The Real Crisis in Education:An Open Letter to the Department of Education

by Krista Taylor

 

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, D.C. 20202

Governor John Kasich
Riffe Center, 30th Floor
77 South High Street
Columbus, OH 43215-6117

Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria
Ohio Department of Education
25 South Front Street
Columbus, OH 43215-4183

 

Dear Secretary DeVos, Governor Kasich, and Superintendent DeMaria:

I write to each of you, in my position as a teacher in the Cincinnati Public Schools, to ask for your assistance. I include both federal and state politicians here, as in the past when I had the opportunity to address concerns to a member of the Federal Department of Education, I was told that these issues were under state control, but when, while working as part of a committee examining the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), I addressed the same concerns to members of the State Department of Education, I was told that these issues were under federal control.

As a result, I invite all of you to engage in the conversation together in hope that rather than finger pointing, we can begin to seek solutions.

As we implement new education legislation, I ask that teachers be treated as the experts we are. That we are not just included in the conversation, but that we are leading it. The data demands it, and our children deserve it.

An Artificial Crisis

Politicians and the media have had a field day “exposing,” and attempting to address, what has been described as an educational crisis in America. I, too, believe that we are facing a crisis; however, unlike many in the school reform movement, I do not think that teachers and schools are at the root of this crisis. Rather I think it is the very reform efforts themselves – known generally as the “school accountability movement” — that has caused this concern.

I do not blame the Common Core State Standards. Many people conflate the Common Core State Standards with school accountability measures, but, to be clear, while there are some overlaps between these issues, the CCSS are not to blame in isolation for the challenges we are facing in education today. As a teacher, my personal opinion is that the jury is still out on CCSD, and will remain so until we have experienced several cohorts of students whose education has occurred entirely under CCSD. There are some who believe that this set of standards is not developmentally appropriate for students. This may be, but to be clear, the Standards themselves are merely goals to aim for. I am happy to have a high bar set for both my students and myself, as long as I am given time, support, and resources to attempt to meet that bar, and with the understanding that since students all start at different places, success lies in moving them toward the goal.

The standards are not the problem. The problem is the methodology being used to monitor them.

A Look at the Data

There is a body of information indicating that the supposed “crisis” in American Education has been misreported, and that this myth has been supported and sustained by a repeated skewing of the reported data.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a national database that has tracked student progress in reading and math since the early 1970s. It is given to students at ages 9, 13, and 17, and the tests have been carefully monitored for consistency over the course of nearly 40 years. The results of this data indicate that reading and math scores have remained fairly static from year to year, with both increasing somewhat over time. For example, the 2012 data indicated that for thirteen year olds, the average reading scores  increased by 8 raw points and average math scores increased by 21 raw points, since the first data reported in 1978.[1]

This does not look like a crisis at all. The “educational crisis” hysteria has seemed to predominantly come from information comparing United States’ educational data with that from other countries.

Whenever we compare educational outcomes, we must be careful to monitor for external factors – for example, when comparing data internationally, we must take into account that the United States educates and assesses all students until the age of 18; whereas some other countries place students in various forms of tracked models and do not include all of these groups in their testing.

screen-shot-2016-12-24-at-11-53-52-pm
UNICEF’s table on childhood poverty rates in economically advanced countries

Additionally, the United States has a very high child poverty rate. The 2012 UNICEF report listed The United States’ child poverty rate as 34th out of 35 “economically advanced” countries, with only Romania scoring lower.[2]

We know that poverty impacts academic achievement, and this must be taken into account when comparing U.S. scores internationally. For example, when the oft-cited data from the Program for International Assessment (PISA) is disaggregated based on economic status, we can see a trend that clearly indicates that the problem is poverty, rather than instruction.

screen-shot-2016-12-24-at-11-34-24-pm
PISA rankings disaggregated by poverty levels

United States’ schools with fewer than 10% of students living in poverty score higher than any country in the world. Schools with student poverty rates that are less than 24.9% rank 3rd in the world, and schools with poverty rates ranging from 25% to 49.9% rank 10th in the world. However, schools with 50% to 74.9% poverty rates rank much lower – fifth from the bottom. Tragically, schools with 75% or higher poverty rates rank lower in reading scores than any country except Mexico.[3]

Couple this with the 2013 data that indicates that a majority (51%) of public school students live in poverty in this country, and we see the true depth of the actual crisis of poverty, and its impact on education.[4]

A Crisis of Poverty

Schools with the lowest rates of student achievement are typically those with the highest number of disadvantaged students and the fewest available resources. The problem runs deeper than just funding, however. Children living in poverty often have a specialized set of social-emotional and academic needs. Schools with high percentages of economically disadvantaged students cannot be treated in the same manner as more affluent schools.

Education is neither a business nor is it a factory. We do not start with identical raw materials, and act upon them in a systematic way to produce an identical product. In the same vein, we cannot judge instructional efficacy in a single manner, with a single measure, and expect to get a consistent result. Teaching is a service industry, and we work with human capital. There are myriad factors at play that influence what appropriate expectations are for any given student, but poverty is likely the most impactful of these factors.

Children living in poverty are more likely to be coping with what has been labeled “toxic stress”– caused by a high number of identified adverse childhood events. Factors such as death or incarceration of a parent, addiction, mental illness, and abuse, among other things, have been labeled as adverse childhood events. Poverty, itself, is considered to be a type of sustained adverse childhood experience, and it also is a correlate factor, since living in poverty increases the likelihood of experiencing other adverse childhood events.[5]

We know that these types of severe and chronic stress lead to long-term changes in children’s mental and physical development, and that this directly impacts their performance in school. “On an emotional level, toxic stress can make it difficult for children to moderate their responses to disappointments and provocations. A highly sensitive stress-response system constantly on the lookout for threats can produce patterns of behavior that are self-defeating in school: fighting, talking back, acting up, and, more subtly, going through each day perpetually wary of connection with peers or teachers. On a cognitive level, chronically elevated stress can disrupt the development of what are known as executive functions …, which include working memory, attentional control, and cognitive flexibility.”[6]

We know that children living in poverty face greater academic challenges than their middle and upper class counterparts, and yet, instead of helping this situation, the school accountability movement has chosen to vilify the wrong thing (teachers and schools), and has used standardized test scores as the weapon of choice to add insult to injury.

A Moving Target

In Ohio, there have been so many moving pieces at play that it is impossible to get a statistically valid measure. Over the course of the past three years, schools, teachers, and students have had their performance assessed using a different measurement tool each year. The 2013-2014 school year was the final year for assessment using the old Ohio State Standards and the Ohio Achievement Assessments. In the 2014-2015 school year, we switched to a combination of Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) and American Institute of Research (AIR) assessments based on the Common Core State Standards. Due to the legislation passed which illegalized PARCC administration in the state of Ohio, in the 2015-2016 school year, we administered AIR tests for the full battery of testing. During those same years, Ohio increased the number of grades and subjects areas tested.

In addition to these changes, the identified percentage of correct responses for proficiency on each test has changed each year, and the percentage of students scoring proficient in order to schools to be considered successful in achieving Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) has also increased each year.

So, the standards have changed, the tests have changed, the acceptable percent of correct responses has changed, the required percentage of students achieving proficiency has changed.

Tell me again why we think this is an accurate and reliable system for measuring student achievement?

It is, therefore, not surprising that scores have remained anything but static. For the 2012-2013 school year, Cincinnati Public Schools was rated as being in “Continuous Improvement,” while the school where I teach was deemed “Excellent.” For the 2015-2016 school year, the Cincinnati Public Schools received four ratings of “F” and 2 ratings of “D,” while the school where I teach received 3 “F” ratings and 2 D ratings. (As a high school program, we are not rated in the area of K-3 Literacy.)

There are only two ways to interpret this. Either, over the course of three years, the quality of instruction has declined precipitously (across a district of nearly 3,000 teachers), or the data is invalid. The former assumption is nonsensical; the latter is terrifying based on the weight this data carries when making educational decisions.

Teacher performance evaluations are linked to test scores, School and district report cards are based almost exclusively on test scores, and, student graduation is based on test scores. But if the tools keep changing and the target keeps moving, how is it even remotely possible to measure improvement?

This concern is compounded by the subjectivity of the scores determined for proficiency – the cut scores are neither norm-referenced nor consistent from year to year.

For the 2015-2016 testing, in reading and math, across all grade levels, the screen-shot-2016-12-24-at-11-42-51-pmpercentage of students projected to score proficient or above ranged from 52-66%. This means that even on tests where students were “most likely to pass,” it was anticipated that only 66% of students would do so, and for other tests this was as low as 52%. For many tests, the reality was significantly worse. Only 21% of students taking Integrated Mathematics (Math 2) across the state were deemed proficient or above, and only 24% of students taking the Geometry test scored proficient or above. This is an awfully broad-scale problem to make the assumption that the issue of concern lies with students and teachers, rather than with the testing itself and with the structure of the system of accountability.[7]

And once again, we see that poverty plays a role in these outcomes. For the 2015-2016 school year, 94% of urban schools in Ohio received ratings of D or F. Because of school accountability, and the high-stakes nature of the tests, scores like these cause the testing pressure to ratchet up. Low scores necessarily result in greater time and resources being spent solely to improve these scores.   Some call this “test preparation;” others call it “teaching to the test.” Testing and school accountability result in too much time spent on testing, and on teaching curriculum that loses much of the flexible, creative, engaging, and in-depth instruction that keeps students engaged in learning and educators engaged in teaching. As one former urban school principal, concerned about the state report card, said during a faculty meeting when a teacher dared question how testing was detracting from her carefully crafted curriculum, “The test IS the curriculum! What are you, STUPID?!?!”

An Unavoidable Outcome

In 2013, the American Federation of Teachers reported that in heavily tested grades, up to fifty hours a year was spent on testing and up to 110 hours a year devoted to test preparation. Schools with high percentages of disadvantaged students bear the greatest weight for this, as they tend to have the greatest required gains in testing outcomes. The Center for American Progress notes that students in urban high schools spend up to 266% more time taking standardized tests than students in suburban schools.[8]

And this is the fundamental problem with school accountability measures. They have caused the American public school system to become overly focused on a single measurement of success, and that measure is most punitive to populations that are already struggling.

Standardized test data is one measure of academic achievement, and as such it is valuable, but it is nothing more than a single data point. However, this data point has become so important that it is driving every other aspect of the educational train.

I want that data point – I want it for each of my students individually, and I want it for my class collectively – because it tells me something. But it doesn’t tell me everything, and we are treating it as if it does. How can the snapshot of a test score – given on a certain day, in a certain amount of time, with a specific type of questioning – tell me more than what I know as a result of working with my students hour after hour, day after day, for 40 weeks? It can’t, of course.

A Teacher’s Plea

Teachers are professionals, and we should be treated as such.

We are required to hold, at minimum, a Bachelor’s degree in teaching one or more subject areas; we also must complete significant amounts of additional training every year, and, at least in Ohio, to submit this to the state for re-licensure every five years. Most importantly, teachers are highly practiced in assessment and interpretation of results through our daily work with students and our careful observation of, and reflection on, student learning .

Education is complicated. Student growth is broad and deep, and sometimes happens in fits and starts and other times grows slowly and consistently. This complex process could never be adequately measured by a series of tests.

I know my students. I know when I am moving too quickly or too slowly, and I know when they are succeeding and when they are struggling. To assume that the state can determine this, and can make judgments on the effectiveness of my instruction based solely on a single measure is folly – especially when we know that students in poverty, the teachers who educate them, and the schools that serve them, will be judged most harshly by these measures. In fact, standardized test scores may tell us very little about a teachers’ impact or a students’ future success.

As Paul Tough writes, “A few years ago, a young economist at Northwestern University named C. Kirabo Jackson began investigating how to measure educators’ effectiveness. In many school systems these days, teachers are assessed based primarily on one data point: the standardized-test scores of their students. Jackson suspected that the true impact teachers had on their students was more complicated than a single test score could reveal… He created a proxy measure for students’ noncognitive ability. Jackson’s new index measured how engaged students were in school – Whether they showed up, whether they misbehaved, and how hard they worked in their classes. Jackson found that this was, remarkably, a better predictor than student’s test scores of whether the students would go on to attend college, a better predictor of adult wages, and a better predictor of future arrests.”[9]

School Accountability measures with their fundamental focus on testing reduces teachers’ ability to focus on nurturing students’ “noncognitive ability,” and this is damaging to students and teachers alike — perhaps irrevocably damaging.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is moving us in the right direction by removing the requirement that teacher evaluations be linked to standardized test outcomes, but it doesn’t go far enough, and it leaves the window open for states to continue this practice.

As a nation, we must move away from our obsession with testing outcomes. The only group that is profiting from this is the testing industry. And with 1.7 billion dollars being spent by states annually on testing, they are, quite literally, profiting, and at the tax payers’ expense.[10]

The most critical solution to this is to untie student, teacher, and school accountability measures from testing outcomes, or to combine these scores with a variety of other measures of success. In addition, we need to dramatically reduce the time spent on testing by requiring tests in fewer grades, or not administering tests every year. No high-performing nation in the world tests all students annually.[11]

An Expert Opinion

We are not in an education crisis. We are in a crisis of poverty that is being exacerbated by the school accountability movement and the testing industry. At best, this movement has been misguided. At worst, it is an intentional set up to bring about the demise of the public education system – mandatory testing designed to produce poor results which leads to greater investment made in test preparation programs provided by the same companies who produce the tests, coupled with a related push for privatization of the educational system. All touted as a means to save us from this false crisis.

Politics, not education, got us into this mess, and it is politics that must get us out of it.

We must not go further down this rabbit hole. The future of our educational system, and the future of our children, is at stake. No one who has not worked in the sector of public education should be making decisions about our school system without careful consideration of the insights of those who will be directly impacted by those decisions.

As we move forward with a new federal administration, and as the state of Ohio makes decisions relative to implementation of ESSA, I beg you to not just include teachers and parents in the discussion, but to ensure that we are the loudest voices in the conversation.

I hope that you will consider the issues raised here, and most importantly, that you will listen to the voices of the teachers and parents who are trying so desperately to be heard.

Thank you for your time. I am happy to engage in the conversation further; feel free to contact me at taylorkrista70@gmail.com

 

Sincerely,

Kristina L. Taylor
Intervention Specialist; Team Leader
James N. Gamble Montessori High School
2015 Educator of the Year

 

[1] “LTT – Select Criteria.” LTT – Select Criteria. National Center for Education Statistics, n.d. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.

[2] Adamson, Peter. Measuring Child Poverty: New League Tables of Child Poverty in the World’s Rich Countries. Florence, Italy: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, 2012. Web.

[3] “Access Quality Education: Policy News.” Access Quality Education: Policy News. National Access Network, n.d. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.

[4] Tough, Paul. “How Kids Learn Resilience.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, June 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.

[5] “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study: Leading Determinants of Health.” PsycEXTRA Dataset (2014): 1-5. American Academy of Pediactrics. American Academy of Pediatrics. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.

[6] Tough, Paul. “How Kids Learn Resilience.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, June 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016. p. 3.

[7] Dealer, Patrick O’Donnell The Plain. “Scores on Ohio’s High School Math Tests Much Lower than Expected, Sparking Debate over Graduation Requirements.” Cleveland.com. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 03 June 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.

[8] Mulholland, Quinn. “The Case Against Standardized Testing.” Harvard Political Review. Harvard Political Review, 05 Nov. 2015. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.

[9] Tough, Paul. “How Kids Learn Resilience.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, June 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016. p. 9.

[10] Mulholland, Quinn. “The Case Against Standardized Testing.” Harvard Political Review. Harvard Political Review, 05 Nov. 2015. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.

[11] @dianeravitch. “No High-Performing Nation in the World Tests Every Student Every Year.”Diane Ravitch’s Blog. N.p., 22 Nov. 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.

95 thoughts on “The Real Crisis in Education:An Open Letter to the Department of Education

    • I appreciate your well-written letter, but instead of making a snide remark about Trump, why not work with him??? That’s a huge part of the problem. People are unwilling to be open minded and compromise when opinions differ. We need everyone to work together for the good of our children.

      • Angie, I’m confused. President-Elect Trump isn’t referenced at all in my letter, so I’m not sure what “snide remark” you are referring to. Can you clarify?
        Krista

      • Krista –
        I can’t find your response to reply directly so I’m responding here. I apologize if I misread the meaning of you deferring for “four years or so” in response to you being Education Secretary. Maybe I’m a little touchy because of all the negative political comments inundating social media. My point was just that I’m tired of the constant arguing and blaming instead of sitting down and finding resolutions that work, that put the teachers and kids first.

        While I’m here… my other thought, after working in both a private school with constant parental support and a low income public school with spotty parental support, is that time and money are wasted on programs and testing and intervention, etc if parents are not held accountable as having the ultimate responsibility for their kids. We need parents to be involved for the well-being of the kids as well as their education.

        • When families are in poverty, they are often working two or three jobs to get by and their ability to be involved is compromised. This was the entire point of the letter, which you have missed.

          • So because the parent(s) don’t have time to be involved it should be overlooked? That’s not a solution. Children need their parents’ support. I brought up this point for discussion regarding how to encourage and support parents which will ultimately help the kids. I didn’t miss the point of the article, which is that teachers and schools shouldn’t be judged by student performance alone. Poverty was a reason that performance is affected.

  1. I am not a teacher and do not understand some of the criteria you wrote about. I do understand that something was wrong with a State of Ohio determination that schools which had high ratings one year and failing ratings the next was a State with problems measuring success and failure. My main purpose in this note is to give you a big thank you for going to the people responsible for these inconsistent measurements. Keep the faith, believe in your training, and keep complaining!

  2. Thank you! Keep at it. You eloquently and smartly articulate the frustrations of many qualified, skilled, and passionate professionals. Please continue to lead our cause.

  3. After working at the same high school for almost 26 years , I understood and agree with everything you said. I was an instructional assistant and worked with students that had mild to severe mental and physical disabilities. I absolutely loved the students but became very frustrated with the way the students were expected to take tests and do class work that was way above their level of comprehension! Many could not even read! I felt so much heartache and pressure when trying to help the kids succeed with their class work and testing. I can only imagine how the teachers felt! Why should students be put into classrooms where they cannot succeed on their own? I’m all for inclusion but not if you have to walk the students with IEP’s out of the room with their peers, to test them and help them do their class work. That automatically gives out information about those students that is supposed to be confidential. So much is wrong with the system and it’s a shame. We need someone like yourself to be in charge.

  4. Thank You Kristina,
    I will share this as much as I can. With school being called off today, I plan to use some of my time to rally folks to contact their senators to tell them to vote “NO” for Betsy DeVos as US Secretary of Education.

  5. Krista,
    I have been wanting to write this. I have to say, you wrote this better than I could have. This is the most well written explanation of the real crisis I have ever read. Everyone needs to read this open letter. Everyone. This is spot on.

    • Thank you for your powerful words. They mean more than you can know. The work of teaching is my heart and soul, and I have been so frustrated by the continual misrepresentation of data and information, and the poor practices enacted in the name of “reform” by our politicians and accepted by much of our citizenry. Please share this letter as I believe it contains information and arguments that all teachers need to know to connect and communicate the many components that construct the bigger picture, which has become so damaging.

    • Thank you so much for your support. Krista painstakingly researched, and has had recent conversations with data experts confirming her assertion that there is, indeed, no decline in American education per these ongoing time-tested standardized tests. It was powerful to edit this (very little work to do in the editing phase, it was well researched!) and great to see it being widely shared. Thanks for all you do for our students!

    • Thank you, Wes. I believe that if we are to get any traction at all in turning this seemingly unturnable tide, it will be through sharing the information that is out there (and that is often not openly publicized) and connecting all the dots until we construct a shared picture that is undeniable. Thank you for sharing my words and for supporting students, teachers, and the educational process.

  6. There’s one more thing here: Not all students are cut out for college. Yet schools are judged by how many students go to college after high school. I also taught in an urban setting. The schools there used to have vocational programs: auto body and mechanics, printing, nursing, and many others. Those programs are highly expensive, so they were removed in favor of academics. Our school system did not have tracking, so all students were in college prep classes. I had a student once in senior English who was quite smart and creative. When I asked him about his college plans, he said no one had ever mentioned college to him before. He didn’t even know he was smart!
    Yes, I agree that Ohio is in trouble. There’s little or no oversight of charter schools, public school teachers, and public schools in general, have been demonized by politicians and parents who refer to “those kids” and “our kids.” Inner city kids, in their minds, don’t deserve everything suburban kids deserve because they’re crazy violent bums. But I loved my kids for many years because they do deserve love.

  7. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Thank you for your thoughtful and thorough research and use of data, which is what some making educational decisions only seem to care about. This needs to get published where it can be read by the general public. I truly believe they have no idea how the state and lawmakers have had their hand in messing up education only to use teachers as the scapegoat.

  8. As a teacher of 38 years who retired because of mandates that prevented me from effectively teaching the students in front of me, and as a new trustee on our Board of Education after being recruited to run by a progressive group of teachers and parents, I thank you and I will be sharing this with our Board and our community.

    • Good luck …keep “fighting”. Home schooled children in my area are happier and better, well rounded, and effectively taught. The discipline of the poverty kids wore me out….
      A custodian said it was; “Kids having kids”… How to teach that!!!

      • What a great article.
        Home schooled children do often do better… but doesn’t that come back to the same point the author is making? Home schooling is more expensive than public schooling. It’s a whiter, richer demographic.
        If we want to do right by our country, it’s the “poverty kids” we need to fight for. Perhaps starting with real health classes in school and preventing the cycle of “kids having kids” would be something to focus on. Too bad that’s not allowed in many states.

        As to how to teach that, you teach those students just like you teach all students: with compassion, patience, whatever tools you can get your hands on, lesson planning, waking up in the middle of the night because you thought about one more thing, and wishing you could teach what they needed rather than whatever is on this year’s new test. (My state’s going through new testing, too. Our school has hour long tests from Kindergarten on up. Kindergarten!)

  9. This is the most accurate depiction of the problems we face that I have ever read.

    Urban school districts have a unique situation that suburban districts do not. Our students are a “mixed bag” of affluent, middle class and poor, with the latter in the majority. This produces a skewed view of our performance, based on a single evaluative measure.

    “Teaching to the test” takes so much precious time away from genuine instruction, devoted to the actual curriculum; and a single “snapshot” can not measure what is actually being achieved.

    I am not a teacher, but I work in the system, and I applaud your effort to stem the tide of this testing nightmare. Our students and teachers deserve better.

    • I agree to send this to the new Presidential administration!

      I am a presently a Kindergarten teacher( have been an educator for 32yrs) who is considering leaving teaching because of the developmentally appropriate expectations for my five year olds!

      Teachers are growing weary!

      • Of course all of this is leaving our University students, with great teaching potential , to seek out other higher paying and respected professions. Who will be left to ensure the United States children are being taught at a globally competitive level?

      • Is this as constructive as you can be? I am in awe of the original letter and what it took to organize what I see as a decisive explanation of a critical problem. The teachers who have responded have offered support and encouragement to teachers everywhere. Shame on you for your petulant political remark.

  10. Standardized tests and our current educational system are a travesty. Students are leaving school woefully unprepared for real life (unless they manage to get hired as professional test takers). Teachers realize this, yet most keep supporting the same (or similar) buffoons in government who are foisting them upon us. I’m sure you know the definition of insanity. Time for a change- what we have been doing is not working. We cannot keep rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
    I’m also calling BS on “toxic stress” and all the other latest catchphrases. These have been around forever, and were commonly called “life”. Making excuses is counterproductive and does our young people (and society in general) a disservice. I know, it sucks. I would love for everyone to have a perfect blissful life, but it just doesn’t work that way. Love them, guide them, teach them and get them ready for real life- and if the system we have now is not working, for crying out loud, quit griping about it and change it!

    • Madam, toxic stress is not just typical stress. It is not the daily life stressors people think of. These are the results of children dealing with not having enough food on a daily basis, being physically or emotionally abused, watching a parent die. Any person would have a hard time dealing under these circumstances, it is much worse on a child. And while I agree we should do more than just gripe, teachers all be can not fix the problems, as we alone do not elect those in the government who make the laws we must follow. So educating to general public, and the government is part of trying to fix the problem. Only when people hear what we are saying and side with us will things change.

    • Pam, I agree with some of what you commented, but I am sorry you have this attitude about “calling BS on “toxic stress” and all the other latest catchphrases.” You appear very heartless and I feel sorry for anyone you come in contact with. I also surmise you are a Republican who lives in a well-to-do suburban bedroom community and either teach in a private or well-to-do public school, or are just pitching in your two cents based on what you ‘believe’.

      I believe that toxic stress has a LOT to do with how children succeed or fail in school and it is NOT an “excuse”, but an explanation. The reality is that whatever children live with until they are 18 years old (whether in school or if they drop out), in school, in their communities, or at home will be their “life” and will absolutely affect their success in school and life.

      I learned in business school about “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” and it stuck with me. It regards needs and motivations and getting to a “self-actualization” phase. Only until the lower level needs are met can upper level needs/motivations be addressed. The two lowest level are the basic needs. The lowest level needs are physiological – food, water, warmth, and rest. The next higher level needs are for safety and security. The next two levels are psychological needs – belongingness and love and esteem. If all of those are met, then a person can get to the self-fulfillment needs of “self actualization – achieving one’s full potential, including creative activities”. Therefore, if a child is hungry because there is not enough food in the house, or the power, water, and/or heat have been shut off, or the child is couch surfing from home to home, or living in a shelter, or they feel unsafe in their community, or living with a parent who is abusing drugs, or not able to sleep enough due to their “life” situation, or the child is basically raising themselves or their siblings because the parent(s) are working multiple jobs to pay the bills, they will not and cannot be motivated to do their best in school.

      I volunteered in all of the schools my daughter attended and am a very active member of our local Optimist Club where we raise money to pay for programs that help children as well as helping some kids directly so I am very aware of what goes on in the schools. I volunteered two to three days a week for the entire class in my daughter’s kindergarten class. Her teacher lamented that she had children who had few “things” in their households and had few experiences outside of their homes which impacted their abilities to relate to some of the material they did in class.

      I live in a well to do suburban community and the schools have very high expectations of the students. This causes a great deal of stress on ALL of the children, but more so on the children from disadvantaged homes, the children with learning disabilities, ADHD, or autism, and the lower IQ children. The stress is so high in the higher grades that students are developing severe anxiety problems and there is a drop out problem caused by students feeling like failures. The school system has not figured out that the super high expectations have a lot to do with it.

      Even though it’s a well-to-do community, there are pockets of poverty. Some of the children come from disadvantaged homes where sometimes one or more of the following – food, shelter, heat, electricity, adult supervision, etc. may be in short supply. There is a federal free lunch program in the schools, but that can’t address all of a child’s food needs. A local program called “Blessings in a Backpack” gives children who qualify for the free lunch program non-perishable foods in a backpack each Friday that the children can prepare themselves (if needed) to last them over the weekend. It has made a difference in these children’s lives and in their school performance. They are moving to try to provide food for those students over the summer and school break times as well. There are also groups of adults and higher achieving students who help out with one-on-one tutoring. They help tremendously, but the need exceeds the supply of tutors/mentors. All great programs and the students are doing better as result.

      Look in the center city however, and you do not see parent/community programs like we have in our suburban bedroom community. There are few programs to help those students who are struggling, there is widespread poverty, drug use, crime, etc. Is it any surprise that students there do not achieve at the same level as in my community? If a parent has to work a full time and part time job in order to survive, the children raised in those homes will absolutely be at a disadvantage.

      • Dawn S.,
        Your response is spot on. I’ve been teaching for over 22 years, and I’ve seen the differences between those students who come from supportive environments, and those who don’t. And yes, toxic stress is very real.

      • I came from a small town with a school system that has always been deemed “one of the best”. I was told by my HS guidance counselor that since my parents didn’t go to college, I wouldn’t either…this was her response to me when I visited her office for help in applying for college. I’d taken college prep classes, and did fairly well even though my home life wasn’t great.
        I had everything I needed, but was abused severely. I Know what toxic stress is! As an adult, I home schooled my children, and they are all Very intelligent! I Did attend college, and own my own business.
        The biggest reason for my success in life, is the biggest reason schools are failing…God! I succeeded With Him, and Public schools are failing without Him!

  11. As a newly retired teacher after 37 years of public service in teaching/special education, I applaud you. I just wanted to say THANK YOU and that I am so glad you are in the field of education!! Well done~

  12. Well articulated, a master teacher, having thought this deeply, may know that $1,700,000,000 would be better spent on incentives for parental leave and participation in regular childhood and teen teacher-parent conferences and achievement awards. Indifference and social skills hold back many a child. Big Education, like Big Pharma, has fought back against helpful Change every step of the way. Mrs. DeVoss will have a full plate and more open mind. Kind wishes,

    • We thank you for reading this article and for your thoughts. We certainly support your assertion that we would all be helped if there was some way to assist parents in parental leave and participation in conferences. I am discouraged to report that many of our lower income parents face penalties at work, in lost wages or even lost “points” for absences, even when we verify that they came to the school for conferences. This needs to be addressed. While I hope you are right about Mrs. DeVos, I see no evidence to support your assertion that she would arrive in the position with an open mind, given that her entire connection with education is in the establishment of charter schools. Charter schools, as you are aware, are a lot like public schools, only without accountability and public oversight, who are free to turn away students, who disproportionately exclude students with disabilities, and who provide an incentive to place leftover money in private pockets rather than invest them in our students. In a country whose first tax was levied to create public schools, aware that an educated populace is crucial to the advancement of our society as a whole, outsourcing to the lowest bidder is irresponsible and inconsistent with evidence. At least it is if our goal is to achieve the best education for all of our students. Ultimately, the most effective solution will be finding a way to increase the living standards of all US citizens. – Jack

      • Totally agree with you Jack. Ms. DeVos does not support public education. So to say she has an “open mind” about the public education system is simply not true. She has no background in education, she did not attend public schools, nor did her children, so to place her in charge of educational policy for the entire US is absurd.

  13. I love teachers and they are a critical piece of the equation, but you need to research the Common Core standards and the idea of standards themselves. This is NOT about education, but subjugation of America through stealing the hearts and minds of our children. Local control is the only answer. Since the advent of the USDOE, costs have escalated while results have gone down. Please read tests from 100 years ago and tell me you don’t understand that our children are learning less. Crazy math and upside down history have turned our children into mindless lemmings who can’t deal with controversy. Schools have been infected with the loss of who we really are as Americans. I do not want Betsy DeVos either. We need to END the USDOE. End Common Core and high stakes testing. Stop the vendor’s high paid lobbyists from selling our children down the river. This is existential.

    • As we continue to implement the common core after years of teaching, we believe something dramatically different than you do about the nature of the common core standards. Having an agreed-upon rigorous set of national standards clarifies the objectives for educators in every locality, rather than allowing individual municipalities set their own expectations for what should be learned at which age. I assert further that if we continue to insist that charter schools are “laboratories”, then a fairly well-established system of sharing best practices must be maintained in order to share and rapidly spread what we have learned, otherwise they are merely “competitors” and then students become “products” and schools become “profit centers.” It is immoral to treat our children this way, or to set up a system to allow that to happen. Some testing is necessary, but we agree with your assertion that these are unnecessarily and inappropriately “high stakes” for students, teachers, schools and communities. We also agree that the willingness of test vendors to corner politicians and create new markets for themselves is “selling our kids down the river.” I look forward to our work together to see that Ms. DeVos does not end up in the role for which she is nominated. For of the three choices, we find corporate control to be an even worse choice than local or federal government control.

    • Chris,
      I would be interested to know what your credentials are to make such sweeping and all-encompassing declarations about the USDOE and Common Core. I agree with Krista that Common Core is not the root of our problems, and I don’t need to repeat those problems that she has already described so eloquently. I am a school board member in a school district in suburban Cincinnati, and our board has previously whole heartedly supported Common Core by resolution. That is the essence of local control.

  14. I do not have the words to clearly explain the truth found in you letter. I believe that the facts presented here are true and correct.
    I will be sharing and calling my Congress members. Thanks!

  15. Krista, thank you! Your letter is eloquently written and speaks to the true heart of our education “problems”. I have been a public school teacher for 30 years in a small rural school in Arkansas. I thought you were writing about OUR school! We are all in the same boat. I have been preaching the same message for years (not as beautifully) that we cannot judge a student’s success based on one partial week in his/her life. There are uncontrollable factors at play…what happened at home the night before…sudden illness the morning of…any of these can effect the students performance and outcome on the test, even the most prepared student. I agree that teachers should be leading the discussions and the planning of educational reform. Thank you for helping our voices be heard.

  16. Thank you Krista!

    Your well researched information and your eloquent words are what the nation needs to hear. I appreciate how You were so clear with explaining where the real problems lie.

    As one who deeply loves working with adolescents in the urban public school system, I am grateful for your expression of my thoughts. I, as well as so many of my colleagues, have known for a long time that the real challenge we face in educating our “kids” is poverty.

    The testing machine as well as the political system have all too successfully thrown a red herring to the public. They have demonized those who have dedicated their lives to educating our children rather that at the system that lies at the crux of the problem. Thank you for pulling back the curtain, exposing the wizard and the deception that has distracted us from finding a real solution to what is plaguing education in the United States.

    My hope is that those who hold the power are willing to listen to your words and look at shifting their paradigms so they can then focus on making the changes that will have real and positive outcomes for our children.

  17. Said perfectly! I have been teaching for 20 years and on top of the craziness you addressed I think it is absolutely ridiculous that we need to do Smart goals at our school here in Ohio. They serve no purpose and take time away from teaching. They are not an evaluation technique and are seen as useless time documenting information for no reason! I feel the government’s goal is to waste as much of our time as possible, instead of teaching to each child!

  18. Well said. I would add that a break down in the family structure and moral responsibility are large players in the crisis we see. Of course these can lead to poverty as well. During my 34 years of teaching I’ve seen program after program come and go. We always had to jump on the bandwagon of the newest program. Teachers had little input about what was working and what wasn’t. Companies producing 3 ring white binders were making a killing!

  19. Krista,
    I have been an educator for more than 20 years also in Cincinnati and have shared this story so many times in so many ways. Thank you for drafting the words so concisely with spot on evidence. You have represented educators well. Thank you is an understatement.
    Our hope now is that someone will listen to what we know to be true and valid.
    We need the voice of understanding and experience.
    Best regards

  20. Excellent, excellent points! It was an honor to read this! I desperately hope that all of us educators will finally be heard, trusted, and respected to lead as professionals, as we should be. This letter is a great step towards that mission. Thank you for your courageous words, professionalism, and dedication. From: A Michigan Interventionist & Educator in the same endeavor

  21. As a teacher who worked at Heberle Elementary years ago in CPS, I find this to be so refreshing. I would get so discouraged when the Cincinnati Enquirer was forever throwing CPS teachers under the bus based on test scores. I often ranted to my husband that if the problem was the teachers, we should do a teacher swap with the Sycamore or Mason school districts. If it was strictly a teacher problem than we would see their test scores go down when they were forced to be taught by CPS teachers and clearly those magic teachers in the high income schools would raise the scores for our CPS students. This is the problem that nobody wants to talk about because it is politically incorrect to talk about the home lives of students in poverty. Thank you for writing (and researching) what I was always afraid to say out loud.

  22. Krista,
    I have spent 29 years in education, and I am dumbfounded by what has happened to the profession I love. Thank you for succinctly expressing how we are all feeling each and every day. Best regards!

  23. “Education is neither a business, nor is it a factory.” Yet at the state and federal level, this is exactly how it is treated.

    We have a complex problem for which there is no quick fix, but a starting place, surely is the loosening of governmental control. Our schools, for the most part, are looking more and more like homogenous institutions that do not reflect authentic and autonomous learning communities. We attempt to move to “sameness,” but it’s not working because we are not the same.

    As for the poverty issue, this is a rather small problem. The bigger being the poverty mentality, the poverty of the soul.

    I understand that “…Poverty is a correlate factor, since living in poverty increases the likelihood of experiencing other adverse childhood events…” the reality, and the proverbial elephant in the room, is that childhood has been high-jacked. Adverse events are not limited to those living at or below the poverty level. Parenting has been replaced by technology and children are fending for themselves. Who is training and instructing our kids? What do they believe in? How is the fiber of hope being woven into their lives. These are not political questions!

    Students perish because they lack vision and we have allowed a culture of entitlement to invade our educational space. This is a crisis of the soul and data cannot fix it.

  24. Very well written. I too am a teacher. The tests and/or data are definitely in control. The love for learning and the love for teaching is minimizing. I had wanted to be a teacher since the third grade. Don’t get me wrong, I still love what I do, but the politics drive me crazy. We are doing a disservice to our educational system. Thank you for rising above and voicing many of our concerns.

  25. Yes, yes, yes! This is the most well written assessment of the crisis we face in education that I have read in a long time. Your focus is spot on, but I would like to add an a note about two related issues – teacher shortages and teacher recruitment. According to a study from the Learning Policy Institute, we were short approximagely 60,000 teachers last year and enrollment in teacher training programs is down 35%. The Washington Post article about this also noted that, “Nearly two-thirds of the teachers who leave the profession do so before retirement age and cite dissatisfaction with their job as the reason.” This should be the most joyful profession ever, but I have seen many colleagues leave because the stress level they experience, due to the demands of our test happy environment, adversely affects their health, their families, and their personal lives.

    Thank you for this fabulous piece! I will be sharing.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/america-has-a-teacher-shortage-and-a-new-study-says-its-getting-worse/2016/09/14/d5de1cee-79e8-11e6-beac-57a4a412e93a_story.html?utm_term=.83bc88902f2d

  26. Greetings! A friend sent me your blog piece. Thanks for your comments on this important next step. I am a veteran public school educator and researcher. I wanted to add to your emphases by suggesting the following two books: (1) Common Sense Education: From Common Core to ESSA and Beyond (2016); and (2) The Wrong Direction for Today’s Schools: The Impact of Common Core on American Education (2015). I am the author of both and have written about your concerns. Not pushing them for purchase; just FYI. These two works are being used in universities and colleges of education, at this time. Thought you would like to know. Thank you. ~Dr. Ernie Zarra, Ph.D.

  27. Bravo! Thank you, Krista for your time and research. Now take this letter and present to Congress! Present at the state level. Talk to anyone who could possibly listen to you. I would accompany you as a fellow teacher from Indiana!

  28. Here’s an idea: SCRAP the DOE. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that the Federal government ought to manage the school systems. This is a job for the individual states to handle.

    • Well, that is definitely an idea. I agree that management of school systems should remain in the hands of local school boards filled with elected officials overseeing the public expenditure of our tax dollars. We fear that this notion of self-governance might be undermined by well-intentioned Constitutionalists wishing to educate students on the cheap. We pledge to work with you to make sure that elected board oversight remains our model.

      Here is why we don’t believe that eliminating the DOE is a good idea. Few matters of daily life have as broad an impact on the health and welfare of the nation as a whole than education. Unlike crime, or a range of other controversial issues, education touches each child in our nation. There is a strong foundation in our history for combining our resources to provide for the common education of our children – so important, it was the first tax the Puritans levied on themselves. Selecting common standards and a logical progression of skill building is important and time consuming work that should not need to be repeated at the state, county, and municipal level. This is the “Common Core.” Leaving the creation of standards to individual municipalities could allow for a balkanization of the U.S. on issues of science and technology, and perhaps religion as well. We are a great country because of what binds us together – our Constitution, our belief and faith in the rule of law, and our trust in the individual professionals to do their best in the work that bears their name. Our federal government has powerfully provided support for students with all sorts of impediments – including the community where they are born and raised. With the goal of educating every American, federal laws and the DOE have helped allocate money to rural and urban schools that lack the tax base and resources to provide adequately for their own students through no fault of their own. Additionally, they have intervened to provide equal opportunity for women, minorities, and students with disabilities. This is work that makes us stronger as a country and which should make us all proud. The Constitution left us much to interpret in an era where, for instance, a $20 crime hardly merits a trial by jury, and it permits the Executive and Legislative branches to develop the systems necessary to reach our greatest potential.

  29. Thank you for taking the time to say what so many educators are feeling! I’ve taught for 18 years and have struggled with the decision to continue teaching. I LOVE what I do but feel like I’m not able to adequately teach my students in the way they need and deserve to be taught…due to ONE test. It’s frustrating and sad. Thanks again!

  30. You read my mind! I have retired after 20+ years as a reading interventionist in a suburban school district that has consistently performed well. In spite of my district’s successes I had grown increasingly frustrated at how that “@#%^ test” drives every decision we make with regard to our students learning opportunities, and the long shadows it casts over the moral of our teachers. This letter so perfectly states the complexities of educating ALL of America’s kids.

    I would like to share your letter, or ask you to share it on Dan Rather’s Facebook sight “News and Guts.” I don’t know if you are familiar with this new sight, but he is reaching out for stories and experiences that shine a light on important issues facing us in the coming administration. In my mind, this is a “YUGE” one.

  31. Thank you Krista for putting into words, and backing with data, what I have been saying for years. Time we compared apples to apples and oranges to oranges when looking at worldwide test scores.
    Let us teach the whole student instead of producing a person who can just regurgitate info for a test. Use monies for assisting those at the poverty levels instead of paying companies for evaluation tools that change every year or so.
    36 years teaching Engineering, Manufacturing, Construction, and JH Technology.

  32. Well said, Krista! I am a retired teacher of the gifted and talented in Gulfport, MS. Over, 90% of our school’s population receive a free lunch and live in communities that are a product of generational poverty. Every topic you addressed are issues our school is experiencing. We have an incredible teaching staff that is told daily they must do more with less, to improve test scores. The teachers are constantly hearing that the number of hours they analyze data, reevaluting their teaching style, and build spread sheets (that will be posted and observed by all students) are related to student gains, on test scores. So, the burn-out rate is out of control, and talented, young, energetic teachers are seeking careers outside of education. We even know the points each student will receive, on the standardized test, under every outccome i.e. Proficient, basic, minimal. Students, and their teachers, are numbers and the human element has been eliminated. I.e. There are NO excuses why a child isn’t performing at an proficient level, says the administration. However, the testing companies, educational consultants, vendors, of the flavor of the month, are receiving all of the benefits $$$$$ from public education. When is this county going to wake up? Ninety percent of the American population attend public schools. Why in the hell do we have politicians who were educated in the private sector and who know NOTHHING about HOW to educate 90% of the population making all of the educational decisions?

  33. I don’t disagree with the open letter; however, Betsy Devos is NOT the current secretary of education as her confirmation hearing isn’t even scheduled to begin until Tuesday.

    • Yes, I know. We decided to publish this post prior to her confirmation; however we will hold off on sending the letter directly to her office until after her (or someone else’s) confirmation. I wasn’t sure how to address her currently: “Dear Likely-to-be-confirmed Secretary Devos” seemed wordy, somehow. 🙂

  34. Your entire article was well prepared, and very insightful. Thank you for saying something about how comparisons of test scores between different countries can be very misleading.

  35. Krista and Jack,

    As a former conservative and current teacher, I whole-heartedly support your conclusions, but would suggest a slightly different tactic if you are making your argument to win conservatives. The “teachers are professionals” argument, while true, triggers a backlash response. Just think of what Scott Walker was able to do in Wisconsin despite the swell of opposition from educators. Conservatives will hear this line (and section of your letter) as an attempt to avoid accountability. That’s NOT what you’re arguing, of course, but I would suggest avoiding anything that could be construed as such. Instead, I see you saying that there are BETTER accountability mechanisms (yes!) that actually are tied to better outcomes for students. It’s not “be nice to teachers, we’re trying!” It’s “judge teachers on what actually makes a difference.” Conservatives–at least the kind I once was–will heartily agree that character matters in a child’s well-being, that a child’s environment (aka family life) has a huge impact on their educational success. And an argument for reducing wasteful spending on testing also will strike a chord.

    Lastly, I think we need to continue to work on showing, in simple illustrations, how much testing takes away from instructional time. For those of us in the classroom, it’s patently obvious. But for those outside, they don’t understand–what’s the big deal about just one test? We need to show a sample unit, tell the story of how even 1 day lost to testing means a key concept gets missed.

  36. Well said! I am so sorry (as a resident of Michigan) to have given the country Betsy DeVos. She was a pain in neck for Michigan teachers and now she will be for every teacher in the country! Every one will get to see what Michigan teachers have been dealing with first hand, along with her governor pal, Rick Snyder.

    I agree with all of the points you have made in your letter, Krista, but I am so afraid that they will fall on deaf ears. These are the same complaints we in Michigan have been making to our legislators for years and we keep hearing about how much our retirement pensions are going to bankrupt the state so cuts are necessary. Then it’s important to get those rascally teachers back to doing the things we want them to do so let’s get them busy with all kinds of stupid work (learning targets, daily goals for students, data notebooks for K-2 students) they won’t have time to complain. Frankly, I’m exhausted. It will be great to have other people to help us in this battle we have been fighting against this woman and her ilk for at least 8 years or more!

  37. As a retired teacher having been in the New York City school system for 35 1/2 years I can confidently say that most top level educational executives have only one thing in mind – self preservation. The next flavor of the week is ideated and employed in various systems and most likely is doomed to failure due to the fact that it is not addressing the problems of today’s world.

    We speak of core curriculum, the 3 Rs and why Johnny can’t read and are ever searching for solutions. Let’s use the analogy of baking a cake – You add the finest eggs, flavoring and mix them up well and put it in the oven. After 45 minutes you have a gooey mess because you didn’t put in any flour! The same is true with all these solutions offered to our problems in education. There’s no flour! So what is the flour? It’s a simple answer to a complex question. The flour is the parents, guardians and family of the student.

    We forget that by the time kids get to high school their learning skills or lack thereof are formed. A teacher spends 40 minutes a day with 5 sets of classes and has to impart a lesson plan that covers a specific part of the curriculum within those 40 minutes. Teachers are forced to teach subject matter, not educate students in how to learn. There is your basic problem. How is it solved?

    In NYC there are days when the students are told to stay home so the teachers can go to conferences allegedly to up their skills. Not one teacher that I know ever was hit over the head with a thunderous idea and profited from these conferences…. and a day of instruction was lost. How could these days be better spent? It’s an idea that is so simple that a moron (such as myself) could do it. Spend this day within your own school and educate……. the parents!

    Why is education failing? The standardized tests were designed for students of 100 years ago. If you have a child of immigrant parents who work in sweat shops and want their offspring to have a better life, they speak English at home, insist the child go to school and learn and Lord help the child who played hooky and was caught! That child would not be able to sit for a week! Succeeding generations of parents have drastically changed along with what the law allows them to do in terms of disciplining their offspring. No, I’m not advocating a whupping with a switch. However, the old adage, “Spare the rod, spoil the child” does have merit. Never the less, the school system needs support from the home and here is what I propose to get that started.

    Firstly, we all have to admit that there is a problem. Children are not uneducable. They are not unteachable. They simply have to be guided in the right direction educationally both in school and more importantly, at home! The local government must get the private sector to buy into this, not an easy task. They must convince the private sector that the work force coming out of schools today is not nearly equipped to handle a workload as previous generations were. As a result, productivity suffers. Therefore, on a designated day, a parent will present a letter to the boss stating that he/she is required to go to a half (full) day meeting at school to learn how to guide their children academically at home. The business will give them the time off with pay and will receive an embossed letter of attendance from the school to prove the employee attended the session. The rationale – better educated children will be more productive future employees!

    At the parental seminars (from elementary school through high school) parents will learn a variety of skills to make sure that their child(ren) are holding up their end of the educational deal. The parents will be given a calendar of the school year denoting any days when school is not in session. Each parent will be given a program card of his/her child’s schedule along with the time the day begins and ends. Report cards will be gone over with a fine tooth comb along with the dates they are issued, what various code grades mean (40 for a non-attendee, etc.) defining comments, etc. They then will be instructed how to check a notebook. Each subject has a separate section. Class notes should be entered for each class in the appropriate section along with the aim of the lesson and the homework assignment. Parents must check these notebooks daily. If sections are blank it may be assumed that the child cut the class and the parent should call the guidance counselor to confirm. The G.C.’s # should be given to the parent as well. Other items particular to the individual schools can be incorporated into these sessions.

    Without parental involvement it doesn’t matter what the educational demagogues try to stuff down the teachers’ gullet. It is doomed to failure. Most parents want to do well by their children. After the child screws up we call in the parent for an individual conference and most often the parent asks the teacher, “Why am I just finding out about this now?” By having the parent become a surrogate paraprofessional, we can alleviate bad habits of students before they become entrenched and irreversible.

    We are heroes and do make differences in students’ lives, but the neediest of those children often times fall by the wayside. We concentrate on the ones who get our juices flowing. My entire career was spent teaching inner city youth. As an example of how kids get lost, let me close with this example. Early in my career I was given a “modified” class to teach. These were kids who were considered far below average. One of those students, we’ll call him “Jerry” failed test after test. One day, I was running off the test on the mimeo machine (that dates me, huh?) and as I attached the stencil the fluid from the machine spilled onto it and ruined it. I walked into class and told the students I would read the test to them. When I graded the test, Jerry got a 95! The next day I called Jerry over and complimented him. He said, “Mr. Schrier, I know the answers to all of the questions on your tests. I just can’t read them! When you read them to me, it was easy!” That fluid spill changed this kid’s life. Had it not happened, Jerry would have been considered just another dumb jock. He was already in the 11th grade when this happened. Had the problem been diagnosed earlier who knows what this child could have achieved? Kids slip through the cracks. Had their been more involvement with Jerry’s parents, perhaps this could have been diagnosed sooner. If it was today, could you imagine what Jerry would score on a standardized test? We don’t teach students. We teach children and to be most effective we need support from the home. Hopefully, someone will read this and a light bulb will appear above a head somewhere and the process will be given a shot. It’s not rocket science.

  38. Your argument is extremely well articulated, and the very same argument I have been stating for years! I am working on a dissertation about “good teachers” because of this very thing, the idea that policy makers decide who is good, when teachers have no voice in that decision. Thank you for this well written explanation about why this system is broken.

  39. We live in a well-off, high scoring district.

    At the beginning of first grade, my daughter tested as M on F&P.

    Near the end of first grade, my daughter tested as an M.

    Several months into second grade, my daughter tested as an M.

    The teacher did not notice. The learning consultant did not notice. No one at the school noticed. We noticed at a parent-teacher conference.

    As a parent, I do not feel our educational system is where it needs to be. There is some blame to be cast on politicians, but many times the politicians are simply responding to the requests of parents who sadly feel that we need testing to monitor the progress of our children. Without tests, we don’t much to stand on when our kids end up with a poor teacher or even a good teacher who doesn’t meet the needs of our child.

    Everyone in the teaching field knows there are poor teachers. We have had other teachers tell us to make sure our kids don’t have a certain teacher. We would love for educators to take the lead in either improving or ousting those teachers, but that doesn’t seem to happen. And so we are stuck with our legislators devising far-from-perfect ways to do so.

    Poverty is a huge issue. We have a long way to go in this country to address it. Some programs and schools are more effective than others and standardized tests results can both evaluate these and help convince politicians to fund good programs. I find it absurd when rich communities tout their great schools when scores are not adjusted for demographics. We cannot use poverty as an excuse, but as a reason to fix multiple broken systems. A parent in an impoverished school has the same right to ask as we did, “Why is my child not making progress?”

    • I don’t live in your state, so I’m not sure what F&P or M stand for, but I can infer the concern that you have regarding your child’s progress. First of all, it’s wonderful that, as parents, you are invested in your child’s education and serve as an advocate for your child — not all children have this support. Without knowing your daughter, her school, or her teachers, I can’t speak to concerns about her academic gains or lack thereof. And, of course, there are “poor teachers” out there (although I can quite honestly tell you I know of remarkably few), but there are poor representatives of every profession. Many of these teachers would be well-served by the type of teacher-to-teacher support that you present. It would be a tremendous gift to be able to implement this in an effective manner.
      Standardized testing is one way to look at progress, but it is a very narrow way that is often not reflective of the learning a child demonstrates in the classroom. I have seen this go both ways, by the way — students who test both lower and higher than expected, and I find each outcome to be equally suspect.
      And yes, poverty is a huge issue that schools need help and support to address. We don’t need standardized test scores to diagnose these concerns though.
      I hope your daughter has received the support she needs to help her make progress (as demonstrated by many measures, not just test scores), and I acknowledge you for your advocacy on her behalf, as well as that of children who don’t have the same level of home engagement.

      • Krista,

        Sorry. I should have defined F&P as Fountas & Pinnell. There is a reading level chart at https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/f0/b9/54/f0b9543229ee5dc3b732681105db8e28.jpg for those not familiar.

        I agree that there are many measures of student progress and many more important that standardized test scores. My advocacy for my children is more centered around them learning to work hard, overcome obstacles, and recover from failure than proficiency on tests, but I can’t get an objective measurement of grit. I want them to become great citizens and be kind and generous, but I don’t know of any studies done that compare donations and incarcerations to particular schools and the school environments likely will have changed in the decades before that data is available. If we could objectively measure all of the above in time to adjust education, that could be powerful in talking to parents and politicians.

        Sadly, I am convinced that teachers don’t want parents as partners. They want parents to enforce homework, provide some education at home, plan parties, and help on a defined activity in the classroom, but want parents to stay completely out of educational decisions. I have yet to have a teacher ask, either at a parent-teacher conference or via surveys during the year, “How am I doing? Am I meeting the needs of your child?”

        Our district has included parents in bond, technology, sex ed, school security committees. There are no non-teacher parents on curriculum committees, even when we have parents in the community who are experts in special needs, giftedness, behavioral issues, and more. They don’t want our partnership in the areas that really matter!

        I would love to see more parent engagement. There are some parents that never will, some parents that need to be asked, and some parents that would like to be even more engaged than they are. Too many parents see schools as a Ronco Rotisserie, just “Set it and forget it!” The more we can encourage real partnerships between parents and teachers, that attitude can be overcome and education will become better for all.

        • I love your suggestion of adding “How am I doing at meeting the needs of your child?” at conferences. I’ve had many positive conversations with parents on their child’s success or lack of success at school, but I don’t think I’ve ever asked it quite like that.

  40. Thank you for writing such an informative letter. I hope it has the desired result. Unfortunately, no one listens to us teachers. The testing crisis has been going on for decades and teachers have been expressing these same concerns from the very beginning. What has changed? In Ohio, we now give more tests than ever. The technological delivery of the tests is faulty. Studies have shown that the students who used the paper-pencil version scored better. The questions are suspect. The data presented to teachers and parents is confusing. As I teacher, I don’t even know what questions from last year’s AIR test my students we able to answer correctly and which ones were most challenging. Yet I have been given an evaluative ranking based on those results. I am so pleased you have clearly articulated our concerns. I pray that some elected official who can intervene on behalf of public education does so soon.

  41. I have spent the past 25 years working with children and families in one capacity or another; as a mental health therapist, parent educator, one-on-one aide for preschoolers with behavioral problems, instructional assistant for special education students in a California public school system, and a social worker for foster children. Add to this my experiences as an aunt, mother, and “second mom” to my daughter’s friends.
    Your letter confirms so many things that I have felt intuitively to be true, and I love the fact that I now have data to back up my claim when I tell people how much poverty affects the academic performance of children :-). One of the previous commenters mentioned Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which I think should be taught to EVERYONE at about 4th grade and drummed into policy maker’s heads at every opportunity.
    Even children who seem to be “doing fine” and not acting out may still be feeling the effects of poverty in their daily lives. I personally know two of my daugher’s friends who are homeless (one family lives in a shelter and the other family is couch-surfing). From the outside, they look like any other middle-schooler, but in reality they both struggle with getting adequate sleep, food and appropriate clothing. They cope with school to the best of their abilities, but have limited support at home because their parents are too focused on basic survival needs to worry about assisting them with homework or social problems.
    As an instructional assistant, we had one student in class who refused to eat school lunch (he was on the autism spectrum and only ate about 5 foods when he started the school year). His mother was sporadic about sending food that he would eat, so the rest of the IA’s and the teacher would bring the juice and crackers he liked, and I would bring him a PB & J sandwich every day. Not only did his behavior improve, but this kiddo made huge strides academically and socially over the year; enough to “graduate” him from a class for severe disabilities to moderate disabilities. Sure, he was still dressed too often in clothing inappropriate for the weather, and his mother and older brother never did become more involved in school life and the kid continued to come to school on less than 6 hours of sleep, but the simple act of making sure he had decent food every school day made a big impact on him.

  42. I’m a special education teacher and in the 14 years I’ve been teaching, my frustration meter is about to burst. I’m tired of giving standardized tests to my students who have already given up on the tests because its way above their level. All they do niw is just answer the questions as fast as possible so they can get done with it. I feel for my kids. I wish there was a better way to address this and many other problems the teachers, students and the system faces. I’m beginning to not see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I haven’t given up because if my kids.

    • That is one of the reasons I advocate for computer-adaptive testing that spans pre-K through college. There is no point in testing someone far below proficiency and telling them they are not proficient again. Tracking growth allows students to see they have made progress throughout the year and is relevant to almost all students. My advocacy is usually for students who are above the ceiling on standardized tests and these tests don’t provide information on progress for them either.

      Tracking growth is also more relevant in very rich and very impoverished districts as well. Students who come in far below grade level are not stuck at “not proficient” for years, but can have their growth tracked. In my well-off district, many students scored “Max” on our M-STEP test and the district has no idea how to judge growth if they score “Max” again next year.

      It also allows testing to not be frustrating for kids on either end of the curve. Miss a few and get easier questions they can answer. Ace several and get questions that challenge. Much better than the current available standardized tests.

  43. Such well thought out and informative writing. My daughter is in her third year of teaching–2 years now to 3rd graders. She has felt your same frustrations. She shared this wonderful article on FB. I intend to share it broadly, as well. To blame teachers, I cannot fathom.

  44. Reading all of the many comments and emails that this post has elicited has been heart-warming and touching. All of your support for this work and for your students is tremendous. I received a very powerful response from Superintendent Chad Mason (Cedar Cliff Local Schools), and, with his permission, I share it here with you. This is his recent letter to one of his local legislators regarding his concerns about the School Reform Movement. I found it incredibly moving that a Superintendent of a high-performing school district with advocate so vocally on behalf of the teachers and students in other districts that are struggling so much with the impacts standardized testing and school accountability. I hope it will help uplift your spirit in the way it did mine.

    December 30, 2016

    Dear Representative Perales:
    If you recall during the course of our last meeting, you had requested “specific and concrete items that could be addressed in legislation” to address the concerns of many of my superintendent colleagues as it relates to student standardized testing in public education.
    It is important to note, I have given this a great deal of thought and consideration over the past few weeks—a great deal. I have researched, conversed with, and solicited feedback from many of my educational brethren, in hopes to provide you with a recommendation that would benefit the greatest number of students, as well as the taxpayers in this state.
    Many of my colleagues are requesting that the State of Ohio simply follow the minimum requirements of federal legislation regarding this topic, in hopes to achieve some relief for our students, our faculty, and our communities. Admittedly, that solution would be a welcome respite; however, after careful consideration and reflection, I must offer, as a professional opinion, this is merely a superficial fix to a legitimate and pressing affliction to the American educational process.
    The concept of K-12 standardized student testing has been espoused for two very specific reasons: first, to ensure all students receive the same or equal educational opportunities and second, to ensure school districts, teachers, and administrators are held “accountable” for educational outcomes, thereby reducing government spending on poor achieving teachers and schools.
    While standardized testing of American school children has literally been around for 150 years, it was with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965 in which the flood gates for universal testing were opened. The same arguments of “bang for our buck,” and “finding the best teachers through the best test scores,” were utilized then and have continued on through today’s educational climate.
    I implore you to ask yourself one simple and integral question, “If, as a country, we have been testing students on a mass scale for over fifty (50) years, why are we still espousing the same needs and same arguments for today’s public education students?”
    I offer this for your reflection. I can find no evidence of any school administrators or any teachers losing their professional credentials or their positions due to poor student test results (a fact I applaud, as there are far more variables outside the school which effect student test scores than the instruction which takes place in the school building—a fact supported by virtually ALL educational research). Additionally, the achievement gaps between affluent/poor, minority/majority, and geographic location exist and permeate our country as much today after fifty years of testing than they did prior to the institution of this testing culture. The second question must then be, “If we are not accomplishing our set agenda after FIFTY years and billions of taxpayer dollars in investment, why do we continue down the rabbit hole that is standardized testing?”
    I understand you may not find it politically expedient to suggest Ohio abandon its standardized testing pathway amongst the members of your political colleagues, but I can assure you, it is the popular solution amongst those constituents which you represent—all races, cultures, political affiliations, and economic classes share an aversion to our present course of action. Quite honestly, sir, what we are doing is expensive, counterproductive, energy-draining, and wrong for the school children in this state—regardless of the district they attend.
    It is with this information in mind that I write you today. My colleagues, my community, my faculty, and most importantly my students need your presence, your insight, your political will, and your conscience to represent their needs.
    You asked for my recommendation—I proudly give it; please put forth legislation to end all standardized testing used to promote, graduate, place, or evaluate a child’s education or their value. This same request is put forth for the benefit of my professional staff as well.
    Ohio needs educational leadership now more than ever. Our leaders, both elected and appointed, have done a great disservice to our state and our children. I ask for your help. There can be only one pragmatic and prudent path, and that is to eliminate this nonsense; Ohio cannot afford it and our millions of students do not deserve it.
    Yours in education,

    Chad Mason, Superintendent
    Cedar Cliff Local School District

    P.S. Please consider the following illustrative scenario. Suppose for just one moment, an “automotive expert” examined the number of traffic-related deaths in the United States, and pontificated the number was far too high and that a better, more difficult, driver’s test would guarantee better drivers and thus, be the solution to the high traffic fatality rate. He/she even noted that driver’s tests across the country are different and some states must have better/more skilled drivers than others, as their driver’s examination was more difficult. After much political debate and with a large government investment, a new, universal examination was put into place.
    After fifty years, the number of drivers passing the test had, in fact, increased, but the death tolls were the same and the driver quality disparity amongst states was exactly the same as well.
    How would you react to the legislator who espoused, “The billions of dollars have been worth it; look at all the progress in our driver examination results!”
    The point of this path is not, and should not, be student ‘test scores.’ I invite you to come to my school, take a tour, and see for yourself what the purpose of our efforts should be. Please continue to reflect and question—you, and others, are being sold a bill that is not sustainable.
    Chad Mason, Superintendent
    Cedar Cliff Local Schools

  45. What do you do with teachers that really should not be teaching? I am a substitute teacher and am often put in a regular class with a teacher just to help one student with class assignments. The teacher is confusing to me. I can’t figure out the answers because she did not give out the resources to figure it out. When I question the teacher, she thinks the kids should know. She belittles them for not knowing. Other subs have noticed the same kind of issues. I am not a certified teacher, but I can see problems here.

    • As the administrator half of this blog, I will take on the assertion about a teacher “who should not be teaching.” I can’t know the specifics, but I know that good teaching is a skill developed over time. I was definitely NOT a good teacher except in short spurts my first three years. After that I became proficient and finally got good. So, like with a student, there is a process. One part of your statement concerns me, and that is your assertion that this teacher belittles students. That is certainly counter to our beliefs as educators, and even counter to what we know about teaching and learning. Fortunately, this is an area where you can act. If you have witnessed this, it might be time for you to have a courageous conversation where you describe what you saw, what you heard, and how it made you feel, and how it likely made the student feel. You can approach this person in a private setting, with discretion, and have this conversation in a professional way, being sure not to wander into an attack or personal criticism. Having done that, it is up to the individual to change.

      Thank you for your concern for our students and teachers, and your hard work. It takes all of us. Teaching is “The Long Game”

  46. DeVos is NOT the Secretary of Education! – yet. So why assign her that Title and Power prematurely (opening address)? Other than that, points of the article well taken.

  47. Well said, I applaud you for the excellent letter and for being a teacher. I am not in an education profession but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that there is a problem with the current system. Every parent, teacher and student I hear from detests the tests. I can see some of your points in my school district where some schools get large amounts of funding and other schools do not. Once my kids were school aged and I started questioning how this could be when those schools are in the same district, I was told the parent organizations raise that money. Well, I haven’t measured it but I’m sure there is a correlation between poverty and lack of parent organization money. It is NOT fair. It continues to make the divide larger. It is time people realize that equal education benefits all of society. We do not have an equal education system at this point. When one school in a district has a computer for every child and another school in the same district might have one computer if any in the classroom, there is a problem. I use a computer as the example but the disparity in resources is much larger.

  48. Reading the article and comments, there are several points which stood out for me: 1) Results of evaluations vary greatly by outside-of-school factors, thus a measure which includes the entire country or even a State at least demands unbundling. 2) The multi-decade effort to measure quality of schools, administration and faculty with the goal of improving education nationally, is a failure. At present there is no substitute. 3) The actual number of ‘bad’ teachers is probably small in relation to the way critics emphasize that problem. 4) It is very hard to evaluate a profession such as medicine or teaching which have essential components of human interaction and dedication. 5) The process by which a broadly acceptable evaluation of education and educators is achieved and relevant in the interconnected world, is to say the least elusive. 6) Testing has value, the challenge is to relegate it to it’s place. This is difficult because it is by nature an objective-result which renders it an easy, lazy substitute for assessing a complex human behavior.

  49. You appear to have cherry picked a number for US child poverty. Your referenced figure of 51% from the Paul Tough article is a gross exaggeration. at least according to the US Center on Poverty at the University of Michigan which states: “Children represent a disproportionate share of the poor in the United States; they are 23.1 percent of the total population, but 33.3 percent of the poor population. In 2014, 15.5 million children, or 21.1 percent, were poor.” In no way am I suggesting that poverty is not a major factor for children learning in school, as it clearly is. But your statement has a much higher level of reliability/believeability if what you use as information is accurate.

    • You have misrepresented the statistic you reference. What I cited (from Paul Tough) was that 51% of students in public schools are in poverty, not that 51% of all children are in poverty.

  50. What a great article!!! Many of the statistics you quoted are similar to those used by Biddle and Berliner in their book: “The Manufactured Crisis.” I believe it was published in 1995 as an answer to the book: “A Nation at Risk”. I believe this book was used during the Reagan years to change the face of public education.
    Keep up the good fight!!!

    • Yes, I read that book a number of years ago, and it was my original inspiration for this post. It, however, is much, much longer. 🙂

  51. This is the best letter I have ever read concerning educating our most valuable asset. Do not let Betsy DeVoss lead our education system. We need Krista or someone like her who knows teaching first hand.

Comments are closed.