“It’s all about the children.”
Time and again, we hear this refrain from everyone who ever talks about education, from every angle. It’s been the purported basis of speeches, documentaries and now lawsuits.
But how can it be all about the children when you have some – under the guise of “education reform” – undermining America’s public schools?
As kids across the country go back to school, it’s time to get back to the basic values that bind us together. As one of the chairs of a new organization called Democrats for Public Education, I’m part of a group focused on just that – supporting public education. We believe in instilling critical thinking skills needed for 21st-century jobs and the new economy.
We support superior standards and finding ways to make classrooms challenging and rewarding for both teachers and students. And we’re committed to a level playing field for all with well-resourced schools responsive to the needs of our communities.
As a proud graduate of Louisiana’s public schools, I know the importance of a good public education. I know just how tough it is to make something of yourself when you start off with little or nothing. Right now, a galling 22 percent of children in America – the richest country in history – live in poverty, and nearly half come from low-income families struggling to meet basic needs. The only way we can break cycles of poverty, while revitalizing and growing our middle-class, is to support our public schools. Frankly, it’s the way we can provide a springboard for the working poor and preserve our American values.
Education is not a business. Students aren’t robots, and they shouldn’t be treated like assembly line workers at the test prep factory. Attempts to move our classrooms toward an unregulated, survival-of-the-fittest, business-first mentality ignores the purpose of education. Indeed, the very premise of “market-driven education reform” rests on a lie. It’s an outright fallacy that our public school system is in crisis and that the only solution is to let the market pick winners and losers. Our kids are not losers! We must measure success not by how children score on a narrow standardized test, but by how they deal with the varied tests of life.
Tests don’t inspire learning. Teachers and parents do. We should be championing educators as heroes. They’re the ones dedicating their lives to shaping young minds. They’re the ones in the classroom day in and day out. So when education professionals with decades of first-hand experience give constructive criticism, we should listen with open ears and an open mind. Simply put, they’re the ones who know best.
Here’s what dedicated parents and seasoned educators all across the country see: stalled reform efforts, poor implementation of programs and nervous students spending 30 percent of their school year on test preparation. By speaking out about this troubling pattern, teachers are exemplifying what it truly means to be answerable to and responsible for the well-being of children.
Teachers aren’t afraid of real accountability. But the accountability of a teacher – or the achievement of a student – cannot and should never be boiled down to a few test scores per year. Further, it’s doubly unfair to judge teachers on student performance, when the performance itself is being judged by an imperfect, dubious standard. According to a PDK/Gallup poll, three in four Americans believe the previous decade’s obsession with standardized testing either had no effect or even hurt our schools. It’s no surprise that nearly 60 percent say they don’t support using test scores to evaluate teachers.
No one benefits when “education experts” – many with only a couple years in the classroom and some with none at all – tell teachers that their expertise doesn’t matter and they don’t have the best interests of children at heart. When you peel back the onion, it’s clear these well-orchestrated attacks are coming from nothing more than a few well-funded, vocal groups intent on cherry-picking statistics and warping facts.
Public schools aren’t just a cornerstone of our society, they’re also critical democratic institutions. And every child deserves a chance. The assault on public education is an attack on the principles of democracy and the foundation of our country. The “I-Me-Mine” philosophy that drives Wall Street, the corporatists and would-be oligarchs and their political minions doesn’t belong in the classroom.
Enough is enough. It’s time we collectively push back against efforts to undermine America’s education system, our teachers and the kids themselves. That’s why, as classrooms start filling up again here at the end of summer, I’m proud to be part of an effort to help Democrats for Public Education get off the ground. It’s time to lift up public education and remind everyone that this truly is about our children. The way to do that is by working together in every community to ensure our public schools endure – and thrive – for generations to come.
• Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.