Dear President Obama:
There are so many ways in which I am deeply grateful that you are our president. I could write you a long ode with many stanzas of praise. Such an ode would be heartfelt, but also heartfelt is this note that raises my deep concerns about much of the Arne Duncan education policy, a policy you seem to whole-heartedly support.
I write as someone who has been a community artist working in public schools and state prisons for over thirty five years. I know the consequences of the “achievement gap” much more intimately than my heart can bear. I feel no need to defend the “education status quo” (though that label often means “teachers,” and decades of observation have put public school teachers near the top of my list of heroes). I agree with you and Secretary Duncan that the nation needs a sincere, open conversation about how best to educate all of our children.
But some of the terms and assumptions underlying this conversation need more precise definition. It is taken as a given by “school reform” advocates that improved test scores equal better education, but I have seen nothing that proves this assumption. When I read most “school reformers,” I feel that I’m reading the equivalent of reasoning that goes something like: “teacher accountability will be tied to an increase in the number of students who wear purple” or “school improvement will be measured by how many students have good posture.” I see no evidence – on paper or in the real lives of young people I know – that improved test scores equal knowledge, the ability to think critically, or to a greater connection between oneself and the wider world. Whereas I see a great deal of evidence – in these same young people and in the people I know well in prison – that doing more of what hasn’t worked (more focus on testing, a greater reliance on measurement) will lead to even more children who feel separated from the possibilities we want to be theirs.
A primary reason I worked so hard for your election is that you place such a high value on moving beyond rigid positions. You have urged us to look for what we share (as human beings, as citizens); you’ve encouraged us to build policy from this shared ground. But we can’t do that – in education or in any other sphere – unless we have a real conversation about what we mean by words like “education,” “success,” and “equity.”
Prayers for you, your family, and the decisions you have to make on so many crucial matters.