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Education Funding Opinion

RTT Finalist Instructions: Dog-and-Pony Show Edition

By Rick Hess — March 10, 2010 5 min read
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Race to the Top (RTT) finalists have been issued instructions for their big upcoming trip to Washington, the one where they’ll put on their dog-and-pony shows for reviewers and Department of Education staff. The instructions raise fresh grounds for concern about how much care Department officials have devoted to bolstering the credibility of this $4 billion grant competition and buffering it from political considerations.

Department officials reviewed the instructions with finalists in a hush-hush phone call last Friday, but a couple of sources who were on the call and who share the commitment to “maximum integrity and transparency” that our earnest Secretary of Education has championed, shared the briefing memo with me. In the same spirit, I post it below.

The guidelines are once again semi-vague in key places--telling states “it’s up to you to determine what to emphasize and how to tell your story” and that presentations need not “touch on each criterion or priority.” As any veteran teacher knows, a little guidance on form and structure can help students focus on substance. Ah, well. The guidelines do indicate that time limits on the 90-minute sessions and 30-minute presentations will be “strictly enforced,” though, truth be told, this is a stance that would have been far more useful when it came to the page limits, application instructions, and budget guidelines in the written applications.

Given the Department’s cavalier attitude with regard to its earlier directives, it’s unclear how seriously states should take this new guidance. The best time to insist that states focus on substance and play by the rules is probably not the upcoming dog-and-pony shows. As one former federal official noted, not for attribution (because criticizing RTT is not a great career move in Washington these days), “Apparently ED has never met a governor or other elected official. The chances that a governor will feel constrained by these schoolmarmish rules are about nil. These folks are going to go all out. Lots of theatre, lots of bells and whistles.”

Speaking of bells and whistles, word on the street also has it that an anonymous donor is paying the Aspen Institute to hold prep sessions for the RTT finalists. I’ve been told that the sessions are already underway and include feedback on state mock presentations from a whole additional layer of consultants and administration allies from organizations such as New Leaders for New Schools. Mmmmm, can’t you just smell the relentless focus on substance?

For the actual presentations, unspecified Department staff and “up to” the five reviewers who initially reviewed a given state’s application will watch the presentations. Apparently, this means no one (aside, potentially, from an unspecified “small number of Department program staff”) will view most or all of the presentations. Of course, this also raises a few questions as to how Department officials will comport themselves, the degree to which they may seek to “inform” reviewer opinions, and how credibly the process will be buffered from personal and political considerations. Such questions include:
- Will Department staff ask questions during the presentations?
- Will they occasionally allow an approving murmur to pass their lips?
- Will it be political appointees, career staff, or both who will attend?
- Will RTT chief Joanne Weiss attend some or all of the presentations?
- Does anyone seriously think reviewers that Weiss’s team vetted and selected, if seated in a room with Weiss, won’t be searching her body language and utterances for cues as to her preferences?
- On the other hand, if Weiss doesn’t attend, how much credence can we put in the decisions that she and the Secretary make when they act on the reviewer recommendations and award dollar amounts?

The consequence of incoherent program design, as the scars of Bush-era veterans of Reading First can demonstrate, is this kind of jam: where you’re damned if you do... and damned if you don’t.

Rather than simply direct states to send the state chief, a couple superintendents, and others who can concretely discuss their state’s educational exertions, states are invited to send “elected officials, State education executives, district superintendents, teacher leaders, and others.” This is a crafty move by Duncan’s eduflacks, promising a lot of “will-he-or-won’t-he?” storylines about which governors will come to D.C. and adding some red carpet glitz to the whole affair. And the optics are even better if Republican governors like Bobby Jindal or Charlie Crist coming on bended knee. This is especially alluring for Democratic operatives eagerly depicting governors like Jindal as hypocrites, for first opposing the stimulus and then seeking RTT funds. For the administration, buzz about gubernatorial appearances and Republican hypocrisy is certainly preferable to having observers spend the next week or two looking into the finalists’ applications. The upshot? Once again we’ll be focusing on personalities and glib promises (including, I suspect, from leaders who may not be in office come 2011).

The presentations are going to be taped and then posted on the web, though not until after the winners are announced. You’ve got to love that kind of “non-contemporaneous transparency.” Not. As ED’s eduflacks well know, the inclination of observers or journalists to check dubious statements, hyperbolic claims against the unsearchable applications, or any other curious statements will be nil about ten minutes after the winners are announced. The likelihood of a journalist interesting her editor in examining claims made by state officials who have already won (or lost) a grant competition is, roughly, zero. And I can safely predict that my readership, for instance, will hover in the single digits should I wish to waste my time rehashing the ins and outs of a concluded federal grant competition. Of course, the post-competition transparency does mean our earnest Secretary of Education will get to share hours of footage of cash-starved officials from more than a dozen states rapturously singing both his praises and those of RTT. Not a bad deal if you can swing it.

Race to the Top Information for Finalists March 4, 2010 The Presentation 1. The purpose of the Tier 2 review is to allow the reviewers to validate and clarify their evaluations of your application and ensure that you have the understanding, knowledge, and capacity to implement your plans. a. It's up to you to determine what to emphasize and how to tell your story. Your presentation does not have to touch on each criterion or priority. 2. Your audience will be up to 5 independent, expert reviewers who reviewed your application in depth during the first stage (Tier 1) of the review. In addition, a small number of Department program staff will be present. 3. You will have a 90 minute block of time. You may use up to 30 minutes of that time for your presentation. The remainder will be for Q&A led by the reviewers. Time limits will be strictly enforced. 4. Following your State presentation, the assigned reviewers will meet to discuss your application and presentation, finalize their individual scores and comments, and submit them to the Department. Reviewers will be scoring against the criteria and priorities, just as they did in the first tier of the review. 5. In order to maintain a level playing field and ensure the continued integrity of the competition, the presentations may only be attended by your 5-person presentation team, the peer reviewers, and program staff from the Department. 6. Your presentation will be videotaped and posted on the Department's website after awards are announced. Each member of your presentation team will be required to sign and submit an appearance release prior to your presentation. Peer reviewers and Department staff are also required to sign this release prior to participating in the Tier 2 presentations. This release will be provided to finalists by the contractor. The Presenters 7. Your State's presentation team may include up to five individuals. Presenters must have a deep knowledge of your application and have significant, ongoing roles in and responsibilities for executing your State's Race to the Top activities. In no case may presentation teams include consultants. State teams may include elected officials, State education executives, district superintendents, teacher leaders, and others with ongoing leadership roles and deep knowledge of the State's application. a. The only personnel from your State who may attend are the members of the presentation team. 8. Please email your list of presenters to racetothetop@ed.gov as soon as possible, but no later than noon EST on Friday, March 11. Please include in your list each person's name, title, and their role in executing your State's Race to the Top plan. If reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities are needed, please include those requests with your list. Other Rules 9. Your presentation may not include any information beyond what is contained in your application. Reviewers may not consider any new information, including new or changed plans, accomplishments, laws, policies, data, or performance measures. 10. You may use a projection system for your presentation; we will provide a laptop and projector. Note that you may not use Web-based information, video presentations, or embedded video resources, nor may you use any resources that provide information beyond what is contained in your original application. 11. You must bring paper copies of your presentations. These copies may include only the slides you are using in your presentation - not your notes and not any other supporting materials. Reviewers may only look at slides that you actually present during your 30 minute presentation. The slides presented to reviewers, the videotape of your presentation, and the list of presenters will become part of the application record and will be posted on the Department's Website after awards are announced. Please bring 7 paper copies of your presentation (one each for the reviewers and two for the application file). 12. No additional materials may be provided to reviewers. 13. The reviewers are responsible for ensuring that the Q&A time is well spent; as such, they may ask you to stop your response so that they may move onto the next question. Please cooperate with these requests. Communications with the Department 14. We will work with you over the next week to make sure you have the information you need for Tier 2. Because this is a competitive process, there are a few ground rules: a. We may not discuss pending applications. This means we are unable to respond to inquiries and questions pertaining to the substance of a finalist's application. b. We will only respond to logistical questions pertaining to the Tier 2 review process. Please direct those questions to racetothetop@ed.gov. All Race to the Top questions that are sent to the Department will be directed to and processed through the Race to the Top email box. c. We cannot provide additional guidance such as who should be on the presentation team, what information they should present, what questions reviewers are likely to ask, etc. 15. Please understand that these ground rules are in place to continue to maintain a level playing field for all finalists. Again, congratulations on being selected as a finalist. We look forward to seeing you in Washington, D.C. the week of March 15.

UPDATE: For more on the Aspen prep sessions, check out Lesli Maxwell’s take at State Ed Watch.

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