This manifesto first appeared at Education Opportunity Network.
Americans have long looked to our public schools to provide opportunities for individual advancement, promote social mobility and share democratic values. We have built great universities, helped bring children out of factories and into classrooms, held open the college door for returning veterans, fought racial segregation and struggled to support and empower students with special needs. We believe good schools are essential to democracy and prosperity — and that it is our collective responsibility to educate all children, not just a fortunate few.
Over the past three decades, however, we have witnessed a betrayal of those ideals. Following the 1983 report A Nation at Risk, policymakers on all sides have pursued an education agenda that imposes top-down standards and punitive high-stakes testing while ignoring the supports students need to thrive and achieve. This approach – along with years of drastic financial cutbacks — are turning public schools into uncreative, joyless institutions. Educators are being stripped of their dignity and autonomy, leading many to leave the profession. Neighborhood schools are being closed for arbitrary reasons. Parent and community voices are being shut out of the debate. And children, most importantly, are being systemically deprived of opportunities to learn.
As a nation we have failed to rectify glaring inequities in access to educational opportunities and resources. By focusing solely on the achievement gap, we have neglected the opportunity gap that creates it, and have allowed the resegregation of our schools and communities by class and race. The inevitable result, highlighted in the Federal Equity and Excellence Commission’s recent report, For Each and Every Child, is an inequitable system that hits disadvantaged students, families, and communities the hardest.
A new approach is needed to improve our nation’s economic trajectory, strengthen our democracy, and avoid an even more stratified and segregated society. To rebuild America, we need a vision for 21st-century education based on seven principles:
• All students have a right to learn. Opportunities to learn should not depend on zip code or a parent’s abilities to work the system. Our education system must address the needs of all children, regardless of how badly they are damaged by poverty and neglect in their early years. We must invest in research-proven interventions and supports that start before kindergarten and support every child’s aspirations for college or career.
• Public education is a public good. Public education should never be undermined by private control, deregulation and profiteering. Keeping our schools public is the only way we can ensure that each and every student receives a quality education. School systems must function as democratic institutions responsive to students, teachers, parents and communities.
• Investments in education must be equitable and sufficient. Funding is necessary for all the things associated with an excellent education: safe buildings, quality teachers, reasonable class sizes, and early learning opportunities. Yet, as we’ve “raised the bar” for achievement, we’ve cut the resources children and schools need to reach it. We must reverse this trend and spend more money on education and distribute those funds more equitably.
• Learning must be engaging and relevant. Learning should be a dynamic experience through connections to real world problems and to students’ own life experiences and cultural backgrounds. High-stakes testing narrows the curriculum and hinders creativity.
• Teachers are professionals. The working conditions of teachers are the learning conditions of students. When we judge teachers solely on a barrage of high-stakes standardized tests, we limit their ability to reach and connect with their students. We must elevate educators’ autonomy and support their efforts to reach every student.
• Discipline policies should keep students in schools. Students need to be in school in order to learn. We must cease ineffective and discriminatory discipline practices that push children down the school-to-prison pipeline. Schools must use fair discipline policies that keep classrooms safe and all students learning.
• National responsibility should complement local control. Education is largely the domain of states and school districts, but in far too many states there are gross inequities in how funding is distributed to schools that serve low-income and minority students. In these cases, the federal government has a responsibility to ensure there is equitable funding and enforce the civil right to a quality education for all students.
Principles are only as good as the policies that put them into action. The current policy agenda dominated by standards-based, test-driven reform is clearly insufficient. What’s needed is a supports-based reform agenda that provides every student with the opportunities and resources needed to achieve high standards and succeed, focused on these seven areas:
1. Early Education and Grade Level Reading: Guaranteed access to high quality early education for all, including full-day kindergarten and universal access to pre-K services, to help ensure students can read at grade level.
2. Equitable Funding and Resources: Fair and sufficient school funding freed from over-reliance on locally targeted property taxes, so those who face the toughest hurdles receive the greatest resources. Investments are also needed in out-of-school factors affecting students, such as supports for nutrition and health services, public libraries, after school and summer programs, and adult remedial education — along with better data systems and technology.
3. Student-Centered Supports: Personalized plans or approaches that provide students with the academic, social, and health supports they need for expanded and deeper learning time.
4. Teaching Quality: Recruitment, training, and retention of well-prepared, well-resourced, and effective educators and school leaders, who can provide extended learning time and deeper learning approaches, and are empowered to collaborate with and learn from their colleagues.
5. Better Assessments: High-quality diagnostic assessments that go beyond test-driven mandates and help teachers strengthen the classroom experience for each student.
6. Effective Discipline: An end to ineffective and discriminatory discipline practices, including inappropriate out-of-school suspensions, replaced with policies and supports that keep all students in quality educational settings.
7. Meaningful Engagement: Parent and community engagement in determining the policies of schools and the delivery of education services to students.
As a nation, we’re failing to provide the basics our children need for an opportunity to learn. Instead, we have substituted a punitive high-stakes testing regime that seeks to force progress on the cheap. But there is no shortcut to success. We must change course before we further undermine schools and drive away the teachers our children need.
All who envision a more just, progressive and fair society cannot ignore the battle for our nation’s educational future. Principals fighting for better schools, teachers fighting for better classrooms, students fighting for greater opportunities, parents fighting for a future worthy of their child’s promise: their fight is our fight. We must all join in.
s.schmitz (CC BY-ND 2.0)