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!