Race to the Top Follows Tortuous, Imprecise Course

Published May 3, 2010

The Race to the Top is beginning to resemble a marathon with bizarre twists and turns that take runners in divergent directions with differing degrees of difficulty. Critics of varied political persuasions are warning of grievous flaws in the process and calling for the Race to be scrapped or changed dramatically.

Perhaps the most devastating critique comes from the Economic Policy Institute, a center-left research organization based in Washington, DC.

In an April 20 paper, “Let’s Do the Numbers,” retired marine engineer William Peterson and longtime New York Times columnist Richard Rothstein argue ObamaEd’s 500-point rating system for judging states’ applications for a share of a $4.35 billion stimulus stash “presents a patina of scientific objectivity, but in truth masks a subjective and somewhat random process.”

Forty states and the District of Columbia entered RTTT. Sixteen became finalists, and Delaware and Tennessee were designated in March as the sole winners of the first round, winning $100 million and $500 million, respectively. The Education Department hired 49 anonymous reviewers at $5,000 apiece to evaluate applications according to weighted metrics reflecting Secretary Arne Duncan’s priorities.

States received points for assorted “success factors,” such as approval by teacher unions and school boards, committing to national standards and assessments, using test data to evaluate teachers and principals, adopting federal turnaround strategies for the lowest-achieving schools, and welcoming high-performing charter schools.

Delaware scored 454.6 out of 500, and Tennessee 444.2, but the EPI study found the seeming precision in such marks was a sham. It concluded the selection of those two states was “subjective and arbitrary” and “more a matter of bias or chance” than proof of stellar reform efforts.

The analysts pointed to the dearth of scientific support for the points Duncan assigned to various factors. For instance, why should “Improving Student Outcomes” have a weight of just 5 percent (25 points out of 500), and why just 4 percent for “Using Data to Improve Instruction,” 6 percent for “Using Evaluations [of principals and teachers] to Inform Key Decisions,” and 3 percent for “Ensuring Equitable Distribution [of principals and teachers] in High-Poverty or High-Minority Schools”?

The entirely reasonable decision to increase each of those factors by just 3 percent (with weights of 25 other indicators reduced by just a half-point each to keep the total at 100 percent) would have resulted in Georgia beating out Tennessee. The analysts also showed that if Pennsylvania had been fully credited with its initiatives in early childhood and science education (both supposedly Obama priorities, though slighted in RTTT), the Keystone State would have been the big winner.

Some of the most egregious bias affected Massachusetts, which ranked 13th among the 16 finalists despite topping all states in rigor of standards and achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Massachusetts received scores higher than or equal to Tennessee on half of the 30 metrics. Why no prize? Massachusetts declined to commit to adopting the Obama administration’s national standards by next August. State leaders preferred to have public hearings on whether to embrace the national version. It was docked 15 (out of a possible 20) points on “Adopting Standards.”

“In sum,” the EPI analysis notes, “Massachusetts’ willingness to permit the public to comment on its academic standards, combined with a few quirks in the weighting system, cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.”

States can apply for future rounds of RTTT grants after amending their policies to conform more closely to the Obama/Duncan game plan. But such conformity would encourage more standardization under centralized authority as opposed to innovation and empowerment of education consumers in communities.

The one positive result of the Race to the Top has been to demonstrate that the federal government lacks the competence to influence elementary and secondary education for the better. Of course, the U.S. Department of Education has been proving that very point since its establishment 30 years ago. How many more years before the general public realizes Ronald Reagan had the right idea in seeking to close this monstrosity and return power and taxing authority to the local level?

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with the Heartland Institute.