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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Open Letter To President Obama

From Brian D'Agostino, PH.D

November 19, 2009

Dear President Obama,

I taught in New York City colleges and public high schools for fifteen years, have published peer reviewed research, and hold a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University. I voted for you and had high hopes for your education policies, especially when I learned that Linda Darling-Hammond was one of your advisors. She is an educator and knows what she is talking about. I’m sorry you didn’t listen to her, because your administration is now on a collision course with public school teachers and administrators across the country.

There is no more glaring indication of your problem with educators than Arne Duncan’s attack on the staff of so-called failing schools. First, it is not as easy as you may think to identify academic failure. For example, based on standardized test scores, which give a very incomplete and distorted picture of academic performance, New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein has sought to close certain schools that the parents want to keep open. Secondly, even if all agree that a school is failing, it is not always clear that closing the school is the best solution, as education professor Pedro Noguera (pictured below) has noted.

Third, even if closing a school is the right decision, it is not reasonable and just to fire the entire staff. Mr. President, if soldiers have fought a battle against all odds and lose the battle, do you discharge them from the military when they return? If fire fighters plunge into a burning building to save lives and stop the fire, do you dismiss them from their jobs if they don’t succeed? If a doctor treats a person who is in critical condition and the person dies, do you drum the doctor out of the medical profession? I don’t imagine you would answer “yes” to any of these questions. In that case, please tell your Education Secretary to stop attacking teachers who find themselves in failing schools.

President Obama, you and Mr. Duncan are not educators and apparently do not grasp how demoralizing and counterproductive your “Race to the Top” policies will be for students, teachers, and administrators. Using standardized tests as the primary method of assessing academic performance creates powerful incentives for “teaching to the test.” Instead of getting students excited about academic work and responding to their individual learning needs, teachers will be pressured to focus on test preparation, which can only produce mindless conformity and a life-long aversion to study.

These predictable outcomes are precisely the opposite of what the country needs from public education. One authoritative 2007 report, Tough Choices or Tough Times, calls for schools that can teach creativity and “out of the box” thinking in order to meet the competitive economic challenges of the 21st century. By contrast, you are now pushing states down the path of standardized test driven instruction and teacher evaluation, which will turn our schools into soul-less factories for producing standardized minds. This will imperil not only economic competitiveness but the critical thinking skills needed to preserve freedom and democracy from the threat of authoritarian rule.

It didn’t have to be this way. Instead of micromanaging how the states spend federal education money, you could have mandated instead that schools themselves develop and implement their own innovation plans. Besides need, there should be only two requirements for a school to receive federal education money. First, require each school to identify its core values, produce a mission statement addressing the aims of education in the twenty-first century, and produce an innovation plan addressing how the school will work to achieve its aims. Second, require every school to demonstrate that their mission statement and innovation plan were generated through an open dialogue and collaboration involving all their immediate stakeholders including parents, students, teachers, administrators, and community leaders.

A bottom-up approach such as this would tap the energies, intelligence and creativity of our schools’ stakeholders and give them ownership of the process, which is essential for reform to succeed. Some schools would produce a vision of reform that matches yours. But instead of imposing it on the schools, you would be empowering the stakeholders to create and enact their own visions. Other schools may take different approaches, and we should all welcome such diversity.

Here is my approach to school innovation. My core values include competence, creativity, individual responsibility, and teamwork. I would like to see a system of teacher evaluation that includes video portfolios, peer observation, and feedback from students. My school should be committed to science, the arts, and social studies, not only to math and literacy. It should offer nutrition, physical fitness, and other programs of proven effectiveness for building heath and achieving optimal brain function. And finally, my school should eliminate unproductive bureaucracy, supervision, and paperwork to help pay for all of the above.

Mr. President, it is not too late to listen to the teachers and other stakeholders in our nation’s schools. I respectfully urge you to do so.


Brian D’Agostino, Ph.D
New York, NY

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