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Thompson: Rick Hess's (& My) Lessons from Race to the Top

Some academics persist in a strange ritual - gauging greatness by the effects that government office holders have on the political process, as opposed to the results of their policies for flesh and blood human beings. Andrew Jackson and Teddy "the Big Stick" Roosevelt have been categorized as "great" because they were so effective in stealing Indians' land and leaping into imperialism. Ronald "the Great Communicator" Reagan gets high marks for the transformative nature of his politics, as the Central American death squads he supported and the destruction of blue collar jobs are forgotten.

Now, some proclaim Arne Duncan as a great transformer because he completely changed the nature of education policy. Those who celebrate Duncan's political victories, like William Howell and Joanne Weiss, remain curiously silent about the possible benefits and the costs of his school improvement experiments.

Fortunately, conservative Rick Hess's contribution to the discussion in Education Next, Lofty Promises but Little Change for America's Schools, offers a real world critique of Duncan's gambles. Hess recounts the results that matter, concluding "the breakthrough wins touted so avidly by Race to the Top enthusiasts in 2010 and 2011 now look much more like pyrrhic victories—shot through with design flaws, tainted by federal compulsion, and compromised by half-hearted follow-through." 

The lessons Hess draws from the RttT include: #2 "Execution, Not Action, Is the Goal." The first step in doing so is realizing, #7 "Paper Pledges Are Not 'Buy-In.'" The second step is #3 "Reward Pioneers, Not Groupies." All three serve as a reminder that, "The public imagination is often captured by the fact of a federal program, but what matters in schooling is how programs actually work."

One would have thought that #4 "Build Reliable Infrastructure" would have been the most obvious lesson.  Hess graciously notes, "It was no fault of the Obama administration, but the infrastructure to do Race to the Top well simply didn't exist." But, I wonder if we would be so forgiving of an engineer who built a $4 billion skyscraper without bothering to lay a foundation?

Neither can I understand why even non-educators don't pay more attention to #6 "Beware of Opportunity Costs." Hess likely would have invested in different policies than I would have, but now the money is gone, and since so few tangible improvements were produced by the RttT (and the SIG, and the rest of Duncan's gold-plated innovations), how do we make the case that more science-based education policies should be funded?

My second-favorite of Hess's lessons is #5 "Seek to Eliminate Impediments, Not to Secure New Promises." But, it may resonate better with practitioners than policy wonks, and it brings us to the point where I apparently disagree with Hess, and believe he should remain more committed to his conservative philosophy.  Some may see the lifting charter caps and removing data firewalls that prohibit the linking of test scores with individual teacher's evaluations as impediments. But, it should be local governments that decide how many charters they can authorize and still pay their utility bills and maintain their essential overhead.

Similarly, when the federal government coerced states into using value-added models - that were invalid and unreliable for evaluating individuals - it opened the door to the new tsunami of teach-to-the-test that wrecked the push for college readiness standards. I wonder if Hess had been in Duncan's shoes whether he would have accepted a compromise where the federal government knocked down those data firewalls in order to gain information about increases in student performance but without demanding that those guess-timates be used to hold individuals accountable.  

Hess's best lesson is #1 "First, Do No Harm."  Understandably, Hess focuses on policy from a macro perspective, noting that "the pressure to pursue proposals like Common Core testing and test-based teacher evaluation on federally determined timetables wound up creating divisions and spurring blowback." My years in the inner city classroom convinced me that First, Do No Harm should also apply to the classroom and whole school reform.

I suspect that this is the last suggestion that reformers like Joanne Weiss will heed. Weiss now cites a 2010 American Enterprise Institute study by Patrick McGuinn which concluded that the RttT  “'shifted the focus of federal education policy from the [state] laggards to the leaders.'” Weiss believes that it is good that it "moved away from the notion that federal policy is designed chiefly to prevent bad actors from doing harm, and it set its sights on excellence."

There are very good reasons why the federal government should mostly limit itself to addressing the legacies of discrimination and inequity. It should be an equal opportunity funder of multiple paths to excellence. But, why would reformers believe that they, not parents and local and state governments, know the best reward and punish way to the top?   

Why are top-down reformers so allergic to trying to anticipate the unintended negative effects of the punitive portions of their experiments on students? What parent - or anyone else who knows and loves individual students - would agreed to an experiment that might benefit one of their children, but at the cost of damaging their other kid?

For argument's sake, let's assume that the RttT produced an increase in test scores for some students. Let's even accept for a minute that those metrics actually reflect increased learning. How would that benefit compare with costs of the increase in teach-to-the test instruction that the RttT and the rest of the Duncan administrations policies encouraged?

How would the benefit of a possible increase in test scores for some compare with the cost of the inevitable result where more of the poorest children of color were dumped into schools with even greater concentrations of generational poverty and with peers who have undergone even more extreme trauma? And, what was the opportunity cost of shifting policy away from holistic efforts to treat the effects of trauma?

Finally, we should consider both the intangible harm and another opportunity cost of the Race to the Top, as well as NCLB. The RttT "treated paper pledges as a proxy for buy-in. The contest rewarded states that collected lots of paper pledges from unions and school boards." I can't imagine that many of them actually intended to honor the promises that they were coerced into making. I expect this ritual was virtually indistinguishable from the stakeholders' response to NCLB's targets of achieving 100% proficiency in twelve years. If Duncan and other reformers actually believe their claims regarding the importance of trusting, collaborative relationships, they should consider the opportunity costs inherent in forcing system to utter words and produce metrics that are divorced from reality.-JT(@drjohnthompson) 


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