The New York Times is running a piece in the Sunday magazine this week titled “The Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand” and I think it’s a must read for anyone wanting a compelling albeit starry-eyed look at the President’s education “reform” proposals. While the long version is worth the read, here’s the short version: More money and more tests will make better teachers and smarter kids. A small bunch of “reformists” armed with a boatload of money are in the process of buying off the media, unions, and parents to move schools toward greater “accountability” and “achievement” in ways that more resemble fixing the leaks in the hull instead of building a better boat. Chew on this for a second:

“It’s all about the talent,” Secretary Duncan told me. Thus, the highest number of points — 138 of the 500-point scale that Duncan and his staff created for the Race — would be awarded based on a commitment to eliminate what teachers’ union leaders consider the most important protections enjoyed by their members: seniority-based compensation and permanent job security. To win the contest, the states had to present new laws, contracts and data systems making teachers individually responsible for what their students achieve, and demonstrating, for example, that budget-forced teacher layoffs will be based on the quality of the teacher, not simply on seniority…To enable teacher evaluations, another 47 points would be allocated based on the quality of a state’s “data systems” for tracking student performance in all grades — which is a euphemism for the kind of full-bore testing regime that makes many parents and children cringe but that the reformers argue is necessary for any serious attempt to track not only student progress but also teacher effectiveness. [Emphasis mine.]

Now, I know that in many ways my evolving picture of learning in the 21st Century keeps moving toward the edges, away from schools as we know them, far away from the rhetoric being floated in this article. I know that there are times when I see a learning future for our kids that doesn’t necessarily involve “school” or college as we think of it, one that they design and take ownership of, one that connects them to other learners and teachers and ultimately, to success on their own terms. And then there are other times I think that’s just a total fantasy, that as much as I’d like to believe, as a growing number of folks suggest, that the world has changed in ways that frees learning from the shackles of outdated systems and creates all sorts of new paths for our kids, they’d be better off just playing the game as we know it, going to the good college, getting the degree, and finding success as it’s always been defined.

And I think that’s the part that has been bothering me most about the turn in the larger education conversation, that retrenchment of the typical path to “success.” We’re not changing our definition of “the top” at all. It’s just more of the same, as if the world is the same as it was 10 or 20 or 50 years ago. Which is why, I think, Race to the Top needs another  “T” word in there, as in “Race to the Traditional Top.” My problem is, I don’t think I want my kids to win that race anymore.

I think that redefinition of “the top” is what we here in the small lunatic fringe are trying to create. It’s not about knowledge as much as it is about learning, about a passion for learning, and about a self-motivation that “traditional” schooling drives out of kids. In a nutshell, it’s a pretty different picture of what schools and teachers should be doing, and a totally different view on what and how to assess it. The learning world that many of us are now living in, at least, just isn’t the same as it ever was.

Two quotes. First, the last sentence of the Times article:

“That President Obama did this is a total game changer,” says Pastorek, the Louisiana schools superintendent, who is a Republican working for a Republican governor, Bobby Jindal. “If he really sticks to this, education will never be the same.”

And the last sentences from Diane Ravitch in her latest post, “Schools 4 $Sale: Inquire at U.S. DOE” over at Bridging Differences:

We have a public school system that needs improvement. Nothing coming from Race to the Top will help. It may even do untold harm to the system on which our nation has relied for more than 150 years.

Problem is, as directly opposite as both of these views are, neither one is talking about anything really different. That “build a new, better boat” conversation is yet to begin.