Dear Bill: How You Can Help Schools

Thoughts on an Education Agenda for the new Administration

For too long, educators have been on the defensive. Twelve years ago, the Reagan Administration proposed eliminating the Department of Education, setting the tone for federal education policies that were a devastating mix of neglect and cutbacks. When the Reagan/Bush regime decided to take an offensive posture toward education issues, it did so primarily by launching an attack on the very concept of public education and promoting plans for publicly funded vouchers for private schools.

Coupled with severe budget cutbacks on the state and local level, these federal policies forced progressive educators to adopt a defensive stance. We were forced to neglect our vision of what should be, and to focus instead on what might be salvaged from the conservative onslaught.

With a new Democratic administration about to take power, progressive educators are once

again nurturing the hope that we can not merely defend, but move forward. We asked several educators to briefly explain what they think should be the educational priorities of the Clinton Administration. We offer these statements, and our own developing analysis, as a modest beginning of what should be a long discussion on an agenda for change.

The task is daunting. And the danger, we fear, is not that progressive educators will put forward unrealistic plans for reform, but that we will take the safe route and timidly propose measures that will only chip away at the crisis in education in this country.

We are not under any illusion that education policy will be the Clinton administration’s top priority in its first few months. Clinton has already made clear that he will emphasize economic initiatives. For educators, the positive side of this reality is that it provides breathing space to re-energize our imaginations and develop far-reaching — dare we use the word “breathtaking?” — proposals that can forge a new vision of education reform.

Our task is not merely to develop specific policies and legislation, although that is sorely needed, but to change the very confines of the debate and mold a new consensus on how, and with what resources, we want to educate all our children.

In looking at the many issues in education, it is our opinion that the new administration’s overriding concern must be equity. This is the focus that must guide all policy decisions, the yardstick by which to gauge success or failure.

It’s not that our society doesn’t know how to teach or raise children well, but that we do so unequally. Some children go to fully equipped, modern schools, with small class sizes and big expectations of success. They also have the advantages of private lessons and clubs, full health insurance, and fine housing. Unfortunately, millions of other children are not so lucky. They attend under-funded, poorly equipped schools with big classes and small expectations of success. Their parents often can not afford private lessons or clubs, have no health insurance, and live in inadequate housing.

Schools, rather than helping low-income children rise above these realities, instead tend to reinforce the economic and social inequalities in society. If schools are to fulfill their democratic mission, they must forcefully address the issue of inequity. By equity we mean:

  • Equity in school finances and resources.

One of the most serious ways school inequity manifests itself is in unequal funding. The federal government should not only increase funding for federal education programs, but must enter the as-yet-uncharted territory of ensuring funding equity for public schools throughout the country. It must target federal money to poor schools in urban and rural areas, and also pressure states to equalize funding of school districts within their borders.

  • Equity in schoolfacilities/community centers.

The actual school buildings in many urban areas are dilapidated. They’re old, overcrowded, out-dated and often unsafe. Two things need to be done. First, the federal government should launch a multi-billion dollar initiative to build new schools across the country as part of the Clinton administration’s promise to focus on infrastructure needs. Such a program would begin to provide necessary space for smaller class sizes and specialty rooms to give students in poorer districts facilities more comparable to suburban ones. Second, a national school construction initiative should ensure that these new schools be part of a broader effort to revitalize impoverished urban and rural areas and be built as combination learning and community centers. These school/community centers would be focal points of the neighborhood, providing everything from recreation and cultural activities, to social welfare services, to education for young and old alike.

  • Equity injobs.

The unemployment rates in many communities, particularly those of color, are intolerably high. It is no wonder that adolescents might turn to drug dealing and violence, when the job market offers them so little hope. The federal government should immediately initiate a massive federal jobs program with life-sustainable salaries and meaningful work that can help rebuild our communities. In particular, the Clinton administration should be judged by its ability to reduce unemployment among people of color to the level of their white counterparts.

  • Equity in each school and classroom.

The Department of Education should provide leadership to, and fund, local initiatives by teachers and parents that aim to replace outmoded forms of curriculum with those that build on students’ strengths and cultures, while challenging students to think critically about solving our nation’s problems. Tracking must be replaced with approaches in which well-trained teachers teach students in more heterogeneous groupings. The racist attitudes of educators, who explicitly or implicitly hold that children of color or poor children can’t learn, must be challenged. Money should also be provided for staff retraining for these necessary initiatives.

  • Equity in teacher training and retention.

The federal government should provide financial scholarships to dramatically increase the number of teachers of color in our public schools and teacher training institutions. Further, it should develop programs to help with on-the-job training so that fewer teachers leave the field after their first few years.

  • Equity in health, housing and socialservices.

If all children are going to have an “equal” chance in our society, then we must improve health, housing, and other social needs for the millions of children who live in poverty. In addition to the federal jobs program mentioned above, the new Administration should move quickly to institute a national health care program, and to pump money into the low-income housing programs that were neglected or abolished during the Reagan/Bush era.

Conclusion: Change from Below

Will Clinton be up to the task? Will he establish an atmosphere of change that will benefit not only the middle class and the affluent but the millions of people who have grown up on the short side of equality?

The answer ultimately rests not with Clinton alone, but with educators, parents, and policymakers across the country.

Clinton might be up to the task — but only if he is supported by a massive movement for change that can both pressure him to develop needed policies and defend him from likely attack from conservatives should he move forcefully.

It is past time for governmental leaders to recognize the severity of the crisis faced by the young people of America, in particular low-income children and children of color. We need, what this nation promised so many generations ago and has yet to deliver, liberty and justice for all.

Early Childhood Programs are Key

By Norm Fruchter

The following is condensed from a conversation with Norm Fruchter, president of one of New York City’s 32 school boards and program advisor for education at the Aaron Diamond Foundation in New York City.

I’m assuming that President-elect Clinton will move toward full funding of federal programs such as Head Start and Chapter One. He should also strengthen other early childhood programs essential to helping kids start school without a disadvantage.

Programs across the country should focus on working with the parents of very young children on optimal child development and how parents can work with their kids at home. On a federal level, Clinton should support and expand such programs.

He also needs to expand the experimental Head Start transition program trying to improve what happens to kids when they move from Head Start into public schools, to provide links between Head Start teachers, kindergarten teachers, and parents. One of the strengths of Head Start is that it emphasizes parental involvement — but that involvement often is discouraged when the kids get to school.

Clinton needs to transform the nature of Chapter One to make it a school improvement program. Reduce the disincentives; relative success now means losing those Chapter One funds. In too many settings Chapter One is targeted on kids rather than on schools. Use the money for school improvement, rather than for remediation.

Clinton should also consider two other areas not usually seen as a federal responsibility.

First, schools should be full-service community institutions. They need to provide all the various supports and services that kids and families need, including basic health care. The federal government could do a demonstration program of such full-service schools in a range of sites, urban and rural. I think the results would be powerful enough that it would be hard to argue against schools providing such services.

Second, another area where the the federal government is currently not involved is equalizing funding of schools. The federal government should use incentives to get states to reduce financial disparities among school districts. One way would be to structure incentive grants to states that demonstrate they are reducing such disparities. Another way might utilize the existing equity requirements of Chapter One, combined with incentive grants from Chapter One funding, to reduce disparities. The bottom line argument is that the federal government should be the ultimate guarantor of equitable resources for public schooling.

Comprehensive Plan Essential

By Deborah M. McGriff

In The Mis-education of the Negro, Carter G. Woodson warned us that opportunities and problems of great importance cannot be resolved in a day with simple solutions. We need a comprehensive plan. We need a time table and we need to keep it.

Accordingly, I would recommend that President-elect Clinton take the following steps during his first 100 days.

First, President-elect Clinton should clarify his vision and mission for education, especially for preschool through grade 12. He must specify whether or not he will continue to Support “American 2000” in its current form. If it’s to be modified, he must specify the changes he will pursue, e.g., will he support private school choice with public funding and vouchers, will standards and assessment policies be implemented without regard to equity?

Second, the President-elect should appoint a secretary of education who shares his vision and has the knowledge, skills, and passion needed to inspire and implement a national campaign which will substantially change education for all children: rich, poor, black, white, brown, male, and female.

To accomplish task two, President-elect Clinton should acknowledge that money matters. He should find the political will to end savage funding inequalities, especially for preschool through grade-12 education, “by any means necessary.”

Finally, if President-elect Clinton is to be the Education President, he must always acknowledge the inextricable link between education and other social policy initiatives. He must ensure that all policies nurture families, build communities, stimulate the economy, and improve the quality of life for children, youth, and adults.

What should be the goals of these policy initiatives? That our high school graduates:

  • Enter college without needing remedial classes.
  • Enter the world of work with the skills needed to acquire jobs that pay above the poverty level and offer career advancement.
  • Develop the entrepreneurial spirit to create new business opportunities, all the while demonstrating exemplary levels of social responsibility and actualizing the practice of freedom.

Our children and youth deserve no less.

Deborah M. McGriff is Superintendent of Detroit Public Schools

Eradicate Illiteracy

By Tony Baez

Since the early 1970s, many educators have been calling for a national initiative to eradicate the incredibly high — and still growing — incidence of adult functional illiteracy. Tens of millions of adults in this country cannot perform basic academic or technological tasks.

Even though First Lady Barbara Bush made illiteracy one of her pet projects, the Bush administration never increased funding for the Adult Education Act.

What troubles me most is that when we discuss the need for educational reform, rarely do we make the case for establishing quality adult education programs for the parents of school-age children.

Few organized educational advocacy groups make adult education an integral part of the educational reform movement in our major cities. Few are willing to be as passionate in demanding more resources for adult education as they are in advocating for better schools, better buildings, and more public school funding.

It is critical that the new presidential administration take the lead in rejecting this society’s negative perceptions of adult learners. President-elect Clinton must also end the senseless fragmentation in federal adult education programs, and he must dismantle federal initiatives that are punitive and based upon “deficit” theories of learning that blame the students for their failures and that don’t recognize and build upon the strengths of the students and their families.

President-elect Clinton must also turn over the lead for adult education policy to those who teach and take part in such programs. Together, they must launch a new adult education and literacy initiative that approaches adult education with the same energy we give to public school reform.

As part of this initiative, the President should establish experimental, adult, pre-college preparatory schools in collaboration with local governments, the public schools, and community-based advocacy groups. The initiative must also focus on increasing the number of people of color who teach and manage adult education programs in our cities.

The President should set clear goals for literacy and adult education and develop a plan to implement them. My hope is that, by the year 2000, we can boast about the eradication of illiteracy and the successful education of all people in America.

Tony Baez is on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center for Urban/Community Development.

End American Apartheid

By Jonathan Kozol

The following is condensed from a conversation with Jonathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities and other books on education.

To a large degree, during the Reagan and Bush years our imaginations atrophied because we were waging a defensive action. It is sometimes difficult after such a period to even remember what a significant goal would be. Yet now is the time to be bold in our suggestions, and to be bold immediately. I suspect the die will be cast during the next 12 months.

If President-elect Clinton invited me to the White House, I wouldn’t even waste my time talking about full funding for Head Start, because I think that’s going to happen anyway. But I would say, “If you really want to heal this nation’s wounds, you ought to reopen the issue of American apartheid.”

Nobody in America talks about racial segregation anymore. To say that the nation has become insensitive to racial injustice would be a terrible understatement.

I go into inner-city schools where every kid is Black, where you don’t see a White face, where racial integration means mixing Latinos with Blacks or a few Cambodians. And I’ll look at the principal around 11 in the morning, a Black principal, and I’ll say, “Would you call this a segregated school?” And he’ll just smile and say, “You know, Jonathan, no one has even asked that question for a decade. Of course it is. This is American apartheid. This is accepted. We don’t even question it anymore.”

Is it realistic that Clinton would take a political chance and open up the forbidden question of whether we are really going to remain two societies? Probably not at first. Might he ultimately? Maybe.

I would also hope that President-elect Clinton has the courage to address the inequitable funding of our public schools.

I’d like him to go beyond the terms that most of us have been forced to deal with, which is inequities within a given state. I’d like to see Clinton address the obligation of the nation itself to educate all American children, with resources that reflect the national wealth.

In the past 10 years we’ve received this rather cleverly contradictory message that because of our schools, the nation is at risk — but that the solution is going to come from the village elders in New Hampshire, or the school board in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Realistically, there is no way this problem of inequitable funding will ever be solved at the state level. Some states are just too poor. We are stuck with a 19th Century system of school finance as we are about to enter the 21st Century.

Don’t Forget Teachers

By Linda Darling-Hammond

If President-elect Clinton truly wants to restructure America’s schools so they can teach all students to perform at high levels, he must ensure that all schools have well-prepared and well-supported teachers.

Three areas must be addressed: recruiting teachers, better preparing teachers, and sharply reducing the number of teachers who leave the profession after their first few years.

Teacher shortages are acute in key areas such as mathematics and science, foreign languages, special education and bilingual education. These shortages particularly affect urban schools. The reason for these shortages is no mystery. Teacher salaries, for instance, remain about 25% below the salaries of other college-educated workers. Moreover, in 1981 President Reagan eliminated a number of special programs for those hoping to teach, such as the Urban Teacher Corps program. In addition, few teachers are prepared to teach all children effectively. To succeed, they need to deeply understand students’ multiple learning styles and needs as well as the subjects they teach.

Given that fully half of the teachers who will be teaching in the year 2000 will be hired over the next decade, we must immediately address these problems — unless we want to continue the all-too-common practice of hiring underprepared teachers who are typically assigned to teach low-income and minority students in central city schools.

Many children in central city schools, in fact, are taught by a parade of short-term substitute teachers, inexperienced teachers who leave before their first year is up, and beginners without training.

Building a well-prepared teaching force will require legislation like that enacted during the teacher shortages of the 1960s (the National Defense and Education Act grants and loans and the Teacher Corps). We will need as well a more sustained and serious attempt to strengthen professional education and recruitment. Federal initiatives should seek to:

  • Recruit new teachers, especially in shortage fields and in shortage locations (particularly central cities) through scholarships and forgivable loans.
  • Strengthen teachers’ preparation through improvement incentive grants to schools of education.
  • Increase teacher retention and effectiveness by improving their clinical training and support during the beginning teaching stage when 30-50% drop out. This would include funding internship programs for new teachers during which they would receive mentoring from experienced teachers.

Linda Darling-Hammond is professor of education at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, and co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education.

Distribute Resources Equitably

By William Ayers

Now that the “Education President” is riding off into a Texas sunset, it is time to get serious about improving schools.

Among Clinton’s earliest actions as President should be a series of investigative visits to schools where initiative, creativity, and a willingness to take matters into one’s own hands are paying off for kids. He could search out those places where folks are defying the odds, succeeding where they were expected to fail — Central Park East in Spanish Harlem comes to mind, as does La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee, the Foundations School in Chicago, and Forks-of-Salmon School in rural California. The point would not be to impose a favorite slogan (“choice,” “standards”) on a dynamic situation, but to seek real counsel from those youngsters, parents, and teachers who actually are making progress with school reform. The people with the problems are also most likely to be the people with the solutions.

Clinton could listen to their accomplishments, their aspirations, their larger goals, and their perspectives on the obstacles that stand in the way. He would surely learn something, and it would cost him nothing.

If from there he hopes to seriously challenge educational failure, he must find ways to fight for generous educational funding and the fair distribution of education resources. One step could be to support the Hawkins Bill (or some similar measure) that could cut federal funds to any state that fails to create an equitable funding formula. This costs nothing. Another would be to creatively blend the concept of categorical and general federal funding by targeting, for example, large sums of federal aid that could be used in any way that states or districts deem appropriate, as long as spending directly decreases inequities at the school level — and not one cent for bureaucracy. It’s a categorical grant for equity, but it’s spent as if it were general money. He should note that school failure is highly selective, and that for the valued and privileged, success is all but guaranteed.

The heavy weight of racism — the most pervasive, debilitating, and destructive feature of our social fabric — must be fought in schools as elsewhere.

Let’s not get giddy about Clinton’s prospects. But let’s not barricade ourselves in dogmatic purity, either, and take personally Clinton’s failures of courage, imagination, and initiative.

It would be a major mistake to expect that a Clinton Administration will be able to do what’s never been done—guarantee full access to an outstanding educational experience in a public school for all youngsters, and hopeful outcomes for each. This ideal will be won only as a result of massive action from below—in fact the best result from the Clinton election victory may be the stirring up of that action, the reenergizing of the popular movements for change, including the struggle of students, parents, citizens, and teachers to dream bigger, reach higher, and fight harder for justice, fairness, and educational excellence. We can, for example, acknowledge that full funding for Head Start was never a radical (or even adequate) solution.

At the same time, Clinton’s victory is significant. Moving the reactionary education cabal led by Lamar Alexander, Chester Finn, and Chris Whittle away from the center of federal power is an important setback for the forces attempting to privatize the public schools. And we should seize the opportunity that that provides to push the new administration to grapple with bottom-line problems like inequity, command-style bureaucracy, and predictably disastrous outcomes for some students.

Now is not the time for the movement for change to relax. On the contrary, now more than ever we need to articulate our goals more clearly, develop our agenda more fully, reach out more massively, and build for the struggle ahead. We could wait forever for Clinton to get it right, or we could build our own work now. Power concedes nothing without a demand…

William Ayers is an associate professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and author of the forthcoming Teaching: The Journey of a Teacher (Teachers College Press).