An Open Letter to President Elect Biden’s Department of Education Transition Team

I encourage you, as members of President Elect Biden’s Department of Education Transition Team, to recommend the appointment of Randi Weingarten or Lily Eskelsen Garcia as our next Secretary of Education. I believe that one of these women would provide the kind of leadership in public education policy that our nation and our children desperately need.

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, and Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the outgoing President of the National Education Association, have provided extraordinary leadership of efforts by the nation’s teachers significantly to change the long narrative of standardized test-based accountability as the primary driver of federal education policy. They are both public school educators who would turn away from Betsy DeVos’s obsession with vouchers. I believe their leadership helped shape the priorities embodied in the education plan President Elect Biden released during the campaign, an agenda designed to expand opportunity within the public schools serving our nation’s most vulnerable students. Biden’s plan, if implemented, will enhance educational equity and improve children’s experiences at school.

Here are three reasons either Eskelsen Garcia or Weingarten is the right choice to lead the U.S. Department of Education.

First:     We all watched the Red4Ed strikes and walkouts during 2018 and 2019—walkouts that taught America about the devastation of state public school budgets over the decade that followed the 2008 Great Recession. Teachers on strike showed us how Tea Party tax cuts across many states had further decimated state education budgets and how states had then sent away more education dollars to a growing charter school sector and to vouchers for private school tuition.  From West Virginia to Kentucky to Colorado to Oklahoma to Arizona to Los Angeles to Oakland and Chicago, teachers cried out for essentials their public schools could no longer afford—class size smaller than 37 or 40 students; enough counselors, social workers, school psychologists, school nurses and certified librarians; fairer teachers’ salaries to enable teachers in some places even to afford the rent on a one bedroom apartment in the communities where they are teaching; salaries to keep teachers in some states from quitting and moving to other states where salaries are higher; and salaries that would make young people interested in becoming teachers at a time when colleges and universities report fewer and fewer students willing to pursue teaching as a career. In some right-to-work states, the national teachers unions supported spontaneous statewide walkouts by non-unionized teachers, and in strikes launched by NEA and AFT local affiliates, Eskelsen Garcia and Weingarten walked with their teachers.

Second:     All this year I have watched these two women provide a level of policy leadership I have not seen for a long time. It began with the the best planned and best executed event I have ever attended—the Public Education Candidates Forum last December in Pittsburgh. It was clear who had envisioned this meeting which brought together seven of the Democratic candidates for President with 1,500 people from NEA, AFT, the Schott Foundation, SEIU, NAACP, the Journey for Justice Alliance, the Alliance for Educational Justice, the Network for Public Education, VOTO Latino, and the Center for Popular Democracy.  When I think of the diversity in that room—the questions that came from Chicago teachers and parents grieving about the Renaissance 2010 shutdown of their neighborhood schools, and comments from children in Newark who wondered why they do not have school music programs, I still have an emotional reaction. I found myself sitting between a 30 year special education teacher from the Navajo Nation and Derek Black, the constitutional law professor who just published School House Burning. That day, seven Democratic presidential candidates were pressed to commit to strategies to improve our public schools. None of the seven candidates dared to promote standardized test-and-punish; nobody promoted the expansion of charter schools. There was a lot of talk about expanding Title I and fully funding 40 percent of the IDEA. The fact that the meeting was teacher-driven was palpable.

Third:     Throughout this summer and until Congress gave up at the end of October, the NEA and the AFT have relentlessly advocated for a second COVID-19 relief HEROES Act. A second relief bill was never enacted, but Weingarten and Eskelsen Garcia kept the focus on those Senate Republicans who refused to consider helping out state governments that provide over 40 percent of all public school funding. These women kept on reminding America that Congress was failing to support public schools during COVID-19, a time when schools were being pressured to reopen or were forced to operate online without adequate guidance or support.  Eskelsen Garcia and Weingarten have consistently outlined what will be the years-long repercussions for the the public schools that serve our children.

While people like Michelle Rhee say that teachers unions work for the needs of adults instead of children, Michelle Rhee is wrong.  Weingarten and Eskelsen Garcia have persistently pressed the Democratic Party to choose a candidate with a pro-public school plan, which is also an emphatically pro-child agenda.  Weingarten spent the entire month of October on a cross country bus tour meeting with schoolteachers and promoting Biden’s election and his pro-public schools plan.

I live in Ohio, which has fallen head-over-heals behind Betsy DeVos’s dream of vouchers for all, and which, for the two previous decades, also embraced education policy dominated by technocratic, neoliberal, test-and–punish, outcomes-driven education reform.  In Ohio, worrying about standardized test score outcomes instead of investment in the public schools has left us with a poorly regulated charter school sector and at least 5 different kinds of vouchers, along with state school report cards that drive segregation and educational redlining; autocratic state takeovers in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland; and the third-grade guarantee. This month our legislature is considering a new school funding formula because 503 districts out of Ohio’s 610 school districts are capped or have fallen into hold-harmless guarantees. But our legislators are honest about the shortage of funding: the new plan will be a blueprint to be phased in over 6 years if the legislature can, in upcoming legislative sessions, find the money to pay for the full phase in.

We need a U.S. Secretary of Education who will lead us away from DeVos’s drive to extract dollars out of public schools for vouchers for private and religious schools. Just as important, we need an education secretary and who will not take us back to the Obama-Duncan agenda—to another Race to the Top competition, to the further expansion of charter schools, to evaluation of teachers by their students’ standardized test scores, to the idea of school closure as a turnaround plan, and all the rest.

Thank you for serving on the Department of Education Transition Team.  I hope you will recommend to President Elect Biden that he appoint Lily Eskelsen Garcia or Randi Weingarten as our next U.S. Secretary of Education. These women are fully prepared to promote and implement President Elect Biden’s plan to close opportunity gaps across our nation’s public schools.

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Advocates and National Organizations Are Questioning Test-and-Punish School Accountability

Suddenly for the first time in years, there is considerable talk about reforming federal policy in education.  Yesterday this blog reviewed the way federal education policy has become stuck and discussed an academic paper that seems to have stimulated new thinking by a number of education advocacy and civil rights organizations.  Today, the blog will share two new policy statements from prominent civil rights and education policy organizations and review growing protests against the standardized testing that has—due to growing federal and state accountability requirements—come to dominate our public schools.

As this blog described yesterday, in an academic paper published in August, Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm, Linda Darling-Hammond and Gene Wilhoit propose that federal law stop merely blaming teachers and punishing the public schools in the poorest communities when, as we all surely know, there is massive inequity of investment by states and wide variance across school districts in their capacity to raise revenue locally.   A just society, Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit suggest, should be reciprocally accountable for investing significantly in the public schools that serve our society’s most vulnerable children– addressing gaps in opportunity as a primary way to address gaps in school achievement.

Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit’s paper seems to have united commitment across national advocacy organizations around the concept of reciprocal accountability.  First eleven of the nation’s most prominent civil rights organizations sent a joint letter to President Obama, Secretary Duncan and Congressional leaders, a letter that echoes the proposals in the paper published by Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit.  Last week this blog covered the new civil rights letter here. The civil rights organizations are Advancement Project, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, League of United Latin American Citizens, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, National Urban League, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National Council on Educating Black Children, National Indian Education Association, and Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.  Their statement disdains “overly punitive accountability systems that do not take into account the resources, geography, student population, and needs of specific schools.  In particular, the No Child Left Behind law has not accomplished its intended goals of substantially expanding educational equity or significantly improving educational outcomes.  Racial achievement and opportunity gaps remain large.”  These organizations advocate that accountability should measure resource inputs and support the academic, social, emotional, physical health, and cultural well-being of students.

Then seventeen national organizations—including some of the same civil rights groups along with a number of national educational organizations released New Accountability: A New Social Compact for American Education, a document that supports the idea of reciprocal accountability.  Sponsors are American Association of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, American Youth Policy Forum, Albert Shanker Institute, Alliance for Quality Education, Committee for Economic Development, Center for Teaching Quality, Education Law Center, Institute for Educational Leadership/Coalition for Community Schools, League of United Latin American Citizens, National Association for Bilingual Education, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Education Association, National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, National School Boards Association, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.  The new “social compact” declares: “Accountability in American education must focus both on gathering complete information on the performance of students, educators, schools and districts, and on providing the feedback, resources and supports necessary for their improvement.  A fundamental paradigm shift in our accountability regime will be required, as the failed approach of ‘test and punish‘ is replaced with a strategy of ‘support and improve.'” “Genuine accountability rests on shared responsibility for educational outcomes.  All of the institutions participating in American education—from the federal government, state governments and higher education to school boards, school districts and schools—must be accountable for the contributions each must make to ensure high-quality learning opportunities for every child. Government must be accountable for equitably allocating adequate resources—dollars, curriculum and learning tools, well-qualified educators, and safe healthy environments for learning—to meet student needs and support meaningful learning.”  You are invited to join the authors of the Social Compact for American Education by signing on.

Finally, there is growing conversation about the tests themselves.  Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit’s academic paper also addresses this issue at length and declares: “If meaningful learning for all students is the focus of an accountability system, the system should use a range of measures that encourage and reflect such learning, and it should use those measures in ways that improve, rather than limit, educational opportunities for students.  This means we need both much better assessments of learning—representing much more authentically the skills and abilities we want students to develop—and multiple measures of how students, educators, schools, districts, and states are performing.”

The problem is not merely the quality of the tests, however.  An enormous concern is the amount and frequency of testing.  Sixteen superintendents of large, county-wide school districts recommend that the U.S. Department of Education, even in the waivers it is offering from NCLB’s failed policies, reduce the time and energy being devoted in America’s classrooms to testing by substituting grade-span testing instead of annual testing.  They are suggesting that federally required standardized tests be reduced from seven (grades 3-8 and once in high school) to three times (once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school).

Last week Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing was featured as a guest columnist by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post: “Across the nation, resistance to test overuse and misuse reached unprecedented heights in the spring of 2014.  The rapidly growing movement built on significant test opposition unleashed in 2013.  This year, resistance erupted in more states with far more participants, and it won notable victories such as ending, lessening or postponing graduation exams in at least eight states and easing or ending grade promotion tests.”  He describes a growing opt-out movement among parents and adds, “School boards are also resisting test overkill.  In New York, about 20 districts refused to administer tests used for the sole purpose of trying out items for next year’s state exams.”

Neill remains sober about the amount of work still needed to grow such actions, however.  “The ultimate goals of the movement are to dramatically reduce the amount of testing, end high stakes uses, and implement educationally sound assessments.  Progress has been made, but much more must be done.  To succeed, the movement must keep rapidly expanding while uniting across lines of race, class and where possible, politically ideology.  And it must turn its growing strength into greater victories.”