I confess my interest and knowledge on Race to the Top is at some small distance: I did not follow the nuances closely, believing (correctly) that the Colorado bid was in good hands, and (incorrectly) that the hard work of many skilled people would prevail. And in the wake of disappointment, while I understand the temptation to either complain about the judging, or — far worse — celebrate the defeat as some sort of divine personal vindication, neither make much sense. For I think the R2T decision is a harsh but helpful reminder of two very important, and often overlooked, truths:
1. Outcomes matter most. For all the rhetoric over the ample list of reforms both instituted (ProComp, the Colorado Growth Model) and pending (CAP4K, SB 191), the hard truth is that overall outcomes in Colorado have not improved. To paraphrase Auden, reform – in and of itself – makes nothing happen. Waiting for a single reform panacea (or cocktail) remains the dream of a weary Godot. Reforms — by themselves — mean little. Outcomes, and the changes in the trajectory of individual lives, are everything. In the wake of this disappointment we should redouble our efforts to examine the places where outcomes are changing, and give these our continued attention and support.
2. Money matters less. Always eclipsed by the lure of a big payday, the hard truth is that since 1970, per-pupil spending in the US has doubled while there has been no improvement in academic results. Money may help a success already in place, but it is never the catalyst for substantive change. Colorado is simply not dependent on largesse of any kind to improve. There is a lot of money already in the public education system, and in many ways adding additional funds postpones some of the difficult conversations and choices that are necessary. Scarcity usually reveals more than abundance, and tends to sharpen one’s focus: we need to choose between strategies, not continue to add layers of them on top of each other.
So what now? I suggest: Think local, act local. Education reform was here before R2T, and it will be here long after the winners have exhausted their checks. Examples of state-wide successful reform are few and far between, and when the last dime of R2T rolls down the register, there will likely be one or two more — but far less than the number of grantees (12). And I am pretty confident that there will be an equivalent success somewhere among the nine finalist states that were disappointed, so it might as well be here. There are instances of real, meaningful, and inchoate reform happening across Colorado (and even scored high on some rewardless lists). Look locally, focus on outcomes, and remember that in education (as in most things) expense rarely correlates to quality.
After all, as anyone bearing the scars of education reform in Colorado can tell you, it is not now — and never was — a race.