AN OPEN LETTER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA

BY JANE WEINKRANTZ

 04/21/10

 

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 considerably.  

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 teachers.  

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 Dominican Republic and his mother worked as catering waitress. His younger brother had learning disabilities and a severe seizure disorder. Because they had no health care, the younger child was not receiving proper treatment with the result that the mother spent the hours she was not working in the emergency room. This young man had a job somewhere---off the books---where I am relatively certain he was made to work more than the state maximum for a minor.  (I had no way of confirming this. Most schools haven’t had a truant officer for years.) He fell asleep in classes a lot. I tried my best to help him, but I refuse to believe that his failing the English Regents was a reflection of my competence.  

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 year?  

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 2:30 p.m. , 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 1 a.m. 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 America ’s teachers and threatening to dismiss them if they are “ineffective.” Instead of punishing teachers, let’s look for ways to make their work more effective---by supporting good administration and parenting.  

Sincerely,  

Jane Weinkrantz

Proud English teacher and mother  

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