Department of Education
As the new Secretary of Education, my first priority will be to reverse the trend toward the privatization of the public schools, to end the pervasive climate of fear and demoralization among the nation’s educators and to urgently promote desegregation and genuine equality of resources and opportunity in all K-12 schools.
Toward this end, I will seek an immediate repeal of No Child Left Behind legislation and of the Race to the Top competition. Together, these have raised the stakes of standardized assessments beyond any reasonable proportion; narrowed the curriculum; created a culture of corruption, cheating and competition between schools; and have increased the trend toward teaching as a short-term job, not as a long-term profession. I will call for an end to high-stakes standardized testing and a moratorium on school closings. Just as we commit ourselves to teaching every single student, we will likewise commit ourselves to improving every single school.
Teachers must be trained in the very best practices and must be given the opportunity to learn from experienced educators during their training. In our highest-needs municipalities, students only rarely have teachers who are from their community, and teacher turnover is high. Teach for America cannot be the model of teacher training for our schools. Therefore, I will seek an end to Teach for America contracts with municipalities nationwide. Shortages must be addressed by strengthening our schools of education and by developing pathways to train community members to serve as educators in their schools.
We know that children learn best in stress-free, relaxed environments where they are given the opportunity to construct their own knowledge and understanding through meaningful, collaborative work. This requires clean, safe, attractive physical surroundings, small class sizes, well-trained educators and generous support services for students and for faculty. All students must have access to physical education, to science instruction and to the arts. We dare not spend millions more on testing, data analysis and teacher evaluation while we have not yet provided every teacher and every student with basic resources and opportunities.
As school funding remains a profound cause of educational inequality, I will direct my staff to prepare proposals for immediate revisions of tax codes that currently punish smaller and lower-income municipalities and to end the trend toward privatization and profiteering that has drained school budgets nationwide. I will propose a moratorium on the further proliferation of charter schools and review the possibility of re-absorbing many of them into the public system. Charter schools have become notorious for failing to serve students with special needs. My administration will ensure that special education services are robust and fully funded.
Since identity is so important to a child’s development, we must ensure that schools are responsive to the communities they serve. Toward this goal, I will seek an end to mayoral control of schools in municipalities across the country and encourage the development of transparency, democracy and parent power in day-to-day school policy and culture. Every community has something to contribute to its schools and the school must respect and welcome the community’s voice. As a nation of immigrants, we have tremendous linguistic diversity. All students must have the opportunity to become literate in their native languages and to learn new languages as well.
To improve teaching and learning, we must empower teachers and learners. Teachers must have greater latitude to exercise professional judgement in their duties. The Common Core standards are untested and therefore unproven as a means of improving teaching and learning. Too many teachers suffer under cookie-cutter formulas, checklists and the pressure to raise test scores. Such mandates are too easily misused as a tool to punish teachers, instead of as an instrument of professional development. To improve teaching and learning, I will begin pilot programs that alter the structure of the school day to allow educators more time for reflection, collaboration and for professional development. At the same time, beginning in the earliest grades, students must have greater opportunity to shape the course of their studies and to follow their own interests and passions.
At all levels, teachers and students should participate in councils that can help govern their school and resolve conflicts. Heavy policing and other so-called “zero-tolerance” methods cannot ensure the safety of our schools. I will call for an immediate moratorium on all arrests of students and promote the proliferation of collective, collaborative safety programs, such as Restorative Justice.
Many of our students and their families have been devastated by the economic crisis. Unemployment, homelessness, debt and other urgent family problems are harmful to teaching and learning. My office will seek funding to help schools nationwide to become well-equipped community centers that can offer support services to families in need. There is no reason for these services to be provided by charity. Like public education itself, the health of families is a matter of the public good and should be included in the public budget.
The United States of America is the wealthiest nation in human history. It is my firm belief that, by changing our priorities, we can afford to pursue these initiatives and many more.
Brian Jones has taught elementary grades in New York City’s public schools for nine years, and is a member of the Movement of Rank and File Educators (the social justice caucus of the United Federation of Teachers). Brian is a doctoral student in urban education at the CUNY Graduate Center, and has contributed to several books, including Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation.