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Teachers from Across America Write to Obama


Three days ago I posted this open letter to President Obama, asking him to take a closer look at the education policies being enacted by his administration. I invited people to add their own messages to President Obama in the comments, and set up a Facebook group for this purpose as well. Thus far 35 people have posted their thoughts in those places, and 163 have joined the Facebook group. Here is a sample of what is being said:lettersmembers.jpg

Teaching is the only profession I can think of where the experts (the teachers) are not the ones driving the reforms/formulating the policy.
Instead we have the people who fled the classroom and spent the majority of their careers telling those of us who remained in the classroom how to be better at what they fled.

That would be like the guy who worked on cars for 2-3 years leaving the oil pit and spending the next 30 years telling mechanics how to fix your car. Who knows more about fixing your car? The one who quit fixing them?...or the one who stayed and did it year after year after year?


Teachers need to be the ones at the table - telling Congress what we need for them to do. Please pardon me for saying this - we teachers need to be telling you what we need for you to do. NOT the folks who taught for a couple of years and left to go on to decide policy the rest of their careers - but those of us who stuck with it and learned from our years of experience and advanced study.

Kelly Meuller, Missouri

Remember that policy levers (RTTT grants, pay for performance, national standards and tests, alternate entry into teaching, non-standard school governance models, and mandating high-tech statistical analysis of achievement) are merely things that policy-makers can do. We can expect those things to shift the balance of decision-making power. But we cannot and should not expect policy creation to shift actual classroom practice or change our mindset from "punishment" to "investment." Reaching our potential will never happen unless and until instructional practice--what happens between teachers and their students--radically changes.

Nancy Flanagan, Michigan

The most important thing I can teach is critical thinking. That isn't assessed on the standardized tests we use in our state achievement tests. Since we have had to teach to these tests there isn't as much time for teaching higher-level t...hinking. Also, creativity has fallen by the wayside. Creative thinking exercises are as important as ever, yet, there is no emphasis placed on giving students creative opportunities.

I hope President Obama will deliver on his promises and listen to those of us who are on the "front lines." Administrators and politicians really have no idea what we do. They don't realize that so many of us live to teach. Teachers need to be listened to and heard. Law makers need to support us so that we can support our students and give them what they need to be contributing citizens.

Roberta Zivanov

Those teachers we so fondly recall are still there, but now they are restricted by a system that instructs teachers to remove the creative process and instead teach their students to "critically" analyze between a set of possible responses to a given question and learn to recognize which of four possibilities is more correct than the other. So teachers have become coaches that reinforce strategies based on a formula that two of the responses will likely be ridiculously errant, while the two remaining possibilities will have a semblance of correctness, yet one answer is more perfect than the other, and it is the student's task to spot the more correct answer and make that selection.

When I was learning, the best lessons were the ones where the teacher through his/her initiative would inspire in the student the importance of the subject matter while challenging the student to develop the lesson further through the students own enterprise.

Albert Pardo

On the subject of merit pay,
I would simply remind you that while some teachers have students who come to school prepared to take on the rigors of learning, others are not so well-prepared. Can we consider merit pay when it doesn't take into account the hand a teacher is dealt? I am reminded of the "Blueberry Story"---about a businessman (a business dealing with fresh fruits) who thought he could run schools just like a business, only to be reminded by a teacher, that, when HE receives a batch of blueberries that are not up to his standards, he can refuse to take them, teachers take each of these blueberries (students) as they come, with all their differences (ADHD, ADD, Autism, Asberger's, OCD, ODD, low/high IQs, etc.) and take each one as far as we can.

Jacque Verrall, Washington

I hope that President Obama would push for educational policies that mirror the private school education (Sidwell Friends) his daughters enjoy. Many politicians send their children to this school. Is Sidwell caught up in a testing frenzy? I have a relative who also attends this school and I've never heard any mention of the school curriculum focus being on improving test scores. Why is the Sidwell model not the model for public education?

Sigrid Wurthman

I respect your goals for education and the level of engagement you had on this topic while working in Chicago. But I am concerned that the approaches you are using will throw the baby out with the bath water. In attempting to reform education, much of the emphasis seems to be on YOUNG teachers as role models for what is right. I urge you to work more closely with veteran teachers who are successful with high-risk students. These teachers have been through the high-energy, ultra-involved phase that young teachers experience, but have avoided the burnout that leads many new teachers to give up in frustration. The oft-cited culprit for burnout is "the system;" but the goal of changing the ENTIRE system lacks focus, and therefore support, from some of the more experienced educators. Listening to successful long-term educators, in addition to younger teachers, would give the Education Department an idea of how to triage the areas of public education in need of attention. It would also avoid organized opposition to reforms.

Adrienne Mooney Karyadi

What do you think of these views? Will you add your own voice to the dialogue with President Obama?


Teaching math, science, etc to high standards is necessary and needs to be done well. Yes, students will still need to learn basic facts and processes because they need them as tools and guides to thinking. For example, they learn to read so that they can read to learn.

We want our students to know facts, but not as an end. We want them to be able to apply them to solving problems. Facts are becoming increasingly easy to look up – provided we know how and where to look.

Content and skills are not an end, but rather a means. They are tools and vehicles for students to apply if they are to meet and successfully address the multiple challenges of the 21st century.

Students need to learn (and we need to be able to teach them) how to critically and creatively think about what facts they are learning. And further, they need to learn (and we need to learn how to teach them) how to apply what they learn.

Knowledge is power. But real power lies in applying knowledge.

So, policy makers ... can you address this 21st century reality as you reform education for the 21st century?

I would like to see the rights of the learner become more closely protected. Too often in classrooms the "rights" of the disruptive student (who frequently falls into the special education category) overrides the "rights" of the regular education student who really wants to learn. Teachers frequently find themselves unable to teach because students who have no desire to succeed are forced into their classrooms because of policy. We spend hours on end trying to make these non-learners successful while the students who want to learn are being ignored or pushed aside. My own daughter sits in classes where she cannot focus due to disruptive emotionally disturbed students in her class who are being mainstreamed due to policy. The teacher is frustrated, the students are frustrated, and everyone's safety is at stake. Policy needs to be written that will protect the right to have an uninterrupted learning environment for the students who are college-bound.

I'm deeply concerned about the lack of change in educational policy in the past year. The Race to the Top exacerbates the problems we've seen in NCLB, and makes it abundantly clear that while teachers are supposed to embrace accountability and data, that idea does not apply to politicians and pundits. Their zeal for performance pay and charter schools plays on understandable dissatisfaction with the status quo, but relies on mistaken assumptions that are not sufficiently supported in research. I keep hearing the right words from Duncan and Obama, and I even see some efforts to open channels of communication. However, every policy move seems to confirm that what we say doesn't really matter. Good luck with those education reforms when you've alienated and hamstrung the people who actually do the real work of educating.

Mr. Obama,
I feel betrayed. I knocked on Vermont doors in the cold winter months, because I thought you were authentic. The educational change that you said we could believe in, along with our faith in you, was lost when Mr. Duncan became your education Secretary. It is becoming ever more obvious that you and Mr. Duncan are working with Big Business to destroy public education. Race to the Top and SMHC are scams to sell tests and sell out a democratic public education system. How about another "change" to correct your mistakes, before it is too late?

We keep saying "reform education" as if that is the whole enchilada. I know teachers extremely talented and dedicated, working long hours, giving it their all, and it is still not enough. Scores are still low because students in high poverty are coming to us lacking the enrichment, experiences, safety, and opportunity for themselves and their parents that is a given for middle America. Let us spend our energy, money, and legislative policies on economic development in high poverty neighborhoods instead of spending money on prisons. Let us reform the prison industrial complex, which frankly, is a far bigger mess. We keep all this focus on education and RARELY do we talk about what keeps our students and their families mired in poverty. Let us provide opportunities to make a legitimate living instead of the high poverty, racist, segregation that leads to imprisoning people of color, and creating a domino effect of intergenerational, cyclical poverty.

I have been teaching in the public schools for 27 years and have seen many "changes" and "school reforms" come and go. Many had great potential and from those I kept what I could use. Having originally worked in research, I see one major problem blocking the success of any reform efforts. Those at the top decide that a new educational reform will make things better. They send teachers to a 1 or 2 day workshop and send them back to the classroom to "go do it". Cardiac surgeons would never be shown a video of a drastically new way of doing heart surgery and then sent out to operate on patients. It takes many hours of observing and practicing a new method of teaching before a teacher feels comfortable with it. Without that degree of training, many teachers, when faced with a room full of students, simply fall back on what they are comfortable with and things never really change. I've seen this happen many times over the years. After a while, the administration concludes that the new program isn't working and brings in another one which is also doomed to failure. Threats will not change anything and the lure of extra money isn't likely to have a much greater effect. Better training for teachers in the classrooms, both greater quantity and quality training, is the answer.

Dear President Obama,
I have the utmost respect for you in your view and actions regarding civil rights in many areas. I am therefore disappointed that your administration appears to be taking a path that is actually diminishing the civil rights of an entire and vital segment of our population, K-12 students. Specifically, we continue to speak of school "reform" as though high-stakes testing, merit pay and the like are the answer. They are not, and research bears this out. For a shining example of what research tells us are the characteristics and practices of successful middle schools, please ask someone to read and report on the brand new edition of "This We Believe," created by the National Middle School Association. You will find words and phrases like challenging, creative, integrative, and student voice. This is what works. Research confirms this.
At a time when China has recognized the futility of rote instruction and high-stakes testing and is moving rapidly toward an educational model more closely resembling NMSA's than what our government is currently promoting, we owe it to not only our children but also ourselves to step back, take a deep breath, and think about what we're doing and where it is taking us. For I predict our children will indeed be left behind if we continue down our current path - far, far behind.
Thank you for your time and for all you do.
Bill Ivey

Dear President Obama,
If you want to make public education better, focus on two things: infrastructure and teacher quality. Make our buildings safer, cleaner, and better suited for learning. (I have a frequent leak in my room that drips poop water from the ceiling.) Also, encourage and reward teachers for developing themselves as professionals, by supporting programs like National Board Certification. If you focus your/our energy and resources in these two areas, you will see a change.
Thank you,
Katy Wright

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