And the (RTTT) Nominees are…

Not much time today to analyze, but I can’t pass up the opportunity for some quick comments on the Race to the Top Finalists announced today. The list is indeed a mixed bag (DC, CO, DE, DC, FL, GA, IL, KY, LA, MA, NY, NC, OH, PA, RI, SC, TN).

And yes, the list does include three of the most talked about early heavy favorites – and my favorites, of course – Louisiana, Tennessee and Illinois. (and there are many more comments on these states and their RTTT prospects throughout my earlier blog posts).

Here’s my rap sheet on these states in particular, and why I find it so completely absurd that simply a) removing caps on numbers of charter schools coupled with b) removing firewalls between teacher and student data are the primary criteria (or at least seem to be) for the big race.

It’s not just that some of these states have mildly problematic policies from a critical academic perspective. Rather, these three states in particular have compiled a record of education policies – both on the fiscal input end and on the outcome, standards and accountability end which are outright disgraceful.

The only thing going for Tennessee’s education system – beyond its data quality – is the fact that funding is relatively equitable within the state (compared to many states). But, that’s only because everyone has next to nothing! Tennessee currently maintains the least well-funded, overall, education system in the nation after correcting for costs associated with a) poverty, b) economies of scale and sparsity and c) regional competitive wage variation.

And not only is Tennessee dead last in overall funding, but it is also dead last in the rigor of its testing standards, when compared against NAEP proficiency standards. So, can the data really be that good if the standards are so low? if the proficiency rates on state assessments are so high even though the state ranks near the bottom on NAEP proficiency?

So, Tennessee spends little and expects little, but measures it well! In addition, Tennessee’s low spending appears to be largely a function of lack of effort, not lack of wealth. Tennessee is 4th lowest in the nation on the percent of gross state product spent on schools. Further Tennessee has the largest income gap between children not in the public schools and children in the public schools.

I’ve written more about Louisiana’s prospects in the past. Louisiana, like Tennessee, has mainly itself to blame for its low spending. Louisiana is 3rd lowest in the nation on the percent of GSP allocated to public schools. Coupled with that, Louisiana has the 3rd smallest share of 6 to 16 year olds in the public school system and the 3rd largest income gap between those in and not in the system. Louisiana’s own state testing standards are relatively average, but its NAEP outcomes are right there at the bottom (okay… 3rd from bottom across math and reading, grades 4 and 8 in 2007).

So, these two standout RTTT finalists are states that have pretty much chosen to throw their public education systems under the bus. Yet, they are somehow racing to the top!??

So, how does Illinois fit into this mess? Instead of throwing its entire system under the bus, Illinois has merely chosen to sacrifice the education of poor and minority children. Illinois maintains among the least equitable state school funding systems in the nation with among the largest funding gaps between wealthy and poor, minority and non-minority districts.  And, as it turns out, Illinois also has very low testing standards when mapped to NAEP standards.

Slides from recent presentation to National Urban League.

National Urban League Presentation


  1. You’re absolutely right that, up to now, Tennessee has had very low standards and that, though equitable, our funding is pretty low. HOWEVER, I think the main reason that we’re ranked so highly in the RTTT competition is the state level reforms we’ve taken, and the game plan we’ve proposed (even though I’ve complained about it to some extent). It’s not just that we have tons of data. It’s that we’re proposing to use that data to evaluate teachers. It’s not just that we have charters; it’s that we’re putting together a charter school incubator to make sure that any new charters that open are of extremely high quality. Charter schools in Tennessee aren’t just a “come and get it” proposition. Nashville’s Mayor, the Governor, and others are working hard to make sure that only high quality charters make it in. Memphis just put together a teacher effectiveness initiative that won highly coveted Gates Foundation money. Nashville is doing something similar. Hamilton County had the highly successful Benwood initiative. Knox County had TAP. We may have a bit of history against us, but Tennessee has shown a remarkable willingness to embrace reform in recent years and *especially* in the months leading up to the RTTT application.

    Most commentators who talk about Tennessee assume that the only reason we’re in the mix is because of our data; I think it’s a lot more than that. We have a commitment to reform that’s been building in recent years demonstrated throughout the state. We have our Governor, *all* the candidates who are running for Governor this year, and the mayors of our biggest cities on board. There’s a lot more there than you think.

    1. I have difficulty believing there is a true commitment to reform without any sign of investment in the public school system. Money certainly is not the only thing, but sufficient and equitable resources are a necessary underlying condition for legitimate reform. As long as Tennessee sits at the bottom of the pack in that regard – as well as sitting very low in the percent of gross state product spent on k-12 education, I remain doubtful of the state’s commitment.

  2. I’m actually heaving a sigh of relief that NJ failed to “make the cut.” It’s kinda like being first in line for Typhoid. No Thank You.

    My quick, handy-dandy, policy analysis assumption: If the policymaker in question refuses to look at inputs (and the quality and equity of these inputs in a given system), they’re full of beans and should be laughed off the policy stage. So yes indeed, President Obama and his folks at USDOE have all donned clown suits when it comes to US educational policy.

    At least I can say, “LUUUUUV those shoes.”

  3. Money isn’t everything. New Jersey has POURED money into Newark, and where has that gotten them? Nowhere. The high schools in Newark, Shabazz, Barringer, and Weequahic among them, are still turning out simply AWFUL HSPA scores.

    Simply saying, “Bah — they don’t spend any money, so I’m writing them off” is ridiculous. In some cases, there may not be the money to spend. Per capita income in Tennessee is pretty low, and though I’m assuming that your spending analysis corrects for that (at some level), spending priorities weighted towards economic development (so as to raise per capita income and state revenues) could eventually benefit the educational system as well. The fact also remains that Tennessee is going after money right now. That’s what the Gates Foundation grant is about. That’s what the RTTT application is about. That’s what Nashville Mayor Karl Dean’s “Education First” fund is about. Just because spending hasn’t been top-tier *in the past* doesn’t mean you can write off Tennessee for the future. Otherwise, you’re in a vicious cycle. If the criteria for giving out money is how much money you’ve already spent, then the high-spending states keep getting more, and the low-spending states never get the opportunity to inject increased resources into the system.

  4. Obviously, money isn’t everything, but without doubt, sufficient financial input is a necessary underlying condition for any effective reform strategy. And, it would certainly be reasonable for the federal government to condition the provision of resources for “innovation” on evidence that the state has provided sufficient effort of its own. They have chosen not to do that, which I believe is foolish.

    The key here is “effort,” as measured with respect to fiscal capacity to provide such effort. Not only is New Jersey’s spending high, but so too is its effort. And NJ testing standards are invariably higher than those of TN (not the highest, but higher than TN, which is lowest). Yes, there continue to be low performing schools in NJ, but there has also been substantive progress as a result of the effort (see link at bottom).

    My issues with TN, more than overall spending level, are the fact that the low spending is a function of low effort. And, it is coupled with low outcome standards to make it look like everything is fine. It’s not that TN is just not “top tier.” It’s actually bottom tier.

    That said, I’d love to see TN make good on the RTTT money and actually do something to help out TN kids.

    See also:

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