Bertis Downs is a parent who lives in Athens Ga., and the former legal counselor and manager of the band R.E.M. He wrote the following letter to President Obama, inviting the president to visit a high school in Athens to see the impact of his administration’s standardized test-based policies there.
Dear President Obama,
Last month, you hosted Clarke Central High School’s college admissions advisor Lawrence Harris at the White House. You honored this exemplary educator at a forum on making college more attainable for low-income students, and our community celebrated his recognition. The C-SPAN clip of you telling how Mr. Harris was a first-generation college graduate and praising his commitment to give back through College Advising Corps went viral around Athens, Ga. We were genuinely grateful to see you acknowledge his vital and successful work.
But I wish you could also visit the school where Mr. Harris works, an urban high school with about 1,500 students in Athens. Clarke Central is diverse in every way. It serves students from all over the west side of our small city, students of many races, socio-economic levels, religions, ethnicities, and nationalities. The school has high needs, yet ensures that every student has the opportunity to achieve at the highest levels, and many do. Clarke Central has won state and national awards for progress in closing the achievement gap, sends graduates to the nation’s finest schools, and enrolls many upperclassmen in dual-credit programs with local universities. Clarke Central strives to educate any and every student within its community. By and large, it succeeds.
Clarke Central bears witness to the importance of diversity in a students’ educational experience. Truly, this venerable American institution—the public high school—remains the main place children from all backgrounds learn, work, and socialize with peers different from themselves. Clarke Central does its best to incorporate all its students into the fabric of the school’s social and academic life every day—in the classrooms, hallways and cafeteria, on the playing fields and the stage.
Of course the school faces significant challenges in an era of dwindling state budgets. The main strength of the school is its talented and dedicated faculty, who have become overburdened in many ways: more mandated testing and paperwork (paperwork more about proving they are doing their jobs than actually doing their jobs), perfunctory meetings to prove that they are doing that paperwork, a more stressful workload with less planning time, more students in their classrooms, and fewer adults to sustain the school’s mission of effectively educating all students. Throughout our district and state, some of our best teachers are leaving their classrooms. And the teachers who soldier on are feeling increasingly frustrated and stymied.
The policies currently promoted by your Department of Education are actually hurting– not helping– schools like ours. It is clear we will reduce schools’ efficacy if public education remains fixated on tests that only measure limited concepts – tests that regularly relegate less advantaged children into the “bottom half” and limit their access to broader education.
Why does the law distill the interactions of our teachers and students over the course of a year into a high-stakes multiple choice test? Is this really a valid system of accountability for teachers, based so heavily on their students’ test scores? If so, why are so many public school parents, teachers and students pushing back against it? And why aren’t the private schools insisting on it?
In my daughter’s English class at Clarke Central, students engage the works of Plato and learn to discern and make philosophical arguments about abstract concepts like piety; they read Hemingway and learn how to engage questions such as whether a protagonist’s moral code can be attributed to the author. You cannot pick “A, B, C, or D” for such things, or if you can, then the entire experience is trivialized. Of course assessments are a necessary part of any educational process, to help guide, inform and improve instruction, but the high-stakes test-and-punish regime now in place is not doing that.
“Choices” like “prep academies” on the public dime make a diverse population like Clarke Central’s increasingly rare, and the No Excuses model schools serve poor and minority populations almost exclusively. Since we know that concentrated poverty so often correlates with low standardized test scores, why is such over-testing and misuse of testing so central to current policy focus? Is that where your education policy is taking us—toward a de facto two-track system with schools for well-to-do students and other schools for those from poverty? Your speeches do not suggest any of this, especially when you talk about “opportunity for all,” “great teachers,” and “setting high standards.” But current policies, accompanied by the sweet-sounding elixir of “choice,” are reducing the ability of skilled and effective teachers to really teach. Surely you must recognize that privatized models of competition conflict with American education’s historic commitment to empower each child to reach his or her highest potential, a commitment based on educators working together in collaboration as a team.
Traditional public schools still educate the vast majority of the nation’s children. Why don’t national education policies support and encourage, rather than diminish and devalue, these schools and their teachers? For now anyway, Clarke Central, and many more schools like it, still do an admirable job of offering a meaningful education and giving all its students what they need to succeed in life. But there will be a breaking point soon. As a fellow parent said recently, a teacher’s working conditions are the child’s learning conditions. This does not bode well for our children, as so many educators are leaving their profession.
Thank you for appreciating Lawrence Harris and all he does for his students. He is exceptional and he deserves the recognition.
But please take the next step and accept this invitation to see his school—a modern version of an effective comprehensive urban high school. Talk with teachers and students, and with Georgia’s Principal of the Year, Dr. Robbie Hooker. Maybe after seeing Clarke Central in action, you can urge Education Secretary Arne Duncan to reassess the test-driven school “reform” that makes it harder for schools to educate their students successfully. Maybe your administration can recommit to the fundamental mission of American education: assuring access to quality education for all our children no matter their circumstances.
Many public school constituents not only voted for you (twice) but also embraced the hope you have exemplified. But, quite frankly, Mr. President, current education policies are failing our students and teachers, setting our schools back, and compromising our country’s commitment to equal opportunities for all. The status quo is not working — a course correction is badly needed.
Bertis Downs, parent, Athens GA