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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 11/ 4/2009

Brady: The one reason Duncan's 'Race to the Top' will fail

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is Marion Brady, veteran teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author. He writes about Education Secretary's Arne Duncan's "Race to the Top" initiative, intended to be the successor to "No Child Left Behind."

By Marion Brady
When "Race to the Top" fails, as it will, the main reason won’t be any of those currently being advanced by the corporate interests and politicians now running the education show.

It won’t fail because of lack of academic rigor, poor teaching, weak administrators, too-short school year, union resistance, differing state standards, insufficient performance incentives, sorry teacher training, or lingering traces of the early-20th Century Progressive movement.

It will fail primarily for a reason not even being mentioned by leaders of today’s reform effort: A curriculum adopted in 1893 that grows more dysfunctional with each passing year. Imagine a car being driven down a winding rural road with all the passengers, including the driver, peering intently out the back window.

The familiar, traditional curriculum is so at odds with the natural desire to learn that laws, threats and other extrinsic motivators are necessary to keep kids in their seats and on task.

It has no built-in mechanisms forcing it to adapt to change. Ignoring solid research about their importance in intellectual development, it treats art, music, dance, and play as "frills."

It isolates educators in specialized fields, discouraging their interest in and professional dialog about the whole of which their specializations are parts. It fails to explore questions essential to ethical and moral development.

It neglects important fields of study, and has no system for determining the relative importance of those fields it doesn’t neglect.

Its failure to reflect the integrated nature of reality and the seamless way the brain perceives it makes it difficult to apply what’s being taught to real-world experience.
And that barely begins a list of the problems.

There’s no easy, quick fix, but one thing is certain.

Doing with greater diligence and determination what brought America’s schools to their present state will simply move forward the day when failure becomes obvious to all. There are, however, some things Congress and the administration could do.

First, they could stop basing education policy on the opinions of business leaders, syndicated columnists, mayors, lawyers, and assorted other education "experts" who haven’t passed the 10,000-hour test-10,000 hours of face-to-face dialog with real students in real classrooms, all the while thinking analytically about what they’re doing, and why.

"Experts" who see more rigor, more tests, more international comparisons, more "data-driven decision-making," more math and science, more school closings, more Washington-initiated, top-down reform policy as the primary cure for education’s ills, are amateurs. And policymakers who can’t see the perversity of simultaneously spending billions on innovation and billions on standardization should consider finding other work.

Second, Congress and the administration could accept the fact that, in formal schooling, the curriculum is where the rubber meets the road.

No matter school type-public, charter, private, parochial, magnet, virtual, home, whatever; no matter the level-elementary, secondary, college, or graduate school; no matter first-rate physical facilities, highly qualified faculty, enlightened administrators, sophisticated technology, generous funding, caring parents, supportive communities, disciplined, motivated students, no matter anything else affecting school performance, if the curriculum is lousy, the education will be lousy.

Third, Congress and the administration could stop for a moment, think, then acknowledge what they surely must know, that the key to humankind’s survival is, at it has always been, human variability.

Trying to standardize kids by forcing them all through the same minimum standards hoops isn’t just child abuse. It’s a sure-fire way to squeeze out what little life is left in America’s public schools after decades of appallingly simplistic, misguided, patchwork policy. Maximum performance, not the minimum standards measured by tests, should be the institution’s aim.

Anything less invites societal catastrophe.

If Congress and the administration are wise, they’ll use their levers of power not to tighten but to loosen the rigor screws and end the innovation-stifling role of Carnegie Units, course distribution requirements, mandated instructional programs, and other curriculum-standardizing measures.

They’ll do what enlightened school boards have always done and say to educators, "We want you to unleash creativity, ingenuity, resourcefulness, imagination, and enthusiasm, and send the young off with a lasting love of learning. Tell us what you need in order to make that happen, and we’ll do our best to provide the necessary support."

Even the suggestion of such a policy will appall many.

We say we’re big on freedom, democracy, individualism, autonomy, choice, and so on, but advocating aligning our schools with our political rhetoric invites being labeled as too radical to be taken seriously.

Such a policy, most are likely to believe, would trigger chaos, pandemonium, anarchy.

Not so. Two things would happen.

In most schools, institutional inertia, entrenched bureaucracy, and pressure from powerful corporate interests, would maintain the status quo.

In most schools, but not all. A few would point the way to a better-than-world-class education by demonstrating what experienced teachers have always known, that the traditional curriculum barely scratches the surface of kids’ intellectual potential.

You can reach Marion Brady at

By Valerie Strauss  | November 4, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan, Guest Bloggers, Race to the Top  | Tags:  Marion Brady, Race to the Top, curriculum  
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Next: Fixing music education, with Quincy Jones


Dr. Brady, you describe what doesn't work (although I would argue that the education my children recieved in the 80's and 90's was quite different from the one I recieved in the '50's and 60's, much less the one that prevailed in 1893). Can you be more specific about what you think would work?

Posted by: jane100000 | November 4, 2009 12:25 PM | Report abuse

I think the author is making a good point. The solutions are simplistic. The standardized tests are not bad,but, prepping for them shouldn't be cutting into art, music, P.E. and languages the way they are. The idea of teaching the students to love a subject is seen as an extra, or a distraction, when in fact it is crucial for lifelong learning. I think that there are some things that the business world can give to education, but running a school like it is a business, with students as products is a bizarre idea.
I also feel that while No Child Left Behind has brought a spotlight to some of the problems that lower-income schools have, it also punishes poor districts that are dealing with more than their share of society's problems. ( I don't mean the students are the problem, but underfunded, overcrowded classrooms are much harder to handle and to teach).

I also would like to see the policy-makers teach for a few years, at different levels and in different neighborhoods before making educational policy.

Posted by: celestun100 | November 4, 2009 6:04 PM | Report abuse

Celestun 100 "would like to see the policy-makers teach for a few years...before making educational policy." How about: No one serving on an educational commission or at a think tank that makes public recommendations about educational policy can issue any reform statements unless the bulk of said members consist of career, in the classroom, teachers?
Bill Younglove (38 years in the secondary trenches; closing in on 50 years of serving one or more educational institutions) :-)

Posted by: Wyoungl | November 5, 2009 11:07 AM | Report abuse

I too, believe the author is making a good point. But, the breakdown has not only occured within the education system, the problems originate in society and in the home. I feel that society, and as a result, parents, have dropped the ball. Not enough parents, for what ever reason,(and I could go on and on about this), do not hold their children responsible for what they do. Everyone tries to place the blame on someone else. Kids then follow what they have learned. This makes a teaher's job very, very difficult. Giving kids the chance to be creative within the classroom setting, can lead to pandamonium. I have been there, I know. Most children are not taught how to sit still and listen at home. How can teachers do that with 20 kids in a classroom. It seems that people do not value education. It is either thought of as a burden or as a right, not a privelage. I believe the biggest part of the issue lies in parents/guardians. I know we all have issues to deal with at home. BUt the future of our children is the future of the country. It goes way beyond the education system.

Posted by: tcook5248 | November 5, 2009 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Fantastic article! Perhaps if all 3 million plus teachers in this country emailed the link to Obama and Arne Duncan, they'd get the hint that they're barking up the wrong tree.

Posted by: MVanBuren | November 5, 2009 8:28 PM | Report abuse

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