AN OPEN LETTER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA
AN OPEN LETTER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA
BY JANE WEINKRANTZ
Dear President Obama:
As much as I admire you professionally and
personally, I feel compelled to write in order to discuss The Race to the Top
and your handling of education issues in general. I have been a teacher for over
20 years and my union supported your candidacy. While I never wake up in the
morning and think, “Gosh, I should have voted for John McCain!”
thus far your approach to education has disappointed me and my colleagues
What particularly rankles me is that the
notion of accountability is only directed at teachers. In truth, we have control
over a very limited number of variables in our workday. For example, we don’t
choose our textbooks or our curriculum. Our administrators tell us what lessons
they like and don’t like and we have to plan our lessons accordingly.
In the school where I teach, administrators love group work. Therefore,
untenured teachers are constantly putting the kids in groups for cooperative
learning experiences. Nobody wants to see a teacher-centered lesson with a
standard Socratic questioning approach, anymore. It’s just not sexy. As a
tenured teacher, I exercise my prerogative to use that technique because I
believe it is the most effective and, often, the only one the students take
seriously. Lessons with cutting edge “hooks” and contrived themes may look
pretty on a written observation, but they are not necessary every day in every
subject. Yet, they are all the rage in administrative circles.
Frequently, the turnover in administration
also stymies progress. The district in which I teach has had 17 assistant
superintendents in the last 20 years. One of them purchased a $75,000 reading
software program, left for another position and never implemented it. Five years
later, another administrator accidentally found the program, hired a reading
teacher and finally started doing something about kids reading below grade
level. But who is accountable for dropping the ball there? Surely, not the
Speaking of accountability, what about
parents? Did you read The Kite Runner?
If you did, then you remember the scene where Amir tries to show his father a
story that he’s written and his father is completely uninterested. In a
discussion of that novel, I once asked my class what a parent should do when his
child has written a story and wants to show it to him. No one in the class knew
that the correct thing would be to read Amir’s story! I have to assume that
this is because many of my students’ parents are not taking sufficient
interest in them. Without
parental encouragement at home, it is much more difficult to motivate students
to achieve their potential.
I once had a student who was a recent
immigrant. Although he received ESL services, he had only a partial knowledge of
English, but it was not enough for him to pass the English Regents which asked
him to identify examples of techniques like onomatopoeia and symbolism. This
child’s father was in the
Another of my students came from a broken
home. His mom worked as a perfume saleswoman and was struggling financially. She
was a gentle woman who could not handle her very angry and out-of-control son.
Although he was extremely bright, this student probably had undiagnosed
ADD---something a school cannot completely address as treatment requires
medication---and extremely poor impulse control. I remember the day he grabbed
the fire extinguisher from the wall in my classroom. He obviously had not the
slightest idea why he had grabbed the extinguisher or what he was going to do
with it once he had it. I don’t
think he ever completely grasped why he had to be referred to the assistant
principal for his action either. This young man was also a terrible bully and
harassed several of my female students to the point where they didn’t want to
come to class. Every teacher who taught him had already referred him to
administration countless times. He was disciplined nearly daily, suspended often
and ultimately wound up in jail. I later found out that his wealthy father often
beat him by putting his keys in a sock and hitting his son with the sock. Can I
really be held accountable for that boy’s achievement?
Keep in mind that I teach in a suburban
school district with many excellent programs and a very high average annual
income. People move to the community in large part because
of the schools. In spite of this, it is a daily struggle to insure that all
my students meet with success. Several years ago, there was girl in my class who
was very clearly learning disabled. I even had the school psychologist come in
to observe her and he concurred. However, when I phoned her mother, she told me
her daughter was “just lazy”, suggested I use “fear” to get her to
improve and refused to have the young lady tested for disabilities.
The school district could not compel the mother to agree to the testing.
Was I really accountable when she failed the New York State English Regents that
Finally, let me mention my own son. He was
born nearly 16 years ago and diagnosed with autism at age 2 ½.
Because I have good health care, a supportive husband with a well-paying
job and extremely generous parents, I was able to get my son therapeutic and
academic services far beyond what any school district---and our community’s
schools are excellent---would have ever paid for.
Because I am a teacher and my day ends at
, I was able to drive my son to all those therapists, tutors and socialization
programs every day after school for years, frequently paying several hundred
dollars a week for treatments. It
was not always easy staying up until
grading papers after such a long day, but it was entirely worth it.
My son is an autism success story. He passed all his New York State
Regents last year and is able to learn, with some support, in a typical
classroom. He will be able to go to
college and live independently. Now, let me ask you: is that entirely to the
credit of his teachers or did his parents, have some control, too? And if I
hadn’t been a parent and a teacher
with a knowledge of what therapies and interventions my son needed, or if we
hadn’t had the money to pay for those therapies or if I wasn’t a teacher but
worked 9-5 and couldn’t take him to therapists and tutors after school and he
failed all those tests last year, would that really be his teacher’s fault?
Let’s face it, President Obama.
Accountability isn’t only for teachers. Accountability isn’t even a
two-way street. It’s an intersection where parents, students, teachers and
administrators should meet. It’s time to stop laying educational failures at
the feet of
Proud English teacher and mother
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