Education Opinion

Advice for the Next President

By Deborah Meier — September 04, 2008 2 min read
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Dear Diane,

I’m always astounded when summer is over. How did it get by me so fast? Of course, in the past few years I don’t get plunged back into the three-ring circus of schooling so suddenly. But, oddly, I miss that plunge. Among other reasons because it meant I had no time for worrying about presidential elections, climate change, the gasoline crisis, poverty, torture, nuclear proliferation and, at the moment, about my current bout of Lyme disease.

I’ve gotten phone calls, as I’m sure you have, too, Diane, asking me what kind of advice I’d give the two presidential candidates. It’s hard to do since, as you have sadly noted, when it comes to schooling I cannot take it for granted that my more natural allies and I agree. In fact, the only sure-fire difference, probably, is that Democrats are more friendly to spending money. And I am, too. But their commitment to what I mean by education that serves democracy cannot be taken for granted.

So I’ve tried to formulate my advice in under 300 words. Here’s my first draft. I’d love to hear from you and our readers on this:

Advice for the President

We need schools for the poor that look and feel more like the schools the wealthiest send their kids to—but even more than that. That’s the rock-bottom. Living up to this commitment means asking yourself, before you say, do, or enact any education policy, what the impact will be on:

1. …the relationships between the key actors—students, teachers, and families. Does it strengthen our reasons to trust each other? Will it provide more or less time to get to know each other and deal with each other respectfully? The more direct—versus indirect—the information we all have about our schools, the better. For starters, we might insist that all citizens, but surely all parents, have paid leave to get to know, observe, and help out in our schools.

2. … the opportunities young people have to keep company with respected, powerful, and wise adults, adults who are treated with professional respect and who are not always looking over their shoulders to see who’s monitoring them. If teachers are to create the kind of mutually respectful classrooms we seek, we must end the bashing of teachers, their organizations, and public institutions in general.

3. …the waking lives of our children from birth to 18. Even if we increase the school day and year, nearly three-fourths of their experiences take place outside of school. The habits of work and mind that schools instill can carry over, but teachers and schools should not be expected to wash away the effects of health care, nutrition, housing, poverty, abuse, street crime, and the extraordinarily high percentage of our young living in jail. In all these categories we out-perform every single other industrialized nation, and by such a long shot. These issues impact more on some kids and some communities. We can never entirely make up for these differences through schooling, but schools with high percentages of children of poverty need far more resources than schools without such handicaps. For starters, they need working conditions common to elite schools and elite colleges—e.g. class sizes of 12-15 per class, instead of 30-40, and teachers who take advantage of the kind of freedom and status that the best schools provide.

These must be our litmus tests for public policy. If we are to better serve the economy and above all democracy, our schools must be closely connected to their publics. Only then can they be the backbone for creating smart communities of hope.

A work in progress. Diane, readers, help me out.


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