To the Editor:
The following is the first in what I hope will be a series of letters on the state of education nationally, as well as locally.
As students, teachers, and parents experience the return to school, the time seems right to consider what school is really about – educating children. I am compelled by conscience and a commitment to honesty to share what I have seen as detrimental to our children’s learning and to inspire all those who care about learning to ask questions and to voice concerns. After 28 years of teaching the amazing children of the Old Rochester Regional District families, I retired in June. “Why?” many have asked. I still loved teaching my students; my classroom experiences were still most rewarding for my students, as well as for me; my students and their parents still respected me for my creativity and authenticity in teaching. My response: The current state of education, the dramatic lowering of standards, the detrimental policies bred from data-driven decision-making, the frantic adherence to believing that there was meaning in the test scores, the willingness to pass students and award diplomas when the skills had not truly been acquired were all too damaging to our school and our students for me to stand by and see what was once a glorious public school offering an elite educational experience become each year a weaker and weaker experience for our students.
My hero and standard for action is and always has been Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Among his most meaningful statements for me are: “There comes a time when silence is betrayal”; “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”; and “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
I have thought long and hard about speaking out about the current state of education. I cannot be comfortable and silent. One of my considerations has been the heat I will probably take by inspiring controversy within the district and among parents and students. I have enjoyed many years of respect and admiration from parents and students for my teaching and devotion to education, especially in regard to high standards of performance and behavior, as well as ideals of creativity and imagination. Will the administration choose to attempt to discredit me, perhaps claiming that I am past my prime and reluctant to change? Or will they try to paint me as just a disgruntled employee? Neither of these is true. I have always embraced change; in fact, I have often been at the forefront of change.
Much of what is alarming about the current state of education in our own Old Rochester district is attributable to data-driven decision-making and data-driven policy changes. No Child Left Behind is all about schools’ reaching AYP – Adequate Yearly Progress. This AYP score is not about learning or about what is good for students, but about administrators and measurable school performance – a false measure of progress and learning. Our current administrators and School Committee seem to be obsessed with data and test scores. Administrators make decisions and change policies and curriculum quickly and without much thought to the ultimate effects on the quality of experience and educational culture. The School Committee approves those changes with little knowledge or discussion – approval based solely on promises of increasing test scores and a Curriculum Director who espouses the data-driven environment and has increased the narrow teaching-to-the-test mentality.
In terms of graduation rates, the AYP pressure has created a “diploma at any cost” practice in many high schools, ours included, and hence, fewer skills and less true proficiency. A good AYP score for a school requires that students graduate in four years; students who need extra time – a fifth year, perhaps – are given shortcuts to their diplomas. The school is maintaining its performance score, but the students who are given various ways out of completing requirements are then not developing the skills they need for lifelong learning and for the workplace. An attendance policy remains in place, but, again, in order to meet AYP, and to give students credits to graduate, absences are excused often without legitimate reasons. All of this diminishes the fine academic culture and emphasis on true learning that were once the hallmarks of our district.
Encouraging students to complete courses through computer programs like NovaNet, instead of making up work or retaking a course when the students are failing or have failed courses, or paring down curriculum to some bare minimum requirements deprives students of the skill-building they really need. The academic skills are not the only skills being given a pass, but also and more importantly, the personal growth skills needed to adjust to working with others, to cope with authority, to manage time and to work through tasks that are difficult – all skills needed for success in the workplace and in college and in life.
Learning is what school is about – individual growth and development. Motivation, creativity and authentic engagement are the answers. Currently, the readiness and proficiency levels are worse than they were before the state and federal government invaded education. One measure does not suit each student and every school. Schooling is not business – not about a score and a bottom line.
School administrators are losing sight of our mission, and the School Committee looks only at the data. Decision-making is top-down; not the collaborative effort it once was. I have been proud to be a part of the education and the truly fine experience the Old Rochester District has provided to our children; but each day for the past couple of years, I worried about what had been lost and what was being allowed to stand in its place. Again, from Dr. King, “Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but because conscience tells one it is right.” Please think about what I have said and why I have said it, and find the courage to ask questions and become involved.
More next time,
Teresa R. Dall