The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wife of teacher to Obama: ‘please stop this runaway reform now’

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Here’s an open letter that the wife of a public school teacher in Georgia wrote to President Obama about the reality in her husband’s school. She sent a more detailed version of this letter to the president. The author is Dana Bultman, an associate professor of Spanish at the University of Georgia.

Dear President and Mrs. Obama,
After hearing of the White House’s recent College Opportunity Summit, I wanted to share the story of  a student in my husband’s second-grade class.
This student and her classmates, despite their daily challenges surviving the widespread poverty of rural Georgia, are doing their very best to learn. Their school is cheerful, but some kids suffer critical emotional distress from life conditions created by years of economic and social oppression. Still, they are almost all at grade level. Javier has poured in all of his caring and expertise to help them achieve this.
The girl, who I will call Tanesha, is the most academically gifted girl in the class, a real ace at math who also writes beautifully. She does struggle getting the nutrition and adult attention she needs, but she perseveres. Tanesha’s goal should be college, but this 8 year old faces a lack of meaningful funding for her K-12 education. Rather than invest in rich learning environments for Georgia’s students, much of the Race to the Top money our state has received is dedicated to a new kindergarten entry assessment system and more teacher evaluation. Meanwhile, Georgia has reduced per student public K-12 investment by over 15% since 2001.
That’s the back story to Tanesha’s access to education: the fight dedicated educators are currently losing against the competitive corporate models colonizing K-12 schools, robbing them of their autonomy, and attacking teachers’ vocational identity and their historic civic role.
My husband, as teachers do, cares deeply about Tanesha and her classmates. Javier holds an MEd degree, is bilingual, and has years of experience. He is intrinsically motivated, and does not respond to the financial incentives that stimulate business leaders. Of course, some of the most ambitious and money-conscious teachers will move into administration because leading a classroom is hard and not well paid. These days, as my husband teaches Tanesha and her peers, administrators do “walk-throughs,” interrupting his classroom with their clipboards, checking boxes about what he is doing right and wrong. They lean over Tanesha and ask her to point out the “standard” my husband is obligated to post on the board. It is awkward and invasive. It also represents wasted money, accomplishes little for the cost, and is deafeningly uncreative.
This bureaucratic absurdity has other Kafkaesque dimensions. Surprisingly, Georgia has no approved math book that is adequate for its second grade students to use. My husband pieces together materials for lessons from a myriad of resources, keying them himself to the required “standards” of the curriculum. We imagine the wasted energy of many other teachers replicating this arduous work each weekend, all separately reinventing the wheel. Money should be invested here in a quality resource for students’ beginning math education.
Much of Tanesha’s instructional time is also lost to relentless mandated assessments, putting her intellect on a scale rather than feeding it. Even more time is lost on classroom behavior management because there aren’t enough teachers for the needs distressed children have. Those educators who lost their jobs in the recession are sorely needed back to give each child more personal attention. We can’t hope volunteers or philanthropists will fill their shoes.
For Tanesha’s college future to become a reality our state should be pouring precious funding into teaching resources and the hard-working human beings who are doing the delicate, complex, and very interpersonal work of building the curiosity, confidence and academic prowess of each child in their classroom. These children will then ask questions, they will invent, they will have a healthy skepticism, and they will be able to defend themselves from unscrupulous power.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been quoted as saying that too many American teachers come from near the bottom of their college classes. Even if Mr. Duncan did not mean to show contempt for teachers, it is implied by the fact that their voices are left out of the policies he supports. Collaborative teachers with a vocation are not the type to be motivated by competitive evaluation incentives that pit them against each other and against other schools’ students. Education policy shouldn’t have structures that ensure there will be a lot of losers. It is immoral to let self-interested billionaires bully teachers like my husband while he is guiding Tanesha on a real road to college and democratic citizenship. Overbearing non-educators ought to calm their egos, open their ears, and find their moral compass.
The constant swimming against the current of destructive reform has my husband afraid he can no longer truly be an effective teacher. In fact, we now see that powerful decision makers aren’t focused on supporting teachers to be effective, but rather they are using teachers as scapegoats for poverty and cover for reducing meaningful funding for public schools. Their endgame seems to be privatization, profit and puppeteer-like control over the education of America’s workforce. So the outcome of Tanesha’s educational journey is uncertain and scary. And whether my husband gives up or stays in the fight, she must stay in Georgia’s underfunded schools.
Parents know that children learn better when they are cherished and belong. Teachers create a healthy emotional atmosphere, on human level, every day in our schools. For example at recess, when the boys want to play soccer, my husband also gets the girls involved in the game, and he gets the kids to mix the teams up so that playing is about community building, not about dividing up. They love it, and he loves it. He believes in his students, as he knows their parents—struggling to make ends meet—believe in them.
People want to do this meaningful work, but the reforms are breaking them, one teacher at a time. I see it in my marriage to a great teacher. He needs support from leadership to do what he does. We voted for President Obama twice, because we naively hoped he’d eventually improve his education policy.
We are saddened that those in power are weakening the teaching profession. Instead, policy should be to make teaching a great career, one in which the professional expertise of teachers is respected and listened to. And teachers have been demanding a leader in public education in this country who stops putting public education funds into private hands for years. If you believe in them President Obama, then please stop this runaway reform now. America’s most vulnerable kids can’t wait until 2016.
The wife of a Georgia Public Schoolteacher