Race To The Trough

by Robert Pondiscio
December 17th, 2009

I was all set to post something about Checker Finn’s article in National Affairs on “the end of education reform,” when another piece bearing the byline of the head of the Fordham Institute caught my eye.  Writing in The American, Finn and Rick Hess first take pains to present their bona fides as “champions of entrepreneurs, for-profits, outsourcing, competition, deregulation, and kindred efforts to open public education to providers other than government and operators other than bureaucrats.”   Their credentials thus dispensed with, they then blast the “greedheads ” bellying up to the education trough to dine.   ”The whole ‘Race to the Top’ enterprise has become a red light district for lusty charlatans and randy peddlers,” say Finn and Hess.

Devising a competitive plan is thought by state officials to require the careful hanging of many glittery ornaments upon their proposals. Conveniently, the consultants (and states) are aided in this task by platoons of self-promoters who tout themselves as one-stop solutions—whether or not they’ve ever actually done successfully that which they’re now promising. “You need school turnarounds? We got turnarounds.” “You want Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics? Look no further.” Plenty of outfits will promise to build your data system, take care of school leadership, fix teacher quality, or whatever else you may need. They’re often non-profits but they get pretty nearly the same plush salaries and reputation-boosting meetings with state and federal honchos, opportunities to self-importantly Blackberry late into the night, and future security—as new connections set them up for future rounds of philanthropic and taxpayer largesse.

To their credit, Finn and Hess don’t portray schools as unwitting rubes in this dance. 

The burden is on them to demand value in return for the money they’re spending. And in schooling, too often, purchasers have been heedless, ill-informed, bureaucratic, or gullible. It’s the taxpayer’s money they spend, they’re not always sure how to judge quality, they lack measures of effectiveness or efficiency, and it’s tempting to avoid tough decisions or unpleasant conflict. Reformers and would-be watchdogs often allow state chiefs and local superintendents to excuse irresponsible fiscal stewardship with airy talk of closing achievement gaps and the nobility of the education mission—thus ensuring that the greedheads will prosper another day.

The marriage of greedy hucksters and undiscerning buyers is not a pretty picture.  “We continue to believe in education entrepreneurship, Hess and Finn wrap up. “But we’d be a lot happier if the officials charged with safeguarding school dollars would get wise to the greedheads.”


  1. Cunning salespeople prey upon education leaders who lack judgement –i.e. 99% of our principals and superintendents. Plus Arne Duncan.

    I listened to a piece on NPR this evening about ed leaders –including Duncan –going ga-ga over some new scheme in Tucson schools called Reggio Emilio, or something like that. It sounds like pure, warmed-over Project Method. The audio clips from a Reggio classroom were horrifying.

    Comment by Ben F — December 17, 2009 @ 10:04 pm

  2. I believe Checker and Rick are repeating Yogi Berra’s insightful observation that: “It’s deja vu all over again.” Race to the Top provides a wonderful ‘relabling’ opporunity for current stable of educational products and process, which so masterfully advanced student during the NCLB era. Instead of “NCLB compliant” or “Aligned with (name your state) standards” the identical pieces (in new boxes) will be recycled as “Race to the Top compliant” or “Common Core State Standards Aligned.” Every education leader, including Rick and Checker, understood this reality the minute 48 states signed up for this “once in a lifetime opportunity.” The really fresh, scalable ideas are pushed aside by yesterday’s marginalized ‘proven practices.’ Can’t wait to see this grouping line up at the trough for the i3 monies. Perhaps the leadership at Core Knowledge, who actually have an excellent model but think everyone elso should conform to it, will provide some leadership outside the requirements of their revenues model and help break this ugly and long-standing problem.

    Comment by Steve Kussmann — December 18, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

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