Dear Mr. Gates,
Our public schools are eroding because of the policies of corporate education reform. Who am I? I am a first grade teacher. This will be my twenty-fourth year in the classroom. I was fortunate to begin my teaching career in an at-risk Pre-Kindergarten program. We went into the homes one day a week and really worked with our families to ensure that they realized how critical they were to the success of their children in school. I learned very quickly that most families in poverty do not have the same priorities in the household as middle class or affluent families when it comes to supporting their children’s education. Reading to and talking with young children is critical for vocabulary development and future success in school for children. Many parents in poverty are more concerned with their next paycheck and getting food on the table than they are in helping with homework, reading, having conversations, or providing educational support . Unfortunately across the nation, these early education and parenting programs have been cut substantially at a time when they are desperately needed.
During my five years with Pre-K in southern Illinois, I learned just how invaluable play was for children. They worked in teams to design buildings with blocks, explored with paint, and even worked in a wood-working area. These activities are slowly being phased out across the country as we are forced to prepare these young children for careers and college. More and more emphasis is being placed on teaching and assessing skills. Many of the children simply are not ready for the tasks they must master. School is not the warm and inviting place it used to be for our early elementary students. They miss out on special afternoon classes like art, music, and computers so that they can master their math and literacy skill tests. When I think back on my elementary school experience, I think about the creative teachers I had. My favorite teachers were unique individuals who cared about me and shared their own love of learning.
I think about my fourth grade teacher who buried bones in a wooden framed box he had created, filled with dirt, and placed on the floor inside the classroom. We all became archaeologists digging, brushing off, and putting the pieces together. I think about my fifth grade teacher who read to us from a couch after lunch every day. We couldn’t wait to hear the next chapter! She shared slideshows of trips around the world with us. I remember having a social studies fair and setting up my Egyptian display complete with my younger sister’s doll who I had mummified. I still talk to these teachers today thirty-four years later. These teachers inspired me and I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be a teacher. A standardized test did not tell me my future path. I rarely see science or social studies fairs anymore because all time and resources seem to be steered toward math and reading.
As an educator of young children, I have taken pieces of what I’ve learned from the best teachers I had growing up. I read to my students after lunch every day. I had a couch in my classroom when I taught third grade. I set up a nature table for my students every year and we spend time being scientists and make great discoveries. But time is becoming limited. We have spent the past two years dissecting the new Common Core Learning Standards. I must leave my students once a week for thirty minutes to delineate the standards and align them to my curriculum. We are currently spending countless training hours previewing the new PARCC assessments. We all feel a sense of doom as we see the new tasks our students will be expected to master. We know many of our young students are not ready for these tasks. They will have to manipulate data on a computer screen and type critical thinking responses to passages they read.
No longer do we get to attend conferences that excite and invigorate us. Our trainings are all about the standards, the assessments, and the new evaluation systems. We used to be on the cutting edge of technology at my school but funding has eroded and priorities have changed. Our school consistently meets AYP and therefore is not eligible for many grant opportunities. We are in a funding crisis in Illinois. Our small, rural community school is losing funding at a steady rate. Our teaching salaries are stagnant or in decline because of rising healthcare costs and projections of future deficit spending. I often compare my work experience to being in a pressure cooker. NCLB, AYP, ISAT, AIMS WEB, PERA, PBIS, RtI, UBD, PARCC, CCLS, and many other acronyms are taking the joy from teaching. My favorite part of the day is spent with my students. I love seeing them get excited about special projects we do. But with student skill mastery being a component of my new evaluation instrument, I will have to provide more opportunities to practice for the test. It is inevitable.
All across the state of Illinois and the nation, I have heard from educators who are steering their own children away from education as a career path. Often it seems that teaching is passed on in the family from one generation to the next. My grandmother was a teacher. My mother was a teacher. I have four children of my own and because of the current climate in education and the erosion of salaries and benefits, I have encouraged my children to pursue other careers. I currently have three sons in college pursuing degrees in pharmacy, engineering, and biology. My eleven year old daughter, who loves children, does not include teaching in her list of potential careers. I have always been a strong advocate for public education. My children have had some excellent teachers with high expectations for their students. I worry about what the future looks like in public education if we will not be able to attract and retain quality teachers.
So I write this letter urging you to stop the momentum of this race to division through corporate education reform. I never liked races as a child and I know many of my first grade students don’t like to lose. Invest in us. Believe in us. I’ve never been invited to the table to talk about assessment with policy makers. What if they had an evaluation system based on results? They would definitely be out of a job. You need to get teachers back in the classroom, provide them with excellent training, give them the support they need through coaching and mentoring, ensure that class sizes are small, and stop the high stakes testing movement. Let us go back to those trainings that invigorate us, excite us, and ultimately set off sparks within our students. Let’s all come to the table and talk about the real obstacles and inequities in education. Let’s provide experiences and make decisions that ensure all students learn.
Mount Vernon, Illinois