Good Enough For Government (8-27-10)

In Good Enough For Government, Matt on August 27, 2010 by Two Barbers

On Tuesday the Department of Education (DOE) announced the winners of its Race to the Top: Phase Two grant funds, just barely ahead of schedule (originally set for September 2010).

Race to the Top came from $4.35 billion pooled by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and the logic to the distribution of the money is either weird or over my head.

Not to say that it’s bad. It’s just weird. Or a normality of which I’m ignorant. Which is very possibly the case, even (as I’ve come to expect first by this point) probably. It seems trying to perform the simple task of ‘finding out what the government did today’ inevitably requires a prerequisite real-life conquering of infinite regress. That’s how it feels anyway. Whenever you read one thing, there’s always some precedent you need to know to understand it; and a precedent for the precedent; and so on, ad infinitum. But that doesn’t do justice to the complexity because each definition or fact doesn’t just recede back to another linearly, but exponentially (this is especially derailing when doing your research on the internet where, despite its speed, within an hour of clicking links and making Google searches, the term “web” will take on a more loaded meaning). And then there’s the stuff that isn’t linked, or isn’t explained by the author. Like this ‘logic to the distribution’ that I find weird (and have spent so much time describing the feeling of my unease with it, that its magnitude [the unease] has been inflated to a point where it belies its true value to understanding the topic to the begin with- which is just to say that the word ‘weird’ really is intended to have a soft meaning, as it’s generally supposed to although hardly ever does).

This grant is referred to as a “competitive grant” awarded in two phases, and the twelve ‘winners’ (two from Phase One, DE and TN, and ten from Phase Two, MA, NY, HI, FL, RI, D.C., MD, GA, NC, and OH; out of 47 applicants) are mentioned in reports without so much as a nod to probability that the numbers themselves may need explaining. Or the impression the numbers make. Like, why twelve and why split into two phases?

It turns out that DOE rewarded the money based on a long application over 1,000 pages detailing the state or district’s efforts in seven categories, with 19 more descriptive sub-categories, that were scored out of 500 by an independent panel, with emphasis placed mostly on two of the categories: 1. “Great Teachers and Leaders” which means installing, or applying measures deemed by the framers of the evaluation to be institutional in installing, effective teachers and administrators and 2. “State Success Factors” which is more general, and refers to the clarity of the applicant’s “reform agenda”, its public and financial support, and how much progress has been achieved so far with it; with 138 and 125 awardable points, respectively. But there was a hitch, because the amounts awarded to each state or district was varied and predetermined based on, as it seems, the size of its education department. For example, MA scored the highest in Phase Two, but will receive $250 million, and NY will receive $700 million, although it placed second. So, if more of the lower tier states had won, then there would have been more winners.

The most attention in the news regarding the announcement is being given to NJ and Gov. Christie. Apparently, the state lost some scoring as miniscule as five points due to a clerical error (one section worth the five points required budget data from 2008-2009, but NJ submitted 2010-2011), which would have put it over OH (which was in the same tier as NJ, award amount-wise) for the last slot and secured $400 million for its Education Department.

aside-check out Gov. Christie speaking about it in a press conference Wednesday morning. It’s difficult to decide whether it’s grand standing (and there is more to the story on which he doesn’t elaborate: link 1 and link 2) or just genuine anger over legitimate complaints, although most likely it’s both.

This doesn’t necessarily feel off-kilter, because I’m sure most of the important questions have already been addressed through the political process of committees and public meetings that is untraceable the majority of people, who have full time jobs. It just feels, like I’ve already said multiple times and cannot articulate better, weird. Fundamental questions like, How is it fair to award funding to some states applying and not to others? or Who sets the criteria and on what grounds? are not only rarely asked, but, when they are, seem trite, extraneous, and stupid.


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