Dear Hillary Clinton:
Now that it looks like you really might be our next president, a lot of people who work in public education are giving you advice. Please take it all with a grain of salt.
We know you are close to American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. Her union endorsed you early and stuck with you even as many union members supported Bernie Sanders. You promised her a seat at the table and she has earned it.
But, you should know that her union has joined with Congressional Republicans against the Obama administration to deny low-income children their fair share of federal funds. Their position on “supplement vs. supplant” perpetuates inequity and calls into question her union’s commitment to core Democratic values like fairness.
You should also remember that both national unions were once open to evaluating teachers based in part on whether students were actually learning, but they abandoned that position before it even had a chance to work. It’s not at all clear how or even if they want to evaluate teachers, even though hard-working teachers value the feedback and want to see their profession improve in effectiveness, stature and pay.
Moreover, if we can’t honestly and accurately evaluate teachers and distinguish those who are good from those who need more support, we can’t ever come up with a system to get our best teachers in front of the kids who need them most. Instead, we will continue to have a system where the poorest children who are furthest behind are taught by the least effective teachers.
I also read that you had a brief encounter with education historian Diane Ravitch. She once argued for reforms like high standards, accountability and choice but now she is against all of those things. She insists that the real problems afflicting our schools—poverty and segregation—are outside the classroom and that every effort to improve schools has not worked.
Professor Ravitch told you that the Obama administration’s education policies were “a disaster,” echoing your opponent’s hyperbolic language, but the record of the last eight years is clear: All but a handful of states have raised learning standards; hundreds of “dropout factories” (i.e., high schools with very low graduation rates) have closed or improved; high school graduation rates hit an all-time high; millions more young people are enrolled in college.
Beyond that, educational freedom is now a reality for millions of low-income parents across America. Thanks to the growth of public charter schools, empowered parents can choose the right school for their child’s unique educational needs. While charter school quality varies, and better oversight is needed in some states, the best charters prove that low-income children can achieve at the same levels as wealthy children.
The Obama administration played a small but significant role in advancing all of these positive outcomes, offering financial and regulatory incentives to raise standards, expand choice, and strengthen accountability. There is plenty more work to be done, but the administration you served in has an education record to be proud of. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
It’s a shame that education isn’t more of a voting issue in the national election because improving schools would arguably help address more social problems than anything else you can do as president. If you want to boost employment, cut crime and poverty, diminish racism, reduce energy consumption and improve the overall physical and mental health of the American people, the classroom is a really good place to start.
It’s also a shame that, due to an unusual alliance between local control zealots on the right and the education bureaucracy—including school boards, administrators and unions—the federal government is now taking a back seat to the states on accountability. In the coming years, we’ll see how many states hold themselves accountable without pressure or help from Washington.
How many states will maintain high standards and offer a rigorous and challenging curriculum to all students? How many will replace chronically low-performing schools with something better? How many will take the difficult but necessary steps to strengthen the teaching profession? Who will combat segregation and equalize funding between rich and poor districts? And who will find the resources to support students with disabilities?
As you process all that advice from teachers unions and academic elites, take time to talk with low-income parents who support choice and accountability. Listen to actual classroom teachers who thrive on the challenge of teaching kids at risk. Above all, listen to students, who ask only of us adults that we believe in them.