Educator: The many reasons ‘I am ashamed to be part of the system’


(Astrid Riecken / The Washington Post)

Back in May I published a post by a veteran elementary school teacher named Ralph Ratto with this headline: ‘Today was the first day I was ever ashamed to be a teacher.’ What prompted him to write it was his experience administering controversial new Common Core-aligned standardized tests to his students in New York. I just received an e-mail that takes off from where Ratto’s piece ends, written by  from someone who has worked in two public school systems in Maryland and in private schools for some 25 years as a teacher, counselor, administrator at the school and district levels and in other positions. This person, who is still working, wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisal.

Here is what the educator wrote (with minor spelling and syntax changes):

I have worked in education all my professional life — 25 years and counting.  I have been a teacher, a counselor, a school-level administrator, a district-level administrator, a coach and a program manager.  I have worked in two public school systems in Maryland, and I have worked in independent schools. Ralph Ratto was ashamed to be part of Common Core testing?  Heck, I have been ashamed to work in education lots of times!

Yes, I am ashamed to be part of the system when I see burnt-out teachers who have no business being around kids and who should have retired long ago get removed from their classrooms to receive promotions with higher salaries and transferred to the central office because the Board does not want to spend money to get them fired.

I am ashamed when I see administrators forcing kids to enroll in Advanced Placement classes, knowing they are not ready for that challenge, because the administrators and the school are evaluated on how many students the school has in AP classes, and then watching the frustration and desperation build in the students I was supposed to be helping, especially when they received the lowest score possible on the AP test.

When I stand by and watch as administrators have to be shills for things like  No Child Left Behind and Common Core, implementing these programs when there is not a shred of evidence that the programs produce results only because there is money tied to them, I feel like taking a shower.

Ratto spoke about “institutional abuse.”  How about watching the fun and joy of learning and exploring drain from students because the only thing that matters in classrooms is preparing for standardized tests?  I can’t blame the teachers; when their ratings are dependent on the results from the tests, and with increasing pressure from their administrators, I cannot expect them to do anything but keep teaching to the test. But when I see students begin to break down and cry, I am ashamed to say that I am an educator.

I remember when a principal told me that nobody in my class should be receiving less than a C, even if they do nothing in class all day, every day.  Can you blame the public for losing faith in education?  I can’t.

How about making 18-year-olds carry a clipboard with them when they go to the bathroom?  Or compiling monthly reports of who is using the bathroom how many times a day in the name of safe and orderly schools?

How about when veteran teachers sway decision makers to get the best schedules and the best kids, leaving the worst schedules and the worst kids for the newest teachers?  Ashamed?  Of course.

How about watching as nepotism and the old boys’ network rages on when hiring decisions are made?  I suppose that happens in many places but when someone who has the respect of no teacher is promoted to administration, it is disheartening.  When we find out that the person was hired because of whom they are friends with, it is even worse.

Today many teachers today are evaluated on the progress of students they don’t even teach.  “Everyone knows it doesn’t make sense, but if we don’t do it that way, we don’t get any money.”

Ashamed?  You better believe it.

How about reading horror stories such as the one about a 7-year-old  who was suspended for chewing his Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun and the system upheld the decision on appeal? Can you blame me for being ashamed?

Consider what happens when it comes time to being evaluated by the principal, the instructional leader of the organization. Instead of sitting down and receiving meaningful feedback from someone who has been trained (allegedly) to improve instruction, and having sincere dialogue about how to improve, you are handed an evaluation form by the principal’s secretary, and told to sign it so that it can be placed in your personnel folder. My principal just called me into his office and asked me to sign a form with his observation of a meeting I held.  When I pointed out that he was not at that meeting, he said that was good because he would not have anything to base a poor evaluation on then. Ashamed? Yup.

How about sitting by helplessly as really good teachers are ushered out of the system because they did not want to waste time and money taking mind-numbing classes to keep their certificate up-to-date?

Or working in a system where there were no pay raises for five years, and when finally a raise did come, it was a 1 percent raise with the promise of more to come?  Embarrassed?  All the time.

Those are just thing that I have seen firsthand.  But we wake up seemingly every day to another outrageous story from the world of education: kindergartners can’t have their annual play because they need more time to study for a year-end test; cheating scandals; sex scandals; seeing scores for passing a test lowered so that more students pass, and the list goes on.  Sometimes, I don’t know whether to believe the story or think that a tired news reporter picked up the story from the Onion.

In my mind, the worst thing that education officials do is implement new policies without an iota of evidence that they will improve things.  The United States has been rated in the middle of the pack in international test scores for decades; yet, our superiority in technology and innovation makes us a world power.  We score in the middle, or even near the bottom in international tests?  So what?  We must be doing something right.  What we do not do correctly is stand up and call foul on the latest “reform” effort coming down the pike.

If you have a child in public school, take a look at test questions from PARCC [the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, one of two multi-state consortia designing new Common Core exams]. They’re online.  Try to do some of them.  I have an advanced degree, and I had trouble with the third-grade math questions.  The eleventh-grade English questions?  I gave up after about three minutes.  When your student comes home on those test days and tells you horror stories, believe them because they are true.  I cannot blame students for putting their heads down and taking a nap on these days. I may just encourage it.

Public educators being ashamed of being part of the system is nothing new; we admit it to ourselves all the time.  Maybe admitting it to people outside our schools is new.  Educators, as a species, do not like to rock the boat but maybe it is time for more of us to start telling the emperor that he has no clothes, because let’s face it, he is stark naked!

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · July 21