Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Summer of Teacher Discontent

We’re embroiled in the summer of teacher discontent. Anthony Cody, creator of the thriving Facebook group Teachers’ Letters to Obama, made the announcement in a May 28 e-mail to group members. Cody’s e-mail followed a disappointing conference call that group representatives had with Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education. The group’s goal was to convey their profound concerns about the education system’s direction, but their efforts were thwarted by a lack of time and attention to their input.

Teachers are not the only ones who should feel discontented. Parents, taxpayers and society in general—we should all be discontented. Our education system is the foundation of our society; it produces the future leaders of our country. Teachers are the pillars of this system.

I’ve been an advocate for the public school community—which includes parents, teachers, staff and students—since my oldest child entered kindergarten seven years ago. I’ve served as PTA president, council delegate, committee chairperson, class parent and event volunteer. I’ve collaborated with teachers, encouraged parental involvement, and conducted workshops to foster parent-teacher partnerships.

By immersing myself in the public school community, I became keenly aware of the many challenges teachers face. In 2007, I decided to write a book on the topic to garner support for teachers among parents, political leaders and society. Over the next year and a half, I interviewed more than 50 teachers around the country. My book, The Teacher Chronicles: Confronting the Demands of Students, Parents, Administrators and Society contains their disconcerting stories—stories about disruptive and disrespectful students, uncooperative parents, unsupportive administrators, demanding workloads, and the politically charged public school environment.

Sadly, the situation has deteriorated in the two years since the book was released. In July 2009, the Obama Administration unveiled “Race to the Top,” a competitive grant program that requires states to repeal laws that prevent schools from evaluating teachers based on standardized test scores. A few months later, President Obama presented his education reform plan, which mirrors the NCLB’s focus on testing and encourages states to transform low-performing schools by replacing the school’s leadership and at least half of its staff. Amid an unfavorable political climate, teachers are also grappling with a tough economic environment. The economic recession constricted tax revenue, causing state education funding to evaporate, school budgets to shrink, and teachers to lose their jobs. Teachers who retained their jobs nervously await the next round of budget cuts.

The Obama administration’s misguided policies are detrimental not only to teachers, but also to students and the vitality of the public school system. Here’s why:

* Standardized tests 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.

* A variety of factors influence student performance; teachers cannot be held solely accountable.

* Replacing teachers will not solve a struggling school’s underlying problems.

* 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.

Whether you’re a parent, a teacher or a concerned citizen, I urge you to show your support for our public education system and our nation’s children by joining Teachers’ Letters to Obama on Facebook and expressing your discontent.

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