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[Dis]ableing the Race to the Top

by Kathleen M. Collins & Joseph Valente - June 17, 2010

The authors present the notion of [dis]ableing as way of making visible the presence and limiting effects of ability-normative thinking. Ability-normative thinking, they argue, reflects the dominant, taken-for-granted assumption that human beings have similar physical, emotional, and psychological resources and capacities, that everyone uses these capacities to engage in the world in a similar manner, and that human experience and understanding of a given phenomenon is similar. In this commentary they briefly introduce [dis]ableing and demonstrate its usefulness in uncovering the influences of ability-normative thinking through a snapshot analysis of discourses pertaining to the Race to the Top.

There is something to be said about fairy-tales and educational policy. But first, lets reach back to a story known as the The Egg and the Sperm told by Emily Martin (1991), an anthropologist of science. In short, the The Egg and the Sperm re-tells the familiar fairy-tale of a princess waiting to be rescued by her prince. Sperm plays the part of the prince; the egg plays the princess. But this is also a scientific fairy-tale. As Martin explains, it is used in medical textbooks to describe the process of fertilization to scientists-in-training. The problem, Martin argues, is in how our cultural narratives drive not only what we see, but also the ways in which we interpret and present those observations to others. In this case, scientists were only seeing a fairy-tale about a princess passively waiting to be rescued by her prince. This fairy-tale had the effect of masking empirical evidence illustrating new, groundbreaking clues about the fertilization process. Three years after the lab data revealed the egg as an active agent in its own fertilization, these findings still went unreported. In hindsight, it has become obvious these scientists struggled to escape the constraints of the cultural fairy-tale narrative, which had literally obstructed them from seeing evidence in plain sight. The Egg and the Sperm is a reminder of how cultural narrative scripts work to normalize perceived differences in gender, sexual orientation, race and, as we will argue here, dis/ability. 

The rub, then, lies in identifying, challenging, and dismantling the assumptions about what normal is that are limiting our thinking at any given time. How can we make the invisible, visible? How might we question and destabilize categories such as ability and disability so that they might be more fully inclusive of the range of human experience?

In this commentary, we share a tool we are developing called [dis]ableing. We offer [dis]ableing as way of making visible the presence and limiting effects of what we term ability-normative thinking. Ability-normative thinking reflects the dominant, taken-for-granted assumption that human beings have similar physical, emotional, and psychological resources and capacities, that everyone uses these capacities to engage in the world in a similar manner, and that human experience and understanding of a given phenomena is similar.  Our purposes here are to briefly introduce [dis]ableing and to demonstrate its usefulness through a snapshot analysis of discourses pertaining to the Race to the Top

Why the Race to the Top? Because the combination of marketing-savvy and legislative carrot-and-stick that is the Race to the Top illustrates so clearly the urgent need to [dis]able educational policies think: the very familiar reality-based television game show, The Amazing Race meets ableist educational policymaking. Even the able-bodied have unwittingly become contestants in the game of ableism. 

We are motivated by a sense of urgency the winners of the first round of the Race to the Top were recently announced, and as the second round of competition begins there is a growing chorus of disgruntlement among the losers and some telling critiques of the selection process. It is timely to offer new directions for thinking about educational policy in hopes that new knowledge may lead to changes that shift away from the winners/losers paradigm and moves toward more inclusive educational policymaking. Our purpose here is to use Disability studies theory to [dis]able larger educational policy discourses.  

Disability studies theory is not only a theory about and for folks with disabilities; it is a [dis]ableing of theory itself. This idea of [dis]ableing a phenomena is not entirely new; it comes from and parallels Queer theory and its use of queering to destabilize gender categories (Warner, 2004). Similarly [dis]ableing destabilizes dis/ability constructs. Our use of [dis]ableing draws from and expands on Tobins (2000) idea of thinking of theory as a tool; herein, we also use it as an investigative tool (Rolfe & MacNaughton, 2001; Kaomea, 2003). What would it look like if we were to [dis]able the Race to the Top?

Like its cousin terms sexism, racism, classism, ageism, homophobia and so on ableism is at its root about how ability and disability are culturally constructed. As in other forms of subjugation, ableism creates a separation based on perceived differences. The Race to the Top rhetoric is clever on many levels. It appeals to a segment of the population that has unquestionably bought into the neoliberal self-sufficiency discourses that beget the pull-yourself-up-from-the-bootstraps kind of myths. It equally appeals to target audiences that have been fed a steady diet of reality-based television game shows. Finally, the key feature of why the Race to the Top is so appealing is how it is both at the same time a game of chance and is scripted. That's how the contradiction that is reality television works as a perfect metaphor for the Race to the Top - like a good many loyal The Amazing Race audience members can attest, everybody already has a hunch who the winners and losers will be before it all starts.  

When we [dis]able the Race to the Top we can see clearly how the grand narrative assumes those "on top," the "winners," are inherently superior because of inborn traits or exertions and not due to social or contextual factors. The race justifies accountability via competition employing game-show terminology like points, winner announcements, finalists, and so on. This has the effect of leading contestants unquestionably into the slippery slope of competing for meager funds that were once a given based on need, not narrow definitions of ability. This clearly reflects the influence of ability-normative thinking.

The [dis]ableing tool provides us with another revealing example that comes directly from Secretary of Education Arne Duncans letter announcing the winners (Tennessee and Delaware) of the first round of competition for the Race to the Top. In this letter Duncan upholds a capitalist cultural narrative fairy-tale that (1) competition, rewards, and setting the bar high should drive educational achievement, and (2) the United States must strive for educational improvement in order to compete internationally for jobs. Ability is defined as a performance that is the production of labor. Simply, students have become mere widgets in the cogs of globalist commerce. It reveals how a Race to the Top in education is not as much about principles of equity and democracy but instead about competing in a global economy.  

Duncans letter illustrates how the Race to the Top policy is shaped by the ability-normative assumption that everyone has the same resources and can and should compete on the same terms. Further, ability in the Race to the Top is displayed through adherence to the rules, guidelines, and forms of knowledge that are set by vague and idealistic terms of a race. Again, dis/ability, or any discussion of differences, are absent and positioned as transgressive. Those who transgress these dis/ability constructs will inevitably be the "losers. Secretary Duncan closes his letter by urging the losing states to re-apply for the next round of competition. In response to this invitation many states are re-thinking their participation. A telling example of the impact of the Race to the Top on round one participants is provided by Colorado Governor John Ritter, who was reported in the New York Times as lamenting how the race was setup. Governor Ritter reportedly indicated that he is not sure whether his state will re-enter the Race to the Top in the next round, and stated, It was like the Olympic Games, and we were an American skater with a Soviet judge from the 1980s, (Dillon, April 5, 2010, A1).

In much the same way that critical race theorists have critiqued color-blindness as oppressive, we argue that the type of ability-blindness present in the discourses defining and surrounding the Race to the Top reinforces ability-normative assumptions. Worse, it enacts those assumptions at the level of policy and excludes discussion of the very children it claims to help. The danger here is that, like the scientists in Martin's lab, the influence of cultural narrative scripts threatens to constrain our understanding of the issues before us and reinforce the notion that the differences of children termed dis/abilities as transgressive or deviant. If the Race to the Top is likened by participants to the Olympics, we are not suggesting a Special Olympics version for those who wish or need to participate differently.  Instead, we are suggesting the need to question the ability-normative assumptions in which the Race to the Top is based.


Order of authors is alphabetical by last name; authors made equal contributions to this manuscript.


Dillon, S. (2010). States skeptical about Race to Top school aid contest, New York Times, April 5, 2010, p. A1.  

Kaomea, J. (2003). Reading erasures and making the familiar strange: Defamiliarizing methods for research in formerly colonized and historically oppressed communities. Educational Researcher, 32(2), pp. 14-25.

Martin, E. (1991). The egg and the sperm: How science has constructed a romance based on stereotypical male-female roles. Signs, 16(3), pp. 485-501.

Rolfe, S. & MacNaughton, G. Research as a tool. (2001). In Rolfe, S., MacNaughton, G., & Siraj-Blatchford, I. (Eds.)  Doing early childhood research: Theory and practice. Buckingham: Open University Press, pp. 3-11.

Tobin, J. J. (2000). Good guys don't wear hats: Children's talk about the media. New York: Teachers College Press.

Warner, M. (2004). (Ed.) Fear of a queer planet: Queer politics and social theory. Cultural politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 17, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16020, Date Accessed: 3/2/2022 5:44:42 AM

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About the Author
  • 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.
  • 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.
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