On the Marketplace radio program this evening, “Freakonomics” co-author Steve Dubner compared the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grant competition to innovations and competitive prizes in the private sector.
After talking about the X Prize (slogan: Revolution Through Competition) and Google’s practice of giving engineers a day each week to try out their own ideas — even though most of them flop — Dubner played a tape of the following statement and asked the host, Kai Ryssdal, to guess who the speaker was:
Well we’re fundamentally trying to change the business we’re in and we’re trying to drive innovation rather than being in this compliance-driven bureaucracy. And the idea of crowdsourcing that you’re seeing in other industries, we think is absolutely applicable here. The only way you challenge the status quo is to give people rewards for success.
For Ryssdal, it was a no-brainer: Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education. You can listen — or read — the full Marketplace segment here. Below is an excerpt of the conversation that followed:
DUBNER: Nicely done. And the reason I’m playing you this tape is because Duncan, in the Obama Administration, has launched this program called Race to the Top, which is trying to give states a lot of money for their education departments if they can come up with experimental ways to innovate. Now here’s what I really like–
RYSSDAL: Oh wait! Wait, wait, wait. I have the quiz answer, it goes like this: this is, if you roll Google and the X Prize and Arne Duncan and government all into one, it’s all about government not being like government, right? Government being like business?
DUBNER: Gold star for Kai Ryssdal. That’s exactly right. So we’re getting a lot of experimentation in the means of competition. And this fall we’re already seeing some payoff; schools in winning states are gathering new data to help them track each student’s progress from year to year. Delaware, one of the Race to the Top winners, has set up an experimental office to measure teacher skill, with the goal of figuring out what makes a great teacher and then learning how to recruit more of them. So the government is acting a bit like a venture capital firm, right? Placing bets on a lot of different ideas, many of which are bound to fail. But that’s kind of the point: fail hard, fail fast, and let the winning ideas rise to the top.
So Kai, remember this: the reason Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic Ocean was to win a cash prize — $25,000. When I asked Peter Diamandis of the X Prize Foundation what all of us got for that prize money, he had a very simple answer: the aviation industry.
After hearing this, my first thought went to the education researchers, such as Diane Ravitch, who have raised concerns about the lack of evidence behind the education reform policies promoted by the Obama/Duncan administration.
It never occurred to me, until now, that maybe that was the whole idea.