Friday, November 29, 2013

Letter to the President

All the BATs have been invited to write letters to President Obama.  Here is mine:

November 29, 2013

Dear Mr. Obama,

I had the great honor of voting for you for President of the United States twice!  You have made some major progress in areas that have my full support, such as the Affordable Care Act and standing up for marriage equality.  Most of the time, I have your back, but I must ask as a public school teacher --  do you have mine?  

Mr. President, I don’t understand why education must be “a race to the top” -- what exactly is “the top”?  Is it moving up from number 17 to number 1 on international standardized tests?  What happens when your students have physical, emotional and/or cognitive challenges that make it impossible for them to join in the race, let alone get to the top?  Why are we racing children at all?  Each child develops at her or his own unique pace.  I know this from 20 years of teaching 4th through 8th grade drama at a public magnet school for the arts in Akron, OH.  My students come in as adorable munchkins and depart as almost grown young men and women, and I can assure you that their journeys through puberty have been anything but a slow and steady march forward in unison.  They grow in fits and starts and two steps backwards then great leaps forward and so on.

Our school was created with federal grant money.  Ten magnet schools were formed  in Akron Public Schools.  Our school is the only one that survived and succeeded beyond expectations!  From the beginning, our founders had a clear vision of using the power of the arts to transform academic instruction.  Our teachers, both arts and academic, have had continual professional development in arts integration, incorporation of Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence theory in lesson design, and in collaborative processes such as project based learning and consensus-building.  Our school has been consistently at the top with test scores, while not spending time teaching to the tests.

All that has changed with the Race to the Top mandates.  All of our carefully developed unique curricula based upon arts integration must be set aside for the Common Core, a set of standards written without input from teachers, never field-tested and put into place at the same time that the new teacher evaluation system goes into effect.  We are being told -- your district/school/teacher/student “grade” is going to be lower this year.  No kidding!  Give students a standardized test on a brand new set of standards being taught for the first time and yes -- it’s a good bet that grades will go down.

At our Open House this fall, parents with kids currently in private schools were asking, “How many standardized tests will 4th graders in your school be taking next year?”  The answer is ten standardized tests in one year.  Most of those tests won’t be to help teachers assess students, but rather for the state to collect data on our students and our teaching, as if there is a way to quantify quality teaching via correct answers on a multiple choice fill-in-the-bubble test.  And by the way, those parents who asked how many tests responded very negatively to the idea of fourth graders taking ten sets of tests throughout the school year.

Now all teachers must go through a huge expensive waste of time process to make sure we are all being equally humiliated.  We must make up our own “student learning objectives” and come up with a way to collect data to prove we are moving our students one year forward every year even in subjects like gym and drama.  We must come up with these plans and carry through with them, even as precious class time is taken away in shortened class periods to accommodate “professional learning circles” and when students are pulled from our rooms to take computerized tests.

Teachers must now undergo two evaluations every year plus four “walk-throughs”, whereas before when a teacher achieved tenure that meant one evaluation every three years.   I am open to re-thinking the teacher evaluation process.  I would like to see exit reviews from both parents and students as a piece of it, as well as a more thoughtful rather than regimented principal review process.  A beginning teacher would need more mentoring and observing while veteran teachers who are experts in their fields should be allowed to do what they do best -- teach! 

What has to go is the Value Added nonsense.  A teacher in our building received a score of Ineffective because her students scored 94% this past year on math compared to a score of 95% the year before.  How can scores from two different groups of students ever be compared in any sort of fair way?  No two classes are the same and each class has varying combinations of positives and deficits.  And how absurd anyway, that the teacher is labelled “ineffective” when her class scored way above the district and state average in 4th grade math!

I have never seen morale so low in our building.  We used to be proud arts and academic integrationists, leading the way in developing those 21st century skills that the arts are famous for:  collaboration, creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, personal and social responsibility.  Now everyone is fearful for their jobs, worried about their careers.  Teachers still in their prime are retiring in droves.  I thought I could go until I was 72 and was going to the gym twice a week to stay in shape to keep up the vigor needed to teach middle school drama.  Now I wonder if I’ll make it to the end of this school year. 

I hope you find the courage to look critically at the results of actions taken by your Department of Education.  If you want to “fix” education, look to take action against poverty and then real strides can take place.


Wendy S Duke
Drama Teacher
Akron, OH


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Amazingly well put! I'm not a teacher but I know as a parent how frustrating it is. My son struggles with his reading and spelling. It's not for lack of trying or deficeny from his teachers or the schools, it just IS. Because of it he tends to test more poorly in all areas. Why should standardized tests be allowed to reflect so ineffectively who he really is, how incredibly smart he is, and not reflect the fact that while he's behind in these areas he makes huge strides every year? And more so, why should his amazing teachers be punished FOR DOING THEIR JOBS??!!

Something has to change.