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Dear Mr. President,…

July 5, 2010
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I, along with many of the wonderful teachers who comprise the Teachers’ Letters to Obama group, recently wrote to the President to express our dissatisfaction with Race to the Top. My letter is included below, and I also encourage you to read some of the other letters posted in the discussion forum, and to read and sign our petition!

Dear Mr. President,

I am a young teacher who, like many others, eagerly supported and worked for your campaign in 2008. I attended rallies, distributed your materials, talked up your cause at every opportunity, and was part of a group that raised several thousand dollars for your campaign. When I met you while working as a student teacher in Philadelphia, heard you speak with disdain about the persistent reality of two Americas, and saw that your campaign sought the counsel of wise educators like Linda Darling-Hammond, my heart literally swelled with the faith (and, yes, hope) that your administration would bring an end to the destructive foolishness of the No Child Left Behind era.

So it pains me to write to you with disappointment today, over the misguided education “reforms” you and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have pursued as part of your Race to the Top initiative. Far from correcting the flawed assumptions and punitive consequences of NCLB, your administration’s policies have reified and extended them.  Recently, a group of teachers developed seven principles that we believe should guide school reform efforts, in response to Secretary Duncan’s inaccurate statements that many of the teachers to whom he’d spoken supported Race to the Top. A full list and explanation of each principle can be found at http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/supporteducation. Here, I will discuss two of those principles to explain why I currently oppose your administration’s school reform efforts, and why I urge you to change course.

#4: Schools work best when teachers are empowered.

Given your background as a community organizer, I imagine that this principle is one with which you would agree. However, the policies you promote as part of Race to the Top, as well as the political climate you are fueling as you promote it, undermines teacher agency. This is especially true in historically low-performing schools and districts, places where creative and thoughtful teachers are most needed.

Your administration’s emphasis on standardized testing as a measure of student, teacher, and school performance saps creativity and flexibility from the teaching and learning process. If students and teachers know we are going to be judged primarily on the basis of high-stakes paper-and-pencil tests, then there is overwhelming pressure not only to narrow instruction to those subject areas that will be tested, but also to narrow the ways we teach and evaluate student performance. Current knowledge of best practice in education suggests that in order for instruction to be truly differentiated, students must also be given multiple, flexible ways to demonstrate their knowledge. However, the data and assessment regime your administration supports ignores that, and demands that all children be judged in one way. This inhibits teacher creativity and sets many children up to “fail,” or rather, appear to fail, when they’re denied the ability to show what they know and can do in ways that work for them. That also sets teachers up to fail, when we are judged, hired, and fired on the basis of test scores that don’t show what our students are truly capable of, and fundamentally cannot show what we do in the classroom.

Emphasizing standardized testing in schools frequently leads to attempts to standardize what happens in the classroom, which often results in mandatory use of scripted curricula and rigid pacing and planning guides in low-performing schools. These are often crafted with little regard to the particulars of each school and classroom setting, and they can be insulting to professionals who have spent years honing our practice only to be told to follow a bland program in perfect lock-step. This hampers teachers’ ability to be thoughtful and creative in our classrooms, because it takes major curricular decisions away from us. Many teachers in these schools, especially those who teach in testing years, face pressure to stop doing the creative, responsive teaching we believe in so we can train students to perform a certain way on a certain kind of test. Those of us who resist such pressure are too often forced out of our jobs, and teachers who otherwise might love to serve low-income communities choose to teach in private or more affluent public school communities instead, where the pressure is less significant, and their teaching philosophies and professional judgment are respected.

#7: Schools need to be strengthened, not punished.

This new era of top-down “accountability” under NCLB and RTTT has been incredibly destructive to the very schools and communities that need the most support. Entire teaching staffs have been eliminated; some schools have been shut down; others have been replaced or taken over despite the fervent opposition of the communities they are supposed to serve. So-called “tough action” in low-performing schools might be great politics, but it’s a disruptive and ineffective way to create lasting change in schools.

Schools that face these kinds of severe interventions are often located in communities already struggling with instability. Schools should be able to provide these children with a safe and stable presence, but when staff turnover is constant and teachers and other staff members are stressed, children suffer.  The stress surrounding a turnaround, or even the possibility of a turnaround, encourages administrators and staff to take problematic instructional shortcuts to inflate test scores and avoid sanctions. Scripted “intervention” programs, excessive test-preparation and more frequent assessments all take time away from true instruction, and impoverish the educational experience for those students who can least afford it. Likewise, as recent scandals in several states demonstrate, the immense pressure to raise test scores can lead to outright cheating. None of this improves education.

Turnaround strategies that focus on replacing staff assume that the staff are the problem, instead of enlisting them in crafting the solution. There is an assumption that inside “failing” schools, there is a “culture of failure” intentionally created and perpetuated by the staff. Where they truly exist, such toxic cultures should more rightly be treated as a symptom of school failure, rather than its cause. Such cultures form in response to policies and practices that disenfranchise teachers, as well as scapegoating campaigns that unfairly hold teachers and schools responsible for societal and systemic problems (transience, poverty, violence, inequitable and/or inadequate funding, etc.) that are beyond their control. I’ve yet to find the school or teacher who set out to do as little as possible for students or to fail children on purpose, but I’ve met hundreds who have been pushed to their limits because of unrealistic demands and expectations, too little support, and even less respect. How can students achieve their true potential if the people who teach them are stressed to the point of clinical anxiety, depression, and insomnia, or are continually replaced by novices who are similarly stressed and rarely get the chance to fully develop their teaching practice?

And for all the turmoil associated with these turnarounds, there is scant evidence that they’re even effective at improving education. There are few rigorous studies that evaluate the effects of the Department of Education’s turnaround strategies. However, the evidence that does exist suggests that they don’t consistently make a meaningful difference for students. For instance, a study of Chicago’s public schools found that students displaced from schools that were shut down fared no better than students who attended similar schools that didn’t close. It’s also worth noting that such studies focus on student performance as measured by standardized tests; there is virtually no way of knowing if these interventions will succeed at helping students do anything more than raise their test scores. Yet, Americans also want their schools to be welcoming places that help children grow into curious, thoughtful, productive, engaged adults; where is the evidence that these interventions will promote those goals?

Mr. President, I urge you to reconsider the policies your administration has pursued under its Race to the Top program. The practical effects of these policies will undermine efforts to advance the teaching profession and ensure a high-quality education for all children. Instead, your office should support plans like Representative Judy Chu’s (D-CA) Strengthening Our Schools proposal, which allows for greater flexibility and support for school turnaround efforts, and empowers teachers to contribute to real and lasting solutions. Teachers like me overwhelmingly supported you when you called us to work for change in America.

Now, it’s time for you to support us.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2010 4:55 pm

    That was truly inspired and inspiring, Sabrina!

  2. July 5, 2010 6:41 pm

    How can children race to the top with no left behinds?

    Seriously, though, the whole competitive aspect of partisan educational “reforms” entirely misses the point of public education. It is no great improvement if a student scores a 98 rather than a 90 on any one test. The key thing is that the student understands the specific subject matter well enough to apply it in future work calling for familiarity with that subject matter. If the test is well enough designed that a passing score assures that the student understands and a student passes that is enough. Aggregating the student scores obscures this, allowing high scores to hide low scores. Comprehensive exams also obscure pass rates on particular subjects by hiding failing grades on one subject with high grades in another. Splitting the comprehensive into broad sections help little to ameliorate this since, for example, a great score in geometry can hide a poor score in algebra. Evaluative exams where a whole school or grade is tested combines the worst of both of these, so that they tell us nothing at all. Scrapping these and instituting instead a course-based curriculum, with separately administered course exams by which — and this is CRUCIAL — students can receive credit for a course whether or not they have taken classes or even attended public school, will reorient education toward completing individual courses of study and understanding specific subjects. After this has been in place for a number of years, then we can begin to talk about the effectiveness of specific teachers of a specific course in helping their students achieve a mastery sufficient to pass the course exam.

    The financing is a separate issue, which I also discuss here:

    http://johnsonvillepress.com/2009/10/27/property-taxes-and-educational-reform-in-new-jersey-carl-peter-klapper/

  3. July 6, 2010 8:06 am

    Oh, Sabrina–thank you, thank you.

    Wisely said–and timely.

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