An Open Letter to the New Congressional Leadership

Dear Majority Leader McConnell and Speaker Boehner,

As a result of the midterm elections, you and your colleagues are now in a position to pass bicameral legislation to address critical national issues, including those facing education. We all know that what happens in our schools affects our economy, our societal well-being and our global stature.

Urgent education challenges include closing the achievement gap; strengthening career and college readiness for all students; improving graduation rates; developing and supporting a highly skilled teacher workforce; educating a growing number of English language learners; and funding education at sufficient and affordable levels.

These are not Republican or Democratic issues, they are American issues. Reforms that address them will pick up on and sustain the reform momentum launched by the Reagan administration with its landmark 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report. That report galvanized the nation by stating, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Scores of initiatives since then have been part of the country’s ongoing effort to identify the best standards, curricula, assessments, teacher preparation and resources needed to strengthen Pre-K to 12 education. During the Bush administration, that effort took the form of the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act. While flawed, NCLB shone a spotlight on glaring shortcomings in our education system and aimed to remedy those with targeted programs and funding.

Congress is now revisiting our education reform direction. For example, the Student Success Act, passed by the House in July, contains provisions to address many of America’s aforementioned educational issues. Its stated goal is to reshape the federal role in education and return responsibility for student achievement to states, school districts and parents, while maintaining high expectations.

I suspect that few on either side of the aisle disagree with that goal. In fact, despite a divided Congress, partisanship is not the legislative barrier for education that it is for many other sectors. In education, agreement on goals generally crosses party lines. That’s a hopeful starting point. The problem is disagreement about how to accomplish those goals—but that also crosses party lines. Witness the bipartisan nature of both supporters and detractors of the Common Core. Or consider that charter school expansion as a school reform strategy is happening in both blue and red states.

There is opportunity here for meaningful dialogue on ways to strengthen approaches and funding based on results. As you proceed with an education agenda, please keep the following thoughts in mind:

  1. Emphasize consistency of opportunity. States are responsible for providing public education opportunities for all. But as a nation, how can we ensure that all students, whether in Massachusetts, Georgia or Oregon, have schools that prepare them to be career and/or college ready when they finish high school? Should the education system provide the same opportunity for English language learners as it does for native speakers to be college ready?

Educational opportunity is consistent when every student has access to:

  • High quality instruction;
  • Teachers prepared to meet the needs of diverse learners;
  • School leaders that create a school culture of continuous improvement and student success;
  • School districts organized to support schools, principals, teachers and students; and
  • Financial resources that match the educational needs of the students being served.
  1. Focus on evidence-based reform. Reform should not be a “growth industry” for companies to sell the latest “quick fix” or miracle cure. Reform must be grounded in evidence of effectiveness: Will this help teachers teach all students? That requires a research agenda grounded in pressing problems teachers face daily. To set such an agenda, convene researchers and classroom teachers together to identify the most urgent classroom needs to target for cost-effective use of public funds.
  1. Promote the profession of teaching. Does anyone really want to be a teacher today? High stakes teacher evaluations, the fixation on standardized testing, teacher tenure bashing and the belief that anyone can teach without any additional education or training can all be demoralizing and drive many talented and caring individuals away from the profession. Enact policies to reverse this trend. Yes, hold all educators accountable but also create a teacher developmental pipeline that prepares, supports and rewards quality educators.
  1. Underscore parental Involvement. As recognized by the Student Success Act, parents’ engagement in their children’s education is critical. This is evident in many affluent communities where parents can send their children to neighborhood schools and school problems are fixed immediately. Parents in low-income communities—and not just those who win a charter school lottery—should have the same opportunity to have quality neighborhood schools. We need investments that help these parents participate in and advocate for their children’s education. The more parents participate, the greater likelihood that these schools will become and stay strong.
  1. Combine urgency with reasonable reform timelines. Finally, ensure that reform proposals consider school and district time and capacity. Significant educational reforms take time. Schools are much leaner now than 10 years ago. When reform fails, critics often blame the reform. But the real problem may be overly hasty or incorrect implementation. Thoughtful implementation allows new practices and initiatives to take root.

Good luck. Our kids are counting on you.