A shorter version of this guest column ran today on the op-ed education page that I edit for the print AJC. You are getting the uncut version. This piece by University of Arkansas associate professor Chris Goering reflects the concerns many educators feel about this upcoming presidential election: They don’t think either candidate has it right on education.
In the next two months, I hope to run more pieces on both the election and the charter school amendment vote in Georgia that is attracting national interest and money. If you have something to say on either and want to submit a piece, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Chris Goering
Mr. President: On Education, You Can’t Handle the Truth
In November of 2008 and again in January of 2009, I have never been as proud to be an American as I was when you were elected and then subsequently sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. Before those two great days, I had lost a lot of faith in our country and especially in its leadership under your predecessor. This small town Kansas boy turned English teacher sobbed tears of joy while sitting and watching your acceptance speech in my now home of Fayetteville, Arkansas. I was proud of you, sir; I had a bumper sticker and a yard sign. Unfortunately, four years later I have a more powerful memory of the day after your inauguration, January 20th, the day your friend Arne Duncan was sworn in as your Secretary of Education.
The truth about what you and your secretary have done to education, unless you reverse course immediately, most assuredly has cost you the votes of many teachers in this country, a demographic that should be strong in their support of you. This isn’t to say I like your opponent or think his education plan is any better—the fact your secretary’s name is being considered for retention if Romney were to win the election in November puts voters like me who care about public education in a no-win situation. Mr. Obama, while I hate to invoke words of yet another Hollywood star given the recent talking chair episode, about education, “you can’t handle the truth.” The education record that you’ve been touting around the country in recent weeks is nothing more than empty political rhetoric. Your education record is awful, perhaps the worst in the history of our country. And that’s saying something.
You’ve said recently that Race to the Top is a great success. Truthfully, Race to the Top takes the worst aspects of the Bush administration’s education policies and gives them teeth and financial backing. In my now 13th year in education, I’ve witnessed those same policies destroy teaching and learning in the schools, turning children and teachers into automatons for standardized testing. As a teacher and teacher educator I often felt like I was sitting on a deck chair of the Titanic. While the Bush Administration steered us directly towards the iceberg of NCLB, Arne has managed to hit five more icebergs while claiming that the boat is at fault.
Let’s talk for a second about the neo-liberal agenda your leadership has encouraged. Privatizing education is the equivalent of the Bush era Wall Street policy, heavy with idea candy like free trade, open markets, and deregulation ended in disaster in 2008. A neoliberal education agenda, one in love with oversimplified metrics of progress like test scores, promises a bleak future. Mr. President, how could you? You’ve argued for four years that Wall Street needed more oversight to prevent the bailout situation you admirably faced in your first year as president. Your move in health care mirrored your perspective on Wall Street (I support both initiatives wholeheartedly, by the way). But who will save our schools once they crash like Wall Street? We are heading for an educational meltdown of Wall Street proportions, and I think you and your education secretary/agenda will and should be blamed for part of it, an offense that will land you and Arne in the same conversations that the country has had about Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney and their role in torturing prisoners. Who will protect our children from the educational equivalents of Bain Capital, vultures hungry to buy schools and then shut them down for financial gain?
Current policy looks like educational waterboarding in the classrooms I visit. Strapping teachers and children to unrealistic standards and goals and repeatedly beating them upside the head with standardized tests that experts believe tell us next to nothing about what a child can actually do, is sustained torture with awful consequences for all of us, for our country’s future. When creativity is seined out of a curriculum by focusing on narrow standards (i.e., No Child Left Behind) who — teachers, students, administrators — wants to do that? I’m afraid this approach is designed to create less informed populace, one that is easier to control.
You see sir, what is most disappointing to me as a member of your party, is the fact that the people who will really be hurt by school vouchers, semi-private charter schools, and your war on teachers (see tenure, tying test scores to pay, and tying teachers’ students’ test scores to teacher preparation), is not the millionaire and billionaire heirs of the Romney-like fortunes, it will be the people in this country you’ve said, over and over, you are here to protect. A neo-liberal education agenda will benefit the one percenters and the people resting somewhere between the 1 percent and upper middle class. The poor will be left out in the cold without a decent public school to attend and without any hope for upward mobility, educationally speaking.
If you know that what I’ve said here is right, and I think you do, I urge you to take the following actions immediately in hopes that you can save the election and more importantly, save American education. First, unceremoniously fire Arne Duncan with prejudice for subverting your vision of America through his department’s education policies. What didn’t work on Wall Street or in the health care industry surely won’t work in our classrooms. We need a great public education system. Go ahead and cut a wide swath through the education department and see who is pulling the strings. Act swiftly. Immediately stop Race to the Top. Our children and our future are not for sale. Immediately stop No Child Left Behind—the do-nothing congress of the last four years needs to pass an elementary and secondary education act and perhaps your remaining political chips could be spent on that.
Finally, I urge you to take swift action in pressing pause on the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. While I don’t hate them for what they are, I do hate them for how they were handed to our country, through doublespeak and lies. Have you really looked deeply in the “evidence” that supports these standards? It is a joke and quite frankly, you should know better. Do you really think a single state would have adopted those standards if you hadn’t forced the states, in their financial time of desperation, to sign on to CCSS in order to be eligible for more money? And the fact that private philanthropic foundations (i.e., Gates Foundation) are driving these changes is more than a little off-putting.
No third grader needs to be tested for 34 days of a school year, something happening in schools around your country. The education crisis (bad schools, bad teachers, low achieving students) is largely manufactured, carefully and purposefully misconstrued by those large corporation-types who don’t want to support public education. You just had those same arguments with the health care power brokers so this shouldn’t surprise you. You must turn that same sort of attention to our nation’s schools. They are dying an increasingly quick, Jack Kevorkian-like death.
I shudder to think what sort of precedent your first term policies will lead to if you are not re-elected this November. If Mitt Romney wins this election, he’ll be pushing the school choice agenda as he addressed over and over in his acceptance of his party’s nomination. You see, school choice is another way of saying “privatize,” “de-regulate,” and eventually “defund” public education—this will have grave consequences for America and we need you to act swiftly, Mr. President, to stop this advancing agenda (one you’ve been at least complicit to up to this point).
I’m sorry to write this letter. I still swell with pride and emotion when I hear you speak and listen to your ideas about our country. You’ve given me a lot of hope, and I still have hope for you, but let’s be honest, your education record is not something you should be touting. While you have been saving our auto industry and pushing health care coverage for all Americans, the formative years of our nation’s youth has been abducted and held for ransom. It is not too late to make sure that educators who feel like I do (and I assure you they number in the tens of thousands) vote for you on election day. We are not likely to show up at the polls to vote against you, but the way things are going, the truth for us is that we feel like we replaced a rabid cat (Bush era education policy) with a rabid dog (your education policy) in 2008 and neither provides much hope.
Your former (and hopefully future) supporter,
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog