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Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg invited the public to offer their ideas, and Bertis Downs took them up on their offer. Bertis is a parent of students in the public schools of Athens, Georgia, where his daughters have thrived.
He starts his letter:
“I hear you guys are looking for feedback from people involved in public education — teachers, school board members, parents, and many others. I write to you as a public school parent.
“Since I spend time in my kids’ schools and other public schools, I talk to teachers, students, other parents, school board members and principals on a fairly regular basis. What I hear consistently is that the education policies of recent years, however good or bad the intentions, are disrupting public education — but not in a way that could be considered positive for anyone who truly wants to improve and transform our nation’s schools.
“Our teachers are at a breaking point. Mandated standardized testing remains out of control, with kids over-tested and teachers spending too much time on test prep. Many teachers are evaluated in a discredited method based on their students’ standardized test scores. Our teachers and schools have been beaten down through a narrative — that they don’t work at all — which you and other rich philanthropists have spent millions of dollars to perpetuate. These and other factors are contributing to a real crisis of morale among our educators…
“What we all need and want is pretty straightforward: schools that are the center of their community headed by strong leaders who foster and encourage a learning environment of mutual support and collaboration. That sounds a lot like the school your kids now attend, have attended, or you want them to attend, doesn’t it? (Yes, I know Mr. Zuckerberg has a very young daughter and two of the Gates children have already graduated from a private high school.)
“So why can’t the policies and politics you support mirror those priorities and practices for all our nation’s schoolchildren? Why have you funded efforts that have taken our schools in a different direction? You surely consider all of America’s kids just as worthy and deserving of good educations as your own kids.
“But what would you think if your kids’ schools pushed the mechanized, de-professionalized vision of “public education” that have come from school reforms and reformers whom you have supported? What if the private Lakeside Preps or Sidwell Friends had inexperienced teachers, large class sizes, excessive high-stakes testing, hiring and firing teachers based on test score results? How would you and other tuition-paying parents like that? Would you feel like you were getting your money’s worth?…
“If policies you have supported are such a good idea, why haven’t they been adopted in the schools either you or other reformers have supported? I think we can figure out the answer to that: those policies are not what will result in a stable, talented, dedicated teaching corps, the kind of teachers any great educational enterprise needs at its core.
“So since you are seeking honest feedback, here’s mine: Why not see now, or in the future, if your own kids want to try your local public schools? Then take the leap of faith so many of us do every morning when we send our children off for their school day at the neighborhood school. I happen to know Seattle and Silicon Valley schools have some great teachers and great schools. There are plenty, and not only the acclaimed teacher Jesse Hagopian at Garfield High School in Seattle. I bet your neighborhood public schools would be plenty good (although the teacher morale might be a bit on the low side these days).
“Your kids, and those of your reformer colleagues, would do just fine and the schools could certainly use the infusion of enthusiasm and social capital you would bring to PTA meetings and school council meetings. I think you would be amazed how much you’d learn and how much your kids would learn — in the classroom and beyond. A teacher I know in Raleigh, North Carolina, does a beautiful job of articulating some of the advantages of a public school experience especially for affluent kids: “Why Affluent Parents Should Demand Diverse Schools for their Children.” Read it if you will. My kids have benefited in some of these same ways as well.
“The really great thing about our public schools is that they are resilient. Despite the beatdown they have been subjected to over the years, despite the drubbing they take in the media and through federal and state policies, most of our public schools do a good job of educating our kids. And this is thanks to the committed and gifted teachers still teaching year after year.
“My own kids have had great teachers in Athens public schools, wonderful extracurricular opportunities, great friends, and bright futures as products of their dynamic and caring school communities. Your children would be okay in public schools too — in fact, I would contend most advantaged kids actually receive a better education as a result of the social fabric of a thriving public school. Cultural diversity is inherent in a typical, regular school setting like the ones my kids attend — and they are better off for that.”
There’s more. Open the link and read Bertis’s sound advice to Bill and Mark.
If they had sent their own children to public schools, they would have a greater appreciation for their strengths and needs. They wouldn’t suggest reinventing them every other day with their latest flash in the night.
Bottom line, Bill and Mark, join us in supporting our public schools. They are the future. Get on the right side of history.
Bertis Downs is a strong advocate for public schools because his children attended them. He is also a member of the board of the Network for Public Education, and I am proud to call him my friend.