The landscape of “educational reform” at this moment is littered with rubble and wreckage, and, sadly, your administration has contributed to the ruin. You are not alone: the toxic materials have been assembled as a bi-partisan endeavor over many years, and the efforts of the last several administrations are now organized into a coherent push mobilized and led by a band of billionaires including Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Sam Walton, and Eli Broad. These titans work relentlessly to take up all the available space, preaching, persuading, promoting, and, when all else fails, spreading around massive amounts of cash to promote their agenda as common sense. You and Secretary Arne Duncan now bear a major responsibility for this agenda.
It’s rather easy to begin to think that “downsizing” the least productive units, “outsourcing” and privatizing a space that was once public is a natural event. Teaching toward a simple standardized measurement and relentlessly applying state-administered (but privately developed and quite profitable) tests to determine the “outcomes” (winners and losers) becomes a rational proxy for learning; “zero tolerance” for student misbehavior turns out to be a stand-in for child development or justice; and a range of sanctions on students, teachers, and schools but never on lawmakers, foundations, corporations, or high officials—they call it “accountability”— is logical and level-headed.
You’ve said that you defend working people and their right to organize and yet you have publicly and noisily maligned teachers and their unions on several occasions. You need to remember that good working conditions are good teaching conditions, and that good teaching conditions are good learning conditions. We can’t have the best learning conditions if teachers are forced away from the table, or if the teaching corps is reduced to a team of short-termers and educational tourists.
You have declared your support for a deep and rich curriculum for all students regardless of circumstance or background, and yet your policies rely on a relentless regimen of standardized testing, and test scores as the sole measure of progress.
In a vibrant democracy, whatever the most privileged parents want for their children must serve as a minimum standard for what we as a community want for all of our children. Arne Duncan attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (as did our three sons); you sent your kids to Lab, and so did your friend Rahm Emanuel. There students found small classes, abundant resources, and opportunities to experiment and explore, ask questions and pursue answers to the far limits, and a minimum of time-out for standardized testing. They found, as well, a respected and unionized teacher corps, people who were committed to a life-long career in teaching and who were encouraged to work cooperatively for their mutual benefit (and who never would settle for being judged, assessed, rewarded, or punished based on student test scores). Good enough for you, good enough for the kids in public schools everywhere—a standard to be aspired to and worked toward. Any other ideal for our schools, in the words of John Dewey who founded the school you chose for your daughters, “is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy.”