04/06/2015 04:01 pm ET Updated Jun 06, 2015

Race to the Top: A Metaphor Reconsidered

Bloomberg via Getty Images

There's always gonna be another mountain. I'm always gonna wanna make it move. Always gonna be an uphill battle. Sometimes I'm gonna have to lose. Ain't about how fast I get there. Ain't about what's waitin' on the other side. It's the climb.

-- Miley Cyrus

Note to presidential candidates: Come up with a more appropriate metaphor for the next federal educational initiative. The current one is ridiculous at best. Just what were the planners and handlers thinking when they came up with the name for the largest national education initiative in history?

Race to the Top? C'mon.

The phenomena of racing and reaching the top couldn't possibly have been the goals set for children's education. Anyone who knows anything about the fragile, unpredictable, erratic, self-conscious development of a youngster couldn't possibly have come up with such a name.

But, let's pause to reconsider the possibilities. Maybe critics of the feds should take a minute to do a close read of the name and give the planners a break. Maybe they had something else in mind. Let's try a thought experiment.

What if the federal education bureaucrats were dog whistling to the rich folks to get them on board with the initiative?

Maybe it's Chase to the Top for the bankers and billionaires who are in thrall with destroying public schools and privatizing education. The unrelenting attacks on teacher unions, the proliferation of charter schools, the imposition of frustrating and impossibly difficult tests (then selling products to help with testing) may seem entirely appropriate to those who reap the rewards from the market approach to schooling. Teachers bashed, children anxious, parents confused. Sounds like a plan.

Maybe it's White Race to the Top. Sounds plausible since the RTTT mandates and the NCLB policies have done little to change the intractable achievement gaps, and even less to address segregated school systems, perhaps the greatest obstacle to school success. At a recent New York State legislative meeting, a meeting to coronate Governor Cuomo as the king of the New York State educational system, a courageous legislator got it right: "High need/low wealth districts get shafted every time." (1) This includes impoverished white communities as well.

Poor people please understand. There's just so much room at the top; privileged white communities occupy the space, and there's no sign they will sub-divide. The notion that the federal and state education plans' foremost objective is to help the inner city schools and the disenfranchised is a convenient lie. Politicians are fond of citing miraculous stories of schools in poor communities improving. But these are outliers, examples of schools with unique circumstances and/or infusions of grant money. These are outliers. The politicians are just plain liars.

Oh for the good ol' days when No Child Left Behind was the lead catch phrase. I pine for the compassionate conservative approach. And, remember, not only does No Child Left Behind have a sweet sound, it promises proficiency for all by 2014. I must have missed the celebration.

Sounds more like No Guile Left Behind, but that's for another day.

For NASCAR enthusiasts, maybe it's Race to the Pit Stop. This version borrows a page from racing's pit crews, experts at refueling, changing tires and making mechanical adjustments with lightning speed so their team car can get back on the track. Sounds eerily like the schoolhouse intervention crews who are called in to remediate the troubled and disabled kids who may not be able to successfully finish the assessment race. With the fear of failure looming over all -- students and teachers alike -- the sidelined kids are oiled, gassed up, adjusted and made ready for the hunger games.

And for the merchants who sell us our goods, an apt term might be Race to the Shop. Take black Friday for example. Customers wait on line all night, rush into the store when it opens, and get 20 percent off on a toaster. Seems like a good comparison to school assessments. Students prepare for tests all year, arrive early to school to be ready, and receive a number for their efforts. They don't even get to take home an appliance.

Parenthetically, the heavy-handed approach to improve achievement through standardized tests -- mainly to compete with countries like Finland -- is breathtaking in its stupidity. A recent article (2) about Finnish schools reports that the Finns are adopting more collaboration, more play, more essential real world questions in their Helsinki schools, readying the approach for all Finnish schools. Not a multiple choice question in sight.

A question to consider using the United States method: Hearing of the Finnish initiative, the U.S. Secretary of Education is --

a) Wondering what an essential question is?

b) Asking his speech writers to stay late at the office?

c) Calling Pearson to speed up his transition to the corporate world?

d) All of the above.

I've got it: Race to the Tap. There's no way that Americans can stay sober when they see their children crying and anxious. At the end of open school night, the bars are packed with red-eyed, stupefied PTA members who try to make sense of it all. Then they get tired, forget why they were upset, and the next day it starts all over again.

For those who have begun calling it Just Plain Crap, they obviously have no poetic sense, and they must have listened to the remarks of David Coleman (the architect of the Common Core and now the President of the College Board) at a New York State Department of Education meeting (3). Here, verbatim, is a portion of the exchange he had with educational leaders from around the state:

(And I'm not kidding).

Do people know the two most popular forms of writing in the American high school today?... It is personal writing. It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or it is the presentation of a personal narrative. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, as you grow up in this world you realize people really don't give a shit about what you feel or what you think.

So now we have the metaphor that best captures the essence of the initiative:

Race to the Bottom.

So, Mr. or Mrs. future President, please listen carefully. If we believe that our children should get the message that other people don't care what they feel or think as they grow up, then we have turned into bottom feeders. To all those who believe that children should race as they struggle to the top, let's remember: It's not how fast we get there, It's the climb.

And, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, we don't give a shit what David Coleman feels or thinks.


1. Tedisco Challenges Gov. Cuomo to take the 5th grade Common Core Tests (March 31, 2015) retrieved from Youtube.
2. Finland schools: Subjects scrapped and replaced with 'topics' as country reforms its education system. Retrieved from here.
3. David Coleman, Bringing the Common Core to Life. Retrieved from Youtube.