Education Letter to the Next President. . .

Scott McLeod—one of my favorite writers and the mind behind Dangerously Irrelevant—tagged me the other day to join in an edublogger effort to write a letter to the next president before Tuesday’s election.

A part of a larger, joint effort between the National Writing Project and Google, Scott sees this as an opportunity to share our “thoughts, wishes and concerns” with a broader audience.

Being a strong believer that blogs are the great equalizer—allowing teachers to have a real voice in conversations about education—this is a project that is right up my alley.  In fact, a few years back, I crafted a piece with similar themes.  With the magic of revision, I updated that entry this morning. 

Here’s to hoping that Mr. Obama or Mr. McCain actually care enough to listen:

November 2, 2008

Dear Mr. Soon-to-be-President,

I’m a teacher and I’m tired.

Does that surprise you?  Do you find it hard to believe that a guy who works “only 180 days a year” can be wiped out by November?  Is it hard to believe that teaching can be exhausting?

It shouldn’t

On top of the daily challenge of planning, instructing, assessing, remediating, and enriching to meet the individual needs of the 85-plus children that roll through my classroom each day, I wrestle with the constant mental pressure applied by a country caught in the grips of a “crisis mentality.”

Each new week seems to bring headlines highlighting a major flaw that needs to be addressed by teachers immediately.  In the past few months alone, I’ve read articles about alarming rates of high school dropouts, the urgent need for schools to begin comprehensive sex education immediately, the importance of including hormone free cheese on pizzas served as school lunches, the fact that schools tend to fail adolescent girls more than adolescent boys, and (ironically enough), the fact that schools tend to fail adolescent boys more than adolescent girls.

My all-time favorite crisis:  A passionate plea from a group called Project CLEAN explaining how bathroom hygiene is directly connected to flagging rates of student achievement:  “If a school can’t do a simple thing like keep soap in a dispenser, how can it hope to teach students self-respect or inspire them to greater academic achievement?  This is a national disaster and I think we ought to do something about it.”

These guys have even gone as far as to create a restroom checklist that includes 39 different action steps that school principals should take to ensure that their schools succeed! 

Schools are called failing and troubled and distressed.  They’re described as dismal places with lazy educators who can’t be counted on to move America forward.  They’re treated with scorn by members of nearly every political party and every important stakeholder group in our nation.

Heck, during the campaign season, even YOU were disparaging schools, Mr. Soon-to-be-President!

Mr. McCain, you’ve argued that schools are places that seek “to avoid genuine accountability and responsibility for producing well-educated children.”  And Mr. Obama—while I find less negativity towards schools in your education platform, you seem to suggest that schools aren’t always preparing students properly for the future in comments like these:  “We’ll teach our students not only math and science, but teamwork and critical thinking and communication skills, because that’s how we’ll make sure they’re prepared for today’s workplace.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the constant state of panic over education has just plain worn me out!

And that surprises me because I work in an incredibly accomplished school in one of the top urban districts in America.  Wake County’s SAT scores are well above the state and national average, the number of students in advanced placement classes has risen consistently year after year, and over 90% of our students demonstrate mastery on their end of grade exams.

Clearly, good things are happening in our corner of the world.  Because of our proven success, teachers in our system should be able to move forward in confidence.

Yet warning bells are constantly sounding across our country.  Activists demand a “renewed focus” on the part of educators and administrators.  Elected officials campaign on promises to “reform education” and “restore America’s competitive edge again.”  Parents fret over the fear that their child is being “academically neglected.”

And where does the responsibility for addressing each of these issues inevitably seem to end up falling?

In the true spirit of Will Rogers, Ronald Reagan and the trickle-down theory, right on the shoulders of classroom teachers!

Now don’t get me wrong.  I can see the value in each of the areas of focus listed above.  Who would argue against closing the achievement gap, increasing high school graduation rates, ensuring that boys AND girls succeed in school, or teaching healthy living and eating habits?  And—as sarcastic as I may seem—even I would love to see conscientious students with an awareness of the importance of restroom hygiene.

What I am saying is that bearing up under the weight of each new national crisis is becoming more and more difficult for me each year.  As my close friend and mentor Nancy Flanagan once told me, we’re being asked to work towards goals that are “simultaneously important and impossible to reach.”

Subtly, the message is being sent that if teachers would work harder, America’s “educational crisis” could be solved.  If only all teachers were “highly qualified,” we’d lead the world again.  If only all teachers held “advanced degrees in the subjects they were teaching,” we wouldn’t fall behind China, Japan and India in engineers and scientists.  If only we could recruit “our best and our brightest” to our nation’s classrooms, no child would be left behind.

I think successfully educating all children in America requires something more than sounding warning bells and asking teachers to “pull up their boot straps” time and again.  For me, improving education means being willing to significantly rethink how “school” is done in our country.

What if we extended the school day or year to take into account the ever expanding curriculum that we expect students to master?  What if we experimented with electronic learning to extend opportunities or to provide remediation?  What if we emphasized critical thinking rather than standardized testing in our assessment programs?  What if we lowered class sizes and increased access to technology for all students?

What if we provided more time for teachers to collaborate with one another or to master new instructional strategies and skills?  What if we raised teaching salaries to compete with the private sector jobs that lure accomplished educators away from our classrooms?  What if we created a menu of compensation packages that appealed to teachers at different points in their careers or stratified the profession, providing opportunities to advance?

What if we renewed America’s war on poverty and guaranteed economic opportunity for all of our citizens?

I know what you’re thinking:  “These are the policies I’m proposing, Bill.”

Forgive my skepticism, but I’ve been around classrooms long enough to doubt.  You see, as a teacher and a citizen, I believe in our public schools and their mission. 

I just can’t handle the next great crisis alone!


Bill Ferriter

6th Grade Teacher


31 thoughts on “Education Letter to the Next President. . .

  1. K. Borden

    The reformer I am watching closely is Michelle Rhee. She first came to my attention in a C-Span Book TV interview and I have since googled her to watch her progress. Obama’s election could impact it.
    I am not unfamiliar with the conditions in schools like the one where you teach. I have long volunteered and followed education and issues related to poverty. At times I attended some of those schools.
    Let me suggest one sure to be controversial reform. Allow those students who could do so to be educated through a combination of online learning and consultive services. Rethink the way we do sports and arts education. Take the savings and apply them to the students who need so much more (including a place to be all day) and go all out to end poverty in a generation. It wont happen though. Too many people would find it not equitable or just.

  2. Ed Ruminator

    Thank you for referencing this article. I found it thought provoking, and I will research the three reformers presented to learn more about their respective programs.
    While no Harlem Children’s Zone, our school is rampant with support for families. I mentioned the clothing donations. We also have a PreK program that graduates students who enter K reading. We have a social worker who often visits homes to get paperwork signed or link parents with various community agencies. We have a Rosetta Stone lab run by a highly qualified teacher, not only for our ESOL students, but it is open to the community. Our teachers are ESOL endorsed, and we have ESOL paraprofessionals to provide additional supports. Free mental health services are available – in school, in the home, or at the agency – for students and their parents. We have a school-wide behavioral support system to promote positive behavior. We have all of the latest technology from CAV systems to student laptop carts. We have READ 180. We have inclusive classrooms. Our instructional programs have websites that can be accessed from any computer with the students’ login information (free access in public libraries)so additional practice and remediation is available. We have the boys and girls club before and after school (scholarships available), and our own after school tutorial with free transportation. We have additional tutorial programs that are free for families, some even go into the homes. Volunteers donate food for the hungry, and not just at Thanksgiving time. We receive hundreds of brand new toys to ensure the neediest receive at least one gift during the holiday season. Parents voluntarily tutor, and our PTO routinely seeks ways to enhance the lives of the children. The list goes on; suffice it to say that we strive to combat the perils that plague our students’ lives both in and outside of the schoolhouse.
    I can see how you find my comment about the parent’s indifference shocking. Indeed, I have and continue to work with drug and alcohol addicted parents, as well as those who have been incarcerated, live with HIV, are angry, some who are illiterate, work multiple jobs, have no utilities, have no hope . . . but in every instance they have at least feigned concern or ignored contact attempts. I think this current interaction troubles me mostly because the problem, seemingly, is within the mother’s control. I have asked myself, beyond the eye rolls and curt replies, “What is this mother trying to tell me?” Remember, this is a real, current dilemma that waits to be resolved. The only conclusion I have surmised thus far is that she will do things her own way, despite the cost to her child(ren).
    You suggest walking clubs, etc. Good idea, and I may check to see whether other children living in the area can assist. I can brainstorm other possible solutions, but based on my interactions, it doesn’t appear this mom is seeking alternatives. She is set on doing what she wants. There is more to the story.
    The latest school start time in our district is 9:30, and since our school is the furthest north in the county, the question becomes, “If the two children who live closest to their school are arriving at 9:30, what time are the others arriving to school?” Whether we assume the others ride the bus, which would surely arrive no later than 8:45 because of the distance between schools, or that she drops them all off, there is a discrepancy.
    So, you might say, perhaps mommy works all night and only gets home in time to get the children out at that time. Understandable. Communication is essential. By the way, there were two other adults in the car with them. Perhaps they can assist, or perhaps mommy could be proactive and say, “I’m having trouble, but if you know of a better way . . . ” Instead, she assumes a combative disposition and thrusts her children into the abyss of school failure.
    In many cases, adverse consequences, such as intrusions from children’s services agencies in the home, compel individuals toward compliance. At other times, more support is the key. All I know is that I really am tired of the apathy. It is taxing!
    Despite my fundamental beliefs, I can support standards-based instruction. I take courses virtually every quarter to learn as much as I can about effective instruction and school leadership, while writing a dissertation to complete a doctoral degree. I work long hours, often at the expense of quality family time. My door is always open to colleagues, parents, and students. I am bound by every mandate mentioned in the original post, and still, I have to summon the will to combat a willfully contrary adult.
    In the end, I will likely shift focus and embrace this as yet another challenge and look forward to the satisfaction that comes from knowing I gave my all. Yep! That’s it. It’s not about me. It’s about them.
    I suppose no one really knows the answer to our country’s educational crisis. It is likely we will continue to have passionate debates, and hope that what unfolds is a blueprint of meaningful and lasting transformation.

  3. K. Borden

    “Even still K, I have to ask what you suggest we do for her?”
    She lives within two miles of the school, thus why no bus. Surely other students live within that range as well. Her concern was that her little ones could not walk alone. Gotta wonder if a walkers club could be formed?
    You have experience with the area, is it a safe enough place for a group of kids to walk together? How many kids are already walking within the area?
    You indicated the school board is already considering reversing the two mile policy. A letter to the board members explaining the issue and the problem presented (lost instructional time) wouldn’t hurt.
    I have actually seen churches or community groups use vans/vehicles to overcome the two mile issue in other areas.
    My point largely is to shed light on the contradictory messages sent when when parents are told to be more responsible and simultaneously remove responsibility from them.
    You said: “In fifteen years of urban education, this is the first time I have encountered a parent so blatantly apathetic and dismissive”
    There must be more to this story. Just in working as a volunteer I have encountered parents far less cooperative than this. Drug abuses especially create some impossible situations. I have seen issues at all income levels. For this to be the worst you have seen in 15 years is just…wow.
    The creation of “Promise” zones modeled after the one in NY is a significant part of the plan. See
    To quote that article: “What is most interesting and novel about Obama’s education plans is how much they involve institutions other than schools.” It gives an introduction to three individuals influential on the Obama plan.
    I agree with you that there are many families who would benefit from the option of taxpayer funded childcare from birth.
    Support for a full year school year with hours reflecting work hours is pretty significant as well. Some because they advocate more instructional time, some because they see a means to allow parents to increase earnings.
    Currently proposals tend to all include the stipulation that they will be voluntary/optional. Potentially this creates an issue for school systems. In the long run will you have a system for those who need age 0-18? full time care/education and those who don’t?
    It all comes back to what the mission of the public schools should be.

  4. Ed Ruminator

    My response is simple. Forgive my Sarah Palin tone, but “If you wanna have so much choice, pay for it.” Really, if this mother does not want to compromise and accept the limited options, she can pay her own way like I do :-). I apologize, I tried but I could not resist.
    I digress . . . In fifteen years of urban education, this is the first time I have encountered a parent so blatantly apathetic and dismissive.This is no exaggeration. My point here is not to suggest or overlook what for her may be a very real challenge. Considering that school times are posted and printed in April for the following year, it seems ample time was given to make necessary accomodations. Even still K, I have to ask what you suggest we do for her? No facetiousness intended; this could be helpful.
    Having only worked in urban areas, I am thankful that President Obama intends to provide early childhood education opportunities for all children. It is necessary. We have K students who enter school with 5-10 word vocabularies because all that has been required of them is to nod yes or no. We have children who cannot sing the alphabet song. They enter school significantly lagging, and in our state, K outcome testing is standard. So, what often results is that these children are retained for one to three years, and most eventually become members of the overrepresented special education programs.
    The implications are vast, considering that, “The nation’s prison population includes disproportionate percentages of adults with certain demographic and other characteristics associated with low levels of literacy. Compared to the general population, for example, prison inmates are disproportionately minority and poorly educated. In addition, results from the 1992 prison assessment indicated that the literacy skills of this population were substantially lower than those of the general household population (NCES, 2007).” Hence, if we fail to make the investment at the onset, we may pay nonetheless.
    I have spoken with parents and have family members who cannot afford to pay for PreK, especially since most are 1/2 day programs, requiring child care expenses. If we cede the prison extreme, we must still realize that the further behind children lag, their likelihood of dropping out increases exponentially.
    Going back to my original assertion about the need for exemplars, a minutia of drop outs accomplish amazing feats. Virtually every success story is attributable to that “someone” who saw in the individual more than what he saw in himself. Hopefully, as we make the time to exchange wits, we are also making the time to personally invest in a needy child’s life to serve as the proverbial pillar.

  5. K. Borden

    Dear Ed:
    You asked: “If all of this responsibility rests within the school community, what then is the role of the parent?”
    A continuing theme of my posts is to ask those questions directly. If you scroll up a bit I posted the required coursework for teachers to obtain a BA in Education at UNC-Chapel Hill. Are teachers social workers with some training in instruction? Reading the syllabi for the courses shows just how true this may be.
    You noted “As educators, we often have bleeding hearts” Teachers often enter the profession for that reason, to change lives. A common theme is to recognize the positive impact obtaining an education has had for them and to want to give that gift to others so that they too may be transformed. As you stated it, “I said then, and I still believe that the best gift you can give a child living in poverty is the gift of education.”
    Here is the problem. Educating a child who must shed a litany of poverty imposed distractions, deficits and challenges before he/she may be engaged to learn requires the near impossible.
    What is the role of the parent? While you are able to articulate the many demands facing you as a teacher, you are not seeing the whole life of these children.
    School is not their life, it is a large part of it but not all of it. At night they sleep somewhere, during the summers and vacations (or track outs if year round) they are living otherwise. Mornings and afternoons they are somewhere. Your classroom is one experience for part of one year in the scheme of far more. Do you really believe as you stated “, the parents’ only real responsibility is to get them to school, on time.”?
    Before they ever came to your class (1st grade I believe you said) they lived between 5-7 years. They learned and experienced a great deal before they ever came to you to learn more.
    One of the reasons President-elect Obama seeks more programs for ages 0-5 is the belief Head-Start starts too late in the child’s life. Early Head Start, universal preschool…quoting the website “Obama-Biden plan places key emphasis at early care and education for infants.”. Thus, more government assumption of responsibility and less parent responsibility?
    Our government is omnipresent in the lives of the poor, especially those with children. I made the point earlier, but teachers are in some ways just one more government worker in their lives.
    Policy issue to consider: Can the government help without assuming responsibility for outcomes? Is it going to boil down to government provides care all day, you just turn off that tv and read to your kids once we are done with them for the day and all will be fine? Or as you put it “If all of this responsibility rests within the school community, what then is the role of the parent?”
    You may not see the threat in this statement: “When the absences accrue, you will be investigated.”, but it is there and poor parents have heard about the investigation threat a great deal. She may even know by now just how empty the threat is, proving neglect/abuse to a degree sufficient to result in removal of children from the parental home is tough to do. State law still tends to favor the “best interest of the child” being parents, but maybe with time schools will indeed take that place.
    Keep in mind as well, most of the parents you deal with as a teacher today were someone’s student in a public school a few yesterdays ago. You described the cycle, and perhaps you could go back a generation and blame the grandparents, who also likely attended public schools.
    At some point the mission of public schools must be clearly and honestly defined. If the government intends schools to be agents of change (as many teacher education programs suggest), then responsibility for outcomes needs to be assigned. Or, we must support those parents who need it some other way.
    You can say that with all schools do why don’t parents make it all better otherwise? Or you could ask, with all schools have been trying to do for so long why do we still have poverty? The gift has been given (education) over and over, but those darned parents (former students) just haven’t taken it?
    You said: “I feel that this mother’s behavior demonstrates a lack of responsibility. Why enroll your children in different schools and become flippant when confronted about tardiness?” You also noted you did not tell her about her son bullying others because your school can and does handle discipline issues. As a parent she is not expected to be involved in the discipline of her child, but by golly send them to a school further away so we can give them this gift we want so badly to give? Hey lady we gave you a “choice” now use it like we want you to! You wanting some of your younger children at school close to your home just doesn’t cut it, you need to choose what we tell you. We know what your children need, you obviously don’t. We don’t care about your issues with transportation, we got a gift to give here and you take it or we investigate ya. (Oh, by the way, we have the discipline covered.)
    Surely, not what you intended to say, but what she could hear.
    She may have “choice”, but not the means to access it. Thus she has to make compromises. She described hers rather well to you. She chose to have her younger ones closer to home. Can’t speak for her but I know as a parent, K-8 in one school isn’t a choice I would choose. Efficient yes, but with the issues in the world today the idea of a young child on the same campus with older ones is not very appealing in the public schools. Maybe that is her concern as well.
    Giving an education without addressing the debilitating issues associated with poverty is like preparing a five course meal and trying to give it to someone with a stomach virus. They can’t eat it, or if they do they wont keep it down for long. (yuk!)

  6. Ed Ruminator

    I thank you for such a provocative response to my thoughts. It is definitely a case for looking through the eyes of another, and it gives me cause to ponder.
    To the mother’s credit, she was at school for the sake of signing tutoring papers to enroll the children in our after school program. That said, I feel compelled to share a bit more . . .
    Perhaps additional information, such as the real reason I ran out to the parking lot to speak with the mother is because her son has been punching other children on the playground and telling them he will “blow their brains out.” However, I did not even address the bullying issue because I thought it was more important to emphasize him getting to school on time for reading instruction. We can and we do handle discipline issues at the school, oftentimes with the assistance of our school social worker and guidance counselor.
    Please understand that we live in a county that has 23 elementary schools with varying starting times. Parents have school choice options. Because of compounding budget cuts both statewide and nationwide, the district no longer offers bus services to students who live within a two mile radius of the school. No doubt this is troubling, and many parents have expressed concerns and discontentment. It is a matter the school board is working to resolve. Even still, the mother does have the option of enrolling all of the children at the same school. We have K-8 schools. Additionally, she can work with the children at home to make up for the loss of instructional time. Our Reading Coaches often offer parent training sessions, and at Family Reading Night, we had demonstrations of the reading program and showed parents ways they can support reading at home.
    As educators, we often have bleeding hearts. I am no different. Last year, we had two teachers who really felt compassion toward the students in their classes. One bought clothes for a student when the family’s home burned down. The other bought groceries when she found out a student’s mother had HIV and was on the run from the police. Beautiful, right? The thing is, they were both so involved in the harsh lives of the children that they focused on the temporal issues. They both failed to improve the students’ abilities to read well and gain number sense. Hence, both boys are struggling in third grade, trying to catch up. In their end of the year evaluations, I said then, and I still believe that the best gift you can give a child living in poverty is the gift of education.
    That is what this post is about. Enough already. Teachers have to grapple with so many issues that are beyond their control, and they are held accountable for the achievement of every child. Some argue rightfully so. I disagree, but I shudder to digress. Our children have to be prepared for high tech jobs. In a recent professional development session, the expert discussed the growing complexity of all fields. In the service industry, for example, auto mechanics must be able to read and comprehend increasingly complex manuals. Research abounds indicating that many students graduate from high school ill-equipped for college courses; hence, they may spend as much as an entire school year taking and paying for classes that do not count toward their degrees. As we move toward an environmentally conscious society, green jobs are being created, and employees will need to know how to effectively conduct research. I could go on, but the point is that if a child cannot read well, his chances of obtaining a decent, not to mention well-paying, job will be slim, so the cycle of poverty continues. If all of this responsibility rests within the school community, what then is the role of the parent?
    Consider the work ethic she is modeling for her children. Have you ever worked a job and told your boss, “It is inconvenient for me to arrive at the scheduled time, I’ll just make it work when I can?”
    I have counseled, encouraged, cried with, long-suffered about and loved the children whose lives I have had the privilege to enter. I aim to instill in the children the power and liberty of a good education.
    Even still, I feel that this mother’s behavior demonstrates a lack of responsibility. Why enroll your children in different schools and become flippant when confronted about tardiness? My statement to her regarding the law is not a threat. It is a fact. Consider it a forewarning.
    Public education is free, and is a right to every United States citizen. Our school, having over 80% free and reduced lunch, is an “A” school by state standards. It is not by accident. We work with families. We work hard. We collaborate. We hire paraprofessionals to support teachers and provide interventions inside the classrooms. Our teachers commit to professional development. We teach, reteach, and assess. We use data to guide instruction. We have donors who provide shoes, socks, clothing, and underwear for the children. We feed them. In this case, the parents’ only real responsibility is to get them to school, on time.
    Now tell me, is that too much to ask?

  7. K. Borden

    Dear Ed:
    I see the answer in the woman’s statement…
    “I have other kids that I have to take care of, so that’s the only time I can get them here. There’s no bus, and they can’t walk. It’s too far for them ’cause they too little. I have to look out for all my kids. None of them is more special than the other. They all the same, so I bring them all to school at the same time.”
    She has a problem, that to you may seem rather simple to solve…send the kids she just said she tries to to treat with equal love and attention away. She resisted that idea…she is a parent.
    The government, of which you are part, likely dictates a great deal of what she must do and how. You are just one more government worker telling her what to do with her kids. I know that sounds tough but sometimes standing in the other person’s shoes the view isn’t as pretty.
    Her issue is having multiple children without a means to meet multipe start times. She doesn’t “want” her child to miss your instruction, she is just doing the best she could figure out.
    Once she explained the issue, is there no community resource person in your school or counselor? Someone you could go to with the issue and see if they may know a service or resource to help? (Before suggesting she send her children away to a different school)
    You asked: “How does one counter such blatant disregard for the very foundation of children’s lives?” As hard as this may be to hear, school is not the foundation of the children’s lives, the mom they have is. She knows they need her, especially the little ones. She isn’t telling you education doesn’t matter, she is telling you given the issue she is doing the best she can figure out. She didn’t deny her child was late, and she didn’t say she didn’t care that he is falling behind. She said she has a problem.
    “When the absences accrue, you will be investigated.” Can you see the threat? She did.
    Just another perspective on the conversation you posted.

  8. Ed Ruminator

    Thousands, if not millions, of researchers continue to ponder, posit, and prognosticate education and the plight of impoverished families. For some, the solution is more programs and funding. Others believe in the ideal of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.
    I believe a fundamental shift in parents’ attitudes is necessary. I know that this is one of the areas we cannot control as educators. I know. I just hope that the hope that comes from President Obama’s election, and the efforts of individuals to work for his campaign, along with his pledge to hold parents more accountable will indeed permeate and transform our schools.
    We fail, I believe, to realize that millions of our children live in homes with parents or caregivers who are sorely apathetic and fail to realize the value of education. Most have a history of school failure. A previous poster presumably presents from a different era, one where role models and mentors, real examples of hard working people, abounded. Unfortunately today’s impoverished communities suffer greatly from a lack of exemplars.
    Exemplars, whether relatives, friends, professors, the church, Oprah, or simple tv shows depicting wealth and prestige, were models and motivators for me. I always wanted more, and I had a mother who instilled in me the belief that the world is mine. She was and continues to be my exemplar. She attended school conferences and advocated for me when my third grade teacher informed her I was not placed in the gifted class because I was too “sassy,” never mind the fact that I was terribly bored, distracting others because I always finished ahead of them. She fought for justice, and struggled as a secretary to live in a middle class neighborhood so that my brother and I could attend good schools.
    Let us juxtapose this against a conversation I had with one of our parents, who I would say represents at least 25% of the parents at our 80% free and reduced lunch school, just yesterday.
    Me: “Ms. ‘Reeve’ your son and daughter arrive to school after 9:30, on average, four times per week.”
    Ms. Reeve: “I know.”
    Me: “Instruction begins at 8:15. Your son, who is in first grade, is falling behind because Reading is the first subject of the day. His recent DIBELS scores indicate he is at the intervention level, likely because he is missing instruction. He is not receiving interventions because he is not in class.”
    Ms. Reeve: “I have other kids that I have to take care of, so that’s the only time I can get them here. There’s no bus, and they can’t walk. It’s too far for them ’cause they too little. I have to look out for all my kids. None of them is more special than the other. They all the same, so I bring them all to school at the same time.”
    Me: Assuming the other children are older and attend a different school, I offer, “I understand how that can be a problem for you. We love your children, and enjoy having them here, but it more important that they learn. What about if you enroll them at a school that begins later, that way they won’t miss critical instruction.”
    Ms. Reeve: “I aint doing that. They gon’ stay right here, and I will tell the school board that too.”
    Me: “Ms. Reeve, please understand what this means for your children. Your son will fall further and further behind. This can affect him long term.”
    Ms. Reeve: “Like I said I’m telling you and I will tell the school board that I am bringing them all at the same time.”
    Me: “Ms. Reeve, please understand that a new policy has been implemented statewide, and five tardies or early dismissals, without just cause, equals an absence. When the absences accrue, you will be investigated. This isn’t necessary. Clearly you are concerned about the well-being of your children. Let’s see if we can consider other options.”
    Ms. Reeve: “I’m not changing anything.”
    Me: “Okay. Goodbye.”
    How does one counter such blatant disregard for the very foundation of children’s lives? Yes teachers are social workers, nurses, instructors, parents, and so much more to students in these areas. This is the reason so many of us are tired and feel overwhelmed. It is difficult, if not impossible to fight a war without competent allies. More than programs and policies, we need people. People who are willing to get into the trenches and mentor children (and their parents). We need hope.
    Without transformation of communities, I believe, we will continue to reach one or two, but the masses will rest in mire and defeat.

  9. K. Borden

    Dear Pete Jameson:
    “Should you ever summon up the courage, you might have a different opinion of why so many who are born into poverty have little chance to escape it.”
    Lets chat a bit about poverty. Been there, done that, learned a lot and found many more “chances” to escape it than you credit as available.
    One problem with learning about poverty by observing or working with it and then drawing conclusions about how to end it is failing to look to the examples of those who did emerged from it. In those examples, lie some answers.
    Let me share with you just a few things I learned from poverty:
    1. Be careful of the “safety nets” it is far to easy to get stuck in them.
    2. This may not still be true but…food stamps can’t be used to buy toilet paper.
    3. Government programs are cumbersome and take to long, in two weeks I found I could work and get a paycheck (waiting tables meant cash right away).
    4. The realization that if I did the same things many of those around me were doing I was going to wind up in the same place.
    5. A shoestring can be strung through a window to operate the windshield wipers if you need to get to work and the wiper motor is broken.
    6. If you show you are willing to work hard and try there are many generous people willing to help you with a hand up.
    7. You can go to school after sleeping on a couch in someone else’s home and learn well if you have been told it is up to you to do the work required to move from poverty to prosperity.
    8. Having parents help with homework is nice, but some can’t.
    9. Multiple families sharing one phone can get a lot done.
    10. Lunch accounts are better than carrying lunch money because you can’t have someone bully them out of you and thus miss lunch.
    11. No matter how poor you are you can find someone else worse off.
    12. Be kind to others.
    13. Use good manners.
    14. People are capable of amazing things, good and bad.
    15. While it is fun to watch the newest movies from a lawn chair on the other side of the fence surrounding the drive-in movies on a hot summer night, don’t get too comfortable.
    16. It may sound cruel but a fool and his money will soon part. Giving cash to people who don’t know how to put it to good use is wasteful.
    17. Hunting and fishing can mean dinner.
    18. Listening to the elders talk about the Great Depression, after a day of work at the mill teaches a great deal.
    19. Misery does love company.
    20. Being able to work hard and smart and leave something financially substantial to your children is not wrong.
    21. Capital gains taxes hurt farmers.
    22. Two jobs make you tired and don’t leave much time for “fun” but they do offer the means to improve your lot.
    23. Black beans and rice in grad school are really like grits and gravy. Lot’s of good folks were teethed on strick’lean meat.
    Yeah…I could go on and on and wax nostalgic. Despite my experience, there are far too many who believe the answers to poverty rest in programs and theories that sound great and those folks will not be open to answers that don’t fit their framework of social justice.
    Mr. Jameson, thank you for your work in poor communities, but please don’t assume anyone lacks the “courage” who disagrees with you.

  10. K. Borden

    Please indulge me in a moment of radical thinking.
    It had been a year since I last looked at the education and training of teachers. What coursework and training goes into the education of those receiving a BA in Education? How might that reflect the priorities and goals of training teachers and reflect what Mr. Ferriter describes as “the complexity of the teaching/learning transaction.”?
    When I see statements indicating the existence of a Secretary of Education in the US in the 18th century, I shudder for many reasons. When I read a teachers beginning their careers filled with enthusiasm and a deep desire to teach state they were told by their professor as a matter of fact that the Secretary of Education has never been a teacher, which is blatantly false, I shudder. In the limited time professors have to reach and teach those who will have our nation’s children in their classroom is this a priority? Shudder.
    So let’s take a look at the curriculum for teachers. Let’s ask, what are we teaching our teachers to make them ready for “the complexity of the teaching/learning transaction.”.
    A visit to the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education website informs an A.B.Ed requires 2 years (4 semesters) of General College requirements. Any BA/BS would require this, so what specific coursework follows that prepares teachers as compared with other degree earners. For the Elementary Classroom teacher, it would be as follows:
    “The program is four semesters long, beginning in the student’s junior year. The first semester focuses on the child and emergent literacy. The second semester focuses on the school, community, society, healthful living, literacy across the curriculum, physical education and aesthetics. During the third semester, in the fall of the senior year, the focus is on curriculum and methods in science, mathematics and literacy. The fourth semester is centered on teaching.” (UNC-CH School of Education Website)
    How does that breakdown, where is priority placed?
    Junior Year Fall Semester:
    **Learning and Development in the Elementary Classroom 6hours
    **Emergent Literacy for the Elementary Program 1 hour
    Junior Year Spring Semester:
    **Working with Socioculturally Diverse Families 3hours
    **Literacy Across the Curriculum for the Elementary Education 1 hour
    **Culture, Society, and Teaching 6 hours
    **Aesthetics Education: Arts, Culture and Learning 3 hours
    Senior Year Fall Semester:
    **Teaching Mathematics in the Elementary Grades 4 hours
    **Teaching Reading and Language Arts (K-6) 4 hours
    **Teaching Science in the Elementary School 3 hours
    **Exceptional Children Seminar and Field Placement A 2 hours
    Senior Year Spring Semester:
    **Exceptional Children Seminar and Field Placement B 1 hour
    **Student Teaching in the Elementary Grades 12 hours
    **Seminar on Teaching Elementary Grades 3 hours
    To understand the mission of the College of Education it is important to read what the program calls the “conceptual framework”. An excerpt follows:
    “Preparation of educational leaders for today’s society is based in values of equity and excellence that assure our candidates’ and their students’ future success…..Within the School of Education, equity is seen as the state, quality, or ideal of social justice and fairness. It begins with the recognition that there is individual and cultural achievement among all social groups and that this achievement benefits all students and educators. Equity acknowledges that ignorance of the richness of diversity limits human potential. A perspective of equity also acknowledges the unequal treatment of those who have been historically discriminated against based on their ability, parents’ income, race, gender, ethnicity, culture, neighborhood, sexuality, or home language, and supports the closure of gaps in academic achievement. Decisions grounded in equity must establish that a wide range of learners have access to high quality education in order to release the excellence of culture and character which can be utilized by all citizens of a democratic society.”
    Equity has been thus defined, how about excellence:
    “Within the School of Education, excellence is seen as striving for optimal development, high levels of achievement and performance for all and in all that is done. In preparatory programs across grade levels, curriculum and instruction furthers excellence when it moves a learner as effectively as possible toward expertise as a thinker, problem solver and creator of knowledge. Excellence entails a commitment to fully developing candidates, not only academically but also in moral and political senses.”
    Hmmmm. “…Fully developing candidates, not only academically but also in moral and political senses”
    Hmmm. 6 Hours Credit for “Culture, Society and Teaching” and 3 Hours Credit for “Working with Socioculturally Diverse Families” compared to 7 Hours Credit teaching Math, Science and Language Arts at the elementary level. 12 Hours student teaching deserves note and this post will already be very long.
    Here is where I become radical. I see this and I can understand clearly how a young teacher is falsely informed in the course of her training that we had Secretaries of Education in the 18th century and that none had ever been teachers or worked in classrooms. I can see where emphasis is placed. I can see why it is very difficult to define the mission of public schools. I can see why integration of 21st Century technologies in the instructional process/curriculum falls short of the possible.
    One possible conclusion: teachers are social workers who happen to receive some training in teaching methods and child development. Radical eh?

  11. John

    Bill wrote:
    The problem that we’ve gotten into with policy makers always starts with the false assumption that teaching is simple and easy—which leads to underinformed solutions, wasted efforts and frustration for everyone involved in education.
    Does this make sense to anyone?
    This makes sense to me, but I might say that the basic principles of good education are simple (talk, read, connect, write, reflect, repeat), but the execution of those principles become more complex with every human being you add to the equation. I have 100 students, 70 colleagues, and at least four bosses. That’s a lot of complexity.

  12. Pete Jameson

    Some good points. I’ve taught since 2000, and I frequently get home at 4:15, exhausted from teaching students in grades 5 through 8. Prior to working in education, I was a community organizer in Harlem, NY. So, when one of the replies questions the efficacy of the war on poverty, I have to differ. The inner-cities in this country are woefully underfunded, and, in truth,underseen. When was the last time any of us spent a day in a school in New York City, Philadelphia, D.C., Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Houston, or L.A.? Should you ever summon up the courage, you might have a different opinion of why so many who are born into poverty have little chance to escape it. Obama’s election is a sign that people are fed up. But, as the author points out, there are a lot of things with which to be concerned. We must start with education, and, as another writer opined, the system is broken and requires RADICAL transformation. It won’t come without heartache and heated discussions, but it will be worth the effort.

  13. Bill Ferriter

    K. Borden wrote:
    Rod Paige (Sect. of Education 2001-2005) was a coach, teacher and administrator over the course of his career prior to entering the office of Secretary
    You know, this conversation about the qualifications needed to be the Secretary of Education is an interesting one to me primarily because guys like Rod Paige prove that experience in education DOESN’T guarantee a good secretary!
    After all, while Paige’s “accomplishments” in Texas were widely celebrated by the Bush Administration, they all panned out to be smoke and mirrors. His testing system—which was used as justification for NCLB—was riddled with errors and inconsistencies.
    Crazy stuff.
    For me, a secretary of education doesn’t necessarily need classroom experience. After all, running any large organization requires skills that go far beyond the scope of experience of most classroom teachers and most education programs.
    Someone with an understanding of organizations, change and financial management can be just as good as a Secretary of Ed as a lifelong educator.
    What I care the most about in a Secretary of Ed though is a fundamental belief in the complexity of the teaching/learning transaction.
    Once that belief is in place, everything else will fall in line: Assessment efforts will become more sophisticated; teacher training programs will emphasize new skills and requirements; Accomplished teachers will be recognized and rewarded; the challenges of working in high needs schools will be validated.
    The problem that we’ve gotten into with policy makers always starts with the false assumption that teaching is simple and easy—which leads to underinformed solutions, wasted efforts and frustration for everyone involved in education.
    Does this make sense to anyone?

  14. K. Borden

    I want to say that I went on to read your linked blog and some of the questioning of what you have been taught as compared with what you have experienced is going to serve you well as a teacher. Your enthusiasm is an asset that your students and their parents will appreciate.

  15. K. Borden

    Note that the issue of whether Rod Paige was the first to enter the office with prior school administrative experience may not be valid.
    See Wikipedia entry for Terell Bell:
    “Bell spent much of his professional career in Utah. He served as a sergeant in the Marines during World War II, and returned to Idaho to get his education. After earning a B.A. from the Southern Idaho College of Education at Albion in 1946, Bell started a career as a high school teacher and bus driver. He later earned an M.A. from the University of Idaho in 1954, and a Ph.D. in education from the University of Utah in 1961. Prior to serving as the U.S. Secretary of Education under President Reagan, Bell also served as the Utah Commissioner of Higher Education.”
    He by the way was the second Sect. of Ed.
    Sorry but, honestly, seek and ye shall find.

  16. K. Borden

    You have been misinformed by those teaching you to teach and that saddens me.
    For example: Rod Paige (Sect. of Education 2001-2005) was a coach, teacher and administrator over the course of his career prior to entering the office of Secretary.
    “Paige is the first school superintendent ever to serve as Secretary of Education. His vast experience as a practitioner-from the blackboard to the boardroom-paid off during the long hours of work needed to pass President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). ” See Dept. of Ed website.
    It took me literally five minutes to enter the google search for former Sect. of Ed, read entries and find the information.
    This type of misinformation in the education of teachers creates opinions that carry over into careers. Arghh.

  17. Laura Kozminski

    Hi Bill – I really enjoyed reading this letter and I think it is spot on. Might I also suggest an addition? I would like the President to choose a Secretary of Education with (oh I don’t know) some education credentials? Our current Secretary of Ed holds only a bachelors in political science. She has never been a classroom teacher. I am told by the professors at my university that this is typical for almost every Secretary of Education since the 18th Century. WE NEED SOMEONE AT THE HELM THAT UNDERSTANDS THE CLASSROOM!!
    -Laura Kozminski

  18. Bill Ferriter

    Dave wrote:
    It seems to me that when one is stating the success of their school’s test scores in their corner of the world, one should include the demographic make-up. Wake County data for Salem MS indicate an economically disadvantaged population at an avg. of around 8%. Other demographic factors are a piece of the puzzle too. Do you believe you’d experience a similar level of success in a school of 50% poverty?
    Nope, Dave—I definitely think that work in a high needs school would be far more challenging. In fact, I’ve written about it extensively. Check out the category in my sidebar.
    You’ve also missed the point of my piece—and in fact, you may be reinforcing it.
    My argument was that I’m tired of addressing every challenge the world throws my way—and being criticized for every failure.
    And I work in a low needs school with few challenges.
    If I’m exhausted, imagine the feelings of those who selflessly choose to commit their careers to work in our highest needs buildings?

  19. D.Culbertson

    Dear President Obama,
    Your messages that the country needs change begins in the schools. The voices emanating from the halls are tired, both the teachers and the students. Excitement, hope, hunger for knowledge, and ways to deal with the world should be what permeates the halls and classes. We aren’t excited anymore. Our classrooms are generations behind the outside world and the technology is not keeping up with the high tech of the work place. The job of teaching lacks the respect the country once had for their teachers. We feel like the students who are constantly derided for their inadequacies. The negative messages from our nation are clear….they need to stop. The world is changing so quickly that we need ways to teach for it and ways to balance the interactions of old and new information. Do we need the classics in English, do we need the New Literacies, do we need the workplace business language? We need it all. Shouldn’t our standards show it? Shouldn’t our ‘accountability system’ show it, or can our accountability system be that students graduate with the ability to feed their families and work with an ethical attitude. Accountability built on behavioral objectives aren’t working. Figure a better way to help. Oh and while I’m at it….stop counting Americans by their race. Who thought that up anyway? How many kids fit into the slots provided by the federal government? What does a student choose who claims four or five ethnicities? Get a grip.
    From Texas, Thank you.

  20. K. Borden

    Demographic’s for Wake County generally are rather atypical. Three major universities (UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke and NC State) in addition to many other private and public colleges/universities operate in the neighborhood. RTP (Research Triangle Park) also impacts the area’s demographics. The number of residents with 2year, 4year or post graduate degrees is much higher as a percentage of the population. The impact of these demographics can’t be discounted when considering AP participation/passage or the SAT performance.
    The EOG (end of grade) tests are NC specific. Comparisons of the performance of NC students to those elsewhere in the nation becomes difficult as a result. Comparisons tend to be more reflective of performance of students to other students within the state, a state which is very diverse in many ways.
    Comparisons of Wake to other urban districts nationally is tricky business for other reasons as well. Wake’s growth over the past two decade, and especially the last decade better reflects a new urban district than attempts to compare it to urban districts which have logged long term experiences with urban issues. Furthermore, it must be noted that the district is an entire county, not a city per se but a collection of cities, towns and neighborhoods. Wake is not typical.

  21. Dave

    It seems to me that when one is stating the success of their school’s test scores in their corner of the world, one should include the demographic make-up. Wake County data for Salem MS indicate an economically disadvantaged population at an avg. of around 8%. Other demographic factors are a piece of the puzzle too. Do you believe you’d experience a similar level of success in a school of 50% poverty?

  22. K. Borden

    At the national level, our new President has majorities in both the House and Senate. States and local governments also shifted. Change has come.
    Mr. Obama has at his fingertips the power at all levels to implement any and every change he has proposed.
    The future is his to write.

  23. Mike

    In light of recent developments, a new letter to the next president seems to be in order.
    Dear President Elect Obama:
    Congratulations. As the President, you are entitled to the deference accorded that office. Respect for the person occupying it is another matter. We earn respect every day in the classroom. So must you.
    We worry, because all of your past dealings in education indicate that you felt entirely comfortable pouring tens of millions of dollars into efforts to turn children into ultra left wing mini community organizers who would hate their country, try to tear down its institutions and agitate for social justice. Unsurprisingly, even the leftists at the Annenberg foundation discovered that all of that money did nothing at all to help children do what we have established schools to make happen: learn.
    If you want to help education, drop the marxist sloganeering, and understand that our job is to teach kids to read, reason, figure, write and function as citizens of America, of the most free and functional democracy in human history, not as citizens of a mostly dysfunctional world. They can sing Kumbaya on their own, and your, time. We need to teach them. We need to give them the best, most up to date instruction and educational opportunity possible, unsullied by political indoctrination of any type. Bill Ayers and his manifesto that education must be revolution just won’t cut it. Don’t get in our–and their–way, not if you truly care about America.
    Yours and good luck,
    America’s Teachers

  24. Bill Ferriter

    Again, all—enjoying the conversation. Mike, I get a “Joe the Plumber” vibe from you!
    Made me smile.
    A few thoughts:
    @kborden wrote:
    As a parent and citizen I can’t honestly say I can define the mission of the public schools anymore. The mission varies from school to school, local district to local district, state to state and one federal policy to another.
    Couldn’t agree more, K. Our mission is varied to the point where I’d even argue that it varies from classroom to classroom in the same building. What I place emphasis on may not match the emphasis placed in the classroom next to mine.
    That’s changing in house as teachers spend more time collaborating with one another, but I find myself always just keeping my head above water when it comes to addressing all of the superfulous (did I spell that right?) challenges that the community throws my way.
    In some ways, I agree with Mike a bit on this one—If politicans wanted to fix schools, they’d get out of the way to some degree. By that, I mean they’d stop giving us new problems to solve and put a relentless focus on a few priorities.
    Isn’t that what Good to Great was about? Didn’t anyone besides me read that thing?!
    @margo wrote:
    It would seem that teachers, if so motivated, have access to a powerful bargaining power to implement some of the changes that you suggest–at least those with minimal cost.
    Couldn’t agree more with your frustration with unions as stumbling blocks for school change, Margo. They generally have been more of a hinderance than a help in the last few years.
    But they’re changing. In recent years, even the NEA has started to do more to support the idea that teachers have to be held accountable for learning and that the union bears a responsibility for policing its own.
    That change in focus will lead to collective bargaining agreements that consider additional planning time—-which teachers need to make the kinds of sophisticated changes we both think are necessary—as something AT LEAST as important as having a mini-fridge in the classroom!
    And believe it or not, its the younger teachers who are entering the profession who are driving this change. They don’t have any frame of reference for “unions” or sense of “fighting for bread and butter issues.” They also don’t have any belief that they’ll be in the same job for 30 years, so unions don’t matter to them long term.
    I think schools will drive some of the changes that you describe over time.
    But there is no way that we’ll ever get out from under the crush of everyone’s external expectations alone.
    It’s time that we stop thinking that it takes a village to raise a child—because that village ends up meaning the schools, and we can’t do everything.
    Does this make sense?

  25. Margo/Mom

    You remark that to “think successfully educating all children in America requires something more than sounding warning bells and asking teachers to “pull up their boot straps” time and again. For me, improving education means being willing to significantly rethink how “school” is done in our country.”
    I agree regarding the need to rethink how we do school–and disagree that teachers are being asked to just pull up their bootstraps. Since the advent of NCLB–and knowing that my kids schools were charged not only with planning improvement, but sharing those plans with parents and obtaining their input–I have been asking questions annually about what kinds of changes were planned to respond to various areas of weakness (drop out, low test scores, piteously low test scores for students with disabilities). The answers that I have most frequently gotten were of the bootstrap variety, “well, ma’am, we’re working real hard on that one.” You offered some suggestions: more computerized instruction, collaboration, emphasis on higher order thinking, changes in compensation packages. Most of these things are possible. However, I could easily find three blogs on which teachers are railing against each one.
    Now when you come to the things that are likely to drive the cost up–higher salaries, smaller class size; or things that fall completely outside the schoolhouse door–a new war on poverty or a better class of parents; these are things that there is likely to be more agreement within the teaching profession. A few that drive cost up and affect teachers–longer school day or year, might be a more mixed bag.
    Every few years, in most districts, a new contract is negotiated with the union. These master agreements tend to contain nearly everything but the kitchen sink–prior notice of meetings, the right to vote on when parent conferences will be held, class size, the right to keep a portable refrigerator in the classroom, rights to use office machines and access to computers and planning time.
    It would seem that teachers, if so motivated, have access to a powerful bargaining power to implement some of the changes that you suggest–at least those with minimal cost. Some of the others might be possible as a trade-off for something else. But the trick is–you are going to have to get the teachers together. I will grant you–it’s easier to get support for a 5% raise than teaching to a higher cognitive level, but it’s certainly possible–that is, if that’s what teachers are willing to get behind.

  26. K. Borden

    “You see, as a teacher and a citizen, I believe in our public schools and their mission.”
    Mr. Ferriter,
    As a parent and citizen I can’t honestly say I can define the mission of the public schools anymore. The mission varies from school to school, local district to local district, state to state and one federal policy to another.
    Is it to prepare every student to attend college? Is it to prepare some to attend college and some to enter the adult community in other ways? Is the mission of public schools today to provide a base of knowledge American’s collectively deem necessary for participation in the adult community? Is it to assure a nutritious meal is made available to every school aged child? Is it to provide students opportunities for daily interaction with other students with diverse cultural, ethnic, racial, and economic characteristics? Is it to compel vaccinations? Is the mission to teach recycling, prevention of erosion, how to maintain clean air and water? Is it to teach that the planet is threatened by climate change? Is it to provide drug prevention programs? Is it to provide gang prevention programs? Is it to provide violence prevention programs? Is it to identify those who may need and not be receiving healthcare and connect them to the programs to provide it? Is the mission of the public schools to teach citizenship, if so how is that defined? Is the mission to teach tolerance of the diverse choices in marriage, cohabitation, family organization our society has? Is it to teach the English language? Is it to provide career placement and guidance? Is it to prevent teen pregnancy? Is the mission of the public schools to encourage appreciation of arts? Is it to teach values (if so which ones)? Is it to provide childcare? Is it the mission of the public schools to promote participation in sports? ………..
    The list could go on and on and on.
    No wonder you are tired.

  27. Mike

    Interesting ideas Bill, but I’m afraid I’m more than a bit skeptical about a war on poverty having anything to do with education. In any case, here’s my letter to the next president:
    Dear Mr. President (or Your Grace, the Supreme Majesty of the Universe, He Who Will Tame the Oceans and Heal the Planet):
    Please immediately obliterate the Federal Department of Education and leave us alone. Don’t you have enough to do with protecting the nation? I know I have enough to do without trying to deal with innumerable, unfunded federal mandates. We can fight our state legislature nicely, thank you, but you’re just too much, so knock it off! Thank you.
    Your Every Day High School English Teacher

  28. Kimberly McCollum

    When I was teaching high school biology, I often felt burnt out and overwhelmed. My best efforts were praised for success and simultaneously condemned for falling short of perfection. I yearned for the kinds of reform you are proposing. I think I’d propose at least one more reform. What if we revisited our “ever expanding curriculum” and reduced the amount of required content in order to allow teachers and students to focus on essential skills for success in our modern world?

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