Willingham: 'Race to Top' a doomed bribery scheme
By Daniel Willingham
When I was about 10 years old I was supposed to clean my room each day, which meant that each day I tried to find a way to get out of the house before my mother discovered that I hadn’t done so. Tired of nagging me, my mother offered me fifty cents a week to keep it clean. So then my goal changed from sneaking out of the house to preventing my mother from discovering that I had merely shoved all my junk under the bed.
This reminds me of the "Race to the Top" initiative.
Why would the federal government hold a grant competition for states? Either because states lack money, or because they lack conviction.
States might lack money, meaning that they have good ideas for how to improve schools, but cannot carry them out because of tight budgets. With a grant competition, the Feds could pick the best ideas and fund them.
Alternatively states might lack conviction, meaning they know what ought to be done, they just don’t have the political courage to do it. The grant is essentially a bribe to get them to do “the right thing.”
It’s quite obvious that "Race to the Top" is a bribery scheme. The secretary of education and the president believe they know what ought to be done, and they are offering money to states who do it. (Indeed, they are confident that their ideas are “research based,” although I haven’t met many researchers who think the data are at all clear on this point.)
It’s easy to deduce the administration’s stance by looking at the criteria by which the "Race to the Top" grants will be evaluated, included as an Appendix to the application form. If the point of the grants were to collect good ideas and fund them, there would be a lot of information in rubric defining what makes an idea good, and little or nothing about the content of the idea.
Instead, you gain points in the "Race to the Top" evaluation rubric by measuring student growth, conducting annual evaluations, ensuring that teachers and principals are distributed “equitably” through the system, and so forth. The open question in the grant application is not what you’re going to do to improve schools. It’s how you’re going to implement the administration’s ideas.
The likely failure of the "Race to the Top" initiative doesn’t depend on whether or not these ideas are any good.
Here’s the problem. States are not really committed to the reforms the administration envisions. If they were, they would have implemented them, or at least they would have been making a game attempt to do so.
When you pay people to do something, they don’t become motivated to do it. They become motivated to be able to defend that they are doing it. States will do their best to make it appear that they are complying.
This was one of the more important lessons of the "No Child Left Behind" act. To whatever extent you believe it worked, it’s obvious that the impact was lessened because states gamed the system. There is no reason to think that the "Race to the Top" initiative will be any different. The administration is motivating states to shove their dirty laundry under the bed. Eventually that will be discovered, but in the meantime we will have wasted a lot of time and money.
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| February 1, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories: Daniel Willingham, Education Secretary Duncan, Guest Bloggers, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top | Tags: Daniel Willingham, Race to the Top
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