Just the other day I was able to catch Ben-Hur (winner of 10 Academy Awards) on television. I hadn’t seen the movie in ages and it reminded me of the time my father took me to see it. I was six and fell asleep. The part of the film that always comes to mind is the famous chariot race. It’s as exciting today as it was so many years ago.
While watching Judah Ben-Hur circle the dirt track I began thinking about another race — Race to the Top. How I got from Ancient Rome to today’s educational system is anyone’s guess. But, it got me to cogitate about how racing is a competitive thing. There are winners, losers and bumps along the way. I began wondering why the term “Race To The Top” was chosen as the motto to better the education of young people.
Racing connotes speed, winning, competition and such. While many compete in races and enjoy the competition, there is usually but one victor. In the Olympics they might hand out Silver and Bronze medals for second and third place finishers of races. Still there can only be one champion. Major league baseball pennant races can be exciting, with a number of teams involved. However, in the end there is only one winner here as well. I wonder if our educators were thinking along these lines? Maybe.
As kids “Race To The Top,” do they understand that they are in a competition? Their schools are compared to others. Their individual scores are compared with others as well as to standards. We all know how winners are treated, but what happens to those who fall short? What happens to Central Falls? What happens to the 44 percent of R.I. students who wouldn’t graduate if the up-and-coming standards were in place this year? Do kids with special needs win too? How about kids from districts that are financially challenged? Are kids from Providence racing on the same track with those from Barrington and East Greenwich? As some are racing to the top will others, despite their best efforts, be forced to compete without some apparent advantages?
While educators are racing they also tend to throw the word “excellent” around a lot. Excellent teachers. Excellent schools. Excellent students etc., etc. Excellence is often measured by tests, standards and data. Just the other day someone I respect a great deal asked me, “Don’t you want excellence for our kids?” This question came after I had advocated for alternate measures for schools, teachers and students to be evaluated. My answer was (and is): “Of course I want excellence — I’m merely questioning how we measure it.” It seems as though we’ve come to a Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance moment where the book’s author describes the rift between the classical and romantic modes of thought (in this case the testers vs. the touchy feely types). Perhaps excellence should not be the destination — maybe it should be the way instead. Maybe we should be emphasizing critical thinking that promotes methods of inquiry as opposed to an overemphasis on getting correct answers. Hey, maybe that would make way for a book titled — Zen and the Art of Education. Cervantes once said, “The journey is better than the inn.” Should we be extolling the virtues of “how to fish” to a greater extent? Excellence could then be taught as an approach to education — a means to learning. In doing so the pressure to be excellent would be reduced and replaced with it being seen as something that leads to discovery. I’d be willing to bet that there would be many who would see this as injecting fun into achievement.
Races can be measured. In many ways it makes it easy to determine those who measure up to certain criteria. Unfortunately the world is not made up of test scores. Gaining mastery of a subject means more than regurgitating facts. Real life situations are nuanced. Game show contestants can often spew out a few facts–but whether or not they have a deep sense of understanding of a topic is a much different story. Are we developing a culture of stressed out game show contestants who, while acquiring facts, fail to understand how to apply them. For certain, tests have a place. There should be ways that ensure that we are going in the right direction. Putting so much weight on scores promotes a teaching-to-the-test mentality and also erodes the student-teacher relationship.
One cannot ignore the fact that economics has much to do with who excels under the present system of determining education progress. Have you noticed that Barrington and East Greenwich excel on tests and districts struggling financially (Providence, Central Falls, and East Providence to name a few) not as well. Sounds like education is going the way of politics, heavily influenced by money. Should we be looking at who the lead players are in the field education? In Rhode Island, who serves on the Board of Regents and does this represent our students fairly? How schools are evaluated might have something to do with who is doing the evaluation. Maybe evaluations based on data along with a system where schools could present a portfolio of success(es) might be more comprehensive (and fair). Allowing schools to put their best foot forward (on their own terms) would allow for creativity and shared learning (the portfolio could be used by other districts as templates for potential use). This way, rather than districts racing and struggling, they could share their successes with others around the state.
“A Journey Together” might prove more effective for more people than “A Race to the Top.” Why not cultivate a climate where we help each other to move ahead. A little competition might be good. However, I feel it should be balanced by creativity and partnerships between districts. The use of tests to ensure compliance is unfortunate. The use of tests as indicators and tools might prove to be an asset. We need to ask ourselves just what are we racing to the top of. It just might be a volcano.
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