Public Education Is Not a Race


The whole idea of “Race to the Top” assumes that the education of our nation’s children is a competition and, indeed, a cluster of competitions: child against child, teacher against teacher, school against school, state against state, and our nation against the other nations of the world.  The name of No Child Left Behind implies, falsely in its practice, that all will share in success; Race to the Top suggests a few winners and many losers.  That’s one factor in the harm being done: education as a competition.

What is the prize?  What is to be gained by getting to the top, above the rest?  The reward-and-punishment (carrot and stick) nature of this competition, with its rhetoric about preparing our children for competition in the global economy, indicates that the prize is material success for the individual, to be enjoyed in the most materially successful of nations.  It is a free market dream that is supposed to inspire our children and their teachers to beat the rest in this race, to out-compete the opposition, to rise above the masses of our world.

The pleasures and joys of learning are, it seems, for wimps.  In this race, satisfaction is to come only from winning, and survival depends upon not losing.  No wonder, then, school districts cheat on the tests.  Why would they not cheat when only winning matters?  It’s like the Hunger Games, and so it’s foolish for competitors not to try to put the odds in their favor.

Consider the proclaimed assumptions of this race to the top: (1) all children come to school equally capable of learning, (2) the only differences that can determine outcomes lie in the quality of the teacher and that of the school, because (3) no outside factors or individual differences among the children can be admitted to influence student learning and testing outcomes.  But, brace yourself for this contradiction, curriculum should be standardized and all teachers should teach the same way at the same rate, so all are on the same page each day and are following the same methods and practices.  Huh?  If there is to be no difference in teaching, how can teachers make the difference?  If curriculum and teaching methods are standardized, how can the difference be in the schools?  And if all children are equally capable of learning and must be assumed to learn in the same way, how can they score so differently in the same classroom with the same teacher?

Of course, outside factors can influence greatly children’s ability to learn, and individual children differ significantly from each other.  Does any parent with two or more children find them to be identical?  No, not even if they are identical twins.  They vary in countless ways, including how they understand and respond to questions (including test questions), where their interests lie, how their abilities develop, and how they learn (and at what pace).

It seems apparent to me that some, indeed many, are meant to lose.  If education is, after all, a race, then most will lose.  If the assumption is that all will improve by virtue of competing (which is false in practice), toward what end, what outcome?

I think too many of us fail to grasp and appreciate the distinction between democracy and individual autonomy.  Democracy is a cooperative venture designed to take government out of the hands of the elite by putting it into the hands of all the people through their representatives.  It is cooperative, not competitive, which is the reason elites are always tempted to hate it.  For them, democracy should be that of the board room: not one vote per person but one vote per share of stock owned.  That’s proportional voting which is not democratic at all.  It empowers the already powerful, the elite, and marginalizes the rest of us.

If democracy is by nature cooperative, why should the education of our children be competitive?  I’m not suggesting the competitive ever will be or should be taken out of education (or a democratic society) completely.  Our children need to discover what they are “good at,” although – be careful! – they could be good at much more than most realize or are allowed to realize.  And isn’t that the issue?  The “race” theory of education convinces children they are losers, and many of those children will believe that lie and will be stifled by it.

Who, then, suffers?  Just the child who gives up, drops out, or hangs back?  Just that child’s family?  No, we all suffer.  Democracy says we all matter and are together in this matter of being a community, a nation, and, indeed, a world.  We should be educating our children for fulfilling, productive, and cooperative life in a democracy, not training them to be wage slaves (or managers) in a Walmartized world.

The other day, I read an article in Sojourners magazine that described two very different understandings of democracy.  The article, written by Stefanie Fuhr, employs the distinctions she draws from Philip Phenix between (1) a democracy of desire and (2) a democracy of worth.  The article, “Public Education for the Common Good,” is here and is well worth reading. I’ll look further into Furh’s article in my next post. For now, I’ll say that in a democracy, public education is for the common (shared) good as well as the good of each individual child, not for the hyper-success of the best test takers and those who excel at keeping the odds in their own favor.