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Simple Math, Real Choices

In his speech this past Thursday night, President Obama echoed a lot of points education activists have been making for a while. Sure, he’s late to the party, but I’m definitely glad he’s here. The bill is a far cry from perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction that I think is worth supporting. (Though, speaking of “simple math and real choices,” Mr. President, directing your Department of Education to stop funding an inequitable Race and encouraging federal and state ed agencies to fund classrooms instead of excessive testing would help stretch this worthwhile investment even farther. Just something to think about…)


…[T]here are schools throughout this country that desperately need renovating. How can we expect our kids to do their best in places that are literally falling apart?…Pass this jobs bill, and thousands of teachers in every state will go back to work. These are the men and women charged with preparing our children for a world where the competition has never been tougher. But while they’re adding teachers in places like South Korea, we’re laying them off, in droves. It’s unfair to our kids; it undermines their future and ours. And it has to stop. Pass this bill, and put our teachers back in the classroom where they belong.

–President Barack Obama

Obviously, it will take more than the money in this bill (which, sadly, faces an uphill battle in Congress) to ensure that every single American child can attend fully-staffed, modernized schools. So once again, I’m left wondering if we can count on certain well-funded and influential school reform organizations to do their part to advance these efforts.

I wonder about this because as I’ve become more aware of just how much money goes into these education reform campaigns, it’s become really hard for me not to notice– and bristle at– how certain influential “reformers” have chosen to use their money and influence.

For instance, here we have a proposal that will help stem the tide of teacher layoffs. Yet when you visit the StudentsFirst website, the first thing you’re asked to do is sign a petition to change how and which teachers are laid off. That’s an important conversation to have, but given that the large majority of teachers are capable and effective (a view shared by over 70% of Americans, despite endless criticism leveled at teachers in the media), shouldn’t keeping teachers in the classroom take precedence over pushing a nice-sounding but problematic layoff policy? Why don’t Michelle Rhee and company throw their weight behind efforts to keep teachers in their classrooms, and use their money to support promising professional development programs that would help teachers improve their professional practice right now?

A similar question goes to Stand for Children. Originally focused on improving school funding and other child-focused goals, they’re also pretty silent on the issue of investing in school infrastructure and stopping teacher layoffs– as well as efforts to relieve some of the economic pain in our communities, which we know is the primary driver of low student achievement. Indeed, as I scan the sites of groups like Ed Reform NowDemocrats for Education Reform and others, I don’t see any references to either the President’s proposal– or even the idea of devoting resources to directly improve schools.

By discussing the simple math and real choices we face, the President is finally starting to talk (and hopefully, act) as if he hears with public school teachers, parents, and communities are saying: If we have limited resources, we need to put them where they’ll actually help students and do the most good.

So why does it feel like these education “reform” groups are ignoring us?

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Sabrina Joy Stevens

Sabrina Joy Stevens is a teacher, writer, and activist who has worked with students in struggling communities in Philadelphia and Denver. She recently helped to o...