Friday, September 11, 2015

Competitive Baloney & Rehabilitating RTTT

At the Stanford SOCIAL INNOVATION Review (I don't know why the yell the middle of their name), Joanne Weiss has unleashed an astonishing stack of deep-fried baloney that attempts to retro-actively legitimize the destructive power-and-money test-and-punish legacy of Race to the Top. "Competing Principles" is truly audacious.

Joanne Who??

Weiss has a powerful pedigree. She put in years as an ed tech honcho before going to work for NewSchools Venture Fund, an investment firm for hedge fundies to get their paws in the education biz and that sweet, sweet mountain of public tax dollars. In conjunction with that gig, she served on the boards of Aspire, Green Dot, Rocketship and Leadership charter outfits, to name just a few.

All of this made her perfectly positioned to become Arne Duncan's Chief of Staff and the lead dog for Race to the Top. Are you starting to understand why that program was such a mess?

But when Weiss looks at RttT, she does not see mess, and in this article, she paints with rosy hues the many fine lessons to be learned from the administration's signature education program.

She opens with a brief fantasy-filled recap of RttT's impact (43 states now have super-magical tests that can measure critical thinking), and then moves on to the Eight Big Design Lessons of Race to the Trough.

Create a Real Competition

The administration was not sure that the initiative would be "compelling." But golly gee, 46 states ponied up to give it a try. Weiss believes that the secret was "our decision to leverage the spirit of competition." How, one may ask, does one harness this mysterious and mystical force?

First, they set a very high bar, allowed for very few winners, and offered very big rewards. She forgets to mention another important step-- launch your competition when states have just been hammered by an economically debilitating recession and are desperate for money. Weiss's spirit of competition can also be leveraged by starving some people for two weeks, throwing them in a pit, and waving juicy steaks while announcing that only one person who climbs out of the pit gets to eat.

Second, she writes, they kept politics out of the process, and I am wondering (not for the last time) whether Weiss is incredibly cynical or incredibly dense. There was a review panel of experts. No politics. Nosirree. Just a score indicating how well the states matched the definition of "excellence" created by politicians in DC.

Third, they "placed governors at the center of the application process." So, the top politicians were invited "to use their political capital." As God is my witness "no politics" and "use top politicians political muscle" appear within two adjacent paragraphs.

Weiss acknowledges, sort of, the problem near the center of this aspect-- that RttT promoted competition in an arena that should be collaborative. Weiss addresses this by saying, essentially, no, we didn't, and also, we were right to do so.

She completely ignores the huge issue at the center of the competitive aspect of the program-- a declaration of the federal government that they will only provide help and support to some states. This is like saying to your family, "I know you've all been hungry and undernourished, and we're going to fix that. We're going to feed some of you, most likely the strongest ones who least need it. For those of you who are too weakened to compete, screw you. You get nothing." The competitive grant nature of Race to the Top was an absolute abdication of federal responsibility, and the Obama administration should be ashamed of the program for that reason alone.

Pursue Clear Goals (in a Flexible Way)

Weiss admits to flubbing this one, producing a program with so many goals that no state could successfully address all of them. With a do-over, she'd recommend "leaner, more focused rules."

Tomato, tomahto. The effect is the same. If I give my students vague instructions, they'll say, "Can you give an example." Once I provide an example, they'll give me work exactly like it, because thanks to my vague instructions, my example is the only thing they know is safe to try. Ditto RttT and features like, say, Common Core.

This section does feature one more reality-defying side note. In suggesting that this really was successful because states really bought in to their new plans, Weiss writes:

In fact, even many states that did not win the competition proceeded with the reform efforts that they had laid out in their application. 

Do you suppose the explanation was that states were staring down the barrel of NCLB's punitive sanctions and hoping the feds promised waiver program was their chance to avoid trouble?

Drive Alignment Through the System

The overall goal of the competition was to promote approaches to education reform that would be coherent, systemic, and statewide.

That's why we drove each state to have all its main players sign Memos of Understanding, pledging their allegiance and compliance to what, as folks who remember those years may recall, was a fuzzy and undefined set of requirements. We just kept waving money at them.

I do remember that time in PA. The state hollering "sign these agreements" and folks like teacher unions and local administrators saying "But what the heck are we agreeing to?" and the state saying "But look! Money!! You must sign!" It was a long conversation. PA did not win any RttT bux.

Encourage Broad Stakeholder Buy-in 

Weiss has a funny idea about what "encourage" means:

First, we forced alignment among the top three education leaders in each participating state—the governor, the chief state school officer, and the president of the state board of education—by requiring each of them to sign their state’s Race to the Top application. In doing so, they attested that their office fully supported the state’s reform proposal.

 Second, they asked for signatures from district officials. Third, they waved more piles of money "tangible incentives" at community leaders. Fourth, we made state leaders come submit to personal interviews.

We imposed this requirement largely to verify that those in charge of implementing their state's plan were knowledgeable about the plan and fully committed to it.

It's funny, but none of this sounds like "encourage buy-in," so much as it sounds like "required obeisance and pledges of compliance because we couldn't trust any of these bastards." I find it oddly soothing that the administration had no more faith in governors than it had in teachers.

Promote Change from the Start

We were really pleased at how quickly states starting auditioning and sucking up for our money from even before Day One. We were particularly gratified that many actually changed their laws just for us. Yay, us.

Enable Transparency

From its earliest days, Race to the Top received a high degree of scrutiny and faced pressure to be above reproach. We decided that the best way to handle this pressure was to keep a firewall between our decisions and any of the rabble who wanted to cause trouble, in hopes that we could get the whole thing up and running before anybody had a chance to pry too much.

Ha ha. Okay, I rewrote part of that quote. Weiss is really going to try to sell her audience on the idea that transparency had anything to do with Race to the Top. And that "commitment to transparency" brought all sorts of benefits.

First, everyone did super-high-quality work because it would be under public scrutiny. Hey, have I mentioned that I have not seen Common Core mentioned once in this article? Boy, there was a piece of high quality totally transparent work that rode the coattails of Race to the Top. Well, except for how everyone was lying about it being teacher-written and internationally benchmarked. Or maybe that's the high-quality work involved in selling untested teacher evaluation based on unvalid (and at the time non-existent) testing.

Second, "participants developed a common vocabulary for talking about education reform" because nothing promotes transparency like specialized insider jargon.

Third, the Race to the Top website became a-- wait! what?? There was such a thing? Does she mean this place, with all the government PR?

Fourth, the information about RttT became "crowdsourced" (those are her air quotes) with all sorts of folks checking out and critiquing applications. Researcher "will be mining this trove of data for years to come." I'm pretty sure she's just making shit up now.

Build a Climate of Support

Yes, nothing builds a climate of support like a battle royale over zero-sum monetary rewards.

Her point is that the government was supportive of applying states, and I kind of think she means that this all created an atmosphere in which many helpful consultants and think tanks and publishers and other edubizpreneurs could descend upon states to start hoovering up some of that aforementioned sweet sweet money.

Ensure Accountability

Turns out that people in a life-or-death competition will over-promise, and while the department did its best to rein that in (including requiring a note from State Attorney Generals that the "proof" was accurate-- seriously), it was still an issue. So in the future, the agencies managing the grant money should never take their hands entirely off of it.

And that's eight.

I Need To Sit Down

Once again, reformsters provide a glimpse of some alternate reality. This is certainly a different picture of Race to the Top than, say, "We used a big pile of money to get states to actually compete for the privilege of giving us control of their pubic education systems" or "We went out and bought a bunch of friends for Common Core while bribing states to implement untested, unproven half-baked ideas about evaluating teachers."

But others have already hit the comments section of this piece of retroactive fluffernuttery.

Leonie Haimson points out that another super-duper effect of RttT was to create such a huge backlash that all versions of the ESEA rewrite include sections that tell the Secretary of Education to go sit in the corner and think about what he's done.

Christopher Chase just rips the living daylights, from secretly produced standards to the use of this all as cover for privatizing and charterizing schools. Chase's response is worth reading even if you can't bear to read Weiss's article.

At the end, Weiss writes "We will not know the full impact of Race to the Top for several more years." And that's probably true, but we can take a shot at the broad strokes.

Race to the Top kick-started the process of foisting an unproven, unsupportable standards created by amateurs, test manufacturers, and book publishers on an unsuspecting public.

Race to the Top gave the test-and-punish policies of No Child Left Behind a giant shot of steroids, promising a level of testing quality that has still not been delivered while simultaneously chaining the professional future of teachers to that unproven testing system.

Race to the Top set out to create winners and losers among the states, declaring that the federal government only needed to help some American students be educated. At the same time, it gave a jolt of support to the process of declaring individual schools losers and turning those schools into profit-making opportunities for charter privateers who echoed the new mission-- educate only some of the students, but do it with everyone's public tax dollars.

Race to the Top created a huge backlash that damaged the political careers of many individuals who realized only too late what a giant load of underthought overreaching baloney it was.

It's true we'll not find out just how much damage was done for years, but we've got a general sense of the impact of RttT on US public education, but we already know that it was similar to the impact of an falling elephant on a wounded eagle. It wasn't good, and all the pretty PR in the world won't change that.


  1. This was the running commentary in my head as read her piece this morning. My conclusion was less PC than yours, I think. She is either monumentally stupid or she thinks we are.

  2. "I am wondering (not for the last time) whether Weiss is incredibly cynical or incredibly dense."

    I am coming to the conclusion that these reformsters -- the ones that aren't just in it for the personal wealth they can accumulate as CEOs of charter chains, who are just cynical -- are simply Ayn Randian true believers in the dogma of social Darwinism, and worship at the altar of their almighty god, the "Free Market". The Kool-aid they drink is very strong and atrophies part of their brain. They seem stupid because that's what religious fanaticism does, it makes you stupid and blind to the point of mental illness.

    Professor Chase's take-down is epic.

    The most evident early sign of the damage done by RttT is teachers leaving the profession in droves and very few people wanting to enter the profession.

    1. Somewhat off-topic, but your quotes around "Free Market" remind me of Robert Reich's newest book SAVING CAPITALISM, which I am recommending far and wide to everyone who will listen. It's not out until the end of this month (I have an advanced readers copy), but I urge everyone to order it and pass it out to anyone you can, especially "Free Market" worshippers. It's written in laymen's terms explaining the basis of the market and how the debated between "government" and "free market" is just a smokescreen to mask what's going on. The government, of course, creates the market, so it's not a matter of "big" or "small" the government is, it's just a matter of whose interests does it serve. It's probably nothing new to most readers here, but it breaks it down in such easily understandable terms - great for explaining to the libertarian types.

    2. Thanks, I'll look for it. I have doubts any amount of rationality can make a dent in the religious fervor of a True Believer, but I enjoy the clarity of Robert Reich's writing. I don't have a very comprehensive understanding of economics, so I appreciate the chance to learn so I can feel more comfortable that I know what I'm talking about.

  3. Yes, I had the same feeling as Rebecca. I think Weiss really believes that the RTTT initiative was a big success. She is probably equally puzzled by the comments, and by responses like Peter's. It's really impressive, in a freakish way.

  4. To the other people commenting, here's my take:

    Ms. Weiss writes: “Race to the Top offers lessons in high-impact grantmaking that are applicable not only in education but also in other fields. The Department of Education runs about 150 competitions every year. But among those programs, Race to the Top stands out. It had more than $4 billion to allocate to competition winners, and it attracted the participation of nearly every state in the union. It arguably drove more change in education at the state, district, and school levels than any federal competition had previously been able to achieve.”

    Ah. I think it's a résumé. She can do this “in other fields.” See?

    “Working with US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan...“

    She has impressive references. She can phone top level people at home.

    Not only that, but look at this writing. It's like watching a gymnast:

    “First, (t)he government...would spread that money around in a politically astute way...Second, we kept politics out of the selection process...Third, we placed governors at the center of the application process...”

    The ability to write one way, then switch and write the opposite? Well, not everyone can do that, and stick the landing. So, it's also a writing sample. If your organization needs this sort of dizzy-making spin, Joanne Weiss is your gal!


    1. I think you've cracked the case, Sherlock. Way to read within "the four walls of the text".

  5. I'll bet she loves mad libs, she can go to work on someone's political campaign.

  6. @ Dienne,

    Oh man. What a weird thing! When I read your writing about within "the four walls of the text", I got a flash of claustrophobia! No wonder some kids hate the Core and the tests! Maybe there's stuff that subliminally triggers bad stuff for some, in addition to the regular bad stuff? Yeah, I know -crazy, but I sure wasn't expecting what just happened.

    And, how would anyone know? It's not like educated adults who normally gladly take responsibility for the children in their care-because they ALWAYS check for safety above all else- get to review the test questions.

    I've actually written about this before. This is from a letter in December of 2014 and it is about “my exaggerated examples” of what might be on future tests:

    1. “In the War of Northern Aggression, the thing them Yankees were most feared of were (a.) the “Rebel Yell.” (b.) murderous slaves. (c.) the moral superiority of the Confederate Generals.”

    2. “In this story Jeff wanted a Coke with his supper because (a.) he was thirsty for "the pause that refreshes." (b.) it's the real thing. (c.) things go better with Coke.”

    3. “Besides Evolution, another theory which explains the Origin of Man is
    (a) Conservation of Energy. (b.) Turtles All The Way Down. (c.) Intelligent Design.”

    So don't mock me unless you know that national test preparers are immune from 1. political inducements 2. commercial inducements, or 3. religious inducements. And, of course my newest addition:triggering fear just because we can and it's funny to us. I have no confidence in any of the test preparer CEOs to have actual control of the testing monster. I think will escape its cage.


    1. Wow, I hadn't thought about this. Scary. But where there's no transparency...who knows?

    2. Mock you? I was congratulating you for figuring out Ms. Weiss's motivation by the "evidence" in her own text. I was mocking David Coleman and the Common Core, not you.

    3. @Dienne

      Oh, I wasn't saying you were mocking me. I was looking at my own post and thinking it might seem very paranoid for me to suggest that test-makers could be corrupted. Someone could just laugh at the thought of that because, you know, they are um, a big business, making boatloads of money legitimately. But lots of businesses, even those who make boatloads of money legitimately, have to be tightly regulated because people DO have a tendency to get corrupted. Radio disc jockeys taking payola in the 1950s, The Keating Five, Enron, Tom Brady-no wait-cancel that – Bernie Maddox, I could go on and on. The point is, where is the regulation of this industry? The only folks I see making a fuss are the Mormon moms in Utah, one of whom found Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye on her teenage daughter's reading list. They reason (correctly) that if it's on the reading list, it could be excerpted on a the test, even if they get it struck from the local class. Why are PTAs, church groups, and above all else school boards-school boards!- school boards who refused to let high school students read about Huck and Jim!-why are they absolutely silent on these tests where no teacher (who serves in loco parentis,) can inspect the material on the tests to see if it meets school and community standards? I am astonished that parents aren't out with the torches and pitchforks when their kid comes home and says he/she had to promise not to talk about the test with anyone, the parents included.

      Absolutely astonished.

  7. Brilliant questions. Let's just hope they're not prescient.

  8. @ Madeleine:

    Yeah, well, thanks for the “brilliant.” I thought that because my test questions were “over the top” that it helped to get the point across. But I also hope my “far out” questions are not prescient. I also wrote earlier, about tests:

    “I feel so sorry for the students in school today. They seem to be inheriting a diminished America, as well. That's all I can write. “

    And so I close. On a positive note, my husband and I are discussing how much I could afford to send Bernie. Retired, you know. We squint at expenditures very closely.