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Education Funding Opinion

Ugly Politics Ahead: Result of RTT’s Focus on Words, Not Deeds

By Rick Hess — August 25, 2010 2 min read
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While I’ve my doubts about urging states to launch new initiatives when job one ought to be financial retrenching, I’m happy to see heavy lifts and real accomplishments recognized in places like Rhode Island, D.C., Massachusetts, and Florida.

That said, in assessing a process that inexplicably left Louisiana and Colorado out of the winners circle, we need to recognize that Congress and the Department of Education conspired to create a competition that primarily rewarded states for embracing ED-endorsed best practices rather than the more mundane efforts to clear away anachronistic policies and reset the policy environment. As I wrote in March:

RTT embodies two visions of reform. The first cracks open systems hampered by anachronistic bureaucracies and policies; thus the enthusiasm for encouraging states to knock down data firewalls or to lift charter-school caps... The second vision is a reiteration of the familiar progressive predilection for prescriptive reform. For example, RTT requirements demand that states explain how they will use data to improve instruction, intervene in low-performing schools, provide effective support to teachers and leaders, and so on. This vague list of demands for compliance with what the federal government deems the best practices of the moment accounts for 85 percent or more of RTT scoring. Whereas bureaucracy-busting measures tend to be cut-and-dry--states either did or did not enact certain reform legislation--the bulk of RTT is about promising to do things. Since this kind of compliance is about plans and intentions rather than actions, it's a call to stack up catch phrases and jargon in lieu of action."

This emphasis on promises and practices means that fidelity of implementation becomes nearly the whole ball game.

This matters a lot, because half of the RTT winners (Hawaii, Florida, New York, Tennessee, Georgia, and Rhode Island) will be inaugurating new executives come January, and several others (Massachusetts, Maryland, Ohio, and D.C.) may be doing so. In other words, more than 80% of the RTT winners may have new leaders in 2011. It’s not clear how wedded new governors will be to the airy promises and practices--such as, say, the adoption of the Common Core--contained in the winning RTT applications. If and when that happens, I see only two choices for our earnest Secretary of Education.

Either Duncan will have to roll over and admit he handed out $4 billion borrowed bucks (the vast bulk of his “reform” kitty) on the basis of unenforceable paper plans, or he’ll have to start trying to strong-arm states by holding new governors and state chiefs to the commitments of their predecessors--and clawing back dollars from states that don’t comply. If I’m the Secretary, neither of those scenarios is too appealing, especially in a year when a number of amped-up Republican gubernatorial candidates seem all too eager to tangle with the Obama administration.

One last thing. With RTT tracker extraordinaire Andy Smarick having set down his analyst’s pen to join New Jersey’s Department of Education and other observers having grown tired of wading through state applications, there has been remarkably little monitoring of RTT round two. We simply don’t know whether this time (unlike in round one) states actually complied with the regulations regarding length. We also don’t know whether or how reviewer training was altered or improved. Despite Duncan’s typically grandiose claims, we don’t really know whether the second round apps are better than the oft-laughable round one efforts--or whether any improvement was simply a product of more than enthusiastic cutting-and-pasting.

This time round, there’s not been much independent scrutiny of the process or much of a check on Duncan’s energetic spinning. We’ll see whether the same is true when it comes to implementation.

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