Teaching Profession Commentary

Teachers’ Letters to Obama

By Anthony Cody — January 19, 2010 5 min read

In November, I accidentally launched a groundswell. I posted an open letter to President Barack Obama online and invited other teachers to join me in speaking out. I was amazed by the response. Other teacher bloggers joined in, and more than 600 signed up for a Facebook group called Teachers’ Letters to Obama. Over 100 eloquent letters have been posted thus far, and more come in every day.

The overwhelming message is that, although we supported President Obama as a candidate and continue to have hope today, we do not feel heard by this administration, and have grave concerns about many of the actions of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

These are not the whines of the ineffective. Many contributors hold National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification and are leaders in their schools. If you want an in-depth window on what committed teachers are thinking, here it is.

On our test-centered accountability system:

“Our schools are struggling to inculcate in students a joy for learning. The rote-memorization, one-size-fits-all scripted programs, and testing-frenzied atmosphere is producing students who may eventually acquire basic skills but may have no interest in novels, no passion for mathematical thinking, and no curiosity about the past or present.

“Middle class parents (who can’t afford private schools) will continue to supplement their children’s education by paying for music and dance classes, instruction in foreign languages, summer science camps, exposure to art and performances, and so on. While such experiences used to be a part of the school day—and should be a part—now there is no time for anything other than reading and math, particularly in schools with low test scores.

“President Obama, do you recognize that these test-driven policies promoted by Arne Duncan will widen the achievement gap into a chasm? That our society will become even more inequitable?”

Elena Aguilar, Oakland, Calif.

“Last year, I had a student from a home for medically fragile children. She was a quadriplegic who could only turn her head about 35 degrees. All other use of her body had been destroyed in a car accident when she was 3. She was 12 last year. She had moved around so much and been sick from her disabilities so often that she was seldom in school consistently. Cognitively, she was normal, but she was at a 1st grade level, not 6th grade. In six months, I took her up 2.5 grade levels, to 3.5 in reading and 4.0 in math. I also made school fun for her, so she wanted to come to school—for the first time in her life! But she had to take the standard test in our state for 6th graders. She failed miserably.

“By the standards that you are setting, I am not a capable teacher. But I challenge you to find any Teach For America young student who could do what I did last year for that girl. Footnote: She has moved back with her family. Once she learned she did not pass the test, she is not going to school anymore.”

Sandee Palmquist, Redmond, Wash.

On the ‘Race to the Top’ initiative and tying teacher pay to test scores:

“Please look at the stakeholders sitting at the table. Testing companies have a vested interest in ensuring that students are subjected to more and more testing.

“The current focus on testing is a dangerous trend that threatens our role in the world as innovators and visionaries.”

Mary Tedrow, National Board Certified Teacher

“What if my students’ scores don’t magically jump to proficient or advanced this year despite my best efforts? Will I suddenly be identified as a ‘bad’ teacher, even though my last evaluator said I was in the top 1 percent of teachers he’d ever evaluated? This is a real question from a real teacher. How can you expect me to thrive if I bring my expertise to one of the most difficult teaching circumstances that can be found, and basically find myself threatened by my government with negative consequences if my best efforts aren’t enough to overcome all of the personal and societal ills of my students?”

Kathie Kienzle Marshall, Los Angeles Unified School District

“I’ll be damned if I teach to a test anymore. While merit pay, on the surface, is very attractive to someone like me—someone who could be making much more money working in a business environment that would probably be less stressful than my teaching job—I firmly believe it should not be tied to test scores.

“Pay me more because I stay after school for hours each week grading papers, tutoring students, working with yearbook editors, directing plays, planning lessons, doing research, and improving my teaching. Pay me more because I’m willing to serve on district committees to improve teaching systemwide. Pay me more because I travel at my own expense each year to conferences and workshops to gain fresh ideas and training to be a better teacher. Pay me more because I call and e-mail parents to update them on their child’s progress. Pay me more because I care enough about the kid whose parents are very suddenly and unexpectedly divorcing that I make sure to cut him a little slack in class and ask him how he is doing.

“Pay me more because I have made my classroom a safe haven, one where students drop in to tell me about their day or to ask for advice on how to deal with a problem in another class. Pay me more because I put my life and soul into this profession, to the detriment of my personal life, because I believe in the teenagers of America.”

Jolie Lindley, Henryville, Ind.

On the need for teachers to be heard in the education policy arena:

“We should also be trying to empower teachers to be leaders in their schools, districts, and beyond. We need those who work most directly with our students to be the change—if it is ever going to truly work.”

Tanya Judd Pucella

“Allow America’s teachers into your circle. Please create a National Forum for the Teacher Voice. We are policy leaders, researchers, authors, and curriculum experts. We work a second job on weekends to make ends meet, and then purchase classroom supplies from our own pockets. We know that the high-stakes tests that we are doing everything we can to help our students pass actually fail to equip them for jobs for which they must compete in the 21st century.”

Jennifer L. Barnett, Alabama

Teachers have been treated as immovable objects in need of enormous policy levers to move us, but these messages reveal a profession hungry for change. That change will be unleashed when we are engaged as active partners in the process, as these letters offer. The full texts of the letters have been sent to President Obama and Secretary Duncan.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2010 edition of Education Week as Teachers’ Letters to Obama


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