete for federal funding, bypassing states completely. And then there’s his crusade for national curricular standards. His administration has been talking up “common” standards since almost day one, and in the ”fact sheet“ accompanying the RttT expansion announcement the first bullet states that RttT emphasizes “designing and implementing rigorous standards and high-quality assessments, by encouraging states to work jointly toward a system of common academic standards.” 

Don’t be fooled, by the way, by the “states” working “jointly” thing, or utterly unbelievable administration denials. If the feds are paying states to adopt common standards then those standards will be de facto federal. Either that, or the feds will let states adopt any old joint standards and still get paid. Six of one bad thing, half dozen of the other…

Thankfully, there is resistance to Obama’s bribe-to-the-top scheme. Texas, most notably, has refused to participate in RttT, with Gov. Rick Perry declaring that ”we would be foolish and irresponsible to place our children’s future in the hands of unelected bureaucrats and special interest groups thousands of miles away in Washington.” And Texas is not alone: According to a New York Times article appearing yesterday, states and districts around the country are refusing to put on their track shoes and run for the federal funds. 

Still, federal money – taxpayer money – can be a tough thing for any elected offical to turn down. Sooner or later, if we let him, Obama will almost certainly find an amount that no state or district can resist.

Wednesday Links

  • Alan Reynolds: Hey, leave Lieberman alone. “Human interest stories are sure to get readers’ sympathy. But emotion is no substitute for common sense.”
  • The money behind climate science.