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The Critical Question Concerning America’s Race to the Top

Updated on July 21, 2016

Many scholars and politicians have identified the inherent flaws in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law enacted by the former Bush administration. Since coming into office, President Obama has followed through with his intended goal of revision to the federal education law. In its place, President Obama initiated his own Race to the Top and allocated a great deal of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to support the reform and preservation of education. While these moves are applaudable, the current emphasis on global competitiveness in the 21sts century needs concurrent research so the nation does not spend the next two to six years making as equally damaging an attempt as NCLB was toward true educational reform. Here’s my concern: The best theoretical ideas often fail to recognize the human factor and its impact.

The Human Factor

Socialism, in its theoretical form of communism, and from its originators, Karl Marx and Frederick Engles (1848), sought to eradicate class struggles. They provided extensive historical background for their ideas in an attempt to show the lower classes from around the world that there have always been a few powerful elite in charge. They urged the lower classes at the time to unite and put an end to the centuries old abuse of the laboring masses. In theory, this really was an admirable ideal. Once put into practice, however, the human factor takes over, and again, a powerful elite emerges—only this time, the powerful elite is five times as powerful because most of the means for keeping leadership in check have been abolished.

A more recent example—I taught in a Title I charter school for two years. The target population for the school was among the poorest, most at-risk youth of the city. The founder and Head of School was inspirational. When I was first hired, I didn’t bother to negotiate a starting salary. After talking with the Head of School, I almost said, “You don’t have to pay me—just please let me work here.” I was that on board. He had a vision, and the vision was infectious. I literally walked out of every faculty meeting having shed at least one tear. Nine years after its inauguration, the Colorado Department of Education had to solicit an independent finance and organization review of the school. The firm released its findings stating, “The leaders of [the school] squandered taxpayer money, ignored basic legal requirements, over-compensated senior staff, engaged in nepotism and failed to provide accountability over the resources entrusted to them. The results demand swift action.” I, like many who believed wholeheartedly in the mission of the school, was dumbfounded and heart-broken. The founder was paying himself and his wife close to a quarter of a million dollars a year—and teachers, myself included, were making less than 30,000.

Essential Question

I have been arguing this topic ad nauseum lately, and what I think it comes down to is this: If we believe the introduction of incentive rewards creates an atmosphere of healthy competition and all parties benefit as a result (because all will improve in order to reach the carrot placed before them regardless of winning), then yes, Race to the Top has clear benefits. If, however, we believe that all competition results in a division of winners and losers, we then have to ask ourselves if public education is an arena where we can afford for any to lose.

Case in Point

After the 2010 Race to the Top winners were announced, losing states did not come out and give elaborate speeches about how the reform process efforts that went into the competition made them better. Instead, losing state leaders, such as Colorado’s then Governor Bill Ritter, accused the judging process as having been biased. As a result of the process, losing states of last year’s competition began debating over whether to opt out of future bids for competitive federal funds (Dillon, 2010).

Even Healthy Competition Draws Its Dose of Poison

My husband (a soccer coach and avid player) would claim I am against all competition. While it is probably true I am among the least competitive people of those we know, I do see valuable lessons in challenge, triumph, and loss. I’ve attended countless soccer matches over the years, and I am a fan in general to perseverance that results in a sense of achievement. I’ve watched players fail and dig in harder the next time. I’ve watch players tame their individual over-excessive tendencies to better support their teams. I would never advocate the banning of all competitive activities. What I am most concerned about is that even in the best possible scenarios of healthy competition, parents or aggressive fans are often booted from the stands. Fights break out between players and coaches alike. There is no doubt that competitiveness has a dark side too—the human factor. And often, the darkness can be used as a future challenge. Players, coaches, and fans can push themselves to overcome these occasional outcomes.

Knowing this about the inherent nature of competition, however, I caution us as an American society to ask ourselves if there aren’t some sacred grounds in which the introduction of competition ought not be introduced. Our long-standing capitalistic ideals prevent us from seeing the negatives in competition. It is deeply engrained within us to believe that the best man or woman for the job should get the job; that the hardest working teachers and administrators are more deserving than poor performing ones; that if we just identify the right amount of incentive, all schools will be motivated to improve in hopes of the reward.

But what does it do to those in the race? What lengths might some go to in an attempt to outscore their opponents? And sadly, won’t some losers feel defeated in a way that prevents them from seeing the positive progression they’ve made during the act of competing? Who really stands to lose? Our kids. I say again, our kids. America’s youth. That’s a gamble I’m not fully convinced is worth taking.


Dillon, S. (2010). “States skeptical about ‘Race to the Top’ school aid contest.” New York

Times. Education. 4 April 2010. Web. Retrieved from

on 31March 2011.

Brief Bio:

Jenn Gutiérrez holds an M.F.A in English and Writing. Previous work has appeared in journals such as The Texas Review, The Writer’s Journal, The Acentos Review, Antique Children, and Verdad Magazine. Her 2005 debut collection of poems titled Weightless is available through most online book outlets.She is currently working on a doctoral degree in Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Denver.


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      loren 6 years ago

      You have made it! I like your thinking. I admire your understanding of how education should work. Run for president.