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Posted at 8:30 AM ET, 04/21/2010

Race to Top winners chosen arbitrarily -- new report

By Valerie Strauss

Tennessee and Delaware, the first two states to win education funding through President Obama's $4 billion Race To the Top competition, were chosen through “arbitrary criteria” rather than through a scientific process, according to a new report by a non-partisan research institute.

The report called, “Let’s Do the Numbers,” by William Peterson and Richard of the nonprofit, independent Washington D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute, says that the 500-point system created to decide the “best” proposals for education reform is based on false precision.

In the first round Education Secretary Arne Duncan chose two winners from 16 finalists. Delaware won $100 million, or about $800 per student, and Tennessee was awarded $500 million, or about $500 per student. The second round is now underway and Duncan has said he expects more states to win.

The applications presented by the two states won the most points--Delaware, 454.6 and Tennessee 444.2--that were awarded by a panel for the level of compliance with school reform policies favored by Duncan and President Obama.

Those reforms include expanding the number of charter schools and linking teacher evaluation to student performance and standardized test scores.

The Education Department said the winners were selected on the precise numbers and were objective. The report says otherwise.

The 500-point system has six major categories, seven general categories, and various subcategories. By assigning numbers to each one, “the Department implies it has a testable theory or empirical data to back up its quantitative method.”

But it doesn’t have either, and, therefore, assigned the numbers subjectively.

“Further examination suggests that the selection of Delaware and Tennessee was subjective and arbitrary, more a matter of bias or chance than a result of these states’ superior compliance with reform policies,” it said.

And, it said: “The necessary subjective judgments required both for category selection and weight assignment makes a fair competition practically impossible, even if the competition is undertaken with great care.”

The report even questions whether Duncan and his team chose the indicators for the competition carefully enough.

In March, Duncan gave to Congress his recommendations for reauthorization of the federal law commonly known as No Child Left Behind in what is called “The Blueprint.” Some of the practices he recommended, however, are not counted in Race to the Top.

For example, the report says:

“RTT awards 10 points for “developing and implementing common, high-quality assessments,” referring to assessments that are aligned with the common standards in reading and math being developed by the National Governors Association (NGA), Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), and a number of states. The Blueprint, however, also proposes competitive grants to develop ‘high-quality assessments in .... science, history, or foreign languages; [and] high school course assessments in academic and career and technical subjects.’ But the RTT rubric awards no points for development of such assessments.”

The report includes a sentiment I have made before: That competition for funds is unfair at a time when states are strapped for funding.

“Every state should get a fair share of federal funding, excepting only those that refuse to make good faith efforts to implement research-based improvements in elementary and secondary education,” it said.

You can read the whole report at

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By Valerie Strauss  | April 21, 2010; 8:30 AM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan, Race to the Top, Research  | Tags:  RTTT criteria, Race to the Top, Race to the Top criteria, criteria for race to the top, education blueprint and obama, race to the top point system, report on race to the top, rttt point system, the blueprint, winners of Race to the Top  
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Why am I not surprised that the actual empirical data points to what everyone knew when the two winners were announced? The great debacle of American education in the last 50 years is that most cutting-edge educational methodology, policy, and spending seems to be centered around the latest fads rather than around anything that has demonstrated advantages, and the Race to the Top awards prove no exception.

What is unfortunate is that a lot of states spent a lot of money putting together applications, only to come away with nothing, and now they are being forced to do it all again for another chance at potentially nothing, and definitely less than they'd been promised before. Eventually, states will realize that money from the federal government is a double-edged sword that often weakens state education as much or more than it reinforces state efforts. We'd probably all be better off if the federal government just stopped taxing everyone by however much they are giving to schools, let the states take over and tax for the difference, and then spend the money on actual education instead of on layers and layers of bureaucracy that No Child and Race to the Top have creating and are continuing to create. Adding administrative positions to measure outcomes, organize testing, and apply for federal money that is just going to be spent on more layers of administration doesn't actually help students.

Posted by: blert | April 20, 2010 7:36 PM | Report abuse

Valerie, you have committed a serious error in repeating and supporting this report without any skepticism or questioning. The fundamental flaw in the report's conclusion is captured in your headline: the word "arbitrarily". That word suggests that the judging was merely one of convenience. Criticizing the judging as "subjective" is more accurate but is still a stupid criticism.

When the Pulitzer Prizes were handed out, did you criticize the judging for being "subjective"? No, that's part of the judging process. In fact, let's face it: The whole idea of "judging" is based on the idea of subjectivity. If there were completely objective/measurable criteria, a computer would be able to analyze the applications. Human judges would be unnecessary.

ALL GRANTS are subjectively judged. Duh. For example, people apply for NIH grants, and, despite the use of criteria in scoring, everyone is well aware that other scientists are rating the grants, USING THEIR SUBJECTIVE JUDGMENT. They try to be objective (i.e. prejudiced against the grant), but there's no "objective" way to determine whether one grant application is more or less innovative than another's. It's just the reviewer's own SUBJECTIVE judgment.

It's stupid to think that this "Race to the Top" grant process was somehow tainted by "subjective" judgments. Seriously, Valerie, did you think about this before regurgitating this report and the authors' clear biases?

Just to be clear, I'm not arguing that the Race to the Top is a good idea or that the criteria were particularly good ones. I'm simply saying that this report is absurd for complaining about "subjective" or "arbitrary" judging.

Posted by: rlalumiere | April 20, 2010 8:02 PM | Report abuse

That should read "(i.e. not prejudiced against the grant)".

Posted by: rlalumiere | April 20, 2010 8:26 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: itkonlyyyou19 | April 20, 2010 10:26 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: itkonlyyyou19 | April 20, 2010 10:28 PM | Report abuse

@ rlalumiere,

The point is that the Race to the Top competition claimed a) to be objective in assigning points to criteria and b) to have criteria established in empirical evidence, i.e., that what they were grading states on was actually the kind of stuff that leads to improved education.

I think most people could see through the false claim to objectivity. States were still being judged, and for all of the veneer of objectivity lent by a point system, everybody kind of knew that judges made decisions and awarded points based on their own biases. This is always the case, and it is not necessarily a bad thing that decisions are made subjectively. Most important decisions in life are.

It would be a much more serious charge if the judges awarded money based on biases for or against certain states, such as if one of the judges hailed from Delaware and ensured that Delaware got money, but I don't think that's what is being suggested here. What is being said is that the money was handed out on a subjective point system with arbitrarily chosen criteria to the top two finishers, even though there was no real evidence that the third or tenth place finishers wouldn't have used the money just as effectively.

What I think is the most serious problem with the Race to the Top competition is that the standards are arbitrary. Ideally, a competition like this should set goals based in empirical evidence. If we know from solid, empirical, quantitative studies that a certain educational program or practice results in better student learning, then implementation of that practice or program should be a criteria. Instead, Race to the Top has no real evidence that any of its criteria actually lead to better education. For example, it awards states points for promoting charter schools even though the evidence of the effectiveness of charter schools remains very mixed at best. This is what is meant by "arbitrary." The competition picks out educational buzz words, programs, and policy positions and encourages states to adopt them even though there is zero solid quantitative evidence that any of these steps actually improves education. The Department of Education simply arbitrarily picked some things that it thought states should do rather than base the criteria in empirical data, and this is really the biggest problem with Race to the Top. The competition is pushing states down paths with charter schools and everything else, even though nobody has a clue if these programs actually help or harm students. That's what's meant by arbitrary, and someone less charitable might even call it capricious.

Posted by: blert | April 20, 2010 10:59 PM | Report abuse

Can you hunt down some stats regarding the amount of tax-payer money that is held by the U.S. Department of Education and how much is distributed to the states? And, can the info be broken down by year over the last decade or so? Now, that stuff would make a great column. Obama and Duncan have much too much power over distribution of funds, aside from continuous padding the fat of the vast layers of the U.S. Dept. of Education. We have a $$ hostage situation. Seemingly, the U.S. Dept. of Education is akin to a mammoth tapeworm in the belly of the process of the education of our youth.

Posted by: shadwell1 | April 21, 2010 8:28 AM | Report abuse

It's sounding more and more like Race to the Top is in the same losing league as No Child Left Behind and the DCPS IMPACT evaluation system.

Let's see if Michelle Rhee protests DCs poor RttT result while supporting an arbitrary, capricious system to evaluate her teachers.

Posted by: efavorite | April 21, 2010 8:50 AM | Report abuse

The most serious problem is that most of this money will never reach the teacher-student interface- the classroom. It will all be absorbed into increasingly bloated midlevel supervision and administrative positions. Every stop that check makes from the US Dept of Ed, through the State Ed system and to the local schools will take about 40% right off the top for admistrative purposes.

Posted by: altaego60 | April 21, 2010 9:37 AM | Report abuse

Follow the money. It doesn't require 500 or 800 million dollars to do what either Delaware or Tennessee says they are going to do. And there is little relationship between what they are promising to do and the amount of the funds allotted.

Posted by: DickSchutz | April 21, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

I think the whole process should be scraped and redone. Delaware hired a company from Boston ( MassInsight) to write the application. They said they were friendly to charters. 11 charter applicants worked in good faith and all were turned down except 1 as soon as they found out they won. It was a trick. I reminds me of cheating on a paper in college. The people the wrote the application described the charter process from their imagination- they described the way Delaware treats charters and none of what they said in the application was true. Delaware does not allow or encourage any innovations in Charters- they are micromanaged to excess. Delaware does not just require charters to allign to the standards- they required the charters to align to the old Delaware Standards including adding UBS Enduring Understanding, which are not included in the standards. Delaware said they would adopt the common core standards and they made all 11 applicants align their curriculum to Delaware Standards including math, ELA, science, ss, art, music, phys ed, etc. They did not encourge or allow any innovation or cross curriculum integration.

Getting this money was a “bait and switch” and I would like other states who are ready for change to get the money. They should be ashamed of themselves for cheating.

Posted by: delawareblogger55 | April 22, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

"Round 2" is shaping up to be a greater travesty. Each state gave the first application their best shot. All they can do the second time around is to further "write to the test." RttT could more aptly be termed PTA/TMR--Promise Them Anything/Take the Money and Run.

Posted by: DickSchutz | April 22, 2010 8:31 PM | Report abuse

Good reporting. Keep telling the public the truth Valerie.

Posted by: aby1 | April 25, 2010 4:24 PM | Report abuse

What a shock two people - who say they are independent - say it's not fair. I'm sure there are those who say the choice was fair.

Posted by: rlj1 | April 26, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

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