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Editorials: Race to the Top of the bottom: a Failure of Insight

Linda Elder
President and Fellow, Foundation for Critical Thinking
August 31, 2010
The Race to the Top Winners are in. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced them on Tuesday; they are of course looking forward to their money.  Given today’s economy, what school districts wouldn’t?  Some are upset because most of the winners are from the urban east coast.  Of course the rural schools want their share of the pie.  But considering that more than $3 billion is funding these awards, it is helpful to know what is in fact being funded, and more importantly whether it will lead to any true reforms of the nature we need.  At the 2009 Governors Education Symposium, Secretary Duncan said higher standards need to be developed and adopted in education. He said students need to be held to these news standards and teachers need to be held accountable if their students don’t achieve them.  Other initiatives being funded with these Race to the Top billions of dollars include terminating “ineffective” principals, “turning around” lowest achieving schools, improving student data-tracking systems and increasing the number of charter schools.  At the same time, Obama has several times said that schools need to focus more on critical thinking.  Yet I wonder how the Race to the Top winners plan to rethink schooling so that they begin to value critical thinking and take it seriously.  I wonder what plans are in place to begin teaching subjects as modes of thinking rather than bits and pieces of this and that.  I wonder when schools will design standards that lead to depth of understanding rather than the teaching of disconnected information.  I wonder how teachers will begin to learn the critical thinking skills they themselves need if they are to foster critical thinking in the minds of their students.  I wonder how they will equip students with the intellectual skills to think through the problems they will and do experience.  I wonder how teachers will begin to place thinking at the front and center of instruction (which is, by the way, the only way we will work our way out of the problems we face).  After President Obama announced his intention to support critical thinking last year I sent him a letter of congratulations and said I was looking forward to learning how he planned to do this.  When I sent a letter to the Secretary of Education, I received a nice letter back stating that though critical thinking was important, the job of the department of education was not to establish education policy but to make sure the No Child Left Behind project was effectively carried out.  At least three presidents in the last few decades have called for critical thinking in schooling.  Yet we are as far away as ever from realizing critical thinking in instruction at any level.  Though I am attracted to the concept of charter schools and my own children have attended them, I see no evidence to suggest that they are fostering intellectual development any more than other schools.  Though I think ineffective teachers and principals should be doing something other than teach and leading, how do we define ineffective?  What if the system discourages the advancement of critical thinking?  What if teachers and principals who support the emancipation of the mind are seen as a threat?  Would they be considered ineffective? Should they be fired?  And how are we to “raise” the standards?  Raise them to what?  How can we cut through the mountain of “standards’ and begin to foster deep understanding and internalization of intellectual standards such as clarity, accuracy, relevance, logic, precision, significance andreasonability in thought (or in other words, critical thinking standards)?  How can we design instruction so that students become skilled at analyzing thought, able to identify and clarify their purposes in thinking, the key questions at the heart of issues, the information they need to solve problems, the concepts guiding their thinking, the beliefs they are taking for granted (or their assumptions), the point of view within with they are thinking, the implications of the reasoning, and the conclusions they are coming to?  How can we design instruction so that students develop intellectual traits of mind like intellectual humility, intellectual empathy, fair-mindedness, intellectual integrity andconfidence in reason?  If we are ever to create fair-minded critical societies, critical thinking skills, abilities and traits must be the heart and soul of education.  I don’t see that the Race to the Top initiative will do anything like lead us in this direction.
Dr. Linda Elder is an educational psychologist and a prominent authority on critical thinking. She is President of the Foundation for Critical Thinking and Executive Director of the Center for Critical Thinking. Dr. Elder has taught psychology and critical thinking at the college level and has given presentations to more than 20,000 educators at all levels. She has co-authored four books and twenty thinker’s guides on critical thinking.