Edited by Carl Glickman, foreword by Bill Cosby (Teachers College Press, 288 pages $14.95)
Letters to the Next President gathers fifty voices – parents, a superintendent, eighth grade Native American students, a first-grade teacher, a senior-class president, nationally known education reform leaders, a middle school assistant principal, university professors, United States senators and representatives, a prison inmate – that offer insight into the accomplishments and the tragedies of our public schools and call for specific leadership for change.
Though their passions and perspectives differ vastly – encompassing advocacy for the needs of African American students, rural schools, arts in the curriculum, afterschool programs, school funding reform, and more – the letter writers offer consistent wisdom about the best course for executive national leadership for systemic improvement. Fund schools equitably and properly. Employ and reward high quality, professional, experienced, culturally competent teachers. Give students books, meaningful curricula, and clean, well-maintained places to learn. Assess students, schools, and the larger system on multiple measures, honoring teachers’ judgments. Support students’ and families’ health and safety outside of school. Build a system that guarantees two-way accountability.
Letters to the Next President is a powerful chorus for all civic and community and leaders, for anyone who wants to understand straightforward ways to beat back the dark undercurrents that prevent our children’s tide from rising. In his introduction, Glickman describes “a strange combination of fear and optimism” that runs through the letters. Indeed, a thread that ties a number of powerful letters is the observation that fearmongering is among the most destructive things a leader can do, as it gives the wholesale impression that schools are truly dysfunctional and hopeless places. At the same time, Letters repeatedly reminds us of the powerful good for which schooling is responsible.
There’s nothing universally true to be said about our at-extremes educational system. The contributors’ examples of truly transformational positive change as a result of schools are the result of this particular teacher, that particular school. That’s how it works: change happens when we can create lasting benefits at the individual, personal level. Leaders — and particularly our next president — should read these voices and carry away the mandate to act to support our schools financially, create systems that are designed to maximize the good we can do one another, and perhaps most of all, honor the difficult, life-changing work of teachers and students.