Letter to Obama: Fix Race to the Top, Please

Dear President Obama,

On Election Day, as you were sprinting to the finish line of a tough campaign, many teachers throughout the country were gathered together for a day of professional development.

In New York City, where I work as an educational consultant, there are not many of these days on the calendar – two, to be exact -- and so they are highly prized as learning opportunities and also as opportunities for the Department of Education to convey important messages to schools. Principals set the agenda for the day based on directives from their supervisors, and that agenda speaks volumes about what is valued by a school system and where it expects priorities to be established.

And so it was with shock that I sat in an auditorium at a school in Queens and heard a principal talk to her staff for an hour and a half about points. Points needed, she said, so that the school could get a better score. She then laid out a few strategies that teachers could implement to increase the school’s points, most of which focused on improving the scores of specific populations who, apparently, are worth more points than others. I listened, waiting for other words – students perhaps, or study, learn, curriculum, maybe even teach. To no avail.

This is why I’m writing you. Such language is what Race to the Top has wrought. With its emphasis on competition and metrics, the program has brought the language of business into the world of education. That principal could have been in a boardroom talking about profit margins, firing her team up to make the most widgets and sell the most widgets.

Perhaps you think this is a good thing, that the way to improve the quality of education is to turn it into something quantifiable. But language matters; what something is called tells us how it is perceived. I know you know this and imagine that you’d agree with the author Chimamanda Adichie who writes, “Show a people as one thing — as only one thing — over and over again, and that is what they become.”

Well, under Race to the Top, students have become points.

But they are not points. They are individuals, each with a name and a face and a history, each with unique learning behaviors and motivations, each with good days and bad days. Educating individuals takes patience and understanding, risk-taking and revision, listening, study and collaboration. Education is a process; it is not, nor should it ever be, a product.

While I left that auditorium on Election Day feeling discouraged my optimism returned later that evening. I watched with pride as you stepped onto the stage with your family. And then your daughter, Sasha, did something amazing: she tugged on your sleeve. The cameras showed you lowering your head to try to listen. I wondered how you could hear above the din, but then I saw her pointing to the throng behind you. You responded by turning to face them, and waved. I’m sure you remember the roar of approval that greeted that move.

I bring up this moment because it’s an image in sharp contrast to the image that was haunting me from earlier in the day and one that I think should serve as a metaphor for the educational policies you create during your next term. So here are the two images: one, a person of authority standing in an auditorium talking about points; the other, a person of authority responding to a tug on his sleeve.

For those of us who work side by side with students on a daily basis, there is no choice, really. The heart and soul of education is about paying attention to the tugs on our sleeves. Learning starts with the students. Testing follows. Unfortunately, Race to the Top has inverted this model. The emphasis on testing has forced teachers and administrators to take their eyes off their students and focus instead on bubble sheets. As for learning? Well, that may or may not follow.

Back when I was a student I was taught that principals were considered the primary learners in schools. They were the ones who modeled learning, organized for learning, and communicated to every person passing through their doors that learning was valued and practiced every minute of every day in their buildings.

President Obama, you are the principal of this country. As such, you are its primary learner. On election night you showed us what that looked like. Surrounded by a crowd, you responded to the softest tug from the humblest voice.

We need you now to respond to all the other Sashas in this country. They are tugging on your sleeve. They are telling you that, yes, they need improvements in their education, but improvements that put learning before testing. Above all, they need to grow intellectually. They do not need to stand in line to be measured and then measured again and again.

Please, Mr. President, turn around and acknowledge the people sitting behind you. Show them what learning in a democracy can be. Dismantle Race to the Top and replace it with a policy that is free from corporate interests, that works with and not against teachers, and that puts the testing cart back where it belongs: behind the horse, not in front of it.