Competition, Civil Rights, and Change Theory

Civil rights advocates are split on the competitive nature of $10 billion in grant programs from the US Department of Education.  Some, like Education Equality Project, view it as an opportunity for states and districts with competent leadership to make important performance-promoting and gap-closing advances.  Others, like the Shott Foundation, argue that the feds “must ensure that access to a world-class education becomes the rule for all America’s children, not the exception or a reward received only by children living in more competitive states and districts.”
They are both right.  Competitive grant programs create winners and losers; they may exacerbate inequity.  But as we’ve seen in the last few months, competitions can break old logjams and produce innovation.   The question that Secretary Duncan needed to answer was, “Is it worth producing temporary inequities to make big advances?” He obviously answered “yes” and it was the right approach.
The US education ‘system’ doesn’t work very well for low income students and is stuck in a set of old unproductive debates.  We’ve proven that we can’t spend our way out of this problem—that’s not to say we shouldn’t fix the bizarre inequities in school funding, but it is almost certain that we would not see substantial improvement by just fixed funding inequities.  We face a more complicated set of problems rooted in our culture and reflected in our anachronistic governance structure.  We are confused about goals, lack performance data, incent longevity over performance, and accept inequitable outcomes as inevitable.  Secretary Duncan launched Race to the Top to attack these problems.
Don’t forget that the stimulus bill included $95 billion that was spread like peanut butter.  Small attempts to use it to drive improvement were lost in the rush to backfill budgets—further evidence that this kind of funding fails to produce improvement.
Duncan has limited control over a decentralized public delivery system.  States and districts found ways to ignore or circumvent the penalties and interventions built into No Child Left Behind.  His use of competitive incentives has proven far more effective.
Grant makers need to start with a change theory—a logic model of how things will improve as a result of their investments.  For example, charitable giving is designed to meet immediate needs with little likelihood of lasting systems improvement.  Minority scholarships attempt to right historical inequities. Donors that invest in research assume that someone will read the reports and take action.  Investors in innovation make assumptions about how new tools and methods will be adopted.
By launching a Race, Duncan is attempting to drive improved state education policy by feeding the rabbits rather than whipping the laggards.  The rush to improve state policies to increase the odds of winning has already proven this theory wildly successful.  But I’m sure Duncan’s logic model includes the assumption that lagging states will eventually get their act together on their own or that reauthorized federal policy will bring up the rear—a case of temporary inequities serving the needs of national improvement.  We need new tools and policies to make step function improvement for all American students.  In the end, these grant programs should help stimulate progress that all civil rights advocates can be proud of.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Hans Hageman

A very helpful explanation of the existing state of affair. A theory of change has not been required by most institutional or government funders. Watching the NY legislature, I am scared what would happen if they ever really tried to develop a logic model.

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