“Race to the Top”: A Bush Doctrine in Obama Clothing

In between the electoral shakeup in Massachusetts, the Supreme Court effectively putting elected offices up for auction, and the aftershocks in Haiti that were probably caused by Ted Kennedy spinning in his grave, the launching of President Obama’s “Race to the Top” program was barely a mote in the public eye. For the vast majority of people who don’t know what this is, RTTP is an innovative program designed to pursue those Holy Grails of modern education, high test scores and teacher accountability, by giving money to cash-strapped districts gutted by the recent recession. The method of deciding who gets the scant money—a total of $4 billion for the entire country, which is two-thirds of Chicago’s annual school budget, about a fifth of New York City’s, and about an eleventh of the federal Department of Education’s—is pure laissez-faire: The districts compete for the cash by sending in proposals saying just how they’ll get with the program. This is the same financial strategy that made cultural highlights such as “Bumfights” possible: The desperate promising anything for crusts of bread.

Though the Democrats have been trying mightily to differentiate their brand from the 2001–2009 Bush era, “Race to the Top,” like, the Supreme Court decision and the War on Terror, is another example of how Bush’s legacy is being felt well beyond his administration. Its philosophy is nothing more than a continuation of “No Child Left Behind” initiative (better known by its acronym, which is pronounced “nickelbee”). In a nation where profit is the highest good, education has become run like a business. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it—and so the intangibles of education have been reduced to what can be tested. If a child’s ability to read can’t be measured, then they might as well be illiterate—never mind what they’re reading, or if it expands their mind or helps them to see their world in a new way. Accordingly, teachers are forced to “teach to the test,” making kids into bubble-filling machines rather than thinkers.

This is enforced by the same patently ridiculous bureaucratic logic as, say, making all children into equally good basketball players by lopping off the feet of the tallest: A child in an underprivileged urban school district is expected score at the same level as those in the richer suburbs, and heaven help the teacher who can’t bring up test scores. Failing districts can lose funding, making a hard job even more impossible; they may be required to spend more money that they don’t have on remedial programs; and schools can even be taken over and teachers can even be fired. Nothing in NCLB, however, compels parents to put down the Doritos and make sure their kid does their math homework. Meanwhile, talented teachers, realizing that they’ll be penalized for attempting to teach underperforming children, stay far away from the districts where they’re most needed.

Furthermore, for all of the Bush administration’s “small government” rhetoric, this was all shoved down states’ throats via the quid pro quo of Federal money. In 2001, the government spent a bit over $42 billion on education. By the end of 2007, it was over $54 billion. NCLB spending increased as well, from $17.4 billion to $24.4 billion. All of this cash, however, was only given to the states contingent on implementing Federal standards. The same people who voted Republican because they feared “big government” are, ironically, also voting for increased Federal control over what their kids get taught in school.

Worst of all, high-stakes testing is actually damaging to real education. For students on both ends of the bell curve, it’s disastrous: Those who don’t test well are sacrificed for the good of the rest by being stuck in special-education classes, while bright students, rather than being challenged, are taught to pass the same mediocre test as everyone else. Social studies, phys ed, science, and literature fall by the wayside, since only math and “language arts” are tested. It’s de facto nativist, as well: Those who have recently emigrated to the United States are given a mere three years to learn enough English to take the test.

The NCLB philosophy is even worse for teachers, who are expected to pull up test scores without looking why they’re are so low, such as teenage pregnancy, a lack of childcare, and parents who don’t give a damn about their children’s education. This gives not just an incentive for teachers to rig the test, but basically mandates that they cheat so that they can keep their jobs—the latest example being the Robert M. Hughes charter school in Springfield, MA, which was faced with the choice of increasing its inner-city students’ test scores or being closed.

It’s a given that the future economy, though there probably still won’t be any flying cars, will require more and more educated workers to increase the wealth of the richest one percent. The rhetoric of both the right and the left points to this. To accomplish these ends, both liberal and conservative administrators have put their faith in the same sort of mismanagement: Outcome-based results, standardized tests, increasing Federal control, and the loss of autonomy for teachers. The ones who lose, in the end, are the students and our democracy.

Ken Mondschein received his Ph.D from Fordham University, and has also studied at Boston University, SUNY Buffalo, and Harvard. Besides his academic work, he has written for Nerve, the New York Press, ...read more


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