Robert A. Teegarden's Blog

April 7, 2010

The Race to the Top — The New America’s Cup

Filed under: Education — by Robert @ 7:21 pm
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There are a lot of similarities between sailing and schooling. 

  • The shadow of the captain/administrator falls on the entire boat/institution. 
  • “You can’t run from the wind. You trim your sails, face the music, and keep going.”
  • Boats weren’t designed to stay in port and bob at anchor; schools weren’t designed for the adults who work there. 
  • If you have a surplus of something on board, you surely have a serious shortage of something else.  
  • A successful voyage is to sail from point A to point B; a successful education is the seamless matriculation to the next level of challenge—and is measurable by standardized testing. 
  • Sailors know that they must make minute and constant adjustments to their sails; good teachers know that instantaneous adjustments occur every moment of every day—despite the lesson plan. 
  • All boats in the water rise and fall with tides.

One of the great sailing contests of all time has become known as the America’s Cup.  One of the great “races” in American schooling has been called The Race to The Top.

The America’s Cup started in 1851, when it was known as the Royal Yacht and Squadron Cup, predominantly a race among and between (wealthy) yacht owners. The new name stuck when the schooner America won in 1957.  The America’s Cup reached its high water mark between 1930-37; this was when the famous J-Class schooners dominated the field.  The America’s Cup between 1930 and 1937 was a race between sailors.  All entrants had the same deck under their feet—success was a measure of what they did with it—the mark of a true sailor. Some won, some lost. 

The Race to the Top is a federal government, 2010 carrot and stick, $4.35 billion competition among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. This is a race among educrats. The “awards” are given to those judged to champion the most “robust changes in their educational practices; 40 states and the District of Columbia applied in the first round (of races).  Two states “won.”  This “race” is managed by the US Department of Education (USDOE).

The USDOE had its origins in 1867.  Its stated purpose was to provide data collection and research to provide school districts and schools on best practices throughout the US.  It moved on to provide resources to land grant colleges in 1890 and focus on the serious need for Vocational Education in America’s schools. The USDOE reached its zenith just before WWII.  Since then and like the folks at the America’s Cup, it has developed “races” for designers, fund-raisers and managers.

In 1941 the USDOE oversaw the distribution of Impact Aid; this was assistance to local schools to compensate them for the influx of children into their districts because of the presence of military bases.  The department’s oversight and involvement expanded in the 60s with the Civil Rights agenda of that era, culminating in the establishment of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the Johnson-era law that is known in its most recent iteration as the No Child Left Behind Act)—the largest heretofore distribution of money from Washington back to the states. .

Since WWII, the America’s cup has not so much been a race for top sailors but a race for yacht designers, fund-raising acumen and management skills.  American education followed in that wake.  Trophies are given not so much for your sailing ability, but your ability to out-design, out-market and out-manage your opponent.  What once had been a noble tradition to test the skills, wisdom and luck of the sailor deteriorated into a contest of technologies.  They lost sight of why they sailed ships and what the true nature of the sailor is/was.

Finally, in 1980, the Carter administration established a cabinet post for the USDOE in the person of its Secretary of Education.  No longer content to be a lighthouse for schools and educators, the USDOE emerged as the chandler[i] for almost all schools in the US.  Not content with providing sound navigational aids by which to chart a course for schools, the USDOE now wants to design the institutions, define the rules of engagement and determine who gets to sail these ships of state. 

American education sailed into the rocky shoals of politics and favors.  The answer to the question “Why?” is ever so simple.  Religion and education have the two institutions closest to the home.  Since the First Amendment excludes the government from interfering there, they chose the next best thing—the coerced and captured audience known as K-to-12th grade students.  Politics is now being brought home in the backpacks of America’s kids through programs like The Race to the Top.  Is there a (federal) Constitutional mandate for this involvement?  No!  Is there a Constitutional provision for these “services?”  No!  What’s the wind that fills these sails? Politics.  

In the Race to the Top, one must ask “Who really benefits from these awards?” “All local unions in Delaware backed the state’s bid, while 93% lent their support in Tennessee”—the two top vote-getters in round one. “By comparison, Florida—which is otherwise engaged in one of the country’s most sweeping school overhauls—had the backing of only 8% of its unions.” Florida didn’t place.  But nowhere in this contest is there the mention of students or parents or families.  How were they engaged in the process? 

Remember: If you have a surplus of something on board, you surely have a serious shortage of something else.

Schooling in America used to be about kids, about their success, about their future. American government schooling is more about designer programs, vaulted promises and behind the scenes trading.  Except for the political platitudes spouted around election time, the schooling of kids is incidental to the efforts.

Florida is a fine example of what can be done when the purposes are clear, when the captain gives clear directions, when those who signed-on stay on board through the winds, waves and fog.

We don’t need more designers, fund-raisers or management types on board, we need sailors. Maybe we’ve forgotten why these boats were built in the first place.   Where are the sailors?  Where are the students?


[i] Chandler – a supply organization that provides all materials and goods for sailing vessels.
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