Do You Know What Else Rises to the Top?

If Arne Duncan did half of what he talks about, we’d be making huge progress toward education reform.  It would be great if  he actually followed the evidence regardless of ideology, only funded what works, made strides to end the lifetime-guaranteed employment of ineffective teachers, provided financial rewards to the most effective teachers, etc… 

We’d be lucky if Duncan manages to do one-tenth of what he talks about.  But I’m amazed at how many people confuse words with action.  Mike Petrilli is right that we should praise this new rhetoric and Greg has persuasively argued that rhetoric is politically important, but people really get carried away in their praise of a bunch of mostly empty words

Perhaps it is natural for people to suck up to whoever is in power.  Perhaps it is the triumph of hope over experience.  But I have to say that I am deeply skeptical of what Duncan will accomplish.

Let’s take as an example the Race to the Top money.  How does anyone really believe that a one-time expenditure of less than $5 billion is going to have any significant influence on the nature of $550 billion in annual expenditures?  This isn’t the tail wagging the dog.  This is the tail of the flea on the dog wagging the dog. 

What’s more, everyone except the most politically naive understands that there is enormous political pressure on Duncan to distribute the $5 billion roughly equally so that it provides absolutely no incentive to race to the top.  Andy Rotherham has dubbed this the peanut butter meme because people are guessing “how many states the Department of Education will have to include in the ‘Race to the Top’ funds to make the initiative politically palatable without spreading the money like ‘peanut butter’ across the states”

For those who still somehow believe that the Race to the Top money is going to have a big effect (and may also believe in the tooth fairy), I’d like to make a little wager.  I’m willing to bet that every state will receive at least some money from the Race to the Top fund and that the distribution of money will be roughly proportionate. If you think I’m wrong, would you be willing to bet that fewer than 30 states get the money? 

Like with much else that Duncan says, the Race to the Top fund is just a bunch of empty words.  You can’t have 30 and certainly not 50 states at the top.  Unfortunately, cream isn’t the only thing that rises to the top.

Edited to fix the link to Greg’s post; see also Matt’s post and to clarify Andy’s quotation.

2 Responses to Do You Know What Else Rises to the Top?

  1. allen says:

    Frak! Accidentally posted in the linked topic. Oh well.

    You’re almost certainly right about the money but politics isn’t entirely about money. So as surely as you are correct about the Lake Woebegone High School aspect of “Race to the Top” money you’re wrong about the unimportance about keeping the subject an important part of public discourse.

    Greg’s right; symbolism matters, which is why you don’t have swastikas decorating your garden despite their symmetry and broad cultural usage, but so does simply blabbing about education which Duncan’s and Obama’s positions on education make inevitable.

    A good deal of the support for the public education system derives from the simple assumption that there’s only one way to do public education, via the school district, so that the only variable that much matters is money. Charters provide an alternative to the district model and it’s the assumption of the inevitability of the district model that becomes, by implication, a subject of discussion when charters are discussed.

    Duncan and Obama keep that discussion pot bubbling by not shutting up on the subject.

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