Saturday, November 14, 2009

An open letter to President Obama on schools, education and teaching

Dear Mr. President,

I am writing to you as a National Board Certified Social Studies Teacher who voted for your as President even despite my concerns about your approach to educational policy. You were not my first choice, precisely because I, like many educators I know, were concerned both about your approach to some educational issues and some of the people advising you. Nevertheless, we all enthusiastically supported your candidacy, in many cases before you clinched the nomination.

I will not speak for anyone except myself. Others are also writing open letters, as you can see at this website.

My focus will be on this - that the educational policy being promulgated by your administration is being created both without meaningful input from teachers and in contradiction with what much of the available research has to inform us. Of greater importance, it misses the mark on what really matters - what is best for our children.

Let me start with teacher voices. Your Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, was never an educator. Most of those closely advising him also were never teachers. While there is value to having the expertise of policy wonks and economists as well as those who understand administrative requirements, it is insufficient, because the success or failure of any endeavor to improve the education of our children will rest primarily with the classroom teachers, and if we do not include their perspectives, we will risk making policy decisions that are simply not capable of being implemented as designed, as any competent classroom teacher could tell you.

There are many teachers prepared to take on the additional responsibilities beyond their own classroom teaching. Many of us write on-line, participate in professional discussion groups, try to offer advice to politicians and school boards, yet far too often our voices are not part of the discussion because we are not at the table when policies are being decided. It is well and good to have a few resident teachers at the Department of Education, but it is insufficient if they are not included at all stages of policy development. Perhaps that is why a number of us are now resorting to writing open letters like this, and like those to which I have referred.

I realize that the current attempts at common standards are not being driven by your Department of Education, but since so many states are participating, what evolves from those efforts will function as de facto national standards. Yet in the two key panels there is only one former classroom teacher. There are multiple representatives of testing companies. Somehow looking at the makeup of those panels does not give me as a classroom great confidence in what they are producing. If your administration truly values the voices of teachers, I would hope that we would here - at least from your Secretary of Education if not directly from you - that such efforts should not proceed without more complete involvement from classroom teachers. It is not acceptable to pretend that it is happening without the acquiescence of the Department of Education, because if Secretary Duncan or you objected, it would be rather easy to so indicate.

Your education department seems hell-bent on insisting upon tying teacher pay to student scores on external tests, despite the inherent problems with such an approach. Let me list only a few.

1. Snapshot tests of student performance at or near the end of a course do not indicate what the student has learned, since there is no control for prior knowledge.

2.Most tests currently available do a poor job of assessing higher level thinking skills.

3. Those who argue for value-added assessment often want to measure from Spring to Spring, yet such measurement gives results confounded by the well-documented summer learning loss that hits more heavily in lower socioeconomic groups than in middle class and above, where often there are learning and enrichment opportunities during the summer. Your own educational proposals during the campaign recognized this - you proposed putting funding into offering summer programs to offset that learning loss.

4. While such assessments are available for most core-area subjects, they are not currently part of the instruction for courses such as music, art, physical education, etc. If we are concerned about education the whole child, as you have often said that you are, how can we take an approach to teacher compensation that devalues the work of teachers in these curricular areas, especially when they are often the people most responsible for some children persisting in school when they are struggling?

5. Such tests in no way inform and improve instruction. They provide no feedback to current instruction. Even benchmarking along the way too often degenerates into repetition of the material most likely to be tested (often because it is easiest to measure) at the expense of deeper understanding).

6. The overemphasis on such tests informs students that all that matters is their performance on same. Some will shut down once the tests are done, others who do not do well on such assessments but who actually have the underlying skills and knowledge will feel devalued. In either case, neither set of students is well served by such results, and it should be the students who matter most.

It is interesting that neither you nor Secretary Duncan went to a public high school. Both of you attended prestigious private schools. Your wife attended an outstanding public school, but one that functioned as a magnet and could screen the students it accepted. Your children have gone to the same Lab School founded by John Dewey that Secretary Duncan attended, and now attend Sidwell Friends. As a Quaker myself, I am quite familiar with Sidwell, the former headmaster Earl Harrison having been a friend. I wonder how you can be insisting on a set of mandates for public school that is totally antithetical to the kind of education you have sought for your daughters. Are not all children entitled to the quality of education your daughters are receiving? If so, how does what you propose with respect to teaching truly give other children anything close to that?

I know Secretary Duncan has chosen to have his children attend public schools in Arlington VA, where I also live, and in whose schools I have also taught. Our community has made a major commitment to public education, spending well over $20,000 for each student. This has enabled the school system to keep class sizes small, to retain good teachers by offering good salary, benefits and working conditions. You saw the difference this could make when you visited Wakefield High School. Yet most public school systems spend far less per student than Arlington, have much larger class sizes, do not have the stability of teaching staff that is important for a successful school, and do not devote the resources to staff development. And even with all that, Arlington still has to spend time and resources responding to mandated state tests whose quality is not spectacular, and whose scaled scores do not really inform about the quality of teaching and learning.

You often use the rhetoric of international educational comparisons. As a teacher and former doctoral student in educational policy, this bothers me. The conclusions you and many draw from those comparisons are flawed and often based on misunderstanding the nature of what the data represents. This has been demonstrated by the work of the late Gerald Bracey, that of Iris Rotberg, and by many other analyses. We are comparing unlike populations, unlike schooling situations, and do not test comparably. Some people will attempt to compare us unfavorably to Finland, yet that nation has almost no language learners, and the role of administrators is to support teachers, something very different than the approach in much of American public education.

As a citizen old enough to remember earlier scares about the condition of American schools, going back to the 1950's and reoccurring with regularity, I am concerned that you seem to accept the flawed rhetoric offered by those whose intent is to devalue and delegitimize America's public schools, for political and personal reasons. Thus I have a real problem with your education department insisting upon major expansion of charter schools when the research on those charters that exist is at best mixed - in general, when all factors are controlled, they perform no better than the public schools from which they draw students, and too often they are used as a means of breaking union protections for teachers.

All of this preface.

There is a basic question which I do not hear being addressed. What is the purpose of our having public schools? For me, it is to educate the whole person, to prepare our students to learn how to learn, to participate as citizens in a liberal democracy, to develop as persons, to be able to develop the skills that matter to them.

There are skills that employers will need, that we hope our children will develop. Might I suggest that being able to select the least worst from four or five choices on a multiple choice test is not high on the priorities of most employers? Are not things like the ability to work cooperatively, to learn to overcome differences, to persist, to come up with new approaches that might involve thinking outside the box, are all of greater value to almost every employer who wants anything other than a drone? Should not our schools reflect that in how they are structured, in how we teach?

Most of my students are 10th graders. Some are taking College level government in the sophomore years. Each year they have arrived in my classroom with less and less background, a direct outcome of the strictures of No Child Left Behind, which emphasized testing on reading and math, which because those scores were used to evaluate schools increasingly meant a narrowing of their educational experience. Many are frustrated with school, and have not learned how to develop ideas in speaking or in writing - these are not tested, therefore they are not valued. Tying teacher compensation mainly to test scores will only serve to exacerbate this problem.

I teach government. I had hoped that your administration would work to restore a proper balance between the branches of government. I compliment you on your willingness to let Congress fulfill its role in the development of an approach to health care. But I do not see that in education: Secretary Duncan is using his control over the funds currently available to make major changes in educational policy that the Congress had not been given a chance to examine. And because the Congress has been cut out, we have not had the opportunity for those with concerns about the approach to properly express those concerns before the country is steered perhaps irrevocably in the direction of policies that may be counterproductive to the best interests of our students.

I am a National Board Certified Teacher. To obtain that designation, I underwent a rigorous process, only one small part of which was being tested on my content-area knowledge, and that testing contained NO multiple choice items, only essays. Most of the assessment was of portfolio items: videotaping my teaching, offering artifacts such as communication with parents, samples of student writing, and professional development and participation. For each item submitted, I was required to reflect, with the primary concern being how this particular item benefited the learning of my students. The only people evaluating what I submitted were themselves current classroom teachers.

Many states and school systems offer an ongoing additional stipend for those of us with National Board Certification. In my case, I receive an additional $7,000 a year, which as a teacher is a substantial amount. I mention the amount not to brag, but to set a context: these states and school systems value that certification, which is awarded by teachers to other teachers, with no multiple choice testing, by the evaluation of portfolio materials, the focus of which is always the best interest of the students as perceived by teachers.

Why is not something like that part of the approach of your Education Department? Why instead do we see arguments about tying teacher compensation to (largely multiple choice) student test scores, to increasing the number of charter schools? Why are the arguments that are made economic, the interests of employers, and not the best interests of the students? How might this be different were the voices of teachers more prominent in the designing and implementation of educational policy?

Your daughters are very lucky in the school they attend. I know teachers at Sidwell. I know how committed to their students they are - were they not, they would not still be at Sidwell. Perhaps you can ask the teachers of your daughters how they would like to be subject to the mandates your Education Department and Secretary Duncan are promoting. I would be very surprised if they were in agreement with such an approach.

This is the statement of one public school teacher. While I know the words I offer will resonate with others like me, I do not claim to speak for anyone except myself. I supported your candidacy. I support your presidency. You are doing much good, and have a great deal on which you must focus.

But if you can, please step back and consider what I - and so many other teachers - are saying to you. Please reconsider how your administration is proceeding with reshaping educational policy before it is too late, before you commit the nation to a course that will not benefit our children the way it should.

Wishing you the best, and hoping that you are successful in meeting the many challenges before you.


Kenneth J. Bernstein


Anonymous said...

I'm *so* over the "they're not teachers" argument. I'm not a teacher, but I can easily go into a school and tell you who the worst teacher are. I can also read the literature on the best new teaching practices, something most teachers stop doing after they've gotten their certification. And since they can choose how they do their continuing education, it's not a guarantee that they are actually honing their craft.

I do agree with some of your other points, but you turned me off with your starting premise, and as such I couldn't be bothered to read the entire thing.

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Liz said...

I would love to see the end of NCLB, and I'd love to see an end to the over emphasis on standardized testing. And I'm not a teacher, just a parent! Teacher friends are more vehement than I am. I want to see curriculum changed, to be more student driven, to emphasize more how student passions can ignite learning of a different sort than doing the homework on page 57. There's a school in Colorado (a progressive public one) that's highlighted in "Lives of Passion, School of Hope," and it sounds like a fascinating place for kids. A lesson plan on one thing leads naturally to another lesson plan, one NOT in the lesson book! The "Lives" book follows alums and answer questions that are frequently asked about a school that is not like the others -- how did the kids do in college, are they happy and productive as adults. The answers are insightful and sometimes surprising. It shows me a place I'd want for my kids -- too late for me, really, as two are in college and one is a junior in high school -- but there's still hope for the younger Americans. End the emphasis on student testing! It's not working!

Private Schools in Atlanta said...

Thanks for the efforts poured into your open letter to The President. I have one question stemming from your obviously liberal viewpoint on education: when we revamp educational testing to meet the needs of corporate America - which seems shockingly antithetical to liberal objectives - and many public education intitutions still fail, who will be blamed? The methods of performance metrics, again? The evil capitalists?