And the (RttT) winners are…

Posted on March 29, 2010

In a previous post, I bemoaned the list of Race to the Top Nominees:

Today, we have our winners – Delaware and Tennessee. Here’s my own summary of where these states stand on a number of key indicators. See previous post for discussion.

A helpful colleague offered the following summary bullet points for the above table (which I just didn’t have time to do myself when I first posted this). It’s a little hard to quote a table, so here’s the bottom line:

  • Delaware is dead last in the nation in terms of its effort to fund public education, despite that state having the nation’s greatest fiscal capacity (largest per capita GDP).
  • Delaware is also dead last in the nation in terms of its public schools serving school-aged kids:  21% of its school-aged kids do not attend the public schools.
  • Tennessee is ranked 4th from last in states’ efforts to fund public education.  Tennessee is also among the lowest scoring states on the NAEP assessments.
    • (“Effort” is here defined as state and local spending relative to state fiscal capacity, with “fiscal capacity” measured as per capita GDP.)

So then, who cares? or why should we? Many have criticized me for raising these issues, arguing “that’s not the point of RttT.  It’s (RttT)not about equity or adequacy of funding, or how many kids get that funding. That’s old school – stuff of the past – get over it! This…  This is about INNOVATION! And RttT is based on the ‘best’ measures of states’ effort to innovate… to make change… to reach the top!”

My response is that the above indicators measure Essential Pre-Conditions! One cannot expect successful innovation without first meeting these essential preconditions.  If you want to buy the “business-minded” rhetoric of innovation, which I wrote about here , you also need to buy into the reality that the way in which businesses achieve innovation also involves investment in both R&D and production (coupled with monitoring production quality). You can have all of the R&D and quality monitoring systems in the world, but if you go cheap on production and make a crappy product – you haven’t gotten very far.  On average, it does cost more to produce higher quality products.

This also relates to my post on common standards and the capacity to achieve them. It’s great to set high standards, but if don’t allocate the resources to achieve those standards, you haven’t gotten very far! It costs more to achieve high standards than low ones. Tennessee provides a striking example in the maps from this post! (their low spending seems generally sufficient to achieve their even lower outcome standards!)

That in mind, should states automatically be disqualified from RttT for doing so poorly on these Essential Preconditions? Perhaps not. After all, these are states which may need to race to the top more than others (assuming the proposed RttT strategies actually have anything to do with improving schools). But, for states doing so poorly on key indicators like effort and overall resources, or even the share of kids using the public school system, those states should at least have to explain themselves – and show how they will do their part to rectify these concerns.