Sign This Letter!

Educators are fighting back. Read, then sign this letter:

To: The Honorable Barack H. Obama
John C. Kluczynski Federal Office Building
230 South Dearborn St.
Suite 3900 (39th floor)
Chicago, Illinois 60604

From: The Undersigned

Of all human drives, the need to satisfy curiosity, to learn, to understand, to make sense of experience, appears earliest in life and is more powerful than any other. That the current thrust of public education reform has not moved us significantly closer to meeting that deep human need is now apparent.

Consider: Standards have been imposed. Art, music, recess, history, civics, geography, and other "frills" have been eliminated. Students and teachers have been shamed, intimidated, pushed out, fired. Vast amounts of money and instructional time have been spent on corporately produced tests and test prep materials. "Bars" have been raised. Students have been sorted, labeled, and retained indefinitely in grade. Distrust of educators has been publicly demonstrated as politicians, business leaders, and other non-educators have replaced professional educators in positions of authority.

And what is there to show for this radical, punitive reform strategy, a strategy now known to have been designed to undermine confidence in public schooling and pave the way for alternatives? Look past the ideology-driven, cherry-picked and manipulated data and it is clear that systemic problems not only persist but have intensified. The achievement gap has not closed. New teachers quit at an alarming rate. Homeschoolers continue to abandon the system. Conscience-stricken educators risk job loss to protest policies that are at odds with research and common sense. Experienced teachers resign or seek early retirement. Preoccupation with test scores brings educational innovation to a standstill. The worst and best students are neglected as resources are concentrated on those whose scores might be raised enough to save a school from reorganization or closure.

It is accepted that economies are too complex to be centrally designed and controlled, and that America’s long dominance of the world’s economy is due in large part to the imagination, flexibility, creativity, and initiative of individuals. What must also be accepted is that educating—discerning and altering the images of reality in others’ minds—is more complicated and challenging than maintaining an economy, and therefore even more dependent upon those personal qualities.

Continuing on our present educational course, propelled by the simplistic notion that educating is a mere matter of setting standards, covering the material, and then testing, is a recipe for institutional and societal disaster. Standards? Of course! But standards tied not to a random handful of disconnected school subjects but to the personal qualities essential to individual and societal well-being. Tests? Of course! But tests not of what can be remembered of something read or heard in class and stored in short-term memory, but tests of the ability to make more sense of the present moment, of the trends of the era, of life.

These kinds of standards and measures of accountability cannot be mandated by centralized political authority or acquired by the letting of contracts to corporations. They are products of a constantly bargained agreement between individual learners and their teachers or mentors, based on mutual trust and respect.

We urge you to appreciate the dangers of standardizing education, of focusing narrowly on achieving minimum standards, of locking static subject-matter standards in place in an era of accelerating change, of seeing the young as mere cogs in the wheels of commerce, of assuming that doing more diligently what we have been doing since the 19th Century will see us safely through to the 22nd. We urge you, in short, to reject the superficial "standards and accountability" approach to education reform and the reactionary policies to which it has led.

There are, of course, constructive roles the federal government can play. Welcome, for example, would be actions encouraging broad dialog to clarify the institution’s overarching aim, policies promoting more equitable and stable funding, measures increasing support for research and innovation, and, of course, comprehensive programs addressing poverty, cultural deprivation, environmental degradation, and other problems directly affecting student performance.

But attempts to manipulate what teachers and students actually do must be entirely abandoned. The inherent complexity of the task, its dynamic, constantly changing nature, the importance to its success of imagination, flexibility and creativity, and the gross inadequacy of presently available standardized measures of performance, make centralized control of the classroom dangerously counterproductive.

Let us help you build a system of education we can believe in.

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