Dear President Obama: There’s Something in the Water in Washington


Dear President Obama:


There is obviously something in the water in Washington that has turned intelligent people into fools, especially about education.

There are no easy or pat answers to the closing of the income/achievement gap in education. As a former testing professional, I can tell you that test scores certainly reflect progress toward those goals just as they can a student’s progress toward mastery of a subject, but only that. Data that inform decision-making are wise; data that drive it without the influence of common sense are dangerous.

What standardized test scores measure today is not how teachers perform, but how poorly you and policymakers of the past who presume to be experts have performed in identifying and addressing the substantive issues underlying the gap. Data suggesting that NCLB has failed are piling up; “Race to the Top” will soon follow suit if it continues the way it is going.

Public education is not a business. Admittedly, the administrators of education can learn some things from the best practices of business in how to treat employees and financial management in general, but the Boston Consulting Group has no business defining the metrics of great teaching. The goal of education is not to create homogenous widgets with cookie-cutter skills; every “product” that rolls out of this “manufacturing facility” is “one-off” by design. Nor is democratic government a business—few CEOs in corporate America would remain in office for long if each employee’s vote carried the weight of an equal shareholder’s in the company.

There is an epidemic in this country of individuals who project onto others accountability for what others do. You are held responsible for raising the deficit as if you’d inherited it at $0 and for being unable to reverse the financial disasters of President Bush as quickly as we might have hoped. I would hope that you, in particular, would take care not to do to others what has been done to you—that of projecting onto teachers the full load of responsibility to overcome the effects of things over which they have no control—parents who abdicate their roles as the instillers of values, the impact of hunger and homelessness on student attention spans, and the burden of administrative busywork required that usurps the already finite time and energy teachers once had to interact authentically with their students.

Everyone knows you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink. I would think you would know, too, that you can lead a student to the edge of learning, but you can’t make him learn, and you can’t make him want to. The job of the teacher is to lead students to the edge of a river and coax them to take a drink. If they succeed in getting him to taste the water, and the student discovers for himself the refreshment and satisfaction that it brings him, he will determine to drink again of his own accord. But no matter what, there will be some who, for reasons neither s/he nor you nor I will ever fathom, will never take a drink. To make teachers responsible for that is unconscionable. They, alas, are not magicians.

What happened here in Atlanta is not diagnostic of the honesty of teachers and administrators as much as the narcissistic ignorance of policymakers out of touch with reality and common sense. I’d be interested in seeing your scores and theirs on an SAT taken today. I’m curious—if lower than when you were in school, would that be your fault or the fault of your teachers?

Great teachers have administrators who support them when they demand good behavior in their classes. Great teachers shouldn’t have to unionize to be paid a decent wage, but as citizens of this country should be free to do so if necessary. Great teachers deserve acknowledgement and respect as the trusted authority in the lives of children and young adults. You will find them in every urban high school, every rural community. You will find them in “underperforming” schools and schools from where high risk students are mysteriously absent and test scores high. You will even find them in charter schools and private schools, but not as many, because anyone can teach the gifted.

A great teacher is one who loves learning herself, who knows the satisfaction of mastery. She longs to see the look in the eye of a student when he makes the connection. That look is the carrot for which a great teacher works.

A great teacher is relentless in his efforts to provide opportunity to his students to experience success and knows that no triumph is too small to celebrate, even if the clowns in the federal government disagree.

A great teacher commits to do everything in her power to engage students in the process of learning, even when they don’t know they’re learning. He’ll show up in a Civil War uniform, stand on his desk reciting a soliloquy from Hamlet, go over multiplication tables for the fifteenth time, buy extra supplies and not get reimbursed, and pray (in whatever words he chooses) for the wholeness of every student he touches. And never be voted Teacher of the Year.

President Obama, restore to teachers the freedom to do those things they are meant to do and student test scores will take care of themselves. But continue to oppress them with bullshit, persecute them by taking their livelihoods on the basis of political grandstanding and you will break their hearts. And with them, the institution that has taken care of the heart of America itself.

The “opportunity costs” of having the wrong people in the wrong jobs are enormous. Not only do outcomes desired have no chance of manifestation, but those who have a chance to bring them about are denied access to the opportunity to do so. In the end, everyone loses.

But I’m not talking about teachers here. I’m talking about you. The opportunity costs of having the wrong person in the job of President, as representatives, as senators, as head of the DOE, are astronomical, and we don’t have time to wait.

We’ll find out in a few short months what your board of directors (all 300 million members) thinks of you. Either way, in a matter of years, you will be gone and your legacy recorded in those history books that no one will bother to read because they’re too busy being drilled so they get the right multiple-choice answers on their standardized exams.

I voted for you. I’ve defended you. And I’ve been disappointed. Don’t embarrass me by being just another President who spit in the face of those who gave you the foundation to become who you are. Put the governance of public education back in the hands of those in whose hands it belongs—the hands of those who know what the hell they’re doing —the ones who know what’s really on the line.

Put it back in the hands of the teachers themselves.

And do it now. We don’t have time to wait for you to evolve on this one.

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