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Teachers' Letters Reveal Our Reality: Is Obama Listening?


Ten days have passed since I posted my Open Letter to President Obama. The Facebook group, Teachers' Letters to Obama, has grown to more than 300 members. Scores of teachers have posted their own passionate and insightful letters. I am compiling them all, and in a few days will have them delivered to the White House and Department of Education. Please come join us and share your own reality. The policymakers need to hear from us!

Unfortunately, this town, like many of the overlooked small towns in the nation, is suffering. With the state of the economy this year, what little industry that was here has been closed or has been forced to lay off a large number of employees. So, the small number of jobs is getting smaller. I have not seen any benefit of stimulus money, only more people jobless, fewer opportunities to find work, and high budget and salary cuts in the school system. The only people who can help the economy have been hurt the most: the average working citizens. These are the taxpayers who fund the school systems and the welfare that their neighbors live off of. The community is crumbling. How are extra regulations, standardized tests, and improvement-based funding going to relieve this problem? They will not, and cannot. We need new methods to build community stability and therefore enhance the county's educational system.

I continue to be concerned with "merit pay." I work in an urban school which has been dealt many blows. Now, my immediate neighborhood has become more impoverished and we are serving almost 95% of our students FREE breakfast and lunch. On top of that, I am teaching in a special ed. kindergarten class. My students may never meet the critical mark forced upon us by the state. Does that mean I do not teach them? NO, but I have to teach them at the level they are at... I can't expect them to compose a sentence if they can not even write their name on a paper. My fear is that the current policies are going to punish teachers who choose to teach in my position because the population they teach is not ready to meet the standards that "someone" has set in place. What is to become of schools like mine? Chances are, quality teachers will be run off to districts that have a chance, and the students in my district will continually have new and inexperienced teachers.
I have been unhappy in my career path in the past few years because I feel that the TEST is all that we do. I have no freedom to teach my students about cultures, diversity, or community because I have to be teaching 2 hours of reading from the prescribed curriculum, math from the prescribed curriculum, and still expect exemplary behavior (without any time to teach and review it). My students now are not leaving my class any smarter than they did when I had more freedom to teach what they needed, while sneaking in a little fun and excitement. In fact, I think they are suffering because there is no magic left in my class...all there is are the TEXTS... which we have to use in order to improve test readiness.

I have taught young children for 14 years, and am appalled at the direction that education seems to be taking. My preschool students are mostly small town or rural children of poverty. I try to provide them with a nurturing environment which will stimulate their natural curiosity, love of learning and enjoyment of school. In recent years, kindergarten has become increasingly regimented, with little time for social interaction and much time spent working at tables or being lectured to.

The mandates handed down by the federal government do not reflect good practices or understanding of current research regarding how children learn. All this pressure on teachers and children to perform leaves little room for the things that make life and learning worthwhile: creative expression, the excitement of discovery, the joy of learning.
Martha Garner-Duhe, Lafayette, LA

Please allow us to address how the course set by you and Secretary Duncan will not create the future you are working toward in other areas of public policy. We believed you were listening to us. Now, we aren't certain. Allow America's teachers into your circle. Please create a National Forum for the Teacher Voice. We are policy leaders, researchers, authors, and curriculum experts. We work a second job on weekends to make ends meet and then purchase classroom supplies from our own pockets. We know that the high stakes tests that we are doing everything we can to help our students pass actually fail to equip them for jobs for which they must compete in the 21st Century.
Jennifer L. Barnett Teacher, Alabama

Update: Our letters posted here and on the Facebook site caught the attention of a reporter from NPR's Morning Edition, who phoned me a couple of days ago for an interview. The story ran yesterday, and can be downloaded here. He captured a small bit of our frustration, but we have a lot more work to do to get our message out.

What do you think of the perspectives shared here? What is the reality in YOUR school? What do you want our policymakers to know?

Photo by Anthony Cody


Accomplished teaching takes many faces. There are many paths to student learning and achievement. Questions for President Obama from Washington State deserve answers:


We would love a response.

Since the Obama administration first announced the “Race to the Top” fund in July, state governments have been scrambling to position themselves as worthy recipients of grant money. It makes you wonder whether it will all come down to politics. The states that somehow demonstrate they’re the most committed to the Obama administration’s policies will be rewarded. So before schools, teachers and students can receive the funds they desperately need, state governments will have to prove they’re making an effort to reform based on the government’s criteria. This likely means teachers will have to devote more time to onerous, unnecessary and distracting bureaucratic red tape and less time to lesson preparation and instruction.
Please read my blog post on this topic at

A noble effort, Anthony. I've read through the posts you mention. They seem to follow one theme that's common on many (most?) teacher blogs: "I'm unhappy, because ...". That raises three questions:

Why would anyone want to hire a teacher who is unhappy?

What do you and others think policy makers don't know about public schooling? and

What do you want policy makers to do about what teachers say?

As to "no response," you never know who has or will read your blog and what impact that might have.

So, perhaps addressing these questions directly would make teacher influence on public school policy more likely?

I have been in education for over 40 years and still love the children -- even though they are some of the most challenging I have ever taught. They have real learning obstacles to face that cannot be addressed in the 8 hours a day we have them on campus. Many are undocumented, many are parents, many are the sole breadwinners of their families, many come from spotty or no educational background in their home countries, the list goes on. With all this my district has supported this population of students with a high school where there is a teacher:student ratio that affords more individual attention to help the students go from where they are to where they need to be to catch up in their credits while encouraging them to graduate high school and see the possibilites and opportunities of a college education for their future. Now with the new administration and the "Reach for the Top" push, I look and hear a great deal about how I will be judged (appraised) by my students' test scores -- not how much my students grow during the time I have them in my classes. What about holding parents -- or the students themselves responsible for their lack of achievement. Many of the parents of my students have a hands off policy in their childrn's lives -- no accountability for their behavior in or out of school, attendance at school, no checking of homework (or even complaining that homework is even assigned saying that if teacher cannot educate their child in 8 hours, what do they expect the parents to do about it?). You see, education has to be a community effort involving parents who support and value education for their children, students who value and support the need for an education, and the teachers who are there to provide the guidance and direction for a quality education. Education, or lack of it, cannot be placed solely on the shoulders of teachers and schools. It has to be a symphony of all the players who are on the same page to create the finished product. Another issue that the pundits of education seem to forget is that the USA is the only country that educates ALL students (everyone) and takes them without qualification or question to educate -- or try to educate -- without regard to ability, handicap, language, or citizenship -- and we do it for at least 12 years, not as it is in most countries where students have to take tests to see if they can proceed after a certain grade, only educating the upper ability groups. Let's level the field when it comes to comparisons across national boundaries, comparing apples to apples, not apples to oranges, when it comes to comparing results by test scores by countries. My question is when are we in the USA going to stop allowing legislators and congressmen and businessmen the ability to run education when they do not know what is best for schools and students? Just because they went to school does not make them experts on the topic any more than I know how to be a doctor just because I have been to one!

Bob Heiny asks:

"Why would anyone want to hire a teacher who is unhappy?"

I am not sure how to make sense out of this question. I believe most teachers started out with optimism and a sense that they could make a difference in the lives of their students. I think we are hearing from many of these teachers that this has shifted, as education policies and the realities in their schools have changed, and they no longer feel optimistic. So for me, the questio is not "who would hire unhappy teachers," but rather "how can we make svhools happier, more productive places, for teachers and students."

"What do you and others think policy makers don't know about public schooling?"

Speaking for myself, I think policymakers do not seem to know that:

a. Change comes about when people choose it, not when they are coerced or bribed.

b. Teachers are capable of leading school change, but need to be entrusted with some responsibility for this process.

c. The most powerful ways to change school culture and improve student learning involve teachers being given time and the open-ended challenge, and encouraged to collaborate to devise new ways of teaching that work with their students.

d. Standardized test scores measure only one dimension of learning. When all accountability revolves around these scores, and schools are punished for not raising them, schools tend to focus on short term strategies that impoverish the curriculum and rob students of opportunities to think critically, or engage in less tested subjects like science, history, art and music.

e. Teacher pay is too low, but tying pay increases to test scores accentuates the problems described above, and has the potential to undermine collaboration at the school site.

f. Charter schools can be valuable laboratories of innovation, and we can learn a great deal from many of them. But they are not likely to solve the toughest problems faced by schools in challenging areas. They are not a panacea.

g. National standards and a national test to match may fix a few minor issues with NCLB, but they are not likely to correct the fundamental flaws of a regime that bases accountability on multiple choice test scores.

What do you want policy makers to do about what teachers say?

a. Listen.

b. Learn.

c. Realize perhaps the people doing the work have some well-grounded ideas about how it might be done better.

"As to "no response," you never know who has or will read your blog and what impact that might have."

I am not expecting a direct response (though if you are reading, President Obama, we would love to hear from you!). But I certainly hope the blog and Facebook page have some impact, and will be working with others to try to make as big an impact as we can.

"So, perhaps addressing these questions directly would make teacher influence on public school policy more likely?"

Perhaps so. Thanks!

This is a letter I recently transmitted electonically to to President Obama. I also sent it Senator Herb Kohl, Senator Russ Feingold, and Congresman Ron Kind.

I’m contacting you as a professional educator to voice my concern over current policies from the U. S. department of education. I’ve taught in two states in as many decades. My content area is art and I’ve had students ranging in age from four years old through the university level. In 2007 I became the first teacher in the state of Wisconsin to earn National Board Certification in Early through Middle Childhood Art.

I began my teaching career prior to federal policies forcing education to follow a business model. It is this approach that has brought education to its current troubled state. Since the 1980’s I’ve seen a shift in our country’s educational policy that labels students as customers, views an education as a commodity, and measures success with the bottom line of test scores.

As one of the many teachers who went door to door campaigning for President Obama I’m sorry to see Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan is proposing tying teacher pay to test scores. This is the only issue that could make the failed policy of No Child Left Behind worse than it already is. After a decade of test driven education you should be made aware of its impact on students who are children not consumers. They are not developing the ability to be independent thinkers and problems solvers. There is little or no time in the curriculum for in depth study and critical thinking. This is a growing problem in my classroom where lessons and project assignments require students to find creative solutions. This will only get worse if teachers are forced to teach to the test and coach students in testing strategies in order to protect their pay.

In June 2008 I traveled to Japan with the Teachers Program sponsored by the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund. I was there as a guest of the Japanese government to learn about their culture and educational system. I heard members of their education department and members of the government speak of their educational challenges. They were finding that after sixty years of drill and test education their students weren’t growing up to be independent thinkers. They were looking to the traditional educational system of the United States that encouraged student exploration for answers. As I sat in Tokyo and listened I realized NCLB was moving us toward the educational system that Japan wanted to abandon after sixty years. How long will be our country subscribe to the drill and kill method of education that results in students who only think inside the box.

I live in a state that currently has a law prohibiting the use of test scores for teacher evaluation. Unfortunately, the law will have to be repealed if Wisconsin is to compete for the federal Race to the Top Grants. A name that implies education is a horse race. Shouldn’t the educational community work together to solve problems rather than compete for a prize. What incentive would a school district have for sharing their success stories if they are competing with other schools for money? Will successful teaching practices become protected like trade secrets?

Having said all this, I now have some questions and suggestions. If teacher pay is determined by test scores how can someone like me, who teaches a content area not tested, earn merit pay? Will racing to the top result in school days that don’t have time for the arts or anything other than math, science and reading?

This week Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft pledged to spend two hundred million dollars of his foundation’s money to influence educational policy. Only states tying teacher evaluation to test scores can apply for his foundation’s grant money. Once again we have a successful business man guiding education. I wonder if he would allow a successful teacher to tell him how to write computer software or run his company.

If teacher pay is to be tied to test scores I suggest that the policy makers, the President, the Secretary of Education, and Congress have their pay determined by approval ratings. If a person’s job performance is to be reduced to numbers and scores I think merit pay for policy makers is only fair. If, however, those who make the decisions are determined to pay teachers based on merit I’d like the same system that paid millions of dollars in bonuses to Wall Street bankers and brokers who managed to earn their bonuses even after they drove our country into an economic disaster not seen since the Great Depression. That’s a merit system I could embrace.

During the Bush years we kept hearing that teachers should be held accountable. I agree with that but if you’re going to hold me accountable there are a few other who need to be held to the same high standard. Shouldn’t policy makers be accountable for keeping our economy strong so my students’ parents are employed? It’s difficult for students to focus on their school work when mom or dad has just lost their job. A strong economy also prevents teacher layoffs and overcrowded classrooms. I recently read some schools in Los Angles have more than forty students in a classroom. Yet when Governor Schwarzenegger signed a bill into law that will require teacher to be evaluated based on test scores Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said it was a, “victory for education”. What’s the Governor’s responsibility for keeping class size down so teachers can meet the educational needs of all students?

My students also deserve a health care system that meets their needs. We’re currently teaching during a flu epidemic and the flu vaccine is yet to make it to our area.

Can we hold parents accountable for spending quality time with there children and limiting their time in front of a television or video game? Can we require that someone spend time with a child reading and encouraging them to get a good education? Can we hold society accountable for respecting and supporting teachers? Can we hold departments of education at the federal and state level along with local school boards for knowing our school year is thirty percent shorter than other industrialized nations? Can we hold them accountable for updating our agrarian calendar that doesn’t give our students enough time in the classroom and paying teachers for an extended school year? Can we hold universities accountable for making professional development available to teachers based on our work schedule?

If you’ve taken time to read this letter you know there are many responsible for educating children. Merit pay implies that teachers currently don’t work hard enough to earn their pay. I invite anyone to visit my classroom and see what I do to prepare lessons and teach art to four hundred and thirty two students in grades pre-Kindergarten through six.

I urge both Arne Duncan and President Obama to read Dr. Yong Zhao's book, Catching Up or Leading the Way. It outlines how we are going down the wrong path with standardized testing, losing our creativity and innovation as a result. Also, President Obama needs to reconsider his choice of Duncan for Secretary of Education. We need an EDUCATOR in the position. There is far too much at stake to not do so. Didn't we learn that lesson with the previous Bush administrations????

I have been an educator for 28 years and have seen many changed during that time. The most prominent change has been parents backing the rude, inappropriate, and disruptive behavior of their child rather than believing the teacher, the professional adult in the situation. There was a time that if a student got in trouble in school, they were in trouble at home. No questions asked.

I have also witnessed the curriculum not only becoming broader so there is more to teach but no time to go in depth, but also moving down. Some items that used to be taught in high school are now taught in middle school and some middle school objectives have moved to elementary. Writing has been the biggest push with this. Children barely have time to learn how to write a sentence correctly before they are expected to write in complete paragraphs. So much has been added to the curriculum, especially math, that there is not time for reteaching. Teachers are forced to decide if they are going to teach the curriculum or teach the child. The curriculum needs to be more focused, with less content but time for reteaching and for going in-depth in the subjects. Covering subjects does not encompass true learning. Students need to be able to go in-depth with subjects so they can create higher level thinking skills.

With the push for closing the achievement gap, the academically gifted student is often left out. These are the students who will shape our future and too often we are short changing them. We need to be sure all schools accommodate these learners. As an intervention teacher I am able to help students who reading below grade level as well as help other subject area teachers learn how to use reading to teach their subject area. But only when there is funding for my position. Reading specialists should be a regular and required position in every middle and high school in the country because there are always students in need of reading support. We need to keep a focus on all learners, not just to close the achievement gap, but to help all students reach their potential.

President Obama, unlike many of the other teachers who have written, I did not support you or your ideas. Unfortunately, you are living up to my expectations. You have taken the Chicago political machine and are trying to recreate it in Washington. Arnie Duncan is not an educator. What makes him qualified to lead the education in our country? Why, in fact, is he leading our educational system? Because he did such a wonderful job in Chicago? We don’t need him to repeat the mediocre ‘successes’ that he had in Chicago with our entire nation! Closing underperforming schools did not address the root of the problems. Those that should be in charge of educational reform should be educators. Politicians and their appointees have had decades of failure. Why not really embrace change and appoint teachers to be in charge of our nation’s education? Remove Arnie Duncan and appoint an experienced, National Board Certified teacher. At the same time, stop allowing businessmen to use their money to force educational change. I applaud Bill Gates and his willingness to support education, but he is not an educator. For true reform, he should collaborate with proven effective educators to ensure reform that will have a positive impact on student learning. Collaborate with teachers such as Anthony Cody, Dr. Jeffery D. Wilhelm, Nancy Atwell, Kelly Gallagher, and the many hundreds of National Board Certified teachers. Collaborate with teachers from both sides of the country as well as the middle.

Many teachers have written very eloquently regarding issues that need to be addressed. I hope you will begin to live up to your words of change and put educators in the forefront of education reform. Give those with the knowledge the chance to apply their knowledge rather than listening to politicians who truly do not know what they are talking about in regards to education, as well as other issues. Teachers are intelligent and creative. I believe that if teachers are in the forefront of educational reform, with no politics involved, fabulous changes will occur. Give us a chance!

I read about the need for excellent teachers and best practices, but no one mentions teaching future teachers about the way the brain learns and stores memories and how teaching approaches can replicate that process for better understanding and retention. Dr. Joan Fulton taught courses at Radford Univ. a quarter century ago in the Cognitive Process of Instruction. It is easy to introduce into a classroom, and you often hear about its patterns years after former students have left your grade level.

I read about the need for excellent teachers and best practices, but no one mentions teaching future teachers about the way the brain learns and stores memories and how teaching approaches can replicate that process for better understanding and retention. Dr. Joan Fulton taught courses at Radford Univ. a quarter century ago in the Cognitive Process of Instruction. It is easy to introduce into a classroom, and you often hear about its patterns years after former students have left your grade level.

I read about the need for excellent teachers and best practices, but no one mentions teaching future teachers about the way the brain learns and stores memories and how teaching approaches can replicate that process for better understanding and retention. Dr. Joan Fulton taught courses at Radford Univ. a quarter century ago in the Cognitive Process of Instruction. It is easy to introduce into a classroom, and you often hear about its patterns years after former students have left your grade level.

NCLB/RTTT—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 SES. 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.

Thank you for speaking the truth. I will include your powerful message in those going out.

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