Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Dear President Obama

Here's my letter to President Obama for the October 17 Campaign for Our Public Schools. Thanks to Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody for organizing it.

Dear President Obama,

Congratulations on your performance in last night’s Presidential debate. I wish you well. A Mitt Romney victory could spell disaster on several fronts—foreign policy, economic policy, and, because he takes some of your misguided plans even further than you do, education policy. Although I hope you win, it’s partly because of that last point that I won’t be voting for you on November 6.

I’m against Race to the Top, high stakes standardized testing, privatization, and the system of punishment and rewards that you and Secretary Duncan continue to advocate. I’m also against your counterproductive drone wars and the failure to reverse some of the worst civil liberties excesses of the Bush and Cheney era, but those are topics for a different discussion.

I thought your allusions during the debate to the Common Core Standards and Race to the Top marked the low point of your performance. Neither program has actually shown positive results, and I believe both are doomed to fail. They may remain in force for a while, but they are untested programs based on faulty assumptions and logical fallacies that should prove fatal in the long run.

I’m a retired high school English teacher. I taught George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm a number of times during a career that lasted over thirty years. I’m sorry to have to say it, but listening to you and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talk about K-12 education is a bit like listening to the slogans of Big Brother, or the speeches of Napoleon the pig. Secretary Duncan is big on platitudes that belie the reality of our schools, while you insist that teaching to the test is wrong even though your policies demand it.

Here are some of the invalid assumptions your policies are based upon, with an answer for each: 1) Standardized tests measure real student learning and achievement. No, they best measure socioeconomic level. 2) Spending more time and money on testing will improve student achievement. No, it will only prove what’s already known. 3) Punishing and rewarding students, teachers, and schools based on student test scores will improve teaching and learning. This assumption contradicts all available evidence. 4) Diverting public funds to private managers with no public oversight—that is, creating new charter schools—will improve outcomes for students. Not according to the best recent studies (although it will surely improve the finances of charter managers and investors). 5) A key to improving schools is standardization. Not if you value cognitive diversity, the individual talents of students and teachers, autonomy in teaching and learning, and the richness of our cultural and regional heritage. 6) “Raising the bar,” “racing,” and similar metaphors will inspire teachers and administrators and provide leadership for 21st Century education. In fact, these metaphors clash with the importance of engaging students at their own level, and the spirit of cooperation and collaboration we will all need in order to meet the challenges ahead. 

The ill effects of all these assumptions are compounded by the fallacies of “academic rigor” and “college readiness” that, as a result of your policies, are filtering down to the youngest children.

President Obama, what should we do instead of high-stakes testing, standardization, merit pay, firing teachers and closing schools, bleeding public schools to pay for non-accountable charters? What should we do instead of Race to the Top?

First and foremost, federal education policy must focus on equity. It isn’t bad teaching, but rather the inequity built into our political system—and by extension our education system—that accounts for the lower test scores found in poor neighborhoods. On international tests, American schools with the fewest poor children outscore even the Finlands and the Singapores. 

Although these results by themselves don’t mean a lot, the so-called “achievement gap” that brings down our PISA scores is really a preparation gap. That preparation gap, fostered by poverty and racial segregation, is the problem your education policies should be targeting. Instead of offering complicated and untested interventions such as Race to the Top, the Department of Education should use its resources to ensure equitable funding for schools and equality of opportunity for students. 

This means direct support for needy schools, and legal action against any state that allows class size, facilities, personnel, and educational materials to fall below robust levels. This means every school gets a library. This means the federal government must revisit the ongoing problem of segregation. 

The no-excuses approach to student performance is just that—an excuse to ignore the horrible inequities poor children face every day.

A few more ideas: 1) Stop the standardized testing juggernaut before billions of dollars are wasted and millions of students are oppressed and ill-educated by the coming expansion of bad tests. 2) Discourage mayoral and state control of schools. Instead, view elected school boards and local control as a foundation of American democracy. 3) With an eye to the common good instead of the profit motive, halt the trend toward privatization of public schools. 4) Scrap Race to the Top and put the funds into practical support for teachers and schools: classroom aides, counselors, music and art, prenatal and parenting training, after-school tech grants, book ownership programs, professional development seminars for teachers (perhaps modeled after the National Endowment for the Humanities Institutes and Seminars), and a hundred other ideas that bubble up from the many brilliant teachers and principals and scholars across the nation. 

Race to the Top requires states and school districts to adopt theories either untested or already proven worthless. Better to seek out and nurture many small-scale projects designed by actual practitioners, and with very few strings attached. The best of these could serve as models for improvement.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture. What I haven’t mentioned is that your education policies seem to have been influenced, not just by the No Child Left Behind Act, but also by a group of so-called “reformers.” Led by billionaires and self-appointed experts, most have little or no experience in education and appear mainly interested in self-promotion, lowering costs, and opening up new markets. They use test results as tools to press their agenda, which includes abolishing tenure and reducing pay and pension benefits. The bogus pronouncements of these people leave me shaking my head. They seem to lack the most basic understanding of teaching and learning and schools.

Even so, Secretary Duncan has publicly embraced the Gates Foundation, which denigrates the importance of teaching experience, advanced degrees, and class size. Yet he claims to want to elevate and enhance the teaching profession. Another Orwell moment. Yes, our schools need to be transformed, but not into testing factories manned by low-wage, temporary staffers.

Please, Mr. President, reconsider your policies. The best way to start would be to ask a simple question: What kind of school do you want for your own children? And here’s another question: Given the failure of his policies in Chicago, was Mr. Duncan really your best choice? 

Well, you’ve chosen your policies, and your Secretary. Show me some evidence that you might reconsider them, and I’ll reconsider my vote.

Randal Hendee
Champaign, Illinois
October 17, 2012

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