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Education Opinion

States to the Races

By Paul Manna — June 23, 2010 4 min read
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Note: Paul Manna, a professor at William & Mary, is guest-posting this week while Rick Hess is on a consulting project in the Republic of Georgia.

Today we’ll continue discussing Race to the Top (RTT) and the implementation theme that Monday’s post introduced. I want to consider two issues that I expect will challenge state-level implementers as they try to make the reforms that RTT’s advocates are expecting. Let’s begin with some quick background, circling back to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) a bit, to set up this discussion.

I definitely agree that NCLB and RTT have increased the federal government’s profile in education. Still, the level of attention that Washington policymakers have received since 2001, especially from those who have argued that the feds have used their education initiatives essentially to take over American schools, has overshadowed a more substantively important story. During the last decade (and dating to the 1980s, even) the buried lede in popular discussions of American education has been the increasing impact that state-level policy choices have had on the educational experiences of the nation’s students. After all, even the most assertive federal policies have always depended upon state capabilities, judgments, and cultivation of “infrastructure,” as David Cohen and Susan Moffitt have described, to implement federal initiatives. That fundamental balance of power has not changed since the 1960s.

With states leading the implementation charge, it is worth asking whether they are positioned to produce the sorts of results that RTT’s supporters are betting on. Two challenges seem pretty steep. First is the ability of states to carry out the state-level reforms that their RTT proposals have described. State education chiefs and their allies competing for RTT funds have promised, among other things, to remake their state education agencies (SEAs) into performance-oriented, rather than compliance-focused, organizations. Whether states win RTT grants or not, the argument goes, big changes are on the way for SEAs. A popular refrain in states has been that “We’re going to do this anyways even if we don’t win RTT because,” apologies to Rick, “it’s for the kids.”

I’m encouraged by the states’ optimism, but the assumption that SEAs will turn on a dime in the four years they have to spend RTT funds, which will include bleak short-term operating budgets and two election cycles, isn’t a bet that I’d take without some pretty good odds. Even with chiefs focused on performance, distributing and tracking the use of money from various state and federal grant programs will still be a primary task for SEAs. Dozens of SEA employees, even the majority in some states, will still owe their jobs to the federal funds that they are charged with managing. It is hard to see SEAs’ compliance-focused activities fading into the background. That’s especially true given that chiefs do not appear to be promising major investments in SEA staff (in terms of new hires and training) needed to manage the cultural shifts that scholars such as Anne Khademian and Arnold Shober have noted are required for agency success. In the end, there may be a lot of shuffling of SEA organizational charts, but little substantive change. Let’s hope we don’t end up with a familiar story.

The second issue is whether the reforms that RTT winners produce will be transferrable or scalable across states, especially to states that fail to win any money in the competition. A big part of the Education Department’s theory of action behind RTT is that the contest can help to identify promising practices that states can then share with each other. RTT’s outgoing captain, Joanne Weiss, has made that point repeatedly, especially in technical assistance meetings with state officials. Herein resides a big paradox of RTT, and competitive grant programs in general, that will make knowledge transfer difficult.

Consider the difference between the RTT winners and losers. In theory, at least, the winners are receiving the money because they are the best positioned, in terms of their track records and future plans, to realize the ambitions of RTT. The winners will presumably have an easier path to success than the losers. If that is true, then simply gathering up the winners’ ideas and sharing them won’t necessarily tell the losers how to get into the starting blocks from which the winners began. Some of their ideas may catch on, but I’m skeptical that they will carry over in ways that foster dramatic change in state-level operations, especially in the states least prepared to win RTT. Generally speaking, state agency cultures are difficult (although not impossible) to change, especially in places such as SEAs where compliance-oriented work will remain ubiquitous.

--Paul Manna

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.