Thursday, November 5, 2015

Race from the Top

Joanne Weiss has been about lately trying to rehabilitate the memory of Race to the Top, trying to blunt the early judgments of history which can be paraphrased as "Race to the Top was a big failure that made a huge mess."

This has prompted some conservative writers to gently suggest that there are some problems with that rearward view of RTTT, well summed up by Andy Smarick (Bellwether) who basically points out that while they feds may have done a swell job, technically speaking, of selling and launching their program, the skipped over the most important question of all-- should they have done it in the first place?

This is a problem that corporatized technocrats ported over from private industry, where management programs like ISO 9001 can focus on how well you've done something, but never look at whether it should be done at all. I've heard management consultants admit that you could get ISO 9001 certification for companies that efficiently accomplished terrible things. You could get certified awesomeness for a company that manufactured and marketed poison breakfast food, or which efficiently abused busloads of elderly folks.

In one article, and then another, Weiss makes her case for how it should have gone, with a fully-formed model for educational excellence flowing down from DC and being properly implemented. Writes Smarick:

In admitting mistakes, Weiss doesn’t cite the program’s size, ambitions, or federal direction. The problem, in her mind, was “sequencing.” New standards should have come first, then improved teacher feedback, then new educator evaluations. The issue wasn’t that RTTT went too far; it just “didn’t do enough to guide states in how to think it all through.”

In this, Weiss echoes two familiar refrains. The golden oldie is "The program would have been super if not for those darn implementation problems." The new hit most recently appeared as part of the administration's fake course correction, where they took some of the blame-- not for being too intrusive, but for not being intrusive enough. But Smarick continues

In all of the above, the underlying assumption is that the federal government’s experts had the right answers. There’s no acknowledgement that our centuries-long tradition of local and state control over schools might be better equipped to produce solutions, or that “expert” federal direction on K–12 policy comes with serious, inevitable downsides.

In an odd piece of serendipity, as I was reading Smarick's piece, I was also reading this piece from  Jay Greene (with whom I apparently share no ancestry and only some beliefs about education), which looks at how the same top-down technocratic baloney doesn;t work in the private sector either. Then Greene (not me-- the other Greene) had turned up this old piece of mine on twitter. It is the fourth post I ever put on this blog, and it says, in part

I get the appeal of standardization, of lining up all the ducks in one big efficient row. But there's one thing you must have for Central Planning For Everyone to work-- you have to have somebody at the center of things who knows what to do. If you're going to get everyone in line behind One Right Answer, then somebody has to be able to reliable provide One Right Answer every time.
That person does not exist. Central Planning fails. It always fails. And it always fails because it creates a brittle, non-robust system that wastes energy making people line up behind an answer that is often wrong, because nobody can be right all the time. 

 Race to the Top (and No Child Left Behind) rested on two bananas assumptions-- 1) that the feds would always know exactly what should be done across the entire US public ed system and 2) that such plans, policies and ideas could successfully and faithfully be transmitted down through the many levels below that fabled Top.

Central Planning always fails, and Top Down Management always fails (particularly when the people who create your top down system don't even stick around to keep an eye on it). Even if you do those two things very well, wit great technical skill, you will not end up with anything worth having, and you will very likely leave a great deal of human damage in your wake.

I have no illusions that Greene and Smarick and I are entirely on the same side. Many conservatives like the idea of decentralized non-federated education because it ploughs the field for a charter school harvest. But today's adventures in reading were a reminder to me of why it's important to read outside your tribe, and how some aspects of ed reformsterdom are opposed by a truly broad spectrum of reasonable people. (Also, Smarick has me about convinced to get a copy of Seeing Like a State.)

It's unfortunate that Weiss and other neo-libs are trying so hard to push their vision that they can't open their eyes and ears to see where they've messed up big time. Things that come from the Top, whether they are races or policies, are going to be bad news.

1 comment:

  1. The other bananas assumption of NCLB and RTTT is that there exists a body of knowledge that ALL children of a certain age must know and be able to do in order to be "successful" (whatever that means.) I've never met a "standard" person and I don't know too many people who aspire to be one!