Race to the Top Assessment Program: Part II – The Political Significance of Assessment Governance

As I prepare for a talk at DePaul University tomorrow, I’m racing (ha!) to review the assessment program of Race to the Top. After having vented yesterday, several things stand out as politically significant in the assessment competition.

It is key to understand that the content of Race to the Top is bribery. While in the past the main criticism from various quarters was that much of NCLB’s testing requirements were “unfunded mandates;” today they are funded, but in an even more coercive way. Those who do the bidding of Obama, Duncan and a host of venture philanthropists, will receive tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. This itself is significant, for as I’ve noted before, bribery as a method signifies illegitimacy: “The use of the public treasury to bribe educators is an open admission that the path being imposed by the ruling elite cannot be justified” — that is, it is against prevailing public opinion. Despite all the talk about putting children first, kids do not want more testing, they are not craving to have their entire academic experience converted to numbers and letters in some federal database (as RTTT appears to aim to create), nor are they demanding teachers who only spend a few weeks preparing to enter the classroom, high on a mission inspired by the White Man’s Burden. Nor are children and youth narrowly interested in education for a career. So, as is often the case, things are not what they seem. The irrationality of the project requires that its political functions be explored. Eligibility requirements for receiving the competitive grants are a good place to begin.

An Analysis of Select Requirements

To be eligable for the Comprehensive Assessment System (the first assessment competition), the Executive Summary states:

Eligible applicants are consortia of States. To be eligible to receive an award under this category, an eligible applicant must—1. Include a minimum of 15 States, of which at least 5 States must be governing States (as defined in the NIA); 2. Identify in its application a proposed project management partner and provide an assurance that the proposed project management partner is not partnered with any other eligible applicant applying for an award under this category; and; 3. Submit assurances from each State in the consortium that, to remain in the consortium, the State will adopt a common set of college- and career-ready standards…

It will be important to thoroughly explore the degree to which this arrangement has precedent, but there are, it appears, some significant breaks with past practice. Unlike national associations like the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) — which is nonetheless playing an important role in creating national standards — RTTT requires placing some states as “governing” over others and require states in the consortia to sign “assurances” of compliance with the governing state and executive demands at the federal level to receive funding. Whereas CCSSO and possibly other associations are framed as advocacy organizations, this arrangement appears to create new governance structures. It appears to structure a new form of political inequality among states as well.

So what of these new governance structures? First, it is important to take seriously the use of the word consortium. Similar to the increasingly used concept of partnership, consortium is typically understood as “an association, typically of several business companies.” The social and political arrangement in which this makes sense is typically understood as belonging to the private realm of private enterprise, or that of “civil society” in the form of a professional association or “non-governmental agency” — as distinct from the state. But here we have the federal apparatus, under the direction of an executive, and not the law making body, forming through the use of bribes governing structures that do not obviously conform to the U.S. constitution or even state constitutions. What are we to make of a group of states forming a governing alliance that controls curricular content and standards for assessment whether teachers are teaching and students are learning that content, under the direction of executive bodies of the federal government? Will such alliances compete with each other? Will there be a Confederate consortium?

In the Federal Register notice, we find this interesting option:

Application Requirements: An eligible applicant’s application must—1. Indicate, consistent with 34 CFR 75.128, whether—(a) One member of the consortium is applying for a grant on behalf of the consortium; or (b) The consortium has established itself as a separate eligible legal entity and is applying for a grant on its own behalf; 2. Be signed by—(a) If one member of the consortium is applying for a grant on behalf of the consortium, the Governor, the State’s chief school officer, and, if applicable, the president of the State board of education from that State; or (b) If the consortium has established itself as a separate eligible legal entity and is applying for a grant on its own behalf, a representative of the consortium.

It is completely unclear, albeit on its face significant, what it means to allow for states to form a consortium that “has established itself as a separate eligible legal entity.” Such as a private corporation or non-for-profit institution?

Second, what might be most significant about this arrangement is not that it violates states rights (presumably the out for the Obama administration here is that Duncan is not actually forcing any state to apply for these grants) but rather that it restructures executive authority by creating “partnerships” between associations of states that relate as single entities to federal bodies, where these consortia appear to be de-linked both from federal and state law making bodies.

A related criteria for winning the competition is the role given to public institutions of higher education (IHEs). The Summary explains:

The Department gives eligible applicants competitive preference points based on the extent to which they have promoted collaboration and alignment between member States’ public elementary and secondary education systems and their public IHEs…Eligible applicants addressing this priority must provide, for each IHE or IHE system, a letter of intent that—(a) Commits the IHE or IHE system to participate with the consortium in the design and development of the consortium’s final high school summative assessments in mathematics and English language arts in order to ensure that the assessments measure college readiness; (b) Commits the IHE or IHE system to implement policies, once the final high school summative assessments are implemented, that exempt from remedial courses and place into credit-bearing college courses any student who meets the consortium-adopted achievement standard (as defined in the NIA) for each assessment and any other placement requirement established by the IHE or IHE system; and (c) Is signed by the State’s higher education executive officer (if the State has one) and the president or head of each participating IHE or IHE system.

This arrangement appears to have the effect of brining state public education systems under a governing apparatus of consortia of states — neither at the state level nor the federal level — that, in turn, interacts with the federal department of education. Of course, there is much to say about this — the implication of mandating the elimination of remedial courses for example — but that is for another time.

Another feature that suggests significant restructuring of executive power is this requirement stipulated under Consortium Governance. It notes that the “terms and conditions of the Memoranda of Understanding or other binding agreements executed by each member State” must include the “State’s commitment to and plan for identifying any existing barriers in State law, statute, regulation, or policy to implementing the proposed assessment system and to addressing any such barriers prior to full implementation of the summative assessment components of the system.”

Like Race to the Top requirements that bribe states into rewriting their laws — the most notable examples being the removal of caps on charter schools and rules limiting the use of test data for teacher evaluation purposes — this places executive bodies in a quasi-law making role. Along with venture philanthropy and other monopolies, governors and some legislatures are demanding changes to state law to increase state chances for winning Race to the Top funds. While a key point here is the clear focus on emasculating teachers unions and the spreading of massive disinformation about “putting kids first”, the point here is that this structure creates a new governing mechanism, neither at the level of state, nor clearly at the federal level; in some ways, it is not clear that the consortia to be formed are fully public in nature (e.g., a consortium that “established itself as a separate eligible legal entity”). It is important to understand that these changes are enabled by the ARRA, the result of the crimes of Wall Street (while some banks are “too big to fail” public institutions of historic proportion, such as public schools and universities, are being forced to fail).

Another clue that suggests limited public status for these governing structures is the manner in which RTTT insists on technical standards that are, generally speaking, open source or cross platform, while maintaining test secrecy. This ensures the public continues to be blocked from access to test content. Again the notice in the Federal Register is more helpful. It states:

In addition, we are requiring that eligible applicants receiving awards under either category in this competition develop assessment items and produce student data in a manner that is consistent with standards for interoperability, and that they make all assessment content (i.e., assessments and assessment items) developed with funds from this competition freely available to States, technology platform providers, or others that request it for purposes of administering assessments, consistent with States’ needs and with consortium or State requirements for test or item security.

Suggesting that public dollars are again being used to develop technology latter utilized by private entities, the notice reads:

We believe that these requirements will ensure that assessment content developed with funds from this competition is widely available, including to States that are not part of consortia receiving funds under this competition as well as to commercial organizations wishing to further develop, extend, and incorporate the content into assessment products intended for State use. Moreover, we believe that making assessment content freely available will spur innovation in assessment technology and enable technology providers to compete for States’ business on the basis of their developing efficient, effective, economical, and innovative assessment platforms.

It does not appear than that the issue is simply one of state’s rights and the death of federalism. Rather, it appears the very nature and scope of executive power is changing, and working to further distance governance from the public and its will.

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