Race to the Top (or is it the Bottom?)

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The Washington Post

Race to the Top (or is it the Bottom?)

Arne Duncan, the Heartbreaker

by
Valerie Strauss

Just a few weeks ago, Duncan proudly announced that there were 16 finalists in his $4 billion "Race to the Top" competition for cash, er, I mean, federal funds that are being doled out to states who devise an education reform plan of which Duncan approves.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia sent teams to woo Education Department officials in Washington. The teams had 30 minutes to make a presentation and then 60 minutes to answer questions with a panel of judges.

It sounds a little too much like the reality fashion show "Project Runway" for my taste, but never mind.

Today Duncan slapped down most of the finalists, announcing that there were only two states that had created a plan he liked well enough: Tennessee and Delaware.

Now tiny Delaware will get as much $107 million from the Race to the Top fund, and Tennessee will get as much as $602 million. Now the other states can go back and revise their dresses, I mean, their reform projects, and get ready for the next round of the reality competition.

Poor Washington D.C., where Chancellor Michelle Rhee's take-no-prisoners reform plan has been lauded by the federal government, ended up last among the finalists, according to my colleague Bill Turque.

Turque reported that part of the problem for D.C. may have been the trouble it has had in developing a data information system. Millions of dollars have been spent over the years but still no real system exists. And using "data" to drive reform is one of Duncan's core principles, even though we all know that data is vulnerable to manipulation.

In this story in the News Journal, Michael Horn, executive director of education at Innosight Institute, a nonprofit advocate of education innovation, said that Delaware's winning application was strong on its use of data.

It also made a big deal out of linking teacher evaluation to student performance, including results on standardized tests -- another big issue for Duncan. Some assessment experts say linking teacher pay to test scores is a bad idea, but Duncan likes it anyway.

Meanwhile, 40 points of the 500-point program measurement scale was tied to "successful conditions for charter schools."

Though studies have shown that charter schools in general do no better educating students than traditional public schools, Duncan likes charter schools anyway, which may have been what sunk finalist North Carolina, which currently has a statewide cap of 100 public charter schools.

Talk about micromanaging.

Horn noted that Delaware's application did not have much in the way of really innovative programs, and did not have what the article called a "student-centric focus."

"There's a lot of great jargon, but when you step back from it, it's hard to figure out what they just said they were going to do," Horn was quoted as saying.

Duncan uses a lot of jargon too, but it is easy to understand what he is trying to do with education: expand charter schools, increase student standardized testing, link teacher pay to test scores and close down the nation's lowest-performing schools.

Unfortunately, what is not easy to understand is why President Obama's education secretary is pushing those initiatives. This administration was supposed to bring some reason back into education reform after the failed era of No Child Left Behind.

But from the looks of it, Secretary Duncan may be taking on a race to somewhere even worse.

Valerie Strauss is staff writer for the Washington Post.

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