Fundamentals Left Behind in Race to Top

Tennessee was one of the “winners” of the competitive Race to the Top initiative, in which states competed for billions in federal funds by promising to implement specific reforms. These reforms included more assessments, new accountability systems linking teacher evaluation to student standardized test scores, and an expansion of charter schools. Race to the Top is No Child Left Behind 2.0. It’s NCLB on steroids. It’s the same terrible policies, only supersized and superfunded. Earlier this month Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Tennessee and praised the state for “literally helping lead the nation where we need to go in education.” I am married to a high school English teacher who works in Tennessee’s 3rd largest public school system and she shares with me every day the demoralizing developments wrought by Race to the Top reforms. I have seen the results myself working as a substitute teacher this past year, and gained insight into the direction it’s taking schools from interviews I’ve had. If Tennessee is leading the nation in education reform, American citizens should be VERY, VERY AFRAID.


I recently interviewed at my wife’s high school for a school librarian opening. I cannot recall an interview that ever left me so depressed. Of the three people who sat in on the interview (a principal and two assistant principals), not one of them ever brought up the subject of reading or books. They talked about assessments, data, and computer technology. Much of the library’s nonfiction shelving was sacrificed to make room for computer labs. The books occupying those shelves were culled and, of course, not replaced. The principal did, at one point without a hint of irony, mention that the school’s “literacy numbers” were not where he wanted them to be but he apparently saw no connection between that issue and the role of the library or the librarian. As I sat there trying my best to feign enthusiasm for and interest in their talk of assessments and data, I felt like Burgess Meredith in the Twilight Zone episode “The Obsolete Man.” This is the only interview I can ever remember having that left me feeling physically ill afterward.

Later in the week I went to a job fair for the same school district. I spoke with the assistant principal of another high school. The school is cutting its two full time librarian positions to one so it can hire a “graduation coach,” whatever that is. My wife’s high school has one of those, too, and a single librarian. There is no full-time secretary or assistant for the library, so one person will serve the 1,300 student population single-handedly. I was told the school doesn’t want the new librarian to do things like “work with books and research.” He or she will work with students on doing assessments on computers in addition to “library stuff.” It sounded to me like the school was really looking for an assistant to the new “graduation coach.” I once again thought of Burgess Meredith. I realized that I had apparently gone the way of the dinosaurs.

I did not bother to apply for that position and I soon found out that I was not selected for the one at my wife’s high school. They went instead with a young lady soon to graduate from library school who had worked as an intern at the library. They can pay her a lot less money and maybe she’s more enthusiastic about computers and data than I am. She has my sympathies.

What these experiences left me with was further depressing confirmation that the “reforms” of NCLB and Race to the Top are a complete and utter failure. Assessing children to death and teaching to the test so they score high on those assessments does not educate them. Data mining will not help them become literate, knowledgeable, thoughtful, productive members of society. The race to the top is leaving the fundamentals of education behind.


AVAILABLE: Librarian with sixteen years of experience serving children and teens in public and school libraries. Extensive experience teaching people of all ages research skills and how to use a wide range of information technologies. A record of success generating enthusiasm for reading and instilling in young people an intellectual curiosity and lifelong love of learning. Author of books, dozens of articles, and hundreds of book reviews. A voracious reader and nationally recognized expert on children’s and young adult literature.

Published in: on April 29, 2013 at 11:00 am  Leave a Comment