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Dear Senators Obama and McCain:
We would like to congratulate you on your nominations for President. As public school parents and other stakeholders, we want to bring to your attention the critical need to improve the opportunities of millions of children throughout the country who attend markedly inferior schools that deny them an adequate chance to succeed.
We have read your education positions and believe that the concerns we raise and the proposals we suggest would help focus and strengthen your plans for improving our nation's schools.
In recent weeks, two different statements have been released by advocates, academics and elected officials, with very different perspectives about how to improve our nation's public schools, particularly for poor and minority students. The first statement called for even more high stakes testing, merit pay for teachers, competition, and charter schools, and pointed to the teachers unions as the major obstacles in achieving success.
We would call this approach NCLB on steroids. Rather than improving our schools, more high stakes testing and merit pay based on standardized test scores will likely further punish our neediest students, diminishing their educational experience and lead to even more teacher turnover, test prep, narrowing of the curriculum, and less time and effort given to authentic learning in their schools. It will also contribute to more test score inflation, meaning that studentsʼ scores will no longer provide reliable evidence of their actual level of achievement.
The other new coalition of academics and advocates argues that although some educational programs should be supported, without major investments in health care and reducing poverty, it is wrong to ask schools alone to significantly narrow the achievement gap between ethnic and racial groups or improve outcomes for our neediest students.
Although we believe that as a society we should be doing more to expand healthcare and reduce income inequality, we also believe that this perspective significantly understates the potential for dramatic improvements, particularly in those schools that most minority and high-poverty students attend, and the need for critical reforms to enhance their chance of success.
The following are the improvements that we believe are necessary and would change the lives of literally millions of children throughout our country.
1- Safe and uncrowded schools with more counselors: Many of our students, particularly in urban areas, attend overcrowded schools in near third world conditions, contributing to a variety of disciplinary problems that make it difficult for them to learn, leading to more violence and higher dropout rates. In addition to less crowding, these schools often require many more guidance counselors; in many, there is only one counselor for six hundred or more students.
2- Smaller classes: Despite the abundant research that conclusively demonstrates that smaller classes can significantly narrow the achievement gap, poor and minority students continue to attend schools with much larger classes on average than those in wealthier districts, and thus are deprived of the individual attention they need to succeed. Small classes in all grades K-12 have been linked to more classroom engagement, more time on task, higher levels of achievement, and lower dropout rates. Moreover, in national surveys, educators throughout the country overwhelming say that reducing class size would be the most effective way to improve the quality of teaching in our public schools.
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: Studies show that the 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.
Competition, including charter schools and vouchers, has not and will not lead to a significantly better or more equitable public school system, just as it has not brought us better access to health care. In fact, the continued proliferation of charter and other schools requiring interviews and/or application processes risks creating wider disparities between the haves and have-nots; and what is often advertised as increased parental choice actually means the ability of such schools to exclude our neediest students. The last thing our nation needs is a "trickle down" educational system.
As a nation we have an overarching moral imperative to provide all our children with the same educational opportunities that our more advantaged public and private school students take for granted, including the right to attend a safe and uncrowded school with smaller class sizes, a rich, high-quality curriculum, and more parental involvement.
Until these goals have been achieved, we cannot and should not give up on the potential of schools to transform lives.
We urge you to recognize this imperative, and if elected president, do everything in your power to ensure that every child who grows up in this country has the opportunity to attend the sort of school he or she needs for a better chance to learn and succeed.
Julie Woestehoff, Executive Director, Parents United for Responsible Education,
Deborah Meier, senior scholar, NYU, former principal of K-12 public schools, MacArthur Fellow
John de Beck, Vice President, San Diego Board of Education
Neal Wrightson, Director, Children's
Diane Aoki, Parent and teacher activist,
Peter Farruggio, PhD., Asst. professor,
George Wood, Principal, Federal Hocking Middle and High School,
Lynne Y. Strieb,
The Rev. Larry E. Turpin, United
Sabrina Craig, LSC Parent Representative,
Paul E. Sjordal,
Sarah Vanderwicken, former local school council member, Chicago
(list in progress)