Open Letter to the Secretary of Education Designate: Focus on Equity & Opportunity

Co-authored by Joe Nathan

This is an open letter to Secretary of Education designate Betsy DeVos.

We are Black and White, eastern and midwestern, with 70 years of experience with students and schools between us. We urge that you come to Washington prepared to develop a federal education policy that recognizes and builds on four fundamental facts:

1. Mr. Trump won the election via the Electoral College, and thus was elected to govern and to carry out at least some of his ideas in education and other fields.
2. Sec. Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2 million, which suggests that some of her ideas ought to be respected and carried out.
3. One of the most powerful roles you can have as Secretary of Education is to encourage, support and help assess educational change developed in states and local communities.
4. Because of your previous work, you know many of the nation's most powerful, wealthy people and funders interested in improving schools.

There is both considerable agreement and substantial controversy about how to help many more students succeed in preschool, K-12 and colleges/universities. But we think using these four facts, and six suggestions below may allow you to maximize and expand some of the most effective programs that have been developed - by educators, communities, foundations and researchers. There are many other important issues you'll work on, such as the programs for students with some form of disability, for students who don't speak English as their first language, and for children under age five. But we've chosen to focus on the following:

1. MAKING THE BEST USE OF SCHOOL CHOICE: Recognize the power, potential and challenge of expanding school choice. We agree on the value of public school choice by which we include district, charter, magnet, teacher led, post-secondary option/dual credit and similar programs. We believe that there is no single best school for all students.

We disagree with you about the value of public funds going to K-12 private and parochial schools. We do not support such programs. However, we know that you do believe in them, and that you will have the power and desire to promote these programs. So we suggest that you:

A. Provide funds to help increase family information in various languages, in various media, about school choice programs in several states and local communities. Provide them the options to choose public charters or public district schools. Enable them to seek and understand the importance of diverse learning opportunities for their children.
B. Appoint a commission made up of thoughtful researchers from various viewpoints, along with parents, students and educators participating in school choice programs representing different viewpoints. Give them funds to develop research about what's happening in these school choice programs and what specific action steps could be taken in federal/state/public private partnerships to use choice to help many more students succeed.
C. Continue to provide startup funds for public and private school options that are open to all kinds of students. Some of this should go to replicate and expand outstanding schools, such as those identified as Blue Ribbon Schools. Some of it should go to help create new options which focus on equity and opportunity for students.
D. Provide funds to promote collaboration among different kinds of schools - district, charter, private and parochial - focused on important issues such as reading, math, building a strong climate for learning, etc. We've had experience with this type of collaboration and have seen significant benefits for students.

2. LEARNING MORE FROM THE MOST EFFECTIVE PUBLIC SCHOOLS: Create a national task force that reports to you in six months or less, to recommend ways that we can more effectively learn from the nation's most effective schools, district, charter, private and parochial. There are great public district schools and not-so-good district schools; great charter schools and not-so-good charters. The challenge is to learn from schools that are succeeding --especially for students we call "school-dependent," or those who, because of family and financial circumstances, rely on schools to improve their academic and life trajectories. We can never forget that the primary purpose of schooling is learning and teaching that leads to engaged adults who support and improve on America's dynamic democracy.

The U.S. Department of Education has identified and briefly described hundreds of "Blue Ribbon Schools." But it has done very little to promote actual learning from, or replication of those schools. Some of them want to replicate and expand. We urge that you appoint a task force that includes educators, families, and students from these schools, along with university and institute researchers who can develop recommendations about what the Department can do to increase learning from, and replication of such schools.

We hope the task force will, among other things, ask people working in successful schools which if any federal demands make it more difficult for them to help students succeed. It would help if you announce ahead of time that you are willing to support at least some of their recommendations, and set aside dollars to do just that.

3. CREATING A NATIONAL TASK FORCE ABOUT IMPROVING THE TEACHING PROFESSION: Again, they should report back to you in six months. The task force should include national and state teachers of the year, outstanding teachers from district, charter, private and parochial schools. Task force members also should include family members, high school and college students. We need to recognize that students and teachers do not always come from the same racial or cultural backgrounds. We believe it's vital to change teachers' perceptions and expectations of underachieving students. We believe that particular attention must be given to the cultural dimension of these differences and work to build on the cultural and racial strengths students bring to classrooms rather than their weaknesses. We also believe it's vital to both give and help teachers develop specific, practical strategies to promote learning and teaching in the manner that eliminates stereotype threats and implicit bias that may impede improved academic trajectories for all students. The task force should recommend ways to promote the most successful strategies via professional learning opportunities steeped in neuroscience and culturally responsive pedagogy, changes in administrative and organizational arrangements, teacher development and educator/leadership.

4. IMPROVING POST-SECONDARY EDUCATION: Create a national task force on helping colleges and universities become more effective and efficient. Build on the excellent work that some post-secondary institutions are carrying out. Ask them to report back in six months with specific recommendations. Currently the graduation rates of many colleges and universities are below 50 percent. The problems include finances, but they are not just financial. Education Trust has identified a number of colleges and universities that have done an exceptional job with students from low-income families. Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and tribal Controlled Colleges and Universities have in some cases produced extraordinary results. They should be represented on this task force, along with first generation college graduates and post-secondary faculty and administrators who have produced outstanding results.

5. WORKING WITH STATE LEADERS & FOUNDATIONS: Meet with state governors, state legislators and with national, statewide and local foundations, and with state legislators. Describe your plans, and invite them to join with the Department of Education to help carry out initiatives that you and they agree on. Offer governors, foundations and state legislators the opportunity to partner on one or more of our initiatives. Invite them to submit ideas, based on their experience, on which the federal government might partner with them. This effort recognizes something that we think you and President-elect Trump would agree on: there is great creativity throughout the country, not just in Washington D.C. To be great, we must learn from and use terrific ideas, wherever developed.

6. INITIATING AND MAINTAINING EFFORTS TO PROMOTE RESPECT FOR ALL AMERICANS: President-elect Trump pledged on election night to bring Americans together. He said on national TV that his message to those bullying or threatening others was "cut it out." Yet 80 percent of the 10,000 teachers who responded to a national survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center say they have seen an increase in threatening, bullying and other hostile acts toward some students since the election. We believe you stand with the president in wanting to unite Americans. As the leading federal official in education, you have a wonderful opportunity to help make this happen. We urge, plead and pray that you will make this one of your priorities. Americans seek a united nation. One that ultimately embraces change which enables all of our students to succeed -- one which engages all in the democracy we recognize as a global beacon; woven together by the cultural, demographic mosaic that defines us: White, Black, Brown, Asian, Native Americans and recent immigrants from many countries.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at He tweets as @ECooper4556.

Joe Nathan has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher and advocate. He currently directs the Center for School Change,