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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.

Federal Opinion

Spin, Mr. Secretary, Spin!

By Rick Hess — March 29, 2010 4 min read
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Like the Energizer Bunny, our earnest Secretary of Education just keeps going. The Race to the Top (RTT) winners are slated to be announced this afternoon, and a rumor from a reliable source has it that there will be just three winners. That would be good news.

Given his unfortunate penchant for talking bigger than he delivers, and all the ink already spilled on RTT, you’d think Duncan might let the results speak for themselves. After all, just about everybody--other than his flacks, love-struck media types, and state officials eager to curry favor--thought his decision to name 16 round one Race to the Top (RTT) finalists a massive let-down, especially after all his tough talk. Even RTT boosters and Duncan allies like DFER honcho Joe Williams and Eduwonk Andy Rotherham were puzzled and disappointed.

But, rather than let the results speak, Duncan’s at it again. Our earnest Secretary bragged to columnist David Broder in yesterday’s Washington Post that the winning RTT proposals are “so good, and so few.” We’ll see. I’ve few doubts the media will play it that way. But I’d advise those not on the Department payroll to give Andy Smarick’s new “Education Stimulus Watch” a careful read before reaching any conclusions. If one looks past the shiny exterior of the RTT spin machine and peeks under the hood of the apps, as Smarick has noted, the significance of what all but two or maybe three states are proposing is actually pretty dubious. If the Department names just two or three winners, as rumor has it, then Duncan will have countered some of the damage that resulted from the fiasco of naming 16 round one finalists. Even so, this would have been a terrific case for him to show, not tell.

Noteworthy here, as I’ve pointed out before, is how easy it is for Duncan to ensure that round one of RTT is perceived as a success. My good friend Andy Rotherham has been perhaps the administration’s most effective foil/ally on this. He repeatedly argued last fall that the measure of the Obama administration’s seriousness was its willingness to award RTT grants to only a small number of exemplary states (at least in the first round) to ensure that RTT didn’t turn into the kind of race “where everyone gets a medal at the end.” The caution has been widely echoed and is generally treated as a bracing warning to the Department of Education (which is what made the decision to name 16 round one finalists so surprising).

What is easily missed is how useful this marker is for the administration. For Duncan and his team, the terrific thing about Rotherham’s standard is that it is both elastic and absolutely doable. What constitutes an appropriately “small” or “select” number of states is ambiguous, giving ED’s spinmeisters much room to work. Moreover, a seemingly tough bar that’s just a numbers game means that all Duncan has to do to declare victory is limit the number of winners. That is a whole lot easier than trying to make the case that the judging process was transparent and fair, or that the winning apps are all they’re cracked up to be.

As a final reminder that the RTT apps are mostly not about removing data firewalls, overhauling outdated teacher evaluation systems, or lifting charter school caps, but about process and professional development, let’s take one more gander at the apps of the round one finalists. Truth is, to anyone who has read education grant applications in the past decade, this all looks more than a little familiar.

Ohio promises it “will deliver Cultural Competency professional development to 2,000 educators annually. This professional development will enhance and shape educators’ ability to operate efficiently within the cultural and gender context of students affected by poverty, gendered expectations, race, and class” (page 253).

New York proudly relates, “A broad based panel of leaders from across USNY [University System of New York], recently convened to broaden the range of opportunities for collaboration, recommended, ‘more cooperation, better cooperation and funding cooperation’” (page 235).

Massachusetts, somewhat incomprehensibly, explains, “RTT funding would allow us to reach our goal of establishing an educational culture characterized by cross-functional communication within our agency, a shared vision and vocabulary for education reform both within and outside the agency, increased collaboration with stakeholder groups and between school administrators and teachers, and strengthened feedback loops to identify and disseminate practices that work” (pages 29-30).

Florida promises to promote “purposeful collaboration and leadership among all participants and stakeholders within the education community and in the wider community of our citizens and leaders” (page 117).

Illinois observes, “The clear consensus of the stakeholders involved in the LPMS requirements development was that a ‘cloud’ environment is necessary to allow LEAs to focus resources and effort on the use of data, rather than technology infrastructure, and to position the LPMS and its users for the next generation of information technology advancements” (page 77).

North Carolina explains that the governor’s “reform agenda centers on a strong, vertical alignment of educational resources designed to meet the education needs of NC citizens ‘from the high chair to the rocking chair,’ as well as from the mountains to the coast” (page 15).

And, in a quote that very likely resonated with our hard-spinning Secretary, Ohio notes that its efforts “have benefitted substantially from investments in stakeholder consensus building, including transformative dialog at the state levels. Ohio will make systemic changes with deliberate actions to facilitate dialog across stakeholder groups at the local level” (page 190).

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.