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Herb Kohl: We've Won! Race to the Top Finally Succeeds

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My friend Herb Kohl offers us the following report, the result of his recent travel forward in time.

For Jonathan Swift
by Herbert Kohl


Article reproduced from the online blog, Education Now and Forever, July 14, 2030

It is 2030 and education in the United States of America has finally succeeded.
The performance gap between white, Asian, African American, and Latino students has finally been eliminated. All students are proficient in reading and math and the US is at the top of the school world on standardized tests. There are no failing schools anymore and the nation's public and charter schools are equally claiming credit for the amazing performances of their teachers and students.

So why is the current administration taking such a low-key approach to the news? Why isn't there joy spread all around instead of the growing discontent and disorder that is developing throughout the nation?

Consider the following recent events:
In California, the university system is in disarray. Every school has more applicants than openings, all equally qualified. There have been emergency meetings on how to create new criteria and standards for admission. This has been accompanied by an uproar amongst anti-immigrant and conservative groups, primarily in the southern part of the state. One hears complaints on the streets and in the boardrooms that "they are taking over our universities, depriving our children of graduate school places and jobs that are rightfully ours, and holding our communities hostage to their qualifications." Race riots have taken place in Anaheim, Los Angeles, and San Diego as demonstrations against quality education for all broke into confrontations between blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians. A movement to go back to the good old days when schools produced a difference in their graduates and places were reserved for the truly deserving is developing. There are initiatives to defund successful schools, claiming, "If they're so smart, they don't need money for public schools." "Success breeds failure" is the mantra of many of these groups.

Throughout the country there have been efforts to repeal anti-discrimination laws. Some states have succeeded in doing this but the Federal law is the most frustrating impediment to the anti-tolerance movement.

Corporations are also facing problems. Who to hire when there are so many qualified applicants? Why can't other criteria, like family connections, experience, social manners, acceptability, and cultural conformity trump academic qualifications?

The president and Congress are as yet silent on these issues, but acknowledge that educational success has created more problems than it solved.

An over-qualified populace is beginning to fan discontent in the most likely and unlikely places. In small towns and rural communities as well as middle class enclaves and ghettos there are literate young people who seem to be taking things into their own hands. Demonstrations and protests about jobs and opportunities are only a small part of it. People read on line and communicate through the Internet. A common language, drawn from required common readings of books that led to academic literacy, such as To Kill a Mocking Bird, The Catcher in the Rye, speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Shakespeare (a smattering of Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth) has developed amongst the qualified unemployed young. Metaphor and allusions drawn from their reading embody the ideas and values in these books, an unintended educational consequence of uniform curriculum. Reading between the lines, the rhetoric of the young qualified unemployed is somewhat revolutionary, implying, as it does that the whole economic and social organization of the society is inadequate to deal with the qualified multitudes.

These people counter the anti-tolerance forces with visions of redistributive economic policies, convivial diverse communities, and mutual aid and assistance. The philosophy of this birthing movement can be found in its music, graphics, and poetry.

Frederick Douglass' comments on how, once freed and literate, people cannot return to their old conditions of servitude, applies to the movement of the qualified, who advocate extending equity into the economic sphere so every qualified individual, (which given the success of the Race to the Top, means everybody) is provided with the resources and opportunities to live a fruitful life.

There have been accusations that this is yet another communist plot, but this doesn't work for the young since they have all been taught that communism failed. They do not want to fail, but they simply cannot succeed they way things are.

So what to do? Think-tanks of a conservative bent have recently been holding seminars with titles like 'Rethinking Democracy,' 'Inequality as a Social Good,' and 'Requalifying People and Transforming Standards." More liberal Think-tanks have also addressed themselves to these problems with charettes with titles such as 'Vocational Learning as a Solution to the Problems of Equality,' 'Corporate Restructuring as a means of Increasing Employment,' and 'Developing Negotiating Strategies for the Resolution of Qualification Problems.'

This is quite a problem to leave for future generations. Should there be some programs for voluntary dequalification? Is there a way to develop anti-literacy campaigns? Can propaganda be created to convince young people to fail in school and live free lives on the streets?

Is there anything we can do other than give up our current ideas about economics, reframe democracy so that people can be truly included, and cease trying to fix a broken system with foolish education promises whose very success is doomed to bring the society to a halt?

What do you think? Is this where the Race to the Top is taking us?

Herb Kohl is the author of numerous books and articles on education, and has been a leader in the progressive education movement for more than forty years. He lives in Point Arena, California.

1 Comment

Oh thank you, thank you for reprinting this blog--a meditation on what would happen if the critical theorists went beyond identifying social reproduction and started thinking about what would happen if the revolution really came. Calling Gordon Gekko...

Democracy is a powerful idea, isn't it? We're way past Horace Mann democratic equality in our state education goals, practice and policy in this country. In fact, mentioning equality or civic engagement in a faculty meeting draws blank looks. The rhetoric now is around job-readiness (and it's hard to argue with that). The subtext, however, is credentialing-- it's all about who's got the resources to get the requisite degrees from the "best" schools (whether they emerge "educated" or not). RTTT plays right into that.

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