From Parents Across America
Hon. President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear President Obama:
As a public school parent of three in Stamford, Connecticut, I wanted to thank you for lending your support to the devastated community of Newtown. I listened intently to your remarks at the memorial service last night, especially to the questions you raised: “Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?”
You indicated that you were reflecting on these questions, alluding to the issue of gun control. I hope also, that these questions caused you also to reconsider your approach to education reform.
As you said last night, “our most important job is to give [children] what they need to become self-reliant and capable and resilient, ready to face the world without fear.” You described in vivid detail how skilled the teachers and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School were at dealing with the immediate unthinkable trauma of the tragedy; how they managed to keep children calm and feeling safe in the face of life-threatening danger. We can predict that the teachers of the surviving children will have to be as equipped to handle the trauma these children will carry with them as they will be to teach them the subjects the children learn. We know that these teachers will have to help these children develop the non-cognitive skills that make all the difference to success in life- those skills we cannot measure on any standardized test.
We also know, as you mentioned, that those poor children in Sandy Hook are not the only ones who deal with trauma on a daily basis. Children today, especially those living in our poorest areas, face the stress that crime and poverty exact on their young lives on a daily basis. And we know from research, like that done at the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, that when children experience prolonged stress, it becomes toxic and hinders the development of the learning and reasoning areas of the brain. These researchers maintain that a nurturing environment is key to enabling these areas to grow properly. For many children, school is their safe haven; and science, and the awful events in Newtown show us that it is our paramount duty to maintain school as a secure and loving place.
In order to ensure that schools are a safe haven, where children can develop both cognitive and non-cognitive skills, they need to have preschool, reasonable class size, so children can get needed attention from teachers; enough supplies and books, and rich curriculum, including art, music sports and extra-curriculars, so children can explore and understand the world and have many outlets to express themselves; and enough support services, especially for children at-risk.
Many of our schools across this nation do not have the resources to make our schools a safe haven. As you noted in your recent report, for example, in New York City, the number of classes of 30 and over has tripled in the past four years. School districts across this country have been forced to cut support services, teachers, extra-curricular activities, music, art, even AP classes and core classes. They have to delay repairs until a roof collapses, endangering children.
Unfortunately, your policies toward our public schools are making it nearly impossible to keep public schools a nurturing and safe environment. Your chief strategies are evaluating teachers based on standardized test scores and implementation of the Common Core standardized tests in every grade, with a multitude of interim computerized tests as well as summative computerized tests. None of these preferred strategies of yours have ever been proven to raise achievement. Surely you are aware of the studies proving that rating teachers on standardized tests results in a 50% misclassification rate. The ratings vary by year, class, test and even statistical model used. The CCSS is not supported by any research showing that standards or tests improve learning. In fact, the National Research Council concluded that ten years of NCLB testing has done nothing to improve achievement.
Even more damaging, these strategies force teachers, administrators and children to abandon attention to all-important non-cognitive skill development, and focus primarily, if not only, on test scores. This shift of focus includes a diversion of limited resources away from necessary educational basics. You have moved the focus from the well-being of children to the job status of adults.
A recent report from the Consortium of Policy Research in Education reveals just how harmful this strategy is. The report found that NCLB’s test-driven mandates provided little guidance on how to improve. Consequently, schools tried a hodgepodge of strategies akin to “throwing many darts at a target and hoping one of them hits the bulls-eye.” The only consistent tactic used to raise test scores was test prep. As CPRE acknowledged, test prep is shallow and narrow. The report recommends changing accountability systems so schools concentrate less on standardized tests and more on developing the “host of non-cognitive skills found to be related to later success.”
Other researchers found a disturbing trend caused by testing, standardization and scripting: America’s children are becoming less creative. While other countries strive to build creativity into the curriculum, American schools are increasingly forced to homogenize. Consequently, creativity, which increased steadily until 1990, has declined ever since, with the most serious decline appearing in children from kindergarten to sixth grade.
This body of research demands that we rethink our national obsession to use tests as the goal in education. A low test score should be an alarm, not that a school or teacher is failing, but more likely that there are stressors in a child’s life that warrant intervention.
Your waiver and Race to the Top programs, which push the use of standardized tests to judge all teachers and the implementation of even more standardized tests through the Common Core State Standards, only increase this hollow focus on testing. You hold hostage funding to provide the necessary resources described above to the implementation of these narrow and destructive goals. You encourage states to withhold basic funding as well, as evidenced by Governor Cuomo’s threat to withhold basic state school aid unless districts implement a teacher evaluation based on test scores. You hold up as examples of model schools privately run charters that often exclude our neediest children and often are militaristic-style test-prep factories. Moreover you encourage the proliferation of these schools, which are not answerable to democratically elected school boards, and therefore disenfranchise our neediest citizens.
My oldest child is in 12th grade and my youngest is in 7th. I have seen the increased scripting and narrowing of learning that has occurred in just the five-year gap between them. I have seen the increase in stress in my youngest, who has to suffer through meaningless computerized test after test, while units on poetry and other subjects that would expand his world, are jettisoned (to the point where I have opted him out of many of these tests). I have spoken to so many wonderful teachers frustrated and dejected by their new roles as simple proctors, rather than inspiring educators. I have spoken to school nurses who tell me that at test time, they see a spike in headaches, stomachaches and the need for anti-anxiety medication.
Is this the safe haven to which we aspire for our children? Can this stressful and intellectually-empty school experience really teach our children that they are loved, how to love and how to be resilient?
You said last night that we have to change. While I believe you were hinting at gun control, I respectfully request that you expand this resolve to change and include a rethinking of your education policy. We want all our children to feel safe and loved. We want them to be able to find their own, unique voices. We want to protect them and teach them ways to adapt and protect themselves. Please help us do that by helping schools expand our children’s world. Let us build our schools’ capacity to serve all our children, rather than tearing down the foundations of our public education system.