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Reporter

It is estimated that about 8 percent of teachers in public schools across the United States leave the profession annually and another 8 percent change schools, according to a 2017 research paper by three researchers from the California-based Learning Policy Institute, including Linda Darling-Hammond, one of the world’s leading experts on education policy and practice.

The percentages may be even more today; the nationally representative data used for the paper came from 2012 and 2013, the latest available information. But national surveys of educators and recent teacher strikes across the country signal deep dissatisfaction in the profession, with low pay and inadequate resources being a constant struggle for many.

Below is the resignation letter of Maren Hicks, a Florida teacher who decided this year that she had had enough — enough of policymakers not allowing her to do what she thought was best for children, low pay and other issues. She resigned this year as a teacher in Orange County Public Schools (OCPS), where teachers rallied earlier this year to protest being asked to work extra hours with no pay.

She gave me permission to publish this letter, which she sent to the district as part of her retirement package, with the name of her former school and former principal redacted. In the letter she refers to school grades, which are given annually by the state of Florida’s Education Department, and are based on standardized test scores.

Teachers, parents, students and public education advocates have been complaining to policymakers for years that using standardized test scores to evaluate students, teachers and schools is unfair because they do not adequately measure what students have learned and how teachers have done their jobs. The focus on raising test scores for more than 15 years has led to narrowed curriculum and evaluation systems that assessed teachers on the scores of students they didn’t have.

While some districts across the country saw reductions in standardized testing in 2017, it is still prominent in many others.

Here’s the letter:

Just shy of hitting the five-year mark is not when I expected to be resigning from OCPS. In fact, I always pictured myself retiring an REDACTED. REDACTED has been my home and my family, and public education has always been my passion.

That passion is intrinsic, as I grew up watching my mother, a steward of public education, serve a magnitude of students, specifically those with special needs. She has worked in all facets and grade levels, across every SES [socioeconomic status] imaginable. She’s purchased food and clothing for her kiddos, counseled them in all manners of life, sometimes she was their only ear or shoulder. She has advocated for parents, and helped secure services within the community for continued support and acceptance of kids with special needs. She’s taken it all home with her. She’s gone in on weekends more often than not, and worked as if she were a 12-month employee every summer.

 Like most in this field, for us, it’s the kids that drive us, haunt us, and inspire us. The kids are why people like my mother and I are here. I learned everything I need to know about compassion from watching her. I believed in what she was doing, and I believed in the multitude of services that public education provided. Blindly and foolishly, I thought these noble aims were enough, and would fuel me my entire career. It takes a village right? That hasn’t changed, unfortunately our village is on fire, and it doesn’t appear that anyone will be swooping in to save us any time soon. There is a massive and deeply concerning disconnect between the supposed aims of OCPS and their practices.

The district’s push/initiative this year included close reading, so may I recommend a text our superintendents, school board members, administration, and various other employees would benefit from reading and annotating? “The Death and Life of the American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education” by Diane Ravitch

And if “collaboration” is the buzz word of the day, may I suggest that it occur between everyone involved in public education, across all levels, not just a mandated once or twice a month CLT [collaborative leadership team meeting]? Across a variety of platforms teachers and faculty members have implored Orange County School Board members specifically for the drastic changes our classrooms need. We speak at meetings, we write editorials for local papers, we sign petitions, and propose legislative measures. Instead, we are met with closed doors and deaf ears.

The removal of those in high-profile positions from the classroom environment, and their lack of pedagogical intelligence and experience is disturbing. The disconnect between the best practices, theories, and applications that educators learn in preparation for their careers juxtaposed with what the district mandates within the actual classroom is alarming. Teachers are no longer given the autonomy to practice what endless amounts of research have proven are developmentally appropriate, dynamic ways of measuring student growth and skill mastery. 

In our rush to look good on the outside and appeal to antiquated “grading” systems for schools and “proof” of student proficiency, we somehow failed to include EDUCATION. Children are not data points. Teachers are not cattle herders. The majority of you at the top should feel a deep sense of shame for placing your political gains above the intrinsic aims of public education. 

Speaking of ills, you should feel equally shameful that you’ve so clearly targeted children as a product, as a data point, as a metaphorical trophy. But only if they test well, only if they bring national recognition, which you hold as a personal achievement (looking at you Barbara Jenkins): “High expectations are good, but when they are both out of reach and mandated by law, they incentivize cheating and other strategies to reach the targets by hook or by crook” (Diane Ravitch). https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2017/02/21/hidden-dropouts-how-schools-game-system-dumping-underachievers-into-alternative-programs/97708866/ [usatoday.com]

The ones that didn’t score high enough? The ones on Access Points? Those with a myriad of labels and disabilities that just don’t fit within the nice little mold of drones you dream of producing? What about them? Are they no longer entitled to a dynamic and fulfilling public education because you don’t understand them? Just ship them off, hide their data points, skew the numbers. Our schools are a necessary component of the community, we used to be both a pillar and a hub, ESPECIALLY a neighborhood school like REDACTED. 

By removing ourselves from that role in a greedy attempt to maintain an “A” rating we’ve failed at the fundamental role public schools are meant to provide. By placing “customer service” above education you’ve successfully derailed education. The “customer” is the student, and by equating test scores with “profits” and parents with “customers” you have created and then encouraged the ever-widening chasm between teachers and parents. Rather than a sense of community, you’ve fallen prey to the culture of blame and liability. The children aren’t a product and their families are surely not customers. The children, lest we forget, are the future and their parents are our cohorts. Forgive my outrage, it appears this has been the district’s focus for some time, and I’ve only come to truly understand its shortcomings this school year. You see, I was lucky enough to fall in love with public education because of my mother, but I was encouraged to try my hand at it because of REDACTED. Despite years in the system, REDACTED was never a cog or a pawn. She represented the uniqueness of this profession, the genuineness and benevolence of those called to teach. She shielded us so that our focus could be what matters most: the kids. Every principal should be afforded that opportunity.

We are existing in a wildly volatile climate. Academia, like most fickle living things, needs a specific environment to grow. We’ve abandoned the concept of the whole child. We desperately need better socially adjusted students, armed with coping skills and an intrinsic purpose. Students require autonomy and ownership of their learning. They need practical application and experiential learning, rather than a surface scraping of EVERY standard woven into an impossible time frame and unforgiving scope and sequence. The students are usually better at commanding their educations than anyone has given them credit for lately. You should all play the quiet game and listen to them. The word “earned” desperately needs to replace “given.”

I’m five years in, and I’ve already pulled back the curtain, peered into the heart of this thing. Do not be the dying wheeze. I implore this district to wake up and be the pillar of the community it once was. This letter is a bitter one, no doubt, but it remains hopeful. One that had simply washed their hands of the system surely wouldn’t have taken such painstaking detail and time, thought and measure, emotion and discourse to make a point? These are not radical concepts. The hopes outlined in this letter are the ideals public schools were founded on. Yet they are also what we have lost sight of along the way.

I can continue to research articles, list statistics, utilize skill sets I acquired through my public education in order to continue to drive my point home. I can continue to spew measurable, quantitative data…what we have a harder time measuring is quality of life, social interactions, self-esteem, mental wellness, and coping skills. Florida’s startling attrition rate of 40% for educators [in the first] five years [of teaching] .... means my woes are shared by many. “OCPS Means Success” doesn’t mean squat if those measuring the success only recognize a specific brand of success, and continue to ignore the needs of their educators and students. These kids aren’t standardized. Our species isn’t standardized. We are human, we are fallible, we are dichotomies/nerds/introverts/expressive/talented/athletic…we possess an immeasurable number of traits and adjectives. 

Yet, the district maintains an incessant and desperate need to pigeonhole education and goat herd bewildered students through an algorithm of disappointment and forced uniformity. For these reasons I have sought out an environment where education is allowed to breathe again, and I remain hopeful that the pendulum will swing, and OCPS will adopt better practices and methods in the future; restoring public education to its original intent.