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The Politics of Reform in the Presidential Election

Dear Deborah,

I agree with you about the dangerous nature of the attacks on public education. I think the most troubling thing about these attacks is that they are coming from Democrats and Republicans alike. Given that we are in the middle of a critical presidential campaign I think it is important for us to place the attacks against unions, teachers, and public education generally within a political context so that we can respond in a manner that is thoughtful and strategic.

For me, there's no question that Barack Obama and the Democrats are allies of public education. Even though I have opposed many of the administration's education policies, and some prominent Democrats like Rahm Emanuel in Chicago and Michael Nutter in Philadelphia have embraced positions that undermine public schools, I believe the Obama administration has done some things that are noteworthy and important, and for that reason it deserves our continued support. Providing states with stimulus funds to prevent even further cuts to schools and layoffs of teachers during this prolonged recession has been critical. So, too, is the Promise Neighborhood initiative, even if funding was reduced by Congress. It showed that the administration understands the connections between poverty and education in economically depressed communities.

Most important of all is the adoption of the national healthcare plan, so-called Obamacare. Once the plan is fully implemented, children throughout the United States will have access to healthcare, which means families won't have to rely on emergency rooms for basic health needs. Many people don't see health as an educational issue, but you and I both know that it is. If Obama wins this election, we can expect to see more children performing better in school simply because their health needs are being addressed.

The contrast with Mitt Romney and the Republicans is striking. They have offered nothing other than the promise of more cuts because they see education spending as a wasteful social entitlement. To the degree that they have proposals, they consist largely of the same empty rhetoric we've heard before: vouchers, choice, and attacks on unions.

To me, the choice between the two candidates is easy for anyone who cares about public education, and those who argue that the two parties are equivalent are dangerously naive.

However, if Obama wins the election, then we have to do more than we have over the last four years to influence the direction of the administration's policies. It's not good enough to sit around and complain about its policies. We have to engage administration officials as critical supporters and refuse to remain on the sidelines. To be taken seriously we must propose ideas for how to reform and revitalize the nation's public schools, and we must find ways for our ideas to be taken seriously.

This past Friday I spoke to the NEA Foundation in Washington about what role the union can play in reform. I am a senior fellow with the NEA, and I encouraged the union leadership and the district leaders from across the country who were present to work together to shift the direction of reform away from the narrow focus on standards and accountability.

We have to call for a concerted effort to build the capacity of schools to meet student needs and expand opportunities for students to learn. This re-framing is what Michael Fullan (also a senior fellow with the NEA) has shown is occurring in the nations that are making the most progress in education. It is also the approach that the Schott Foundation has been advocating as part of its national campaign.

Such an approach makes sense, and I believe that as more people hear what about it we will be able to build a national campaign in support of it. Under the No Child Left Behind Act we have completely ignored the blatant inequities that exist between affluent and poor children. Our policymakers been silent on issues such as racial segregation and they have turned a blind eye to the pernicious effects of poverty. We have to point out the injustice of what is going on and then spell out an alternative strategy, one that uses the example of successful schools like Brockton High School in Massachusetts and districts like Montgomery County, Md., and Long Beach, Calif., to root these ideas in reality.

Last year, my colleague Wade Boykin and I wrote a book entitled Creating the Opportunity to Learn: Moving from Research to Practice to Close the Achievement Gap. We started by unpacking what the achievement gap is—an educational manifestation of inequality reinforced by gaps in preparation (access to quality pre-school), gaps in support outside of school, and gaps in funding for schools. We also present research-based strategies on how to improve teaching, increase student motivation and engagement, and transform the cultures of schools. The response to the book from educators across the country has been encouraging.

Deborah, many of these ideas are not new. You, Ted Sizer, and many others have written about them before, but we have to raise them again. The Obama administration is our ally, not our enemy. We must work with them to show that a better approach to improving our schools is possible. We'll have to wait until after the election to begin this engagement because right now we should be focused on doing all we can to make sure that Obama wins. But after the celebrations are over, we'll need to adopt a position of critical support toward our allies in Washington and build a movement that will force them to do the right thing for our children.

Have a safe trip to Belgium, Deb.
Pedro

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