What Kind of Reform Does Race to the Top Want, and Why Am I Not Impressed?

It’s a beautiful day, the sun is shining, and the big news in the education world? Colorado didn’t win any Race to the Top (RTT) federal grant money the first time around. Since only two awards were given out — Delaware and Tennessee of all places were the winners — there should be lots of money left over for Round 2 (applications due June 1).

Depending on how you look at it, the news is good and bad. From the standpoint of demonstrating seriousness about advancing real reform, the fact that only two states won suggests the U.S. Department of Education was trying to hold to some kind of selective standard.

But just what the standard might be has some rightly concerned. Andy Smarick — about the most trusted expert in evaluating RTT applications I’ve seen — had Delaware and Tennessee ranked 4th and 5th, respectively. He notes, however, that the two winners “distinguished themselves with good plans and nearly unanimous union and LEA support.” They beat out higher-ranked Florida, Louisiana and Rhode Island, which had stronger plans but more opposition from entrenched in-state education groups.

The venerable Dr. Jay Greene elaborates on the consequences:

If people know that union opposition scuttles a state’s chances, then no state will apply in the future unless they have union support. This means that the unions will dictate what reforms will be pursued, which means that there will be virtually no reform.

Sigh. While I don’t quite share the depth of his cynicism, Greene makes a very powerful point that’s hard to ignore. And if you need a reason to be even more cynical, Education Week bloggers Alyson Klein and Michele McNeil also note that

Tennessee and Delaware just happen to be the home states of two powerful, Republican lawmakers the Obama administration is trying to court in its bipartisan push to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Political coincidence? Frankly, I don’t know.

Last but not least, kudos goes to the ever-thoughtful National Council on Teacher Quality for reporting a couple weeks ago that Delaware and Tennessee were two of only three states to earn a Green Light on the RTT’s “Great Teachers and Leaders” section (the most important weight in the grant process).

So where does this leave Colorado? Our state clearly went for the consensus approach of winning “stakeholder” support. Like Tennessee, we compromised on some teacher quality provisions to gain broader school district and union backing. Unlike Tennessee, our compromises must have been too weak and we lost.

While Smarick says states like Florida, Louisiana and Rhode Island must be wondering how much to compromise their proposals to win more establishment support, I have to wonder if Colorado is asking the opposite question. The blue ribbon council on teacher quality made established groups happy with our first Race to the Top application, but watered it down too much to win.

So as we approach the second grant deadline with presumably more money at stake, what is Colorado’s next step? What is the happy medium federal officials want states to achieve? And is it really that helpful to fostering long-term, effective education reform? I don’t think so.