Education race to top hits bottom

Neal McCluskey Director, Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom
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You’ve probably been in an argument and, not very confident about your point, resorted to rhetorically blitzing your opponent by just insisting you were irrefutably right. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been employing a similar tactic with the “Race to the Top,” a competition pitting states against each other in a grab for $4 billion in “stimulus” dough. Duncan has been flatly declaring RTTT a triumph.

“The Race to the Top has been an extraordinary success,” Duncan trumpeted in last week’s announcement that Tennessee and Delaware had won the Race’s first round. “This historic program has been a catalyst for education reform across this country.”

Examining the first-round winners reveals why Duncan is going right to declaring victory.

The first thing one notices is that RTTT isn’t about bold change. Indeed, as Duncan conceded when he announced the victors, what put Delaware and Tennessee in the winners’ circle wasn’t embracing cutting-edge reforms, but getting all districts and teachers’ unions to endorse their applications.

“Perhaps most importantly, every one of the districts in Delaware and Tennessee is committed to implementing the reforms in Race to the Top, and they have the support of the state leaders as well as their unions,” Duncan said.

Now, if you want a revolution you don’t bolster the regime in power. But that’s exactly what demanding union buy-in does. After all, it’s teachers’ unions that have most effectively fought real accountability because it is largely their members who would be held to account.

Maybe, though, Delaware and Tennessee have risen above union self-interest and come up with real reforms that unions also love.

On the other hand: maybe not.

Consider Delaware’s teacher-assessment proposal. Currently, student achievement is included in teacher evaluations, but the achievement measures are about as useful as a scale that ignores any unwanted pounds. A teacher starts the year by setting her own student-achievement goals, and she can use numerous assessments—including her own tests and writing assignments—to measure success.

So what does Delaware’s RTTT application say the state will do about this nonsensical system? “After consulting with stakeholders, including the teachers’ union, the Delaware Secretary of Education will define a rigorous and comparable measure of student growth to be used in educator evaluations starting in the 2011-2012 school year.”

Promises, promises.

How about Tennessee? It made a big deal in its application about lifting its charter-school cap and “having one of the oldest and most robust databases for tracking ‘student growth.’”

Those things sound nice, but they hardly mean real change is a-comin’. The pro-charter Center for Education Reform has graded Tennessee’s charter law a D, but not primarily because of its cap. No, it’s because Tennessee charters have very little autonomy and can only be located in a few districts—super-restrictions that make caps largely irrelevant.

On teacher quality, Tennessee offers the same IOU as Delaware. Sure, Tennessee has a great data system, but it won’t apply the data until the 2011-2012 school year, and then only after a “teacher evaluation advisory committee” has recommended how to do it.

Ultimately, RTTT is all promises, no production. States must say how they would improve lots of things, but they actually have to do very little. It is decades of public schooling—from the Great Society to No Child Left Behind—in a nutshell.

Stagnant scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tell the tale. In 1973, the average mathematics score for 17-year-olds—our schools’ “final products”—was 304 (out of 500). By 2008 it was just 306. In 1971, the reading average was 285. Twenty-seven years later, it had skyrocketed to…286.

The good news is that many states appear to be souring on RTTT, though not because they object to a contest that rewards mere promises. No, it’s that the first-round outcome has shown it impossible to know what’s ultimately needed to win.

As Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, who says his state will not apply for RTTT Round 2, explained after it appeared establishment buy-in was more important than reform: “It was like the Olympic Games, and we were an American skater with a Soviet judge from the 1980s.”

That might be overstating things a bit. But it is a far more reasonable assessment than just declaring Race to the Top “an extraordinary success.”

Neal McCluskey is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of the report “Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curriculum Standards.”