Dear Mr. President-elect Biden,
You have given us all a welcomed message: “I pledge to be a president who does not see red or blue states, but United States…This is the time to heal America. Let this grim era of demonization in America begin to end, here and now.“
Nowhere will that message be more critical than in education. In this area, political division and parochial turfism has poisoned public debate and robbed millions of children of their opportunity to learn.
Driven by an entrenched sense of scarcity, we have seen the powerful lobbies representing public education systems position themselves as the victims of much smaller players in education. They have wrongfully labeled charter schools, private schools, and home schools enemies of the common good. Education has become so divisive that many families who choose alternative learning programs for their children fear talking openly about their choices. I hope you live up to your promise of being a president for all Americans, even as national education leaders fail to include families that educate their children outside of the traditional system.
According to our “nation’s report card,” the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 44% of white 4th graders are at or above proficiency in reading. For African American and Hispanic students, that rate is 18% and 23%, respectively. In 2020, of the African American students who took the SAT, less than half met benchmarks in reading, and only 21% did so in math. Research by the UNCF finds that 64% of African American students taking the ACT met zero benchmarks. Only 6% of African American graduates met college readiness benchmarks in all four ACT subjects.
While public education outcomes have given marginalized families much to mourn, smarter and more inclusive education policies and practices could create more significant learning opportunities. One major first step is ending the narrow view of how we educate children, how and what we teach, and where education occurs. For example, instead of stoking ill will between district schools and charters and pitting parents in those schools against each other, we should find every opportunity to develop collaboration between the best of each of these school models. Instead of treating homeschooling parents as if they don’t matter to the national education debate, we should act as if public education includes the entire public. Instead of defining education solely in terms of unionized, industrialized, standardized, and bureaucratized systems, we do better to realize learning can and does occur in many different ways and means.
Let’s not ignore the work done by schools of hope that create space for all children to succeed. Schools like Cristo Rey, a national network of Catholic college preparatory high schools that serve students in urban education deserts; The New York Performance Standards Consortium schools that have pioneered new ways to assess the capacity and promise of students beyond simple metrics; The open-source network of Wildflower Microschools that makes Montessori education possible for larger groups of families; The NYC Autism charter schools started by two mothers with firsthand experience of struggling to find high-quality education for students on the autism spectrum.
One school that might be of particular interest to you is the game-changing Five Keys charter school started in 2003 by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department. It was the first in the nation to provide quality education inside of a county jail. Five Keys focuses on “restoring communities through education” and works with an extensive network of community-based organizations to provide “high school diplomas, career and technical education, digital literacy, ESL education, cognitive behavioral therapy, and recovery programs.”
In 2015, then California Attorney General Kamala Harris gave Five Keys an award for reducing recidivism and “doing innovative work to educate, employ and keep ex-offenders on track.” Nothing about this school or the families that benefit from it should threaten public education.
The point here is that you are at a fork in the road. You can bend to the will of political groups who are vested in a one-size-fits-all education system, or you can stand up for all families who want and need a variety of educational opportunities. To date, you have mostly put teachers’ unions and their policy agenda first. We’re clear on the political calculation you’re making to prioritize public employees. For instance, in December 2019, you participated in a presidential candidate forum in Pittsburgh organized, facilitated, and funded by national teachers unions, their grantees, and their allies. Every question you answered was crafted by them, asked by one of their plants, and made to suit their purpose.
One organizer wore a t-shirt that said, “F*#@K Charter Schools.”
I hope that’s a message you reject because that t-shirt is an attack on schools with students, parents, and educators who invest deeply in their success.
Sadly, outside of that very same forum you attended, police officers were barring a group of parents who took buses, planes, and trains from places as far away as Memphis, California, and New Jersey. These were African American and Latino parents who do not stand in lockstep with teachers’ unions. Teachers and police officers locked them out of a power room – will you do the same?
Pitting parents against each other only serves the interests of political people. As you begin selecting a new secretary of education, you should think deeply about the process. Make it inclusive of a wide diversity of students, parents, and community experts. Make the process fair, open, and broad. Use it to enfranchise families who have been ignored by previous administrations and education leaders—including those in families like yours who had the resources to access private education.
Keep your promise. Be a leader who heals divisions and brings people together even when the politics make that a challenging goal to achieve.
We’ll be watching, Sir.
Remote learning isn’t great. Whining is worse.
My kids are upstairs pretending to learn. My wife and I know they aren’t engaged. Their teachers range from earnest to weird. The most challenging parts of their curriculum also seem to be the parts where they get the least direct instruction (and where we as parents feel the least energetic about teaching).
And, with that as my backdrop, I so damn tired of seeing headlines about the remote learning “disaster” and the resulting stress parents face.
Times are difficult for children and families, especially those already at the margins, or those with exceptional needs. Got it.
Tell us something we don’t know.
Which is why I get life from stories like this one from Tina Rosenberg (co-founder of Solutions Journalism Network) about two programs that highlight a way of helping parents and students stand their tallest during a tough time.
The first program, Philadelphia-based Springboard Collaborative, prepares and supports parents to be literacy warriors for their children. This is important because experts worry students who are losing classroom instruction will fall behind in reading, and that will affect other areas of their learning.
Whereas educational paternalism has too often attempted to educate children in spite of their parents, Springboard starts with the child’s first teacher as the most key ally.
The second program couldn’t be farther from Philly, but it may be more compelling because of the challenge it addresses. Young 1ove in Botswana, Africa, as you will see from this blurb below, examples exactly the ingenuity we need to address the toughest social and educational problems.
In Botswana, on March 18, the government announced it was closing schools. Over the next 72 hours, an organization called Young 1ove (that’s “love” with a numeral 1 instead of a letter “l,” as in “one love”) that works with the Ministry of Basic Education scrambled to collect phone numbers from students in third, fourth and fifth grades all over the country. Young 1ove’s staff ended up with 7,550 phone numbers — and no plan for what to do with them.
They knew that whatever they did would use phones. The vast majority of Botswanans have no access to the internet, no computer, no smartphone. But most households do have basic mobile phones.
Kids could get classes on Botswana TV and radio while at home. But many students quickly gave them up, or never started. “They think the teachers are too fast for them,” said Marea Bathuleng, whose children are 9 and 10.
Seeing their children struggle was a shock for many parents. “Parents didn’t really know the progress of the student,” said Ms. Tlhalerwa. “But when they realized the student couldn’t do addition, they became hands-on.”
The program’s biggest challenge is that cell coverage in rural areas is spotty or nonexistent. Edith Morena, a facilitator, said that another issue was parental patience. “They scold the students if they can’t get what they were supposed to do. Many said they can’t watch the students struggle with something as easy as adding problems.”
“A third of the students in grade five can’t do subtraction,” said Noam Angrist, an American who co-founded Young 1ove along with Moitshepi Matsheng, who leads the government’s National Youth Council. “And that was before schools closed. Now they’re learning almost nothing. They could be losing learning. A small intervention makes a big difference.”
Mr. Angrist, Ms. Matsheng and other researchers found that after four weeks, participants substantially improved their math skills — the group that could do no math at all was cut in half. At that point, Young 1ove began sending students problems keyed to their level, so further gains could be larger.
“Schools everywhere talk about remote education on the internet and Zoom, but didn’t have the mind-set that it could actually be done through SMS and phone calls,” Ms. Tlhalerwa said, referring to text messages. “This is very cheap, and we can reach out to everyone, even in remote areas. As much as the pandemic has brought a lot of negativity, it also brought something new.”
I often wonder why the global poverty-fighting community find so many novel ways to educate children in the poorest countries, while here in America, where obesity reigns supreme, we can’t seem to get our pants on each morning.
On a final note, as headline writers dramatize and politicize the remote learning challenges nonwhite poor kids are facing, and they insinuate we are virtually hopeless until government schools reopen, there are some culturally-affirming, FUBU-styled innovations on the horizon.
The most promising I’ve seen so far is Recontruction.us, an “unapologetically Black” platform that offers African-American families a “personal, world-class education at home.”
We also have to push officials who lord over public resources to support a new continuum of learning opportunities for children besides reopening schools that weren’t great before the pandemic. In this lane we need action to create smaller, more viable learning opportunities for a variety of students.
In a world where headlines tell we’re doomed until government saves us, I prefer to listen to Rosenberg, Springboard, Young 1ove, and Reconstruction. It’s not that I underestimate the magnitude of our challenges. Obviously, the abrupt curtailing of government schooling is letting us down. We’re swamped as parents.
That said, what’s better, whining or winning?
Forget your kids, schools and their staff are what matter most
So many of you parents are selfishly focusing on whether your children will get an education during this global pandemic. Have you forgotten the bigger issues facing us?
For one, do you even consider the incredible difficulty public schools and their public employees are facing?
I think you need reminding and I found just the people to help. Deb Henton is executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators and Kirk Schneidawind is executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association. Together they’ve written a piece for the Star Tribune saying “now, more than ever, public schools need all of us to stand with them, regardless of where we sit on the political spectrum.”
Sounds kinda authoritarian for my tastes, but who am I but a taxpayer.
The they go heavy on offering us a history lesson to make their case:
Public schools have been in our country longer than we’ve been the United States of America. The first free public school opened in Boston in 1635. Some colonies created laws requiring schools for towns of a certain size, but early efforts were sporadic and disjointed.
Yes, the first “public” school in America, Boston Latin, is also the oldest still in operation. It was exclusively for boys only until 1972, and today it’s the model of everything progressive public school supporters say a school should be.
Just kidding. It’s the opposite of that. It doesn’t take “all-comers” as the public school boosters like to say their prized schools do. In fact, it admits students on the basis of high-stakes standardized test scores in the way that the boosters claim private schools and charters do. Even worse, to up their chances of getting their children in, parents seek out test prep programs. Remember, test prep is bad. Except when the affluent do it.
All of that is kinda funny for America’s most long-standing model of “public” education, is it not?
Back to the history lesson from the Strib writers:
“Framers of the Constitution believed in public education for all children. Founding Fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had vastly different political views, but they shared a belief that publicly funded public schools were a cornerstone of our democracy. “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it,” wrote Adams.”
Good stuff here. I wonder why they didn’t add the part about Thomas Jefferson – Mr. Cornerstone of Democracy – also saying this:
“I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. … This unfortunate difference of color, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.”
He also said Blacks were biologically predisposed to smell bad, have sex without passion, endure suffering more eagerly, being cognitively incapable of sensing danger, and “in reason much inferior…in imagination … dull, tasteless, and anomalous.”
Continuing with our public school officials:
Horace Mann is credited with developing a more coherent system of public schooling in the 1800s. While many did not agree with him, his six principles for public schools prevailed: 1) The public should not remain ignorant; 2) public education should be paid for, controlled and sustained by an interested public; 3) such education will be best provided in schools that are inclusive of children from all backgrounds; 4) this education must be nonsectarian; 5) this education must be taught by the spirit, methods and discipline of a free society; and 6) this education should be provided by well-trained, professional teachers.
Is this a bad time to mention that Mann, the father of public education, homeschooled his three kids while lecturing everyone else about the virtues of public education (thus, starting the trend of do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do fauxgressivism)?
And, getting to the point of this emotive missive, they say:
This is not the first time a curve ball has been thrown at our public schools. Our schools have weathered world wars, past epidemics and natural disasters. They are creative, responsive and — most important — open to every single student who comes knocking.
We need our public schools, and they need us. Strong public schools truly do make strong communities. It will take all of us, whether through words or deeds, to support our public schools in these trying times. Public schools are the great equalizer, the hub of our communities, there for us in good times and in bad. Working together, we can keep our public schools strong — so when this crisis ends, they will still be there, ready for whatever comes next.
The jist? Ask not what your nearly $800 billion in education spending can do for your kids, but what your kids’ per pupil income can do for the pensions, positions, and programs of the system that has failed them for decades.
That said, this isn’t a call to be misanthropic, to do away with care about the common good, or to break down the need for social interdependence that makes us a country. My being flip here isn’t an endorsement of virtuous selfishness, but a call for parental reason in the face of appeals from the state to deprioritize your first duties.
As intelligent beings commissioned by God to be immovable guardians of your children’s best interests, you should know that it’s strong families, not schools, that make for strong communities and a strong nation. And you can only be a strong family if you attend without fail to the unique needs of your kids, not the gross politics of public employees who are forever vested in their public education boondoggle.
Inga Cotton: Putting parents in power!
Inga Cotton (@SACharterMoms) has brought new life to the idea of parent advocacy by using practical information about local schools as a way of influencing the educational choices families make. Knowing from her own experience that the needs of children can vary widely from home to home, Inga has made it her mission to help others find the best possible learning conditions – whether that is public, private, or home schooling.
Starting in 2012, Inga launched a mom blog to explain her journey and help others. Today that blog has grown in to a successful nonprofit – San Antonio Charter Moms – that has a robust website and an amazing app for finding schools.
She joined our Education Is Power broadcast to discuss work with us!
Here is the podcast:
and here we are on YouTube!
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