I'm sorry I have taken so long to respond to your Open Letter to America's Teachers in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week. As a teacher, my highest priority is the needs of my students and until this evening, Friday, I simply could not justify taking the time to respond.
No matter. You have heard forcefully from many teachers, both from the comments on the Department of Education website, and forcefully from two good friends of mine, Teacher Sabrina and Anthony Cody. Let me offer a somewhat different perspective, but one that I warn you will be no less critical. I hope you will remain appreciative enough of teachers - or at least of this teacher - to consider what I have to offer.
Simply put, I read the words in your letter and I look at the policy put forth by your department during your tenure and I have a simple question - are you bi-polar?
Now hopefully I have your attention. I apologize for the seeming rudeness, and also to those who do in fact wrestle with a bipolar condition. I do not mean to make light of such a condition, nor to be gratuitously insulting. But I wanted to get your attention.
There are fine-sounding words in your letter, that you have listened to us, that, if I may quote you,
I consider teaching an honorable and important profession, and it is my goal to see that you are treated with the dignity we award to other professionals in society. In too many communities, the profession has been devalued.
You also write
You have told me you believe that the No Child Left Behind Act has prompted some schools—especially low-performing ones—to teach to the test, rather than focus on the educational needs of students. Because of the pressure to boost test scores, NCLB has narrowed the curriculum, and important subjects like history, science, the arts, foreign languages, and physical education have been de-emphasized.
It's nice that you "hear us." But why then, when you yourself acknowledge that under No Child Left Behind more than 80% of our schools will soon fail to meet adequate yearly progress, when your department in theory recognizes the weakness of the current generation of tests sufficiently to devote something $350 million to the two consortia creating new assessments, that you continue to use the existing assessments to classify schools as failing and needing to use one of the four methods of reconstitution allowed by your department when those four methods have either failed to work when previously used or have no track record demonstrating that they work?
If you are so supportive of teachers, how pray tell could you support the proposal to fire all of the teachers at Central Falls? After all, do not you also say in your letter
And you are frustrated when teachers alone are blamed for educational failures that have roots in broken families, unsafe communities, misguided reforms, and underfunded schools systems. You rightfully believe that responsibility for educational quality should be shared by administrators, community, parents, and even students themselves.Why then was all the blame to be assigned to the teachers?
Let's look just as some of the issues addressed in that last block quote:
broken families - why is not the Department of Education leading the charge on some of the social issues that contribute to broken families, including loss of jobs, inadequate nutrition, inadequate access to health care, to name just a few?
unsafe communities - where is the requirement in the various proposals of the Department of Education to provide resources to even make the schools themself safe, with properly trained staff including school security personnel, with coordination with local law enforcement to provide safe travel to schools? On this I cannot help but note that when you moved people around in schools in Chicago that movement ignored things like preexisting gang disputes which often made it unsafe for children to cross rival territory to attend school. Is not recognition of issues like this important so that what we attempt to do with our decisions about which schools students attend do not put them at risk?
misguided reforms - We have been through several iterations of reforms that have built one upon another, presented by people who are not in schools, imposed on schools, and when they do not work we get more of the same. In 1983 we were told we were A Nation at Risk and our schools were targeted as if they were a fifth column from an enemy force. Then we were committed to Goals 2000, by which time we were supposed to be first in the world in math and science - which, by the way, if we adjust for our degree of poverty we pretty much are, but somehow that never makes it into the scare stories in the newspapers. Then we were told we were to have No Child Left Behind, and that by 2014 we would have all children 100% proficient in reading and math. Except this is not Lake Wobegon, we will never have all our children above average, and the impact of the requirements for Adequate Yearly Progress has lead directly to the narrowing of education for our neediest children, for whom school could be the shining beacon, the chance to taste a greater and brighter world, but which is reduced to drill and kill on low level tests will little chance for the real joy of learning.
underfunded school systems - there is a lot of data on the discrepencies in school funding around the country. We can look at it nationally, where if I use this data from Education Week the range in 2009 was from $5,964 per pupil statewide in Utah to $15,139 in Vermont. But that does not really tell the tale. We can see incredibly differences within states. For example, in Virginia where I live, my home County of Arlington - where your children attend public school - spends over $20,000 per student, whereas some districts in the state spend less than 1/3 of that. Those districts able to spend more money often have smaller class size, more highly skilled and experienced teachers, more up to date facilities including lab equipment and computers, and text books that are not completely out of date.
Teachers are the most important in-school factor. We know that. We accept that role. Many of us could make far more money doing other things. Often we have left higher paying and far less stressful positions to work as classroom educators. I know I did. I left a job as a tenured civil servant in data processing making in the middle 60,000s in 1994 to get trained as a teacher at my own expense for a first job that paid less than half that.
But our influence pales when compared to that of family and community, which is why schools need to be very connected with both. It is why schools need to be rooted in their local communities, and not broken up and the students distributed to other schools. Often the school may the the most important anchor tying a community together. Schools need to adjust to include the parents in the community in what they do. Yet I read the criteria of Race to the Top, I read the proposals for the Blueprint for Education and I do not see those issues addressed. Those are the policies of your department. It is not, as has happened in multiple exchanges between teachers and representatives of your department - including you - that we teachers do not understand your policies. We do, and we object, because we know the negative impact they will have upon the lives and learning of the students to whom we dedicate our working lives.
The really dedicated teachers know that major changes are needed in our educational system. We also know that gearing everything towards tests is destructive. Test serve some useful purposes, but they far too often fail to capture the real learning, at least, not the kinds of tests for which we are willing to pay. Attempting to ascertain the effectiveness of a teacher, even by value-added manipulation of student test scores, does not solve the problem. Students are not randomly assigned. Much of what occurs on tests is influenced by things outside of that teacher's classroom - other teachers, family issues, learning from peers or from church. Most psychometricians make it clear that the current status of value added assessment is not stable or robust enough to make any kind of serious decision relying upon such information.
Teachers know a lot about teaching and learning. That may seem a simplistic statement, but it is in its simplicity also very profound. We might not all be versed in multiple regression of various data sets, but we can tell you about individual students, what works, what the issues are. We could do more of it if we had less students. When a high school teacher has, as I did this year, over 190 students, it is hard to get to know them the way I should. An elementary teacher with 35 students in a class cannot give all the attention they need. That is a simple statement, but one too often not given the attention it deserves.
You say you value us. The policies of your department seem to indicate otherwise.
So let me make you an offer. I cannot say that it is an offer you can't refuse - we are not the Mob. It is an offer if you are wise you will not refuse. It is that you truly listen,
That is, that rather than pushing to get reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act through the Congress on an expedited basis, you step back and really listen to teachers - and parents, who are the single most important factor in a child's success at school. That means that when we engage in "conversation" you don't eat up all the time talking about your plans. That means that you don't assume that when we disagree it is merely because we don't understand. It is precisely because we understand that we disagree, and maybe, just maybe, you ought to stop and consider why.
You might be surprised how much support you would get in Congress if you decided to do this, to have your staff not talk at us, but truly dialog with us.
There is a reason teachers are angry and frustrated. If you do not fully understand that, then nothing you plan for the future our our public education will succeed, because ultimately you need teachers - good, committed, dedicated teachers - for any proposal for education to work successfully for the best interest of the students.
That means people who know that teaching is not just a two-year punching of the ticket on the way to grad school or law school. It is a serious task that cannot be learned in a 5-week summer course.
That means people who are committed to continually learning about their craft, and modifying what they do based on knowing the individual students before them. And that knowing is not being able to parse how they did on the different indicators on the most recent "formative" or "benchmark" assessment.
There is an incredible resource that could totally transform our schools. It already exists. It is the knowledge and experience and dedication of many of our teachers. Your task as Secretary of Education should be seeking how you can harness resource, rather than antagonizing and alienating it.
Are you willing to really listen, without preconceptions, without insisting on hanging on to ideas to which you may already have committed serious personal and political capital? If you are, you actually could start to help meaningfully transform American public education in a positive way - with the help and dedication of teachers and parents.
If not, then I fear you will succeed only in further damaging American pubic schools, to the detriment of our society, and in the process robbing our young people of the very richness of education to which they should be entitled.
So which will it be, Mr. Secretary? The next move is yours.