Journal of Educational Controversy


Saturday, July 31, 2010

New Journal on Native Literatures Launched

JEC Editorial board member, John Purdy, has launched a new journal called Native Literatures: Generation. The mission of this new journal is described as follows:

NLG is dedicated to providing a global forum for original works of literature by writers from the indigenous nations of North America and Hawai’i. Our goal is to support writers in their endeavors by offering a venue linking them with new audiences and potential publishers. Moreover, our magazine is designed to generate funds to provide financial support for writers through scholarships for their studies or grants for specific writing projects.

NLG is a quarterly, with content accessible online for three months with rights reverting to authors thereafter.


NLG is seeking original, unpublished works by writers from the indigenous nations of North America and Hawai’i. We publish in all genres: poetry, fiction (short stories but also novel excerpts if self-contained), creative nonfiction, drama and mixed-genre/media. We are seeking works that extend this body of literature by avoiding cliché and trite conventions through risk-taking and experimentation, but also through distinctive and engaging voices, exciting and innovative approaches. For full submission guidelines, please visit our website. For information, contact or

Congratulations John on the launching of your new magazine. Readers can check it out at:

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Great Resource for Teachers

Several times, we have referred our readers to a very helpful website called, American Indians in Children’s Literature. Just in time for the fall semester, the website has put up several lists of Top Ten Book Recommendations for teachers in the elementary, middle schools, and high schools, who are looking for some authentic readings for their classrooms. There is also a link to an article, "Native Voices," by Debbie Reese from the School Library Journal where readers can find annotations.

The site is run by Debbie Reese, who provides helpful criteria for teachers to use in making selections. Be sure to check out her section on “Evaluate from an informed perspective.” You will find information on Guidelines for Evaluating American Indian websites, Resources for research projects, Tribally-owned Websites, Images of Indians in Children's Books.

A member of the Nambe Pueblo in northern New Mexico and former school teacher, Debbie Reese currently teaches in UIUC's American Indian Studies program.

Keep up the good work Debbie.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Dangerous Proposal

Editor: Today we welcome a post by guest blogger, Joel Shatzky. Dr. Shatzky is a contributor to the Huffington Post where readers can read his series of articles on the topic, "Educating for Democracy." Check out:

In his post to our blog below, Dr. Shatzky asks us to consider a "dangerous" proposal.

A Dangerous Proposal

by Joel Shatzky
“Unofficial” Blogger “Educating for Democracy” on Huffington Post

A number of recent news items on education should demonstrate to educators how little attention the political establishment has paid to the legitimate concerns of teachers. That is because the so-called “educational reform” movements that were initiated during the Clinton Administration, codified by the Bush Administration’s “No Child Left Behind” program, and intensified by the Obama Administration’s “Race to the Top” have little if anything to do with improving education. They have to do with creating the illusion that they are improving education.

To improve education would mean also improving the social and economic life of young learners who are disadvantaged because of racial, ethnic and class discrimination by an economic system that is consistently failing to provide good-paying jobs to an increasing number of working class and lower middle class workers. This is a systemic problem and using the schools as the whipping boy for its failure is one way in which politicians deal with serious problems: distract the public with a simplistic solution instead of a challenging one.

The fraudulence of the “Educational Miracle” that improved test scores since Michael Bloomberg took control of the New York City schools system was revealed in a report by Daniel Koretz and Jennifer Jennings of Harvard University ( “State’s Exams Became Easier to Pass, Education Officials Say.” NY Times. 7/20/10). The findings of the study which included such practices as “test[ing] a narrow part of the curriculum, particularly in math, and . . .[that] questions were often repeated year to year . . .” exposed the manipulation of test scores to create the illusion of improved learning. The “higher standards” that Chancellor Klein is promising will be no more valid than the present “lower standards” the NYC school system has been promoting since the emphasis will continue to be on test prep instead of education.

The following day (7/ 21/10) The Times reported that 27 states are adopting “National Standards” for their education curriculums so as to be eligible for some of the “Race to the Top” funds by August 2. Laudable as it might be to have “national standards” (France has them), what procedures are going to be used to measure the success—or failure—of schools to “educate” their students up to these standards? Will there be penalties, as there are now, of school closings, student dislocation, loss of tenure, seniority, and, as a consequence, experienced teachers as a product of establishing and testing for these “standards?” If they are so important, why shouldn’t they be required for all schools in the country, private as well as public?

Although I know of no systematic study on the practices of private schools, from their literature and my discussions with private school students and teachers concerning testing, these educators do not spend any significant amount of time, if at all, “prepping” their students for standardized tests. It would be an interesting project to find out exactly how many private and elite public school teachers actually take these programs seriously, especially if they are left alone to teach and not play the role of bookkeepers.

Steve Nelson, the School Head at one of the more prestigious private schools in New York City, The Calhoun School, whose alumni include Ben Stiller, Wendy Wasserstein, the late playwright, and Peggy Guggenheim, the philanthropist, is cited in the school’s website: “While Steve acknowledges that standardized tests can help schools determine which content areas of their programs need strengthening, they fail to benefit students in any real way and can actually cause harm. By measuring a very narrow range of abilities--most notably, the ability to take a standardized test--the tests provide a mere snapshot of the student, and cause him or her to be defined by test scores alone. The tests do not account for different learning styles.”

This statement echoes that of thousands of educators across the nation; the only difference is that The Calhoun School recognizes and limits the potential abuses of standardized tests while public school teachers are increasingly at risk in doing so. Having been born to wealth or privilege is in itself an advantage for any young learner at a private school. The programs spreading throughout the country that will cripple public schools only increase the disadvantage of others.

In the research I’ve done on a pamphlet I’m preparing for those who read my blog, “Why Our Economic System Is Unsustainable (And What You Can Do About It),”
one of the many statistics I’ve discovered is that 43% of working people earn less than they spend and that the average family is going deeper into debt every year since long before the present Recession. This is due, in large part, to the stagnating wages that have, at least for men, remained very much the same as they had thirty-five years ago. By deflecting this wage stagnation through blaming the public schools, the political and economic leaders in this country have an excuse for the increasing trend toward economic—and I would add political—inequality.

The two principal initiators of these school “reforms,” Rod Paige under the Bush Administration and Arne Duncan under the Obama Administration, have been shown to be failures, if not frauds in the case of Paige, in the programs they administered as the superintendants of schools in Houston and Chicago. In Paige’s case, the improved test scores were found, in some instances, to be the product of cheating, and many of the statistics were skewed by not counting drop out rates. In Duncan’s case, some of his “reforms” proved even more lethal as rival gangs, forced to share the same “turf” because one of their schools was closed, began to wage gang wars, reflected in the rise in the recent murder rate in Chicago. Yet there has been no serious re-examination of the validity of Paige’s and Duncan’s programs in view of their actual records as “educators.”

The issues I’ve raised in this blog have been discussed and debated for almost a decade in one form or another as teachers have become more aware of the danger to their profession: its quality, integrity and the respect it should receive as these repressive, anti-intellectual and sorry excuses for “educational innovation” seem to be taking hold throughout the country. The issue of the rise of charter schools would be the subject for another blog but suffice it to say that from what I can see, they do not provide a solution to the problems of school learning and, in many cases, exacerbate them. Diane Ravitch’s study, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, is an excellent analysis of the way in which what might have been a good idea has turned into a nightmare.

But what is to be done? Instead of a Modest Proposal, I would like to offer a Dangerous Proposal. The only way the leaders of this country and enforcers of this policy are going to realize that they have to rethink their agenda is by teachers getting their attention. I believe that evidence of the strength of teacher opposition to testing instead of teaching is through a “Sick of Testing Sick Out”: a national “sick out” that would be determined by education activists and those among the three million teachers in this country who recognize that these destructive practices must stop. They must also offer, as they certainly should, alternatives to testing and a clear explanation as to why these programs have been bad for students.

I am a retiree with a pension and so I realize that there is a danger in organizing a national “sick out” for the future careers of young as well as experienced teachers. But I remember when my parents felt that they had to have a union to protect them from arbitrary treatment by principals and school boards and risked their jobs and pensions to go on strike with Albert Shanker back in the 1950’s. A one-day “sick-out” might be the only way to get the attention of politicians who assume that “business as usual” is the way to solve a serious social issue. In Florida, a “Right-to-Work” state, the Republican Governor vetoed a bill that would have stripped teachers of almost all collective bargaining rights due, in no small part, to a teacher “sick-out” that was supported by a majority of the parents in the state. Yes, this is a “Dangerous Proposal,” but I believe that doing nothing more than discussing and debating issues we know are ruining our public school system and the future of democracy in this country is even more dangerous.

Note: For any readers interested I am providing a link to a video I wrote and performed in (as the “Drill Instructor”) on the difference between “drilling” and teaching.

It was produced by ICOPE (Independent Commission on Public Education) .

Independent Commission on Public Education --

The link to my archived blogs on the Huffington Post is:

Joel Shatzky is an early-retired English Professor who taught writing and drama at SUNY-Cortland (1968-2005) and is presently teaching English and writing at Kingsborough Community College. He has a half-dozen novels, scholarly, and topical studies to his credit, published by UNC Press, Greenwood Publishers and Drybones Press. Shatzky has published articles on theatre and education in the New York Times, Jewish Currents, Studies in Jewish American Literature, Players, and a half dozen other journals. As a playwright, Shatzky has written eight produced OOB shows, among the most recent, “Amahlia,” at 13th Street Rep. His article, “Education for Democracy,” was the lead article in the Winter 2009-2010 issue of Jewish Currents. Another will be coming out this Fall, a review of Diane Ravitch's study, The Death and Life of the Great American School System and an interview with Dr. Ravitch. Shatzky's book on the decline in student literacy, The Thinking Crisis (with Ellen Hill), was published by Authors Choice Press in 2001. Contact Joel at My website is

Monday, July 12, 2010

An Impassioned Defense of Public Education: Diane Ravitch's Speech before the NEA

Below is a transcript of the speech by Diane Ravitch that was delivered before the 2010 Representative Assembly of the National Education Association. We reproduce it with her permission in its entirety to inform our readership.

Ravitch's new book,The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, questions many of her earlier commitments as the Assistant Secretary of Education under the President George H. W. Bush. In her impassioned speech before the National Education Association, where she received its Friend of Education award, Ravitch takes a critical look at the state of today's educational reform movement, the consequences that have followed its implementation, and the betrayal of public education as the "backbone of this democracy."

Speech Delivered at the 2010 NEA Representative Assembly

by Diane Ravitch

Thank you, John Wilson. [Ed.: Dr. Ravitch points out that the transcript on the NEA website omitted her acknowledgement of Dennis Van Roekel as well as John Wilson.] Thank you, all my friends in the NEA. Thanks to all my new friends in Colorado and Massachusetts and California. Thank you so much, California. The first time I spoke about my book was before the NEA scholars group in October. But the first time I went public was in San Jose, California. Thank you.

Let me first thank you so sincerely for this honor. I accept it with humility, with gratitude, and with respect for the more than three million educators that it represents.

Next, I would especially like to thank Camille Zombro of San Diego. Without Camille and without her help and the help of teachers in San Diego, I could not have written chapter 4 of the book. Read it and you will see why.

Well, it’s kind of amazing that this convention is being held in New Orleans. I was, just a few minutes ago, interviewed by documentary filmmakers who said to me, “Well, don’t you know that New Orleans is proving a new model?” The new model consists of wiping out public education and firing the unions, and it’s spreading across the country. And I said, “God forbid.” I pointed out to them what we all used to know, which is that public education is the backbone of this democracy, and we cannot turn it over to privateers.

Since my book appeared in early March, I have started out on what I thought would be a conventional book tour, but it really has turned into a whistle-stop campaign. I have been to 40 different cities and districts. I have another 40 planned starting in September. I talked to union members, to school board members, to administrators, to left-wing think tanks, to right-wing think tanks. I have met with high-level White House staff. I have met with about 40 members of Congress. I would say that I have met so far about 20,000 teachers, and after today I think I am going to increase it to 30,000.

And in all of this time, aside from the right-wing think tanks, I haven’t seen met a single teacher who likes what’s happening? I haven’t met a single teacher who thinks that No Child Left Behind has been a success. I haven’t met a single teacher who thinks that Race to the Top is a good idea.

Wherever I went, I met teachers who understood that there is a rising tide of hostility to teachers, to the teaching profession, and to teachers’ unions. You see it almost daily in the national media, in Newsweek magazine with its dreadful cover story about firing teachers, and Time magazine with awful columns, and in the New York Times and the Washington Post and all of the major media.

And as I talk to teachers, by the end of my talk, I hear the same questions again and again: What can we do? How can we stop the attacks on teachers and on the teaching profession? Why is the media demonizing unions? Why does the media constantly criticize public schools? And why does it lionize charter schools? Why is Arne Duncan campaigning with Newt Gingrich? Why has the Obama Administration built its education agenda on the punitive failed strategies of No Child Left Behind?

And teachers want to know, as you want to know, who will stand up for public schools and their teachers? At every appearance that I’ve made, teachers would come up to me afterward and they would say to me, “Stand up for us. Speak for us. Be our voice wherever you go.” And I promised that I would, and I have.

I promised to speak out against No Child Left Behind. It’s a disaster. It has turned our schools into testing factories. Its requirement that 100 percent of students will be proficient by the year 2014 is totally unrealistic. Any teacher could have told them that. Thousands and thousands of schools have been stigmatized as failing schools because they could not reach a goal that no state, no nation, and no district has ever reached. By setting an impossible goal, No Child Left Behind has delegitimized public education and created a rhetoric of failure and paved the way for privatization.

I will continue to speak out against high-stakes testing. It undermines education. High-stakes testing promotes cheating, gaming the system, teaching to bad tests, narrowing the curriculum. High-stakes testing means less time for the arts, less time for history or geography or civics or foreign languages or science.

We see schools across America dropping physical education. We see them dropping music. We see them dropping their arts programs, their science programs, all in pursuit of higher test scores. This is not good education.

I have been told by some people in the Obama Administration that the way to stop the narrowing of the curriculum is to test everything. In fact, the chancellor in Washington, D.C., the other day announced she plans to do exactly that. That means less time for instruction, more time for testing, and a worse education for everyone.

In speaking out, I have consistently warned about the riskiness of school choice. Its benefits are vastly overstated. It undercuts public education by enabling charter schools to skim the best students in poor communities. As our society pursues these policies, we will develop a bifurcated system, one for the haves, another for the have-nots, and politicians have the nerve to boast about such an outcome.

Public schools, as I said before, are a cornerstone of our democratic society. If we chip away at support for them, we erode communal responsibility for a vital public institution.

Teachers are rightly worried about the Race to the Top. I pledged to keep asking again and again why a Race to the Top replaced equal educational opportunity. Equal educational opportunity is the American way. The race will have a few winners and a lot of losers. That’s what a race means.

Race to the Top encourages states to increase the number of privately managed charters, to pass laws to evaluate teachers by test scores, to promote merit pay, and to agree to close or privatize schools with low scores or to fire all or part of their staff. All of this is wrong.

And thank you for passing a resolution expressing no confidence in Race to the Top. Why expand the number of charters when research shows that on average they don’t get better results than regular public schools? Last year, a major evaluation showed that one out of every six charters will get better results, five out of six charters will get no different results or worse results than the regular public schools. A report released just a couple of weeks ago by Mathematica Policy Research once again shows charter middle schools do not get better results than regular public middle schools.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, on whose board I served for seven years, has tested charter schools since 2003. In 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009, charter schools were compared to regular public schools and have never shown an advantage over regular public schools. Charter schools, contrary to Bill Gates, are not more innovative than regular public schools. The business model and methods of charter schools is this — longer school days, longer hours, longer weeks, and about 95 percent of charter schools are non-union.

Teachers are hired and fired at will. Teachers work 50, 60, 70 hours a week. They are expected to burn out after two or three years when they can be replaced. No pension worries, no high salaries. This is not a template for American education.

If we pursue the path of privatization and deregulation, we better keep in mind what happened with the stock market in 2008. And to those who tout the benefits of vouchers and charters, I want you to point out this example to them, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Milwaukee has had charters and vouchers now for almost 20 years. Twenty years with vouchers, almost 20 years with charters.

They have seen a steadily declining enrollment in the public schools, and meanwhile research now shows that African-American students in Milwaukee, the supposed beneficiary of all of this choice, have test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, test scores that are below those of their African-American peers in Mississippi and Louisiana.

There was no rising tide. Choice promoted no rising tide, and no boats were lifted. While all of this money was invested in choice, there were no benefits to the students.

The Race to the Top plan to use test scores to evaluate teachers is a very bad idea, badly implemented. Legislatures should not decide how to evaluate teachers.

SB6 was wrong in Florida. Thank you to the Florida Education Association and to all the parents and friends who stood with you who defeated that pernicious piece of legislation. And thanks to you for persuading Governor Charlie Crist to do the right thing by vetoing it. Now you have got to make sure that whoever is the next governor will veto it again if it dares to come back again.

191 is wrong in Colorado. Sorry to say that it was passed. It was signed into law, and the teachers may stand to be fired because the test scores didn’t go up consistently. And these are matters that are, in many cases, beyond their control. Teachers should be judged by professional standards and not by a political process. Research does not support evaluating teachers by test scores.

Students are not randomly assigned to classes. Teachers’ so-called effectiveness fluctuates depending on which students happen to be in a teacher’s class. The single most reliable predictor of test scores is poverty, and poverty, in turn, is correlated to student attendance, to family support, and to the school’s resources.

And perhaps we should begin demanding that school districts be held accountable for providing the resources that schools need. Just like No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top requires and pressures districts to close low-performing schools. The overwhelming majority of low-performing schools enroll students in poverty and students who don’t speak English and students who are homeless and transient. Very often, these schools have heroic staffs who are working with society’s neediest children. These teachers deserve praise, not pink slips. Closing schools weakens communities. It’s not a good idea to weaken communities. No school was ever improved by closing it.

You know, a lot of teachers don’t pay attention to the national scene. They are busy teaching kids. They don’t pay attention to what’s happening in Washington. But when the Central Falls staff, the entire staff, was fired without a single teacher having an evaluation, the message went out that there is a new game of punishing teachers. And the message also went out when this was endorsed by Secretary Duncan and then reaffirmed by President Obama. This is not a good message.

We should thank our teachers, not fire them, not threaten them, and not close their schools.

Merit pay is another of the useless fads of our time. Merit pay has nothing to do with education. It destroys teamwork. It incentivizes teachers to compete with each other for money instead of collaborating for each other for the benefit of children.

Teachers need to share what they know and work towards one common goal — helping children and young people grow and develop. Merit pay will promote teaching to not very good tests. It may or may not improve scores, but it definitely will not improve education.

I have spoken out repeatedly to defend the right of teachers to join unions for their protection and the protection of the teaching profession. Teachers have a right to a collective voice in the political process. It’s the American way. I don’t see the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post or the pundits complaining about the charter school lobby. I don’t see them complaining about the investment bankers lobby, or any other group that speaks on behalf of its members. Only teachers’ unions are demonized these days.

Currently, there is a campaign underway to eliminate tenure and seniority. To remove job protections from senior teachers would destroy the profession. Supervisors will save money by firing the most expensive teachers. Imagine a hospital staffed by residents and interns with no doctors. Bad idea.

Instead of the current wave of so-called reforms, we should ask ourselves how to deliver on our belief that every student in this nation should learn not only basic skills, but should have a curriculum that includes the arts, history, geography, civics, foreign languages, mathematics, science, physical education, and health. But instead of this kind of rich curriculum, all they are getting is a heavy dose of high-stakes testing and endless test preparation. And as the stakes increase for teachers and schools, there will be more emphasis on test prep and not what children need.

Policymakers have been far too silent about the role of the family. Teachers know that education begins at home, and that when families take responsibility, students are likely to arrive in school ready to learn. We need, not a Race to the Top, but a commitment to provide greater resources for those children who are in the greatest need. Schools and school districts continue to vary dramatically in their access to resources. The role of the federal government in education is to level the playing field, not to set off a competition for money. Nor do we expect the federal government to tell states and districts how to reform themselves based on the Chicago experience.

Around the world, those nations that are successful recognize that the best way to improve school is to improve the education profession. We need expert teachers, not a steady influx of novices.

We need experienced principals who are themselves master teachers. We do not need a wave of newcomers who took a course called “How to be a principal.” We need superintendents who are wise and experienced educators, not lawyers and businessmen.

The current so-called reform movement is pushing bad ideas. No high-performing nation in the world is privatizing its schools, closing its schools, and inflicting high-stakes testing on every subject on its children. The current reform movement wants to end tenure and seniority, to weaken the teaching profession, to silence teachers’ unions, to privatize large sectors of public education. Don’t let it happen!

So here’s a thought for NEA. Print up four million bumper stickers that say, “I am a public schoolteacher, and I vote — and so does my family.”

Do not support any political figure who opposes public education. Stand up to the attacks on public education. Don’t give them half a loaf, because they will be back the next day for another slice, and the day after that for another slice.

Don’t compromise. Stand up for teachers. Stand up public education, and say “No mas, no mas." Thank you.

For an interesting interview with Diane Ravitch, see

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Author Sam Chaltain Reflects on How Gandhi and Buber Would Respond to the Documentary, “The Lottery”

Our readers will remember the article, “Ways of Seeing (and of Being Seen): Visibility in Schools,” that Sam Chaltain wrote for our special issue on “Schooling as if Democracy Matters,” in our winter 2008 issue of the journal. Watch for a review of his latest book, American Schools: The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community, that will appear in the summer 2011 issue of our journal.

Sam has written an interesting piece recently in the Washington Post and has given us permission to post it to our blog.

What Gandhi would think about “The Lottery”

by Sam Chaltain

I just saw "The Lottery" – a documentary film about public education in general, and the charter school movement in particular – and I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut.

The film is beautiful, and deeply moving, It is impossible not to fall in love with the four children (and their families) whose bittersweet paths we follow in the lead-up to the lottery that decides who is admitted to Harlem Success Academy, a successful new charter school, and whose dream is (randomly) denied.

I’m equally struck by the way the film further entrenches the “us v. them” mentality that is, I believe, one of the greatest challenges to our establishing a new system of public education that can truly serve the interests of the families in the film.

It is, in short, a film about heroes (the families and pro-charter school advocates) and villains (teachers’ unions and anti-charter advocates). And it’s asking you to pick sides.

Watching it, I found myself thinking of two great philosophers – Martin Buber and Mohandas K. Gandhi – and wondering what they would say about the tenor of our national movement, and what that tenor augurs for our children over the long-term.

It was Buber, for example, whose 1923 book "I and Thou" first suggested that all human beings interact with the world – and each other – in one of two ways:

*By seeing others in two-dimensional terms – as "I/It" – and by moving into a limited subject/object relationship; or

*By seeing others in three-dimensional terms – as ’I/Thou” – and by moving into existence in a relationship without bounds.

Buber’s central message was that human life finds its meaningfulness in relationships. And it is only when we paint each other in human terms (“I/Thou”) that we create the conditions to support both personal and group transformation.

Similarly – and much more familiarly – Gandhi’s success as a leader stemmed from his faith in the principle of Satyagraha, a synthesis of the Sanskrit words Satya, or "truth," and Agraha, or "holding firmly to."

As Gandhi explained it:

“Satya implies love, and Agraha engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha . . . . I have also called it love-force or soul-force. In the application of Satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion.”

Both Buber and Gandhi clearly understood what the producers of "The Lottery" do not – that to bring about a true revolution (as Gandhi did), we must lead with a fundamental respect for our opponents. We must, as Lincoln said, appeal to the “better angels of our natures.” And we must resist the ideological short cut of painting each other in two-dimensional terms. It’s not that simple, and neither is the work we have before us.

Unfortunately, what I see taking shape nationally is a more traditional conflict, in which both sides (e.g., pro- or anti-union, pro- or anti-charter, etc.) seek to defeat the opponent or frustrate the opponent’s objectives. By contrast, Gandhi’s goal was “to convert, not to coerce, the wrong-doer.”

What if we heeded Gandhi’s advice and flipped the script? What if both sides started defining success as cooperating with our opponent to meet a just end – best personified by the families in "The Lottery" and their hopes for their children? And what if we did so by proactively interacting with each other through an “I/Thou” frame?

I’m not suggesting that by doing so, all of our problems would magically go away. To be sure, there are some real differences, and real obstacles, to reform.

I am suggesting, however, that it may serve us all better if we start fighting fire with water by refusing to engage in the most off-base accusations that suck up the oxygen in our public discussions (from Arne Duncan conspiracy theories to the notion that any union supporter unions can’t really want what’s good for kids).

We’re all educators, after all, committed to careers in the service of children. So let’s all start acting like it.

Go to:

Sam Chaltain is an organizational change consultant, who works with schools, school districts, and public and private sector companies to help them create healthy, high-functioning learning environments. Chaltain is the former director of the Forum for Education & Democracy, an education advocacy organization, and the founding director of the Five Freedoms Project, a national program that helps K-12 educators create more democratic learning communities.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Religious Groups Oppose Nation’s Educational Policy and “Race to the Top” Strategy: A Call for Justice in Public Education

In an extraordinary letter to President Obama and Members of Congress, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, a community of 36 communions with a combined membership of 45 million people in more than 100,000 congregations across the country, issued a pastoral letter criticizing the direction of national educational policy and offered an alternative vision of public education. Sent as an “Ecumenical Call for Justice,” the report expresses concern about the inappropriate use of the language of business to discuss public education, the de-emphasizing of federal money designed to address the conditions of children in poverty while emphasizing competitive grants, the punitive approach to low performing schools that are struggling, and the demonization of public school teachers.

The letter raises a fundamental question: “While competitive, market based “reforms” may increase educational opportunity for a few children, or even for some groups of children, do they introduce more equity or more inequity into the system itself?” Essentially, do we live in community or merely in a marketplace?

We reproduce the letter below for our readers:

An Alternative Vision for Public Education
A Pastoral Letter on Federal Policy in Public Education:
An Ecumenical Call for Justice

May 18, 2010

Dear President Obama and Members of Congress,

The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA is a community of 36 Christian communions with a combined membership of 45 million persons in more than 100,000 congregations across this country. Our member churches – from a wide spectrum of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, historic African American and Living Peace churches – do not agree on all things! We stand united, however, in our conviction that the church is called to speak for justice in public education. We affirm that each life is infinitely precious, created in the image of God, and therefore, that every child should be given opportunity for fullness of life, including a quality and affordable education.

We further affirm that our society’s provision of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—while imperfect, is essential for ensuring that all children are served. As a people called to love our neighbors as ourselves, we look for the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children. We know that such a system will never be perfect, and we pledge as faithful citizens to continue to improve the schools in our communities and to make our system of schools more responsive.

We value democratic governance of public schools.
We support democratic governance of public schools. Because public schools are responsible to the public, it is possible through elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts to ensure that traditional public schools provide access for all children. We believe that democratic operation of public schools is our best hope for ensuring that families can secure the services to which their children have a right. On balance, we believe that if government invests public funds in charter schools that report to private boards, government, not the vicissitudes of the marketplace, should be expected to provide oversight to protect the common good.

Public schools must guarantee each child’s right to educational opportunity.
We value the contributions of parochial schools managed by some of our communions and the contributions of charter schools operated by some of our congregations. We affirm, however, the position of our 1999 General Assembly that “as a general rule, public funds should be used for public purposes.” Knowing that traditional public schools continue to educate more than 90 percent of our nation’s 50 million school children, we again echo the 1999 General Assembly that called “on our members to direct their energies toward improving the schools that the majority of children will continue to attend.” As you craft the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, originally the 1965 cornerstone of the War on Poverty, we ask you to remember that the Civil Rights Movement sought to ensure expanded opportunity for all children through public education. In 1954 the Supreme Court eliminated de jure segregation and guaranteed access for all to public schools previously available only to the privileged, and in 1965 Congress began providing federal funding for public schools serving children in poverty through Title I. We are concerned today when we hear the civil right to education being re-defined as the right to school choice, for we know that equitable access to opportunity is more difficult to ensure in a mass of privatized alternatives to traditional public schools or in school districts being carved apart into small schools of choice. Experimentation with small schools must not cause us to lose sight of society’s obligation to serve all children with appropriate services; we must continue to expect public school districts to provide a complete range of services accessible to children in every neighborhood of our cities. Choice-based alternatives being proposed in local, state, and federal policy pose serious questions that we ask you to consider regarding equal access and public oversight. Here are just a few examples:

  • When large high schools are broken into smaller schools or when charter management or education management organizations are brought in to operate small schools, what happens to children with special needs and English language learners when small schools cannot provide the more expensive services such children need?

  • In so-called “portfolio school districts” which are projected to manage an ongoing churn of new schools coming into existence and weak schools being forced to close, won’t closing public schools and moving the students increase student mobility in cities where poverty already means that too many children change schools too often? What is the consequence for a neighborhood or a community when a public school is closed or its entire staff fired?

  • When there is competition to attract students to a range of small schools or charter schools, and when these schools are sought out by parents who are active choosers, what happens to the traditional neighborhood public schools which are left to serve the majority of special education students, English language learners, and homeless children?

  • What happens to children whose parents, for whatever reason, do not participate in choice? We recently heard students whose families simply bring them to register at the neighborhood public school called “over the counter” children. Many of us and many of our children have at some time in our lives been “over the counter” children. We have assumed that universally available and easily accessible public schools were part of the American Dream.
  • The federal Race to the Top competition brings federal pressure on states to remove statutory caps on the authorization of new charter schools. When charter schools are regulated state-by-state, how can the federal government ensure that what has been very uneven charter school regulation across the states be made more uniform to protect the public interest?
  • Finally as it is proposed that federal grants be made more competitive—in the Race to the Top competition and the President’s recent “Blueprint” for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—by de-emphasizing Title I formula grants and increasing Title I competitive grants, how will we protect the educational opportunities of children in states and districts that are the losers? While the Title I formula program has been too small to make up for the impact of family poverty and the 3:1 inequality of school funding among the school districts in most states, it remains the federal government’s primary tool for distributing funds by formula according to need, for the purpose of expanding opportunity for poor children.

While competitive, market based “reforms” may increase educational opportunity for a few children, or even for some groups of children, do they introduce more equity or more inequity into the system itself?
We reject the language of business for discussing public education.
Not only has the language of the marketplace entered discussions of school governance and management, but we also notice that the language of business accountability is used to talk about education, a human endeavor of caring. The primary mechanism of the No Child Left Behind Act has been annual standardized tests of reading and math for all children in grades 3-8, followed by punishments for the schools that cannot rapidly reach ever increasing test score production targets. We worry that our society has come to view what is good as what can be measured and compared. The relentless focus on testing basic skills has diminished our attention to the humanities, the social studies, the arts, and child and adolescent development. As people of faith we do not view our children as products to be tested and managed but instead as unique human beings, created in the image of God, to be nurtured and educated.

ESEA Reauthorization must expand educational opportunity.
As you craft the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we call on you to be faithful to the law’s original purpose: expanding educational opportunity by providing additional support for the schools that serve our nation’s poorest children. We ask you to address what are too rarely named these days: the cavernous resource opportunity gaps—from state to state and from school district to school district— underneath the achievement gaps that No Child Left Behind has so carefully documented. We ask you to allocate federal resources for equity and insistently press states to close opportunity gaps. It is time to guarantee for all children in the United States a comparable opportunity to learn that includes a quality early childhood education, highly qualified teachers, a curriculum that will prepare students for college, work and community, and equitable instructional resources. It is also time to recognize that the blessings of healthcare remain unequal among American children, as do enrichments like after school programs, and summer experiences.

We value public school educators.

Our biblical heritage and our theology teach us that we live in community, not solely in the marketplace. As we strive to move our imperfect world closer to the realm of God, we recognize that we are all responsible for making sure that public schools, as primary civic institutions, embody our love for one another. We are called to create institutions that serve families and children with hospitality. We are called to work as citizens for the resources that will support a climate of trust and community within each public school. We are also called to value those whose vocation is teaching. Lately we have been dismayed by federal policy that encourages states to change laws to eliminate due process, to devalue the credentials of excellent teachers, and to fire teachers and principals as though that were a tested recipe for school reform, when we know that no research supports the President’s proposed “turnaround” model that purports to improve a school by firing the principal and at least half the staff. We look for a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that honors the professionalism of teachers and treats these individuals with respect. Wholesale scapegoating of public school teachers is an ugly and unfortunate development in federal policy.
We pledge to partner with you for just reform.
We pledge to partner with you in prayer and action, working for reform that values the whole child as uniquely created, values teachers, and encourages and equips the family and community to participate in nurturing the full development of every child. We pledge to partner with you by:
  • encouraging congregations to value public education and teachers through sermons, worship, and prayer;
  • supporting parent education and adult literacy;
  • encouraging congregations to partner with public schools to provide tutors, school supplies, exposure to computers and many other supports;
  • supporting out-of-school supports like better and widely available pre-school and after school programs; and
  • continuing to educate our members about the value of Community Schools that surround public schools with social supports.

We ask you to partner with us to challenge the unfair and detrimental language of the current discourse in educational reform, to re-examine untested assumptions about public education policy, and to ensure that untested models of school reform are not imposed from above in our nation’s most fragile school districts. Too often criticism of the public schools fails to reflect our present societal complexity. At a moment when childhood poverty is shamefully widespread, when many families are under constant stress, and when schools are often limited by lack of funds or resources, we know that public schools cannot be improved by concentrating on public schools alone. They alone can neither cause nor cure the problems we face. In this context, we must address with prayerful determination the issues of race and class, which threaten both public education and democracy in America.


The Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary
The Rev. Peg Chemberlin, President

On Behalf of the Governing Board of The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA

To view the letter and a list of the members of the governing board, go to: