Federal Opinion

A One-Sided Dialogue: Teacher Frustration Leads to Protest

By Anthony Cody — June 22, 2011 5 min read
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We are just over a month from the Save Our Schools March on Washington, DC, and I have been asked how we got to this place, where we are motivated to protest. So here, with links to relevant posts from this blog, is the story, from my perspective as one frustrated teacher.

In September of 2008, I posted blogs about the education platforms of candidates McCain and Obama.

I did not endorse Obama publicly on my blog, but I organized a fundraiser of educators, and knocked on doors in my neighborhood with campaign literature.

A year after the election, in November of 2009, I had grown very dissatisfied with the direction the Department of Education had taken. Race to the Top doubled down on many of the worst aspects of No Child Left Behind, demanding that states increase stakes attached to standardized tests in order to qualify for funding. I posted an Open Letter to President Obama, and created a Facebook group called Teachers’ Letters to Obama, to collect additional letters from others. In the next two months, more than a hundred letters were collected. I shared a number of the letters as blog posts here, including these:

Teachers From Across America Write to Obama

Teachers Letters Reveal Our Reality: Is Obama Listening?

Teachers Blog their Letters to Obama

Letters to Obama: One Teacher Writes

Is This Really Reform? A Teacher Writes

Letter #103: Bring Me All Your Dreams

Jesse is Walking to Washington

The entire collection of letters was published here, and copies were sent to President Obama and Secretary Duncan. I heard nothing from the White House, but got back a polite thank you letter from someone at the Department of Education. But no substantive response was heard, until one of the members of our group, Marsha Ratzel, made a connection with someone in the Department of Ed, who set up a phone call for our group with Secretary Duncan himself. We spent a couple of months discussing what we wanted to tell him, as a group, and selecting a dozen representatives from around the country. The phone call was, however, an exercise in frustration. You can imagine a dozen people, each one with a burning need to communicate, and such a short time available. We shared our ideas as best we could, but there was no meaningful response.

We spent last summer engaged in more discussions about what we wanted instead of current policies. I offered a Teachers’ NEWPrint for reform as an alternative to the Department of Education’s Blueprint for the reauthorization of ESEA. We came up with Seven Principles to guide reauthorization, which we sent to members of Congress.

In November of last year, I engaged in an extended dialogue with a Teacher Ambassador Fellow from the Department of Education, and described our continued frustration over their policies.

I again pointed out the mismatch between Secretary Duncan’s words and the Department’s policies.

In December I carried a guest blog from a Florida teacher who wrote encouraging teachers to march on Washington. I decided that he was right, and it was time to get involved. So I joined up with Jesse Turner and others working on the march. I carried letters like this one, from a former teacher named Peggy Robertson : Are you there Mr. President? Madison is Calling.

March of this year was rather strange. The month began with President Obama sharing the stage in Florida with former governor Jeb Bush, whom he described as a “champion of education reform.” l

This, unfortunately, was largely consistent with the administration’s policies.

At the end of the month, however, President Obama surprised us all with comments at a town hall that undermined his own policies. He said:

Too often what we've been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we've said is let's find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let's apply it in a less pressured-packed atmosphere; let's figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let's make sure that that's not the only way we're judging whether a school is doing well. Because there are other criteria: What's the attendance rate? How are young people performing in terms of basic competency on projects? There are other ways of us measuring whether students are doing well or not.

I asked teachers and parents to offer letters to President Obama asking him to bring his policies in line with these beliefs. We created a petition, and as of today, more than 1,600 have signed it. We have collected more than 200 messages expressing our views, and sent them to the President and First Lady, and to Secretary Duncan. They are available for download here.

I also challenged President Obama to bring his Department of Education into line with his own beliefs. This prompted a somewhat heated exchange with the Department, who insisted that Duncan and Obama were “on the same page.” I followed up with some questions addressing what I viewed as the disconnect, and my blog carried the Department of Education responses. This blowup was covered in the pages of the New York Times.

In my concluding post about this exchange (The Department of Education Cannot Unring the Bell Obama Struck) I did my best to summarize the key ways in which President Obama’s own beliefs are undermined by his Department of Education’s policies.

In May came Teacher Appreciation week, which led Secretary Duncan to offer up his Open Letter to America’s Teachers. I posted my own response immediately, and then also reported on the response from others that poured in wherever the letter was posted, including the Department of Education’s own web site. This response was noted in the New York Times, which at last acknowledged that there is a genuine debate over the future of our schools.

This month, I posted a blog drawn from the more than 200 messages teachers and parents submitted related to President Obama’s comments on March 28. These reflected a deep frustration with the way teacher support has been taken for granted by this administration. We are now just over a month away from the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC. This is our chance to show where we stand, with our voices and our physical presence. We will gather on the Ellipse, in the front yard of the White House. We will hear leaders like Diane Ravitch, Jonathan Kozol, Deborah Meier and Pedro Noguera, and supporters like Matt Damon join together to march around the White House. Our message will be clear. We want our public schools to be fully supported, not undermined. We want our schools, teachers and students honored for real learning, including creative arts, history, science and civics - and we want an end to the practice of attaching ever-higher stakes to standardized tests.

It has been a long journey, from the time almost three years ago when I joined with millions of teachers in supporting the candidacy of Barack Obama.
I have sought dialogue every step of the way. When the Department of Education said they wanted our ideas, we spent months developing solutions rooted in our experiences in the schools. We have gone too far down this road to be ignored now. We will be at the White House on July 30th. Will we be heard?

What do you think of this journey? Will you march in DC on July 30th? What will your message to President Obama be?

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.