Open Letter to Senator Lamar Alexander

Senator Lamar Alexander has solicited opinions and ideas about rewriting No Child Left Behind.  If you want to send your own letter, here is information about how to do it. This is what I sent him.

Dear Senator Alexander,

I am one of your constituents. I’ve been teaching in Metro Nashville Public Schools for five and a half years. Currently I teach English and Spanish at The Academy at Old Cockrill, an alternative high school for students ages 17-21. Typically, students transfer to our school when they find out they aren’t going to graduate on time, or they come to us from another alternative school for younger students who are “overage and undercredited.” Because of my position in this unique school, I hear a lot from my students about the other schools in the district.

Senator Alexander, please read Diane Ravitch’s book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Former Assistant Secretary of Education Ravitch was one of the architects of NCLB, but changed her mind about the law when the results started to come in. Since then she’s been an outspoken advocate against privatization and the corporate reform movement, including Teach for America and the Gates Foundation. If you only have time to read one book about education while writing this new law, Reign of Error should be that book. This book is much more comprehensive than any email I could write to you, and covers every aspect of education that your new law could possibly address (as well as some very relevant issues it probably will not touch). If you enact as many of its suggestions as possible, this law will be the highlight of your long legislative career.

The main thing schools need is enough money. Funding them inadequately or taking away the money they depend on when new budgets are made has concrete, measurable negative effects on the education students receive. Here is how budget cuts have affected my students. My school used to have a teacher who taught both Spanish and French, but we lost her when we had to eliminate a position to save money. Now my Spanish classes are larger, so that each student gets less individual attention. I have several students who had completed a year or more of French at their previous school, but now they have to start over from the beginning with Spanish because state diploma requirements say they need 2 years of the same language. As you can imagine, they don’t like having extra time added to their degree. When they complain, I tell them to blame the people who cut money from schools, and remind them to vote in the next election.

Standardized tests as they are currently used are a waste of time for students. Since the results don’t come back for weeks or months, and the result is usually nothing but a number or a broad classification like basic, below basic, proficient, or advanced, students can’t learn from how they did in order to improve for the future. When students feel like their test gets sent into a void, they’re less likely to care about it or try their best. Taking the high stakes out of standardized testing would be a good thing because it would remove some of the pressure from teachers and students, but that still means that students are wasting valuable learning time just to generate data.

If we have to have standardized tests, they need to be genuine learning exercises. They should be developmentally appropriate in length and complexity. Students should get the results back in a week or less, and they should be able to look at every single question and see why they got it right or wrong. Grading should be transparent; there should be no arbitrary cut scores set purposely out of reach in order to define failure in a way that creates profits for the test writers. If testing companies like Pearson can’t provide this kind of service, they’re not worth what we’re already paying them.

People complain about teacher quality and wonder how to improve teacher quality. To improve teacher quality, there are two good questions to ask: 1) How do we attract smart, motivated, young high achievers to the profession? and 2) How do we keep good teachers from leaving the profession? The wrong question to ask is how to identify and get rid of bad teachers. The reason for that is not because anyone wants to protect bad teachers or wants to keep them in the classroom. The reason focusing on getting rid of bad teachers undermines efforts to attract and keep good teachers is because it assumes that many, many teachers are terrible. This rhetoric is disrespectful and has a strong negative effect on the prestige of the profession. No college student wants to major in education after hearing the way we talk about teachers in this country, after hearing the way they are blamed for everything that’s wrong in schools. And lots of great teachers have been run off by overzealous administrators pressured to do exactly that, identify and get rid of bad teachers.

So it might seem counterintuitive, but to improve teacher quality we need to stop all of the negative talk about bad teachers. This means we need to stop using student test scores to evaluate teachers, and stop pushing merit pay, which doesn’t work. Instead, we should just trust teachers to do their best every day. It’s as simple as that. Showing trust by giving teachers control over their own jobs would make them feel respected and honored, and would make those jobs seem worth pursuing and keeping. To ensure that teachers use that trust well, administrators should observe classrooms frequently with the intention to provide feedback to help teachers improve lessons, rather than to catch them failing to deliver a lesson that includes all 72 items on a checklist.

This is how using value-added test scores to evaluate teachers has worked for me personally. For half of my teaching day, I teach English III, which has a standardized end of course test. For the other half of my teaching day, I teach Spanish I and II, which does not have a standardized test. Basing my evaluation on test scores incentivizes me to spend all of my effort on my English classes and none on my Spanish classes. I don’t do that, because unlike the law I value foreign language learning, but that seems to be what the law wants me to do.

To increase the prestige of the profession and attract young high achievers, we need to increase pay, and offer generous perks and benefits. Teachers should be paid as much as other professionals in the private sphere with equal amounts of education and hours on the job. They should also expect annual raises in take-home pay, in addition to increases to account for inflation, since their skills build every year and they become more valuable to their schools. School districts should not be allowed to manipulate health insurance or other benefits to save themselves money by taking it from their teachers’ pockets. New teachers in my district with bachelors degrees make $40,000 their first year; if that figure were standard nationwide (in places with average cost of living or below) that would be a step in the right direction.

What most people currently talking about education seem to ignore is that working conditions for teachers are learning conditions for students. When teachers are afraid of losing their jobs, they don’t take risks in their lessons, and the joy has been sucked out of them. When teachers have to work a second job, they have that much less time and energy for their students. When teachers are worried about their own children getting substandard child care because that’s all they can afford, they can’t concentrate on teaching. When working conditions make it harder for teachers to teach, it’s harder for students to learn. At the very least, we need to remove the things that are currently making teachers’ jobs so hard: anti-teacher rhetoric, high-stakes standardized tests, value-added measures, insultingly low pay, and ‘gotcha’ evaluation systems.

Because the truth is, Senator Alexander, bad teachers are rare. Here is a Washington Post editorial about what makes a truly bad teacher: people who don’t like children, who don’t know or like their subject matter, who are totally disengaged from their students. I have heard stories from my students about some of these teachers, like substitutes who didn’t know Spanish teaching Spanish for a semester because a teacher left halfway through the year and no one who was qualified wanted to take the job. Cases like these are obvious. We don’t need 72-point evaluation systems to identify them. We just need caring administrators who have time to look in on classrooms frequently. Another Washington Post editorial points out that it’s not fair to call teachers “bad apples” unless we’ve given them the support necessary to succeed, and I have never seen that happen. Maybe some of my students’ former teachers wouldn’t have checked out if they hadn’t gotten so frustrated with the lack of resources and support.

I could write much more, about early childhood education, community colleges, school lunches, recess, school nurses and counselors, special education, vouchers, charter schools, and what I hope for my own toddler son’s school experience. But as I said, I truly think Ravitch’s Reign of Error covers everything I would want to say about those issues, and states the facts in a well-researched and persuasive way. Please read the book, Senator Alexander. My son’s generation would thank you for it.


Mary Jo Tewes Cramb


6 thoughts on “Open Letter to Senator Lamar Alexander

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