Equity & Diversity Opinion

A Principal Writes to President Obama: Schools do not Need Your Punishment. We Need Your Support

By Anthony Cody — October 16, 2012 6 min read
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As I have shared for the past week, I have volunteered to help Diane Ravitch collect and organize letters for the Campaign for our Public Schools, which will culminate on Wednesday, October 17. All the letters collected by then will be sent to the White House and to the Department of Education. Instructions on how to send a letter are at the bottom of this post.

Today, I received this letter from a Vermont principal. Please read, and then take a few minutes to write a letter of your own.

Dear President Obama,
I am elementary school principal and a former classroom teacher. My mother was a teacher, my mother’s mother was a teacher, and my mother’s mother’s mother and father were both teachers. I am writing to you because I am deeply worried about the fate of the teaching profession, the fate of our public schools, and the fate of our students. Let me tell you why.

Back when I was a classroom teacher, I received a memo from my Assistant Principal addressed to all of the teachers in the testing grades at the school:

With the New York State Language Arts test just five weeks away, the memo read, all teachers need to suspend math instruction and focus solely on literacy. Math instruction can resume after the English Language Arts test.

I ignored the memo, and shut my classroom door and taught math anyway. I felt I had a moral obligation to do so. My students in that South Bronx elementary school were already facing plenty of obstacles ahead of them, and I refused to add to those obstacles by denying them math instruction - or science or social studies - for more than a month.

The same moral obligation I felt then, I feel now. The more I learn and the more I see about the direction public schools have taken across the country, the more upset I become. It is getting harder and harder to sit around and remain silent while I watch our students, teachers, and schools suffer.

I have been trying my hardest to preserve the integrity of our school, our teachers, and our students amid the misguided priorities of your administration. But I know what is going on across the country, and I believe you do too. We are losing our arts and music programs. We are losing recess. When I taught in the South Bronx, the students did not have gym class, because our day was supposed to be focused around the test. We are losing our ability to think creatively and problem solve. This singular focus on test scores, combined with larger and larger classes, means that students are not getting the social and emotional guidance they need from their teacher, who is under tremendous pressure, and is already stretched too thin. Our schools are not producing caring citizens ready for the challenges of the next generation. Instead we are producing test takers who are masters at filling in bubble sheets.

On your watch, the quality and depth of education in schools across the country has deteriorated.

I’m not just worried about the harm being done to the children during their time in our school system, I’m also worried about the children entering schools already damaged, and how the misplaced priorities of our schools only make this worse.

Our childhood poverty rate - 23 percent -- is the second highest among developed nations, after Romania. Science is beginning to shed light how poverty impacts learning. I encourage you to learn more about how the brains of children living in poverty with toxic stress and poor parent attachment look different than brains of children growing up without those stressors. These children struggle to connect with adults. They struggle to control their emotions. They struggle with executive function skills. And they struggle with paying attention and following directions, which shouldn’t be surprising when you learn that research has shown that growing up in these circumstances can significantly impair a child’s working memory.

There are children sitting in our schools who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, I’ve heard you show compassion when discussing PTSD in speeches to veterans. But I want you to just think about this - there are children in our schools, whose upbringings and home lives have altered their brain chemistry in ways similar to those who have served time in combat. That is what the toxic stress of poverty can do.

Now think about what these fragile young minds need to grow up to be responsible and respectful adults. These children need a nurturing, child-centered environment, just like the ones your daughters experience at Sidwell Friends, not the cutthroat, competitive culture of Race to the Top. They need recess, and the arts and extra-curricular activities, not a day full of rote learning and practice tests. They need to feel that school can be the sanctuary they never had.

But instead, we ignore all of the components of a full education that these children need, and we put them into a school that only adds more stress. And how do they respond? They resist. They argue with teachers. Or they just stop showing up all together. Our neediest students are falling further and further behind, and this is not a problem that can get fixed through more tests or national standards.

I imagine that your emphasis on accountability comes from a good place - that you don’t want to see children slip through the cracks. Perhaps there are specific memories and specific children from your time as a community organizer that you think of when you think about improving education. And I respect that.

But let me be as clear as I can about one thing: this intention is harming our students across the country.

If indeed you are motivated by the notion that you don’t want children slipping through the cracks, and that has been your desire to continue with your focus on high-stakes testing accountability, then consider this:

How many kids are slipping through the cracks because their class sizes are bigger than they have ever been before, and they are not getting the level of personal attention they need?

How many kids are slipping through the cracks because school has become a place where only reading and math count, and they never get a chance to develop a passion for anything else, including music or the arts?

How many children are slipping through the cracks because we no longer value creativity, compassion, or critical thinking, and we don’t give our students the chance to fully develop those abilities?

And how many of our children arrive at our schools already having not slipped, but fallen through the cracks, fallen flat on their faces, through no fault of their own? With their brains scrambled like combat veterans? Is more emphasis on testing really what you think they need.

Mr. Obama, our students deserve better. Our teachers deserve better. Our communities deserve better. Please, take a moment to recognize all the damage that is being done to our public schools. Then, let’s move forward. Let’s re-examine the notion that accountability can only exist through an annual exam. Let’s recognize all that our students are losing out on because of our obsession with testing. Let’s stop connecting teacher evaluations and teacher pay to these flawed high-stakes tests, and let’s stop demanding that states seeking an NCLB waiver must do this. Let’s stop blaming teachers. And let’s stop firing staff and closing schools as a way to fix education.

Our public schools don’t need your punishment. We need your support.

Stephen Earley
Newport, Vermont

Here is Diane Ravitch’s call for letters -- from teachers, parents, students, administrators, and citizens who care about schools.

You can add your letter to those being sent by submitting it here, to the Campaign for our Public Schools.

You can also mail copies of your letters through US mail to The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 20500

You can send them directly to the White House by email from this page.

What do you think? Will you add your letter to those being sent? What would you like the president to understand?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.