To the Editor:
The most frequently referenced story among the staff of the Old Rochester Regional District in recent times is not an episode of PBS’s “John Adams” series, not the BBC’s latest Shakespearean production, not “Nova’s” current piece on the universe, not even the less esoteric events on “CSI,” as in some previous school days; but is, in fact, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” No, that is not a new HBO series; it is the old fable about the Emperor who was tricked into believing that he had a brand new beautiful set of clothes, when, in fact, he was parading before his subjects with no clothes at all. No one in the kingdom had the courage to tell him that he was naked, so he proudly marched assuming that everyone was admiring his new clothes. No one told him out of fear of retaliation, until –
A child, however, who had no important job and could only see things as his eyes showed them to him, went up to the carriage.
“The Emperor is naked,” he said.
“Fool!” his father reprimanded, running after him. “Don’t talk nonsense!” He grabbed his child and took him away. But the boy’s remark, which had been heard by the bystanders, was repeated over and over again until everyone cried:
“The boy is right! The Emperor is naked! It’s true!”
The Emperor realized that the people were right but could not admit to that. He thought it better to continue the procession under the illusion that anyone who couldn’t see his clothes was either stupid or incompetent. And he stood stiffly on his carriage, while behind him a page held his imaginary mantle. (Hans Christian Anderson, available at deoxy.org)
In private, many at ORR frequently say, “The emperor has no clothes,” but will not say it openly, nor to those with the invisible clothes, for fear of being discredited, or worse, for fear of retaliation. So what remains are the misguided decisions, the changes in policy, the focus on teaching to the test, the placing of students where they will not best acquire their skills and the continuing concern for the school’s ratings; i.e., AYP and state rankings, rather than the importance of true student learning and achievement. Administrators focus on AYP and comparisons to other districts; the School Committee defines success according to test scores and data and shows more interest in the comparisons than in the educational experience for our students.
Education is about each student’s being met as an individual, and a school’s mission is to help each student grow in skills, confidence and in self-esteem. Those goals are achieved through personal connections between teachers and students, through creativity in the classroom, through a commitment to high standards. We all know that anyone who speaks of a powerful and valued school experience talks about individual teachers who cared and who made learning exciting; not of standardized tests, curriculum requirements, common assessments and “Power Standards”; unfortunately, those being the aspects of education with which our administrators and School Committee are currently obsessed. The damage done by No Child Left Behind should be acknowledged, and all community members and voters should be concerned. Whoever thought that it would be a good idea for the federal government to become involved in local education? We in the communities of Mattapoisett, Marion and Rochester once had a stellar school system; we were in the forefront of all that was good in education. Not to have had the courage to move forward and continue what was true excellence – standards of excellence in teaching and learning much higher than the state’s and the federal government’s – and abandon those and replace them with misguided and diminished data-driven standards for students is neglect of the true mission of education. Administrators currently let AYP and NCLB dictate decisions and curriculum in order to maintain their own job security and future salary increases based on merit – but not merit measured by excellent learning experiences for children, but instead, by data.
To reference another familiar story, education in the Old Rochester Regional District has become a topsy-turvy world – like “Alice in Wonderland” down the rabbit hole, where everything is turned upside down. For what? For test scores? For a school’s AYP rating? I know, of course, that standardized testing and data collection will not go away. In fact, before long, the MCAS will be replaced by a national test. What we need to understand is that good teaching, high standards for learning and behavior, and creative and engaging curriculum will lead to true learning for students. The students in the ORR district performed well years ago when MCAS testing began – way before a data-driven and teach-to-the-test mentality took over, and the MCAS tests were then more demanding. Clearly, some students need extra help in mastering the skills needed to become proficient in math and ELA, but ORR has had in place excellent MCAS review courses for students who have failed the test or are in danger of failing. Because those classes are taught by skilled English and math teachers and were created and planned and executed by teachers and not administrators or Curriculum Directors, they are not teach-to-the-test drills, limited to narrow “Power Standards,” but rather true skill-building learning experiences.
Also among the concerns often voiced by teachers, among themselves, is grade inflation. Student accountability and a commitment to hard work are giving way to passing students without their having acquired the necessary skills. Too many students are receiving A’s, giving them and their parents a false sense of achievement. Another practice troubling many teachers is the placing of too many students in Honors and AP classes at the high school. Students are then not in the environment where they learn best. ORR once had a commitment to recognizing a student’s level of proficiency and need for challenge and moving from there. Students respond to the feeling of personal success that comes from meeting an authentic challenge. ORR once had a Tech Prep program that was phenomenally successful in raising students’ skills, as well as their confidence as learners. Many of you reading this may have been my Tech Prep students, who went on to two or four-year degrees or skilled positions in the workplace and are now in successful careers and, in many cases, now serve as the backbone of our three communities. But more on levels next time.
Education is not a popularity contest. Education is a serious responsibility, perhaps the most serious, beyond the responsibility of parenting. Indifference or succumbing to fear of those in power is a shirking of that responsibility. It was once possible at ORR, in fact, appreciated and respected, to be an enthusiastic supporter and contributor and still question and disagree. Sadly, no more.
To quote again from MLK, Jr., as in my previous letter, “There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.” At staff and faculty meetings and district meetings, very seldom does anyone speak up. Discussion is not encouraged when those present feel that they do not have a voice. I speak – for the good of the students, of the families and of the taxpayers.
More to come – next time. I have shared some of the concerns; next, some of what does work in the classroom to inspire and motivate.
Teresa R. Dall
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