Monday, November 23, 2009

Race to the Bottom Line?

On the Core Knowledge Blog, Robert Pondiscio already (pretty hilariously) portrayed the Race to the Top guidelines as a teacher finding kids ready to line up - “Oh, I like the way California is linking teachers and test scores! You too, Indiana and Wisconsin! What an excellent job you’re doing! Uh-oh, Nevada is definitely not ready!" A recent article on Slate does a comparable (though less entertaining) take on the subject by raising two questions that should be on the minds of every teacher who's ever tried to incentivize/bribe a class to do something. Namely, what happens to the ones who don't win and why will good things continue to happen after the reward has been withdrawn? Excellent questions, both.

The point of the article is not that Race to the Top is totally flawed and not worth doing - at least that's not how I read it. Rather, it's a call for looking at the next steps. If we reward the states that are already doing well, then what do we do for the states that most need the help because they are struggling? And what do we do to continue to incentivize those states that initially win money but are now presumably supposed to continue on with their very expensive reforms.

(Just for the sake of the argument here, let's assume that all of the Race to the Top guidelines are perfect and what every state should be doing. I don't know if I totally agree with that, but let's say so for the argument.)

In other words, the way it is structured now, the Race to the Top will initiate a burst of reform from a section of the country, but will likely not be sustained or imitated by those states that aren't part of the initial burst. At least that's the argument on Slate. As the author writes, "The behavioral economics [of Race to the Top] don’t pan out."

Partly that's correct and partly it's not. Truly, these are expensive reforms that the Obama administration has in mind and given that just about everyone is looking to cut education budgets, it's a bad time to be starting expensive efforts unless you have a ton of federal money helping you out. What I don't quite believe, though, is that the only reason states will continue these reforms - or continue to try to imitate them - is the federal money involved. The problem with economics is that it just looks at the money and thinks that everything is explained. However, this analysis overlooks the fact that states may in fact want to improve the education they are providing to children even independent of the federal money. There's a goal beyond profit here. Forgetting that would be a mistake.

The bottom line (something economists love) here is that there are big questions about Race to the Top that should be thought about and addressed. But they are not fatal flaws and there's still plenty to be hopeful about.

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