Is “Racing to the Top” Even Possible, Arne?

As a North Carolina teacher, I am cursed blessed to be a part of the federal government’s newest inevitable disaster experiment in educational policy: The widely touted Race to the Top initiative.

Having sold our souls to signed on to Bam and Arne’s signature program, North Carolina will be given about $100M in extra #educabbage per year for the next four years—a sum equal to .01% of our $7 BILLION education budget.

In return, we’ve agreed to implement a series of radical and rapid changes to the way that schools do business.

Now the one thing Bam and Arne haven’t screwed up have gotten right is that schools DO need to change.

But the metaphorical notion that we can “race to the top” of anything—especially something as sophisticated and complex as change in a system that serves tens of millions of children from diverse communities and with diverse abilities—is foolish.

Need proof?

Then take a closer look at the hundreds of people who climb Mount Everest each year. Working through THAT summiting challenge is HARDLY a race.


In fact, climbers—who fork over somewhere between $25 and $65 THOUSAND dollars just for the shot to make it to the top of the earth’s highest peak—often spend two and a half MONTHS on each summit attempt.

Their “race to the top” begins with a flight into Katmandu and then a two week hike just to get to Everest’s base camp.

Next up are a series of acclimatizing hikes back and forth through the Khumbu Icefall from Base Camp to Camp 1—a distance of just 2,000 feet.

Once climbers have adjusted to the demands of climbing at the lower altitudes between Base Camp and Camp 1, they begin a series of climbs to successively higher camps that are spaced about 1/3 of a mile—just over 1 lap of a high school track—apart.

Each day’s trek is increasingly demanding.

Temperatures fall, conditions worsen, oxygen levels drop, and climbing challenges increase. Hikers who struggle with the day’s climb often make additional acclimatizing hikes back and forth between higher camps in a recursive process of preparation.

The only bright spot for climbers is that there are almost as many porters—highly experienced support staffers, if you will—on the mountain as there are climbers.

These porters—who have often summited Everest DOZENS of times, making them the most experienced climbers on earth—do much of the “work” on the mountain.

They carry heavy gear—oxygen bottles, tents, food—from camp to camp, relieving the burden for paying clients.

More importantly, they fix guide ropes and safety ladders along well established routes to the top—taking all of the guess work out of the climb for those making summit attempts.

Little is expected of expedition members outside of finding the inner strength to move forward in the face of physical demands—an essential component of successful climbs considering how new the tasks are that climbers are being asked to tackle.

After reaching the highest camp on the mountain—located inside a region called “The Death Zone” because there is literally not enough oxygen in the air to support life—climbers wait impatiently for a weather window that will allow them a chance to make the final push to the summit safely.

For many climbers, unexpected storms end their expeditions before they can even begin their final climb. Prudence forces them back down the mountain only to try again during a different season.

Those few who Everest DOES invite to her summit face a grueling full day climb through seemingly impossible conditions. Their hands numb, their brains starve, and their bodies break down.

Some go only a few steps at a time. Others sit down looking to rest and never stand up again. And a handful get to the top successfully.

How many?

The statistics are somewhat shocking. From 1922-2006, there were 7,700 non-porter attempts to climb Mount Everest and 1,600 successful summits.

Stew in that for a minute, y’all.

Even after investing an average of almost $55,000 per person AND pairing almost every climber with an experienced guide who knows the route to the top and who is willing to do the heavy lifting, Everest adventures end in failure 80 PERCENT of the time.

So what lessons can we learn about “racing to the top” from attempts to climb Mount Everest?

Here’s three:

Those who succeed in the face of complex challenges are rarely racing.

The entire notion that we can SPEED our way to the top of world rankings in education is fundamentally flawed, y’all.

Complex endeavors require exploration and practice. They are often “two step forward, one step back” experiences where failed attempts result in lessons learned that leave explorers better prepared for their next steps.

When we build our entire #edreform and #edpolicy efforts on platforms that suggest that we can skip through the challenges that we will inevitably face, we set ourselves up for yet another devastating national failure.

Every time I hear Bam and Arne pimping their “Race to the Top” proposal, I cringe because the truth is our efforts to reimagine education are going to be a “Messy Slodge to the Top.”

The general public—a group that knows little about just how complicated change in education really is—needs to hold realistic expectations for school improvement.

Setting those realistic expectations starts with realistic catchphrases.

“Race to the Top” and “Leave No Child Behind” were doomed from the day they were cooked up by clever policy wonks who seem to know nothing about schools because they don’t reflect the reality of the challenge.

 

High rates of success in the face of complex challenges are dependent on time, training and experience.

One of my biggest worries about the changes being required of states under Bam and Arne’s #eduplatform is that we’re going to new places with almost no skilled and experienced guides.

That’s a recipe for failure, y’all.

Need proof?

In the early years of Everest attempts, 1 out of every 3 climbers died. Today, the death rate has dropped to 4 out of every 100.

The reasons chances of summiting today are dramatically better than they were decades ago are obvious: No one is climbing blind anymore.

Routes to the top are well mapped. Guides who have summited themselves time and again stand ready to lead. Pitfalls and danger zones have been identified—and successful solutions are well documented.

Do we have the same kind of knowledge and experience in place to help schools race to Bam and Arne’s summit?

#nope.

More importantly, are we willing to be patient while the knowledge and expertise necessary to race to Bam and Arne’s summit develops?

#probablynot

 

Success in the face of complex challenges DOES carry a price tag.

Here’s an uncomfortable truth, y’all: We will NEVER succeed in “racing to the top” or “leaving no child behind” if the slashing and burning of #edubudgets continues.

I laugh every time I hear a legislator suggest that schools just need to “find ways to do more with less.”

That’s equivalent to asking Mount Everest climbers to throw on a few flannel shirts, lace up their Wal-Mart hikers, and pack a box of Cheerios before trekking to the top of the world’s highest mountain without any help from porters or guides at all.

There is a reason that the companies who produce the best summit results on Everest are so successful: They charge $65K per person.

That cash buys the best guides, the best equipment, and the most experienced porters.

It provides access to opportunities—weather forecasts, emergency rescues, additional oxygen for every climber—that increase the likelihood that every client gets to the top of a mountain that turns away almost everyone.

Don’t let Bam and Arne fool you: Race to the Top funds—a ridiculously small drop in the #edubucket for most states—aren’t going to result in meaningful changes in schools by themselves.

And until we’re truly willing to invest in education—spending more on salaries to recruit the top minds to our classrooms, spending more on the equipment that we need to outfit classrooms and kids with cutting edge gear, spending more on forecasting tools to spot trends and practices that matter—only a small handful of our nation’s schools will ever successfully complete this “race to the top.”

The rest will die on the mountain.

 

Any of this make sense to you?

I guess what I’m trying to say is that our nation’s metaphors and catchphrases for #edreform are all wrong.

And while it may seem silly to spend a thousand words talking about catchphrases, I believe that every time we manufacture another simultaneously-witty-yet-impossible-to-achieve catchphrase, we also manufacture another opportunity to fall short in the eyes of the general public.

 

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Related Radical Reads:

What Can Policymakers Learn from Amazon Explorers

The Truth about Teacher Merit Pay Plans

Learning about Leadership from Sherpas on Everest

8 comments

  1. Stephen Lazar

    This is a great metaphor. I will add it to my toolbox of strategies to explain to non-educators and lazy thinkers just how complex what we do really is.

  2. Kaethe

    I’m with you. Accountability didn’t work out at all. I’d like to see a focus less on managing school systems and more on developing a national curriculum. (As an Air Force brat I grew up in a lot of different schools, and it was maddening the lessons that got repeated and the lessons I never got at all).
    From your position as porter trying to get kids up to the top of the mountain every year, what would be your top priorities for making your own school better? And what do you think could be done to make all US schools better?
    And finally, what would you like to see parents do to help you?

  3. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Doug,
    Thanks for stopping by—and I love your suggestions for ways that we can save money in education. I could get behind any of them really easily. Whats frightening is that weve gotten so consumed by the notion that we need to hold schools accountable that weve lost track of just how much money and time accountability efforts are really taking—-and what were forced to cut simply because cash is now being funneled to testing and sorting and ranking the hell out of everything tied to a building.
    Thats pushing my thinking this morning….
    Bill
    PS: I intentionally wrote Slodge. While Slog certainly works, too, I like to play with words that sound interesting even if theyre not widely accepted yet. I think they give my pieces an interesting voice. Slodge is an example of that—and it fits according to the Urban Dictionary!
    http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=slodge
    Not exactly the most literary source, but Im more interested in writing interesting pieces!

  4. Drdouggreen

    I like the “Messy Slog to the Top” (note correct spelling here.) We can do more with less. How about less (or no) standardized tests and what they cost in dollars and wasted time. How about less trying to make every student learn the same thing at the same pace? How about less (or no) grades? They could be replaced with a check list of content areas mastered and samples of a students best work in a published portfolio. The king has no clothes and this blog does a great job of showing this fact. Here is a link to six book summaries that support this sort of thinking. http://bit.ly/ogLq0n Keep up the good work. Douglas W. Green, EdD

  5. crazedmummy

    Oh I am so glad. I thought we the teachers were the porters. Having been drafted as a porter, with no climbing experience and a severe case of teacher-butt, I was pretty concerned that the slopes of Everest were going to be littered with the corpses of me and my students. And the worst part is, in the death zone, nobody can help, stopping to help someone else will only result in two deaths (even for sherpas).
    So I am grateful that in your analogy, some sherpas might be expected at some point, if only to clean up the bodies, so that they stop spoiling the view and we no longer have to be reminded of the awfulness. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/apr/19/mount-everest-death-zone-clean

  6. Bill Ivey

    I agree these catchphrases are worse than inane in setting up unrealistic expectations. I would further add that my goal would be a world where we all share the top rather than creating winners and losers of our children. And finally, I would add that research-based documens like “This We Believe” by AMLE and “Breaking Ranks” by the NASSP do provide us a guide as to how we might move forward.