For as many years as I watched your show I never thought I would be starting my own letter with….
I am a public school teacher in Brooklyn, New York. On Tuesday I watched as you gushed over Washington D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and quizzed billionaire bill Gates and movie director David Guggenheim about the state of our nation’s schools. It was a show about education, missing actual educators. You asked viewers to attend the new movie “Waiting for Superman” to help them achieve their “ah-ha” moments about our nation’s “education crisis” –My “ah-ha” moment happened a few minutes into your show when I realized instead of unwinding to an interesting Oprah episode, I would suffer one hour of you and your panel blaming public school teachers for all of the problems with our schools, while heralding charter schools as the answer. Public education is the pillar of our democracy, and watching you and your guests laugh about firing principals, make an ugly joke of teachers’ unions and repeatedly oversimplify issues by blaming teachers, was insulting and disrespectful. You did announce to all the “good teachers” that you were not talking about them—it made light of a subject I take very seriously. The current education reform movement is damaging to public schools, the profession of education, and to students and parents. I work hard each day to engage my students in their own learning and to make my principal proud to have me in her school. I base my value on parental feedback and that of my colleagues and supervisors. I cannot guess if your “Warrior Woman” would rate me as effective, but I wonder…
Many things said on your program within that hour were untrue and/or misleading. Over and over each panel member discussed how difficult it is to fire “bad teachers”--what was strange to me is that NOT ONE OF THEM is a principal of a school. Only a principal would know exactly how to do just that. Frankly, it is the principal, whose responsibility it is as a leader, who must make sure his or her staff is exemplary and capable. Oddly, the only time the word principal was mentioned on Tuesday’s show was when you asked Michelle to tell an anecdote about firing the principal at her own daughter’s school. The issue of teacher tenure was discussed glibly, and since different states grant tenure in different ways, it is unwise and flatly false to inform viewers otherwise. The word “effective” was peppered throughout conversation. “All you have to do is be effective” said Michelle Rhee when she proposed to double teacher salaries (and take away tenure) --not once did she or another guest define the word effective, or describe how teacher effectiveness is or should be measured. The current trend (funded by Race to the Top monies) is to judge teachers’ performance using student test scores. Interestingly, a student in the audience admitted that “she did not test well” and claimed her local public school would judge and track her accordingly. First of all, I have trouble with this claim, and secondly, she makes my point-- test scores (especially the historically culturally-biased standardized state tests) are not always the measure of a person.
One statement rang true for me. It was when charter schools were defined as schools that are “allowed to function outside of the rules.” Let me give you examples of how charter schools in New York City doing just that:
Unlike Public Schools, Charter schools in New York City are NOT open to every student. Most charter schools do not offer the programs that students with special needs or English language learners are entitled to receive and/or if accepted, those students are swiftly “counseled out” of the school. 9 Incidentally, these are the same students who typically score low on state tests, which is how our schools here are judged.) In some cases, charter school operators have direct contact with our chancellor, Joel Klein, and use their status and pull to bypass education laws and policies to benefit their schools ONLY. In New York City, charter schools are given preferential treatment by the Department of Education, and are granted free space WITHIN community public schools to operate, compromising the academic, enrichment and intervention programming of the existing public school. In New York this is called “co-location” (I call it separate but unequal) and the Department of Education depends on it to promote and expand charter schools at the expense of successful public schools like mine. The rooms and spaces taken by the charter school are quickly renovated and given preferential treatment, while the area belonging to the public school is not. I could go on for a while on this topic, but let’s get back to real education reform.
Real education reform means quality neighborhood schools for ALL children. Real education reform looks like this: small class sizes, expanded pre-K programs, parent empowerment and leadership, culturally relevant curriculum, equitable funding for ALL schools, more teaching and less testing, and finally this: parents deserve excellent public schools in their communities. It is time for integrity, equity and the preservation of public education for all students to be embodied in the current policy and reform movement in education.