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Federal Opinion

‘Help Us Help You': An Educator’s Letter to Betsy DeVos

By Bryan Christopher — February 14, 2017 4 min read
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Dear Secretary Betsy DeVos,

Your nomination for education secretary sparked conversations in every hallway of my school. The dialogue intensified after your Senate confirmation hearing. Like my colleagues, I didn’t like some of your answers. I find it troubling that you appeared unfamiliar with the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. I wish you would have more clearly articulated the difference between academic growth and performance. Your statement that children may need protection from grizzly bears when asked whether guns belong in schools was bizarre.

Now, as you take on your new role, some media outlets call your agenda “revolutionary” and “radical,” but your policies aren’t new. Charter schools have existed since 1992. As a middle school student in Northeast Ohio, I watched legislators implement a voucher program in Cleveland in 1995. And in Durham, N.C., where I now teach high school English and journalism, I’ve seen state legislators lift the cap on charters and expand voucher programs, known locally as “opportunity scholarships.”

The results you seek by expanding school choice programs also aren’t new. There will be success stories, but also white flight, resegregation, and crippling financial ramifications for public school districts that still serve the overwhelming majority of our nation’s students. It’s already happening in my state, as the number of students enrolled in charter schools doubled between 2012 and 2017, but the schools’ performance data is decidedly mixed. Educational opportunities are not significantly better now than they were 10 years ago. They’re just different.

Despite my skepticism, I believe you can do great things. As you plan your first moves, consider a few that would silence your critics:

Serve the whole system. The vast majority of America’s children attend traditional public schools. The same will most likely be true four, even eight years from now. Pushing to expand school choice programs without also working to improve traditional public schools would be a disservice to the more than 50 million children nationwide who attend them.

Be transparent. Private schools are not inherently more effective than public schools. Require them to show evidence of rigorous academic standards. Create an accountability model that is accurate and valid but does not stifle innovation. Evaluate all schools using both performance and growth measures. Help parents understand how and why you think a private school is the absolute best way for their children to succeed. Ultimately, if you’re going to use tax dollars to pay private school tuition, you must make private schools less private.

Help us help you. Improving outcomes, especially for low-income students, is really, really hard. Identify the outstanding educators doing it in all kinds of schools. For example, in my own district, there’s the teacher who recruited alumni and community leaders to help launch a distinguished speaker series like the one that inspired him in college. Or the team of science teachers who come in early and stay late searching for methods to help students exceed their expected growth on the state biology test. Or the social studies teacher who partnered varsity basketball players with elementary school students to read books together and talk about decisionmaking. Acknowledge the work they’re doing and help build a platform for great teachers to scale their models and influence policymakers without leaving the classroom.

In recent weeks, parents, friends, and family members have shared with me their opinions of our education system. Everyone seems to know more about choice now than they did before. Even my students can explain the difference between traditional, charter, and private schools. We’re a more informed and engaged community than we were three weeks ago because of you, and that’s a good thing.

Help us facilitate more positive conversations by shifting the dialogue away from donations and inexperience and instead focusing on how and where you plan to make students’ futures more bright. Students like my newspaper editor, who will soon decide which student loans will best supplement her scholarship offers as she becomes the first member of her family to attend college next year. And one of my brilliant freshmen, who arrived in the United States last year and needs more practice with the English language to reveal his intelligence in standardized test scores. And my sophomore with severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, whose grandparents help me search for new ways to remediate his 2nd grade reading level and help him comprehend high school textbooks.

Do everything in your power to educate whomever walks through my classroom door and provide the opportunities they need to lead productive, happy lives.

In President Donald Trump’s inaugural address, he said America “has an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.” I’ll spare you the examples of rising graduation rates and North Carolina’s improving math and science test scores despite statewide decreased per-pupil spending, larger class sizes, and rising college tuition rates. I’m sure we agree that Trump’s comment both oversimplifies and misrepresents our education system.

Here’s hoping the defining moments of your term as secretary are yet to come. May we someday forget the noise that surrounded your confirmation and instead feel proud of the support you delivered to vibrant communities like mine.

Sincerely,

Bryan Christopher

Riverside High School

Durham, N.C.

A version of this article was also published earlier this month in Medium.

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