Open Letter to US Secretary of Education-Designate & Biden/Harris Education Transition Team

“Open Letter to the Secretary of Education Designate:

 A Focus on Equity, Opportunity & Justice

This is an open letter with several specific recommendations to the Biden/Harris Education Transition Team and the incoming Secretary of Education-designate.  We are a coalition of American Indian, Asian American, African American / Black,  Latinx and White Americans, who live throughout the United States. Our ages span from 17 to 90, with hundreds of  years of  public school experience among us. 

We urge that the Biden/Harris administration develop a federal education policy that recognizes and builds on five fundamental facts: 

  1. President Elect Joe Biden and Vice- President Elect Kamala Harris have promised to bring us together as a nation and build on our combined strengths. 
  2. Young people represent an enormous underutilized resource for helping solve local, state and national problems.  Their insight, energy and creativity can be more effectively mobilized to simultaneously help increase learning and motivation in schools, and help reduce problems.
  3. One of the most powerful roles the US Department of Education (ED) has is to encourage, support and help assess educational changes developed in states and local communities.
  4. There are a vast array of traditional district and public charter schools within the U.S. that are doing great work with students and their families. The US ED has recognized these schools for more than 20 years via its “Blue Ribbon Schools” program. 
  5. In addition to community and local leaders, many of the nation’s funders are committed to helping improve our public schools. 

There is both considerable agreement and substantial controversy about how to best support student success in preschool, K-12 and through college/university. However, by grounding your work in the above fundamental facts, and the six recommendations below, the Biden/ Harris team will help maximize and expand some of the most effective programs that have been developed – by students, educators, communities, foundations and researchers. We recognize that there are many other important issues you’ll work on, such as: supporting programs for students who qualify for disability services, students who are English language learners, and youngsters under age five.  But we as a coalition have chosen to focus on the following:

1. CREATING A NATIONAL TASK FORCE THAT FOCUSES ON SHARING BEST PRACTICES FROM THE MOST EFFECTIVE SCHOOLS: Create a national task force that reports to the Biden/ Harris team in six months or less, to recommend ways that we can more effectively learn from the nation’s most effective schools – district, charter, private and parochial. There are great public district schools and not-so-good district schools; great charter schools and not-so-good charters.   The U.S Department of Education has identified and briefly described hundreds of “Blue Ribbon Schools.”  But it has done very little to promote actual learning from, or replication of those schools.  Some of them want to replicate and expand.  We urge that you appoint a task force that includes educators, families, and students from these schools, along with researchers who can develop recommendations about what federal and state governments can do to increase learning from, and replication of such schools. 

The challenge is to learn from schools, programs and policies that are succeeding —especially for students we call “school-dependent,” or those who, because of family and financial circumstances, rely on schools to improve their academic and life trajectories.The latest available data from 2018 show that the U.S. has at least 5,152,000 jobless and out of school 16 – 24 year olds. These school age youth deserve equitable resources to return to school to build their skills, earn a high school diploma and go on to succeed in college, training and/or employment to reach their dreams to succeed as adults. Evidence based, best school practice small schools developed in Chicago beginning in 1997  re-enroll over 3,900 out of school students in 20 small community based schools.  It’s not easy but they come back, build their skills, earn a diploma and follow their dreams. We can never forget that the primary purpose of schooling is learning and teaching that leads to engaged adults who support and improve on America’s dynamic democracy. 

In the best schools, educators, in the words of educator/journalist John Merrow, focus LESS on showing young people how smart they are (via standardized tests) and focus MORE on helping youngsters learn HOW they are smart. These schools help students develop their skills, talents, gifts via classes, independent study, internships, etc.

Public schools serve the public purpose above and beyond helping individuals advance their careers.  Our schools are where young people learn (or don’t) the habits of mind and  experiences that democracy needs for it to work.

We hope the task force will,  among other things, ask people working in successful schools which if any federal demands make it more difficult for them to help students succeed and set aside dollars to do just that.

2. BUILDING ON THE SKILLS, STRENGTHS, CREATIVITY AND ENERGY OF AMERICA’S YOUTH:  The push for action on climate change is only one example of an issue about which many young people care about, and have valuable insights.  Yet it’s rare for  youth to be asked how local, state or national problems can be solved. Moreover, young people have creativity, passion and energy that can help solve problems. So we recommend that this administration:

  1. Promote the inclusion of youth on boards and other decision-making bodies, along with educators, parents and family members. This will help policy-makers better create and refine programs.  Powerful research that shows when we build on students’ strengths, they learn far more and develop pro-democracy attitudes and more respect for others different from themselves.
  2. Expand programs that give teens opportunities to combine classroom study and contribution to community, through service-learning. There is an ever growing research base for service-learning programs that supports service-learning as a proven strategy to engage students in their own education. 
  3. Expand support for programs that fund teens and those in their early 20’s to help reconstruct America – learning for example via Youthbuild, construction and other trade skills as they work with others to build new affordable housing, and repair homes that have deteriorated, among other things.  

In “Inspired to Serve” issued May 2020, the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service—a bi-partisan commission completing two and a half years of extensive research—concluded with a compelling call to revitalize civic education and expand service-learning over the next 10 years. They recognize these as key factors to ensure young people are fully prepared to participate in civic life and understand the importance of service. The final recommendation calls for an appropriation of $450 million per year for a Civic Education Fund and a Service-learning appropriation of $250 million per year to “develop and implement service-learning programs” (pp 185-192 of the Commission’s Final Report.)

3. CREATING A NATIONAL TASK FORCE REGARDING IMPROVING AND INCREASING DIVERSITY WITHIN THE TEACHING PROFESSION: Concerns regarding the lack of diversity of the U.S. teacher workforce—and the mismatch between the demographics of the teacher workforce and the nation’s students—are not new. However, because of glaring opportunity gaps disparities in the teaching force must be addressed. Increasing the diversity of the educator workforce is an important goal that will benefit students and adults. As we know racial diversity benefits every workforce, and teaching is no exception, especially since on a national level BIPOC children now make up more than half of the U.S. student population in public elementary and secondary schools. Furthermore, research shows that teachers of color help close achievement gaps for students of color and are highly rated by students of all races—a fact that is more relevant in light of data released from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NAEP results show that, “Teachers of color boost the academic performance of students of color, including improved reading and math test scores, improved graduation rates, and increases in aspirations to attend college.” 

Additionally, there is research highlighting that students of color are more likely to succeed when they have had teachers of color who serve as role models and support their attachment to school and learning. We recognize that students and teachers do not always come from the same racial or cultural backgrounds. Thus, we believe it’s vital to change perceptions/ expectations of some teachers regarding “underachieving” students. We believe that particular attention must be given to the cultural dimension of these differences and work to build on the cultural and racial strengths students bring to classrooms rather than their weaknesses. It’s vital to both give and help teachers develop specific, practical strategies to promote learning and teaching in the manner that eliminates stereotype threats and implicit bias that may impede improved academic trajectories for all students. This task force should report to the Biden/ Harris administration within its first six months. It should include: national and state teachers of the year, outstanding teachers from district, public charter, private and parochial schools, families, and students. Moreover, the task force should recommend ways to promote the most successful strategies via professional learning opportunities steeped in neuroscience and culturally responsive pedagogy, changes in administrative and organizational  arrangements, teacher development, and educator/leadership.

4. CREATING A NATIONAL TASK FORCE REGARDING IMPROVING ACCESSIBILITY TO AND COMPLETION OF SOME FORM OF  POST-SECONDARY EDUCATION:  Currently the graduation rates of many colleges and universities are below 50%. With the increased cost of college tuition and ballooning student loan debt the greatest barrier to college persistence/ completion remains financial. We recommend the Biden/ Harris administration create a national task force focused on helping colleges and universities become more financially accessible and efficient, and  build on the excellent work that some post-secondary institutions are already carrying out.  The task force also should explore expansion of dual high school/college credit programs. This task force should report to the Biden/Harris administration within its first six months. It should include faculty and administrators who have produced outstanding attainment results, along with students, especially first generation students and recent graduates of State and Private Colleges/ Universities, Historically Black College and Universities, and Tribally Controlled Colleges. The group also should include staff of Education Trust, which has identified strategies used by colleges and universities that produce above average success with students from low income families.

5. WORKING WITH STATE LEADERS & FOUNDATIONS: Meet with state governors, state legislators and with national, statewide and local foundations.  Describe your plans, and invite them to join with the US Department of Education to help carry out initiatives that you and they agree on. Please encourage and explore incentives so states review, revise and revamp their funding  systems to provide more equitable opportunities. Offer governors, foundations and state legislators opportunities to suggest and partner with the federal government. There is great creativity throughout the country within students, educators and community members.  To be great, we must learn from and use terrific ideas, wherever developed.

6. MAKING THE BEST USE OF PUBLIC SCHOOL CHOICE: Recognize the power, potential and challenge of expanding public school choice. We agree on the value of public school choice by which we include district, charter, magnet, teacher-led, post-secondary option/dual credit and similar programs.  We believe that there is no single best public school for all students. We also recognize that innovation has been one of the central strategies for improvement in all facets of American life. Chartering and other forms of public school choice can be powerful, positive forces. We also acknowledge that sometimes there has been misuse of public funds, both in district and chartered public schools.  Offering options about public schools helps allow educators and families to innovate while retaining our commitment to non-sectarian, open to all, transparent public schools.

  1. Provide funds to help increase family information in various languages, in various media about public school choice programs in several states and local communities.  Provide them the options to choose public charters or public district schools.  Enable them to seek and understand the importance of diverse learning opportunities for their children. 
  2. Appoint a commission made up of researchers from various viewpoints, along with family members, students and educators participating in school choice programs representing different viewpoints. Support research about what steps to use for choice to help many more students succeed.
  3. Continue to provide startup funds for non-profit public school options that are open to all kinds of students, in both the district and charter sectors of public education.  Some of this should go to replicate and expand outstanding schools, such as those identified as Blue Ribbon Schools.  Some of it should go to help create new options which focus on equity and opportunity for students. 
  4. Provide funds to promote collaboration among different kinds of schools, district, charter, private and parochial, focused on important issues such as reading, math, building a strong climate for learning, reducing youth homelessness, etc.  We’ve had experience with this type of collaboration.  We’ve  seen significant benefits for students from focused cooperation.

The Biden/ Harris administration ran on a message of uniting Americans. All Americans seek a united nation – one that ultimately embraces change which enables all of our students to succeed — one which engages all in the democracy we recognize as a global beacon; woven together by the cultural, demographic mosaic that defines us. We, the signers represent this diversity.  And we, the people, are eager to work with you.

Signed,

Rosalie Abbey, Assistant Program Director, Alternative Schools Network, Chicago

Dr. Robert Barr, formerly Dean, College of Education, Oregon State University; Dean College of Education, Boise State University, Director of Teacher Education,  Indiana University, currently educational consultant

Darren T. Beck, Superintendent/Chief Academic Officer, Utah Military Academy

Dana Borrelli-Murray, Executive Director, Highlander Institute  Providence RI

Roger W. Brainerd, Education Action Forum of Maine

Asiya Brown, age 18, former Minnesota Post Secondary Options participant, board member, People for PSEO, graduate of STEP Academy, student, University of Minnesota

Vivian Burnham, 17, Steering Committee Member of Youthwork Makes the Boothwork and the Maine Youth Council, Marshwood High School, Maine.

Clarence Anthony Bush, PhD, Washington, D.C.

Kaleem Caire, Founder & CEO, One City Schools, Madison, WI

Dennis L. Carlson,  Retired Superintendent, Anoka-Hennepin School District, (Minnesota’s largest public school district), superintendent,  Minnesota Transitions Charter School

Naomi Carrier, M.Ed. Professor, Houston Community College Author, Go Down, Old Hannah  Founder, Texas Center for African American Living History, Director, Performing and Visual Arts Workshop http://pvartsworkshop.org

Charlie Castro, Educator of Communication Studies, Minn State system of public colleges & universities

Iris Maria Chávez, Director, Oregon Coalition of Community Charter Schools

Datrica Chukwu-Lewis, EdD Executive Director of PAUSE (Pursuing & Achieving Unlimited Success in Education), Georgia

Eric Cooper, EdD, National Urban Alliance for Effective Education

David Crandall, Founder and Executive Director of The NETWORK Inc. and the Regional Laboratory for the Northeast and Islands, Principal Investigator of the Dissemination Efforts Supporting School Improvement

Joshua Crosson, Executive Director, EdAllies

Nancy Dana, former district and charter school teacher and administrator

Elizabeth L Demuth, 37 year public school special educator, 27 year alternative educator and member of Iowa Association of Alternative Education

Roger Dennis,  retired New York City district public school educator, former Regional Education Director of Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission,  Director, It Is Time 

Mary Donaldson, Educator/Administrator,  Annette Island Alaska Native Reservation, Metlakatla Alaska

Tonya Draughn,  Executive Director, Uplift Mn

Sharif El-Mekki, former turnaround school principal and 26 year veteran urban educator, Founder of The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice and CEO, the Center for Black Educator Development, Philadelphia

Damonni Farley, Founder and Director, Common Thread Consulting and Bridge the Gap Youth Empowerment Program

Randy Fielding, AIA, Founding Partner, Fielding International

James Ford, AA educator, Maine

Dr. Howard Fuller, former Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent, Distinguished Professor of Education Emeritus, Marquette University, Wisconsin

Roberto Gonzalez, Founder, Executive Director, STEAM Box, Rhode Island

Dan Grego, PhD, Milwaukee, 40 year public school educator and advocate

Cris Gulacy-Worrel, VP Advocacy & Development, Oakmont Education Member of the Steering Committee, Freedom Coalition for Charter Schools, Ohio 

Patricia Haasch, Retired School Administrator on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, Minnesota

Rochelle Hendricks, Director of Community Engagement and Policy for the College of Education at Rowan University, and former New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education,

Rev Hilstrom, PhD

Aaliyah Hodge, first generation college student, President of People for PSEO, Vice President of the MN Association of Charter School Authorizers and charter school authorizer, Minneapolis

Alicia Holt, Research and Program Coordinator, Common Thread Consulting and Bridge the Gap Youth Empowerment Program

Iowa Association of Alternative Education Board, state of Iowa.

Zeke Jackson, age 19, Executive Director of People for PSEO (Post-Secondary Enrollment Options); student at the University of Minnesota Twin-Cities; Little Falls, MN.

Ed Eiffler Jaramillo, Former Executive Director, Shared Ground 

Joe Jelinek,  Lodi High School Principal – Wisconsin

Wayne Jennings, 60 year public school teacher, administrator, school board member, founding principal, St Paul Open School, author

Bonni Jones, Instruction Technology and Learning Science, Utah State University researcher

Judith D. Jones, Ph.D., Former education and facilities planner for DC Public Schools, Co-founder of FOCUS-DC, Chair, Maine Association for Charter Schools, Education Action Forum of Maine

Amy Junge, Director of Teacher-Powered Schools, Education Evolving

Jim Kielsmeir, Founder and Senior Scholar, National Youth Leadership Council

Brad Kiehl, HTK Architects Director-Architect,  Overland Park, Kansas

Tammie Knick, MSW, LICSW, Founder and School Social Worker, DREAM Technical Academy Charter School, Willmar, MN

Brook Lafloe, Vice President of People for PSEO,  Niniijaanis One of Ones Owner and Operator

Dr. Laura Love, Director of Secondary Education, Middleton Cross Plain Area School District, Middleton, Wisconsin

Martrice Manuel, Associate Director, Alternative School Network, Chicago

Deborah Meier, 50 years working in public schools, author, Educational activist and Board member of Fair Test, “MacArthur Fellowship Award winner

Amy Meuers, Chief Executive Officer, National Youth Leadership Council

Ricardo Mireles, Founder and Executive Director, Academia Avance, Los Angeles; Chair for Coalition for Public Independent Charter Schools; Steering Committee Member for Freedom Coalition for Charter Schools

Raymond Morley,  Teacher Educator: Workplace Learning—University of Northern Iowa, Board member: IAAE-Iowa Association of Alternative Education

John Mullaney, Executive Director, Education Action Forum, Maine

Joe Nathan, PhD, Director, Center for School Change, former urban public school teacher, administrator and urban public school PTA president

Barbara O’Brien, Denver, Colorado School Board Member, Former Colorado Lt. Governor

Edgar Palacios, President & CEO of the Latinx Education Collaborative, Kansas City, Missouri

Emanuel Pariser, 47 year public school educator and designer, Maine

Sonia C. Park, Executive Director, Diverse Charter Schools Coalition

Michael M. Piccirillo, Ed.D., Executive Director, Capital Area School Development Association

John Poupart, founder, executive director, American Indian Policy Center

Jane Prince, St Paul City Council member

Khulia Pringle,  Family Advocate MN Parent Union, Brightbeam Activist, MN Delegate for MN Parent Union

John Ramos, Interim-Superintendent Watertown, CT

Robin R. Randall, AIA, ALEP, LEED BD+C Principal | Director of PreK-12 Education, LEGAT Architects

Dr. Kaleb Rashad, Creative director, Center for Love and Justice, New School Creation/School Redesign, HTH Graduate School of Education

Greg Richmond, Founder, National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Ronn Robinson, Principal, Geoduck Education Consulting.  Former Congressional aide, former NEA Government Relations Consultant, former education aide to Washington Governor Booth Gardner, former Boeing executive and education aide to two Boeing CEO’s.

Keri Rodrigues, President, The National Parents Union 

Khalique Rogers,  Consultant to Youthprise on Homelessness, Univ of Mn student

Katarina Rolf, Education Director, Spark-y, Minneapolis, Mn.

Bryan Rossi, Ph.D., former Minnesota teacher and principal; founder of Novation Education Opportunities (an independent, single-purpose charter school authorizer); founder of Experiential Youth Empowerment leadership group.

Terry Ryan,  CEO of the Boise-based education nonprofit Bluum

Jim Scheibel, Professor of Practice, Hamline University, Former Mayor, Saint Paul, Former     Director of AmeriCorps VISTA and Senior Corps

Tony Simmons, Executive Director, High School for Recording Arts, St Paul, Mn.

Marion Smith Jr, EdD, Superintendent of Schools, Summit School District, Colorado

Jerome A. Steele, Research and Program Development Coordinator, Capital Area School Development Association

Jerome D. Steele, Ed.D Assistant Professor and Chair of the Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership at Russell Sage College, Troy, NY

Nathan Strenge, US Country Lead for HundrED

Sarah Tantillo, Ed.D., Author and Managing Director of Humanities, Great Oaks Legacy Charter Schools, Newark, NJ

Kevin Teasley, President/Founder, GEO Foundation, Indianapolis, Indiana

Douglas P. Thaman, Ed.D Executive Director, Missouri Charter Public School Association

Stephen Tracy, Connecticut Public School Superintendent (retired)
Amy Trombetti, M.A, consultant, Utah Department of Education, founder, Special Education Consulting Services, former public school teacher and principal

Rashad Anthony Turner, M.Ed first generation college student, Founder and President – Minnesota Parent Union

Tom Vander Ark, CEO Getting Smart 

Karla E. Vigil, Chief Executive Officer, Equity Institute, Providence, Rhode Island

Maychy Vu, Executive Director, HOPE Community Academy

Daniela Vasan, Partner with the Wildflower Foundation

Heidi Vazquez, The Highlander Institute, Partner, Providence RI

Laura Waters, NJ Left Behind founder, education analyst and advocate, 10-year school board president

Tom Watkins, Former Michigan State Superintendent of Education, and State Mental health director former  president and CEO of Detroit-Wayne Integrated Care Network and President and CEO TDW & Associates, Michigan

Bob Wedl, former Minnesota Commissioner of Education, former Executive Director,  Planning and Policy, Minneapolis Public Schools, speech therapist 40+ years as professional educator

Peter Wieczorek, Teacher/Director Northwest Passage High School

Mathieu Williams, Technology & Media, 2019 Hawai’i State Teacher of the Year | Kealakehe Intermediate

Denise Wolk, Consultant, The Bluescope Group

Bruce N. Wright, FAIA, AIGA, SEGD, Design editor/journalist, Minneapolis

Jack Wuest, Executive Director, Alternative Schools Network, Chicago

Steven Zimmerman, Founder, The Coalition of Public Independent Charter Schools

Joella Zocher, PhD Executive Director of TransCenter for Youth, Milwaukee