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Notes from Education Nation: Bringing Teachers, Parents and Politicians Together

NBC Universal

The last panel of the Education Nation summit was an almost two hour-long discussion that aimed to answer the question, What now? Even if all the players in education agreed on steps to a reform, there’s still one group left to convince: the politicians. For this debate, moderated by Brian Williams, state representatives, governors, mayors and Secretary Duncan sat on one side, while teachers, parents (two of our Mom Congress delegates, Karyn White of New Jersey and Gwen Samuel of Connecticut), a principal and a student sat on the other.

En garde.

While the teacher debate still gets the Most Heated award, this discussion illuminated just how monumental the challenge of fixing our education system will be. Everyone agreed that the current system is broken, unfair and unsustainable – but when the question of “How do we…?” came out, the talk veered into murky waters. Some of the most interesting points I gleaned from the discussion:

Teachers are instrumental to educational success. The refrain of Waiting for “Superman” and many of the Education Nation panels was echoed again in this debate. When Williams asked the two teachers on the panel (one being Monica Groves, who was featured in a short video in the teacher debate), posed important questions to the politicians. One, a teacher from Indiana, was laid off because she was last hired, even after winning an award in her district for exemplary performance. She said, “We need to focus on policies to make sure we’re keeping the most effective teachers in the classroom.” Groves re-visited the question she asked at the teacher debate: “What are we going to do on a national level to invest in teacher development?” To that Delaware state representative Mike Castle conceded that “We need to make absolutely sure we’re keeping the best teachers in the system,” and that there needs to be a “public recognition of the importance of education.”

Politicians need to be willing to take hits to initiate reform…. Perhaps no one in the room understood this topic better than Adrian Fenty, the recently ousted mayor of D.C., who hired Michelle Rhee as the Chancellor of Schools – and who offered a look at the reality of education reform versus politicians. “The goal of politicians is to get reelected,” said Fenty grimly. “People know reforms need to be done, but no one’s willing to take the political hits.” Fenty, who also called Randi Weingarten an “obstructionist”, said he does not regret any of the education reforms made in his administration, except for not moving faster. “Even though we moved fast and got our political heads cut off,” said Fenty, “we need to move faster. These kids cannot wait.” Williams posed this question to the politicians as well, on how to get politicians to listen and act: “Why isn’t education a space program? Why isn’t it a Marshall Plan? When did we let education become anything less than a top priority?”

“This movement has to be bigger than all of us,” said Secretary Duncan in reply. He pointed to the governor of Tennessee, in attendance, who, in his state, got lawmakers and unions (yes, really!) to work together on education reform to apply for Race to the Top money. “[The governor] made it not about him,” said Duncan. And on the issue of unions, who shoulder a lot of the political blame for stalling reform, Duncan said that they need to move, but, “no one should get a pass in this movement.” 

…But parents need to be involved, too. Mom Congress delegates Samuel and White brought the parent perspective to this discussion, and each posed good questions. Samuel focused on the need for schools to better communicate and involve parents. “You’ll call us for ice cream socials but not when your child is better headed for incarceration than college?” she asked incredulously. And she has a point – parents are typically expected to pony up for fundraisers, but are not truly involved in academic decisions (unless they deliberately insert themselves). White spoke about her desire to be more involved in the academic journey of her children in school, saying she wants to hear from teachers “what my child needs to excel,” and to give parents “power in the decision-making process.” Sound familiar? That’s what Geoffrey Canada told me after the teacher panel – parents need to show up and ask teachers what they need to do to help their child succeed.

Even though no clear policy plans were drawn up from the discussion, there was definitely an appreciation of how monumental and urgently needed reform is. Secretary Duncan optimistically pointed out that there’s been more reforms in the past 18 months than in the ten years – it used to be a crime to link student performances to teach evaluations, in fact – and what we were missing was the “heart, passion, will and tenacity to do the right thing by children.” I saw all four qualities in many of the debaters, and hope they persevere.