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Race to the Top of What? Obama On Education

Fish's essay provoked over 100 comments, many of them interesting and a few even enlightening. I've posted some here. Some are excerpted.

Reader Comment: I know Obama's heart is in the right place when he urges young people to become teachers; but I am finding it harder and harder to see why anyone would want to go into teaching, given the outrageous abuse the profession is enduring from the politicians, the press, and the choruses of amateur edubabblers that are drowning out the voices of real educators at every level.

Reader Comment: It's not real science that's being promoted by the Bush-Obama "Race to Be Not Left Behind" (pardon the ellipsis), it's something like technological know-how. Real science is creative, unpredictable, and usually useless (if you're short-sighted), just like humanities.

Reader Comment: I'm not sure which is the more depressing aspect of this "Race to the Top," its title or its focus. "Race to the Top" signifies competition rather than collaboration. Races have losers as well as winners. Where there is a top there must be a bottom. The President is sending a real put-down message to the 49% of the population who must always be, by definition, below the median.

So much for the title. As for the focus, what a bleak prospect. A nation of technologists, with art and music and literature dismissed as "frills." Do we really want this?

Reader Comment I wonder what political action on behalf of reading and writing in the academy - the university and also K-12 - would look like? Maybe it would look like this article. Or maybe the professional associations like the MLA would start to treat electoral politics like the hardball lobbies do--an NRA and AIPAC for books.

Reader Comment: My guess is that the current educational documentary "Race to Nowhere" has the name it does for a reason.

Reader Comment: Corporate interests similarly have a reason to overproduce science and technology degrees--it makes their holders cheaper. If there are thousands of scientists competing for jobs, employers can pay them less; that is, the value of the degree goes down as their quantity goes up.

Reader Comment: In the 'old days' we wanted 'factory workers' so now we want low level corporate drudges. Honey, higher level science and technology aren't valued either. We 'insource' workers from overseas on pseudo visas and these guys take our computer and science jobs for a much lower salary. Our funding in science is drying up. What is valued in 'technology' are again low level skills that corporations would value. That's it.

. . . . What you are witnessing is a full scale attack on higher level thinking, creativity, independence of thought--basically all that matters for a free and thinking democracy. We are witnessing the transition to a fascist plutocracy. And I am not overstating this or using hyperbole. Our democracy is being attacked on multiple levels and education is but one level. What can we do? Educate ourselves! Read, read, read, read, read. And think. To paraphrase Gershwin, "They can't take that away from me."

Reader Comment: . . . The temptations and demands of corporate driven consumerism has transformed us into a nation of spectators who are unwilling, uninterested and incapable of pursuing learning for its own intrinsic pleasures and rewards. The only motivating factor driving education today is how much money can be made by graduates, or how much can be saved by taxpayers.

Reader Comment: What underlies the education debate, but is rarely openly discussed, is the difference between "product" and "process" education. Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind, Consumer driven education -- these are all about product.

Process education is like the old adage: give a man a fish, and he eats for a day; teach him to fish, and he eats for life. Process education, the practice of becoming accomplished in the methodologies of knowledge, focuses on the three higher levels in a taxonomy of learning: analysis, criticism and synthesis. Process education is transferable across disciplines.

Product education is minimally transferable. It focuses on the three lower levels of learning: memorization, comprehension, utilization. Learn the wrong skill set, and you are stuck.

In process education, the area of study is not as important as the process of study. The skills I picked up in my heavily process education focused seminary education were highly transferable to other areas far removed from their origin. The process of writing philosophy research papers gave me the ability, on my own, to learn hydrology and hydraulics when I needed that skill to communicate coherently with the Army Corps of Engineers on a flood control project in my community.

To paraphrase a famous political quote: It's the process, (that keeps us from being) stupid.

Reader Comment: Perhaps the "race to the top" is itself the meaning of life. The race where for every hundred "winners" there are a million losers. ("Everybody can't be a winner! Enough of this 'teach-self-respect', nanny-state educational system!") If only all those unskilled American workers and their math-challenged rugrats had learned the skills to compete at Harvard and in the modern world, like their lords and masters! We must teach them to be competitive, teach them the joy of tearing with one's teeth the raw flesh of those who flunk the exam!

By Stanley Fish

On the morning after the State of the Union speech was delivered, John Hockenberry, co-host of the NPR program "The Takeaway," read aloud President Obama's declaration that "we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math." Hockenberry commented: "You scientists, engineers and techies know who you are; but what about the rest of us?"

What about the rest of us, indeed! Obama had just got through saying, "We want to reward good teachers," and he went on to make a pitch for new recruits to the teaching profession: "If you want to make a difference in the life of a child --become a teacher." Not, however, a teacher of English or French or art history. Obama doesn't say so, but by the logic of his presentation, these disciplines are not when he has in mind when he talks about the "Race to the Top" and calls it "the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation."

Race to the top of what? We get a hint from this statement: "We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair."

Now it's clear what is going on here. Obama is developing his major theme: we need innovation to catch up with China and other advanced societies. And it is perfectly reasonable to tie innovation in certain fields to the production of citizens who are technically, mathematically and scientifically skilled. But is that what's wrong with American education, too few students who acquire the market-oriented skills we need to compete (a favorite Obama word) in the global economy and too few teachers capable of imparting them? Is winning the science fair the goal that defines education? A dozen more M.I.T.s and Caltechs and fewer great-book colleges and we'd be all right?

Quite another account of what is wrong is offered in a new book by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. The book's title is Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, and its thesis is that what is limited -- in short supply -- is learning that is academic rather than consumerist or market-driven. After two years of college, they report, students are "just slightly more proficient in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing than when they entered." [Ohanian Question: How on earth can anybody prove this?]

The authors give several explanations for this unhappy result. First, a majority of students surveyed said "that they had not taken a single course . . . that required more than twenty pages of writing, and one third had not taken one that required even forty pages of reading per week." Moreover, "only 42 percent had experienced both a reading and writing requirement of this character during the prior semester." The conclusion? "If students are not being asked . . . to read and write on a regular basis . . . it is hard to imagine how they will improve their capacity to master performance tasks."

Nor will they be encouraged to if they are caught up in the "deepening of consumerist orientations within higher education." This is a second explanation of the weakening of academic (read liberal arts) learning; for, Arum and Roksa observe, there are "many reasons to expect students as consumers to focus on receiving services that will allow them, as effortlessly and comfortably as possible, to attain valuable educational credentials that can be exchanged for later labor success." United States college students seem to have internalized (before its appearance) the spirit of England’s Browne Report on higher education, which explicitly equates the value of a course with the future earnings potential value of the students who take it. This is why the report recommends that grants be given to students rather than to universities; since students are in it for the money, the choice of where to invest should be theirs. (After all, they're in a race to the top.)

Arum and Roksa note the same shift in funding practices in this country, where both the states and the federal government have transferred "support from institutions to individuals," who thereby gain the power of choice in the educational marketplace. The two sociologists concede that the privatization of higher education financing (through loans and other devices) has resulted in increased access and diversity; but "what conservative policy makers have missed," they add, is that "market-based educational reforms that elevate the role of students as 'consumers' do not necessarily yield improved outcomes in terms of student learning." (There's an understatement.)

If this is true of higher education, it is equally true of education at the K-12 level. In their recent books, Diane Ravitch and Martha Nussbaum make arguments that are confirmed by Arum's and Roksa's statistics. Once a supporter of President Bush's No Child Left Behind (the principles of which survive in Race to the Top, but with more federal money), Ravitch now sees its emphasis on testing and consumer choice as educationally disastrous. "I concluded," she says, "that curriculum and instruction were far more important than choice and accountability." And she rejects the rush to privatization and the popular mantra that schools should be run like businesses: "I realized that incentives and sanctions may be right for business . . . where the bottom line --profit -- is the highest priority, but they are not right for schools" ( The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, 2010).

Nussbaum seconds this sentiment (and anticipates Arum and Roksa) when she complains that "the humanistic aspects of science and social science -- the imaginative creative aspect of rigorous critical thought -- are . . . losing ground as nations prefer to pursue short-term profit by the cultivation of . . . applied skills suited to profit-making” ( Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, 2010). In the brave new world of accountability, the arts and literature will be kicked to the curb "because they don’t look like they lead to personal or national economic achievement." Indeed, "the ability to think and argue . . . looks to many people like something dispensable if what we want are marketable outputs of a quantifiable nature" (precisely what the Browne Report says we ought to want if we are to attain technological superiority).

As I noted in an earlier column, both Nussbaum and Ravitch are disappointed by Obama's educational policies. Ravitch wonders why "a president who had been elected on the promise of change . . . was picking up the same banner of choice, competition and markets that had been the hallmark of his predecessors." Nussbaum hears in Obama's praise of nations like Singapore -- "They are spending less time teaching things that don't matter" -- an elevation of science and technology at the expense of literature, philosophy and the arts. "It is difficult," she says, "to avoid the conclusion that the 'things that don't matter' include many of the things that this book has defended as essential to the health of democracy."

On the evidence of the State of the Union speech, that's right. It looks like the only way humanist educators and their students are going to get to the top is by hanging on to the coattails of their scientist and engineering friends as they go racing by.

Stanley Fish is a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, in Miami, and this semester is Floersheimer Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law at Cardozo School of Law. He has also taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke University and the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is the author of 13 books, most recently "Save the World On Your Own Time" and "The Fugitive in Flight," a study of the 1960s TV drama. How to Write a Sentence, a celebration of sentence craft and sentence pleasure, will be out in January 2011.

— Stanley Fish
New York Times


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