Letters to Obama: One Teacher Writes
Below is the 98th letter received since this blog began collecting them to send to President Obama on November 2nd. Michelle Newsum describes her school in great detail that reveals the passion and care so many teachers bring to our work. More than 500 teachers have joined the Facebook group in the past month. The first batch of 96 letters was sent to President Obama, but the compilation is growing every week, and can now be downloaded here. Please take the time to read, and add your own voice to this chorus, providing the expertise of classroom practitioners to policymakers who are willing to read and listen.
NCLB and the Race to the Top: One Teacher's Perspective
Charleston was a school with extreme poverty. Traditionally; teachers got their feet wet there, and then took a job at an easier or more prestigious school. In 1987 teachers started trickling in and staying. As newbies, we met in the staffroom after school and discussed our experiences. After a couple years, we were coming to the consensus that the bland, one-size-fits-all curriculum (reading basal, science text and math workbook) wasn't working. Children were not learning. They were certainly not excited about school and learning. It seemed we were killing their curiosity. And we had no buy-in from families.
The staff began to read and discuss professional books. We attended great workshops. We turned Charleston into an incredible community school. Kids were learning to read with great children's literature, they experienced hands-on science, enjoyed music and drama, and math was constructive and meaningful. After 15 years of success, that fishing village's school was closed due to budget cuts (and due to the fact that it's easiest to take from the neediest.)
As a staff, we chose to move to the other school in the district that had an extremely low socio-economic status. We had a taste for making a difference for the kids who need it most. Even once NCLB was hurled at us, we managed to keep our test scores at acceptable (to the feds) levels without becoming the test-prep factory that so many schools across the nation had become. It's a great school. Many of us bring our own children here. Teachers here spend thousands of dollars on their classroom libraries, and lovingly display the books much like a high-end bookstore, they respect individual differences and interests, and they are passionate about this profession.
Then the feds told Oregon to change our passing level on our standardized test from 201 to 204. As a Washington teacher once said, "If you can jump four feet, they can move the bar to four feet one inch." Not surprisingly, we started having difficulty meeting the new testing standard. We haven't met AYP for two years in the area of special education. The federal government is taking away our funds and employing punitive and shaming sanctions. This means my most struggling learners won't receive additional one-on-one help from a trained teacher assistant. The government will, however, give us money for professional development "of their choosing" which, as it turns out, is the same training from textbook companies we received to teach the stale, basalized, boring curriculum I taught in '88. Sadly, it's a huge, counter clockwise circle. It's great money for the big textbook and test publishers, but it is soul-killing for children and teachers.
I'm sure the founding fathers never meant the federal government to control our schools in this way. I'm glad President Obama's daughters attend a school that is unaffected by NCLB and AYP, but other children deserve the same.
When you have a group of creative, dedicated teachers who want to work with our neediest population, who take great joy and pride in the opportunity, it seems a shame to beat them down, demoralize and attempt to standardize them. It's not what I want for the children in my family; it's not what I want for the children in my care; it's not what I want for any child.
Michelle Newsum, Oregon
What do you think of Michelle's experience? Does it resonate with your own? What does it tell us about education policy?
Ed note, Dec. 2: See a related discussion in the Teacher forums section, "Is the Obama Administration Listening to Teachers?"
image by Michelle Newsum