10/10/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Education and the Election: A Crucial Constituency Raises its Voice

When parents organize, it's hard to ignore. Chicago-based Parents United for Responsible Education and New York City-based Class Size Matters have jumped into presidential politics this week by releasing a compelling letter to the candidates. As far as education recommendations go this election cycle, it's is the best I've read.

The letter criticizes the deification of school choice as a panacea for low-performing students and warns against distorting the politically friendly term "accountability" into even more standardized testing. It offers four areas where the next president can help schools:

1. Safe and uncrowded schools with more counselors.

2. Smaller classes.

3. Adequate resources and teacher support to assure that all students receive a rich, well-rounded curriculum including the arts, physical education and project-based learning in a curriculum connected to their own lives and culture, with progress evaluated by high-quality, appropriate assessment tools that are primarily classroom-based.

4. More parental involvement. [T]he more involved parents are at the school level, the better the outcomes for students. And yet the top- down, corporate approach to school governance currently used in cities throughout the country such as Chicago and New York has consistently and systematically worked to eliminate the ability of parents to have a real voice in decision-making and thus to be true partners at the school and district level.

The organization's name, Common Sense Reforms, fits perfectly; their recommendations are no-brainers. The systemic under-funding of mental health support for students and marginalizing of guidance counselors is a crisis. More and more students are finding nowhere to turn when in trouble. The entire community suffers for this injustice.

Large classes tend to be impersonal and less academically rigorous. Teachers are less able to connect with students (these connections are crucial and irreplaceable), and less capable of giving demanding assignments. I know many teachers who teach five sections of English, with over thirty students per class. That means for every essay they assign, they must grade around 150-160 students' papers. If it takes ten minutes to thoroughly grade an essay, it amounts to over 25 hours of grading per assignment. It's just not happening. And the "accountability" movement as is leaves out vital educational outlets-- essentially all non-tested subjects. Schools are weaker for it.

I hope this Common Sense Reforms letter reaches Senator Obama's desk. He, a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, has spoken directly to the real needs of struggling students. He speaks often about early childhood education, and about addressing the interconnected web of needs that go far beyond the school building's walls in order to justly serve children and their families. His education speech this afternoon in Ohio laid out a sensible and ambitious list of necessary reforms.

Regrettably, I'm not convinced that John McCain knows or cares much about education. His Senate website-- recently given a hip makeover-- is blank on education save for a few press releases. The most recent announces that he is still accepting military academy nominations. The one before that is from 2002.

His campaign website's education section, as well as his words on the stump, reflects a laundry list of conservative talking points: choice, competition, accountability. It reads as an ideological re-tread of "the 199os Republican playbook." There is little in there to suggest that he has spent meaningful time in schools or talking with people who work in schools. I don't think McCain gets it on the "conditions on the ground"--to use one of his favorite phrases-- for improving American schools.

I'll hold out hope that both candidates will take this issue seriously. This succinct letter from parents provides an achievable blueprint for helping our country's children. The discourse on education in presidential politics should be richer for it.

Read the whole letter here, and you can follow the Common Sense Reforms blog.

Dan Brown is a teacher and the author of The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle.

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