Race to the Top

The Newsmax article (Teachers to Obama: You’ve got the Wrong Answers; September 2010) opens Pandora’s box on the wedding between politics and education.  Obama’s Race to the Top program adds insult to historic injury by throwing billions of dollars into school competition for excellence through his one-size-fits-all goal for the nation’s public elementary and secondary schools.  Virtually every school in the country is a mixed bag of success and failure, work and play, learning and its absence.  It is primarily the race at the bottom of the distribution that has placed the nation’s schools low in international competition.

The clearest mark of the current insanity is the idea that the schools’ Race to the Top serves only one master: college preparation.  This makes little more sense than Bush’s No Child Left Behind through which state standards are dumbed-down allowing more students to meet competency standards.  When federal incentives offer seed money to follow the political Pied Piper, virtually every state joins the parade in a mindless march to the sea.  In this political march it is primarily the students who are short changed.  This political march has been continuous since Brown vs. Board of Education decreed that racially separate schools were not equal.  After five decades the educational and political powers still have not discovered that something other than race may be primary in the schools.

If race is not the silver bullet to raising educational achievement, what are the factors that matter?  According to Kahlenberg at the Century Foundation, “There is a big divide in education between those who think teachers are to blame for bad education and those who think poverty and economic segregation are what matter”.  Choosing sides in education simply identifies political alliances, and offers little to improve student or school performance.  In many respects this divide is little different from that of Brown.  Every one-size-fits-all solution is simple minded, political, and wrong for educational improvement.

Our public elementary and secondary schools are far more than college preparation programs.  With perfectly functioning schools this single objective ignores the reality that most students will fail to achieve this objective.  Objectives which are off target lead to disinterest, resistance, and dropping-out.  Most students have no particular desire to attend college, and forcing them all into this single mold produces very much what we have today.  Many will succeed, while most are left behind.  Unfortunately it is this one-size-fits-all mentality that contributes heavily to the assessment that America’s schools are failing.

The nation’s schools are not now, nor have they ever been solely designed to prepare students for college.  Most educators readily recognize, understand, and appreciate this fact.  With a few exceptions, it is primarily the power brokers who refuse to understand this major distinction.  Today’s school systems should be designed for all comers, and they are struggling with a serious lack of programmatic diversity.  It is preposterous to assume that, in spite of all individual differences, every student needs the same medicine.  This blends the bright with the not so bright, the ambitious with the indifferent, the scholar with the athlete, and the severely handicapped individual with the fully functioning student.

Some students are multi-talented and can chose to succeed in many directions.  Others are severely limited in the breadth and depth of their ability to learn.  The schools have the difficult task of providing programs that fit the needs of all students.  At the same time, they can’t refuse to program for individual differences in ability or ambition, family or culture, college or work.

Of course teachers should carry a major burden for their students’ performance.  They should not all be painted with the broad brush of incompetence.  It is high time that each teacher’s contribution to student learning be used as one serious measure of effectiveness.  Those who fail to contribute to student learning have no business in the classroom.  A few systems are finally wrestling openly with this serious performance problem.

Poverty is not now, nor has it ever been a significant drag on learning.  Virtually all young families start out economically poor, yet their children do well in school.  When the children of illiterate and dirt-poor parents move non-stop to graduate degrees in every field, poverty fades into background.  Neither does minority status have an impact on learning, as established by students with Asian ancestry.  Most all of these alleged drags on learning in the schools generate little support through reasoned research or objective findings.

If  economic segregation in education means busing inner-city kids into the suburbs, or allowing students from failing schools to choose other schools or charter schools, these tactics have all been tried and are equivocal in producing consistently better results than nothing at all. Physically relocating students does little to change the many negatives that are found broadly within the family, the culture, or community of origin.

There is no doubt that when a school’s internal and external environments become so toxic that the most dedicated students are unable to learn, it is certainly time to restructure the school system using all options.  This restructuring should create schools that offer academic, career, technical, vocational, remedial, special needs, and other programs to fit local needs.  The idea that all such programs may be chopped into pieces and moved into every school building is unworkable.  Individual pieces of a puzzle are usually poor representations of the whole.

All students should be expected to make critically important decisions about their future educational choices.  In the upper elementary grades serious information must be provided about the wide range of programs that must be offered at the secondary level.  Within the first two years of high school each student in an academic (college preparation) track should demonstrate both the willingness to work and a record sufficient to justify continuing along this path.  All other students should be distributed among the alternate and diverse programs designed to provide a seamless entry into employment and other productive living on graduation.

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