Published Online: September 22, 2009
Published in Print: September 23, 2009, as Latest Challenge in 'Race to Top': Find Review Team for Applicants

Latest Challenge in 'Race to Top': Find Review Team for Applicants

Department Must Weigh Expertise, Potential for Conflicts of Interest

The U.S. Department of Education is seeking 50 to 80 outside judges to help award $4 billion in Race to the Top Fund grants under the economic-stimulus program—job openings that demand both education policy expertise and a detached interest in the high-stakes education reform competition.

Finding such “disinterested superstars,” as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called them, could be difficult, given the scope, scale, and money attached to the competition, observers say.

Race to the Top grant applications, which will be submitted by states starting later this year, will touch on most corners of the education policy arena, from teacher quality and data systems to turnaround strategies for struggling schools and common academic standards. Those are also the four education reform “assurances” in the economic-stimulus package.

That means teachers’ unions and colleges of education will have a stake in who wins the grants—and a keen interest in who judges the applications. So will school districts, charter school advocates, and state education officials.

WANTED: Judges for Economic-Stimulus Competition

Job Description: Reviewers will work individually and on a panel with other reviewers to evaluate and score applications; some of the work will be done in Washington, D.C.

Qualifications: Expertise in some or all of these areas: education policy, capacity and scale, application review and evaluation, and K-12 education reform.

Work Load: Applicants must be available six to 12 days between January 2010 and March 2010, for the first round of applications, and between June 2010 and September 2010 for Round 2.

Number Needed: 50 to 80 peer reviewers.

Application Deadline: Sept. 30. Submit cover letter and resume to racetothetopreview@ed.gov.

Note: Applicants will be required to submit a conflict of interest questionnaire that includes whether the applicant has a financial stake in any state’s Race to the Top application.

Source: U.S. Department of Education

The potential for such conflicts of interest reminds many observers of the awards process for President George W. Bush’s $1 billion-a-year Reading First program, which was marred by charges that independent experts who reviewed grant applications had inappropriate interests in the selections.

Winners and Losers

Further raising the stakes for the Race to the Top, Mr. Duncan has made it clear he will award grants only to a select group of states; he hasn’t said how many. In fact, there could be more losers than winners in the $4 billion race, said Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee.

“And if there are going to be more losers than winners, there are going to be a lot more people than usual trying to dissect why certain decisions were made,” Mr. Williams said.

Besides the obvious people who have a direct stake in the competition, there are others who are indirectly involved, further limiting the potential pool.

For example, education experts are being hired by states as consultants to help develop their applications. Nonprofit groups, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are also helping statesapply. And advocacy groups, such as the Education Trust and the American Association of School Administrators, have officially registered their complaints—or compliments—as the department works on final Race to the Top regulations. ("Criteria Seen as Too Restrictive in Quest for 'Race to Top' Funds," Sept. 16, 2009.)

Given how many people are trying to get a piece of the “biggest lottery in education history,” it will be hard to find qualified and impartial reviewers, said Christopher T. Cross, the chairman of Cross & Joftus, an education consulting company based in Washington and California. He oversaw competitive grantmaking by the Education Department as assistant secretary for educational research and improvement under President George H.W. Bush.

that the final roster includes a high percentage of people who do not have a historical context to understand what is really innovative,” Mr. Cross said. That could result in “what is merely an attempt to use lot of bells and whistles to create proposals that look interesting but have little chance of producing improvement in schools.”

Crucial Role

Although Education Department officials will have the final say, Mr. Duncan has said he will deem the reviewers’ decisions to be strong recommendations.

To that end, the department has placed online a help-wanted-style ad seeking applicants and nominations. The deadline to apply is Sept. 30. So far, the department has received about 200 names.In his letter asking for applicants, Mr. Duncan said he’s looking for the nation’s “most distinguished educators, policymakers, and scholars.” More specifically, the job qualifications ask that applicants have education policy and reform experience, including a “broad understanding” of all four education assurances outlined in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and “specific expertise” in at least one of them.

The department also wants reviewers to have knowledge of effective operational and management structures at the state and district levels and experience managing or evaluating grants, according to the job description.

“There will be very, very few who have all of the characteristics they would ideally want,” said Andy Smarick, a department official under former Secretary Margaret Spellings and an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. “The department would be wise to make this as bipartisan and nonideological as possible. It will save them headaches in the future.”

The department makes clear that it will vet potential peer reviewers for conflicts of interest, which will include any financial stake applicants have in a state’s Race to the Top Fund application.

But questions remain about what conflict of interest would disqualify an applicant, who will ultimately select the peer reviewers, how they will be trained, and how exactly the review process for state applications will work. Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the department, said staff members are still working on the peerreview process and haven’t made decisions on the details.

“We will ensure that the peer-review process is fair, objective, and thoroughly vetted, and we will involve very knowledgeable and fair peer reviewers,” he said.

Close Scrutiny

Questions about Education Department grant awards in recent years illustrate just how closely watched, and important, such peer-review panels can be.

In 2004, the department got in hot water when it went against peer-review recommendations in awarding millions of dollars from a federal grant program to expand public school choice to a project involving an online education company founded by former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett. ("Federal Grant Involving Bennett’s K12 Inc. Questioned," July 28, 2004.)

And in 2006, during a high-profile review of how the department handled Reading First grants, the department’s inspector general indicated officials may have intended to “stack” the panels of grant reviewers with those who favored a particular teaching methodology. Moreover, the inspector general’s report said the department’s method of screening the panelists for conflicts of interest was ineffective. ("Federal Review of Reading First Identifies Serious Problems," Sept. 22, 2006.)

“This was the big issue with Reading First, and nobody got it at the time. There’s a certain amount of déjà vu with Race to the Top,” said Kate Walsh, the president of the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality. “It’s impossible to find anybody with any valuable expertise that doesn’t have any ostensible conflict of interest, or appearance of conflict.”

Ms. Walsh noted that anyone from her own organization would have a conflict because she’s worked on Race to the Top preparations with Colorado and is doing work with Arizona, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Minnesota.

“There’s no such thing as unbiased,” she said.

Vol. 29, Issue 04, Page 14

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