Thursday, January 28, 2010

Uninformed Reformers

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama said he reads letters from citizens every night. He quoted letters from a determined small business owner, a patriotic woman, and a generous eight-year-old boy.

I wonder if he’s read the ninety-six letters Anthony Cody, a teacher coach, collected from teachers and mailed to the President in November. Or the additional letters, comments and discussions posted by the 760+ members of Cody’s “Teachers’ Letters to Obama” Facebook group. Or the letters Cody published in his Education Week commentary and Teacher Magazine blog.

I’ve read some of the letters that have been posted online, and I think they offer valuable insight into the learning process and reveal the shortcomings of the President’s education reform plan and “Race to the Top” program. Here are some of the highlights:

* Standardized tests, and multiple choice tests in particular, do not adequately measure a student’s knowledge, skills or understanding.

* The pressure on teachers to produce acceptable standardized test scores is forcing them to spend more time on test preparation strategies and less time on creative and intellectual activities.

* Innovative lessons motivate students and spark excitement about learning. Dull, uninspired, scripted lessons, and repetitive test preparation, turn students off of school.

* The focus on testing will widen the achievement gap. High-achievers will spend time on enriching activities, such as music and art, while at-risk students focus on test-taking skills.

* A student who is not a skilled test-taker may be a gifted writer, a talented artist, or a budding musician. Due to the focus on standardized tests, their abilities may be overlooked and their self-esteem damaged.

* Education grants should not be based on a political contest like “Race to the Top.” All schools should have access to adequate resources so all children receive a high-quality education. Students shouldn’t be penalized because their state governments drafted proposals that the federal Dept. of Education deemed unworthy.

* The “Race to the Top” program attempts to force business practices on schools. Children are not products; they’re people.

* Although teachers have the greatest insight into the classroom environment and the learning process, they’re being excluded from the discussion on education reform.

When addressing education reform last night, President Obama said, “In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education. And in this country, the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than on their potential.”

Unless President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan consider the input of teachers, their education reform plan will not accomplish the intended results.

Please visit “Teachers’ Letters to Obama” on Facebook for more information.


  1. I'm a parent and veteran volunteer in an urban district. While I appreciate your post, I am frustrated that you do not offer any concrete solutions or alternatives. Whenever I hear teachers say that they want to be a part of a discussion on reform, I hear the unspoken word, union. If teachers want to be a part of reform, I think their very important and valued experience would be incredibly welcomed. The problem is that teachers usually come riding on the backs of the union horses, and that seems to halt open, honest communication, dialogue, and collaboration. The unions are only for the unions - not teachers, not parents, and most of all not student achievement.

    It's easy to say NO. Let's hear some ideas for how we can improve student learning. I, for one, celebrate professional development and collaborative time for teachers. Too many teachers want to be left alone to teach however they think best. That is simply not working.

    Don't like the idea of merit pay? Shouldn't workers get paid for doing a better job? If teachers need help to be better teachers, successful teachers could mentor them, and even get paid to do it. But, first you have to be willing to look under the rock and see what's there. That's what the data can show us. Use the data for yourself. Don't be afraid. Don't band together with teachers who are afraid.

    I love teachers. Everyone remembers his or her favorite teacher. My kids have had many fine teachers and a few exceptional ones. But, they've also had clunkers. We have to find a way to get the clunkers either retrained or exited. One day in a classroom without learning is sad. One year in a classroom without learning is a tragedy. Reach out. Parents are behind you. But, we are not behind unions. Unions are the wedges between us all.

    It makes me very sad that this is the situation in which we are mired. I think many readers would love you to write about some alternatives to this enigma in education. Is there a way to get out from under the threat and the power of the unions so we can really generate some new ideas in education?

  2. Thank you so much for your insightful comment. You're absolutely right. Pointing out problems is not as helpful as suggesting solutions. Some of the teachers on the "Teachers' Letters to Obama" group on Facebook have offered ideas for making positive changes. I will definitely work on writing a post with constructive ideas. Thank you for the suggestion. I'm also a parent and volunteer. I think we need to hear more from the parents' perspective on education reform. Thank you for taking the time to give your point of view.

  3. Like Sea Level, I am also a parent and veteran volunteer in classrooms for 11 years and on district committees for another 7. I agree that there are wedges between we parents and teachers but unions alone are not to blame. The whole bureaucratic structure has left us all with misconceptions and misunderstandings that have obscured our focus and goals and left us in a state of distrust.

    When you ask for solutions, it must start with understanding. On standardized test, what purpose and function should they serve? Are they being bastardized and abused? On grants as a mechanism to fund education, do we understand the inequalities they create? On funding in general, do we want money to work towards (as Natalie suggested) providing "all children" a "high quality education"?

    For every issue, there are questions that must be asked in order to find the facts and work through the problem. Honestly, on every issue I hear discussed, I also hear the solutions being discussed elsewhere. The wedge keeps the problems and solution from finding one another. We need to remove that wedge!

    We must have an open, honest national discussion sooner rather than later. We Americans have the answers and it begins with establishing a trust and understanding of our common ground and our common goal. In this American "system", the politics has created loud static. Teachers, parents, and students (the real and unheard players in this scene), THE POWERS THAT BE CAN'T HEAR YOUR VOICES!