8. Education

Begin in agreement, for example: We need public schools for our families and our communities that provide each and every child the opportunity to achieve their fullest potential in life.

Our values: Opportunity, equal opportunity, fairness, fair share, level playing field, opportunity for each and every child

Our vision: Our public schools must provide each and every child the opportunity to achieve their fullest potential in life. Children are not standardized; each one needs and deserves personalized instruction. That requires both fully qualified professional teachers and opportunities to learn outside of class. Every jurisdiction needs to: (1) provide adequate funding for public schools; (2) deliver instruction in a way that recognizes the differences in both the interests and needs of specific children; (3) provide opportunities to learn outside of classroom time including afterschool, arts and recreational programs, and libraries; and (4) make schools a safe and fair environment for everyone.

Public education is under attack from conservatives who are, in essence, promoting a corporate takeover of public schools. To push back, you need to understand where voters stand on K-12 education issues.

On standardized testing: Fifty-seven percent of Americans believe “there is too much emphasis on standardized testing in schools.” Only 36 percent think there is the right amount or not enough testing. Fifty-five percent oppose linking teacher evaluations to students’ standardized test scores. The public is simply not on the testing bandwagon.

On charter schools and vouchers: Forty-four percent favor and 35 percent oppose “the formation of charter schools,” a political standoff. Similarly, Americans just marginally favor private school vouchers by a margin of 44 to 39 percent. And yet, Americans think “the focus should be on reforming the existing public school system” (78 percent) “rather than finding an alternative” (22 percent).

On trust in teachers: Sixty percent of Americans rate the honesty and ethical standards of teachers to be high or very high. The only professionals with a higher rating are nurses, doctors and pharmacists. Teachers are substantially more trusted than police, judges and clergy, and are three times more trusted than lawyers, business executives and stockbrokers. Sixty-six percent say teachers are underpaid while only six percent think they are overpaid.

On the quality of schools: When asked to grade schools “A, B, C, D or Fail,” only 19 percent say that public schools nationally deserve an A or B. Among the same Americans, 43 percent believe public schools in their own communities deserve an A or B. And among Americans with a child in school, 70 percent would give their school an A or B.

Because Americans like and trust their local schools and teachers, and because voters generally care more about how policies affect their own communities, you should lean heavily on arguments based on how an education policy will impact local schools and schoolchildren.

Say . . .
Public schools serving our families and our communities must provide each and every child the opportunity to reach their fullest potential in life. There are no standardized children; every child has different strengths and weaknesses. That’s why we need to offer a complete curriculum provided by professional teachers who have the training to give the individualized attention that every child needs.

Why . . .

The narrative above uses four strategies:

  • Focus on the listener’s own children and neighborhood schools rather than education in the abstract.
  • Indirectly push back against the overuse of standardized tests and teaching-to-the-test by explicitly pointing out something that every parent knows: every child is different and requires individualized attention.
  • Change the narrative about school quality measured by average test scores to a narrative about how well our schools provide each and every student the opportunity to learn and excel.
  • Insist that only professional teachers, rather than amateurs or computer programs, have the knowledge and skills to do the job right.
Don’t say . . . Say . . .
The nation’s schools

High-poverty schools

Failing schools, failing teachers

Soft bigotry of low expectations

Student achievement

Our children, local schools, schools in our community

Opportunity to learn, to succeed

Teaching-to-the-test, one-size-fits-all

Each and every child is different, is unique, is an individual

Professional teacher; teaching profession

Why . . .

The American value behind public education is equal opportunity for all. Instead of addressing the problem that too many children are denied an equal opportunity to learn, the right wing tries to exacerbate it with vouchers, or as they call them, opportunity scholarships. Their strategy is to take advantage of the fact that Americans believe public schools outside of their own communities are failing and, instead of fixing them, offer vouchers to enable individual students to escape. The political goal of vouchers is to set some parents against others, particularly within communities of color.

The right wing also appeals to Americans’ fervent belief in the market system and urges that parents be treated as consumers and schools be run like corporations. But schools are not businesses, teachers are not factory workers, and students are most certainly not products for sale. After more than a decade of right-wing education policy, there is still no evidence that any of their proposals actually benefit schoolchildren.

The major difference between the partisans on education is that progressives accept responsibility for improving our public schools while conservatives want to abandon them entirely. That’s how we should distinguish our positions in public debate. For example, say you are arguing against larger class sizes:

Say . . .
Each and every child in our community deserves the opportunity to grow up to live a successful life. So every child needs excellent schools and professional teachers. Smaller class sizes help children learn because they allow teachers to spend more one-on-one time with each student, providing the individualized instruction they need.

 Why . . .

Whatever your progressive solution—whether it’s smaller class sizes, modernized school facilities and equipment, programs to attract and retain excellent teachers, a broader and richer curriculum—emphasize the underlying value of equal opportunity and focus on what’s best for each and every child, which our listeners visualize as their own child or grandchild. If your solution is more resources for public schools, specify how you’d use the money: for art, music, science labs, technology…what every child needs to succeed.

Similarly, if you are opposing legislation that would drain resources from local public schools, emphasize that. For example, if you are speaking against spending taxpayer dollars for private school vouchers.

Say . . .
Each and every child in our community deserves access to an excellent neighborhood public school so that child has the opportunity to grow up and be successful in life. There is a proposal to spend your tax dollars on vouchers for private schools, which would mean less money spent on public schools. There is no credible study that shows vouchers improve student performance. So vouchers are neither wise nor fair.

Why . . .

There are lots of statistics about vouchers and you are welcome to use a few. But voters already oppose vouchers if they come at the expense of the public schools, so focus on that.

Finally, don’t repeat the anti-teacher and anti-child message frames. They do not support progressive arguments.

Don’t say . . . Say . . .
School reform, education reform

Run schools like businesses

Achievement gap

Each child deserves an excellent education, personalized instruction

Opportunity gap

Why . . .

Our nation’s future is on the line. Progressives need to re-take the moral high ground on public education. A little smart message framing can make a real difference.