You are in the most enviable position of any educational leader for decades. You’ve got a good three years to affect substantial, meaningful change. You can say whatever the hell you want (sorry, but it's time to throw some Bill Russell elbows, Mr. President). You’ve got the microphone, the votes, and the next Supreme Court nomination(s). You’re a dad. You know the roots of all American students, you know what it means to dream, and you went to Harvard.
Actually, the only way you can screw this up is by replacing Arne Duncan with Michelle Rhee.
Rise above the fray. Public education’s problems are not unions, accountability, or Finland-envy. Unlike other politicians, you need not cower to quick measurable fixes and instant gratification. No more elections, politics or fundraising. No silenced resistance against plantation reforms or succumbing to politics-by-privatization. No promises to any group or corporation; promises only to kids, Democracy, and the future of America.
Go with your gut, your passion, your empathy, and common sense. Dream. Set the bar as high as the moon. Inspire and innovate. Every kid, not some. Set us back on course because we have certainly lost our way.
Between 1954 and 1983, America was a nation of educational vision and inclusion. Brown v. Board of Education. “Ask not…” and “We will go to the moon.” Title IX. Plyler v. Doe. PL-94-142 (IDEA). No more “For Whites Only” schools and “No Girls Allowed” signs on the clubhouse door. No more leaving undocumented students, students with disabilities, and LGBT students and parents outside the school house door.
After 1983? The Governors’ and CEOs’ wake-up call with the ambitious “A Nation at Risk” and “Goals 2000,” inspired yet sanction-less platitudes with references to early childhood learning and inspired teaching (and not a single reference to “high-stakes testing” and punitive accountability).
But subsequent action was too slow for the aspiring education-governor or president needing a quick fix with quicker results. So following the myth of the Texas Miracle and under the shadow of 9/11, America reverted from innovative and inclusive public schools to one-size-fits-all, test-and-label, blame-the-victim education. The politician’s mantra? Results-r-Us. State and federal versions of NCLB (the stick and a boat-load of testing), RTTT (the carrot and a whole fleet of testing), and federal spending well beyond defending civil rights and special education (don’t forget, the word “education” is not in the Constitution).
And, to make matters worse, corporations recognized politicians do not last forever and swooped in with pre, formative, online, diagnostic, and high-stakes assessments as silver bullet reform that transcends election cycles. Follow the money. There’s no profit in innovation, R&D, and professional development so today we are stuck with abusive quantities of testing, vilified professionals, and value-added testing that adds little value and cost-benefit given the billion dollar price tag. (Dare I add all this eerily parallels Viet Nam, WMD, and Iraq?)
Mr. President, you can stop the madness.
Stand up to PAC purchased ads and politicians seeking someone to blame (teachers and unions), some place to denounce (urban schools), and something broken to fix (international rankings). Speak out against quick-fix reforms, “accomplishments” in the form of voucher plans and small-business (charter) schools, and outrageously excessive testing. Speak up for kids, especially those subjected to factory-model schools, scripted McTeachers, and sit-and-regurgitate learning.
Put the public back in public education. Empower parents; not the privatizers and privileged. Inspire children. Respect teachers. Invest in professional development and innovation. Let leaders lead. Demand creativity, innovation, motivation, invention, leadership, gifted teaching, and authentic learning; and denounce the sabermetric rhetoric and “elect-me stats.”
Mr. President, you have the opportunity of a lifetime. You can educate every child (starting with every child ready for kindergarten), rebuild crumbling schools and create jobs (think WPA), level the playing field (invoke 1954-1983), and revitalize America as an educated citizenry simultaneously.
How? That’s in part two. But “how not to?” is simple: Lose the obsession with testing, the follow-the-money reforms, and the return to Plessy v. Ferguson charter schools. And, before you make any radical moves (yikes, Jeb and Arne on the same stage), well, read your book, The Obama Education Plan which highlights your platform (and I don't see "Test-the-spirit-and-curiosity-out-of-kids"on the list). You, too, will be re-inspired.
Invest in Early Childhood Education
Reform No Child Left Behind
Expand Choice and Innovation
Make Math and Science National Priorities
Address the Dropout Crisis
Expand Opportunities to Learn
Recruit Prepare, Retain, and Reward America’s Teachers
Improve College Access and Affordability