Open Letter to President Obama

Dear Mr. President,

I have been extraordinarily disappointed in your administration’s approach to public education. As a life-long Democrat, I am appalled that you and others have given in to the corporatization and privatization of public education. In the name of “equity” and “civil rights,” your administration has pursued some of the most destructive policies ever in terms of their effects on low-income children, children of color, children with disabilities and children who are English language learners.

When I listened to your announcement, all I could think was, “Have you no idea what your Secretary of Education has done for the last 7 years?” All the things you criticized are a *direct result* of Arne Duncan’s test-and-punish Race to the Top! No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was bad enough, but your administration took advantage of states’ devastated finances in the wake of the Great Recession and bribed them to adopt the Common Core ‘State’ Standards (financed by Bill Gates and largely developed by representatives of testing companies) and to tie teacher evaluations to test scores, in a move that even the American Statistical Association disagreed with.

What on earth is wrong with you people? As an expert on child and family poverty, I know – as should you – that family income is the single best predictor of test scores. Given that, how can you possibly justify the shuttering of schools across the country on the basis of test scores? Isn’t it obvious to you, as it is to so many of us, that you are punishing children who had the misfortune of attending a school where almost all of the kids come from low-income families, many with single parents who work multiple jobs, some with parents who are abusing alcohol or drugs, some who are homeless, some who experience violence on a regular basis???

Apparently, despite all the rhetoric, you, Mr. President, have absolutely no idea what hell your DOE has wrought on children in low-income urban schools – yes, Mr. President, children. Kids who are 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14 years old. In the best case scenario, low-income children here in New York City have had their curricula narrowed, even further than it was before, to focus on test prep. In the worst cases, schools have been closed and whole communities have been left to grieve and cope, without better options.

The bottom line is that your announcement made clear that you personally have no idea what your DOE is doing. You can read the words that staff prepare for you, but in this case, those words made it all too clear that you are completely and utterly detached from the realities of public education.

You have one year left to make this right, Mr. President. I can only hope that you will see fit to make it so.

Most sincerely,

Nancy K. Cauthen, PhD
NYC school parent since 2002

Call to Educational Justice Conference #EDCTA

On October 17, 2015 hundreds of parents, educators and students came together in New York City to imagine a new vision for public education. I had the pleasure of speaking on the opening panel along with Jamaal Bowman, Michael Flanagan and Beija, a NYC 8th grader. The panel was followed by an inspiring and fiery keynote by Yohuru Williams. Here is the prepared version of the remarks I delivered at the conference.

Photo credit: Christine Zirkelbach

Photo credit: Christine Zirkelbach

I have been a NYC public school parent since 2002, the year No Child Left Behind (NCLB) went into effect. Both of my sons, who are now in high school, attended a traditional K-8 school in  Washington Heights, which is in Manhattan’s District 6. So I watched No Child Left Behind, then later Race to the Top, unfold in one school over 13 years – and it was instructive. I didn’t pay too much attention in the early years of NCLB although I do remember reading opinion pieces in support of the law by a certain Diane Ravitch – thank goodness for all of us that she saw the light and eventually renounced the dark side!

With each passing year, I watched as test prep increased. Student promotion was based on test scores until recently and so were the DOE’s school report cards. I saw a qualitative difference in the education received by my younger son, who is 4 years younger. Teachers started talking about the tests the first week of school; there were fewer projects and less homework in science and social studies; and test prep packets came home earlier and earlier in the year.

And I saw a change in the teachers. Even before test scores were being used in teacher evaluations, I could sense the pressure and the fear that teachers felt – most of them hid it well, but it was palpable. And it began to rub off on the kids. My son felt the pressure to do well for his teachers and seemed to think the tests were a lot more important than I did.

That’s when I began to educate myself about education policy – it was about 4 years ago. That’s also when I found Change the Stakes, a grassroots group of NYC parents and educators fighting high-stakes testing. One thing I appreciated about Change the Stakes is that the founding group understood the corporate education agenda in the context of racial, ethnic and economic disparities.

It was a good fit for me because I was raised in a family where inequality was a frequent topic of conversation. In the 1950s, my dad, a native Georgian, was the pastor of a white church in a very small town south of Atlanta. In the wake of Brown vs Board of Education in 1954, my father preached a sermon against segregation and was almost removed as pastor. My husband, who is African American, is a native of South Carolina and attended a segregated elementary school – this was a full decade after Brown vs Board of Education. His family had crosses burned on their lawn.

I came to education policy not only with a focus on racial and ethnic inequities, but also economic inequities. Professionally I’m a sociologist and I research and advocate for policies that reduce child and family poverty and that increase opportunity for children. I understand that to increase a child’s chances for success in life, we have to start early. By the time children enter kindergarten, white kids in economically secure families and with college-educated parents have already experienced a host of advantages compared to their peers whose families struggle financially: secure housing, plentiful meals, access to books and other educational materials, parents who talk to them incessantly, expanding their vocabularies. On average, they get more dedicated time from their parents who aren’t working 2-3 jobs or night shifts to make ends meet.

The cumulative toll of these early disparities can be enormous. Yet the corporate education zealots – I refuse to call them reformers – tell us that to talk about such things is to make excuses.  Excuses for failing teachers and failing schools. But the people in this room know that family income is the single greatest predictor of test scores! The people in this room know that poverty matters, racism matters, white privilege matters! All of these things affect what goes on in classrooms across the city every day. All of these things affect what school a child gets assigned to or gets into, what kind of resources the school has, how big the classes are. All of these things affect what kind of disciplinary practices a child is subjected to and how likely they are to get suspended or otherwise punished.

But the corporate education zealots argue that poverty and race shouldn’t matter – that if all children were held to equally high expectations and had great teachers, then everything would be fine. By ignoring race and ignoring class, they deny very real differences in the day-to-day lives of students. I’m not arguing that race and class are destiny – they’re not. Children are resilient and capable of overcoming great hardship; we underestimate them to our peril – and theirs. To the degree that some teachers and some administrators do have lower expectations for children from low-income families or for children of color just because of their background or color of their skin, that’s wrong. All children need to be given the opportunity to be challenged, to live up to high expectations.

But what the corporate education zealots refuse to acknowledge is that no matter what race, ethnicity, language or family income level, each and every child is different and has different needs.  As parents, we need our children’s teachers to have the freedom and flexibility to meet them where they are – not where Bill Gates and his Common Core says they should be. As parents, we need our children’s teachers to have the professional autonomy to determine when and how our children are assessed – not to be forced to administer one-size-fits-all standardized tests, especially when they’re developmentally inappropriate. As parents, we need our children’s teachers to be evaluated holistically, not on test scores.

To those of us who say that poverty and racism are the root causes of educational disparities, the corporate zealots respond that “we can’t fix poverty first; there’s no time; we’ve got a crisis; we have to move full speed ahead; we’ve got to jump into the deep end of the pool.” That’s their justification for imposing a giant, costly experiment on our nation’s public school children. That’s their justification for top-down ultimatums – “improve test scores or we’ll close your school or turn it over to the state.” That’s their justification for everything they do, without a shred of evidence that it will improve education or help kids.

But whose schools are being closed or threatened with state takeover? It’s not suburban schools where the majority of kids are white and from middle- and upper-income families. It’s not urban schools where there’s a substantial minority of kids who are white and from moderate to high income families. The schools that are threatened with closure are urban, high-poverty schools where most of the students are children of color.

So when the wealthy, mostly white, corporate education zealots say “we can’t fix poverty first,” what they really mean is “we don’t have to fix this country’s obscene levels of wealth and income inequality – that just coincidentally benefit us – because academic disparities are the result of bad public schools and bad teachers.”

In the process, they’ve now wasted well more than a decade on so-called reforms that have enriched private interests, while turning schools into test prep factories. By narrowing the curriculum, taking autonomy away from teachers and engaging in non-stop test prep, our schools are turning out students who in many ways may be less prepared for college than the previous generation. Ask any college professor. My husband has been teaching at the same college for nearly 20 years. He says students are much more afraid of taking risks, much more afraid of being wrong, much less intellectually curious and much less capable of independent and critical thought than students 10 years ago. So in the name of getting kids “career and college ready,” the zealots have likely lowered the quality of public education overall.

At the same time, they have ruled out strategies that have been proven to improve academic  performance among kids with the most disadvantages: increasing family income, providing high-quality comprehensive early childhood programs, reducing class size (especially in the lower grades) and integrating schools socioeconomically and racially/ethnically.

So what’s my point? I started off telling you about my own kids and my personal experiences as a parent and then ended up talking about poverty, racism and white privilege. My point is that if we as parents want to change what is happening in our own children’s schools, we need to think close to home about what our own kids need, but we also need to think about other people’s children as well. We need to understand what is happening to our own kids in the larger context of a school system that, instead of being the great equalizer, is in fact a potent force for replicating racial/ethnic and socioeconomic disparities. We have to figure out how to make things better in the here and now, while also keeping the future in mind; we need to engage in both short- and long-term thinking. We have to play defense as well as offense.

What does that mean concretely? Let me start with an easy example: we have to play defense as well as offense. In terms of defense, we have to keep doing what we’re doing by building the momentum around opting out of high-stakes testing: NYS obviously did a great job this past year with 220,000 opt outs statewide and that made a huge political statement – it got Albany’s attention; it got the attention of the feds as well.

Opt out is a powerful political force, but it’s a heavier lift here in the city than in some other parts of the state.  We tripled our numbers from last year; we need to continue organizing and getting into new districts and new schools. Many NYC parents still don’t know that they can opt out. But we also have to recognize that opt out is not every parent’s priority.

Offense is important too. Many parent activists realize that we have to be able to articulate what we’re for, not just what we’re against. Here’s where I’d offer some friendly advice. Almost every time I’ve been part of a brainstorming session where a group of parents try to envision the education they want for their kids, the list ends up describing a particular class-based view of progressive education. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think we’re better off recognizing that not all parents are looking for the same kind of education for their kids. That vision will likely be influenced by class, culture, ethnicity, race, etc. Why not strive for a vision that is more inclusive, that incorporates the most universal desires that parents have, including things that more privileged parents often take for granted – a safe school, a well-maintained facility, adequate supplies.

Another example: corporate ed zealots have an overly simplistic, but nonetheless comprehensive narrative about what’s happening in our nation’s schools – they’re wrong, but they’ve got their narrative. What’s our narrative? How can we counter their explanations without coming across as if we’re saying everything is fine with our urban schools? It’s one thing to say the public school system as a whole is not failing, but what are our solutions for schools that are struggling?

Here’s another opportunity for some big picture thinking. At least some of us need to focus on the problems caused by funding our schools with property taxes. How can we think creatively about how we assign students to schools without replicating patterns of residential segregation by race and class? There are already some folks in the city who’ve been working on such issues for a long time. But if we care about educational justice, we need to grow that effort.

In closing, I’d just like to say that if ever there were a time for parents, educators and students to come together across class, racial and ethnic lines to save public education, now would be that time! And I know that most of you are here today because you’re interested in doing just that. Thank you all for leaning in and fighting for educational justice!

My Take on Education “Reform” in New York State

NKC testimony 10 29 13_7

In late October 2013, I testified at a hearing of the New York Senate education committee, which at the time was chaired by Senator John Flanagan, who is now the Senate Majority Leader. The hearing was one of many held around the state about the “Regents Reform Agenda.” I used the opportunity not only to criticize said agenda from my perspective as a New York City public school parent but also to provide a political analysis of the faux narrative of a “crisis” in public education and the giant disconnect between research and the so-called reforms being forced upon K-12 educators, parents and students in NYS.

So why, you might ask, am I posting testimony that is a year and a half old? The reality is that very little has changed except that Governor Cuomo and the NYS Education Department have doubled down on high-stakes testing, including the use of test scores to evaluate teachers and to close, or take over, schools. And the parent backlash has intensified, resulting in an estimated 209,000 opt outs last spring.

My testimony will tell you a lot about my perspective on what’s happening in public education. You can read it in full here or watch the abbreviated version I delivered in person (which is particularly fun if you like a lot of gesticulating).

Here’s are some key excerpts:


Education reform at the federal, state and city levels is largely being driven by the assertion that U.S. students are falling behind internationally and not graduating from high school ready to succeed in college and in a global labor market. This argument – often stated as irrefutable fact – has been used to rationalize the nationwide imposition of the Common Core (CC), which has been sold as a set of high academic standards that will teach critical thinking and result in deep learning. We are told that the situation is dire and that our very economic future is at stake, which is in turn used to justify subjecting public school children to extensive standardized testing linked to high stakes for themselves, their teachers and their schools.

The problem is that every part of the narrative about “the crisis in U.S. public education” has been shown to be overly simplistic, lacking in evidence, ideologically suspect or just plain wrong. Below, I employ my critical thinking skills – which I acquired from a high-quality public education – to unpack three of the taken-as-fact claims upon which current education reforms are predicated.

Claim #1: American Students are Falling Behind Internationally 

When disaggregated, international rankings of academic achievement repeatedly show that U.S. students from middle- and upper-income families perform quite well when compared to students from other countries. Another way to disaggregate U.S. performance data is by state. A recent analysis finds that Massachusetts trailed only four nations in 8th grade math performance. These data indicate that the highest-performing American states are wealthy, racially and ethnically homogeneous and/or have relatively low levels of child poverty (see figure)….

Far from falling behind as a nation, our most advantaged students continue to be quite competitive internationally. But due to near unprecedented levels of wealth and income inequality in this country, a growing portion of our nation’s children live in low-income families with few assets to fall back on in hard times. The U.S. now has the highest level of child poverty since 1960.

Claim #2: Education is the Antidote to Child Poverty

The richest nation on Earth – and one that purports to value democracy and equality – should not allow children’s socioeconomic status to determine their life chances. Yet that’s exactly what we currently do. We refuse to acknowledge as a nation that high rates of poverty and wealth inequality are holding us back: socioeconomic status continues to be the primary predictor of academic achievement in the U.S.

Given the rhetoric of education officials, one would never know that the national “achievement gap” between black and white students has narrowed considerably over time while the income gap in academic performance has steadily increased…..

Education reform alone will never solve the constellation of problems that can compromise the academic performance of low-income children. Not only do they enter kindergarten woefully behind their more affluent peers, low-income children confront a wide range of obstacles to doing well in school: inadequate nutrition; untreated medical, dental and vision problems; undiagnosed learning disabilities; and importantly, parents who are working multiple jobs, are constantly stressed about making ends meet and who often don’t have time to attend parent/teacher conferences or help their children with homework….

The sad truth is that we know what works to boost academic achievement among low-income kids, but policymakers continue to forge ahead with unproven reforms, ignoring decades of research. Proven strategies to improve school performance among our most vulnerable children include: increasing family income, providing high-quality comprehensive early childhood programs from birth, reducing class size (especially in the lower grades) and sending children to schools that are integrated socioeconomically and racially/ethnically.

Claim #3: American High School Graduates are Not College Ready

Enter the phrase “NYS college readiness rates” into Google search and the top entries all carry the same message: despite incremental improvements in high school graduation rates across NYS, fewer than half of these graduates are prepared to do college-level work. The implication is that high schools are pushing students out the door who should not have been allowed to graduate. An underlying assumption here is that anyone who graduates from high school should be capable of doing “college-level work,” although what this actually means is rarely defined.

Predictions are that while most jobs in the future will require some type of post-secondary credential, most of them will not require a 4-year college degree but rather a professional certificate or associates degree. To put the discourse about “college and career ready” into perspective, just under a third of Americans have a 4-year college degree. Even among young adults under 30, the percentage is roughly the same – just 30% of adults 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree or higher….

The conversation about the need for post-high-school remediation focuses primarily on community college students. But there are actually some good-news reasons for this. A higher percentage of low-income students are enrolling in college than ever before, with most of the increases occurring at community colleges. Many of these students are the first in their families to attend college. In short, one reason that more community college students are struggling is that far more high school graduates are opting to pursue post-secondary education….

I completely support efforts to re-assess our approach to high school to find better ways to prepare students for a variety of post-high-school pathways. But there is no evidence that implementing a one-size-fits-all “college and career ready” approach to K-12 will prepare more high school graduates to succeed in college or the labor market.


As a nation of immigrants with diverse backgrounds spread across a vast land, the American ideal of public education holds that it should facilitate social cohesion and reduce religious, ethnic, racial and socioeconomic conflict. By providing the space for people of varied backgrounds to come together and develop shared cultural understandings, public education at its best should prepare our children to be good citizens and enrich our democracy.

Nonetheless, the question of whether the U.S. should have a single set of educational standards for the entire nation has always been contentious and the U.S. Department of Education is actually prohibited from developing one. In the abstract, I personally support having at least a minimal set of consistent academic standards that the entire country should adhere to. This stance is consistent with the widely-held American value that all children, regardless of background or geography, should have access to a high-quality public education.

Although reasonable people can debate the pros and cons of using national standards to raise the quality of public education, we haven’t had that debate as a nation. Instead, from the perspective of most parents, Common Core came out of nowhere. Education officials, starting with those at the federal level, have provided dishonest descriptions about the origins, development and roll out of Common Core….


As policymakers, you may be focused on the latest round of reforms: the introduction of Common Core, the implementation of a new generation of standardized tests aligned to CC and the creation of an entirely new battery of tests to evaluate teachers. As many stakeholders have argued, it’s been too much, too fast with little evidence this enormous agenda will accomplish its stated goals.

But from the perspective of many parents, this is simply the latest phase in a decade-long national experiment with public school children. While I fully appreciate that much of this is federally driven, for the vast majority of parents, it really doesn’t matter where it’s coming from – we just know how it affects our kids and our families….

The bottom line is that these reforms have little credibility with parents, rank-and-file educators and experts. They are not based on research and there is no evidence they will work. They are the product of corporate interests and influence. They have been sold to the public based on a “crisis” that doesn’t exist (or at least not the right crisis). We have been lied to and condescended to. And now we’re really angry. We will remain angry until these corporate-backed policies are rescinded and until teachers – trained, experienced professionals – are put back in charge of educating our children.

Read the full version here.