Society and Culture, Education

It Depends on What the Meaning of ‘Transparency’ Is

Yesterday, on his Eduwonk blog, Andy Rotherham weighed in on the brewing controversy I’ve discussed here and here over the Race to the Top (RTT) review process. As usual, he offers a thoughtful assessment of the pros and cons of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s decision to keep secret the identities of the judges in the $4.35 billion grant competition until after winners are announced, and of Duncan’s decision to release minimal detail about how the reviewers were chosen or the substance of the instructions they have received.

Showing the chops he must have picked up during his tenure in the Clinton White House, Rotherham explains why Duncan’s penchant for secrecy doesn’t necessarily violate his pledge (and the president’s) to ensure an “unprecedented level of openness” when it comes to stimulus spending. Rotherham suggests that Duncan try a variation of the “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is” defense, explaining, “‘transparent’ is not synonymous with contemporaneous. In other words, a process can be transparent while it is going on or it can be transparent after the fact.” It’ll be amusing to see whether Duncan tries that defense; somehow, I don’t think it’ll play that well.

The larger issue here, of course, is not merely whether Duncan should have announced the identity of the judges (though the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli offers a terrific explanation of why he should, from the perspective of a Department of Education veteran). The larger question is how the department is proceeding on RTT. Let’s remember to keep that question in context. The administration has unprecedented discretion due to the $787 billion stimulus package, more than $100 billion of which is directed to education. Given the control over this kind of money, as well as the terrific intuitions that undergird RTT, it’s essential that the administration does everything possible to reassure observers that it is operating in a credible, non-political fashion. Part of having unprecedented sums of money is the need to embrace unprecedented levels of transparency. That includes reaching out to skeptics and moving with particular thoughtfulness when it comes to the process. In fact, for all the criticism that the Department of Education justly received under Bush for insularity and a lack of transparency, the names and affiliations of the growth model pilot peer reviewers and the differentiated accountability pilot peer reviewers were disclosed prior to the reviews taking place.

Yet, after President Obama’s assurances that “politics won’t come into play” in the RTT process, after Duncan’s claims about how he’d recruit “disinterested superstars” to judge RTT, and after comments from RTT chief Joanne Weiss on the “unprecedented level of transparency” of the process, the reality has been otherwise. Last summer, the 19(!) RTT priorities appeared pretty much out of nowhere—with the dictate that states would not be rewarded for successes in data systems or teacher quality alone, but would be required to check all 19 boxes in sprawling applications if they were to seek funds. The advisers for the RTT evaluation were named and secretly convened last fall. The 58 reviewers were selected from 1,500 applicants in a process that was never made clear. The department has never explained what constitutes a “conflict of interest” for potential reviewers. The department never announced that reviewers had been named or when or how they’d be trained. Indeed, it took Education Week’s intrepid Michele McNeil to finally leak that story, before Duncan responded (and not in an official department announcement, but in a blog post!).

In yesterday’s post, Rotherham alludes to the controversy over Obama’s back-to-school speech from September, and he’s right to make the point. As Andy notes, that was a needless and ridiculous controversy, but it was one that the administration invited by issuing a raft of curricular materials that reflected Obama-mania and were tone-deaf to skeptics. When doing big, visible things, and especially when spending billions in borrowed public funds, openness and working to engage potential skeptics is the wisest course. The problem here is not just the secret judges—it’s the administration’s seeming belief that transparency means whatever it wants it to.

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