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The One Reason Duncan's Race to the Top Will Fail

Ohanian Comment: Bravo Bravo Bravo and Amen.

By Marion Brady, special guest on Valerie Strauss' "The Answer Sheet"

When "Race to the Top" fails, as it will, the main reason won̢۪t 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 today̢۪s 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 doesn̢۪t neglect.

Its failure to reflect the integrated nature of reality and the seamless
way the brain perceives it makes it difficult to apply what̢۪s 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 haven̢۪t 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 they̢۪re 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 education̢۪s ills, are amateurs. And policymakers
who can̢۪t see the perversity of simultaneously spending billions on
innovation and billions on standardization should consider finding other

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 isn̢۪t just child abuse. It̢۪s a sure-fire way to squeeze
out what little life is left in America̢۪s public schools after decades
of appallingly simplistic, misguided, patchwork policy. Maximum
performance, not the minimum standards measured by tests, should be the
institution̢۪s 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.

— Marion Brady
Washington Post, The Answer Sheet


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