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Education Funding

Steven Brill: The Ed. Dept.'s Race to the Top Missteps

By Michele McNeil — August 23, 2011 4 min read
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Steven Brill has been everywhere talking about his new book, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools, from CNN and This Week in Education to NPR’s Diane Rehm show and even a sit-down with Diane Ravitch on C-SPAN’s BookTV. He also talked to Politics K-12 about his book.

Here’s an edited transcript with highlights from our 30-minute chat, which mostly involved Race to the Top, a favorite topic for the Politics K-12 bloggers:

Q.: Your book paints a mixed review of Race to the Top. Given the constraints the federal government was under, was it a success?

A.: There were two levels of success. One was, it did prime the pump [for reform]. Then the question is, will states that won the money do what they promised to do? That’s likely to be a mixed bag. Some will get there in varying degrees. The third level is, OK, if they do all of this stuff, is it going to matter? I don’t think we’ll know that for two or three years.

To me, at the end of the day, there is a big issue, that you can’t take the only workplace in America that is currently failing to produce the results we’d like and have it be the only workplace where performance should never be counted.

If you’re going to have a big, competitive-grant program and [look at] what’s the least bad way to do it, then the least bad way to do it is probably the way they did it. [The Department of Education did go] a little overboard on the conflict [of interest] policy for the vetters. (Politics K-12 note: This policy eliminated many people from the pool of potential Race to the Top judges because the department sought to eliminate any direct conflicts of interest, plus anyone who might have the appearance of a conflict of interest.)

Q.: Why do you think Race to the Top caught fire like it did?

A.: A, it was a contest. B, the people who had to sign the application were governors, politicians. Then you had the added mix that every state was under budget stress.

Q.: What was the administration’s biggest Race to the Top misstep?

A.: I think it’s [the scoring process]. You could have mitigated against it by taking one of suggestions from those that came from the New Teacher Project, for example. (Politics K-12 note: This group, along with Politics K-12, suggested whether throwing out the lowest and highest scores would have achieved better results.) You had wild swings from people who just didn’t know anything. Colorado still wouldn’t have won, though. The other potential criticism is the [judges’] instructions should have been a lot sharper.

Q.: Your book suggests some important questions that cannot be answered yet about Race to the Top implementation, such as whether the Education Department will be able to make states keep their promises. Do you think they will have to guts to do that?

A.: As a taxpayer I hope they do. It will be highly unusual. Right now, I can’t see why anyone would justify sending another check to Hawaii or to New York. In a few months you might want to ask for the money back.

Q.: How involved was Education Secretary Arne Duncan in building the nitty-gritty details of the Race to the Top program? It seems like Jon Schnur (an Obama and Duncan adviser, and the founder of New Leaders for New Schools) had a big role too.

A.: When I interviewed [Duncan] he was really conversant with the scoring. He knew the stuff pretty well. There’s sort of two stages. Schnur was not involved in the rules that were put out, that strikes me as being believable. The basic idea and the basic criteria ... that came from part of the memo [Schnur] gave to Obama and the White House [shortly after the 2008 election]. The framework of the criteria I think he was very involved in. When it came to the rules about the vetters, he said he was gone by then.

Q.: Jon Schnur plays such an integral part in your book. Is he really that important to the reform movement?

A.: To me, I think he’s important. To me, he was a coalescing figure that held the narrative together. He just seemed to be everywhere. He really didn’t want to be in the book. He begged me not to be in the book. Is he crucial? I don’t know. You could say [Teach For America founder] Wendy Kopp is more of the mother of this movement than Jon Schnur is the father. I think he’s important ... the politicians really sort of liked him.

Q.: Is Randi Weingarten really your dream New York City schools’ superintendent, or was that a thought experiment?

A.: It could be a dream, it could be a nightmare. It depends crucially on the boss making her stick to the drill. If [New York City Mayor Michael] Bloomberg really pushes her, [says] “You’re not doing freelance here, you’re in charge of implementing my reform program,” I think she could do it.

Q.: In your book you said Randi sat for interviews longer than any other source for your book. How long?

A.: Over 24 hours.