Marcus: RttT Is No Kabuki

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In the past I’ve suggested, in response to Mike Petrilli’s cheerleading for it, that Race to the Top is just a bunch of kabuki. In today’s Washington Examiner, Marcus begs to differ:

Race to the Top has emboldened reform-minded policymakers like Bloomberg to push hard for their ideas. Just as importantly, the lure of earning federal dollars makes the reform position an appealing default for those policymakers whose primary interest lies outside education.

For instance, before Race to the Top, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger paid only brief lip service to education reform. After the grant competition was announced, the Governator called a special session of the state legislature and pushed for a series of meaningful reforms such as eliminating the state’s charter school cap, using data to evaluate student and teacher performance, and adopting a performance pay program for teachers.

I would argue back, but I’m not sure I can. Just last week I praised Bloomberg’s move to push the envelope on interpreting the state’s ban on evaluating teachers with test scores as “gutsball.” By doing so, have I already conceded Marcus’s (and therefore Mike’s) point?

I suppose I could argue that Bloomberg was a reformer even before RttT came along. Maybe he would have played gutsball on the teacher test score ban even without RttT. But it’s hard to think that RttT has nothing to do with his renewed boldness. After all, using test scores in teacher evaluations is an agenda set by RttT. And, as Marcus points out, Bloomberg staged the announcement of his gutsball move in D.C., not New York. Was Bloomberg pushing for this particular reform before? And could he have won on that issue if not for RttT’s covering fire?

I suppose I could argue that the use of test scores as “one element” in teacher evaluations will inevitably be nothing more than a symbolic victory. Trouble is, I’ve always argued that symbols matter. There’s no such thing as a merely symbolic victory.

I suppose I could argue that RttT is promoting bad ideas as well as good ones. And that would be true – but it wouldn’t establish that RttT is kabuki. Quite the opposite; the more we fear RttT for promoting bad ideas, the more we confirm that whatever it is, it isn’t kabuki.

It’s beginning to feel like I may owe Mike an apology. Stay tuned.

4 Responses to Marcus: RttT Is No Kabuki

  1. While I do appreciate the rhetorical support for charter schools, merit pay, etc… in RttT, I am alarmed by how diluted those goals have been in the actual implementation. We went from the Administration declaring that states had to lift their charter cap to get a slice of RttT funds, to lifting the cap would be one of the criteria for allocating RttT funds, to one of the criteria will reward lifting the cap or the development of other innovative schools (without clear definition).

    I fear that RttT will ultimately disappoint reformers.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    That’s not an argument against RttT, it’s just an argument that RttT isn’t as good as it was originally advertised as being. But what political program ever ends up being as good as it was originally advertised as being? Some of the extravagent things voucher supporters promised in the early 1990s came back to haunt them after the policy went through the sausage grinder of legislative and bureaucratic implementation and came out a lot less robust than it had been in conception. That doesn’t mean vouchers haven’t been a good policy! It just means they’ve been implemented gradually. I seem to recall a certain blogger around these parts likes to talk about gradualism being a good thing.

    The important question is not whether the support for lifting charter caps or funding charters equally has been watered down. The important question is whether even one (1) state actually lifts its charter cap or funds charters equally because of RttT. It’s looking like that’s going to be a yes. If so, RttT will have been a good thing, at least as regards charters.

    If it does damage in the area of standards, as also looks plausible, then it will be another question whether RttT as a whole did more harm than good. And Andy Smarick’s point about the danger of Trojan Horse applications is well taken.

    But if we’re in the realm of weighing its good influence on charters against its bad influence in other areas, we’ve already conceded the point that whatever RttT is, it isn’t kabuki.

  3. I tend to agree with you Greg, but the danger that RttT or other federal reward for reform strategies will reward negative reforms should not be minimized. It already looks like RttT may be used as a backdoor way to get bad national standards.

  4. […] Obama administration’s pro-charter rhetoric has been more than just talk. Charter caps are being lifted because the administration really does support […]

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