I have written to President Obama a number of times about education. He has never replied. I guess I must be an eternal optimist, or maybe it's therapy for me to write down what is happening. Regardless, here's the latest one.
Dear President Obama:
This is not the first time I’ve written you about education. But I am an eternal optimist, and I believe in the possibility of your greatness as a President. I cheer you on when it comes to health care and immigration, and when I hear your words about equality, they vibrate within me. So somewhere deep inside, I have to believe that you will listen if we call out loudly enough. There are some who think that it is your intent to privatize public education. I am starting to agree with that as well, because you have been so resistant to seeing what this obsession with testing is all doing to public schools and our children.
Maybe you thought you were doing a good thing by instituting Race to the Top, taking NCLB to the next level. Maybe you thought you were helping inequality in education between states, encouraging states to up their game, and believing that if teachers worked harder they could achieve miracles. I am a retired teacher. I have seen miracles worked in classrooms, even worked some myself. But the thing is, those miracles have nothing to do with the results of a test. It has everything to do with building student self-confidence as learners, with helping them to discover the innate thirst for knowledge and the rewards of pursuing something that is at what we educators call “that sweet spot” of learning. The spot where the task is just a little bit hard, but not so hard that it defeats the student and makes them stop trying.
President Obama, Common Core and Rttt has hit impossibly above that sweet spot. It has actually smashed the sweet spot. Our children today are no longer finding joy in their learning. They are being forced, more and more, to do test preparation out of workbooks and worksheets instead of enjoying the thrill of discovering by experimentation and constructive inquiry. It takes time to let a mind discover, to engage in Socratic dialogue. And classrooms no longer have that time because they have to prepare for a test that may well determine the career fate of the teacher. What this means, is that there is no time for growth, for joy, for creativity. Humanities, music, art, and yes even science is crowded out to make room for English and Math, the only two subjects that matter on the almighty tests. Field trips and special all-day events like Medieval Fair or Career Day, are gone. Imagination is wilting. Dreams are dying. This is what you have created. This is what you must bear responsibility for. This will be your educational legacy and it clouds all the other things that you have accomplished.
Here in New York, we have it especially hard. We have a governor hell-bent on using test results to bludgeon our teaching force and declare our schools, even the high-quality schools of excellence, failures. For what end I can only speculate, based on the fact that he gathers millions from hedge fund contributors and speaks at $1,250 a plate fundraisers for charter schools, it’s not hard to make that assumption.
Teachers in NY face the prospect of 50% of their evaluation being based on Value Added Method that does not make any sense and has been criticized in respected places (American Statistical Association, for example), and test scores that have failed 70% of our students. The tests are impossibly hard, written grade levels beyond the student’s age, with cut scores set by some undisclosed secret. The proficiency rate is calibrated to a 1630 on the SAT. Tests are so hard that even our governor acknowledged this, and put a moratorium on using the scores for students. But no such moratorium for teachers. We face the prospect of losing a large percentage of our teaching force within the next two years, because if teachers can’t “show growth” on scores they cannot get an effective rating no matter what else they do. After two years, they will lose their careers. When Michelle Rhee instituted a similar weight of testing into teacher evaluations, DC lost 83% of its teachers. If we lose even a quarter of that percentage we are in trouble, because student enrollments at teacher preparation programs at universities and colleges in NYS are down 20-50%. There are some programs that have zero enrollment, some that have single digit enrollment. So where are our teachers going to come from to replace those we lose to a faulty evaluation system?
Especially hurt by your programs are students with identified disabilities and their teachers. A 1% waiver is not enough, and even some of the most severely handicapped students end up having to take a test that is grade levels beyond their intellectual capacity. I once administered an 8th grade test to a student who could not speak or write his name. He cried during the test. The teachers for this population are our unsung heroes. They selflessly give of themselves every day to our neediest children – sometimes being physically hit, handling tantrums with the patience of Job, or listening compassionately and with interest and a smile to the most halting of young voices. Yet, their students will not show the growth required, and they will soon lose their jobs. Who will want to take their place? And in whose twisted mind does it make sense to punish our special needs students in this way? And how does it make sense to give a test written in English, to English Language Learners? Only 3% of ELLs achieve proficiency. Do you wonder why?
I place this at your feet because that is where it belongs. If not for your hammering the states with Rttt money, AYP and APPR, high stakes testing and Common Core, we would not be in this mess. Our children would not be going home crying because rigor has turned their minds to stone. We would not have children pulling out their hair and eyelashes, crying and vomiting during tests.
Do you care President Obama? Do you really? Then listen to some of the voices that are crying out. Meet with someone like Diane Ravitch (or read Reign of Errors) and really hear what they are saying. Talk to some teachers, not just our unions.
Please restore my faith in you.