Education Opinion

Miss America and the Race to the Top

By Nancy Flanagan — July 29, 2010 3 min read
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Anybody else notice the striking similarities between the Race to the Top, Part Deux, and the traditional Miss America Pageant?

To begin with, fifty contestants. Perhaps a stunner from the Capitol thrown into the mix. Rounds of competition, based on the myth that any hometown girl or backwater state can win, if they’re apple-cheeked, spunky and want it badly enough. And no fair calling it a beauty contest; it’s a scholarship competition. The rhetoric is all-important.

The suspense builds, as it becomes clear that some states/girls are trying hard but haven’t got a prayer of being a finalist. You have to give them credit for persisting, hanging in there when the others are clearly favored. Perhaps they can be named Miss Congeniality, or Most Improved.

There are intermediate winners--with the talent competition carrying extra weight in the scoring. We all know that showing your stuff is more important than being merely attractive. The winners will be under the spotlight and serve as role models for the others, so they had better be polished and have their ducks in a row.

Certain aspects of the competition--the swimsuit fitness round, the Yes-We’re-Willing-to-Impose-Merit-Pay round--are downplayed, but they’re crowd favorites, nonetheless. The scores accrue, and the finalist slots are pretty much in the bag. A cutie that nobody expected slips in (was it tap-dancing her heart out that caught the judges’ eye?)--just to keep things interesting. The tension grows. The finalists are announced, to great fanfare.

And then it’s time for the all-important question round, the place where finalists are put on the spot, answering questions about What Matters Most. There’s spine-tingling delay as Price Waterhouse tallies the scores--it’s so scientific!--while the genial host, a tall good-looking gentleman with dazzling grin and a silver tongue, assures the crowd that the right people are always chosen and tries to whip up more excitement and respect for the contest.

When the winners are announced, nobody’s surprised to learn that the top scorers are states/ women with a history of competing in this kind of thing. They have a team of coaches, experience and resources to shape their performance and build poise. This may be the 15th time they’ve walked down a contest runway--and it shows. They know What the Judges are Looking For, and pursue winning with a passion.

All of this is would be an amusing diversion if it weren’t for the fact that the winners of Race to the Top aren’t awarded a crown and scepter, but hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. Their good fortune and preparation will result in truckloads of money, but--just like Miss America--lots of decisions will be made for them over the next year. They will be trading agency and control for financial gain. Whether winning is a blessing, or the genesis of wondering if what they wished for is worth the cost, remains to be seen.

Do the right contestants win? With Miss America, there’s always someone who thinks the winner has a long nose or irritating demeanor--but it’s easy to blow the contest off as subjective and lightweight.

On the other hand, my own experience in scoring a national exam has taught me that inter-rater reliability is a key factor in sound scoring practice--and the first round of Race to the Top failed that critical benchmark of reliability. So maybe there’s more than a touch of subjectivity and human bias in both contests.

One thing is certain. Some contestants never had a chance. They’ll have to settle for brave rhetoric and soul-searching about whether diverting their time and resources to the pageant contest competition was worth it.

With the Miss America spectacle, the losers are the other 49 pretty girls. Whereas, with Race to the Top, the losers are...?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.