Teacher: Why the last school year was ‘crushing’

New York City Public Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott recently sent a letter to the city’s Education Department staff describing the 2012-13 school year as “extraordinary.” Here, Katie Lapham, an elementary school English-as-a-Second-Language teacher, responds in a letter of her own that describes a very different view of the school year. This appeared on the Critical Classrooms, Critical Kids blog.

Dear Chancellor Walcott,

 

I am writing in response to your ‘Extraordinary Year’ email, which you sent to NYC DOE staff on June 26, 2013. In the spirit of diversity, I wish to share with you my year end reflections, which differ from yours. In my view, there appears to be a disconnect between your office and working teachers; thus, my intention is to help bridge this gap.

 

I prefer to describe the 2012-2013 school year as crushing.

This spring, for example, I felt the heavy weight of your initiatives while commuting to and from school. Staring at me from the subway walls were NYC DOE advertisements promoting your Common Core curriculum. They claim – in both Spanish and English – “We’re not satisfied just teaching your children basic skills. We want them prepared for college and a career.” In my seven years of teaching English-language learners (ELLs) at the same Title I public elementary school in Brooklyn, I have never just taught basic skills. Frankly, I find these ads insulting to the large number of NYC teachers I know who have long held high standards and expectations for their students.

 

During my first year of teaching (pre-Common Core) my second grade ELLs, inspired by the realistic fiction book “City Green” by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan, wrote letters to Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz persuading him to allow us to convert a local vacant lot into a community garden. The lesson was meaningful on different levels; it made connections to content and to real life, and my students acquired high level academic vocabulary. They were also expected to use reasons and evidence to defend their arguments. In your June 26, 2013 email to us you stated that students are “getting used to supporting their ideas with evidence.” This is not a new skill for our students, nor is it unique to the Common Core curriculum.

 

I raise this point for two reasons. First, I’m concerned that your message, which implies that pre-Common Core teaching needs to be fixed, is misleading the public. Similarly, as our schools experience budget cuts, I question the large sum of money being spent on the Common Core package – advertising, testing and curriculum – when, in my opinion, our current instruction differs only slightly from what many of us have long been doing.

 

The biggest change to instruction that I have seen concerns standardized testing. The new Common Core state tests have left me despairing of the future of public education in both NYC and throughout the country. First, this year’s testing resulted in a significant loss of precious classroom time that instead could have been used for meaningful, targeted instruction. I proctored the math and ELA exams to a group of former ELLs in fifth grade. Not only did they sit for a total of 13.5 hours to complete these lengthy exams, but leading up to the six days of high-stakes testing were countless hours of educationally unsound test prep. Four Acuity Benchmark assessments (two in each subject area) also preceded April’s exams.

 

After the ELA and math tests, I proceeded to administer the four-part NYSESLAT to our ELLs. Nearly 1.5 months were devoted to the administration and scoring of the exam as well as to related administrative duties such as bubbling grids, transcribing scores and answers onto grids for the speaking part and for ELLs in K-2, and packing up the testing materials by following a complex set of directions.

 

During the 2013 oppressive testing season, our ELLs were deprived of their mandated services. When a co-teacher remarked to me one day that her kids stopped asking her when I’d be back in their classroom (I am a push-in ESL teacher), I knew I had to speak up and vocalize my doubts concerning the value of these tests. Continuing on this road of high-stakes testing and excessive accountability is unsustainable.

 

My concerns are far-reaching, and this letter has just begun to address them all. Therefore, I would greatly appreciate an opportunity to dialogue with you in person at your convenience. In all areas of life, I believe that we must be honest with ourselves and with one another for real growth and improvement to occur. I am reachable via email at: katielapham1@gmail.com. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

 

Sincerely,

Katie Lapham
NYC public school teacher katielapham1@gmail.com

Cc: Barack Obama, US President
Cc: Arne Duncan, US Secretary of Education
Cc: Dr. John King, NYS Education Commissioner

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · July 22, 2013