Is Race to the Top a Fair Competition?

By 05/10/2010

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Years ago, when I was a young lad peddling newspapers for the Minneapolis Star and Tribune (MST), the company announced it would hold an auction.  Lots of neat things were going to be available for bid—knives and canteens and all sorts of things boys like. (Girls did not peddle newspapers in those days).  For every subscription sold, the seller would get a $5 coupon, to be used the night of the auction.

I got out early, proved my salesmanship, and amassed enough subscriptions to be as powerful at the event as Warren Buffett—as powerful, that is, until MST, a few days before auction night, became greedy and decided they could get peddlers to sell more subscriptions if they announced a five-fold coupon inflation: Every new subscription suddenly became worth $25 in coupons. My vast pile of coupons had become nearly worthless.

That event comes back to mind as I ponder the fates of Tennessee and Delaware. These states, which just earned a grade of F and C- respectively in a new study of state proficiency standards I conducted with Carlos Xabel Lastra-Anadon, won the first round of the RttT auction by promising to raise their pitiful standards. No RttT awards were given to Massachusetts, New Mexico, and other states which had high proficiency standards to begin with.

I would not have objected to the RttT awards, except for the fact that Delaware and Tennessee were given high marks in the RttT auction for the very fact that they promised to raise their standards from their very low levels. Friends and colleagues assure me that all is fair, because it will be a good thing if Tennessee and Delaware fulfill their promise to raise their standards.

But rewarding laggards for promises, instead of achievers for their successes, rewards state and local officials for the very behavior one wishes to discourage. And when competitions are unfair, they lose their luster very rapidly.   The Minneapolis Star and Tribune never held a second auction.  Will there be another RttT?  I doubt it.

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