A Letter from Teachers and Principals

Our first suggestion is to ignore Race to the Top, and all other unnecessary ideas from the Department of Education. This is an effortless way to improve education. Federal officials are not elected to govern public education. You are. Ignoring federal intrusions enables you to devote more time to governing in a way that benefits the children of your state and district.

In the past, if you failed to provide equal educational opportunities for African American students, special needs students, or females, federal courts and legislation intervened to benefit all students, not just those who were disadvantaged. For example, Title IX legislation paved the way for your daughters and granddaughters to have the same opportunities your sons and grandsons always had. All of society is better for it. The same is true for federal interventions requiring disabled students to be educated in the least restrictive environment, and the outlawing of segregation. Federal interventions addressing local- and state-sponsored inequalities benefit all students, but that is not the case with federal requirements that began with No Child Left Behind.

Do students benefit from being tested under Department of Education requirements, instead of yours? Do they learn more when taught by teachers arbitrarily defined as highly qualified? Do they learn more from reading programs sponsored by certain publishers, but not others? (For more, see Elaine Garan’s Resisting Reading Mandates: How to Triumph with the Truth, published in 2002.)

Experience and reason tell you that federal policy achieves some goals at the expense of others. They also tell you that you are in the best position to decide priorities; federal officials are in the worst position.

As long as you provide equal educational opportunity, which is your primary responsibility, federal officials have no reason to become involved in your state or district. You don’t have to tell anybody you are ignoring the Department of Education. Just do it.

Our second suggestion is to read two books. The first is Cheating Our Kids: How Politics and Greed Ruin Education (COK) by Joe Williams, published in 2005. The author is a journalist who describes urban school districts corrupted by ambitious politicians, incompetent administrators, self-serving teacher unions, and greedy vendors. His main point, though, applies to rural and suburban districts too. It is that adults use the democratic governance of public education to serve their interests instead of students’.

Williams’ stories illustrate the anti-educational underpinnings of how we govern public education. He argues that parent power is needed to balance the power exercised by unscrupulous board members, legislators, administrators, and teacher unions:

It is apparent that politics drives much of what happens in public education, which means the first step toward solving the educational problem is solving the political problem. Parents need to step forward and declare that enough is enough if their kids are not the top priority in their school systems. (p. 236)

Williams believes in the democratic governance of public education, so he argues that more parental involvement can improve schools.

We want to improve public education too, but we believe it can’t be done until we agree on what it means to be educated. That is why we also suggest that you read The Six Virtues of the Educated Person (TSVOTEP) by J. Casey Hurley, published in 2009. The point of this book is that the truly educated person is one who demonstrates the intellectual virtues of understanding and imagination, the character virtues of strong character and courage, and the spiritual virtues of humility and generosity.

After reading both books ask yourself if democratic governance can be improved with an infusion of parent power, or if the alternative model in TSVOTEP offers more hope for improving education. If you believe the first, you need to get parents involved in governance. If you believe the second, you simply need to model and teach the six virtues of the educated person and hire others who do, too. You don’t control the behavior required to achieve the first option, but you control the behavior needed to achieve the second.

To help you decide which way to govern, our third suggestion is to examine your educational and governing beliefs. Which beliefs are primary? Which are secondary? The following Venn diagrams illustrate what we mean.

Figure 1 is an example of how these two sets of beliefs overlap and the results we get where they intersect. The left sphere holds your beliefs about education. One might be that children learn what is modeled by adults. The right sphere holds your beliefs about governing. One might be that democracy is a desirable form of governance.

Click for larger view.

The intersection of these beliefs can yield different outcomes. Two possibilities are listed where the spheres overlap. One is that students learn both the virtues and vices modeled by the adults who govern and teach. The other is that, depending on how you fund public education, students experience if democratic governance is as desirable for children in poor districts as it is for children in wealthy ones.

Figure 2 illustrates these beliefs and the outcomes within our current system. The sphere of governing beliefs is a solid line, and the sphere of educational beliefs is a dashed line because public education is currently driven by governing beliefs. That is one of the points made in both COK and TSVOTEP.

Click for larger view.

If your governing beliefs are primary and your educational beliefs secondary, you sometimes model virtue and sometimes model vice. Therefore, the first outcome is that “Children learn both the virtues and vices modeled by those who govern and teach.” The second is, “Democratic governance provides unequal educational opportunity” because states and districts have failed to provide equal opportunity for children living in property-poor areas.

On the other hand, if educational beliefs drove education more than governing beliefs, we could get the results illustrated in figure 3. In this case the education sphere is a solid line and the governing sphere is a dashed one.

Click for larger view.

When educational beliefs are based on the six-virtue definition of the educated person, your foremost responsibility is to govern in a way that models the six virtues. Your second responsibility is to provide equal educational opportunity. Both outcomes are listed where the belief systems overlap.

If equal educational opportunity is to be more than an empty phrase, you are the ones who must provide it. This is your primary responsibility. Your imagination (second virtue) must find ways to provide poor children with opportunities equal to those of middle- and upper-class children. You must have the courage (fourth virtue) to propose and support legislation that equalizes opportunities. And your generosity (sixth virtue) must emerge from a humble belief (fifth virtue) in the beauty and worth of all children.

Thanks for considering our suggestions. From where we stand, public education is going in the wrong direction. We are ready to help you steer it in the right direction.

Teachers and principals

Especially teachers and principals should reply. Please comment and submit.

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