The Problem of "Racing" To The Top

Learning is not a race. It is not a battle, it is not a war, it is not a pesky insect in your ear. Learning is something that all people do by nature of being human, and it is something to embrace. For some of my readers, this might be a bit pedantic, something that you almost blush to think about. But for others, all the talk about President Obama’s “Race to the Top” school reform agenda is confusing and belittling, and I want to explore why.

For more than 50 years the American public has been held captive to the branding of government social change efforts. Even before FDR’s “New Deal” program, which set about correcting the toil of the Great Depression, there were branding attempts by American presidents. In the 1960s Lyndon Johnson branded the “Great Society“, and with it a particular focus on succinct school funding programs, and importantly, a unified national school conversation, vis a vie the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or the ESEA. The branding effort was taken to a whole new level by President GW Bush, whose “No Child Left Behind“, or NCLB, labeling effectively recalibrated the ESSA into a wholly Bushian doctrine.

Now President Obama is riding on the coattails of Bush as he attempts to identify his political will with the more successful elements of NCLB, of which there were a few. Without boldly naming exactly what was ineffective about NCLB, and without honestly assessing the voting masses distaste for NCLB, the President is simply perpetuating the ills of his predecessor- although I’m positive his administration can justify why. The simplest form of their perpetuation is rhetoric, and with their branding of their first substantial school reform effort, “Race to the Top”, the administration is continuing down a bad path.

“Racing” is the last thing we want students to learn to do in school. Why is the administration pushing this with empty rhetoric? 

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Reconsidering the Summer of Service

The White House is announcing the 2009 Summer of Service in conjunction with the Corporation for National and Community Service within a week. The first summer of service happened in the 1960s in honor of the vision of President Kennedy, who sought to build a culture of service among American youth. There was a lull in interest from the original Summer of Service all the way into the 1990s, when the resurgence of interest in national service led to many half-baked attempts to replicate the original event. The most popular was probably President Clinton’s original event in 1994, launching AmeriCorps, the National Civilian Community Corps, and re-invigorating the Senior Corps and VISTA. Senator Edward Kennedy worked with the White House to re-envision this historic mechanism, the largest issue being the inherent unsustainability of single-event service promotion. That’s why the White House is emphasizing communities across the country using the Summer of Service as a launching plan to engage entire communities in sustainable service throughout the year.
While the emphasis is on community-wide engagement, I’m concerned that the reality is that youth will continue to provide the brunt of the labor force for this endeavor. It is good that youth serve their communities. The concept of service is vital for the health of democracy. The absence of education about how and why that is the case is disconcerting, but the main dilemma I identify in the Summer of Service is that reality about the disproportion between youth serving and adults serving: raising a generation that cares, that feels commitment towards the greater good of society has led to a kind of bottleneck situation in many of our communities. The burden of proof has been placed on the shoulders of the youngest among us to prove the value of service, and for the most part the whole of society has failed to see that.
Truly a community organizer, I believe President Obama should seriously consider and reconsider its strategy for engaging parents, families and the broader community in service. Youth participation is a given in the climate of national service today; let’s address the real gap in service among Americans today by focuing on engaging adults in service and building their ethic of service. By doing this the national service community can go further than its history and truly build a culture of service that supports lifelong service and community engagement.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Enabling Optimism Towards Youth

Michelle Obama is my hero of the week. For the last twenty years, including much of my teens and all my adult life, the general attitude of society towards young people has been one of fear and loathing: I grew up in the age of zero tolerance, anti-cruising laws, youth-being-tried-as-adults, and the generally crass demonization and stigmatization of young people. Based in ambivalence, malaise and intrasigence towards youth, adultism firmly footed itself throughout our national psyche, and all young people and all adults suffered for it.

In one fell swoop Michelle Obama has begun to unravel the comfort of adultists: as the First Lady, her bold declaration of the power of young people rallies forth a tremendous optimism and hope for children and youth today. Within the week the tide has begun turning: the New York Times is lauding youth for shunning consumerism; youth in Pittsburgh are curing cancer, and; Steve Culbertson of Youth Service America got bold and did his job. This new youth boosterism is even going global: in South Africa young people are being hailed as a powerful voting bloc that will change the country, and indigineous youth are saving the planet.
This isn’t to say that one editorial can change the world, no matter who writes it. Chuck Schumer is enshrining adultism in legislation by wanting to further limit the financial power of young people; ally to youth everywhere Peter Levine has revealed that youth volunteerism rates have dropped; youth are being portrayed as moochers on President Obama’s dole, and; African American youth in Los Angeles who get shot are still being portrayed as gang members without due cause.
Depending on how that article written. If Michelle Obama used deliberative wording that veered away from typecasting youth as the future – instead of the present – would be useful. Instead of framing the relationship between young people and adults in a top/down relationship Michelle could change the perspective towards one of equity between youth and adults. (Learn more about that concept from this pdf.) But for making meaningful gestures, the First Lady definitely wins my respect for the week.
(Oh, and what differs between Laura Bush’s preaching and Michelle Obama’s advocacy? Michelle put her energy where her mouth is and co-founded Public Allies a long time ago. She’s from within the ranks.)
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

The Devestating Impact of Recession on Young People

There are too many ways to slice this pie, so I want to be brief here. The U.S. Recession of 2007-2008-? has had and will continue to have devestating impacts on children and youth. Here’s an accounting of those ways:

And the list goes on. Barack has talked about promoting national service and building new schools, but those initiatives just aren’t enough. We need real commitment from our local, state and national leaders right now, and I’m simply not seeing it. 

Write in and tell me how you think this economic blackhole is going to affect young people.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

The Myth of George Bush

Part of the challenge of George W. Bush’s administration is the temptation to blame it for all the ways young people in America are screwed with today. Poor youth? Bush. Youth violence? Bush. Pregnant teens, dropouts, youth homelessness, teen job rates… Bush. However, as Henry Girioux points out in his most recent article, the devious undermining of the health of democracy, civil rights and the public good in the US has been going on over the past several administrations. And despite our desire for change, the reality is that Barack Obama will most likely make those problems worse, not better.

Read Giroux’s article, called “Disposable Youth in a Suspect Society: A Challenge for the Obama Administration,” for the details. We have a battle to keep fighting, and just because there is great hope and promises of change doesn’t make that fight any easier. Worse still, it might actually become harder.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Mike Males: Will Obama Betray Youth?

With the excitement of the election of Barack Obama last Tuesday its can be difficult to see through the dilemmas facing us. In reality there is a gap between our best wishes and the truth behind past rhetoric and reality. For the past few years I’ve had the privelage of serving on the National Youth Rights Association’s Advisory Board along with Mike Males. A sociologist, Males has written several books about society’s betrayal of youth, including the ways that media, teachers, and parents force their negative perceptions of young people onto society at large. His website is the most powerful tool many adult allies of youth don’t even know about.

Following is a post Mike shared with me, that I want to forward to you. Let’s carefully consider the analysis he presents, and prepare ourselves for the work ahead.

My analysis of 51 exit polls and each state’s vote show that the 25 million voters under age 30 elected Obama. Had only voters ages 18-29 been allowed to vote, Obama would have won with a landslide 66% of the popular vote and carried 41 states (including Kansas, Nebraska, Mississippi, Texas, and Kentucky) with 478 electoral votes if only 18-29 had been allowed to vote,, versus 57 for McCain (two states would have been tossups).

In contrast, had only voters over 30 been allowed to vote, the election would have been virtually tied. Obama would have barely won, if at all, carrying 23 states with 271 electoral votes. He would have lost Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, and Iowa and been deadlocked in Virginia and Ohio, probably throwing the election to the courts.

In many key states, Millennial support for Obama was staggering: 76% in California and New York; 74% in North Carolina; 71% in Illinois and New Mexico; 65% in Pennsylvania; 63% in Indiana; 61% in Florida, Ohio, Iowa, and Montana; 60% in Virginia; 59% in Missouri; 56% in Mississippi; 54% even in Texas. The 25 million Millennial voters’ thundering enthusiasm for Obama overruled their more ambivalent parents and grandparents, whose 45-and-older age group voted by slight margins for McCain.

How will Obama treat young people? It’s too early to tell, but initial indications are not encouraging. Obama’s candidate for the powerful job of chief of staff is Rahm Emmanuel (not yet accepted), the Illinois congressman and chair of the congressional campaign committee, known to many of you as a vehement opponent of youth rights, including cynical advocacy for curfews, zero-tolerance policies, and vilifications of youth as a political tactic to promote Democrats to conservative voters in the same fashion as the Clinton presidency (which he also served ) did.

To my knowledge, Obama’s advocacy for change has included virtually nothing on youth issues or social policies affecting youth (including lowering the voting ages) other than a broad platitudes on education equality and poverty along with a few fairly ignorant comments on crime, television viewing, and keeping the drinking age at 21. Clearly, an Obama presidency’s potential for progressive youth policies cannot be taken for granted.

We have to stay diligent on the road ahead, and not allow adultism and neoliberalism to be lost in the warm wishes we have for the next Administration.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Barack Obama and American Youth

This is the sixth of six posts today celebrating the election of Barack Obama as the next President of the United States. Congratulations to everyone out there who worked for Obama’s election and had a role in this vote for change. I’ll share my reflections at the end of this post.

Throughout the course of this election cycle the youth vote has been courted heavily. Now, “youth vote” is cliche and will become passe as young peoples’ emerging power as a voting bloc becomes more apparent; they, too, will be carved into subcultures and demographic groups and their age bracket will likely become irrelevant – just like in marketing and consumerism! In the meantime, I want to address the role youth have played in the election of Barack Obama.

Way back in January 2008 national media outlets were wrangling over the role of young people in this election. They angled over his “youth movement” and celebrated the various organizations pulling for the youth vote. Millions of youth were registered early, and when election day finally came they actually showed up – for some reason surprising the media – but not researchers like Peter Levine at CIRCLE. But not Barack. Nope, he wasn’t suprised.

In his election night speech Barack specifically acknowledged the young soldiers in Iraw and Afganistan, and young people who voted for the first time. He made a promise “every young American: If you commit to serving your community or our country, we will make sure you can afford a college education,” and he said we must “provide more ladders to success for young men who fall into lives of crime and despair.” Barack acknowledged there are a lot of students to teach in schools, and said he “will not settle for an America where some kids don’t have that chance.”

He also acknowledged his own daughters, Melia and Sasha, naming his pride in them.

I have done this analysis of Presidential acceptance speeches for three election cycles, and was never surpised that youth were never called out more than once or twice, even by Bill Clinton. Barack is naming his constituency, and I want to congratulate him for that. Barack does embody change I can believe in.

I am a Canadian citizen who has lived in the U.S. for the majority of his life; my green card lets me work and study here, and for that I’m grateful. It has been easy to be pleasantly detached from the electoral process, and if not totally turned off then mostly cynical. These last two years, and particularly this last six months, have been difficult to be either detached or cynical. After growing up with many African American heros in my own life and from history, and while spending much of my life wrestling with issues of race and white privelage, I walked cautiously into this election. That caution melted away today, and this is one way I’m celebrating. Another way will come in the morning when my daughter and I do a happy dance in honor of Barack’s election. Thanks for reading, and let’s keep this movement moving! Yes we can!

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Barack Wins the Under-18 Vote

Well, I’m no fan of mock voting, and as a matter of fact I stand firmly in opposition to it. However, I do appreciate that at the very least it raises the visibility of Youth Voice. It seems that the preliminary estimates from the National Mock Election, held last week across the United States, show Presidential candidate Barack Obama winning 46 states.

Mock elections, mock voting and mock parliaments are an apparatus of ignorance that forces young people to internalize their powerlessness in the political process of the United States. Mock elections grind into young peoples’ heads that their political voice is not worthy of full consideration until they are 18, at which point their minds will become suddenly capable of understanding politics and their votes will suddenly matter. Oh, and you’d better become politically active when you’re 18 for fear of being a pariah. (Ever wonder why the voting rates for 18-25 year-olds weren’t high after the national voting age was lowered in the 1972? Because youth were continuing to react to generations of systemic disenfranchisement. Young people are just beginning to emerge as significant political players, and as they begin to recognize their individual and collective power we are only going to see increased ephebiphobia throughout society.) A complicit component in these mock elections is the emphasis on the so-called “youth vote”, which generally when spoken of by the mainstream media refers to actual voting by 18 to 25 year olds. What does that tell young people under 18? That they aren’t youth and that they are still children. And since we, as a society, have infantalized children to the point of worthlessness to society, no one wants to be a kid.

All told, this situation makes the mock affairs nothing more than exercises in futility that frame children and youths’ opinions as not worthy of real consideration. Further complicating the scenario are the well-meaning adults who propagate these activities in schools and youth-serving organizations. We mean to engage young people, we mean to hear their opinions, we mean to validate them by at least acknowledging what they think. These adults aren’t bad people, and honestly I have been a promoter in the past. However, it ended for me the day a group of teens at a youth center scoffed at me when I suggested they participate. I asked them to tell me why, and they did, and now, well…

Now I see a different route to promoting civic engagement among young people. Rather than continue to perpetuate this egregious and immoral violation of citizenship and human rights, the United States should completely abolish the voting age. Germany has considered this as a serious legislative agenda, and we must follow this mode. Only then can we move from openly and unabashedly mocking Youth Voice to actually engaging, sustaining and integrating young people throughout society.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!