Race to the Top: A Means, Not an End?

It depends on your perspective, I guess. We can treat Race to the Top as a mandate. We can make it our holy grail. We can bend dramatically under the weight of an agenda we don’t understand and break ourselves and the vision that we had of the teacher we would be–of the difference we would make—against this invisible wall. We can qualify the steps we take in pursuit of this vision with hot-headed criticisms about SED and how overwhelmed and under-prepared we feel. We can make uninformed claims. We can demand answers. We can wallow in our own self-righteous indignation, I guess. Or we can “get IT done” or “get SOMETHING done” or get so fed up that we throw our hands in the air and beg someone to make it all stop.

Twenty years ago this fall, I became a teacher. This was before standards or state assessments. I found myself quickly enamored of the kids that I got to learn from each day, and that’s still how I feel about the young people I meet and teach. They are wiser than I am. I learn more from them than I do from most adults that I know. Maybe it’s because experience hasn’t clouded their perspective and tightened their jaws yet, I don’t know. When I slow down and listen to them I’m better for it, though.

When I was in the classroom, my students showed me how powerful project-based learning was. They showed me what could happen if I let them read and write about things that mattered to them using processes and tools that worked for them. They let me think that I could help them, and I know that I did. I know that more often, they helped themselves though. And they weren’t afraid. That was the most important “skill” they modeled for me:¬† curiosity and creativity that knew no fear.

Those were incredible times.

A few years into my teaching career, New York State presented us with the first English Language Arts assessments in grades 4 and 8. I don’t ever recall being told that I needed to change my curricula in order to meet the demands of the test, and I certainly wasn’t expected to put kids through a whole lot of contrived practice in preparation for this event, but I did a little of that anyway. Why? Because I was afraid.

I was afraid that if I didn’t do this, they wouldn’t perform well. If they didn’t perform well, someone would think less of me. And if someone thought less of me, I might lose my job or worse: talk about me in the teacher’s lounge.

It never occurred to me that such a job, if it even existed, might be worth losing.

It didn’t matter that I had a clear vision of the difference I wanted to make for kids and how I wanted to make it. It didn’t matter that it was grounded in solid research, that I was invested in improving my practice over time, and that I knew my stuff. I was young, I was overwhelmed, and I wasn’t quite sure what it would take to help kids perform well on these assessments that seemed so much more important than my piddling efforts to help them read and write. In those days, I sacrificed best practices to popular practices recommended by my colleagues all too often. I was curious, and I was creative. My terror reached toxic levels, though.

Those were sad times, too.

Like many teachers, I eventually came to feel that I had to sacrifice my vision to the god that I made out of standards, assessments, and mandates. And when any of those things changed? I shook my fist at the sky and complained about the craziness of it all. The veteran teachers who were colleagues of mine smiled at my indignation.

“You need to calm down a little,” quite a few of them told me. “In time, you’ll realize that all things come to an end in education. Close your door and teach. This too shall pass.”

These words, intended to provide comfort to me, only deepened my frustration and my distrust of the system. Worse advice could not have been given, and I cringe today when I hear veteran teachers share similar perspectives with their colleagues–especially new teachers. These are people who long to be mentored by informed professionals who are passionate about their work and who know how to mine the gold from any set of circumstances, regardless of how temporary they might be.

I’ve been quiet here for a good long time for good reason. I’ve needed to spend less time talking and more time listening–to my own heart and to those who have true expertise in what it takes to successfully land a plane that can never be effectively built by a bunch of stressed- out pilots who are also attempting to fly it.

I’m not willing to shake my fist at the sky any more. I’m not interested in playing victim or enabling others to do the same. We can’t afford to lose a single talented teacher to the burn out that this kind of thinking produces. These indulgences hurt us. They hurt kids too.

Race to the Top can either be the mandate we sacrifice our vision to or a tool that we leverage in service to a far greater vision. I’m finding that where there is fear and angst, there tends to be tremendous lack of vision. We don’t need SED to define that for us. We don’t need anyone there to hand us a plan or show us the way, either. Is it really marching orders we’re after, anyway?

If we’ve signed up to be leaders within this field, hopefully we done it with confidence in our own abilities to seek understanding, strategically plan, collaborate with one another, and continually revise our thinking and our work. Hopefully, we recognize the importance of seeing opportunities in every challenge we face. Hopefully, we’ve developed the skills and the expertise to help others do the same.

Eleven years ago, I became a mom for the second time, and Nina spent the better portion of her babyhood screaming her pretty little head off.

“She’ll stop crying once she can roll over,” the doctor assured me.

“Maybe when she sits up,” my husband suggested a few months later, as she sat on the floor of our living room screaming at us some more.

Someone at work suggested that learning to walk would soothe our savage beast.

“Maybe she will be happier once she can talk,” I wondered aloud as she toddled across the floor in a blind rage over who knows what.

In time, the screaming stopped. Then, this incredibly funny, talented, and determined little person began to emerge. She’s spent most of her childhood showing all of us the upside of her fiery personality.

“This too shall pass,” I was promised, and these words rang true, in the end.

How much I would have missed out on had I spent all of those years simply waiting for time to pass.

There are many things to question as we begin the work of Race to the Top, and it’s important that we ask the questions that need to be asked and challenge what must be challenged. There are also many unknowns, and too often, we feel unsteady and afraid.

What kind of difference did you plan to make when you stepped into the classroom for the very first time, though? How can you make Race to the Top work in service to that vision? How can you treat it as a means to that  far greater end? How will you inspire others within your system to do the same?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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