Last spring, a new grassroots organization called Parents Across America wrote a letter to President Obama, pointing out how parents had been left out of the education discussion at the national level. From the administration's "Race to the Top" proposals to their proposed "Blueprint" for revising NCLB, parent input has been either dismissed or ignored.
We wrote an article for Education Week, called Shutting Out Parents, about how this conscious disregard of the parent perspective was unacceptable, and must be reversed.
We explained how we wanted to see a quite different set of reforms, focusing on strengthening neighborhood schools rather than closing them down, by providing smaller classes, more parent involvement, and a well-rounded curriculum. Moreover, we pointed out how these reforms are research-based, rather than the highly experimental policies of privatization and test-based accountability currently promoted by this administration.
Why do we reject the administration's priorities? Many parents have already seen the devastating effects of such top-down policies in our children's schools, massively increasing the amount of test prep, narrowing the curriculum, sacrificing art, music and science, and degrading the quality of education in numerous ways.
The President responded in a speech by mischaracterizing his critics as supporters of the status quo, which could not be further from the truth. As public school parents, no one understands better than we there needs to be positive, meaningful reforms in our schools.
We wrote a follow up letter to the President, recently published in the Washington Post's Answer Sheet. In it, we asked him to insist that parent input in decision-making at the national level be instituted at the U.S. Department of Education.
We also focused on the problems inherent in the euphemistically called "School Improvement Grants," a federal program that is forcing districts across the country with large numbers of poor children to close down their neighborhood schools, convert them to charters, or fire half their teaching staffs.
Like the misconceived "urban renewal" concepts in vogue in the 1950's and 1960's , we have seen how these sorts of policies have ripped apart communities and hurt our most vulnerable children.
At the same time, schools across the country are experiencing huge budget cuts, causing the loss of thousands of teaching positions, and even larger class sizes. This is not change we can believe in.
Since our letter was published, we have received enthusiastic response from parents across the country, who are understandably distressed about how their ideas for positive change are being dismissed or ignored.
And we are not alone. See the responses to the recent 2010 PDK/Gallup Poll, "A Time for a Change," in which only 34% of Americans gave Obama an "A" or a "B" on his education policies. The poll showed especially low support for the administration's insistence that public schools be closed down or privatized rather than helped to improve.
More recently, Arne Duncan has gone on a tour of the country, in an attempt to show that he is responsive to the concerns of students, parents and teachers, but has shown no signs of changing his policies.
Our letter to Obama is below. If you agree with our views, leave a comment below, join our Facebook page and/or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear President Obama:
Several weeks ago, we wrote to you about our concern that your proposed "Blueprint for Reform" did not acknowledge the critical role parents must play in any meaningful school improvement process. We also expressed our serious reservations about some of the Blueprint's strategies.
Our goal is simple - to ensure that our children receive the best possible education. As parents, we are the first to see the positive effects of good programs, and the first line of defense when our children's well-being is threatened. Our input is unique and essential.
Recently, Secretary Duncan announced that he would require districts that receive federal school improvement grants (SIG) to involve parents and the community in planning for schools identified for intervention. We appreciate this response as a first step; however, more needs to be done.
First, leadership must come from the top. We would like to see meaningful, broad-based parent participation not just in our local districts, but at the U.S. Department of Education, where critical decisions are being made about our children's education.
Second, we need more than rhetoric to feel confident that only educationally sound strategies will be used in our children's schools. The current emphasis on more charter schools, high-stakes testing, and privatization is simply not supported by research. Disagreement on these matters is not a result of parents clinging to the "status quo," as you have recently asserted. No one has more at stake in better schools than we do - but we disagree with you and Secretary Duncan about how to get them.
We need effective, proven, common-sense practices that will strengthen our existing schools, rather than undermine them. These include parent input into teacher evaluation systems, fairly-funded schools, smaller class sizes and experienced teachers who are respected as professionals, not seen as interchangeable cogs in a machine. We want our children to be treated as individuals, not data points. And we want a real, substantial role in all decisions that affect our children's schools.
More specifically, and urgently, we insist on being active partners in the formulation of federal school improvement policies. The models proposed by the U.S. Department of Education are rigid and punitive, involving either closure, conversion to charters, or the firing of large portions of the teaching staff. All of these strategies disrupt children's education and destabilize communities; none adequately addresses the challenges these schools face.
We also insist on being active partners in reforms at the school level, with the power to devise our own local solutions, using research-based methods, after a collaborative needs assessment at each individual school.
Our voices must count. If you listen, you will make real changes in your School Improvement Grant proposals as well as your "Blueprint" for education reform.
We look forward to your response and a brighter future for our children and our nation.
Sincerely, Parents Across America
Natalie Beyer, Durham Allies for Responsive Education (DARE), NC
Caroline Grannan, San Francisco public school parent, volunteer and advocate, CA
Pamela Grundy, Mecklenburg Area Coming Together for Schools, NC
Leonie Haimson, Class Size Matters, New York, NY
Sharon Higgins, public school parent, Oakland, CA
Susan Magers, Parent Advocate, FL
Karen Miller, Public education advocate, Houston TX
Mark Mishler, active public school parent, former president, Albany City PTA*, NY
Sue Peters, public school parent and co-editor, Seattle Education 2010
Bill Ring, TransParent®, Los Angeles, CA
Lisa Schiff, board member of Parents for Public Schools*, member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco*, "School Beat" columnist for BeyondChron, CA
Rita M. Solnet, President, CDS, Inc.; Director, Testing is Not Teaching, FL
Dora Taylor, Parent and co-editor of Seattle Education 2010, WA
Julie Woestehoff, Parents United for Responsible Education, Chicago, IL
*for identification purposes only