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Wife of teacher to Obama: ‘please
stop this runaway reform now’
Dear President and Mrs. Obama,

After hearing of the White House’s recent College Opportunity Summit, I
wanted to share the story of  a student in my husband’s second-grade class.
This student and her classmates, despite their daily challenges surviving the
widespread poverty of rural Georgia, are doing their very best to learn. Their
school is cheerful, but some kids suffer critical emotional distress from life
conditions created by years of economic and social oppression. Still, they are
almost all at grade level. Javier has poured in all of his caring and expertise to
help them achieve this.

The girl, who I will call Tanesha, is the most academically gifted girl in the
class, a real ace at math who also writes beautifully. She does struggle
getting the nutrition and adult attention she needs, but she perseveres.
Tanesha’s goal should be college, but this 8 year old faces a lack of
meaningful funding for her K-12 education. Rather than invest in rich learning
environments for Georgia’s students, much of the Race to the Top money our
state has received is dedicated to a new kindergarten entry assessment
system and more teacher evaluation. Meanwhile, Georgia has reduced per
student public K-12 investment by over 15% since 2001.

That’s the back story to Tanesha’s access to education: the fight dedicated
educators are currently losing against the competitive corporate models
colonizing K-12 schools, robbing them of their autonomy, and attacking
teachers’ vocational identity and their historic civic role.

My husband, as teachers do, cares deeply about Tanesha and her
classmates. Javier holds an MEd degree, is bilingual, and has years of
experience. He is intrinsically motivated, and does not respond to the
financial incentives that stimulate business leaders. Of course, some of the
most ambitious and money-conscious teachers will move into administration
because leading a classroom is hard and not well paid. These days, as my
husband teaches Tanesha and her peers, administrators do “walk-throughs,”
interrupting his classroom with their clipboards, checking boxes about what
he is doing right and wrong. They lean over Tanesha and ask her to point out
the “standard” my husband is obligated to post on the board. It is awkward
and invasive. It also represents wasted money, accomplishes little for the
cost, and is deafeningly uncreative.

This bureaucratic absurdity has other Kafkaesque dimensions. Surprisingly,
Georgia has no approved math book that is adequate for its second grade
students to use. My husband pieces together materials for lessons from a
myriad of resources, keying them himself to the required “standards” of the
curriculum. We imagine the wasted energy of many other teachers replicating
this arduous work each weekend, all separately reinventing the wheel. Money
should be invested here in a quality resource for students’ beginning math
education.

Much of Tanesha’s instructional time is also lost to relentless mandated
assessments, putting her intellect on a scale rather than feeding it. Even
more time is lost on classroom behavior management because there aren’t
enough teachers for the needs distressed children have. Those educators
who lost their jobs in the recession are sorely needed back to give each child
more personal attention. We can’t hope volunteers or philanthropists will fill
their shoes.

For Tanesha’s college future to become a reality our state should be pouring
precious funding into teaching resources and the hard-working human beings
who are doing the delicate, complex, and very interpersonal work of building
the curiosity, confidence and academic prowess of each child in their
classroom. These children will then ask questions, they will invent, they will
have a healthy skepticism, and they will be able to defend themselves from
unscrupulous power.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been quoted as saying that too
many American teachers come from near the bottom of their college classes.
Even if Mr. Duncan did not mean to show contempt for teachers, it is implied
by the fact that their voices are left out of the policies he supports.
Collaborative teachers with a vocation are not the type to be motivated by
competitive evaluation incentives that pit them against each other and against
other schools’ students. Education policy shouldn’t have structures that
ensure there will be a lot of losers. It is immoral to let self-interested
billionaires bully teachers like my husband while he is guiding Tanesha on a
real road to college and democratic citizenship. Overbearing non-educators
ought to calm their egos, open their ears, and find their moral compass.
The constant swimming against the current of destructive reform has my
husband afraid he can no longer truly be an effective teacher. In fact, we now
see that powerful decision makers aren’t focused on supporting teachers to
be effective, but rather they are using teachers as scapegoats for poverty and
cover for reducing meaningful funding for public schools. Their endgame
seems to be privatization, profit and puppeteer-like control over the education
of America’s workforce. So the outcome of Tanesha’s educational journey is
uncertain and scary. And whether my husband gives up or stays in the fight,
she must stay in Georgia’s underfunded schools.

Parents know that children learn better when they are cherished and belong.
Teachers create a healthy emotional atmosphere, on human level, every day
in our schools. For example at recess, when the boys want to play soccer, my
husband also gets the girls involved in the game, and he gets the kids to mix
the teams up so that playing is about community building, not about dividing
up. They love it, and he loves it. He believes in his students, as he knows
their parents—struggling to make ends meet—believe in them.
People want to do this meaningful work, but the reforms are breaking them,
one teacher at a time. I see it in my marriage to a great teacher. He needs
support from leadership to do what he does. We voted for President Obama
twice, because we naively hoped he’d eventually improve his education
policy.

We are saddened that those in power are weakening the teaching profession.
Instead, policy should be to make teaching a great career, one in which the
professional expertise of teachers is respected and listened to. And teachers
have been demanding a leader in public education in this country who stops
putting public education funds into private hands for years. If you believe in
them President Obama, then please stop this runaway reform now. America’s
most vulnerable kids can’t wait until 2016.

Sincerely,

The wife of a Georgia Public Schoolteacher

This piece was originally posted on WaPo's Answer Sheet blog.
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Dana Bultman is an author and an associate
professor of Spanish at the University of Georgia.
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The opinions expressed in this article reflect those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of EmpowerED Georgia Action.
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