Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Funding Opinion

RTT for Districts: Taking the Hubris Meter to 11

By Rick Hess — May 25, 2012 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Just this week, ED announced the creation of (yet) another RTT, this time for school districts. My only reaction to reading the info on this new Race to the Top-District was, “You have...got...to...be...kidding.” It’s like they read all their admiring press clips from RTT, strenuously tuned out any criticism or lessons learned from the, um, uneven track record when it comes to implementation, and wanted to see whether they could take the hubris meter up to 11 (with apologies to Spinal Tap).

Look, I feel for the folks at ED. I like them and I know their hearts are in the right place. And I know they’re in a hurry to do the right thing. Heck, they waived rulemaking to make sure there are new winners and these new dollars are pushed out before December 31. So let’s just stipulate all that good stuff.

What haven’t they learned? As I’ve noted before, “My reticence [on RTT] is due to concern that it’s extraordinarily difficult for the feds to play an effective, disciplined, and constructive role. Far more likely, I’m afraid, are good intentions dragging down good ideas, fueling cynicism, and ultimately strengthening the hand of the status quo.”

More specifically, here are six lessons, (all of which were studiously ignored):

1. As even Obama allies have pointed out in Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit, programs like RTT are most likely to have an impact when they establish bright lines and where it’s clear whether supplicants have or have not acted (by lifting charter caps, removing data “firewalls,” etc.).
2. Supplicants will promise all kinds of things in order to win money, whether or not they intend (or will be able) to deliver.
3. Having a lot of categories leads to punch-list applications that yield vague, promise-strewn plans with lots of room for problematic judging, incoherent implementation, and foot-dragging by reluctant parties.
4. Bold RTT efforts are compromised by giving union leaders quasi-veto authority over plans, with much of the baleful influence coming when “winners” move to implement plans that rely on airy pledges.
5. These competitions consume limited bandwidth at the leadership level, distracting leaders from implementation of ongoing efforts.
6. RTT led states to focus on dreaming up new ways to spend money and to distract from questions as to how to spend existing funds better.

So, given all that, what has ED brought forth this time around? A new competition focused around vague principles that offer few, if any, bright lines; that asks for grand promises about things like “personalized learning;" that features 17 categories of punch-list excitement; that requires a union sign-off; that will require districts to design elaborate, impressive-sounding plans (or find funds to hire consultants to do so); and that will once again get local leaders focused on the promise that new money may be in the offing.

However well-intended, this thing promises to become a mess, accidentally adding to reporting requirements, federal demands, and strictures. I’d be far more gratified to see ED working with states and districts to identify where existing federal rules get in the way of smart leaders, encourage them to spend funds foolishly, or otherwise impede the kind of dynamic problem-solving that ED is so keen to encourage. If they were interested, I could suggest a number of places where ED might start.

Related Tags:

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.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Funding Explainer Everything You Need to Know About Schools and COVID Relief Funds
How much did your district get in pandemic emergency aid? When must the money be spent? Is there more on the way? EdWeek has the answers.
11 min read
090221 Stimulus Masks AP BS
Dezirae Espinoza wears a face mask while holding a tube of cleaning wipes as she waits to enter Garden Place Elementary School in Denver for the first day of in-class learning since the start of the pandemic.
David Zalubowski/AP
Education Funding Why Dems' $82 Billion Proposal for School Buildings Still Isn't Enough
Two new reports highlight the severe disrepair the nation's school infrastructure is in and the crushing district debt the lack of federal and state investment has caused.
4 min read
Founded 55 years ago, Foust Elementary received its latest update 12-25 years ago for their HVAC units. If the school receives funds from the Guilford County Schools bond allocation, they will expand classrooms from the back of the building.
Community members in Guilford, N.C. last week protested the lack of new funding to improve the district's crumbling school facilities.
Abby Gibbs/News & Record via AP
Education Funding Can Governors Really Take Money From Schools Over Masks?
State leaders are using the threat of funding cuts as a weapon in the mask debate—but it's not clear if they can or will follow through.
7 min read
Conceptual image of hundred dollar bills with some of the images of Benjamin Franklin masked.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and iStock
Education Funding School Infrastructure Funding in Flux as Senators Advance Package Funding Electric Buses
Groups are warning school infrastructure could get shortchanged as Democrats negotiate a sweeping $3.5 trillion budget deal.
5 min read
facilities infrasturcture 1284422306 [Converted] 02
Pratya Vuttapanit/iStock/Getty