No: Kindergarten As The New First Grade

At the September open house, the principal greeted the anxious parents of the new kindergarteners and began his remarks with this proud announcement:

“Kindergarten is the new first grade!”

The principal then went on to explain that, due to kindergarten being the new first grade, homework will be instituted, recess reduced, and a list of tutors for after-school help provided.

What a deal. A faster education. Moving along, the last grade in elementary school can be middle school, and the last grade of middle school can be high school, and senior year in high school can be college. Why not?

I will tell you why not. It’s not good for the kids.  Students in kindergarten through grade 12 learn best when we recognize where they are in their cognitive, psychological, and social development and, with that knowledge, help them to grow as learners and thinkers instead of setting arbitrary standards that they must meet even if their minds and bodies aren’t ready.

What if their pediatrician told these parents that  “toddler” would now be the new “baby” and, at the sixth month check-up, she would test a six-month old baby for how progressed that baby was at walking and talking like a toddler? The parents would know right away that is ridiculous. At six months, babies don’t have legs strong enough to walk and brains mature enough to form their own words. Children develop at a certain pace, and saying that six months is the time for walking and talking doesn’t make it happen. So too with kindergartners; a five year-old is not a six or seven year-old. It is damaging to students to insist that they meet standards for reading, writing, and math for which they are not developmentally ready. Plus, they miss out on all the learning experiences that could fire them up and engage their minds.

Only someone totally unfamiliar with six-month olds would set standards for walking and talking for them. So too with making kindergarten the new first grade. The Common Core standards for kindergarten were written by those with absolutely no experience either working with children that age or having any knowledge about children that age. The standards were written by people whose business it is to create standardized tests to measure discrete skills. They didn’t know that the job of a kindergarten teacher, and indeed every K-12 teacher, is to help kids fall in love with learning and to give them the tools at each stage of their development to be avid, engaged learners.

Parents should rise up and say:

“No thank you.  We want kindergarten to be kindergarten.”

And what would that look like? Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an expert in early childhood education, answers that question by describing schools in a neighboring country in which kindergarten is kindergarten.  

It is not just in kindergarten that developing students as learners and thinkers should be the focus rather than the focus being on the mastery of arbitrary standards. As with the writing of the kindergarten standards, not one English teacher, college English professor, or researcher about reading and writing wrote the Common Core English Language Arts Standards, which can govern all of literacy education K-12 if we let them.

All grades need what Nancy Carlsson-Paige advocates for kindergarten: helping students to grow as learners and thinkers instead of acquirers of information, requiring students to construct their own knowledge by questioning, collaborating, and imagining, and assessing students by asking them to demonstrate they have learned how to learn in the ways that they have been taught that year instead of by taking standardized tests.

If we discard the Common Core and replace that misbegotten venture with developing students as learners and thinkers, principals of all schools – elementary, middle, and high school – can all have the same message at Open House. They all can say:

“We know who your children are and how they learn best. This year, we are going to do all we can to motivate them to fall in love with learning, give them new skills as learners and thinkers, and help them to grow beyond your wildest dreams. Prepare to be delighted.”

 

 

 

 

THE BANNING OF A BOOK

 

The Biloxi, Mississippi Board of Education voted to remove To Kill A Mockingbird from their school district curriculum. The vice chair of the Biloxi Board of Education said they made that decision because reading the book made people uncomfortable and other books can give students the same message of empathy as To Kill A Mockingbird does.

                                    BUT 

 Teaching literature is not about making students comfortable.

The wonder of great literature is that it often does make us uncomfortable, and, from that uncomfortableness, we learn and grow. Great literature is not a pacifier but rather a stimulus for thinking and rethinking and rethinking.

Let’s hope that taking the book out of the curriculum will motivate the students to read it on their own. There’s nothing like banning a book to make it popular.

It is unfortunate, though, that those 8th graders will not have the benefit of discussing the intriguing ideas and questions that the book suggests with others in their class who have also read it. And those who banned To Kill A Mockingbird had better start checking out Shakespeare because there is a more in his plays than in To Kill A Mockingbird to make people uncomfortable, such as teenagers deceiving their parents, all kinds of sexual misconduct, cheating, lying, murdering family members, committing suicide, plotting treason, and being a racial bigot.  

                                     AND

Teaching literature is not about preaching messages of good behavior.

Students have homes and churches and synagogues and mosques where they can receive lessons about how to live their lives. Reading literature is not for the purpose of giving students moral lessons.

Instead, we teach literature because reading literature gives students strategies for critical and creative thinking that no other kind of reading offers them, because literature brings up the pivotal questions of the human experience, and because literature shows students the power and beauty of language. Reading literature is not like reading for information; the intention of the writer doesn’t matter. Literature is not about giving easy answers but about raising provocative questions for readers to explore. As they read literature, students learn to interpret actions and to evaluate ideas from a broad range of perspectives. Students create their own meaning as they interact with a literary text. They also recognize the precision of a word and the magnificence of a sentence as they meet the minds of the writers.

       What then about this book banning? 

I once read that The American Library Association surveyed high school graduates about the book they found the most meaningful in their high school years. The winner: To Kill A Mockingbird. As a teacher and English curriculum leader of many years, I believe it.

So it is sad that the students of Biloxi, Mississippi will not be allowed to read To Kill a Mockingbird. What is even sadder is that their education is in the hands of people who have no clue as to why we read literature. Shame on the Board of Education for making the decision.  Shame on the school administration if they don’t fight the decision. Shame on the community if it doesn’t rise up and demand better for its children.

 

Giving Kids A Toolkit For Their Future

We are hearing the same thing from so many people in the know. Tom Friedman, who writes in Thank You For Being Late about how work will change in the future due to advanced technology and increased use of artificial intelligence, says it.  Tony Wagner, Harvard professor and author of The Global Achievement Gap in which he identifies the skills students need to survive in that future world of work, says it. The September 27, 2017 issue of Ed Week, which talks about how K-12 education needs to change, says it. They all loudly and clearly proclaim the same thing:  The education we now provide will not serve our students in the future because the needs of the future are not the needs of the past, and schools are currently meeting the demands of the past.

So what is a teacher to do? What is a school district to do? What are parents to do?

It would be great for us as a society to engage in a deep conversation about the nature of learning and how to assess that learning. I am ready for that conversation and know other educators who also long for it. In the meantime, here are three practical suggestions that teachers and school districts can implement immediately:

  1. Teach students to question.
  2.  Teach students to write essays that explore questions of importance to them.
  3.  Teach students to write essays about how their thinking evolved  and changed.

These suggestions make real the Tony Wagner Seven Survival Skills for the future: critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, agility and adaptability, initiative, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, and, most of all, curiosity and imagination. The also help students to succeed in the rapidly changing world Friedman describes.  Most of all, students do what Ed Week points out is  necessary for their future – develop as learners and thinkers.

Teaching Students to Question 

To prepare young people for their future, learning can no longer be about a teacher talking and students listening, not about one person giving information and the other person receiving it. We have computers for that.

I remember taking my three-year old grandson to a space museum and realizing that he didn’t know the word astronaut. When we went home, I wanted to show him what an astronaut is by showing him a video of astronauts returning from a space flight. So I searched for a video on my laptop. I couldn’t immediately find what I wanted so I was frustrated. My little grandson said, “You have to be patient, Grandma. It will come.” At three, he knew that information is available with a click.

In my first years as a teacher, I had file folders full of information about the differing ways the character of Hamlet had been interpreted over the ages, the symbolism in The Scarlet Letter, biographical information about Arthur Miller, and so much more. I told my students to prepare for their final exams by reviewing the notes I had given them because my notes contained what was important for them to remember. All the essays I assigned asked the students to prove something they already knew. Never again.

I learned that telling students what to think and teaching only one kind of writing had to change if I were to develop students who who can think critically and creatively.

Preparing students for the future, I have found, begins with students asking questions to which they don’t have answers but would like to have those answers. Teachers and students then collaborate with one another as they discuss their questions. The questions differ. Some of the students have questions about facts, about what happened in the story. Some have questions about interpreting characters or events. Some have questions about ideas that the story brings up about love, social justice, or the relationship between an individual and society – life’s big questions. All questions are welcome. The teacher helps students to ask increasingly complex questions that are multi-layered and lead to even more questions. Discussing the questions offers more ideas than any student could ever have on his or own and broadens and deepens each student’s individual thinking.

Asking good questions about the facts or data about what happened, questions about interpreting what happened, and philosophical questions that come to mind because of what happened is not only for English classes. Asking questions is at the heart of learning science, math, history, art, and technology. Questions are intrinsic to all academic disciplines and apply to all kinds of work. Tony Wagner wrote that, instead of having the right answers, “the most important skill in the New World of work, learning, and citizenship – the rigor that matters most – is the ability to ask the right questions.”

Learning to question doesn’t just happen. Due to years in school, their years as being answerers, students need to be untaught to be answerers and taught to be questioners.

Essay Writing

Students also need to be untaught that there is one kind of thinking and one kind of essay writing. No doubt about it: It’s important to be able to write an essay that supports a thesis and presents a coherent argument. Deductive, logical thinking is a valued kind of thinking, and the proving of a position is a valued kind of writing. But deductive reasoning is a kind of thinking, not the only way to think, and thesis-based essays are a kind of essay, but not the essay itself. The world of the future demands other kinds of thinking and other kinds of essays.

Teaching Students To Explore Questions Of Importance To Them

One of those other kinds of essays is an essay in which students explore a question rather than prove a point or make an argument. The writer engages in open-ended and speculative thinking and explores a question from several perspectives, considering various possibilities and using pertinent evidence. The writer doesn’t try to convince the readers of anything but rather shares her thinking about her question with them. The writer might determine an answer to her question by the end of essay or might not. She may, instead, pose deeper and more penetrating questions at the end of the essay. For sure, though, the writer lets the readers know where the inquiry has taken her. These essays provide seeds of creativity and are incubators of innovation. The writers are thinking of what could be rather than defending what is.

Teaching Students To Write About How They Came To Know What They Know

Another kind of essay is one in which the writer tells the story of the development of his thinking about a concept or idea. It gives the chronology of the writer’s thinking – where his thinking began, what he read and learned in class discussions, and how his thinking evolved.  At the end of this essay, the readers know where the writer is in his thinking and how the writer got there. It is story about how the writer came to know what he knows. Friedman, Wagner, and Ed Week all say that learning to learn is essential for the workplace of the future. Writing about the development of their own thinking makes it likely that students will leave school knowing that they do know how to learn, do know how to develop their thinking, and can do it again….and again….and again.

Toolkits For All

All of this may seem way beyond many students. But it’s not. I have worked in schools that are called high performing and in ones that are termed “failing” and  have seen the students in both thrive when asked to question and to think and write in these ways. The students are ready. The future can’t be pushed back. The time to teach students to question, to think creatively and innovatively, and to see themselves as learners is now.

The Common Core State Standards do not ask students to think in these ways; those standards do not give students the learning and thinking skills needed for the future.  Also, no standardized test in our country assesses questioning, collaborating, creative thinking, or learning-to-learn skills. Every minute of class time given to preparing students for those tests takes students away from what they really need to learn.

The future is just about here. It’s time to give students what they need. Invite them to question, to explore possibilities, to imagine solutions, to grow and change as thinkers, and to fall in love with learning. Then sit back and watch where they take us.

The NAACP Tells It As It Is

An English teacher friend of mine was a finalist for Connecticut Teacher of the Year in the mid 90’s.  As one of the culminating steps in the selection process, the four finalists were assigned a topic little was known about at the time. They were instructed to research it and present their findings to an audience.

The topic was charter schools.There were no charter schools in Connecticut at the time. My friend concluded that the worth of charter schools would depend on the answers to two questions:

1) Will the innovations created at charter schools inform and improve the public schools that the vast majority of children and adolescents in the U.S. attend? 

2) Will charter schools be held accountable to address student needs as traditional public schools are required to do?

Fast forward to 2017: We now have had charter schools in Connecticut for 21 years. The answers to my friend’s two questions came from the NAACP.

The NAACP, long concerned about the education of children of color, in 2016 passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on opening any more charter schools across the country. Then, from December 2016 through April 2017, a NAACP task force conducted a listening tour, focusing on seven states (including Connecticut), to gather information about existing charter schools and K-12 public schools in general. The answers to my friend’s two questions were part of the report of the NAACP Task Force entitled “Quality Education For All … One School At A Time” . 

The NAACP Task Force Report answered the first question with an emphatic NO. The report states: “Charter schools were created with more flexibility because they were expected to innovate and infuse new ideas into the traditional public school system. However, that aspect of the promise never materialized”. There has been no carryover from the charter schools to the traditional public schools. Charter schools have not been learning labs, free from the restrictions imposed on public schools, which try out new ideas that benefit the larger population of students in public schools. Charter schools have failed in fulfilling their original purpose.

The NAACP Task Force Report also states that, in addition to not improving education in general, the education that charter schools provide to their students is questionable. The report quotes a large scale study of student data from the Center for Research Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute that found that 17% of charter schools produced academic gains better than traditional public schools, 37% of charter schools performed worse than their traditional public schools counterparts serving similar students, 46% of the schools showed no difference.  The NAACP Task Force Report goes on to state that there are better ways, other than charter schools, to improve student achievement, such as reducing class size.

The NAACP Task Force Report answered the second question with a resounding NOT YET and made specific recommendations for holding existing charter schools accountable.  The NAACP report criticizes charters for taking public tax money but not letting the public know how they spend that money. The report also criticizes charter schools for not accepting its share of children with learning issues and children who do not speak English as their first language and for counseling out students who will not be successful on measures such as standardized tests or graduation rates. In addition, the report criticizes charter schools for giving students inexperienced and uncertified teachers and for suspending and expelling students for behavioral issues at a much higher rate than traditional public schools. 

The report recommends that only local boards of education, which are responsive to the voters in the school district, be allowed to authorize and supervise charter schools, not appointed state boards of education or appointed state departments of education.  Charters then would be required have the same level of fiscal transparency and accountability as the traditional public schools in the district. The report also calls for charter schools to have open enrollment and to “not select and reject students based on their educational or behavioral histories and needs”. In addition, the report calls for charter schools to hire certified teachers and to follow the same regulations as traditional public schools regarding suspending and expelling students. 

The NAACP Task Force Report insists that children of color have the same rights as white suburban children. How sad that in 2017 that right still needs to be demanded. But it does. The NAACP Task Force Report must be listened to and enacted in order to make real the civil rights of children.

 

 

Something Is Rotten In The State Of Connecticut

On July 19, 2017, the unelected, governor-appointed Connecticut State Board of Education approved 504 additional seats in state charter schools for next year, with 154 of those seats going to Capital Preparatory Harbor School in Bridgeport.

GO FIGURE:

Connecticut is in a budget crisis with every expense being monitored, yet new charter school seats, which cost the state $11,000 each, are being initiated. The cost will be more than $5.5 million.

PLUS

The new seats will cost the beleaguered and impoverished Bridgeport Public Schools money it cannot afford and will strip them of much needed resources. The Bridgeport Board of Education unanimously voted against the expansion plan because the cost of adding grades to Capital Prep Harbor School requires the Bridgeport Public Schools to pay additional costs for transportation and other services at an additional location.

PLUS

The expansion plan for Capital Prep Harbor School, approved by the State Board of Education in 2014, called for three grades to be added in 2017-2018, but Capital Prep Harbor School requested and was granted the expansion to six new grades, which increased the costs of services from Bridgeport Public Schools from $200,000 to $400,000 for 2017-2018.

PLUS

Capital Prep Harbor School does not serve the population of Bridgeport equitably. Based on the make-up of the community, nearly half of the students at Capital Prep Harbor should be Hispanic, but only 1/5 are, and Capital Prep Harbor has zero students who have English as their second language although there are ample children in Bridgeport who have English as their second language.

PLUS

Capital Prep Harbor School was approved by the State Board of Education in April 2014 as a school with its stated mission to serve the “diverse communities of Bridgeport and surrounding communities”. Capital Prep Harbor School has failed to implement that mission because of its small percentage of Hispanic students and its total lack of students with English as their second language.

PLUS

Steve Perry, the founder of the Capital Prep Harbor School and its chief spokesperson at the July 19th hearing, has been found by state auditors to have violated the lottery system at his former school in Hartford, Capital Preparatory School. Instead of the students at Capital Prep being chosen by lottery, he, as principal, handpicked a significant number of students (131 in three years), chiefly for their athletic talents. When asked by a reporter at the July 19th hearing if he was using similar illegal practices at Capital Preparatory Harbor School, he refused to answer.

PLUS

After the revelations about the lottery violations at Capital Prep in Hartford, state education officials were asked if they intended to audit the lottery at Capital Prep Harbor School. A State Department of Education spokeswoman replied, “Not at this time.” The Connecticut Post surveyed enrollment practices in the six charter schools in Bridgeport. Five of the six schools explained the methods they used to insure the propriety of their lotteries. The sixth school, Capital Preparatory Harbor School, wouldn’t answer the newspaper’s questions.

PLUS

The State Board of Education scheduled the meeting to approve the new charter seats without informing the Superintendent of the Bridgeport Public Schools. The Superintendent, Aresta Johnson, was told by the State Department of Education that she had until August 4, 2017 to file a written reaction to the Capital Prep Harbor School plan to expand the number of charter school seats in  Bridgeport.  She found out about the July 19th meeting by chance. She attended that hearing and strongly opposed the expansion of charter school seats, stating that the costs would present a severe hardship to children in the Bridgeport Public Schools.

PLUS

Nationally, charter schools have no greater record of success than public schools although the student population of charter schools is more select than the population of traditional public schools. Charter schools have fewer special education students, fewer ELL students, and fewer students from unstable homes. A report commissioned by the Connecticut State Department of Education entitled Evaluating the Academic Performance of Choice Programs in Connecticut compared student achievement in public schools, charter schools, magnet schools, and among those students bussed from urban areas to the suburbs and did not find evidence that students in charter schools had greater achievement than other students, even with their more select student body.

PLUS

Charter schools are not public schools although they call themselves that when it serves the purpose of getting public money but declare they are not public schools when there are requests for transparency in how the public tax money is spent. Charter schools violate the democratic principle that the people should have a say in how their tax dollars are spent. In public school districts, the elected school boards provide that oversight. With charter schools, it is all secret, and the profit motive is evident as the numbers of  criminal cases of fraud that have occurred in charter schools demonstrate.

PLUS

Charter schools promote segregation. The NAACP, in October 2016, recognized the racism inherent in the concept of charter schools and called for “ a moratorium on charter school expansion and for the strengthening of oversight in governance and practice”  because “the NAACP has been in the forefront of the struggle for and a staunch advocate of free, high-quality, fully and equitably funded public education for all children”.

ADD IT UP: There is, indeed, something rotten in the state of Connecticut.

Fighting the corruption is an uphill battle. Big money from the charter school industry funds political campaigns in our state. The State Board of Education and the Commissioner of Education are not elected; they are appointed by the Governor. Venture capitalists support charter schools because they are money-making operations. So how do we citizens of Connecticut make a dent in that monied political structure?

Well, we take a deep breath and remember what Edmund Burke said: All it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. Then, we call one another, start talking, and get busy.

 

 

Future Birthdays: The Best Ones

Over this July 4th weekend, I watched the classic movie, 1776, with my 12 year old granddaughter and was reminded that racism was at our beginning as a nation.

The Declaration of Independence had to be signed by all of the thirteen colonies.  South Carolin and North Carolina would sign only if a part of the Declaration of Independence, as originally written by Thomas Jefferson and citing slavery as a moral evil, was stricken from the document. Jefferson had written that slavery was “violating the most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither”.  John Adams from Massachusetts vehemently objected to cutting the section, speaking eloquently against slavery. Edward Rutledge from South Carolina pointed out that those in the Northern colonies also profited from the slave trade because they owned  the slave ships. After a lengthy debate, Jefferson cut the section in order to get the Declaration of Independence signed. Without eliminating that section condemning slavery, we would not have had a nation in 1776 and would not be celebrating its 241st birthday on this Fourth of July.

But that is not the end of the story of our country. Please listen to this valedictory speech, given recently at Hill House High School in New Haven. The valedictorian, Coral Ortiz, speaks to what we can yet become as a country. Coral, a graduate of a public high school in a city which struggles with poverty and racism, shows us a future worth celebrating.

May our country move forward and fulfill its promise, a promise that Coral Ortiz demonstrates so clearly.

 

Let’s Make History

Efforts to improve K-12 education over the past 30 years have been a bipartisan mess. Here’s a description, written by Diane Ravitch, of how we got into that mess:

               Don’t Like Betsy DeVos? Blame the Democrats. The Democrats Paved the Way.

BY DIANE RAVITCH

Of all the corrupt, unqualified, and extremist characters Donald Trump has tapped to lead his administration, none has generated the tsunami of liberal outrage whipped up by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. And with all due respect to Jeff Sessions, there’s good reason for the backlash: The billionaire Amway heiress from Michigan, who long ago made “school choice” her passion project, is the first education secretary in history to be hostile to the very idea of public education.

Prodded by grassroots activists and what’s left of teachers’ unions, Democrats went all out to defeat DeVos. George Miller, the former congressman from California, slammed her plan to create a $20 billion “school choice” program that would underwrite private and religious schools, calling it “a perfect storm of ignorance, money, and power.” Senator Al Franken grilled DeVos at her confirmation hearing, drawing out her jaw-dropping ignorance of federal programs. Senator Michael Bennet called her nomination an “insult to schoolchildren and their families, to teachers and principals and communities fighting to improve their public schools all across the country.” And when DeVos was confirmed by a vote of 51 to 50, over unanimous Democratic opposition, Senator Cory Booker went on Facebook, “frustrated and saddened,” to sound a sorrowful note: “Somewhere in America, right now, there is a child who is wondering if this country stands up for them.”

Listening to their cries of outrage, one might imagine that Democrats were America’s undisputed champions of public education. But the resistance to DeVos obscured an inconvenient truth: Democrats have been promoting a conservative “school reform” agenda for the past three decades. Some did it because they fell for the myths of “accountability” and “choice” as magic bullets for better schools. Some did it because “choice” has centrist appeal. Others sold out public schools for campaign contributions from the charter industry and its Wall Street patrons. Whatever the motivations, the upshot is clear: The Democratic Party has lost its way on public education. In a very real sense, Democrats paved the way for DeVos and her plans to privatize the school system.

Thirty years ago, there was a sharp difference between Republicans and Democrats on education. Republicans wanted choice, testing, and accountability. Democrats wanted equitable funding for needy districts, and highly trained teachers. But in 1989, with Democrats reeling from three straight presidential losses, the lines began to blur. That year, when President George H.W. Bush convened an education summit of the nation’s governors, it was a little-known Arkansas Democrat named Bill Clinton who drafted a bipartisan set of national goals for the year 2000 (“first in the world” in mathematics, for starters). The ambitious benchmarks would be realized by creating, for the first time, national achievement standards and tests. Clinton ran on the issue, defeated Bush, and passed Goals 2000, which provided grants to states that implemented their own achievement metrics.

The Democrats had dipped a toe in “school reform.” Before long, they were completely immersed. After George W. Bush made the “Texas miracle” of improved schools a launching pad for the presidency, many Democrats swallowed his bogus claim that testing students every year had produced amazing results. In 2001, Ted Kennedy, the Senate’s liberal lion, teamed with Bush to pass No Child Left Behind. For the first time, the government was mandating not only “accountability” (code for punishing teachers and schools who fall short), but also “choice” (code for handing low-performing public schools over to charter operators).

When Barack Obama took office in 2009, educators hoped he would return the party to its public school roots. By then, even Bill Clinton was calling No Child Left Behind a “train wreck.” Instead, Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan doubled down on testing, accountability, and choice. Their Race to the Top program was, in essence, No Child Left Behind II: It invited states to compete for $5 billion in funds by holding teachers accountable for test scores, adopting national standards, opening more charter schools, and closing low-scoring public schools.

The Obama years saw an epidemic of new charters, testing, school closings, and teacher firings. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 50 public schools in one day. Democratic charter advocates—whose ranks include the outraged Booker and Bennet—have increasingly imported “school choice” into the party’s rhetoric. Booker likes to equate “choice” with “freedom”—even though the entire idea of “choice” was created by white Southerners who were scrambling to defend segregated schools after Brown v. Board of Education.

It’s fitting that Trump and DeVos rely on the same language to tout their vision of reform. They’re essentially taking Obama’s formula one step further: expanding “choice” to include vouchers, so parents can use public funding to pay for private and religious schools. Democrats are up in arms about the privatization scheme, as they should be: It’s a disaster for public schools. But if they’re serious about being the party that treats public education as a cornerstone of democracy, they need to do more than grandstand about the consequences they helped bring about. They need to follow the money—their own campaign money, that is.

As Democrats learned years ago, support for mandatory testing and charter schools opens fat wallets on Wall Street. Money guys love deregulation, testing and Big Data, and union-busting. In 2005, Obama served as the featured speaker at the inaugural gathering of Democrats for Education Reform, which bundles contributions to Democrats who back charter schools: Among its favorites have been those sharp DeVos critics George Miller, Michael Bennet, and Cory Booker. Conservative funders like the Walton Foundation also give generously to charter schools and liberal think tanks such as the Center for American Progress.

The money had its intended effect. When Andrew Cuomo decided to run for governor of New York, he learned that the way to raise cash was to go through the hedge funders at Democrats for Education Reform. They backed him lavishly, and Cuomo repaid them by becoming a hero of the charter movement. Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy, often celebrated for his unvarnished liberalism, is another champion of the charter industry; some of its biggest funders live in his state. California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill to ban for-profit charters in the state, and has resisted efforts to make charters more accountable. As mayor of Oakland, he opened two charter schools.

There are plenty of reasons that Democrats should steer clear of the charter industry. Charter corporations have been repeatedly charged with fraud, nepotism, self-dealing, and conflicts of interest. Many charters make money on complex real-estate deals. Worst of all are the “cybercharters”: mega-corporations that offer virtual schools, with high attrition, low test scores, and abysmal graduation rates. The biggest cybercharter chain is K12 Inc., started by former junk-bond king Michael Milken and listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

But it’s more than a matter of sleeping with the enemy. School choice doesn’t work, and “evidence-based” Democrats ought to acknowledge it. Charter schools are a failed experiment. Study after study has shown that they do not get better test scores than public schools unless they screen out English-language learners and students with profound disabilities. It’s well-established that school choice increases segregation, rather than giving low-income students better opportunities. And kids using vouchers actually lose ground in private schools. Support for charters is paving the way for a dual school system—one that is allowed to choose the students it wants, and another that is required to accept all who enroll.

This is what Democrats should be yelling about. And if there’s ever a moment for them to reclaim their mantle as the party of public education, it’s now. The misguided push for “reform” is currently being led not by Obama and Duncan, but by Trump and DeVos, giving Democrats an opening to shift gears on education—though they’ll lose some of that hedge-fund money. But if 2016 taught Democrats anything, it’s how unwise it was to allow the demolition of organized labor—including teachers’ unions, once a great source of money and grassroots energy. The party needs strong teachers’ unions and it needs their enthusiasm.

The agenda isn’t complicated. Fight privatization of all kinds. Insist on an evidence-based debate about charter schools and vouchers. Abandon the obsession with testing. Fight for equitable funding, with public money flowing to the neediest schools. Acknowledge the importance of well-educated, professional teachers in every classroom. Follow the example of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who vetoed a bill to expand charters in March. Or Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who insists that charters employ certified teachers, allow them to unionize, and fall under the control of local school districts. Democrats should take their cue from Bullock when he declares, “I continue to firmly believe that our public education system is the great equalizer.”

There is already an education agenda that is good for children, good for educators, good for the nation, and good for the Democratic Party. It’s called good public schools for everyone. All Democrats have to do is to rediscover it.                                                             ………………………………………………………..

So what does that mean for us in Connecticut? 

There are two immediate actions we need to take: 

1. We have to recognize that our political establishment has failed us. Our Democratic governor sold out for the money provided to him by the charter school industry. The Connecticut State Department of Education has endorsed student and school accountability measured by the lowest level of intellectual endeavors: standardized tests. The Connecticut State Board of Education has permitted profiteers in the form of the totally inadequate Relay Graduate School of Education to train and certify prospective teachers for our neediest schools. Recognizing the vacuum of political leadership concerning K-12 education, we must search for and insist upon new political leadership – both from currently serving Democratic politicians and newcomers to politics. 

 2. We must use the innovative leadership that we already have in our Connecticut schools. Three experiences I had just this week showed that leadership. First, I listened to students in a Hartford high school address an adult and student audience about their projects, such as starting and running a successful business, designing a mural to encompass major elements of African Americans history in this country, making music the center of their lives by creating and performing in a band, and making a documentary about a previously unrecognized medical researcher in order to give fellow students a sense of their own possibilities to achieve and change the world. Secondly, I listened to high school students in New Haven describe their social justice projects to political and business leaders. The students had each identified a societal problem, such as the Syrian refugee crisis or the lack of equitable funding of public schools in this country, researched it thoroughly, analyzed causes and possible solutions, and proposed a way to remedy the problem. Thirdly, I was inspired by a suburban middle school principal who described the school’s assessment practices. Teachers do not grade students on a one-time snapshot of their performance but rather work with the students to keep them engaged in rethinking, revising, trying again and again until the students do achieve the goals that the faculty has identified for them.

We have the educational leadership we need for the schools in Connecticut. We just need to tap into it. Our politicians must honor the expertise of the educators who put together these three programs as well as other talented educators across the state. Then, we will move forward. 

Let’s do it. Let’s make history.