Race To The Top To The Middle

Race to the Top had been rather quiet as a brand until President Obama revived it in his new budget proposal. Unfortunately, the new iteration underlines the metaphorical problems with the nom de regulation. For a guy who launched his career by being a moving speaker, Obama has hit on a real tone-deaf clunker here.

This time, we are racing for equity, which means, I guess, that we are going to Race To The Top To The Middle. Seriously, how does this metaphor even sort of work? How does a race for equality work, exactly?

My first thought is that we are about to see a real-life Diana Moon Glampers to preside over a race in which the swift are properly held back. But no– we’re clearly supposed to be competing for excellence. Excellence in…not being any more or less excellent than anybody else??

But the metaphorical muddle that is Race To The Top To The Middle only raises a more important question which is– why were we ever racing anywhere?

Competition in pursuit of excellence is highly overrated.

First of all, we only compete with other teams. The five members of a basketball team do not compete with each other to score the most baskets; if they did, they would be a terrible team and they would lose very much, and nobody would say, “Wow, those guys are really excellent!” Not even if they competed with great rigor.

So who is supposed to be the other team in this race? Other schools? We are supposed to beat other schools and teachers and students and leaving them whipped and beaten and in this way we will achieve excellence?

Or is it just possible that, in the education game, every American public school that uses teachers to educate American children– that every one of those schools is on the same team and not in competition at all?

Second of all, even in economics and business, competition is really great until it isn’t. Rockefeller created Standard Oil by absorbing competition, by buying up every last one of his competitors. At no point did he say, “You know what? For me to be really excellent, I need to have some competition.” No– he said, “In order for me to be really excellent, I need to control and organize most of this big, messy industry. Competition must go away.” You know who else thought ending competition would be a good business strategy? Bill Gates.

Granted, Gates and a few others toyed with making their workers compete with each other. They stopped doing it, because it was bad for the team.

So don’t tell me the business world loves competition, because they don’t. At best, the people who are losing pay it lip service which lasts right up until they aren’t losing any more.

And they aren’t wrong. Rockefeller and Gates both brought order to industries that were messy and wasteful, industries that were throwing away valuable resources and opportunities fighting against each other. Competition did not improve the industry; it made it sloppy and inefficient.

Obama et al seem to believe that races advance all racers, just like Reagan’s rising tide raised all boats (or trickled down on submarines, or something). They remain convinced that the folks in the back of the pack are only there because they are slackers, lazy, unmotivated, and that somehow the shame of losing will spur them to finally get their acts together. We’ve heard about compassionate conservatives. Here we see loveless liberals, compassion-free with a Nietzschian disregard for the under-menschen.

“But,” they are going to protest, “we can’t keep giving medals to everybody no matter what.” And you know what? I agree. The self-esteemy movement to reward students just for having a pulse was a mistake. But our mistake was not giving medals to everyone. Our mistake was giving unearned medals to everyone.

“But,” they are going to mansplain, “in the race of life, there are winners and losers.” And I am going to say, not in school there aren’t.

This is the problem with people who play too many sports. I’m a musician. You know what happens when you go to a concert and everybody plays their very very best? We don’t declare one a winner and one a loser no matter what. We applaud like crazy, because when everybody does a great job, it’s freakin’ awesome!

In my classroom, there is no useful purpose for having a race. There is no useful purpose in declaring winners and losers. If all my students learn today, today everybody wins. And we don’t have to race for that to happen.

Racing is a terrible awful no good very bad metaphor for what should be happening in schools. It is a stupid way to frame the whole business and cheap besides. Competition will not improve education– not on the macro-national scale, not on the district scale, not on the building scale, not on the classroom scale.

We are not racers. We are builders. And building takes time and care and attention. It takes an understanding of your materials and the place in which you are building. It requires time and care and harmony and craft and attention. And every beam, every bolt, every square inch of surface matters. Every aspect of the building rests on and supports other aspects. And if you build a great building next to mine, it does not diminish me, but adds to my work.

Mr. President, I reject the language of scarcity, the language that says we will only support those who finish the race first, the language says that we are not a team, but a country of competitors in a dog-eat-dog world where there is only enough to support a chosen few. I am not going to race to any damn where.

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