Federal Opinion

The Left Wing of the Possible

By Deborah Meier — May 10, 2012 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

How best to fight back? That is the question.

The answer: Many ways. And maybe it includes people who aren’t left-wingers!

SOS (Save Our Schools) is holding a “People’s Convention” Aug. 3-5 at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel in Washington D.C. Our plan? To come together around a small list of actionable planks—ones we wish the two political party conventions would adopt. We’re not pretending they will, but we are also not claiming they couldn’t. Our purpose: To begin to outline what the “other way” might involve if we turned away from No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, our standardized testing obsession and, above all, the gradual privatization of the American public education experiment.

The task is not to include everything we believe in, but focus on the ones that can create the biggest tent consistent with the four principles that SOS settled on last summer. A task that many PTAs, union locals, et al have been working on and will, we hope, come to Washington to present for our collective approval.

It’s an exercise that a group of like-minded folks—the North Dakota Study Group—embarked on last winter. Started in 1972 by Vito Perrone, the NDSG has met every year since. Brenda Engel, a retired Lesley College faculty member, was there at the start. She volunteered to put together a draft manifesto representing our priorities. After lots of back and forth, it is now available for public comment:


Many of our country’s enduring dilemmas are the products of inequalities in power and wealth created by social class, race, culture, and sexism. Challenges exist inside and outside the education system. Although the society has made visible historic progress on many fronts, our nation’s most pressing educational problem remains the opportunity gap between the children of the haves and those of the have-nots; this gap has grown with the mounting social inequality of the last 40 years. We believe the schools can and should do much more to make progress in many areas. Yet we recognize that improving schools for the families of the have-nots on any large scale will in the end depend on broader steps toward democracy and equality. In any case, we are unlikely to renew our democracy without a fresh commitment to quality public education.

With this understanding we, as members of the North Dakota Study Group, affirm our beliefs about what quality public education could and should be:

1. Children, from 4 to 18 (and those with disabilities, from 4 to 21) deserve a free, comprehensive, quality education with equal access to resources, regardless of their families’ national origin or cultural, religious, racial, or economic backgrounds. Education should not be a race with winners and losers, not a competition for scarce resources.

2. Children are active learners, naturally curious about their social and physical environments. In good schools, students are encouraged to imagine, speculate, create, reflect, question.

3. A quality education includes competence in the skills of reading and writing; knowledge and understanding of mathematics, science, history, and social science; knowledge of a foreign language, and broad experience in literature and the arts—as well as development of an appreciation of these areas. In a democracy, education needs to serve civic, cultural, and personal, as well as economic, goals.

4. Physical and social/psychological health and well-being are crucial to students’ successful school experience. The responsibility of public education includes ... adjusting the curriculum and instruction for students with special needs and seeing that families are informed about available social services.

5. Educational decisions about curriculum and pedagogy should be school- and community- based, made primarily by teachers/educators and parents (those who know the children best). When politicians and the business establishment—who lack relevant knowledge and experience—take control of schooling, the effectiveness of public education is endangered.

6. Teachers, trained professionals responsible for educating the students in their charge, are primarily accountable to their school administration, parents, and community. Authentic assessment, central to effective teaching, is ongoing, classroom-based, relevant to the curriculum and in the immediate service of student learning.

7. Teaching is a highly skilled, demanding profession; preparation for effective teaching at all levels requires both academic and professional preparation and practical experience. Beyond the requirement for a certified college degree, there is no single best system of teacher education. ... Evaluation of teacher effectiveness should be done by peers and in-school administrators, based on observation and documentation.

8. The school district is a useful interface between schools and the more remote state and federal authorities. ... Local systems are responsible to state authorities for reporting on the academic achievement of students within their districts and for supplying the state with data to do with educational access and equity. ... Although there are good, serious, and worthwhile charter schools, we stand in general against the current corporate-led charter school movement that serves the interests of privatization, includes for-profit EMOs (education management organizations) and excludes teacher unions.

9. The interests of the U.S. Department of Education in the overall level of educational achievement in the United States can be met through sample assessments.

10. Education for democracy means practicing democratic values throughout the school system. The exercise of top-down, unresponsive, and authoritarian educational administration ... contradicts, in actual practice, principles of social justice which we try to instill in our students.

Note from Brenda: This is not a petition. It is a statement of beliefs about education intended to bring people’s attention to some of the abuses in our present system; to stimulate thinking, discussion, and action. Please circulate this among your friends and enemies.

How might these principles be “enacted”? What prevents us from “pretending” they are already the law of the land? What are the steps necessary for the long and tough reimagining and reenacting democratic education—an idea with old roots but for which we have very sparse experience to draw from.

This could become both a local and national conversation leading to unexpected alliances. We’ll see.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.