Saturday, August 4, 2012

An Open Letter to Barack Obama About Education

Dear Mr. President:

I write this on your birthday to wish you the very happiest of days. But I also write to speak to you as a parent, educator, and someone who deeply believes in our democratic heritage and values.

When you spoke to the nation after the recent tragedy in Colorado, you appealed to people first as a father, shocked by something he knew could have happened all too easily to his own children. I, too, am a parent. My son is a fine young man of 17 who has attended public schools all his school life. And as someone who has worked in public education for 42 years, I know intimately the strengths and flaws of our education system, about which I comment in these pages and elsewhere on a regular basis. Almost all my professional work over the past 20 years has been in high-needs, inner-city schools of poverty, in Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, and New York City (including the South Bronx). And there I have seen poverty and squalor that most Americans can't even begin to imagine, including schools that would be shocking even in third-world countries. I would love to say that what you've accomplished regarding education since you took office is make real in-roads in our neediest schools and communities, but to do so would be a lie.

As long as Arne Duncan is US Sec. of Education, you will be promoting an undemocratic approach, heretofore unprecedented in our history, to imposing federal will on state and local educational practices. Were the policies your administration is effectively enforcing states to adopt good ones (which they are not), I would still hesitate to support the MEANS through which you are promoting them. But as they are not, I am doubly worried about the precedent you are setting for the next George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, or worse: since YOU forced states to accept Race to the Top and the execrable Common Core State (sic) Standards, why won't the next Republican president feel free to force through mandatory vouchers, the forcible breakdown of the separation clause, and much else even more heinous? If past is prologue, you know as well as I that they will not hesitate for an instant. And your approach to educational deform (for it is NOT reform in any traditional sense) will be used repeatedly to justify further disasters.

Duncan must go. Policies that play into the hands of corporate educational deform must go. Allowing high stakes tests to determine our policies must go.

When you were elected in 2008, progressive educators throughout the land celebrated what we saw as a return to national sanity. We believed that you would appoint an educator like Linda Darling-Hammond, Diane Ravitch or Deborah Meier to lead the DOE and bring real classroom teaching experience to bear in improving policy. Instead, you gave us Arne Duncan, a soulless, clueless, corporate drone, a man who manages to insult professional teachers (and parents, and kids) nearly every time he opens his foolish mouth and lets out his ideas about "fixing" schools.

End the madness. Make your second term the best in the history of US education by rejecting corporatization and privatization of public schools. Shut your ears to the siren calls of Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton, Coors, de Voss, and other right-wing and shamelessly greedy foundations, and leave a legacy your children and grandchildren will be proud of. Your kids go to one of the finest PRIVATE schools in the country, while the rest of the black kids in DC are living in the disaster that Michelle Rhee helped make worse and even further steeped in corruption and dishonesty. The high stakes tests don't tell us what kids know or can do. They bring down the integrity of education. They are, simply, a plague upon the land, serving the interests only of their publishers and some very blind politicians.

YOU can make a real difference by speaking out HONESTLY about how poverty and financial inequity slants the educational playing field and rigs the game to the extreme disadvantage of poor and minority students. Every politician pays lip-service to the notion of fairness and the vital importance of quality education in helping make meaningful change for the good, but few if any DO anything useful in this regard.  By supporting truly equal opportunity for everyone, a real chance for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, by including the right to a high-quality education, like the one your daughters are getting, you can help bring about real social change, change that will never come through today's high-needs education: full-time test preparation that kids in Detroit, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Houston, Los Angeles, and many other places are given, whether or not they and their parents like it. Testing isn't teaching, Mr. President, as you have acknowledged but failed to address with good policy. The time to commit to positive change is NOW.

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