Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Straight up Nonsense: Or, How to Diss Students with Differences

by Joseph Valente & Kathleen M. Collins - September 20, 2010

In an August 11, 2010 Education Week op-ed column called “Straight Up,” Rick Hess rails against what he terms “edu-babble,” naming our recent Teachers College Record article “[Dis]ableing the Race to the Top,” as a prime example. In this response we respond to his critique by revisiting the ideas in our original work and expanding upon them with new data pertaining to the effects of the Race to the Top. In doing so we underscore how both RTT policy and Mr. Hess draw on similar strategies that serve to “diss” students with disabilities and privilege corporate interests.

1In an August 11, 2010 Education Week op-ed column called “Straight Up,”2 Rick Hess rails against what he terms “edu-babble,” naming our recent Teachers College Record article “[Dis]ableing the Race to the Top,”3 as a prime example. He explains that our commentary needs to be “called-out” as typical of the “self-indulgent nonsense” that “academics hide behind.” Our commentary illustrated how President Obama’s signature education law the Race to the Top is harmful to students with disabilities and even students without disabilities. Mr. Hess complains that our message to policymakers gets lost because we use language and arguments from the field of Disability Studies to make our points.  

We get it – professors would do well to use less industry jargon to make our points if we want to reach a more general audience like policymakers. If the charge against us is using specialized language in our commentary, we plead guilty. In our defense, our article was written for an academic research journal, Teachers College Record, rather than a popular magazine (á la Education Week).

Now, we ask, can we talk seriously about how the Race to the Top legislation will harm children with and without disabilities? First, the law does this by supporting ways of organizing school success and failure that are based on “ability normative” thinking.

What is “ability normative”? It means how we define who is and is not “able.” The Race to the Top does this with its singular reliance on high-stakes testing to judge and label who is considered “abled.” This positions children with gifts that are not easily measured or tested by a standardized test as “not able” – they become “disabled” and broken, the losers of the Race. Our original commentary outlined the idea of [dis]ableing to refer to identifying some children as “less than” some others.

Because the policy judges teachers and schools in the same way, those teachers who serve children with differences that don’t perform on these narrow-focused standardized tests become “disabled” and broken and losers of the Race too.   

President Obama has emphasized this point as if it were a positive, “Let me be clear: Success should be judged by results, and data is a powerful tool to determine results. We can't ignore facts. We can't ignore data. That's why any state that makes it unlawful to link student progress to teacher evaluations will have to change its ways if it wants to compete for a grant.”4

The Race to the Top harms children by applying a “for-profit business” model to teaching and learning. Consider, for example, the language used throughout the policy and the conversation surrounding the kickoff of this new education law. President Obama in a speech on July 29, 2009, introduces the Race, “[I]f our teachers do their part, if you do yours, if the American people do theirs, then we will not only strengthen our economy over the long run, and we will not only make America's entire education system the envy of the world, but we will launch a Race to the Top that will prepare every child, everywhere in America, for the challenges of the 21st century.”5  

One of the biggest points in our commentary that Hess missed was that when this “for-profit business” model is applied to education, students are reduced to workers and judged by how well they serve the interests of large corporations. Repeatedly, both Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan tell us that America’s future depends on preparing students for competition in the global workforce. In doing so, they start from the assumption that the purpose of school is to create workers of the future for the purpose of serving multinational corporations. In this newest version of reform, teachers are positioned not as educators whose goals are to nurture informed citizens of a democracy, but as trainers for the corporations that will eventually employ them. It’s understandable if folks buy into what Obama and Duncan are aiming for because who can argue with their stated purpose of schools as a place to shape students to become productive members of society? Trouble is, being a productive member of American society means participating meaningfully in a democracy.

The Race to the Top doesn’t just marginalize students and teachers. Schools and their communities become marginalized too. Schools where children don’t score highly on the standardized tests are treated as failing businesses and are forced to open “under new management”6 as charters. “Charters enroll 54% fewer English Language Learner (ELL) students, 43% fewer special education students, and 37% fewer free and reduced price lunch students than high-minority public school districts” (Civil Rights Framework, 2010, p. 10).7 This has the effect of segregating students along class, race, dis/ability, and lines of difference.

Finally, the Race to the Top harms students with disabilities by simply not serving them. Nowhere in the scoring rubric used to judge applications is there any evidence that reviewers examined the applications and materials for indications of how students with special needs would be supported.8 Meeting the needs of children with disabilities was simply not one of the criteria for deciding who gets Race to the Top money.  

Who is getting Race money? It is those who are already achieving on standardized tests and who were already winning the Race.

Take a look at the numbers on who receives the benefit of the Race to the Top funds, this from a joint report by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law, National Action Network, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., National Council for Educating Black Children, National Urban League, Rainbow PUSH Coalition, Schott Foundation for Public Education:9

1) 37 percent of the finalist states receive free and reduced lunch

2) 14 percent of the finalist states are Hispanic

3) 2.5 percent of the students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch nationwide receive monies from Race to the Top

4) 3 percent of Black students nationwide receive monies from Race to the Top

5) less than 1 percent of Latino, Native American, and Hmong students receive monies from Race to the Top

In short, the Race to the Top disproportionally benefits affluent or well-to-do, white, and “abled” students.  

Is this a race to the top or a race rigged for the top?

The fundamental question raised by debates around the Race to the Top concerns the purpose of school  – is the primary goal to prepare students to compete? To be workers, cogs in the wheel of the global economy? To make sure that the distribution of material resources for education continues to privilege affluent, white, English-speaking children whose cognitive, physical, and psychological profiles fit the “norm?” If so, then the Race to the Top seems a reasonable means to an end.    

Or, is our wish for education in this country to develop the talents of individuals in a way that contributes not only to their own growth and development but to the betterment of social democracy?  

Hess doesn’t talk straight up about our commentary’s main point of [dis]ableing or even his own views. Rather than seriously address these issues and questions, Hess’ response mocks and belittles concerns expressed by those on the front lines – teachers, teacher educators, parents, and community stakeholders. Hess effectively “disses” students with disabilities and differences in much the same way as the Race to the Top does – both forge stubbornly ahead with much fanfare but without seriously considering the consequences of these actions for those who fall outside of the assumed norm. In refusing to respond to the concerns about inequities that our commentary brings forward, Hess manages to: 1) distract readers away from the real issues of inequity that impact students with differences; 2) dismiss concerns expressed by folks working with students with disabilities like teachers and parents; 3) disqualify certain students (e.g. disabled, minority, gifted, and talented) from maximizing their learning opportunities; and 4) disrespect students with physical and cognitive disabilities.

So, we agree with Mr. Hess, there is a need for straight up talk to influence opinion on public policy. And, we would add, it’s straight up nonsense to diss students with differences.


1. Authors’ names are in reverse alphabetical order; authors contributed equally to this manuscript.

2. http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/rick_hess_straight_up/2010/08/disableing_the_race_to_the_to


3. http://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentId=16020

4. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-at-the-Department-of-Education/

5. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-at-the-Department-of-Education/

6. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-education-reform-national-urban-league-centennial-conference

7. http://www.otlcampaign.org/resources/civil-rights-framework-providing-all-students-opportunity-learn-through-reauthorization-el

8. http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/phase1-applications/index.html

9. http://www.otlcampaign.org/resources/civil-rights-framework-providing-all-students-opportunity-learn-through-reauthorization-el

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 20, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16149, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 11:32:51 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools

Related Media

Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Joseph Valente
    The Pennsylvania State University
    E-mail Author
    JOSEPH MICHAEL VALENTE is an Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education and affiliate faculty in the Disability Studies program at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of the forthcoming autobiographical-novel and autoethnography d/Deaf and d/Dumb: A Portrait of a Deaf Kid as a Young Superhero to be published by Peter Lang in the Disability Studies in Education Series. Currently he is co-Principal Investigator of a Spencer Foundation funded international comparative ethnographic study of kindergartens for the deaf.
  • Kathleen Collins
    The Pennsylvania State University
    E-mail Author
    KATHLEEN M. COLLINS is an Assistant Professor of Language, Culture and Society in the College of Education at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park. Her program of research examines the contextual factors, interactional processes and literacies that contribute to appearance of dis/ability in educational settings. She is the author of Ability Profiling and School Failure: One Child’s Struggle to be Seen as Competent (2003, Routledge) and her work has appeared in Urban Education, Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, Learning Disabilities Quarterly, and English Journal.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue