Thursday, October 22, 2015

Did RttT Jump-start Edu-Change?

At Education Next, William Howells offers a rater scholarly look at the impact of Race to the Top in "Results of President Obama’s Race to the Top." (The URL says "Race to the Top Reform"-- I wonder what editorial impulse squashed the R word from the final title.)

In particular, Howells is interested in RttT's effect on the larger world of state education policy. "In its public rhetoric, the Obama administration emphasized its intention to use Race to the Top to stimulate new education-policy activity. How would we know if it succeeded?" Howell's is really interested in just that wonky policy question-- he doesn't address the quality or basis for the policy changes, and though he mentions standards, he does once mention Common Core by name. But he does come to the conclusion that the answer is, yes, Race to the Top jump-started policy revolution in the US.

The surge of post-2009 policy activity constitutes a major accomplishment for the Obama administration. With a relatively small amount of money, little formal constitutional authority in education, and without the power to unilaterally impose his will upon state governments, President Obama managed to jump-start policy processes that had languished for years in state governments around the country.

The always-thoughtful Andy Smarick (Bellwether) thinks that Howells may be suffering from a little irrational exuberance here, and he offers nine points that Howells may have missed. I'm going to go ahead and piggyback on his list.

1) Many reformy things pre-date RttT. Smarick is right on the mark here. Common Core, charters, school takeovers, and test-linked teacher policies were already growing in a NCLB-fertlized garden Howells only mentions NCLB twice, and neither instance gives it credit for influencing ed policy. That's a serious oversight, given that RttT simply doubled down on the fundamentals of NCLB. Talking about RttT without looking at its connections to NCLB is like discussing Return of the Jedi as a stand-alone movie, or considering Paul McCartney's career to start with Wings.

2) Howells doesn't explain why RttT winners had big policy changes 2004-2008. See point 1.

3) All the money was spent by 2011. How could RttT be credited with reformy occurrences post 2011? Smarick offers possible explanations such as new state superintendents (nah), GOP political leaders (meh) and ESEA waivers (bingo).

4) Howells treats never-applying states as "controls" but also says that RttT influenced everyone. It's poor design to suggest that your control group isn't really a control group. Plus, if winners, losers and non-appliers were all influenced by something, the omnipresent influence would suggest that "something" was not Race to the Top. If even the kids who didn't eat the lasagna are throwing up, the lasagna isn't the problem. My theory? RttT was not nearly as large an influence as Race To Avoid Punitive Effects of No Child Left Behind.

5) If RttT affected all states, but affected them differently, there must be a non-RttT explanation for the difference.

6) Howells argues that the financial incentives led some states to apply, and then other states raced to keep up at their own expense, because reasons. Again, RTAPEONCLB pretty well explains this effect.

7) Howells wants to give RttT credit for every reform under the sun, even if it wasn't actually part of RttT. This is just silly.

8) Only a third of state leaders actually said, "Yeah, RttT had huge impact." And they were mostly people who won the race and scored some sweet federal funding. Smarick again points toward an alternate narrative of RttT-- that it did not really spur new reforms, but actually rewarded states that had done the most reformy stuff to comply with NCLB.

9) Howells concedes that RttT didn't have an affect on charters, even though it wanted to, which kind of shoots a hole in the claim of its wide effectiveness.

Smarick is pretty gentle and respectful about it, but bottom line is that Howells' idea just doesn't hold up. And both of them skirt the obvious (well, it's obvious to me) explanation, which is that RttT was an extension of NCLB, both in its choice of education reform priorities, its rewarding of states that were already pursuing those priorities under NCLB, and in the way that the looming shadow of NCLB punishments motivated states to grab whatever hope DC dangled before them. Credit also the recession, which made states extra hungry for cash.

Smarick frames all of this with his quest to understand how RttT was important and what there is to learn about federal grant competitions. He and I disagree about that value-- I think any system of federal funding for education based on a competition to decide which states will be denied that funding is a huge mistake. But I think the lessons and importance of RttT are inextricably bound up in its shadow-sibling, NCLB.

Look at it this way-- if there had been no NCLB before it, and Race to the Top had been proposed in, say, 1999, when state coffers were full and federal coercion of education was so much less. Would anyone have paid attention? Would the money attached to the Race been enough for states to consider handing control of their school systems over to the feds? I doubt it. Anybody who tries to explain the RttT era without a big chapter on NCLB is going to present an incomplete and inaccurate narrative.


  1. Smarick did another review of why SIG failed (School Improvement Grants). You can find it through Education Next; but I caution readers that I wouldn't believe anything they say; use your critical thinking. They are turning out ed leaders who believe in Paul Peterson's "Schumpeter" economics. They are the ones telling Dave Driscoll to "measure grit" through NAEP and I just cannot buy anything that they put on those pages at Education Next ( a mouthpiece for the Fordham Institute which is a charter/voucher-only) ….

  2. if you go over to Education Next you will find a good quote from Ze'ev Wurman:
    "I am sure that if NAEP comes out down, the immediate cry by Common Core peddlers will be "we need another NAEP that is aligned with Common Core."

    These "educational experts" are experts in painting the target around where the arrow ends up. They seem to happily forget Zalman Usiskin's admonition long time ago:

    "Let us drop this overstated rhetoric about all the old tests being bad. Those tests were used because they were quite effective in fitting a particular mathematical model of performance - a single number that has some value to predict future performance. Until it can be shown that the alternate assessment techniques do a better job of prediction, let us not knock what is there. The mathematics education community has forgotten that it is poor performance on the old tests that rallied the public behind our desire to change. We cannot pick up the banner but then say the test are no measure of performance. We cannot have it both ways."

  3. It seemed clear to me during the last 15 years most of the "reform" legislation came rolling down on us from groups like the Fordham Institute, which has for decades driven (or written, depending on how cynical one is) our state standards in Indiana. It didn't take Sherlock Holmes-level powers of observation to notice how many states were adopting remarkably similar legislation. I don't know if ALEC copied Indiana or vice-versa, but a whole lot of what I deem really bad legislation in many states looks a lot like what has been enacted here. The future arc looks particularly bad for poor rural and inner-city kids as we move toward a "fair" flat per-student funding formula which travels with the child, at least before the last count is reported to the state.
    And does anyone find it surprising, especially as healthcare costs for states skyrocket, that state legislatures would look for ways to pare down that big slice that is the education budget? I seem to recall the Fordham Institute promoting the idea that the fiscal crisis presents great opportunities to cut education costs while simultaneously improving outcomes. So agreed, RTTT is one of the drivers in "reform," but perhaps not "all that."

  4. I think that RttT and the USDoE have had a lot of influence on the state level, though I can't explain it. But without it I don't think Cuomo would be insisting on 50% of teacher evaluations being based on VAMs. And now even if Congress reins in the USDoE's authority, the monster is out of its box and running amok.

    The sad thing is that I think education was making great strides in learner-centered pedagogy until 15 years ago, and now it's all choked off.