Dear President Obama and Senators Webb and Warner,
I am a professor of education who helps prepare individuals to be licensed VA school teachers, and who also provides professional development to in-service teachers. I myself have 5 years of public school (and one year of private) middle school teaching experience in NC schools starting in 1996. I write to you today as part of a letter writing campaign (Campaign for Our Public Schools) to urge you all to reconsider the direction that the current presidential administration and Congress seem to be continuing along regarding education.
Four years ago, when President Obama was elected, I was overjoyed for I was certain that we would now see the end of the disastrous NCLB-mandated focus on standardized tests as a way to hold schools accountable. I have always believed that such tests are of low-quality (in that they frequently lack reliability and validity, have cultural and class biases within them, and are, essentially, the lazy/cheapskate approach to finding out what skills, knowledge, and dispositions students have developed). My joy at Mr. Obama’s election, along with a second Democractic senator for our state, turned to massive disappointment as I saw that neither Congress nor the executive branch administration seemed to consider education policy as a top priority. Granted, there was a lot going on in early 2009 after inauguration, and other messes that needed to be tended to, but education surely needed to be a top priority as well.
I was a public school teacher in what has been considered one of the “flagship” states for test-based accountability and I know from experience that not only do those year-end tests tell us very little, they also constrain and limit curriculum and pedagogy. As a teacher educator since the inception of NCLB, I have also seen the demoralizing effect this accountability system has had on public school teachers, especially those whose students face the most challenges in life (e.g. poverty, disabilities, language acquisition, etc.), as well as on the students themselves (higher levels of stress and alienation from the schooling process).
My bargain with you is this…..I will have faith one last time in the Democratic party to truly represent the interests of a profession that has for a long time supported this party, and who has endorsed each of you for election. I will vote for you, President Obama, and for Gov. Kaine to replace Sen. Webb. But it is time for a little quid pro quo!
Senators – bring NCLB up for reauthorization (it is already 5 years overdue for this!)– and bring it back to its old name of Elementary and Secondary Education Act! Increase federal involvement in education only to the extent that the federal government ensures both inter-state and intra-state equality of funding. Create plans (similar to those developed by George Romney under the Nixon administration) to encourage states and localities to create mixed-income housing so that schools are not segregated by social class (and thus, very often, by race/ethnicity). Encourage best practices by supporting schools that really test out some “radical” ideas – like students having a say in what they learn, bringing in authentic assessments (e.g. portfolios, demonstrations, performances, etc.) as the predominant form for determining what children are taking away from the schooling experience, pushing schools to reconsider the normative/conventional school practices of grading students, of segregating students by age, of ringing bells every hour, of atomizing academic subjects from one another, of practicing a rigid hierarchy of control in which those farthest from the teaching-learning experience (e.g. state and federal policy-makers, school board members and superintendents) have more of a say in day-to-day school practices than the front-line folks (teachers and students). Toss out ideas like vouchers, charters, tuition tax credits, and other privatization efforts– extensive research has shown these to be ineffective in bringing innovation into school practices, and have instead only worked overall to both balkanize schools and communities and leach money from the public school coffers.
President Obama, replace Secretary Duncan with Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond (do you remember, I wrote you in 2009 recommending her when she was on your shortlist?). Truly live John Dewey’s famous statement of “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy” (Dewey, School and Society). Assuming that you are the best and wisest parent and you send your daughters to a progressive school with low class sizes, a rich, multi-faceted curriculum, and few to no standardized tests, then shouldn’t this be the education all American kids should get? So often, your actions on education (and those of your proxy, Secretary Duncan) most definitely do not match your words! The Race to the Top competitions have further entrenched the wrong-headed policies of NCLB, and by their very structure are unequal (competitions mean winners and lots more losers – how is encouraging the creation of losers the task of the federal government?!) I wish to urge you, just as I urged the senators in the above, to ditch privatization plans and instead push for true best practices! We need practices and policies that recognize that teachers and schools and parents cannot do things alone …..we need social, political, and economic policies in place that push our country toward higher levels of equality. Once we are closer to equality, then we can pursue our historical goal of excellence for all in education.
I truly hope that you consider what I and other writers in this Campaign for Our Public Schools have said as you (hopefully) plan out your second administration.
Sincerely,Dr. Kristan A. Morrison Associate Professor Graduate Program Coordinator, M.S. in Education School of Teacher Education and Leadership Radford University, P.O. Box 6959 Radford, VA 24142 (540) 831-7120
P.S. There are plenty of authors who have provided ample details for the various ideas/suggestions I have offered. I encourage you to read my blog for some links, or just let me know and I will happily send you a reading list!