Dear Mr. Obama, Please Stop!

I have become desperate. Desperate enough to write a letter to the president. I decided to post the letter that I will be sending him and CCing to Mr. Duncan. The recent news day about the one error that New Jersey made on such a high-stakes RTTP application, which will resulted in a $400 million lost to students, has shown that something is wrong. I hope that Mr. Obama listens to some of my concerns.

President Obama

Dear Mr. Obama,

This is my plea to you. I am quickly losing hope in your education agenda, and so are many of my colleagues. My state applied for Race to the Top funds and lost. That’s fine, but you have fundamentally changed education to become what author Alfie Kohn says is a “quantification mania.”

I have one question for you Mr. Obama.

What happened to learning for the sake of learning?

Albert Einstein in On Education argued, “[the] crippling of individuals I consider [is] the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.” Who knew that Albert Einstein had such a viewpoint on modern education even during his time? Mr. Obama, in your “truce to teachers” you said that your loosening up on some of the “quantification” rhetoric has nothing to do with politics; rather “it’s a back-to-school message that fits squarely into [your] plan for economic recovery, stressing the role of educators in shaping a competitive American work force.” Why wasn’t your message about learning, developing as an individual, or enhancing upon a democratic society? Mr. Obama with all due respect, whether or not you toned down the more inflammatory rhetoric of your agenda, the underlying tone is still prevalent – using market based tactics in education.

“The advent of the standards and accountability movement in the 1980s, with its reliance on test scores to measure student performance, gave economists the tools to gauge the effectiveness of schools in a more nuanced way.” (Harvard Education Letter, Sept. 2009) There are two important elements in regards to the advent of the standards and accountability movement. First, the 1980s saw the surge of ECONOMISTS in education. Mr. President, this is a far cry from the early days of curriculum and learning development that centred on the advice of psychologists and educators. Secondly, the use of the same tools that economists use to understand the markets and labour has created a nuanced way of looking at educational issues.

I understand for better or for worse economists are part of the group of people offering their perspective on education especially in a 21st century global economy. However, it is important that policymakers (like yourself and Mr. Duncan) exercise pause when developing the techniques that will be used for economic reform. The “nuanced way” that economists use to look at education reform has muted or silenced the various different issues that exist in school districts and more importantly AROUND school districts. The more disturbing element is that the reforms developed by economists are being implemented where the help is needed the most. This is why it is important that you remember your constituents (educators, parents, teachers, and the union) and stand up against unyielding adoption of market tactics in education reform.

Mr. Obama, I agree with you 100%. We absolutely must fight against the status quo. However, who or what is your definition of the status quo? One of the most ubiquitous terms used to describe people who fight against market tactics in education is the STATUS QUO. A study of history of the status quo will yield that depending on the particular decade/era, this group of people has changed. The status quo has been the government, districts (in the 80’s), parents & students (in the 90’s), schools (in the 00’s) and now the new decade has ushered in teachers as members and perpetuators of the status quo. In each of these decades there has been propagation that reforming whomever the status quo entails will be the “step in the right direction” towards improving education. “With knowledgeable scholars (like yourself) uncritically embracing broad generalizations about the relationship between [the status quo] and academic achievement, it is not surprising that we also find widespread acceptance of this perspective among educational practitioners and the general public.” (Noguera, 2003)

It is the “knowledgeable scholars” who side with the “nuanced view economists” that have allowed the skewing of the discussion of education reform for the last thirty years. There are many people who are more knowledgeable than I am on the specific reforms, however I am aware that the US has been working on education reform for more than thirty years (i.e after deindustrialization). I would venture to say that working on anything for thirty years should yield positive results. However, we still deal with chronically failing schools (especially in urban/rural school districts). How are we going to change this paradigm if we continue to place the blame on a new group of people? How are we going to change this paradigm if we continue to take a nuanced view of issues about AND surrounding education? How are we going to change this paradigm if our “knowledgeable scholars” do nothing to fight against the cycle of blame and the tunnel vision view that has become ubiquitous in education reform?

No Child Left Behind and your program Race to the Top are the most contemporary “nuance view” reforms that have come out of the White House. Both have contributed to the cycle of blame and both have gone in with unproven tactics that so far have yielded little results. NCLB and RTTT have adopted market tactics like performance pay, longitudinal data systems, and choice/competition among schools. Even on face value, do you think that this will improve LEARNING for students? I agree with Alife Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes who said, “I have yet to meet an economist who understands the nuances of how children learn, [and all] the messiness of learning is reduced to data points observed from a mountaintop.” I think the key word in that quote is “messiness.” There is no way to control the messiness of learning, especially the messiness of learning of so many populations of students with different abilities, languages, customs, and experiences. Albert Einstein astutely said it best, “the education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow-men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.”

Mr. Obama, please reconsider your role in education reform. You are not only alienating teachers, parents, and the infamous union leaders, but you are also hurting students. Learning is messy! Data, incentives, and competition cannot solve that messiness. However, working with qualified teachers to develop strategies for learning is the best way. That, Mr Obama, has been proven.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Martin Palamore

Concerned Educator from the Great State of Illlinois

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About mpal219
Educator, Student, Reader, Reformer, & Activist

One Response to Dear Mr. Obama, Please Stop!

  1. Justin B. says:

    These are my general thoughts about the current “reform” movement. It’s become more of an anti-teacher and anti-labor movement. I also find it interesting the line between Democrats and Republicans has considerably disappeared. Performance incentives will only add to the destruction. I would hate for a teacher to see students with $$$$ hanging over their heads. The obvious problems are staring us in the face. We have poverty, scarce resources, and obsessive high stakes testing environments. Those must be fixed.

    Can we just focus on teaching and learning?

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