An Open Letter to the Powers That Be
Regulators or Educators:
Who Should Run K-12?
Dear U.S. Governors and Legislators:
Forty years ago, when I was young and beginning my career counseling troubled children and teens, I often found myself working with gray-haired veteran educators, school administrators and counselors nearing retirement. Being young and optimistic, I would tell them my ideas for how to fix the K-12 system so it worked better for the growing number of students with challenges. The veteran educators would listen then some of them would tell me how their efforts to reform K-12 education in meaningful ways had failed. They would tell me that they were leaving an education system that functioned no better than when they entered it.
My hair hasn’t yet turned gray, but I am no longer young or optimistic. I spent the last decades wandering North America training teachers and counselors to use updated methods to more effectively teach contemporary students. As I teach, I sometimes hear myself saying that I too will be leaving an education system that functions no better than when I entered it. If I was more honest, I would not just echo the retiring veterans from forty years ago. If I was more honest, I would admit that I will be leaving an education system that is far worse than when I entered it a lifetime ago.
Everywhere I teach, educators say that they are not only utterly weighed down with more and more students with more and more serious behavioral, social, academic and emotional problems, but they must constantly grapple with high-stakes student testing at the same time they must themselves take elaborate, costly, high-stakes competency tests in order to keep their jobs.
Most of the teachers I meet give their hearts and souls to their students but after staring at them all day while I talk, I have to say that a lot of them look quite worn down and some seem to be wearing out long before retirement. Although they say it politely, the educators I train, confide in me that they wonder if lawmakers who work in a state capitol can know enough about the truth of K-12 schools to properly regulate the system as closely, intensely and extensively as they do. They wonder how well you can see into classrooms when you’re looking from way over in Albany, or up in Sacramento, or from as far away as Washington, D.C.
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I wonder too. From your office, can you see what I saw at the school in Cincinnati, where I was asked what teachers should say to students after another yet another young African-American child was shot overnight?
From where you sit, did you know that there have been schools in Texas that have had their requests refused when they asked permission to move high-stakes testing from the morning after the sudden death of one of their students?
In Portland, Oregon, I was asked what is the right way to handle the middle schooler who wrote on the state-wide essay exam about his triumphant return to school after having to drop out due to family crises and homelessness.The boy had received a failing grade for his effort. Do you know that such incidents are so common they have a special name? They’re called “cry for help” essays, and are written by students who are losing the battle to manage their pain; the sadness just spills out of them.
From where you work each day, can you see Phoenix, where high school teachers asked me what they could do to manage groups of defiant male students who repeatedly refuse to wear shirts in class?
Did you know that in New York, it’s routine in some schools for students to swear at teachers, and even shove and threaten them?
In Atlanta, school counselors asked me about what could they offer teachers when students arrive sleepless because of all-night family domestic violence and substance abuse.
In Kotzebue, Alaska, I was asked for solutions for young students who have no sober caregivers to look after them.
Have you ever tried to enter fortress-like South Carolina schools that following shootings, now have guards and extensive search procedures that exceed those at airports?
Before you created the current testing-centric laws that dominate all things K-12, had you heard about situations like these in school buildings from Alaska to Florida?
For those of you who work in government buildings that aren’t school buildings, are you aware that these incidents are not even a little bit unique? Did you know that this is daily life for many K-12 teachers?
So, here’s a test for you, Mr. and Ms. Legislator, Mr. and Ms. Governor: Unless you knew all about what really happens inside of schools as described above, you just failed your final exam.
If you were not aware of the new realities of K-12 education, you could be micro managing and regulating without having the nuts-and-bolts, insider knowledge, college training, practical experience and expertise that this type of ground-level, up-close and personal daily management requires.
There is one question that I have been asked a lot in the past decade or so. This one query may be the most vivid example of the disconnect between regulators and educators. I am constantly asked by educators “What do I say to students when they want to know why they should even bother trying when our school has been graded and the school itself received a failing grade?”
As someone who has walked through corridors and sat in classrooms from South Florida to inside the Arctic Circle, let me suggest a better central focus than high-stakes student and teacher testing. As someone who has walked with teachers and sat with students, it seems to me that it would make more sense to focus instead on teaching children how to become prepared, motivated students with the needed skills to behave properly, and manage any social, emotional or behavioral concerns.
As someone who spent a lifetime training educators to help challenged students succeed socially, emotionally, behaviorally and academically, I just don’t understand how anyone could effectively manage school houses from state houses. I really believe that if you could see what teachers see from the front of the classroom, you would agree that K-12 education should not revolve around high-stakes testing. If you could see what educators see, you would know that K-12 should be focused on something far more beneficial: evolving to better serve the many troubled, defiant, challenged and violent students who come through the classroom door each morning.
“There is no more important test of a nation’s place in history than the condition of its children.” I don’t know if he had high-stakes testing in mind when he spoke, but please consider newscaster Tom Brokaw’s words as a plea for you to reconsider current regulations.
As you work in your government buildings, if you could hear the words being said in school buildings, you would hear teachers saying: “Legislators and Governors, give K-12 control back to educators.”
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