An Open Letter to Public School Teachers
It’s all about Union busting!
The United States Department of Education Race to the Top is a thinly disguised effort at union busting and an effort to eliminate all the gains that collective bargaining have brought to teachers and their profession in the last 35 years.
The United States Department of Education No Child Left Behind program has been a cruel hoax on parents throughout America and prevented many if not most children in our public schools from ever obtaining a meaningful education.
Both of these top down mandates developed by bureaucrats to satisfy the short-term needs of all elected officials courting voters who are becoming increasingly unhappy with the poor performance of our public schools and frantically looking for someone or some group to blame. At no time since the Department of Education was carved out of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare as an independent cabinet level office during the Carter administration in 1980, have any elected officials from the President and the Congress to the governors of the 50 states and their respective legislatures ever addressed the fundamental problem in American education: how much should an 18-year-old voter actually know? What should be the goals of the American public school system culminating in a high school diploma representing demonstrated achievement in a number of critical areas necessary to be an effective citizen in a representative democracy during the 21st century.
In 1971, the Constitution of the United States was amended for the twenty-sixth time. It was a simple procedural modification providing that the minimum voting age in federal elections shall be 18 years of age instead of 21. On August 26, 1920, a similar procedural Amendment, the Nineteenth, gave women the right to vote. We have lived with women’s suffrage for more than fifty years but now our political system faces a new challenge‚Äìthe young voter. Scarcely having completed high school, or even a high school dropout, the young voter has been given what may become a decisive role in our political process. What manner of being are these new political persons?
What this country and all the established and emerging democracies of the post Cold War era need are young voters who are capable of leading this generation into a new era in which the many recent advances in basic science will be made relevant to social problems. Young voters who will insist that this nation tap the enormous but tragically underutilized reserve of scientific, engineering, business and industrial talent long buried in the pigeon holes of bureaucracy or lost in some corporate organization maze, to meet the very real environmental crisis facing most of the world’s metropolitan communities.
Young voters who will assume responsibilities that are now, unfortunately, scattered among federal and state agencies, universities, business corporations and industrial associations‚Äìa diffusion of leadership and dilution of initiative which cannot possibly meet the timetable imposed upon mankind by the reality of our environmental, energy, and social crises. Young voters who can bring together the human and technological resources of these disparate communities and mount a concerted effort to restore and maintain our beneficent environment.
Many young voters do not regularly read scholarly journals, literary magazines, or even the in-depth reports in major newspapers. In some cases, young voters do not read anything at all other than road signs, record album covers, and the occasional titles flashing across the motion picture and TV screen. Yet these young voters in the United States will be asked to cast an informed ballot on many issues involving the Earth upon which we live, the seas from which we all may have come, the air we all must breathe, the fresh water we need to drink, the soils on which we depend for food, and the non-renewable mineral resources which are basic to maintaining the world Economy.
While we all know that an informed ballot can only be cast by an informed voter, we have yet to face the real issue: How much about what must an 18 year old voter know in order to cast an informed ballot on such issues as offshore oil and gas exploration, underground nuclear testing, nuclear or fossil fuel electric power generation, mining methods, weather modification, land use planning, water resource management, mineral exploitation, immigration, foreign policy, and the countless other politically sensitive, emotionally charged issues of any election year?
Attached to this letter is a statement of goals for excellence in education developed by a small group of active public school classroom teachers and concerned citizens who labored for almost a year anonymously in order to avoid scrutiny and intimidation by educrats of the New York State Department of Education. It covers all the areas of the public school curriculum that are necessary to become an informed voter and a contributing citizen at age 18: English, Reading and Speech, Library and Research Skills, Mathematics and Science, Technology, Social Studies, Foreign Languages, Physical Education, Athletics, Health, Business, The Cultural Arts and the Performing Arts.
Once these rather obvious goals for excellence in public school education are established as national priorities, then, and only then, can the search begin for meaningful metrics in order to determine whether an individual student has attained these goals to the extent he or she is able at the completion of their public school education. It would not be inappropriate to provide for a national testing program during the final weeks of a students public education. Students would be permitted to take these national tests as many times as they wish, whenever they wish. They would replace the battery of college admissions tests including the PSAT, SAT, and ACT, as well as effectively end the erosion of public school college-bound educational programs by private for-profit test preparation schools.
The common flaw at the heart of both No Child Left Behind and The Race to the Top is a na√Øve belief in the effectiveness of standardized tests as a measure of educational achievement.
Standardized tests as a measure of progress before and later at the conclusion of a teaching unit have value and measure the students comprehension of the subject matter taught and to a lesser extent the effectiveness of the teaching methods employed.
Standardized tests to determine student mastery of a particular subject matter area can do just that, but nothing more! General standardized tests cannot and must not ever be used to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers or even teaching methods. In the absence of pretesting at the start of the student-teacher relationship the test results of a later test are meaningless as a measure of either students progress or teacher effectiveness.
Another common flaw at the heart of both No Child Left Behind and The Race to the Top is accepting the belief that all children can be expected to learn all subjects at the same rate during their preadolescent years. All of the standardized testing programs upon which No Child Left Behind and The Race to the Top are based on this flawed premise.
Since the groundbreaking work of Maria Montessori and Jean Piaget the observations of classroom teachers throughout the world have clearly established that children learn at different rates and these rates vary according to the subject as well as the individual child. A standardized test can only measure the current level of understanding an individual student has about the subject matter of the test and only a series of tests can measure the progress the student is making or the rate at which a student masters a subject or develops a skill.
A single test regardless of how well it may be ‚Äústandardized‚Äù is nothing more than a snapshot of a child’s mastery of the subject matter of the test at that particular stage in his or her educational development. Tracking student progress unit by unit, step-by-step in their journey through the public school system by means of serial testing and modification of lesson plans based upon those test results for a particular group of children is reasonable and can certainly be used as a measure of the effectiveness of a teacher of a particular group of students over time with respect to a specific area of the curriculum.
While the federal mandates of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are based on treating all students at a particular grade level as if they were a statistically homogeneous group, Congress mandates special education and individualized education programs for more than 6 million children who are considered disabled.
The dilemma of the public school classroom teacher
Every child entering kindergarten has been exposed to hundreds of hours of professionally produced television and multimedia entertainment much of it of questionable if not outright inappropriate educational value. In the higher grades there is an eight week discontinuity in the education process‚Äîthe summer vacation‚Äîduring which very little occurs to reinforce what was learned during the prior school year. The classroom teacher is expected to motivate his or her students to learn material about which they may have little interest and compete with the endless entertainment provided television, movies, and video games.
Kindergarten through third grade classroom teachers are supposed to teach all of these children reading, writing, mathematics, science, and in many school districts now, music and art as well. The teachers are supposed to move all the children in their classes through their lessons at the same rate even though each child will learn each topic at a different rate from their classmates‚Äìsome faster, some slower, some not at all at that stage of their personal development. Some of the children may have had breakfast; others may come to school hungry. Some of the children may have had a good nights sleep; others may be sleep deprived. The attention span of each child will vary with their interest in the subject being considered. The hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills among the students in a single class at a single grade level will vary from excellent to barely functional.
The classroom teacher is also supposed to maintain classroom discipline and provide an environment which fosters a lifetime love of learning.
The problems for every classroom teacher compound on the way from fourth grade to junior high school.
By the time the students are in junior high school, seventh grade in most districts, sixth grade in some, those that have not developed an independent interest in education, together with the study skills, and intellectual work habits necessary to learn, have little probability of success during the remainder of their conventional public-school educational experience. Many will drop out of school as soon as possible and even those that stay in the system face a future with little opportunity for economic success.
Those students that survive junior high school and move into the high school face an educational experience which is the product of the Balkanization of learning which began with the end of the general liberal arts college education that occurred soon after World War II and has continued at an accelerating pace at our colleges and universities. High school education as it is now conducted throughout the country in most public schools provides little opportunity to integrate the knowledge and skills developed in one class with those developed in another. The proliferation of departments and subspecialties in the colleges has required students to learn more and more about less and less in order to obtain an advanced degree while the emphasis on methods over content in the Colleges of Education has filled the classrooms of the nation with many teachers who lack the information necessary to respond to the needs of the truly curious and interested student.
Our classroom teachers are being asked to reverse all of these negative trends without any substantial economic or moral support from government, the educational bureaucracy and even parents. Our classroom teachers have been abandoned by a society which demands accountability without providing leadership or resources for the individuals who are supposed to be held accountable.
The legislative schizophrenia surrounding public-school education in America is nowhere more apparent than in the case of special education or the education of individuals with disabilities. The United States Congress mandates a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for each individual child in the United States from birth until age 21‚Äîa laudable goal so long as we ignore the inherent differences between and among all the children in a classroom.
In defining the purpose of special education, Congress amended IDEA in 2004 to clarify its intended outcome for each child with a disability: students must be provided a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) that prepares them for further education, employment and independent living from preschool through age 21.
Least Restrictive Environment
“…to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities including children in public or private institutions or care facilities, are educated with children who are non disabled” This means that for the purpose of standardized testing a great many children with disabilities will be included in the testing program upon which their teachers and schools will be evaluated against some mythical national standard.
Discipline of a child with a disability
To further destroy any hope a teacher may have of maintaining classroom discipline, pursuant to IDEA, discipline of a child with a disability must take that disability into account. If it is determined that a student’s behavior is a manifestation of his or her disability, particularly with respect to anti-social behavior, that student may not be suspended or expelled, unless they have brought “a weapon to school or a school function; or knowingly possess, use, or sells illegal drugs or controlled substances at school or a school function‚” or causes “serious bodily injury upon another person,” in which case the student may be placed in an interim alternate educational setting (IAES) for up to 45 school days.
The “unfunded mandates‚”
Congress has placed additional burdens on school districts and their taxpayers. Among the unfunded mandates is the responsibility for identifying all students with disabilities within their districts, regardless of whether they are attending public schools. IDEA requires that infants and toddlers with disabilities receive early intervention services from birth through age 3 according to an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP)
There are no exceptions to IDEA. No child is so severely disabled as to not qualify for free public educational services under IDEA. IDEA provides this guarantee unconditionally. School districts which fail to comply, therefore, cannot assert defenses based on a child’s lack of conventional academic ability or the high cost of necessary services.
What can classroom teachers do?
As an organized profession with collective bargaining power, the classroom teachers could accomplish a revolution in American public school education and in the next twelve years release a horde of well-educated and well-informed 18-year-old voters capable of leading the United States through the remainder of the 21st century.
However, this is such an obvious threat to the existing “establishment”, educracy, and the parasitic businesses which feed upon it that it must be terminated with extreme prejudice as soon as possible. Destroying the collective bargaining power of classroom teachers under the guise of No Child Left Behind and a Race to the Top is the goal and classroom teachers must not allow it to happen.
Unfortunately, the success of the collective bargaining efforts of the teachers unions over the last 30 years, particularly in affluent suburban communities, prevents many of their union leaders from revisiting the lessons of the past, and prevents many of the classroom teachers today from recalling their miserable economic and professional state through the 1950s.
At the dawn of the labor movement around the turn of the last century, Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor, observed that negotiation is possible only when each party has similar strengths and resources, otherwise one of the parties is only begging. Classroom teachers must act now while they still have some bargaining power remaining and there is a finite chance of improving the quality of public-school education in America, maintaining the goal of free public school education for all children to the extent that they can benefit from the effort, and assuring that all classroom teachers are evaluated on their success with the living, breathing real boys and girls who actually sit in their classrooms, not the hypothetical model children created by statistical manipulations who will all achieve certain pre-determined scores on unrealistic ‚Äústandardized‚Äù tests.