Why “Race to the Top” will Fail

My favorite education blogger, Susan Ohanian, posted a link to this wonderful piece by Marion Brady in the Washington Post.

The One Reason Duncan’s “Race to the Top Will Fail
By Marion Brady
November 4, 2009

When “Race to the Top” fails, as it will, the main reason won’t be any of those currently being advanced by the corporate interests and politicians now running the education show.

It won’t fail because of lack of academic rigor, poor teaching, weak administrators, too-short school year, union resistance, differing state standards, insufficient performance incentives, sorry teacher training, or lingering traces of the early-20th Century Progressive movement.

It will fail primarily for a reason not even being mentioned by leaders of today’s reform effort: A curriculum adopted in 1893 that grows more dysfunctional with each passing year. Imagine a car being driven down a winding rural road with all the passengers, including the driver, peering intently out the back window.

The familiar, traditional curriculum is so at odds with the natural desire to learn that laws, threats and other extrinsic motivators are necessary to keep kids in their seats and on task.

It has no built-in mechanisms forcing it to adapt to change. Ignoring solid research about their importance in intellectual development, it treats art, music, dance, and play as “frills.”

It isolates educators in specialized fields, discouraging their interest in and professional dialog about the whole of which their specializations are parts. It fails to explore questions essential to ethical and moral development.

It neglects important fields of study, and has no system for determining the relative importance of those fields it doesn’t neglect.

Its failure to reflect the integrated nature of reality and the seamless way the brain perceives it makes it difficult to apply what’s being taught to real-world experience.
And that barely begins a list of the problems.

There’s no easy, quick fix, but one thing is certain.

Doing with greater diligence and determination what brought America’s schools to their present state will simply move forward the day when failure becomes obvious to all. There are, however, some things Congress and the administration could do.

First, they could stop basing education policy on the opinions of business leaders, syndicated columnists, mayors, lawyers, and assorted other education “experts” who haven’t passed the 10,000-hour test-10,000 hours of face-to-face dialog with real students in real classrooms, all the while thinking analytically about what they’re doing, and why.

“Experts” who see more rigor, more tests, more international comparisons, more “data-driven decision-making,” more math and science, more school closings, more Washington-initiated, top-down reform policy as the primary cure for education’s ills, are amateurs. And policymakers who can’t see the perversity of simultaneously spending billions on innovation and billions on standardization should consider finding other work.

Second, Congress and the administration could accept the fact that, in formal schooling, the curriculum is where the rubber meets the road.

No matter school type-public, charter, private, parochial, magnet, virtual, home, whatever; no matter the level-elementary, secondary, college, or graduate school; no matter first-rate physical facilities, highly qualified faculty, enlightened administrators, sophisticated technology, generous funding, caring parents, supportive communities, disciplined, motivated students, no matter anything else affecting school performance, if the curriculum is lousy, the education will be lousy.

Third, Congress and the administration could stop for a moment, think, then acknowledge what they surely must know, that the key to humankind’s survival is, at it has always been, human variability.

Trying to standardize kids by forcing them all through the same minimum standards hoops isn’t just child abuse. It’s a sure-fire way to squeeze out what little life is left in America’s public schools after decades of appallingly simplistic, misguided, patchwork policy. Maximum performance, not the minimum standards measured by tests, should be the institution’s aim.

Anything less invites societal catastrophe.

If Congress and the administration are wise, they’ll use their levers of power not to tighten but to loosen the rigor screws and end the innovation-stifling role of Carnegie Units, course distribution requirements, mandated instructional programs, and other curriculum-standardizing measures.

They’ll do what enlightened school boards have always done and say to educators, “We want you to unleash creativity, ingenuity, resourcefulness, imagination, and enthusiasm, and send the young off with a lasting love of learning. Tell us what you need in order to make that happen, and we’ll do our best to provide the necessary support.”

Even the suggestion of such a policy will appall many.

We say we’re big on freedom, democracy, individualism, autonomy, choice, and so on, but advocating aligning our schools with our political rhetoric invites being labeled as too radical to be taken seriously.

Such a policy, most are likely to believe, would trigger chaos, pandemonium, anarchy.

Not so. Two things would happen.

In most schools, institutional inertia, entrenched bureaucracy, and pressure from powerful corporate interests, would maintain the status quo.

In most schools, but not all. A few would point the way to a better-than-world-class education by demonstrating what experienced teachers have always known, that the traditional curriculum barely scratches the surface of kids’ intellectual potential.

18 thoughts on “Why “Race to the Top” will Fail

  1. That’s well done. Mr. Brady should insist that Mr.and Mrs. Obama read that. And make notations in their reading logs about it. By Friday. His mother-in-law can sign off on his.

    I’ll get my tongue out of my cheek now.

    “Such a policy, most are likely to believe, would trigger chaos, pandemonium, anarchy.”

    That’s the big problem right there…we’ll lose control and horrible things will happen. OMG!!! You didn’t know that children are to be feared, did you?
    The same word was used last year at our discussion about homework at our school…”anarchy” would ensue if every family were allowed to choose whether to do homework or not.


  2. PsychMom, thanks for the laugh! I needed it this morning. Yes, the full time mother in law. I guess when you live above the store, you can afford the most tony private school in the nation, and you have full time help, homework doesn’t quite seem so onerous now, does it? You can spout off at the mouth about NCLB since your own children never have to hear one word of it in school.

    Mind you, I voted for and like the guy, I really do, so this is not an anti-Obama diatribe. But just like the New York Magazine piece Sara posted some weeks ago, many of us liberals who voted for Obama feel let down by his education policies. To me it’s just the same old same old. As Susan Ohanian asks, is Arne Duncan just Margaret Spellings in drag?

    I’ll give Obama the benefit of the doubt, and boy is this an olive branch, because I like the guy. Shall I conclude it’s nothing more than sloppy policy, that Obama’s been too busy on more pressing matters and merely hasn’t done his homework?


  3. PsychMom writes; “The same word was used last year at our discussion about homework at our school…”anarchy” would ensue if every family were allowed to choose whether to do homework or not.”

    Didn’t you know that ten year olds are taking up arms and secretly planning to flood the streets? They are plotting a revolution even as we speak. Read Disillusioned’s comments of yesterday.


  4. Yeah, I adore him too…but he’s missing the biggest boat. I was really surprised when he started down this education road …I expected something more.


  5. I’m so discouraged. I can’t even jump on the bandwagon of an article like this because I’ve seen even the best ideas turn to dreck as they filter down to the classroom. Sure, you can say you want the schools to promote creativity, but then they send your kid home with the “Character in a Can” project. At that point traditional education starts to look good. At least they might learn to write an actual essay.

    Today’s major discouragement comes after a parent meeting with the admissions officer and middle school director of a Quaker school. According to the middle school director, their goal is to assign 3 hours a night of homework by the 8th grade, “to get the kids ready for 4 hours of homework a night in high school!” She also said, about the 7th grade math class, “some of the kids get frustrated because they have to solve the problems in one particular way, and show all their work even if they knew what what the answer was. And they have to do lots of practice every night.” I said, “But some kids need more practice and others need less. Couldn’t I write a note saying that my kid understood it without all the practice?” Apparently not.

    Ugh … frustrated … discouraged …


  6. FedUpMom, here’s a hug. I feel for you.

    I don’t know whether to cheer or cry that our K-12 adventure (such as it was) is coming to a close in eight months. I have no idea yet where my daughter will go from here. On the bright side, we just completed some long overdue psycho-educational diagnostic testing and the results are astounding. At least we can say she’s still retained her passion for learning and her knowledge base is vast. I am still so worried she has major gaps in her education because she comes to school so seriously sleep deprived.

    But I am relieved it’s coming to an end. We’ve had some school meetings too and I hear stuff that leaves me deflated and discouraged. What if I was in your shoes, FedUp, with six more years?

    Come to think of it, I wish we actually still did have six years! Because you all know what I would do. Start homeschooling in 7th, not wait till 8th, and likely continue all the way through.


  7. Thanks, HWB. I keep going back and forth on the homeschooling issue. There’s no doubt we could teach dd, probably better than any school she’s been to. The stumbling block for me is that I need time for myself, and dd needs a social life. Among other things, she wants to play in an orchestra again.

    We’ll see .. I’ll keep you posted. We’re applying to 4 schools … maybe some of the others will look better.


  8. FedUp, I’m not pushing you on the homeschool front. But do keep it in your back pocket, should you need it.

    Let me just address your two major concerns, time to yourself and your daughter’s social life. 7th grade wasn’t nearly as onerous as high school, my daughter still managed to get most of the work done. And 7th was less work than 6th, if you can believe that. But Algebra I in 7th alone was three hours a night. And he gave weekend homework, euphemistically called Friday homework. She was working all the time. It’s only gotten worse. My point is, the homework overload and sleep deprivation (pervasive themes of our lives) were so exhausting for me that homeschooling was a breeze in comparison.

    I kid you not. I did have less time to myself. And I let my daughter sleep in so I could use those critical morning hours to plan. But I will say this. We got TONS of family time, outdoor time, creative time, play time, museum time. And since that’s what I/we wanted so badly, that made up for less time to myself. And I’m not making light of that. I need plenty time to myself, I’m an extroverted introvert and I recharge my batteries by being alone. For me, eliminating the stress was well worth whatever time I was giving up since much of that free time was spent agonizing over school anyway.

    On the socialization front, we lucked out there. It was so much better than school. Simply put, my daughter had precious little time to play. Those three breezy homework hours the Quaker froths about can easily turn to six if your child does not or cannnot do it in one fell swoop. I made socialization a top priority. I joke wryly that we had to leave school so my daughter could have a social life!

    Do keep us posted on your middle school quest.


  9. Oh, your last point, orchestra. My area has a homeschool orchestra and band. Check where you live. Some high school districts allow homeschooled students to do extra-curriculars. Not mine but a neighboring county does. Look into your homeschool networking and local opportunities, You may find yourself amazed at the embarrassment of riches out there for homeschooled kids.It’s really growing.


  10. I really like the second half of the essay, starting at “If Congress and the administration are wise…” Love the idea of asking teachers what they need to work to their fullest potential….and then trying to deliver that. (Not that it would be easy. But the concept is great.)

    Not sure I agree that curriculum is the ultimate factor. Seems like education is a 3-legged stool: teachers, parents, curriculum. For me anyway, it’s easier to envision bright, innovative teachers + connected parents overcoming (**together**–partnership is the unsung hero–often lip-serviced but rarely there for real) a stodgy curriculum than to imagine a wonderful 21st C curriculum overcoming weak/burned out/stressed out/poorly trained/unfairly compensated teachers and checked-out parents. (Not trying to beat up on parents here. How’s a single mom working 2 jobs who might actually get fired for attending a parent-teacher conference gonna “check in”? But obviously that’s a broader problem.)

    Enough rambling, but thanks for posting this. Great food for thought. I have a friend who believes curriculum is the no. 1 problem, and we discuss this stuff sometimes. Will have to send her the link.

    ps–FedUp Mom: “Character in a Can,” yikes–don’t know whether to laugh or cry over that one. Pretty lame.


  11. Mary S. — “Character in a Can” was an actual assignment handed out to a high school class including Sara B.’s daughter! I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

    Character in a Can–Choose a character from the book (Frankenstein). Draw a picture of your character and cover the can with the picture. Inside the can, put 10 slips of paper with quotes from the book which show something about your character. Draw pictures of 5 objects that symbolize your character.

    I keep thinking about this assignment. It’s the ultimate example of a completely meaningless, pointless, yet time-consuming task. It touches on real human activities, but just barely. For instance, there is such a thing as drawing characters from a book. It’s called “illustration”, and could be an interesting — and challenging — class if taught well by an artist. But there’s no such thing as drawing a character, and then sticking the drawing on a can. And copying out 10 quotes? That takes a lot of time — and for what benefit? You don’t have to think hard about a book to find 10 places where your character is mentioned.

    This is a great example of homework being difficult for all the wrong reasons. It’s not difficult because it requires a great deal of thought, or because it takes any intellectual effort. It’s difficult because it’s totally arbitrary and opaque, yet the kids will be graded on it. A bright kid, who thinks school is supposed to teach her something, will be completely mystified by this.

    BTW, Sara, I would encourage you and your daughter to watch the old B&W “Frankenstein”, if you haven’t already. It’s a classic old movie, and a lot of fun. (“It’s alive! It’s alive!”)


  12. FedUp Mom–ugh! The quotes are, yes, utterly meaningless and time consuming, and draw 5 objects?? What about the kids who hate to draw, or for whom drawing takes forever and is hard? At the moment my guys are all into drawing, but 1 of the 3 has historically struggled with it, and even now he has motivation but not speed. He’d probably need 3 hours for Character in a Can!

    I actually assumed when I saw “Character in a Can” that it related to values or character development — which itself is prime territory for ridiculous assignments. Most parents here (including me) do want the schools to help them build kids’ character, but not in the half-a**ed ways it’s been done…many of which have involved written (and inane) values-related homework 😦


  13. My daughter would need half a day for Character in a Can. Mary, you asked, “What about the kids who hate to draw, or for whom drawing takes for ever and is hard?” Well put, Mary. I’ll add a category,

    What about the kid who loves to draw but hyper-focuses, is deliberate, creative and perfectionist, can’t seem to stop so that even all this “magnificent” art can turn into a battle becuase it also takes forever?

    Fortunately, my daughter does not get this in high school. But even those clay dioramas she actually loved took all weekend. I still resented them because they were adult directed not child initiated, they were mandatory and I have better things to do on a sparkling Sunday afternoon in May than sit at home, watching my dining room slowly turn into Berlin after World War II.


  14. HW Blues–Your second paragraph describes one of my 11 y.o. twins to a T! He fits every word of your description plus has a thing about completion–which I also did as a kid. Can’t relax until a project is complete, even if he’s got another day to work on it.

    Our older guy (gr. 7) is a bit like this too but reveres his free/play time so much that he can usually be coaxed away from a project when it’s (my words) “good enough.”

    Kid no. 3 is f-a-s-t, thank G*d, and whips through it all as quickly as possible…for better or worse.


  15. Funny,my kids were so bright I never worried about the public school curriculum much. Three things I noticed about public school but was way too busy and sleep deprived -after a commute and a teaching job- to address were:
    1.they did not get to sing or dance
    2.they were at different times and in different ways under too much pressure to produce
    3.in middle school, science was taught by reading and outlining a book. (This was one of our better schools, too.) Now, I am no scientist, but that is clearly not the way to do it.
    But they had all these advantages
    1.a bilingual home
    2.travel experiences
    3.parents who talked to them and read to them
    4.a very good pre-school that
    a.did do simple science experiments and
    b.also had a brilliant reading program that called each letter by the sounds it actually “makes”in spoken English and used visuals and “big books” as part of the lesson–wish I knew the name of it. It was so intelligent and effective.
    5. a couple of early years in an alternative school that
    a.did do experience-based and child centered learning and
    b.had very little desk work.
    I must confess that I never quite understood all that was going on, but was sure impressed that during vacations my kids would ask with happy anticipation how soon they could go back to school.
    I worried a fair amount about them and for their part they often complained of boredom with the slowness of things, but I did not worry about the curriculum. I always felt, perhaps wrongly, that you could stand these two on their heads and they would still learn.

    I think Race to the Top is a destructive sham and the so-called “reform” is really an attack, like welfare “reform” and the attempt to “reform” social security and medicare. The current administration is taking up all the right wing memes while the right wing shifts ever further to the right. The Republican party of Eisenhower looks positively socialistic compared to this bunch. God help us!

    By the way, if you look at most of the charter and other schools held up by “reformers” as models, they get extra money, often many millions from private donors, while all the while said “reformers” proclaim that money does not matter. The DC schools under Rhee got millions from private sources, including the Waltons and the much touted Harlem Children’s zone is reported to spend $16,000 per student, while it pays the director a cool half million. Is there a non-chartered public school anywhere that is given that kind of resources?

    p.s.,Linguist and education expert Stephen Krashen wrote some great remarks on Race to the Top that you can find through Google.


  16. I am currently writing about this and I find your analysis interesting. There doesn’t seem to be anything new curriculum wise in RTTT and it’s based on a carrot and stick model that has been discredited when addressing education.

    What students need is an attentive teacher that care about their progress and materials that are up to date. More testing more change a thing.

    Tex Shelters


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