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Education Funding Opinion

Eduwonk Hits Me for Insufficient Deference When Critiquing RTT

By Rick Hess — September 02, 2010 4 min read
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My pal Andy “Eduwonk” Rotherham took the time on Tuesday to level a series of charges at me regarding Race to the Top (RTT). Having voiced his own set of concerns about RTT and called for Secretary Duncan to convene a panel to explore what went wrong, Andy would now prefer to discount all prior critiques that fail to meet his standard for gentility. I was amused to see that Andy’s newfound concerns largely echo those that I’d raised six months ago but that he tried to soften them by pairing them with an attack on me for not criticizing RTT in an Eduwonk-approved fashion.

Andy came after me for not only being critical of the programmatic design of RTT but also for having had the temerity to write, last spring:

The issue is not the virtue of Shelton or Weiss, much less that of Secretary Duncan or President Obama, but whether they will be in a position to reassure even skeptical observers that the process has been fair and meritocratic. It is whether the program is sufficiently insulated from political machinations that even mean-spirited skeptics would have trouble finding cause to wonder about manipulation and private agendas. That is where a clear, coherent, credible, and transparent process is essential."

Andy uses that passage, which I think proved both prescient and fair, to suggest I had impugned folks at the Department and thus discount my numerous concerns about the design of RTT. What about the fact that I, as Andy wrote, “went out of the way to say he wasn’t impugning Joanne Weiss or Jim Shelton or anyone else”? Ahh, you’re not sufficiently attentive to my devious, McCarthyite nature. Andy explains that, “It’s the classic, ‘of course I’m not saying that'...but I’ll write about that a lot anyway.’” Andy also explained that I “spent much of the spring in an effort to undermine trust and confidence around ‘Race to the Top’... while earnestly bleating that competitive grant programs need trust to work.”

So, as best I can tell, Andy is okay with me addressing RTT so long as I don’t allude to concerns about the quality of reviewing, criticize the criteria (since that’s just a veiled attack on our friends at the Department), or undermine “trust.” And I take it I’m allowed to weigh in on programmatic questions so long as I don’t also raise concerns about self-dealing, transparency, or conflicts of interest. But that leaves the question of who, if anyone, Andy would permit to raise such concerns about self-dealing, transparency, or conflicts of interest?

Implicit in Andy’s complaint is that I was already flagging concerns with the Department’s RTT criteria and potential review process as early as last summer. As best I can tell, he regards this not as discerning but as part of my nefarious attempt to “undermine trust.” Indeed, while he seemingly wishes I had held my tongue until RTT was over, I wish Andy or some of the other ostensible administration allies had been raising these concerns at the time. It might have prompted the Department to solicit some feedback or to take a hard look at how it was proceeding.

Indeed, as I wrote last winter: “It is unclear whether anyone with firsthand knowledge really has much incentive to publicly scrutinize RTT, i3, and the rest...The problem with such solicitous deference, of course, is that it has the unfortunate effect of leaving important questions unasked, truths unstated, and tensions unexplored.” I promised such scrutiny, “Not because the ideas behind RTT or i3 are bad...[but] because these programs will only deliver on their promise if they rest on a credible foundation, are guided by an understanding of what Uncle Sam can and should do in our federal system, are designed for the long run, and if the process is able to benefit from observers speaking their piece without fear or favor.”

Finally, Andy claims to have flagged an “inherent contradiction” in my thinking. He asserts that I’ve never “resolved the inherent contradiction in arguing that the program should be free from influence while also calling for real-time ways for outsiders to influence the process.” I just don’t see the contradiction. I’m fine with permitting competitions a fair bit of opacity when the scoring metrics are clear, the criteria for judge selection are established, judge selection is credibly linked to reviewer competence, and the judging process is rooted in demonstrable outcomes rather than vapid promises and puffery (as this reduces the import of reviewer bias). This is why I don’t sweat the makeup or operation of NSF or IES reviews in the same way I did RTT and i3.

I’ve said from the get-go that I worried about reviewer quality, outside influence, and opacity in RTT precisely because the programmatic criteria and review process were so reliant on vacuous promises and grant-writing rather than what states have done--making the reviewers’ own views especially significant. I worried about reviewer selection and training precisely because the process left them enormous discretion in deciding whether seemingly granular application criteria had been met, creating the potential for wild variation in scoring.

As I wrote back in March:

Those impartial reviewers who are trying to make sense of these massively uneven phonebook compendiums are...not [in an] ideal situation. Let me be clear. I don't think this was inevitable. I believe it's largely a product of the way RTT was hyped and designed. If the Department of Education had been more disciplined about establishing clear and comprehensible criteria for the apps, had opted to embrace fewer than 19 (!) criteria, had not insisted that states punch every box on the app, had enforced limits on application length and structure, had done more to make the apps transparent to and searchable by third parties, or had constructed the reviewing process with less haste and more thought, this could be more about the steak and less about the sizzle."

To be fair, I think the administration ultimately did a good job of dodging the conflict of interest concerns--but it paid a huge price to do so. They avoided the issue by ruling out rafts of talented, expert, and senior people. The result was a reviewer pool littered with mediocrities of questionable expertise (dotted by the occasional A-lister like Mike Kirst or UPenn’s Mike Johanek). Most of the heavy-hitters who’d demonstrated reformist chops, knew the facts on the ground, and had a deep understanding of the politics and implementation challenges were out of the mix because of their previous relationships and experience. This problem doesn’t bedevil IES or NSF in the same way, because the criteria, process, and relevant credentials are clear enough and firmly constructed enough that individuals with a conflict of interest can be identified with a scalpel rather than a meat cleaver.

Anyway, Andy my friend, that’s how I see it. I’m glad you’re raising concerns about the contest and review process now (better late than never, and all that), but I think it would have been far more useful if you’d done so before four billion bucks went out the door.

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