Open Letter to President Barack Obama On the Education Crisis in America

Dear President Obama,

I hope this message finds you well. On January 20, you officially began your second term as president of the United States. You were elected in 2008 at the time of a grave fiscal crisis in this country. That crisis, and its legacy, defined your first term. I will leave it to history to judge the decisions you made in that first term, but I want to voice my concern about the legacy you seemed doomed to create in your second term.

On February 13 you delivered your State of the Union Address. I sat intently before my television listening to hear your vision for education, since much of that conversation was absent during the presidential debates. You can probably imagine my frustration at the end of the night when I realized only two sentences from this very important address were dedicated to education. Although I was ecstatic to hear about your commitment to preschools, I felt there was more to be said about your vision for the most integral but often ostracized portion of society and policy.

In 2008, you pledged to champion education and lead a re-emergence of our education system. Education has long been the key to success. In a country where this is true more now than ever, with a president who proclaims that he wants to level the playing field, one would hope to see the flagship policies provide long term fixes for these issues.  Unfortunately, this has not been the case.

Your famed Race to the Top policy, which you label as the most important thing you have done in office, is a failed attempt to close the achievement gap. This policy comes complete with a pledge to volunteer more public assets to private management, a total eradication of the independent collective voice of teachers, and a vision of education reduced to a single narrow metric that claims to recognize an educated person through a test score. The most alarming piece is the total disregard for our country's recent history in education.

Since 2006, five states and the District of Columbia have conducted investigations and found that schools within their states have cheated to boost test scores (sadly, these states are the only ones to conduct investigations while many believe cheating is taking place elsewhere). Investigators found that the cheating resulted from a culture of fear, one spurred by rising test-score targets. But yet your policy calls for raising the stakes of testing. The sole means of evaluating teachers is now their student test scores. Schools that continue to produce low scores will be closed, turned into charter schools, or sold to the highest bidding private management firm. In low-performing schools, principals will be fired, and all or half of the staff will be fired (I guess No Child Behind didn't scare teachers enough). The policy also introduces a type of merit-based pay; therefore, engendering a culture that incentivizes bad practices such as cheating.  
 
But who is to blame? Education in the United States has been affected by the neoliberal shift toward privatization. Thus we view it more and more as a commodity like any other that is bought and sold on the marketplace. Schoolhouses, colleges, and school system now follow the typical business model except with different titles. Principals are CEOs, teachers are overworked and underpaid workers, and students are products. It is easy to see the effects of this model even in the Race to the Top policy. It proposed that under performing schools be closed (downsizing), and students be ship to a charter school or anther school in the neighborhood (privatizing and outsourcing). Such practice has become the norm and this theoretical lens is what Race to the Top proclaims as law.
 
President Obama, as an avid supporter of yours, I urge you to resist these types of policies and reject the dominant narrative as wrong in the sense of inaccurate as well as wrong in the sense of immoral. You and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have proclaimed that you intend to shake up education. Indeed you have done just that. But it is essential to remember that shaking is good only when we know what to shake and how. One must remember that it is very possible to shake up the wrong things, or the right things in the wrong way.
 
The primary end of education, in our economy, is to provide students with the tools and skills needed to thrive as human beings and produce in a dynamic economy. Your policies have fallen short of that simply because they treat the system like a business and customer relationship, rather than a students and parents' one; teachers as mere workers rather than the community cultivators. It is easy to see that our system is flawed when success is founded on relentless competition and teaching becomes selfish rather than socially motivated; when students learn for extrinsic reasons like passing a test rather than because they see learning as a tool to develop and expand personal and collective capacities. Education shouldn't be centered on testing; it should emphasize innovation, imagination, and entrepreneurship-the three things that have made this country the envy of the world.
 
Mr. President, I urge you to reconsider the current trajectory of education in America. And I implore your move forward with this quote, from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in mind: "Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate."

This post originally appeared on RooseveltCampusNetwork.org.

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Joshua McKinney

Joshua McKinney is the Senior Fellow for Education with the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network. Joshua is primarily interested in policy issues related to equal access to quality education, college access policy, and education finance policy. A senior at Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA, he is studying philosophy and political science, with a concentration in Political Theory.

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