Friday, October 12, 2012

Campaign for our Public Schools


Dear President Obama,

Four years ago, when you were running for president, I was participating in a life-changing professional development program called Summer Institute, sponsored by the National Writing Project in one of its many local chapters near me in upstate New York. It was a heady time, exciting, galvanizing, and transformative. Twenty-some teachers of all content areas gathered to read and study and discuss and write their way to new understandings about teaching writing. It turned out to be life-changing for me, as I soon left my classroom career of 23 years to return to school for a doctorate in education. Now I train teachers at a state college.

While I was there, we wrote daily and shared our writing. One of the writings I shared was a letter to you in which I wrote about the problems NCLB had created with its misguided approach to education. Imagine how disappointed I was when you, too, relied on advice from non-educators whose recommended policies intensified the worst aspects of NCLB! The high-stakes testing, already in place in New York State before NCLB, increased and then with Race to the Top, took over the schools like an insidious terrorism. Data-driven obsession replaced thoughtful consideration of students' needs and best practices. I saw many students suffer setbacks in their intellectual development because of the changes in the school atmosphere. Because pre-teens and teens are resilient, some may recover from this scourge as adults, to overcome the culture of regurgitation and the mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum encouraged by such a culture. Lucky for us - such recovery has brought us some of our most brilliant minds. But education doesn't have to be something to survive, and I believe we have made it an obstacle course with this emphasis on measuring learning in narrow ways.

It was also disturbing to watch as the teaching profession, not particularly honored or respected to begin with (certainly not when I began teaching in 1978), become the target of witch-hunters and nay-sayers in our society, on a grand scale. Yes, I know some teachers should not be teaching, just as some politicians should not be in office, some religious leaders should be removed from their churches, some shop clerks make mistakes with numbers. This denigration of teaching was intertwined with anti-union efforts, and though I have never been a huge fan of teachers unions, I have been a member for decades, and I have served when I saw a chance to increase the quality of our professionalism. Teachers should lead teachers to better practices and choices of self-improvement.

Yet we continue to be judged by non-educators. In fact, non-educators spurred this entire movement, in our country's history, to make schools the newest market, the locus of exploitation and profiteering. This velvet takeover of curriculum and instruction, out of the hands of the experts who have studied and prepared for it, into the hands of publishers and technology marketeers and politicians, is perhaps the biggest indignity. I pride myself on keeping up with what is best for children and helpful in my field, but my expertise was overlooked again and again in my 30 year career in public schools. Here it was overlooked by those who had no connection to schools except the desired connection to the funds that drive our schools. Those funds come from the people living in local communities, taxpayers across the state. The emphasis on testing and the control of curriculum by businesses funnel the funds from hardworking citizens to enormous business interests.

Business owners profiting from massive testing and accountability systems, and the politicians who partner with them, claim they must wrest control of schools away in order be competitive around the world. Even when the flaws in that argument are pointed out (the United States tests all its students, not just the children of the rich and well-prepared), you continue with these policies. These purported solutions will not, cannot be successful, until we solve the complex and difficult problems underlying our spotty performance on any standardized tests: the problems of poverty and inequity. You know that those problems are the knottiest; you spoke of them as you campaigned. For that reason I supported and voted for you, only to watch these problematic NCLB practices continue and worsen.

You stand by as the teacher-bashing continues, even as your daughters study in schools where poverty is not a problem, where teachers are considered the experts who should make the decisions about curriculum and assessment. Meanwhile, in most of the schools across the nations, power is taken away from children through the delivery of the shallow intense curriculum and the massive time spent on test delivery. They no longer have time to develop their literacy and numeracy skills in nurturing atmosphere that encourages mindfulness. The intensity of the pressure on teachers and administrators is passed on to them, and they associate school with all that is awful and anxiety-producing. They do not love learning and they will not be thoughtful, well-informed voters.

We will start to see all sorts of unintended consequences in our citizenry. I only hope that you will stop this madness so that teachers can be freed to prepare our students for active involvement in a democracy and discerning contributors to our economy.

Note: I have sent this letter to Anthony Cody (anthony_cody@hotmail.com) who is collecting teachers' letters to submit to the White House on October 17 in a special effort to engage his attention. See Diane Ravitch's blog: http://dianeravitch.net/2012/10/05/instructions-for-the-october-17-campaign-for-our-public-schools/#comment-44406 .

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