Education letter to the next President. . .

Scott McLeod—one of my favorite writers and the mind behind Dangerously Irrelevant—tagged me the other day to join in an edublogger effort to write a letter to the next president before Tuesday’s election.

A part of a larger, joint effort between the National Writing Project and Google, Scott sees this as an opportunity to share our “thoughts, wishes and concerns” with a broader audience.

Being a strong believer that blogs are the great equalizer—allowing teachers to have a real voice in conversations about education—this is a project that is right up my alley.  In fact, a few years back, I crafted a piece with similar themes.  With the magic of revision, I updated that entry this morning. 

Here’s to hoping that Mr. Obama or Mr. McCain actually care enough to listen:

November 2, 2008

Dear Mr. Soon-to-be-President,

I’m a teacher and I’m tired.

Does that surprise you?  Do you find it hard to believe that a guy who works “only 180 days a year” can be wiped out by November?  Is it hard to believe that teaching can be exhausting?

It shouldn’t.

On top of the daily challenge of planning, instructing, assessing, remediating, and enriching to meet the individual needs of the 85-plus children that roll through my classroom each day, I wrestle with the constant mental pressure applied by a country caught in the grips of a “crisis mentality.”

Each new week seems to bring headlines highlighting a major flaw that needs to be addressed by teachers immediately.  In the past few months alone, I’ve read articles about alarming rates of high school dropouts, the urgent need for schools to begin comprehensive sex education immediately, the importance of including hormone free cheese on pizzas served as school lunches, the fact that schools tend to fail adolescent girls more than adolescent boys, and (ironically enough), the fact that schools tend to fail adolescent boys more than adolescent girls.

My all-time favorite crisis:  A passionate plea from a group called Project CLEAN explaining how bathroom hygiene is directly connected to flagging rates of student achievement:  “If a school can’t do a simple thing like keep soap in a dispenser, how can it hope to teach students self-respect or inspire them to greater academic achievement?  This is a national disaster and I think we ought to do something about it.”

These guys have even gone as far as to create a restroom checklist that includes 39 different action steps that school principals should take to ensure that their schools succeed!

Schools are called failing and troubled and distressed.  They’re described as dismal places with lazy educators who can’t be counted on to move America forward.  They’re treated with scorn by members of nearly every political party and every important stakeholder group in our nation.

Heck, during the campaign season, even YOU were disparaging schools, Mr. Soon-to-be-President!

Mr. McCain, you’ve argued that schools are places that seek “to avoid genuine accountability and responsibility for producing well-educated children.”  And Mr. Obama—while I find less negativity towards schools in your education platform, you seem to suggest that schools aren’t always preparing students properly for the future in comments like these:  “We’ll teach our students not only math and science, but teamwork and critical thinking and communication skills, because that’s how we’ll make sure they’re prepared for today’s workplace.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the constant state of panic over education has just plain worn me out!

And that surprises me because I work in an incredibly accomplished school in one of the top urban districts in America.  Wake County’s SAT scores are well above the state and national average, the number of students in advanced placement classes has risen consistently year after year, and over 90% of our students demonstrate mastery on their end of grade exams.

Clearly, good things are happening in our corner of the world.  Because of our proven success, teachers in our system should be able to move forward in confidence.

Yet warning bells are constantly sounding across our country.  Activists demand a “renewed focus” on the part of educators and administrators.  Elected officials campaign on promises to “reform education” and “restore America’s competitive edge again.”  Parents fret over the fear that their child is being “academically neglected.”

And where does the responsibility for addressing each of these issues inevitably seem to end up falling?

In the true spirit of Will Rogers, Ronald Reagan and the trickle-down theory, right on the shoulders of classroom teachers!

Now don’t get me wrong.  I can see the value in each of the areas of focus listed above.  Who would argue against closing the achievement gap, increasing high school graduation rates, ensuring that boys AND girls succeed in school, or teaching healthy living and eating habits?  And—as sarcastic as I may seem—even I would love to see conscientious students with an awareness of the importance of restroom hygiene!

What I am saying is that bearing up under the weight of each new national crisis is becoming more and more difficult for me each year.  As my close friend and mentor Nancy Flanagan once told me, we’re being asked to work towards goals that are “simultaneously important and impossible to reach.”

Subtly, the message is being sent that if teachers would work harder, America’s “educational crisis” could be solved.  If only all teachers were “highly qualified,” we’d lead the world again.  If only all teachers held “advanced degrees in the subjects they were teaching,” we wouldn’t fall behind China, Japan and India in engineers and scientists.  If only we could recruit “our best and our brightest” to our nation’s classrooms, no child would be left behind.

I think successfully educating all children in America requires something more than sounding warning bells and asking teachers to “pull up their boot straps” time and again.  For me, improving education means being willing to significantly rethink how “school” is done in our country.

What if we extended the school day or year to take into account the ever expanding curriculum that we expect students to master?  What if we experimented with electronic learning to extend opportunities or to provide remediation?  What if we emphasized critical thinking rather than standardized testing in our assessment programs?  What if we lowered class sizes and increased access to technology for all students?

What if we provided more time for teachers to collaborate with one another or to master new instructional strategies and skills?  What if we raised teaching salaries to compete with the private sector jobs that lure accomplished educators away from our classrooms?  What if we created a menu of compensation packages that appealed to teachers at different points in their careers or stratified the profession, providing opportunities to advance?

What if we renewed America’s war on poverty and guaranteed economic opportunity for all of our citizens?

I know what you’re thinking:  “These are the policies I’m proposing, Bill.”

Forgive my skepticism, but I’ve been around classrooms long enough to doubt.  You see, as a teacher and a citizen, I believe in our public schools and their mission.

I just can’t handle the next great crisis alone!

Respectfully,

Bill Ferriter

6th Grade Teacher