Wednesday, June 30, 2010


The Teachers Letters to Obama would like to encourage you to get your voice heard about the reauthorization of ESEA (No Child Left Behind). The time is NOW. Congress is considering the reauthorization as we speak. Please read the joint statement of the group and then pass it on - to your congressman, to your colleagues. Sign the petition. And then choose any of the bullet points to write about, expressing your experiences as a teacher, parent or grandparent.

Dear President Obama Secretary Duncan and Members of Congress:

Several members of our Teachers' Letters to Obama (TLO) group of educators recently had the honor of sharing with Secretary Duncan our concerns with the direction of federal education reform's Race to the Top initiative.

Subsequently, various publications reported Department of Education assertions that teachers support RTTT. This claim is expressly contrary to this group's position statement and does not reflect the sentiments of thousands of teachers who have reported corresponding with you, Mr. President. We would like to clarify our position as follows:

We believe:

1. Meaningful education reform must embrace a range of assessments. The RTTT emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing necessarily reduces the education of our students to "test prep" focused on passing multiple-choice tests of unproven reliability. We oppose the use of so-called "merit pay" based on standardized test scores.

2. Teachers must be held accountable through rigorous in-classroom evaluations by trained evaluators. Schools must hold teachers to high and meaningful standards of performance.

3. Teachers must work collaboratively to improve pedagogy and create thoughtful curriculum. Basing teacher evaluation on standardized tests is a pseudo-accountability strategy that divides teachers as a result of variables beyond their control and misconstrues how best to motivate them. Teachers must share in the process of defining their own work and accountability should never be arbitrary or divisive.

4. Teachers become invested in their work when they are given the opportunity to participate in school-wide decision-making and to be creative and thoughtful in their classrooms. Many public schools work well and are resources to guide us in the improvement of all schools.

5. Our public school systems must be fully funded. Charter schools must be held accountable to the same regulatory oversight and should not be inequitably funded at the expense of our most challenged public schools.

6. Any vision of effective education reform must assume that skills be taught in a way that induces critical thinking, encourages curiosity, inspires the imagination, and emphasizes discussion. Music, art and technology are an essential part of this vision. Students should love learning, feel empowered by their educations, and should not experience schooling as something punitive.

7. Improvement or “turn-around” programs for struggling schools must be flexible and participatory. Teachers, students, and community members need to be involved in discussions and problem-solving. Moreover, we do not believe the current four options are adequate and recommend instead the strategies in the Strengthening Our Schools proposal now before Congress.

To give all of our children the quality education they deserve, we must honestly confront the challenges of the classroom in a society characterized by deep social and economic inequality. The reality of classrooms and schools is complex and requires the knowledge and expertise of teachers who have the experience to know what works. Curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment are integral to our daily classroom experience and qualify us to help formulate education policy.

Teachers who have participated in TLO want to join with this Administration to implement a progressive vision for education. We want to engage in constructive debate about the best way to teach students and to organize schools. This national discussion needs to move beyond the panaceas and shortcuts that have characterized it thus far.

In this, we ask no less of our political leaders than we ask of our students. We are eager to participate in the hard work of creating great and transformative schools.

Sign the petition here:

Post your letters of support here:

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Long Goodbye

Few occupations are like teaching. At some point, the work that we do just stops. It is a pleasant experience that other adults likely envy, their work continuing on unabated--only slowing to fit into vacation time, rising and falling in intensity with the seasons of the marketplace or other cyclical demands.
We are at the stopping point now and have shifted into the last ritual of teaching -- saying goodbye.
Besides bidding farewell to students, the last week of school is a season of goodbyes to colleagues who are retiring--often from decades of teaching.
As those who mentored me leave and take their wisdom with them, I suffer. When two or three colleagues leave, hundreds of years of experience goes with them. I'm left wondering who will model the calm efficiency of an art well learned for the newest teaching generation.
Each time one of these seasoned educators leaves the scene, there are fewer and fewer long term educators to take their place. In addition, all that they learned about how to transmit their subject to young people walks out the door with them.
There are few opportunities in the teaching workplace for sharing to go on in a meaningful ways. So while most may think we celebrate our long summer vacations, I often see them as an institutional slap in the face that implies that the work teachers do is not of value to the institution itself. We are dismissed. Any enhancing of our skills is caught on our own, on the fly. I would have liked to learn from those I work with who do it best.
I am at the young end of the baby boomers and see a gulf between my age group and the next group of educators in the system. In a few short years, young teachers will not have professional models of a life built in education. Teaching to the test, following a curriculum in lockstep is going to soon look like the norm, not a dangerous exception.
Just as I feel the pressure of time to get certain skills and dispositions in place for my students in the time I have with them, I am getting a rising sense of panic as more and more trusted educators get fed up, walk out, and leave the rest of us stranded.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Brooks Celebrates a Race to Nowhere

David Brooks' recent Op-Ed Race to Sanity underscores again his enthusiastic support of using the models of big business to reform our public schools.
As a former Wall Street Journal opinion writer, it isn't surprising to find him aligning himself with the only paradigm he can wrap his head around: Competition Makes Everything Better.

But competition really only makes things better for those who are already starting out well ahead, and therein lies the problem with treating Education to a heavy helping of free-market group-think.
The ones who will benefit from this program are sure to get more, better, best--while those without resources are being promised nothing but punishment (again).

What is wrong with competition in schools? After all, it already exists to some degree. Don't we celebrate our Valedictorians? Our top athletes?
Brooks' argument appeals to the practical nature of many. He celebrates the Duncan plan which dangles RttT Funds in front of states competing to meet qualifying "scores" on a scorecard devised by the DOE. Clear "winners" and "losers" will be identified and then the top states win bucket-o-money to enact the reforms.
It appears to be working.
States are lining up to lap at the trough of education reform dollars.
So what is the problem?

The problem is the scorecard devised by the DOE. It includes ideas that are unproven and even dangerous for the children in our classrooms.
Take Pay for Performance for instance. Brooks justifies this process with the hollow statement: "In every other job in this country, people are measured by whether they produce results." In light of the recent banking failures which were followed by bonuses, and the huge national disaster in the Gulf brought on by BP executives entrenched in their own mindless Race to the Top in Profits, this is the most ridiculous claim I have ever read in print.
Give me a break!
But regardless, paying teachers based on their students' performance in a given year, besides being statistically difficult to prove, would bring a climate of competition into the classroom which would be decidedly unhealthy and counter-productive to the central role of teachers - supporting and extending the learning of every child, no matter where they begin their own particular race for a better life.
Imagine the world from a child's point of view if the adults in their lives begin looking at them as possible bonus checks versus a spot in the unemployment line.
Imagine teachers fighting over resources, access to materials, students who perform better than others. Imagine those who might consider cheating, brow-beating, spending inordinate amounts of time teaching to the final test so that scores go up, regardless of whether it is what is best for the children in the room.
In short, imagine the cut-throat world of business --which created the motivation to take short cuts in order to realize deep-water drilling designed to amass big profits, for instance -- transferred into the lives of our youngest citizens.

What should we do instead?

Teaching needs to be a collaborative effort. Rather than competing for ideas, we need to be sharing what works. Our charge is to educate all children. We need to work together on this goal.
Rather than pitting one state against another, one district against another, we need to ensure that all students have equal access to all the methods and supports of good teaching and learning. In other words, the federal government should be helping to level the playing field in terms of access to quality teachers and materials.
Rather than filling teaching slots with short-term "volunteers" or concentrating on developing assessments, we need to spend resources on building a professional, well-educated and mentored teaching profession. When the quality of teaching is assured the rest will follow.

My dream school would be year-round, with short breaks throughout the year. (If we want real reform, why haven't we started with throwing out the antiquated agrarian calendar that suggests learning is a part-time occupation and that results in documented learning-loss year after year for the least able?) Students who come from limited resource homes could spend some of those short breaks in enrichment activities (museum trips, book clubs, video production courses, art programs, civic outreach and volunteer programs, internships, intensive sporting programs etc. etc.) while still gaining access to important nutrition programs. And why have a break at all? Children, and adults too for that matter, gain from periods of play. Structuring some of this time for students who lack resources would overcome some of those learning losses now well documented.

In addition, teachers could engage in the professional development needed to keep classroom practice fresh and in line with the latest research. Rather than sending the "13th Grade" home for months at a time, teachers would be considered part of the leadership of every school, helping to shape policy and curriculum for the school. Usually, teachers are dismissed along with the students and have no part in recommended changes for the next school year. A waste of energy and talent in most schools.

And speaking of research, most of the initiatives in RttT are unproven, untested, or failed practices. Do we really want to race into uncharted waters and risk the development of another generation of children?
Why aren't we spending federal dollars on Research and Development?

If you want to read some real common-sense on education, look at the comments posted after Brooks' editorial.

And don't buy into this quick fix. It could spell more years of damaging practices enacted on our children.
Join Teachers' Letters to Obama to join other teachers nationwide in creating a NewPrint to counter the DOE Blueprint for Reform.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Taking off the gloves...

Sometimes you just have to pay attention to your gut. When you think you have been played, maybe you have.
Read this compilation of moves by Arne Duncan and the DOE to avoid actual listening and learning while he is on his Listening and Learning Tour.
The "conversation" described by Stephen Krashen and the NCTE could have been the exact same one I joined through NBPTS for NBCTs interested in sharing concerns about the Blueprint. No opportunity to talk, an interactive webinar with no interaction, questions selected from a big pile by the speaker Judy Wortzel. Adherence to a strict 30 minutes where 15 minutes is taken up covering ground that the well-informed listeners are already familiar with. Blah, blah.
Time to step over the DOE and go straight to Congress otherwise we are going to get even more of the worst of the worst.
The secretive nature of the activities of the DOE sound a lot like Dick Cheney's "energy talks." Talking with who knows who about who knows what behind closed doors.
Please get informed and get vocal. If you don't know what to do, get on Teachers' Letters to Obama. Big noise is the only way to get attention.
There's three million of us. We could make a really big noise.