Paul Horton, a history teacher at the University of Chicago Lab School, wrote the following open letter to President Obama:
July 12, 2013
Dear Mr. President,
I am very concerned about how you decided to go the way that you did with your Education policies. I was recently told by a close friend of the yours that “Arne’s Team looked at all of the options” and decided to go with its current policies because they would get us where we needed to go more quickly than any other set of alternatives.” I was also told, “that not everybody could be in the room.”
The problem was that you did not listen to experience. The blueprint for Arne’s plan for stimulus investment that morphed into the Race to the Top Mandates featured advisers from the Gates and Broad Foundations, analysts from McKinsey consulting, and a couple of dozen superintendents who were connected, like Mr. Duncan, to the Broad Foundation. Most of those who were invited to advise you were committed supporters of heavy private investment in Education who favored high stakes testing tied to teacher evaluations. Most of these advisers also favored the scaling up of measurable data collection as a way to measure progress or lack of progress in American Education.
If you had listened to the leading experts on standardized testing and the achievement gap, you would have learned that your policies were and are bound to fail. Our former colleague here at the U of C, Professor Coleman, was the first to establish this empirically. You should also learn about Campbell’s Law.
On a more personal level, Mr. President, you consulted many of your contacts in Democrats for Education Reform, an organization funded mostly by Democratic leaning Wall Street investment firms. And you were also very impressed by the ideas and passion of a Denver charter school principal and Democratic activist, Michael Johnston.
Michael Johnston has good potential as a politician, but he is not a qualified adviser to the President on Education matters. His record in Education is manufactured to look good. Over forty percent of his miracle Denver charter school class that graduated 100% dropped out before their senior year. This is an advantage that most charter schools have over public schools. Teach For America, where Johnston cut his teeth, typically has a very narrow and skewed view of American Education. State senator Johnston’s efforts on behalf of immigrants and redistribution of education funding are admirable. But many of us have been fighting this battle for decades. Johnston has had every advantage, and he his heart is certainly in the right place..
Many thousands of us have been fighting this battle for thirty and forty years and we remain relatively poor, isolated from the centers of power where big bucks are easy to acquire. Many of us have devoted our entire lives to helping minority students, yet we are treated very badly by this administration.
Thousands of teachers possess the experience, training, and commitment to advise you on Education matters. But you choose to listen to those who went to places like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford who have two years of classroom experience. Commitment, I submit, is a very important word.
The true measure of one’s commitment to Education is one’s willingness to sacrifice one’s will to power and economic potential to be successful in the classroom. TFA kids who go back to grad school after two years in the classroom and buy into corporate education reform are embracing their will to power. Most of these kids tend to have every advantage to begin with, they get an Ivy League education, and they are ambitious young liberals. Rather than staying in the classroom and truly making a difference by developing their teaching skills over twenty or thirty years, can achieve administrative positions in the charter world that have far more economic potential than teaching positions by buying into the mantra of data-driven corporate reform lingo.
You have left thousands of us behind and allowed inexperience access to take charge. You and your administration have encouraged a “Cultural Revolution” in American education. You promoted your basketball buddy and very close friend of your campaign finance manager to be Secretary of Education. From where I stand, Karen Duncan would have been a much better choice for Education Secretary because she has much more experience working with kids in a school setting than her husband. She knows what makes a great teacher from personal experience as an exemplary teacher. She is also much smarter and much funnier than her husband.
Your policies represent a new elitism. You seem to think that: “if we can get these really smart Ivy League educated former TFA people in senior policy, superintendent, and administrative positions, then we can turn this whole thing around.”
This idea is arrogant beyond belief, the equivalent of the “best and the brightest” idea that drove us into the ground in Vietnam, only you have decided to do it in Education. Robert McNamara was brilliant, he had an analytical razor, but he lacked a moral compass and anything resembling empathy for the lives of those who were dying in a “winnable” war. Mr. Duncan has a great deal of empathy, but he his policies are misguided. Indeed, in my humble opinion, his department’s policies are an inarticulate mess. If he were ever asked the right questions under oath in senator Harkin’s committee, we could very well discover that his use of the authority of his office overstepped the legal parameters of the laws circumscribing federal involvement in the formulation of Education policy. Ms. Weiss and Mr. Sheldon III, two of Secretary Duncan’s advisors who worked for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation prior to serving under Secretary Duncan, articulated what Mr. Gates wanted on his terms in exchange for tacit support for your campaigns. Several Wall Street investing firms also made it clear to you and to Mr. Emanuel that they were willing to support you if your Education policies encouraged private investment in charter schools.
You have bought into a corporate model of Education Reform: you seek to create competition among public and private schools, you encourage the “creative destruction” that your University of Chicago Business School buddies and Judge Posner love, and you seem to be gung-ho about selling off the public commons of American Education that were built with the sweat and blood of American farmers and workers. Do your policies work for young people who need stability in their lives? Creative destruction might benefit some kids (I was a military brat), but it probably does not benefit most.
Your Education policies embrace the management tactics of McKinsey Consulting that call for the firing of twenty to twenty-five percent of the teacher workforce every two years. You have said that Education should not “all be about bubble tests,” but your policies measure progress by bubble tests and they narrow the curriculum when they require standardized testing in some subjects, but not in others.
You campaigned on doing something about income inequality, but you and many of the mayors that you support are actively working to destroy what is left of the American middle class. Your Education policies work actively to destroy teacher unions. Many of your mayors and governors are working to bust teacher, hospital, public employee, firemen’s, and police unions.
What has happened to the Democratic Party when a foundational element of your education policy is to frequently vilify hundreds of thousands of effective and excellent teachers who have committed their lives to the classroom? You listen to people who are very smart and they seem to know it all. They are very polished presenters of themselves. Your policies favor this new class of ambitious young people who lack the commitment to kids to make a real difference where it is needed—in the classroom.
The question that all of you need to take a closer look at is how do we get and keep candidates who would be brilliant in any career into the classroom?
How do you increase the size of the quality teaching pool? The answers are there, and they don’t have anything to do with charter schools.
If Mr. Gates were really serious about Education in this country, he could invest in creating a system like Finland’s. The problem is that he is more interested in selling product than investing in four well qualified and well trained teachers in every classroom.
Progress in Education is not about buildings, it is not about technology: It is about human investment, not the expansion of markets.
President Obama, I have great respect for you. I have taught many of the young people who work for you. Ask your chef what a hard ass teacher I was. Please find the time to talk to committed teachers who have given their entire professional careers to improving Education in this country. This would require you to step outside of your comfort zone inside of Democrats for Education Reform and Teach for America circles. It will also require you to look beyond the mess that Ms. Weiss, Mr. Sheldon III, and Bill Gates have helped to create. It will require you to talk to Karen Duncan about teaching and schools rather than to Arne Duncan.
Please encourage senator Durbin and his committee to completely defund No Child Left Behind. Do you prefer to fund Pearson Education or allow thousands of teachers to be laid off? This is what it is coming down to. Will you allow the middle class to be further eroded? Or will you fight for the jobs of teachers? Will you reward Wall Street investors in Education and Bill Gates, or are you willing to fight for neighborhood schools and arts and humanities programs? Will you use Value Added Measures tied to standardized testing to further discredit teachers? Or will you begin to understand how complex real learning is, learning that can not be measured by “bubble tests.” These are your choices, Mr. President. Please look beyond your current Education advisors if you want to explore complex questions and solutions.
I would welcome the opportunity to discuss these and other issues with you.
University High School
The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools
A reader in Colorado sent the following correction to the above:
“Michael Johnston worked for a public school in CO: MESA Mapleton expeditionary school of the arts. Not a charter. Gary Rubinstein points out that Johnston s claim to fame–100% grads accepted to 4 year college —is a bit disingenuous. 77 10th graders morphed to 44 grads.”