This Is Just to Say: NCLB and Race to the Top Leave Education Behind

August 23, 2010

Alan Shapiro's essay challenges us to consider current education policies and what real reform might look like.

"Let the main object of this, our didactic, be as follows: To seek and to find a method of instruction, by which teachers may teach less, but learners may learn more."
—Comenius, "The Great Didactic," 1649

"In training a child to activity of thought, above all things we must beware of what I will call ‘inert ideas'that is to say, ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilized, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations."
—Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education, 1929

"As studies in perception indicate, we do not ‘get' meaning from things, we assign meaning...In other words, whatever is out there isn't anything until we make it something, and then it ‘is' whatever we make it."
—Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching As a Subversive Activity, 1969


Two U.S. presidents assigned meaning to America's schools with their "No Child Left Behind" and "Race to the Top" programs — two linear metaphors, one horizontal, the other vertical.

President Bush's NCLB suggested that though some schoolchildren were moving forward toward something, others who were not must join them. President Obama's Race to the Top now calls upon children to speed competitively to the top of something. Education, viewed as synonymous with schooling, appears to be a terminal event in both metaphors. E.g., Bush was not left behind, but moved forward to Harvard, while Obama sped, also to Harvard, where both men "got" their educations.

Speaking about NCLB (1/8/09), President Bush said, "Testing is important to solve problems. You can't solve them unless you diagnose the problem in the first place."

What problem does this excerpt (and others like it) from a National Assessment of Educational Progress test aim to solve?

NAEP Civics, Grade 12, 2006

Question 1: The following question refers to the poster below, which was produced by a government agency during the Second World War. This black and white poster is titled "Save Freedom of Worship." The next line is superimposed over the side perspective of people who appear to [be] praying: "Each according to the dictates of his own conscience." The bottom of the poster has the artist's name, Norman Rockwell, and the statement "Buy war bonds."

From the poster you can tell that
A. there was little support for the Second World War in the United States
B. the government wanted Americans to be part of the war effort
C. average American citizens knew little about the Second World War
D. the government was afraid to ask the people for help in the war effort


"Education in the United States has been hijacked by the obsession with standardized tests. A tool that was supposed to help measure a narrow band of academic outcomes has morphed into the primary purpose of schooling these days. The result: a terribly constricted view of education that often keeps teachers from doing the best work they can do."
—Tom Roderick, Executive Director, Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, conference remarks, 5/22/10

The Washington Post asked President Obama: "Your predecessor was famously identified with the phrase that summed up his education agenda, No Child Left Behind. And it could be explained in a single sentence - ‘Test all students every year to hold schools accountable for closing achievement gaps.' What phrase could sum up your education agenda? And if you had to pick it, what single sentence could explain it?"

The president obliged: "We want to challenge all the stakeholders — parents, teachers, unions, school administrators — to not only raise standards, but make the changes that are required to actually meet those standards, by having the best teachers and principals, by having the kind of data collection that tells us whether improvements are actually happening, and tying student achievement to assessments of teachers, by making sure that there's a focus on low-performing schools, by making sure that the standards that have been set are ones that mean a kid who graduates can compete at the international level. (, 7/23/09)

Raise what standards? "Having the best teachers and principals." All opposed, raise hands. Collection of what data (besides test results) to determine improvements in what? Evidence for the validity of "tying student achievement to assessments of teachers"?

Where the latter view might lead was dramatized in February when all 93 teachers and other staff members at Central Falls High School, Rhode Island were fired after the teachers' union rejected a plan for a longer school day and after-school tutoring because it viewed the pay inadequate.

The president approved the firings. "If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn't show signs of improvement, then there's got to be a sense of accountability. And that's what happened in Rhode Island last week at a chronically troubled school, when just 7 percent of 11th-graders passed state math tests — 7 percent."

Teachers and other staff members were rehired following a union-Board settlement.

The Obama administration "has embraced some of the worst features of the George W. Bush era.  Obama's Race to the Top competition dangled $4.3 billion before cash-hungry states. To qualify for the money, states...had to agree to create data systems making it possible to evaluate teachers by their students' test scores...Judging teachers by test scores is wrongheaded because students' scores are affected not only by what the teacher does but by such important factors as poverty, student motivation and family support. Yet only teachers will be held accountable."
—Diane Ravitch, a writer and a research professor of education at New York University, "Why I Changed My Mind," The Nation, 6/14/10)

A student's schoolwork is obviously affected by a number of factors, those cited by Ravitch and, among others, student language facility, home environment, and health. Obama sees teacher accountability as essential for "a chronically troubled school," but mentions nobody and nothing else that might contribute to conditions in Central Falls, "a poor community with a large immigration population." (New York Times, 3/6/10)

The day after Obama's single sentence sum-up, Education Secretary Arne Duncan launched Race to the Top, underlining its economic aims and firing the first shot in a speech, "The Race to the Top Begins": The president "recognizes that America needs urgently to...elevate the quality of K-12 schools, not just to propel the economic recovery but also because students need stronger skills to compete with students in India and China."

President Calvin Coolidge: "After all, the chief business of the American people is business." (1/17/25)


NAEP Civics, Grade 12, 2006

Question 3: The following question is about federalism.

Federalism: A way of organizing a nation so that two or more levels of government have authority over the same land and people. Which fact about American government reflects the above definition of federalism?

A. Power is divided among legislative, executive, and judicial branches.
B. Private organizations in the United States do much of the work that is performed by local governments in other countries.
C. Citizens in the United States are subject to both state and federal laws.
D. Citizens in the United States have a right to protection from intrusion into their private affairs.

Whitehead: "The merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God's earth."

Postman & Weingartner: "The elimination of conventional necessary because, as soon as they are used as judgment-making instruments, the whole process of school shifts from education to training intended to produce passing grades on tests. About the only wholesome grounds on which mass testing can be justified is that it provides the conditions for about the only creative intellectual activity available to students—cheating. It is quite probable that the most original ‘problem-solving' activity students engage in school is related to the invention of systems for beating the system."

Add adult creators of state tests to measure student achievement who dumb them down to beat the system.

Presidential analyses for reforming schools spray generalities—"diagnose," "problems," "test," "standards," "changes," "data collection," "achievement," "improvement." Top-down reformers, the presidents are short on operational meanings, even shorter on learning what actual teachers might say about needed school reforms, and assume their testing programs are not only essential, but also valid and reliable.

"No nation has become high-achieving by sanctioning schools based on test-score targets and closing those that serve the neediest students without providing adequate resources and quality teaching. The implementation of Race to the Top has not required states to equalize funding to underresourced schools or even to maintain their existing commitments to these schools, many of which have had to slash budgets deeply, laying off tens of thousands of teachers, raising class size to more than forty in some cases and cutting successful programs.
—Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University and author, "Restoring Our Schools," The Nation, 6/14/10)

NAEP Writing, Grades 8 & 12, medium difficulty, 2007

Imagine that you have just come into your kitchen and that the poem below is a note left for you on the kitchen table. Who wrote the note? How do you feel? What do you do? Write a story about what happens next.


I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox*
and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

*"Icebox" is another word for refrigerator.

—William Carlos Williams

Interviewer, 1960s, frustrated after suggesting various characteristics required for a person to be a great writer, failing to get agreement, and trying one more time: "Isn't there any one essential ingredient that you can identify?"

Ernest Hemingway: "Yes, there is. In order to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector."

Alternative question for "This Is Just to Say": What is your assessment of the NAEP assignment?

Interviewer: How do you define quality teaching?

Deborah Meier: Teaching that engages — or reengages — kids and their curiosity about the world, gets them asking questions and subjecting their own and other people's ideas to tough testing, that calls upon the best habits of mind and imagination, that makes perseverance seem obvious and natural, that widens their horizons in terms of subject matter, people, and places."
—Deborah Meier, founder or a number of public elementary and secondary schools in New York and Boston for predominately low-income African-American and Latino students, author of many books and winner of a MacArthur Genius Award (

Tony Wagner has spent the last two years researching and writing a new book about the skills "our students need to get—and keep—a good job" as well as "what skills are needed for citizenship today" and whether these educational goals [are] in conflict." Wagner is the Co-Director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In an early interview with Clay Parker, president of the Chemical Management Division of BOC Edwards, Wagner was surprised by Parker's answer after being asked about the skills he looks for when he hires young people:

"'First and foremost, I look for someone who asks good questions. Our business is changing, and so the skills our engineers need change rapidly, as well. We can teach them the technical stuff. But for employees to solve problems or to learn new things, they have to know what questions to ask. And we can't teach them how to ask good questions—how to think. The ability to ask the right questions is the single most important skill."

Critical thinking and problem-solving topped Wagner's list of vital skills after interviews across the country with executives at such firms as Dell Computer, Siemens, and Cisco.

Of course, critical thinking and problem-solving, along with other good things Wagner's interviewees named, like "collaborative skills" and "effective oral and written communication," have a long history of entombment in curricula nationwide.

John Dewey discussed how to help students learn to use their minds and think critically in How We Think (1933): "Thinking is not a case of spontaneous combustion; it does not occur just on ‘general principles.' There is something that occasions and evokes it. General appeals to a child (or to a grown-up) to think, irrespective of the existence in his own experience of some difficulty that troubles him and disturbs his equilibrium, are as futile as advice to lift himself by his boot-straps...One can think reflectively only when one is willing to endure suspense and undergo the trouble of searching."

"Thinking is inquiry, investigation, turning over, probing or delving into, so as to find something new or to see what is already known in a different light. In short, it is questioning...

"The art of conducting a recitation is, then, very largely the art of questioning pupils so as to direct their own inquiries and so as to form in them the independent habit of inquiry in both of its directions; namely inquiry in observation and recollection for the subject matter that is pertinent and inquiry through reasoning into the meaning of the material that is present." (1933)

Foreign to schooling adherents would be Dewey's view that "never in the life of the farmer, sailor, merchant, physician or laboratory experimenter, does knowledge mean primarily a store of information aloof from doing" and Myles Horton's view that "Education is what happens to the other person, not what comes out of the mouth of the educator." (quoted in Ted Sizer's Horace's Compromise and Horton's The Long Haul, respectively)

But as Dewey wrote, "Let us admit the case of the conservative; if we once start thinking no one can guarantee where we shall come out, except that many objects, ends and institutions are doomed. Every thinker puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril and no one can predict what will emerge in its place." (Experience and Nature)

"Which is why school reform actually signals more of the same," writes Alfie Kohn, author and lecturer on education. "Almost never questioned, meanwhile, are the core elements of traditional schools, such as lectures, worksheets, quizzes, grades, homework, punitive discipline and competition. That would require real reform, which of course is off the table." ( 12/10/08



This essay was written by Alan Shapiro for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email Alan Shapiro at: