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They're Not Listening
An Educators' News Editorial
March 15, 2010

I had an interesting and disappointing experience recently that may say a lot about the crafting of the Obama administration's current proposals for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). As a citizen and a retired teacher, I wrote both the President and Secretary of Education in January about my concerns with their market oriented approach to education reform.

Over a month passed without a response, and my concern over the lack of a response began to deepen. While the President and Secretary have conducted their "Listening and Learning Tour" about education reform with great fanfare, it appeared to me that they think we are the ones who are supposed to be listening and learning, not the other way around. They couldn't be listening to real teachers and come up with some of the education proposals they are making.

I really believe that elected officials, even the office of the President of the United States, have a responsibility to participate in two-way communication with their constituents. So I decided to try to elicit a response to my concerns by removing myself from the info@barackobama.com mailing list with the following tart comment:

As a retired career teacher, I've written to both President Obama and Arne Duncan in strong protest of the business oriented changes they're pushing for education. Those measures won't work. And both (offices) have neglected to respond. I now move from being an Obama supporter into that middle ground of independents.

Since my wife and I had been very minor contributors to the 2008 Obama for America campaign, I thought surely the prospect of losing a previous contributor to their never ending campaign for further contributions might attract something other than a canned email acknowledgement. To their credit, the stream of constant emails from Barack, Rahm, David, Michelle, and many others stopped immediately. But there was also no response to my concerns about the Obama/Duncan steamroller that is now threatening public education.

It was at that point I concluded, "They're not listening." Or at the very least, "They're not responding."

To be sure it wasn't just me, I sent out inquiries to some other writers about any feedback they might be receiving from the administration. Widely respected educator and now blogger for Education Week, Walt Gardner, wrote back:

No, I haven't received any feedback whatsoever from the Obama administration about "Reality Check." And I don't expect to because input from classroom teachers is given short shrift from politicians. Nevertheless, I intend to continue to write frankly about the issues confronting education at this crossroads in history.

Neither Ron Maggiano's eloquent A Teacher's Letter to President Obama nor his more biting Let's Fire All the Teachers elicited any response. Ron wrote:

I did not receive a response from the Obama administration regarding my posting. I honestly do not think they are listening to the concerns of teachers. The administration seems to have decided upon its educational policy and is going to stick with it regardless of facts and opinions to the contrary.

If you perceive a theme emerging, I think you're right. I really didn't expect either President Obama or Arne Duncan to pick up the phone and call me to get the straight stuff on education. They obviously have settled on a plan and not unexpectedly, are going to stick with it. Candidate Obama extolled bottom up change, but as President seems to employ only top down "reform" efforts in education. This approach, coupled with Secretary Duncan's reliance on business oriented initiatives, leads me to believe that the Obama administration is no longer, if it was ever, listening to those with the most experience with the problems of education, classroom teachers.

Tempting the Einstein definition of insanity of "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results," I sent the President a snail mail letter last week expressing my views on education reform. The letter will undoubtedly lie unopened in some anthrax-sniffing security chamber until well after the President and Secretary of Education deliver their misguided proposals to Congress for ESEA reauthorization. But that really doesn't matter, as the letter was more of an exercise in trying once more to believe in a fallen hero than a real attempt at communication. I was like the jilted lover who can't stop themselves from sending one more plea to their estranged. I'm disillusioned.

If the President and Secretary were listening, good teachers already maxed out in their efforts to improve education would tell them that their proposal to use merit pay as an incentive to get them to work harder is simply a bad joke. Those good folks are already doing all they can do. And the ones who would be influenced by such incentives are probably ones that need to be "weeded out" anyway.

They'd tell the president that every time he talks of placing a great teacher in every classroom by recruiting new teachers, he adds to the incorrect public perception that all current teachers are inferior, and grossly offends those great teachers already there doing seven amazing things before breakfast each day.

Teacher bashing has become a national pastime, and the President has done absolutely nothing to diminish it.

Good teachers would ask how can you herald charter schools as an answer? Studies have already shown that the few successful charters can't scale up to replace traditional public schools, and such charters are based on unsustainable models as Walt Gardner aptly stated in The Beatings Will Continue Until Teacher Morale Improves:

Teachers in these high-flying schools work schedules that set the stage for eventual exhaustion. While they may be able to maintain the pace in the short run, the odds are against their being able to do so in the long run. If this observation is accurate, then trying to apply the same model to the 15,000 schools in dire need is unrealistic. In other words, the high flying model is neither scalable nor sustainable.

Secretary Duncan attempted to sound reasonable trying to sell his irresponsible plan to use high stakes testing to evaluate teachers when he addressed the National Education Association's annual meeting last July in San Diego:

I understand that tests are far from perfect and that it is unfair to reduce the complex, nuanced work of teaching to a simple multiple choice exam. Test scores alone should never drive evaluation, compensation or tenure decisions. That would never make sense. But to remove student achievement entirely from evaluation is illogical and indefensible.

The Secretary ignores the fact that teacher evaluations are the province of state and local governments. Indiana's Race to the Top proposal established a 51% test score minimum in teacher evaluations, as reported in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette:

School districts will not be forced to revamp their evaluation process. But if they want their names attached to the federal application with the chance of receiving more money, they will have to sign a memorandum of understanding stating that at least 51 percent of every teacher’s evaluation will be based on student achievement, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett told the state board.

I can hardly wait until a school board member somewhere in Indiana decides the 51% minimum isn't enough and proposes 75, 85, or the business gold standard of 100% of teacher evaluations being based on student test scores. It sure would save administrators a lot of time observing teachers.

Michigan City special education teacher John Easton quickly brings all this foolishness down to earth when he states, "I think they ought to cut back on some of that testing and teach kids what they need to know. That's what the real goal is here."

Diane Ravitch pretty well refutes the Secretary's logic in her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

The Committee on Appropriate Test Use of the National Research Council stated in an authoritative report in 1999 that "tests are not perfect" and "a test score is not an exact measure of a student's knowledge or skills." Because test scores are not an infallible measure, the committee warned, "an educational decision that will have major impact on a test taker should not be made solely or automatically on the basis of a single test score." This expert panel could not have dreamed that only two years later, a law would be passed that established harsh consequences not for test takers, but for educators and schools. Or that only ten years later, the president of the United States would urge states and school districts to evaluate teachers on the basis of their students' test scores.

One problem with test-based accountability, as currently defined and used, is that it removes all responsibility from students and their families for the students' academic performance.

Similarly, the authors of the [NCLB] law forgot that parents are primarily responsible for their children's behavior and attitudes. It is families that do or do not ensure that their children attend school regularly, that they are in good health, that they do their homework, and that they are encouraged to read and learn. But in the eyes of the law, the responsibility of the family disappears. Something is wrong with that. Something is fundamentally wrong with an accountability system that disregards the many factors that influence students' performance on an annual test - including the students' own efforts - except for what teachers do in the classroom for forty-five minutes or an hour a day.

Diane's final observation about homes, of course, brings us to the dirty little secret in education that no politician wants to touch. Certainly we need more great teachers, and good, fair evaluation systems to retain the good and counsel out the bad. But America must address its education problems in a much larger perspective, rather than the past and current plans of focusing solely on teachers, schools, and test scores.

Unsolicited Advice for our President and Secretary of Education

• Address the underlying issues that frustrate education reform and stop trying to place all of the responsibility for improvement in America's schools on the shoulders of teachers. The Broader, Bolder Approach pretty well sums up what needs to be done.

• Talk to real educators.

• Watch out for the Rhee types and TFA folks who've taught a whole two or three years, only to move on to this or that think tank and be reborn (reinvented) as hallowed experts on education. Good and great teachers only begin to emerge as such after three to five years of service.

• Talk to real teachers.

• Remember your bottom up or top down rhetoric from the campaign. Right now, your reform policies are all top down. James Farwell, an educational psychologist from San Francisco, cautioned in Fixing our failing schools in the San Francisco Chronicle in January:

Those who are the furthest removed from the classroom are the ones who create laws that impact our children's learning. Think tanks, special interest groups and politicians are the ones who have created one failed program after another over the past 40 years.

Without mentioning the President or Secretary of Education by name, Farwell took direct aim at the Administration's education "improvement plan" when he wrote, "Top-down decision making will fail every time." He concluded, "Educational policy needs to be made by those who actually work with children and know what works - not by members of think tanks, special interest groups or politicians."

• Talk to real teachers.

• Insist on full federal funding of IDEA (special education) which was promised in 1975 and never fulfilled. Many of your "failing schools" are failing solely because of test scores of children with disabilities.

• Talk to real teachers.

• Don't lose sight of the crying needs of rural schools in your understandable focus on large, urban systems.

• Talk to real teachers.

• Clean house in the Department of Education. Sweep out the folks beholden to the Gates, Broad, and other special interest foundations, those married to the testing companies, and those with conflicts-of-interest from their previous associations with commercial charter organizations. You might even consider replacing them with people with real classroom experience. (We're talking careers here, not two or three years.)

• Talk to real teachers some more and this time, really listen and learn.

Unsolicited Advice for America's Teachers

• Don't lose hope. It's not over yet. We survived the Bush years, didn't we? (Well, some of us didn't.)

• Write to the President and express your views on education reform. Offer insights, anecdotes, and suggestions. Consider it an exercise in honing your writing skills, as you're unlikely to receive anything more than an email acknowledgement of your submission from an administration that no longer values your input.

• Take yourself off the info@barackobama.com and other similar mailing lists. Post a comment in the box provided noting your protest of the administration's current direction in education reform.

• Write your senators and representative. They may not agree with your views, but almost certainly will respond and also record your views in a database somewhere for future reference.

Unsolicited Advice for the AFT and NEA

• Make sure you're reasonable in your demands.

• Don't sacrifice teachers for small gains.

• Consider if now is the time to begin searching for 2012 presidential candidates who will actually address the needs of American education.

Comic Relief

Maybe if we could get some kind of audience with the administration, we should follow Arlo Guthrie's advice from Alice's Restaurant and walk in, sing a bar from Alice's Restaurant and walk out. As Arlo says, "Maybe they'll think it's a movement." And while it won't be the "Alice's Restaurant Halftime Massacre Movement," there definitely needs to be a movement of America's teachers in defense of their chosen profession.

Odds 'n' Ends

This editorial has been written with different audiences in mind. The primary audience, our President and his Secretary of Education, obviously aren't listening. I've shied away here from looking for any ulterior motives, conflicts-of-interest, or influence peddling by members of Arne Duncan's non-teacher inner sanctum. But I do believe they are there.

My second audience is the teachers and parents of America. I still believe our current President was the best choice we had in the 2008 national election. I believe his selection of Arne Duncan was a politically motivated exercise in cronyism that avoided a confirmation battle over the far more qualified Linda Darling-Hammond. In choosing Duncan and subscribing to his now discredited claims of school reform success in Chicago, the President has turned his back on public school educators and possibly is leading America into another lost opportunity to positively impact public education.

America's students, parents, and teachers deserve better.

Let me rephrase the words of the fictitious president, Andrew Shepherd, from the movie, The American President:

This is a time for serious people, Mr. President, and your four years will soon be up.

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©2010 Steven L. Wood