Diane Ravitch

Comments and Letters

Page 15

  

October 4, 2010

Ms. Ravitch,

I am a NYC public school teacher and have been following the sad decline of the public school systems around the country.

I read a recent article you wrote and was reminded of my mother in 1957 when I was in eighth grade. Sputnik had just been launched and the PTA had an emergency meeting in my school. All the parents were asked to attend. My mother went and listened as parent after parent called for more math and more science and more academic rigor because otherwise we would never beat the Russians.

When it was my mother’s turn, she called for more classes in ethics and civics because she told the other parents, without a moral compass and civility all the math and science in the world would be useless. She asked “what about art and music?” She was roundly shouted down and asked to leave. I don’t think my mother ever went back to another PTA meeting.

Here we are again — right back in 1957.

I teach pre-k and in my small way I have resisted the pressure of “teaching” children to “write” when they can barely hold a crayon. Instead my class is full of art and music and learning how to get along with each other.

Teachers, parents, and other educators must continue to resist if we are ever to have a true public school system.

Anonymous


 


September 29, 2010

Dear Ms. Ravitch,

I have just finished reading your excellent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Having read several of your earlier works, I was looking forward to excellent scholarship and an authoritative voice on the state of our schools and how they came to that state. What I was not expecting was the inspiration I received by reading, especially the last chapter.

I am particularly encouraged to read that someone with your expertise and knowledge agrees that we need to have a strong curriculum as an essential building block for a successful educational system. When I came to teaching after a first career as an engineer, I assumed that it would be the job of the school district (my employer) to provide me with clear direction as to what I should teach and that it would be my job (as the professional teacher) to work out the details of how to teach.

Sadly, I found exactly the opposite. In 17 years of teaching, I have never been explicitly informed of the educational outcomes expected of my students, or even given so much as a course description for the classes I was assigned to teach. As I planned my instruction, I alone determined the topics I covered and the objectives the students were to meet. On the other hand, the school district has never ceased dictating the most minute details of how I should teach, what technologies and materials I should use, how I should grade, how I should manage my classroom and how I should relate to my students and their parents. I have felt hamstrung by the constant meddling in my practice by administrators who know far less about how to teach than I do. I also feel abandoned by these same administrators who should be communicating to me what it is that the community that pays my salary wishes for the children to learn.

I feel that with such an influential voice as yours sounding this warning, there is perhaps a chance that some people will listen. Your bold challenge to the widespread belief that market forces can shape the educational system we need in this country was excellent. Backed up with your scholarship and credentials, this idea might gain some traction. When it comes from the NEA or some other group within the public school establishment, it is easily discounted.

Thank you for the outstanding work you have done here. I hope that it is the genesis of real change in public education.

David J. Eckstrom


 


September 28, 2010

(A letter to a Congressman and both California US Senators)

As an educator and a constituent, I would like to express my views on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

The premise of NCLB is to hold schools accountable for poor test scores by placing sanctions on schools considered “low performing,” the highest sanction being school closure. You may have heard that NCLB has led to “teaching to the test” and the narrowing of the curriculum (Diane Ravitch’s book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education offers an authoritative account of this), but what I offer in this letter is a first hand account of how the pressure for “low performing” schools to “improve” creates a culture of compliance that stifles teacher growth and stalls student learning.

The high school from which I graduated in 1999 is today considered “low performing.” If at that time, my school were labeled as such, it would not have made sense to me. At school, my teachers demanded that I pass rigorous math tests, read books, and write coherent and grammatically correct essays. At home, my parents demanded that I got these tasks done. Because of the high expectations of my teachers and my parents, I later graduated from UCLA with BAs in English and History.

In 2003, I enrolled in UCLA’s Teacher Education Program. The program promised to prepare teachers to promote “social justice” and “change the world.” In the program, I learned many research based and innovative teaching strategies that made the lofty claims seem possible.

However, when I was hired to teach English at one of UCLA’s partnership schools, a middle school in Los Angeles Unified School District, I could not apply many of the innovative ideas I learned because the district trained me to strictly follow a scripted reading program. The program stressed phonics and word recognition, and not only were books not part of the curriculum, books were not allowed. However, my students who were labeled poor readers were able to decode words, and I intuitively believed that my students only needed more practice in reading, not phonics review. Given the prescribed lessons in letter and word recognition, my students were bored and unruly in class. But I was told in trainings that supplementing the program with a grade-appropriate novel would undermine the program. In the school’s main office, I overheard a heated argument between an administrator and a teacher who insisted that her students read books, or simply read anything outside the phonics-lessons the program required. I interpreted this event as a warning for me, who, based on my students’ boredom and my own common sense, was tempted to disregard the teaching script and have my students read books.

Throughout the year, I attended further professional development in this program. The teachers who conducted the trainings were largely former teachers who were now working for the program’s company. I, and other teachers at the training, raised many concerns about how my students were already able to decode words and felt bored. The chorus of teacher concerns can be summarized in one question: why are we doing this program? My understanding of what the training facilitators told me was that the district, given its “low performing” status under NCLB, was under pressure to show “improvement.” Thus the district bought the scripted reading program and had to comply with the program to justify the dollars spent.

Since teacher expertise was not considered in the district’s decision-making, I am hoping that elected officials with the power to pass education reforms like NCLB will hear what we have to say.

In my first year, I had my students read three novels despite the program’s mandates. That was the only way that I, in good conscience, could make the scripted program work. I was fortunate that my administration did not police teachers daily for compliance since I overheard such was common practice in other schools. Although I managed to teach the reading program, I often struggled to manage the class. Students were bored by my initial attempt to stay faithful to the reading program, I had homeless students who were unreceptive to threats of detention or a low grade, and the students in my class had multiple substitutes in their previous school year and thus, according to my colleagues, it was normal for them to “test” me first. There is nothing new about a young teacher starting out with high goals only to be hard hit by the inherent challenges of conducting a group of children; what is new, and what No Child Left Behind has created, is the constant pressure to comply with outside mandates in a way that stifles teachers from exercising their own judgment and developing professional expertise.

What was further demoralizing to me was that UCLAs Teacher Education Program promoted the idea that we young teachers could “change the world,” and on that basis, TEP required us to be hired at a school where there was at least one other TEP candidate being hired as well. This “pair policy” was developed under the notion that veteran teachers at the schools were “stuck in their ways” and could not support us idealistic newcomers. In reality, the veteran teachers at the middle school were my best resource. They had developed classroom management skills and intervened when unruly students provoked me to the point of tears. They experienced enough district implemented programs that had come and gone to tell me that “this too, shall pass,” referring to the flawed reading program. The veteran teachers gave me hope, but my TEP cohort members, felt too upset with the students or the school in itself to remain at a “low performing” school or in the teaching profession altogether. All who were hired from UCLA in 2004 left within three years, either for a higher performing school or to another profession altogether.

The reason why I raise the issue of veteran versus young teachers is because NCLB requires that all classroom teachers are “highly qualified.” I certainly agree that classroom teachers should have subject matter expertise and classroom experience, but since NCLB has also stigmatized many schools as “low performing,” NCLB also raised the issue that perhaps the “highly qualified” teachers were “low performing.” Hence, many education reformers today embrace merit pay initiatives and the breaking of teacher unions.

But first, let’s examine the NCLB label “low performing.” Who was “low performing” at the middle school where I first taught? Was it the professionals at the district level who implemented a flawed reading program? Was it the teacher I overheard in the main office protesting against it? Was it me who felt the program did not suit the students? Was it the students who were labeled poor readers in the first place? Was it the teachers, or substitutes, who taught those students before me? Like my fellow new teachers from TEP, I left the middle school in 2006, having only taught there for two years. I wonder if my position was replaced by a “higher performing” teacher, or if a series of substitutes served those students until the higher performing teacher was found. Could UCLA’s TEP supply such a teacher? The point I am stressing here is that as elected officials consider education policy such as NCLB, these are the questions that need to be raised, not to mention the most essential question: is high stakes testing and the pressure to show “improvement” improving the learning environments for our children?

Today, I teach at my former high school. It is labeled “low performing,” and it is under pressure to show “improvement.” Every one or two weeks, English teachers are required to administer scantron tests that are written in the district office in an effort to demonstrate “data driven instruction.” As an English teacher, I find the questions on the test poorly worded, but what is appalling about these tests is that they contain errors that do not require a degree in English to notice. Besides typos that throw off questions in grammar, usage, and mechanics, some of the “correct” answers on the key are blatantly wrong. I am currently in the process of demanding accountability from the district office that mandates these tests as measures of my students’ skills. I would better serve my students if I wrote my own tests or used questions from a question bank provided by a grade-level textbook. When I attended high school in the 1990s, I doubt that these district tests would have equipped me with the reading, writing, and thinking skills that allow me to share my concerns with elected officials.

A phonics-based reading program for students who can already decode. Flawed, yet mandated district tests. Teachers are forced to use these faulty tools in schools facing pressure to demonstrate improvement. These “low performing schools” mainly serve poor and minority students. Many opponents of NCLB point out how teachers are punished for challenges in their students’ backgrounds that they cannot control, but has any teacher brought up how they cannot control the tests and programs with which they must comply? Is NCLB helping failing schools, or is it helping schools fail?

With so many public schools labeled “low performing,” politicians taking control of school districts and charter school advocates cast a very critical light on public school teachers. After sharing my story, I hope you are more critical of the testing regime that teachers must endure. I hope you hear our voices, and if you discover that NCLB has prevented teachers from using best practices to serve our students, you will realize that the policy has no validity on which to base further educational reforms.

Sincerely,

Martha Mangahas


 


September 27, 2010

Dear Ms. Diane Ravitch,

I am a former fourth grade teacher of four years. Currently I am a stay at home mom raising my first child who is ten months old. I do miss the classroom, but not how the education system treated teachers.

Furthermore, I am writing to say that I proudly signed a petition along with thousands of teachers to have you on the Oprah Winfrey Show, to present the “REAL” side of education and the current propsed “paying teachers based on merit,” something I strongly oppose.

I admire you for many reasons. First of all you remind me of my grandmother who, like you, was a teacher for 40 years. A classy, serious, focused and very professional woman, professor, leader. She taught geography in Romania, the country where I came from. I cannot wait to read your new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. In my opinion you stand out with wisdom, intellectual, focused, and a genuine understanding of the education system yesterday and today. Compared to many new and fighting leaders who want to push issues to reform and carry punitive ideas on teachers today, it breaks my heart to see it, but on the other hand puts a SMILE on my face to know that someone like you is out there to SHINE the light on how WRONG they are.

God bless you, and may you have courage and strength to carry on your mission.

I am your fan.

Sincerely,

Persida Shelton


 


September 27, 2010

Hello,

I am a 62 year old, just retired biology teacher from one of the designated 15 “failing school districts” of Connecticut, Windham. I have read and thank you for your recent book. I read the speech you gave to the NEA convention in July. After working in a community organization and as a teacher in the north end of Hartford, Connecticut, I enrolled in the teacher corps program in 1971. For 39 years I worked as an urban ed teacher and as a defender of teachers for AFT-CT. In my last three years, I devoted myself to the district Teacher Evaluation Committee, District Data Team, Grievance Chairmanship, Negotiating Team, and Union Representative to Connecticut Board of Education in an effort to develop genuine collaboration between the teachers and the administration. It was a difficult process.

Today, my heart goes out to the teachers who have devoted five years to training and have devoted themselves to working without adequate support on the front line of education and now have to face the annual threat of termination on questionable test scores. I love these teachers.

I know that I should just sit back and enjoy retirement. But I am on a ten-day vacation in California and just came down out of the Coastal range in Northern California. There, drug dealers are growing massive amounts of marijuana inside of houses and in the fields. I was troubled by this. Heartbreakingly, I have observed that mariijuana has been an increasing cause of reduced motivation, absenteeism, and cynicism in students. Yet it seems that the effects of marijuana in urban schools is not even being discussed by our leaders.

Last night and this morning I heard the Superintendent in Washington, the Secretary of Education, and the President call, with enthusiasm, for the firing of teachers all across the country. I would rather they helped the teachers with the marijuana problem and many other problems.

How can I be involved? Do you see a movement developing? If yes, how can I be part of it? Can a retired teacher, no longer on the front line, even be part of a solution?

Thank you for your efforts and your remarkable courage.

Sincerely,

Victor Funderburk


 


September 26, 2010

Dear Diane Ravitch,

As a hardworking Detroit teacher, I was immensely gratified to have the opportunity to hear your inspirational speech last week at Wayne State University. Thank you for breathing the refreshing truth into the whole messy “education deform” conversation!

Last April, all but six teachers at our school received lay-off notices, and we weren’t called back until the very end of summer. For me, this led to many worrisome days, nights of insomnia, intensive job searching and surfing the net for news to match my mood: the international drug cartels killing thousands in Mexico, and the BP oil spill. I thought Chapo Guzman was bad until I read about Bill Gates and the Billionaire Boys Club.

The tragic BP oil spill reminded me of RttT: a slick sheen of oil over the Gulf, and over the whole country, with the ones who suffer the most being the smallest, without voice or vote. It’s probable that the culprits in each extensive, expensive disaster are, if not the same, related, at least financially.

Actually, all of this makes Detroit (often the most dangerous US city, known as much for crime as for music) seem downright decent.

Thank you so much for gracing us with your presence.

Sincerely,

Anonymous


 


September 26, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

I was a guidance counselor at Fremont High School which was reconstituted by Superintendent Cortines in December of 2009. When you spoke at UCLA in the spring of 2010 several of my colleagues and I approached you with regard to what the superintendent was doing and how wrong it was, and I believe you spoke with Mr. Cortines about Fremont. I don’t know if you have followed what happened but a large majority of the faculty did not reapply, the test scores increased by 28 points, we met all of our API goals with the exception of one, our graduation rates and attendance rates increased. But now at the New Fremont they have subs in the majority of the classrooms, they eliminated our psychiatric social workers, opting for more attendance counselors... My students are suffering because Mr. Cortines and Ms. Garcia felt it was more important to go after the money (which they failed to get) than to help my children.

I still work in and truly believe in public education but I am so hurt by what our politicians and administrations continue to believe that the test scores are all that matter....a child is so much more than a test score!

I guess my question to you is: did Mr. Cortines give you an explanation of why Fremont? And now, after the scores have come out, the failure that is the New Fremont faculty, and the fact that the money never came in...what are his comments?

Thank you for coming to speak to the teachers of Los Angeles, being so supportive of public education, and an advocate for all of our children!

Sincerely,

Agnes Cesare


 



 


September 25, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

I was in the audience last night at Immanuel Presbyterian Church and I want to express my appreciation for you, your publications and your message.

First, I have been reading your books and your research for many years. I completed my doctoral studies in 1983 and I referenced much of your research in my own research. I had communicated with you in those days and greatly appreciate all of your contributions over the years.

I read your latest book as soon as it was available and I was so excited to know that a person of your standing in the education community was willing to speak up about the disastrous path we are on as a result of “No Child Left Behind” and the resulting agenda for “choice” and “charter schools” as well as the emphasis on testing. Your message is something we need to have repeated until we change the course that is moving us toward the dismantling of public education.

I currently work for Los Angeles County Office of Education and I am daily confronted with the affects of poor management with a lack of knowledge, respect or appreciation for what classroom teachers are able to accomplishment on a daily basis. We have fewer resources, larger classes, more diversity in the classroom, multiple languages, multiple reading levels, behavioral issues (ignored by management) and yet with all of these challenges we are able to educate youth and we do it with a public that is reading the LA Times and wondering about “effective” teachers! I was thrilled to hear you say that we need to remember who hires teachers, who evaluates teachers and who recommends teachers for tenure: management. This is the message that we need to repeat over and over.

Those of us that are devoted to our profession and work hard to deliver excellence in the classroom would be the first to say that there are some who do not belong in the classroom. We have no input as to who is hired. We have no input in the mentoring of new teachers or the evaluation of new teachers and we certainly have no voice as to recommending for tenure. In my own experience, I have repeatedly seen managers hire people without appropriate credentials and keep them in sub positions for years and then encourage them to get a credential. These people in turn feel very "loyal" to the manager that has kept them in a teaching position. Managers that do this are providing jobs to unqualified people and of course sub pay is much less. Many of these people are clearly not good candidates for teaching, but if a manager feels they have someone whom they can control and someone who feeds their ego by their loyalty and someone who will not question anything then that manager pushes that person through the system and eventually that person has a credential and can gain tenure within the first year because they are given credit for work done prior to completing a credential. This not to say that all teachers in this category are not good teachers, but in my experience many are not and yet they are now tenured. This is why we need to remind the public that teachers are hired by management, evaluated by management and recommended for tenure by management. Unions have nothing to do with this and most of us would readily agree that some of these people should have never entered the field of education.

I have worked at many levels in education and having spent many years as a professor of education in teacher training and I felt that my experience and talent could be used in the classroom. The hardest job in education! Since I returned to the classroom I have continuously been confronted with managers that due to their own insecurity and lack of knowledge have a need to somehow demean what I am able to accomplish or fail to recognize the successful methods that have resulted in my students turning their lives around, showing dramatic increases in reading levels and reading comprehension and 100% of my students graduate from high school. It is sad that we cannot applaud educators for what is accomplish. As you are aware the county schools serve some of the most difficult students as most are well below grade level, most are not motivated to be in school, most have missed years in their education and most have severe behavioral issues. With all this, the classroom teachers day after day enter crowded classrooms, unsafe classrooms and teach under some of the most stressful conditions in education and yet we have success. This is the real story.

In spite of all the obstacles, in spite of every challenge they place in front of us we are still able to educate that students whom we serve. We are devoted, passionate and love what we do. If one is not passionate, devoted and truly love youth then they are in the wrong profession. I do serve on the Executive Board of the Union for the LA County which is Los Angeles County Educators Association (LACEA).

Thank you for standing up and speaking out. Thank you for acknowledging what educators do. I wanted to get my book signed by you, but I saw that you were clearly very tired and you had already so graciously given of your time. I trust that I will have another opportunity to hear you speak, once again savor the moment of truth and perhaps be able to get a book signed. Thank you for supporting all of the devoted, hard working educators.

A side note: I am a lesbian who is faced with additional discrimination on a daily basis. I have three strikes against me. I am female, lesbian and intelligent! How sad that those ingredients cannot be embraced and celebrated.

Sincerely,

Anonymous


 


September 25, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

Thank you for giving voice to what is in my heart.

I videotaped your talk in Los Angeles and posted it here and on YouTube. I hope many people watch it.

I wanted to ask you something last night but didn’t know that I had to write down my question: if things continue along the same path, where do you think special needs students will be ten years from today? I ask because I have an autistic son and teach special needs children. I worry about them a lot. I feel so lucky that we can send our son to his excellent neighborhood school. It accepts all students with open arms and provides them vital services. The public school where I teach does, too.

My students and son are the same kinds of kids that appear in Waiting for Superman. Same dreams, same trust. The big difference is that the public schools that they attend accept them and provide free and appropriate public education. Charters don’t. As you said last night: “Don’t go there.” I’ll try hard not to. In the meantime I thank you with all my heart.

Respectfully,

Vincent Precht


 


September 22, 2010

As a Chicago Public School teacher in the “inner city,” I have become horrified by what is happening to our schools, and by the lack of teaching and education today!

Now, in Area 3 of Chicago Public Schools, there is not just the “ISAT” test but also Scantron Tests every three months that take a classroom teacher weeks to get through, then there is the newly created five week assessment that takes a classroom teacher almost two weeks to get through and overlaps the Scantron, then there is the monthly Edison Test that also takes almost a month to get through, beside the normal little tests teachers try these days to give. Besides all these tests, there is then the Explore Test for 8th graders that is going on while the other tests are being given. The kg and 1st graders are “Dibbled” to death daily, and now CPS has launched a five week test for these little people, and in Kg the test is almost impossible for kids who just walked into school, most unprepared due to poor home lives. Then there is of course the “ISAT.”

Meanwhile, there is NO TIME FOR TEACHING because it is back-to-back testing and overlay testing, with “hurry up and test…rush, rush, rush…must be completed by Friday…tomorrow…in an hour.” This of course doesn’t even address the compositions that must be turned in and graded, using the special rubric, and considered part of the testing.

This is beyond anything I have experienced in my almost thirty years of teaching. I have an M.A. and about eighty hours or more over my Master’s. I was originally a HS Art Teacher, HS Guidance Counselor, got my credentials for elementary, then got certified in Special Education, which I do now, and recently got my certification in ESL, which I also do now. I love teaching and teach in a poor community because I wanted to make a “difference.” But now I am being punished for working in the low-socioeconomic community. We, the teachers, are being held hostage because of poverty, no parenting, poor parenting and all the things that make up a “ghetto community.”

Now, with all this additional testing day after day, “ISAT” is almost a nothing.

THERE IS NO TIME TO TEACH, PERIOD. As a Special Education teacher, I have not even been able to work on what is in the children’s IEP (Individual Education Plan). The kids are getting burnt out from testing week after week, and though school just started August 10, it has already been straight testing. What kind of “DATA” could CPS be getting that is worth anything? Unless they will use these tests (worthless data) to show how poorly the schools in Area 3 do and then have a reason to close the schools and make them charters.

Because of “Race to the Top,” CPS has started to evaluate teachers based on “value added” and scores, scores and scores, and a TAP program that has been gutted to fit the needs of CPS. Many teachers are not given a fair shake when it comes to the students in their classes, especially if the principal doesn’t like the teacher for whatever reason. There is overcrowding in classes. Principals often choose teachers for mentoring roles in the TAP program that evaluates the teachers that the principals like (often new teachers without much experience). I get along well with the principal; I’m just being objective in what I see at school.

I could go on and on but the important thing is: there is no time to teach and no teaching is taking place. This isn’t about teaching to the ISAT now. It’s about constant, constant testing, and we don’t know what to do about it. The other aspect is that the schools in Area 3 have been given Curriculum Mapping, put together by CPS, and it is so loaded there is no way a teacher could cover the amount of material expected to be taught in five weeks in time for the “five week assessment.” Actually, the Science Assessment had to be given even before the teachers received the Science Curriculum — yes, it’s true!

TEACHING HAS BECOME A NIGHTMARE!!! It has become an ugly profession to be in … when I sit and watch the nightly news I want to cry!

None of those making the major control decisions in the Chicago Public Schools are educators, nor is Education Secretary Duncan or DC’s Education Chancellor Rhee — today’s public faces of public education.

I just don’t know what to do, and nor do my colleagues. We feel so helpless!

Thanks for listening,

Hedy Hirsch


 


September 21, 2010

Dear Professor Ravitch,

Many thanks to you for your brilliantly researched book (The Death and Life of the Great American School System). I will be adding it in at the top of my students’ reading list in my Curriculum Development course this fall. Our College of Education is being decimated — our students are unable to find teaching jobs — this move toward privatization of the public schools must end. Your book, backed up by your eminent reputation, has provided a great deal of hope for many of us working out here with underserved students.

If historical precedents repeat, leading to a change of Secretary of Education during our President’s second term, I truly hope that you will consider taking the job. You understand (and respect) the Left as well as the Right, and have the courage to speak the truth at a time when “The Emperor’s New Clothes” seems to be the prevailing educational paradigm.

Again, many thanks and very best wishes to you!

Sincerely,

John Eichinger, Ph.D.

All letters have been reprinted with the permission of the writers.

 

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