The Hunger Games: Race to the Top!

Are you all as excited about the Hunger Games movie as I am? It comes out next month and I can’t wait.

For the uninitiated, the books describe a post-apocalyptic world in which the North American continent has been split into 13 districts. Most of these districts, which comprise the nation of Panem, are deeply impoverished; their inhabitants eke out an existence mining coal, farming, or poaching illegally. Most of what they earn gets sent to The Capitol, a city deep in the Rocky Mountains, where Panem’s wealthiest, most powerful citizens reside.

Once a year, each district sends two citizens between 12 and 18 years of age to the Capitol as tribute. The 24 tributes then compete in a televised fight to the death called The Hunger Games. It’s Survivor meets The Most Dangerous Game.

First and foremost, The Hunger Games is about competition. Tribute Katniss Everdeen, the book’s narrator, speaks again and again about the injustice and brutality of a system that pits teenagers against each other– and then celebrates the best killer as champion.

But a lot of education reformers love the idea of competition, especially when kids are involved. In fact, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan loves it so much that he’s turned the struggle for school funding into a game: the Race to the Top!

To hear Duncan tell it, he enjoys watching states starved for funding step all over each other for a piece of the federal pie almost as much as I enjoy reading a good book. He enjoys it so much that he recently decided the fun shouldn’t be limited to struggling states– he wants districts competing against each other! Sound familiar? Listen, as the master of ceremonies explains:

“I love that we played at the state level. I love that we played in the early childhood space… But I’m really really pleased now to have a chance to participate with districts, and there’s a huge appetite there.”

What’s all this “playing” that Duncan’s talking about? I guess from The Capitol, the fight for funding might look like fun, but from an overcrowded New York City classroom, it looks a lot more like The Hunger Games. Then again, Duncan’s never actually worked in a classroom, so we shouldn’t expect him to understand.

Duncan does understand, however, that there’s an “appetite” for funding, and he seems happy to exploit it. If schools are ecosystems, then poverty is a pervasive nutrient deficiency, affecting every aspect of student and school performance. Duncan’s got his hand on the purse strings, but rather than address the need, he’s playing hunger games with districts wracked by famine.

The pathology behind this approach is certainly beyond me. Like most teachers, when I see a need, I try to address it. Then again, Arne Duncan and I exist in different worlds, and I’m as mystified by the workings of The Capitol as was Katniss. She expressed her confusion about her country’s savage inequalities far better than I can:

“What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment?”

4 thoughts on “The Hunger Games: Race to the Top!

  1. Thanks to our sharp anonymous reader, who pointed out the correct spelling of “eke” (originally spelled “eek”!

    Correction made. But I deleted your comment by mistake. Still getting used to Blogger! 😉


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