The Race to the Top: The carrot that feels like a stick

I'm pleased to announce this summer's latest blockbuster , from the creators of No Child Left Behind, it's: "NCLB 2: The Carrot That Feels Like a Stick."

At least that's how I suspect the proposed Race to the Top application is going to??seem to the states. If you found No Child Left Behind prescriptive, just wait till you take??a look at this baby. (It's due out at noon on Friday.)

To be clear, the application is jam-packed with reform ideas that I find promising, even exciting (the "whole enchilada," as I told USA Today ). Evaluate teachers in part based on student achievement gains!??Replicate excellent charter schools and ramp up accountability for lackluster ones! Expand high-quality alternate route programs! If even a few states change their policies to be in alignment with the vision articulated here, our country will be the better for it.

But while the substance is worth celebrating, I can't help but feel remorse for the death of federalism. Granted, as a former Bush Administration official, this is like me expressing regret that the Obama team is blowing a hole in the federal budget. They are merely reaping what we sowed.

But the Obama Administration had a choice. It could have asked states for their best ideas for achieving big objectives, like improving teacher quality or turning around low-performing schools. Instead, it has published a list of 19 of its best ideas, few of which are truly "evidence-based," regardless of what President Obama says , and told states to adopt as many of them as possible if they want to get the money. It's as if a bunch of do-gooders sat together at the NewSchools Venture Fund summit and brainstormed a list of popular reform ideas, and are now going to force them upon the states. (Wait, I think that is how this list got developed.)

This is Washington Knows Best at its worst, and runs the risk of seeing states superficially swear allegiance to these reform ideas but implement them half-heartedly down the road.

Still, I have to admit to being torn. I like the ideas embedded in the application (and yes, I enjoy attending the NewSchools summit too!). And after seeing what Arne Duncan has been able to accomplish on the charter school cap front, just by dangling extra money out there, I suspect that this approach might actually work in terms of moving the needle on state policy.

But get ready for a backlash. States don't take kindly to Washington pushing them around, and kicking a dog that's down isn't always the smartest strategy.

Arne Duncan has made some promising comments about moving federal policy to be "tight" on results and "loose" on process. It's impossible to see how that jibes with the application released today. He'd better start walking that talk, lest he lose support from the field before the even bigger No Child Left Behind debates get underway.

Note: See coverage from the Washington Post , including a??transcript of its interview with President Obama . Also see USA Today , AP , Education Week , the Wall Street Journal , and the New York Times .

Update : You can view the Race to the Top application for yourself here .

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