My colleague, Anthony Cody, has touched the hearts of many teachers around the country with his call for us to write President Obama and Secretary Duncan to express our concerns over the direction of U.S. education policy thus far under this Administration. The responses both on his blog (Living in Dialogue at Teacher Magazine) and on the new Teacher’s Letters Facebook page are genuine and wrenching. Of particular concern to teachers, including me, is the persistent marginalization of practicing educators in the development and implementation of education policy, particularly those educators who have proven themselves effective, committed, and innovative. On the one hand, I salute your affirmation of the importance of teacher and administrator quality in education. That knowledge, however, has yet to be transferred into policy or practice. The Race-to-the-Top Initiative, for example, while bringing a much needed cash infusion to state and local school budgets, reveals a distressingly limited view of what teacher quality is or how to measure it. As noted in a recent Education Week article:
Amy Wilkins, of the Washington-based Education Trust, said the [education] department’s single-minded focus on teacher effectiveness—based largely on student test scores—leaves out a large swath of teachers: those in the early grades, who teach untested subjects, and in high schools.
The department ignores other factors that contribute to teacher quality, such as experience, teachers’ college majors, scores on licensure exams, and certification status, said Ms. Wilkins, the vice president of government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, which advocates on behalf of low-income and minority students.
Likewise, I am encouraged that the DOE chose to keep the Teaching Ambassadors Fellowship Program, which selects a small but talented pool of thirteen classroom teachers to serve for one-year working either within the Department or as consultants to it in various areas. In the program’s overview, the leadership acknowledges the lack of teacher voice in national policy:
Teachers perform many vital leadership activities at the local level, but, too often, they lack opportunities to contribute to the development of education policy on a broader scale. The U.S. Department of Education designed the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship to enable outstanding teachers to learn about and bring their expertise to the national dialogue about education and in turn to facilitate the learning and input of other educators into education policy.
However, I am puzzled by the limited number of persons within the DOE, particularly at the senior level, with experience as highly effective or accomplished practitioners in public education. I would think that demonstration of the ability to close the achievement gap, to consistently do the complex work of teaching all students well, would be among the requirements needed to hold a top position in the federal agency that oversees education.
These are just two examples of the contradictions between what the Administration has said about change in education, and what has been the practice thus far. As the decision around reauthorization of ESEA looms, I grow increasingly concerned that these contradictions will lead to a continuation of bad policy rather than real change. Most of my problems with NCLB come from its Draconian implementation. Though it had some good intentions; NCLB is poorly conceived and has been used to dilute curriculum, manacle teachers, and humiliate students—exactly the opposite of what education should be. Much of this collateral damage could have been avoided had we not gone down the path of distrusting teachers and uncritically accepting quick and dirty ways of measuring teachers’ work.
At the community college where I now work, the faculty recently investigated the writing skills of our incoming freshman over a six year period that paralleled the development of our state’s language arts testing for public school students under NCLB. Our disturbing conclusion, borne out by hundreds of student writing samples as well as college entrance exam scores, confirmed that as the testing program accelerated, student performance correspondingly declined. A greater percentage of our incoming students exiting the public schools need remediation since the enactment of NCLB than before. Equally distressing is the disillusioning effect that this test focused culture has had on teachers and the chronic critical teacher shortages in the schools whose students were already significantly underserved. Scores of dedicated and talented teachers who want to work in high needs schools face unnecessary penalties for doing so. Not since the Brown decision, has a Federal action done so much damage to the education of those it was intended to help.
The good news is that your administration is young, and there is still time to make adjustments away from the failed policies and practices of the past. You have set a high standard for purposeful listening, for meaningful dialogue, and for thoughtful action. There are accomplished educators all across this nation who can help develop and implement truly effective educational policy. I urge you to draw more deeply on this important national resource. Sincerely, Renee Moore