Dear Mr. Rodriguez …

An Open Letter to Roberto Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy

Dear Mr. Rodriguez:

As you will no doubt recall, last week when I was invited to the White House as one of 40 education leaders from Pennsylvania I stood before you and pleaded for an end to the national narrative of “failing public schools.” I am writing to let you know about the national conversation that that meeting has sparked – and the overwhelming sense of disappointment, despair and frustration it has evoked. You asked for a dialogue and feedback, so please allow me to tell you what people are saying.

First, many people want to know how it is that the White House, the Department of Education, Democratic leaders, and many on the political left have bought hook, line and sinker into this rhetoric about public education – once a pillar of our democracy – overlooking the actual experience of education professionals and despite mountains of educational research. (This is exactly what “At the Chalkface,” a national talk radio program, spoke with me about this past weekend.) The toxic failing-public-schools narrative is not only based on a false notion that American students are falling farther and farther behind our international peers, but it blames supposedly overpaid, uncaring teachers and bureaucratic school administrators for the very real problems that do exist in our country.

Yet we know that middle class students from well-funded schools perform at the top on international tests. We know that student achievement has actually gone up, not down over the past thirty-five years. And we know that the trenchant problem of racial disparity in our schools has far more to do with poverty and inequitable funding at the local and state level than with bad teaching or unions.

People want to know why, then, this administration seems blind to the consequences of adopting President Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy, which set schools up to fail, stigmatized them, and then undermined public confidence in public education. They ask why our national leaders ignore the clear evidence that NCLB has wrecked havoc on our schools, creating a culture of high-stakes testing, teaching to the test, cheating scandals, drastically narrowed focus to just reading and math, all the while preventing desperately needed debate about real issues such as meaningful curriculum reform.

The piece I wrote about our conversation last week, “The Elephant at the White House,” was picked up and re-published nationally by AlterNet.org, the Horace Mann League, and Diane Ravitch, among others. Ravitch wrote a response piece, “About that Meeting at the White House,” in which she asked pointedly, “will they do anything differently? What signal, if any, will the White House give to show that they understand that Race to the Top is an extension of NCLB? It is NCLB on steroids.” Here are some comments from people across the country:

  • “Empty chair for PRESIDENT! Because no other choice measures up”
  • “…the Dems [are] hellbent on pushing [Race to the Top] during Obama’s re-election. From a purely political perspective, it has got to be the worst strategy the Dems have ever had. The race is very close and it is possible Obama will lose. I wonder why he has abandoned teachers and parents.”
  • “I guess [the election] wouldn’t be so close right now if he hadn’t forgotten all of us. I am disgusted, completely and totally disgusted with Obama, Duncan and the whole lot of them. Obama should spend a morning at Sidwell Friends and then follow up with an unannounced visit to a test prep charter. Then he should hang his head in shame.”
  • “…[throw] the profiteers and consultants out of the meeting; [abandon] Race to the Top; [say] that Mr. Duncan would not be part of the next administration; [promise] to phase out testing and to remove test scores from teachers evaluations. When they do the above, I will trust them.”
  • “USDoE spokespeople seemed to be brave in this meeting — and then what? And now how is the Obama administration going to respond to the brave teacher/parent/community alliance in Chicago, where teachers are being forced to strike…to defend and protect their students and schools?”
  • “Alas, the [NCLB] waiver is not a waiver, just a commitment to do other harmful things!”
  • “…of the 40+ educators who attended, only 2 were teachers. Teachers have professional expertise that needs to be acknowledged, cultivated, and sustained.”
  • “Race to the Top is more of the same un-researched, unreliable, and feckless education policy that further demeans the profession and those of us who are steeped in the research of effective practice.”

Last week we talked about the new Hollywood movie, “Won’t Back Down,” which blames coldhearted teachers, unions, and school districts and was made by the same people who released “Waiting for Superman” two years ago. I practically begged you not to use the movie as a promotion for market-based corporate “reformers” and their agenda of school privatization. This piece of fiction claims to be “inspired by real events” and is set right here in Pittsburgh, though there is absolutely no evidence that anything like it ever happened here. What is clear, however, is that the film was bankrolled by the ultra-right and attempts to introduce the notion of parent-trigger laws, another policy darling of those supposed reformers. I was appalled to learn that the Democratic National Convention chose to show the movie this week (following in the footsteps of the Republicans who showed it at their convention last week).

I’ve been invited by President Obama’s campaign here in Pittsburgh to speak tonight at a party celebrating his acceptance speech. I’ve been asked to speak about my trip to the White House. What am I supposed to tell them? On this issue, Mr. Rodriguez – your issue of education – President Obama is no different from his opposition. To say we are disappointed is an understatement.

I hope you and all of the President’s advisors will give serious attention to Diane Ravitch’s most excellent advice in, “How President Obama Could Win the Election.” She has proposed an amazing, short speech that could win back educators, parents, and public school advocates.

I plead with you once again from here on the ground in the grassroots of a key state in this election: let’s talk equity, let’s talk about poverty, let’s talk about real education reform, and let’s talk about public education as a public good.

Respectfully yours,

Jessie Ramey
——————
Jessie B. Ramey, Ph.D.
ACLS New Faculty Fellow, Women’s Studies and History
University of Pittsburgh
Yinzer Nation + Education = Yinzercation

6 thoughts on “Dear Mr. Rodriguez …

  1. Obama needs to get this message. I can’t be the only one that votes on principle, and at this point Romney is an absolutely not, and Obama is a probably not-solely because of his failure to truly defend the middle class. PUBLIC SCHOOLS DID BUILD IT MR. PRESIDENT!

  2. Yet again, keeping it real, Jessie. Continue speaking truth to power for so many of us who don’t have the ear of the decision-makers and agenda-setters. You have succeeded in making inroads into the halls of power with messages from the real world. As one of many in the trenches who appreciates your diligence and hard work, I send you my sincere thanks and a wish for you to get the support you need to continue!

    I find particularly powerful the evidence that “middle class students from well-funded schools perform at the top on international tests.” What better evidence do we need about how to set public school funding priorities if we really are serious about improved outcomes in all schools, including those serving our most impoverished? Our poorest, most at-risk students should be showered with the BEST educational opportunities that money can buy, not the opposite.

    As seen on a sign at a rally: “What do we want? Evidence-based change. When do we want it? After peer review.”

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