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Education Funding

Brill Book: Race to Top Scores Sparked ‘Near-Panic’ at Ed. Dept.

By Michele McNeil — August 18, 2011 5 min read
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Louisiana and Colorado take heart: Senior staff members at the U.S. Department of Education really wanted you to win the Race to the Top. So much, that when the round-two scores came in, and your states were inexplicably scored out of the winners’ circle, the staff was in a “near-panic,” while Education Secretary Arne Duncan was “surprised and upset.”

“There are problems. ... Big problems,” then-Race to the Top Director Joanne Weiss told Duncan when the scores came in, writes journalist Steven Brill (paraphrasing Weiss’ comments) in his new book, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools.

The Education Department staff chewed over whether Duncan should handpick the winners, choosing out of order and probably skipping Hawaii, whose high score was called “bizarre” by two senior staff members, and maybe New York, whose second-place finish was a “shocker.” (That option was quickly nixed.) Staff members debated whether to cut the grants down to just three years, versus four, so they could fund more proposals. They also debated trimming funding drastically for each state, by as much as 40 percent, so the awards could reach as far down as Louisiana and Colorado (which ranked 13th and 17th, respectively).

As we know, Duncan decided to stick with the top 10 scorers as determined by the outside peer reviewers, leaving ed-reform darlings Louisiana and Colorado behind.

The book by Brill, who is best known in education circles for exposing New York City’s “rubber rooms,” is not a Race to the Top exposé, but is part history lesson, part character study, part political gossip column, and part policy analysis. It traces the standards-and-accountability movement back to the 1983 report A Nation at Risk, delves into the evolving characters of ed-policy superstars like former Obama and Duncan adviser Jon Schnur, Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp, and ex-New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. It brings the reader into the private discussions of Education Department senior staffers as Race to the Top is conceived, developed, and implemented. It traces the evolution of the group Democrats for Education Reform. And, throughout the book, Brill dives into the issue of improving teacher quality, not just by reviewing the progress of programs like TFA, but by examining the systems, policies (teacher merit pay being a key one!), and political figures that he believes need to be in place to tackle such a vexing subject.

Others have offered their takes on his book, including Alexander Russo and Dana Goldstein, while Andy Rotherham has provided details on some controversy already brewing between the irascible Diane Ravitch and Brill over her speaking fees, which are a minor issue in the book.

And Schnur, who quibbles with some details in the book (as you’ll see below), finds that Brill delivers an important message. "[It’s] the need in education to really equip and support all teachers systemically to be successful,” Schnur said. “From my perspective, the central goal of Race to the Top is to help school systems and states set high expectations for all kids and create the systems and tools to equip teachers and leaders to succeed systemically.”

Brill chatted with me for about a half-hour about his book, and I’ll have highlights from that Q&A in a subsequent post. So for right now, let’s focus on Race to the Top.

Although devoted Politics K-12 readers already know a lot about Race to the Top, from beginning to end, the book does break some new ground and lets us in on how and why certain decisions—very important decisions—were made.

First, on how the competition would be judged. The list of winners—with the notable omissions of Louisiana and Colorado and surprise additions of Hawaii and maybe New York—sparked criticism of the scoring process, and of the judges. Politics K-12 questioned whether the outliers swayed the scores too much. Brill chronicled in other pieces, including an analysis published online by Education Week, how the judges were inconsistent and gullible. The complicated scoring system, in which applications were reviewed independently of each other by different teams of judges, was not how Weiss had originally envisioned it. Now Duncan’s chief of staff, Weiss wanted to use a more collaborative scoring process, where teams of judges could work together and examine proposals against each other. But making the process so collaborative would open it up to the public under the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act, according to the department’s lawyers. And that wasn’t going to happen.

And worse, the book says, department staff members—including Weiss—were told they could not read the states’ proposals. Lawyers told them that might influence how they advised the peer reviewers.

The book also shines a spotlight on the role of Jon Schnur in Race to the Top—a role that now seems to be in question. Portrayed as a reluctant Godfather of sorts, Schnur—a Democrat who founded New Leaders for New Schools—is the central player in the competition, from beginning to end. As an education transition adviser to President Obama and Duncan, Schnur was instrumental in drafting the contest, giving it what would become a very catchy name, and shaping its framework, the book says. The book goes on to make Schnur a key decisionmaker, alongside Duncan and Weiss, as the department in the summer of 2009 implemented the contest, developing scoring rubrics, making decisions on who would judge, and even perhaps on how many states would win in the first round.

In an interview, Schnur, who left the department May 1, 2009, told me Brill overstated his role in general—Schnur said that he was one of several key people putting the “best thinking” on the contest together. “My particular role, while significant, was overly dramatic and oversimplified” in the book, Schnur said. And specifically, on whether he was involved in the implementation of the contest, Schnur told me: “While it certainly may be true that the ideas that we developed earlier on may have shaped what came in the post-May 1 detail work, I wasn’t involved in the Race to the Top planning details post May 1.” The Education Department seems to agree, and a spokesman told me: “Jon left the department in April of 2009 and did not play a role in Race to the Top after that.” The rules of the competition, such as the scoring criteria, were developed in June and July, after Schnur had left.

Brill told me he stands by what he wrote in the book. And in general, Brill said: “To me, I think [Schnur’s] important. To me, he was a coalescing figure that held the narrative together. He just seemed to be everywhere.”

And finally, one other key Race to the Top player emerges in Brill’s book whom you don’t hear much about: Robert Gordon. A former aide to John Edwards, Gordon came into the Obama administration as the education expert at the Office of Management and Budget. Then he moved up to be the No. 3 in command. He was a key player as the administration conceived of the contest idea, and as the Education Department developed the rules to implement the program.

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