Recently, Checker Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute wrote an open letter to you, proposing that you stay the course with the failed reforms of the past fifteen years. Marc Tucker wrote an open letter to you, disagreeing with Checker. He said that all of Checker's proposals were tinkering at the margins (Teach for America, New Leaders, scholarships, charter schools), and he recommended that you invest in improving the education system with an eye to the high-performing nations of the world. If Marc was thinking about Finland, my personal favorite, I endorse what he says; Finland emphasizes highly educated teachers, minimal testing, pre-school education, medical care, no charters, no vouchers, and lots of emphasis on creativity and play.
You may be tired of receiving open letters. But I want to put in my open letter now that it is open-letter season.
Dear Mark and Priscilla,
I hope you won't mind some unsolicited advice from someone you don't know. I am writing you because you have the resources and the energy to make a real difference in the lives of millions of children and families, as well as their teachers and schools. Your great wealth can be squandered-as it was in Newark-where your $100 million gift disappeared down a very dark hole and did nothing for the children of that city. Or your great wealth can be used to strengthen the one institution that touches the lives of most children: their public school.
I am a historian of American education. I used to be part of the "reform movement," but after too many years, I recognized that the reforms popular among policy makers are useless and counterproductive. I defected from the reform movement, because it has the wrong diagnosis and the wrong solutions. I didn't want to be on the wrong side of history. I hope you too want to use your influence to make a genuine difference in the lives of children, instead of fattening the vast self-serving reform machine, which is already awash in millions and millions of dollars, all chasing the same failed ideas.
You need to understand that reformers live in an echo chamber. They talk to one another, they tell one another the same stories, they learn nothing new. They are sure that American public schools are failing, that public school teachers are ineffective, and that the steady application of standards, tests, punishments, and rewards will transform the lives of children; they believe that schools with low test scores should be privatized, turned into charters, and one day soon, there will be no more poverty. These assumptions are untethered to reality. Standards and tests will not help the children who typically score in the bottom half. Reformers slander a vital democratic institution and the millions of teachers who work for low pay because they have a sense of mission.
Despite what you may have heard, the test scores of American students are at their highest point ever. High school graduation rates are at an all-time high. Dropout rates are at an all-time low.
Why the continuing despair about the state of the schools? Some of it comes from elites who never set foot in a public school. They attended the best private schools, and they look down on public schools and their teachers with condescension.
I am not suggesting that all is well. In fact, the great crisis in our society, reflected in our schools, is a direct result of the high rates of childhood poverty. To our shame, we have the highest rate of child poverty of any advanced nation. Nearly one-quarter of our nation's children are growing up without food security, without assurance of a decent home, without access to regular medical care.
Surely you are aware of the work of Nadine Powell Harris, who has gathered powerful evidence of the lasting effects of childhood trauma. The trauma she describes is closely correlated with extreme poverty and the stress of poverty. And yet reformers blame the public schools and their teachers for the failure of our society! Why have other countries made successful efforts to reduce childhood poverty, but we have not?
Priscilla, I have read that you attributed your personal success to public school teachers who encouraged you. Today, there are millions of teachers working to encourage and inspire children just like you, working to convince them to believe in themselves. These teachers do so despite the vilification that reformers continually direct at them.
Here is my advice to you:
Please join the fight to preserve and strengthen public schools.
Please do not contribute to the movement to privatize public schools.
Please support efforts to create community schools, which are equipped to meet the needs of children.
Please support efforts to establish medical clinics in every school, where children can receive dental care, routine check-ups, and be tested for vision problems, hearing problems, and lead in their blood.
Please insist that schools have the resources to meet the emotional and psychological needs of children.
Please use your influence to assure that every school has a library with a librarian and lots of books and computers.
Please support the right of teachers to bargain collectively. Unions built our middle class, and that middle class is now feeling stressed and under siege.
Please do not support efforts to eliminate the due process rights of teachers. Schools need stability, and teachers need to know that their academic freedom is protected.
Please understand that the expansion of charter schools harms public schools, which enroll the vast majority of children. Charter schools are not better than public schools. Those that get high test scores often do so by keeping out the children who might get low scores. Charter schools, including those that cherrypick their students, take resources away from public schools, as well as their best students.
Mark and Priscilla, we are at a critical juncture: the very survival of public education is at risk.
Public schools welcome all students: those with disabilities, those who don't speak English, those who have low test scores. They teach us to live with others who are different from ourselves and our family. They are a basic, essential democratic institution. Schools are not businesses. They are a public service, a part of our common inheritance as citizens.
Do no harm. Strengthen democracy. Strengthen the public schools whose doors are open to all. Stand with the parents and educators who say no to privatization.
The privatizers don't need you. They have a herd of billionaires in their fold.
We need you. Please help us transform our public schools into the great instrument of democracy and social justice that they must be.
Join the Network for Public Education and support the parents and educators across the nation who are trying, often with bare hands, to roll back the deluge of money dedicated to high-stakes testing and privatization.
We need you. Bill Gates and Eli Broad do not.