I received this letter from a teacher. She speaks fearlessly and is not afraid to publish her name. She must have tenure. In many states, she would be fired instantly for writing what she believes to be true. We live in a time of lies and distractions. Listen to the experts, those who work with children every day. Our poilcymakers–few of whom have ever worked in a school–don’t trust teachers, don’t listen to teachers. They are ruining the lives of children and calling themselves “reformers.” They are clueless and shameless. Listen to the teachers. Listen to the principals. Listen to those who work with children every day.

Dear Ms. Ravitch,

I wrote this early this morning. I write letters each night because I am unwilling to watch public education be decimated without speaking up on behalf of my present and future students, as well as my four school-age children. I send letters to newspapers, legislators, political appointees, you name it. Most go ignored, but I am undaunted. Thank you for your unprecedented support of public education.

Where did public education reform go awry?

It is easy to blame Bush’s No Child Left Behind, Obama’s Race to the Top or a political and economic push to privatize public education. But, looking more closely at any of these initiatives, they share a single common denominator. Teachers, those at the front lines with our children, have not been invited to the table.

We are entrusted with students with a wide gamut of challenges, from emotionally disturbed, Tourette’s, ADHD, Schizophrenia and Dyslexia to name a few. We work with students dealing with domestic violence, child abuse, sexual abuse, homelessness, divorce, etc… Through it all, we are entrusted to know and understand state standards, and develop curriculum that meet students’ needs.

In my classroom we have:

o       Met Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoon artist Walt Handelsman to help us understand and create editorial content, Dr. John Shea, a Paleolithic Anthropologist who helps us understand how our past is constructed by scientists, authors Ben Mattlin, Dan Gutman and Donna Gephart to inform our reading and writing.
o       Worked on a collaborative online project centered based on homelessness.
o       Helped purchase land in Haiti, build a school there, and contract with a satellite company to connect the school with the US and Canada.
o       Published our own books.

All of which enriched the learning experiences of my students. No one has questioned my classroom performance more than I have.

Enter 2006, the first year my sixth grade students took the New York State ELA. The test was fair. It reflected some of the standards, while lacking reliability and validity testing required by most research instruments.

While the test was fair, what happened with it was not. First, the state decided, after the assessment was administered, what would be considered passing and failing. The bulk of a child’s score was derived from the multiple-choice section, while most of a child’s time on the assessment was spent writing. The assessment did not provide data that could be used to inform instruction.

The first five years of testing taught us a lot. First, the assessment provides no information we do not already have. We know who could read and who cannot.  Next, the state arbitrarily raises or lowers the passing bar each year after the assessment is given. One year there was a twelve-point swing in what was considered “proficient”. We also know that the test measures a sliver of the state’s standards. In order to provide a rich and rigorous education, the assessment has to be ignored. If I “taught to the test” we would miss most of the curriculum. It cannot be used to drive instruction, nor be treated as a measurement of a year’s progress. We don’t get the results until students are long gone.

We reported our concerns to our administrators. They met with state education officials several times throughout the year. Each time they returned from a meeting, we heard the same response, “No one is listening.”

By 2009, we were looking at Common Core Standards, and thinking that this time things would be set straight. While working on my doctorate, we were invited to read the standards and offer feedback. They were rigorous, but attainable. We would continue to use our professional knowledge and experience to get to know our students, identify their needs, and devise curriculum that would help our students meet and exceed those standards.

We were wrong.

Without any teachers or administrators, the state hired Pearson to write its first assessment based upon the Common Core State Standards. It was administered earlier this year, and as the New York State Education Commissioner indicated before the tests were sent to schools for administration, 70% of students failed. This assessment:

o       Was inconsistent with Common Core Standards in that it did not permit students to spend time with text for close reading (there were far too many passages to read and respond to in the allotted time).
o       Included proprietary material from Pearson’s reading series, Reading Street. So districts that purchased Reading Street had an unfair advantage having worked with the material prior to the test.
o       Provided no data to parents or teachers that could be used to inform instruction.
o       Became a tool for teacher evaluation. My score was a 1 out of 20. No one is able to tell me how my score was derived, what I need to improve upon, etc.…

And still, no one at the state level is listening to teachers.

In New York, the answer to a 70% predetermined failure rate, is curriculum (via its own EngageNY) designed to help students meet the new Common Core Standards. Its first math unit for sixth grade is ratios. Teachers know that ratios require that students have an understanding of other concepts such as fractions, multiplication and division, Greatest Common Factor, etc… These come in a later unit. We are sitting with students who cry, because they believe their inability to understand is indicative of their inability to do math.

We have placed public education in the hands of political appointees and legislators who lack public teaching experience. While we argue over who is right or wrong, students are sitting in classes, where the entire curriculum has been turned upside down. We need to start this curriculum shift in kindergarten. We need to rely upon teachers, child development experts, parents AND political appointees to raise standards and design assessments that measure student and teacher progress in real time.

I speak for many teachers who believe in the integrity of our work and the needs of our students. We embrace high standards and evaluations that measure student and teacher progress. It is time to invite us to the table to devise a strategy to take three great ideas –Common Core Standards, student assessment and teacher evaluations and make them help students not hurt them.

You may publish any / all of it. The guidelines for submitting to newspapers state that the material cannot appear elsewhere, but  am confident after two years of letter writing that we do not have to worry about them wanting to publish this. My name, where I teach, etc… do not have to be hidden.

Thank you, sincerely,

Melissa McMullan
6th Grade Teacher
JFK Middle School

“No kind action ever stops with itself. One kind action leads to another. Good example is followed. A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees. The greatest work that kindness does to others is that it makes them kind themselves.” ~ Amelia Earhart