Leslie Yolen, Marybeth Casey,
Barbara Lifton, Cathy Nolan,
John Flanagan, Andrew Cuomo
Re: Education regulations, policy, and lobbying for students, parents, and kitchen tables
Dear advocates for public education,
Our public schools[i] are vital in the development of capable learners and citizens, and they can offer opportunities for the disadvantaged to rise above challenging circumstances. But they often become the primary scapegoat for conditions beyond their control rather than an object of respect and the primary focus for support[ii]. While public education certainly is an expensive endeavor, and we are reminded repeatedly of its price tag here in New York, it is first and foremost an obligation. As a society, we are obligated to educate and guide young learners for the collective good, and should resist applying the free market mindset popular in current education reform practice. Imposing a market or “choice” model upon public education will only further segregate and separate the classes the same way the market does. This is evident in both news about how some celebrated and successful[iii] charter schools achieve their results, and in the increasing disparity in wealth and opportunity for the uppermost and lowermost economic classes in our nation.
Having had first-hand experience learning from those who know (those working at NYSED and familiar with regulations) I can say that as many times as education regulations say certain opportunities are to be available to all students: the state of school funding in New York is a powerful determining factor in what opportunities will actually be available to students. The inequity in the funds and opportunities available within public schools and in households across the state already undermines our obligation to educate equitably- more so than unions and bad teachers; more so than bureaucracy within the public education system; far more than the lack of tests or test-related consequences. That inequity and poverty outside of the school have an impact within the school is a reality confronted by dedicated educators every day, and one that is avoided by our leaders and policy makers.
Public schools are ours. We are the public, public schools belong to all of us, and it is important to discuss them that way. Education is what builds an informed and capable citizenry-one that drives and demands strong, honest leadership and works together for change when leadership strays from the collective values and goals. Whether it is at the voting booth or in mass demonstrations of displeasure-such as the recent “opt out” movement, an educated and informed citizenry informs and shapes the best results. When the populace is educated and informed, and understands its civic duty to move collectively for change, the benefit is widespread. The economy, cohesiveness within the society, and character of the nation all benefit. Our public schools are ours. They exist for the good of all.
[i] “Our public schools” here is a reference to schools that are truly public, and are mandated to accept and serve all students in their area regardless of economic status, family resources, or special needs. It has become fashionable and politically convenient for some charter schools to call themselves “public charters” while having mechanisms in place to shape their enrollment in ways that artificially improve their results on measures of achievement. Instead of quietly being pleased with their manufactured success, leaders of this type of education movement will cast critical light on the truly public schools doing the work they refuse to do. Sometimes they even enlist PR firms, lobbyists and politicians at all levels to promote charter schools without promoting the discussion regarding the money behind them, and who they will and won’t serve.
[ii] “Support” here means a variety of things from funding, to policy, to the way those in leadership roles discuss public education. How we support our public schools will determine the degree to which our society benefits. Here, I’ll save on words and get to the point: tests are not the answer, but one of the least significant tools if more equitable outcomes are desired. Tests are not curriculum, they are not true objectives, and they certainly shouldn’t be considered “support”-though they seem to be the go-to for those driving policy and attempting to control the debate and appear supportive. While the testing process and data can inform and guide instruction when put in the hands of educators, it can also be the crutch or the shield people use when they are unable to contend with real life facts that come with real live people; a cheap and insufficient answer to a complicated problem. The time being spent tweaking and safeguarding testing policy and the testing process could be better spent empowering the professionals to handle testing and how tests can be used (since assessment in education is part of a process best understood and implemented by professionals in that field) and turning policy-making on to the funding and opportunity equity issue (since the economy and policy is best understood by those in that field).
[iii] “Successful” is very subjective when it comes to charters. That they are available to only some is fine, that they refuse entry or “counsel out” others is less fine, but that school leaders in these social filter schools would dare presume to compare their results to the community melting pots that real public schools are is simply unacceptable. That politicians would willingly join this theater without openly discussing the play is tragic. That’s not leadership. Just come out and say “These teachers we have been attacking with tests and evaluation are the heroes. They do the job no one else is willing to do. The best we can come up with is a path for the easier, better supported, more efficient to teach and graduate type students. We are still at a loss on the most challenging students in the most struggling neighborhoods and schools…so more tests and evaluations for now.”