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Time to Put Forward a New Reform Agenda

Dear Deborah,

Well, we can let out a sigh of relief. Barack Obama won, and it wasn't even as close as many in the media predicted it would be. Nov. 6 was a great day, not only because the president was re-elected, but a number of progressive Democrats, including Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, and Tammy Baldwin will be in the Senate. The election was a major loss for the Tea Party, the religious right (especially given that gay marriage has now been approved by voters in Maine and Maryland), and conservatives who favored Mitt Romney's vision of protecting the 1 percent. President Obama has already made it clear that he intends to honor his pledge to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, and this means the budget won't be balanced on the backs of the poor and middle class. A great deal is being made about the lack of minority support for Romney, but it should be noted that Obama won in predominantly white states like Minnesota, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Oregon, too. We may not be in a post-racial America, but it's clear that a majority of Americans had no problem electing a black man to the presidency again. This is a good thing for America.

As we both know with respect to education, the future is less clear. Obama didn't speak much about his plans for education during the campaign. He didn't say much about Race to the Top or take a lot of credit for getting 46 states to adopt the common-core standards. I guess he understood that those measures aren't as popular with teachers, and he relied heavily on support from teachers' unions to win in several key states. His silence on these issues doesn't mean that his policies will change, but it may mean that we have an opportunity to influence the direction the administration will take over the next four years as they consider adopting new policies.

The StudentsFirst campaign headed by Michelle Rhee experienced some major losses in Idaho where they tried to end teacher tenure and in Bridgeport, Conn., where they wanted to replace the elected school board with mayoral control. This is a good sign that the public has not embraced their narrow agenda, but if we want the Obama administration to rethink its policies and adopt a broader reform strategy we will have to move quickly to mobilize parents, teachers' unions, and community organizations around a broad vision for change. Such a vision must go well beyond a critique of No Child Left Behind and Race for the Top, and it certainly has to do more than assert that poverty is the real problem.

We both know that poverty is harming millions of children and the schools they attend, but we can't take the position that nothing can be done until we eliminate poverty. We have too many children languishing in dysfunctional schools in urban areas throughout the nation right now, and their parents don't want to hear that we have to wait till we muster the will to reduce poverty. Moreover, there are schools that are showing us right now that if we address the academic and social needs of poor children, they can not only achieve, they can thrive. We must use these schools as examples for reform, and we must offer clear and concrete recommendations on what the administration can do right now to produce real, sustainable improvements in our nation's schools.

While many stakeholders need to be involved in developing this vision and agenda, I think it would be helpful if we used our exchange to discuss some of the things it must include. Here are three ideas that I think make sense:

1) The federal government should call for the creation of a comprehensive support systems around schools in low-income communities to address issues such as safety, health, nutrition, and counseling. This should include the expansion of preschool and after-school programs and extended learning opportunities during the summer. Many of these ideas were included in the Obama administration's Promise Neighborhood program, but the $60 million allocated in 2012 to fund the initiative was insufficient to meet the overwhelming number of applications that were received. Instead of relying exclusively on federal funds, local communities should be encouraged to develop public-private partnerships so that the support systems can be developed and sustained without ongoing federal support. We know it will be hard to maintain federal funding for these systems in this fiscal climate, particularly as the president and Congress try to find a way to balance the budget, so we must try to develop models that will not be vulnerable to spending cuts.

2) The federal government must support a new approach to assessment that focuses on concrete evidence of academic performance—writing, reading, mathematical problem-solving—and moves away from using standardized tests to measure and rank students, teachers, and schools. A number of schools in New York state utilize performance-based assessments, and longitudinal studies have found that these students are more likely to enroll in college and less likely to take remedial courses in college than their peers who are subjected to traditional standardized tests.

3) The federal governments needs to call upon the states and school districts to undertake careful evaluations of struggling schools to determine why they are failing to meet the needs of the students they serve before prescribing what should be changed. Instead of simply closing troubled schools such a strategy would require a greater focus on enrollment patterns (i.e. have we concentrated too many "high-needs" students in a school?) and ensuring that schools have the capacity to meet the needs of the students they serve rather than merely judging them under the current accountability systems.

I'll stop here to await your reactions. I don't think we need to produce a manifesto for change, but we do need to begin to outline some key steps that could be taken to move public education in a different direction.

Deb, there is ample evidence that the direction we've been taking isn't working. The international comparisons, the high dropout rates, the large number of failing schools, and the deep alienation we see among so many students who are being bored to death by the emphasis on test preparation are all indications that a new strategy is necessary. I think the time is right to begin formulating ideas and policies that will take us in a new and better direction, and I think the administration may be more open to change than it was over the last four years.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Pedro

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