The Real Mr. Fitz: A Teacher's Letter to Obama: A Lesson in Irony                                                  

A Teacher's Letter to Obama: A Lesson in Irony

The Facebook page Teachers' Letters to Obama offers a lot more than just letters to the president, but I've been thinking for some time about what I would write to the president... or the secretary of education. Or anyone in power who might possibly listen... This is what I finally arrived at as my message.

Dear President Obama,
I am half a year into my twentieth year of teaching here in Florida. I am not sure how much longer I will last in the profession I thought I would never want to leave. I wonder how much longer I can last because as an English teacher, I teach my students to keep a sharp eye out for irony. I practice what I preach, and my irony radar is on full-tilt, bell-ringing, red-strobe-lights-blinking, high alert. The ironies have grown too much for me to bear; I am nearly crushed beneath them, yet people like you seem to be unaware of them. So let me teach you, as I might my students, about Irony. When I use the second person "You" in this letter, I refer not just to you, but to all the "powers that be" in education reform.

Where to begin? There are so many ironies to choose from. Let's begin with the stated goals of education reform. Supposedly, education reform's goal was to improve the public schools. But as 2015 approaches, and the public schools have not achieved 100% success with 100% of its students, it becomes clear that the real goal, all along, was to force public schools into failure by setting impossible goals for them, and then to privatize education. They said one thing: "Let's save the schools." They meant something else: "Let's drive them to their own destruction." That's called Verbal Irony.

Then there's the irony that many teachers voted for you, President Obama, in the hopes that you might turn things around, only to find that you did indeed turn them around-- 360 degrees. You brought us the wonderful world of Race to the Top, which made competition for grants the way to improve education. To compete, states had to push for even more testing and data, and agree to all kinds of top-down initiatives to "improve"teaching. You reversed course, taking what the previous administration had done, and instead of reversing it, reinforced it. This is called Situational Irony.

Then there's the irony we teachers are guilty of. We didn't see what was coming. We pretended that if we just tried harder, everything would be all right, for us, and for our students. Every time more demands were made on us, we simply pushed ourselves and our students harder to meet those demands. Every time we showed improvement, the demands grew harsher. For every obstacle that was thrown in our path, we jumped higher. For every budget cut, we spent more of our own money on our classrooms. We went on believing that at some point what we did would be good enough. In reality, nothing we will ever do will be good enough. In reality, the goal was never to let us succeed, but to close down the public schools. We were unaware of the big picture. This is called Dramatic Irony.

But those are just the Big Three ironies. What really gets me down is all the other, smaller, yet more insidious ironies piling up on top of us.

For instance, the more we succeed on raising test scores, the less likely it is our students are actually learning anything useful, since standardized tests represent only a myopic, narrow, constrictive, binary, reductionist view of what learning is. So as our test scores go up, real learning goes down. Situational.

On a similar note-- we worry that bad teachers wasting tax payer money, so we scrutinize them by using a whole array of testing and data to analyze their effectiveness. We hire testing companies to create and score tests, third person companies to evaluate the reliability of the tests, test security companies to make sure the test is secure, statisticians who know nothing about teaching but create value-added statistical formulas to evaluate them based on data-- all on the tax payer "dime." And who is making sure these companies are actually doing their jobs? Who evaluates the evaluators? Situational.

We accuse teachers, who actually work with our students on the front lines of education because they care about students, of greed. We never accuse testing companies and statisticians of greed. They are obviously in it for the good they know they are doing students. (That last sentence was verbal irony on my part.)

Testing companies actually say that their tests shouldn't be used for teacher evaluations. But they never refuse to supply a test to districts on principle.

Our relentless desire to raise test scores causes us to focus relentlessly on our lowest students. The lowest students are put in "intensive classes" where they are skilled and drilled on test scores. If we actually looked at why our highest scoring students score high, it's not because they were skilled and drilled a lot, but because they read a lot.

And meanwhile, as we focus our misguided attention on our lowest students, our highest achieving students, who need to be challenged and pushed beyond what standardized teaching can provide, are still putting up with test prep.

Our value-added models are based on learning gains, so teachers who teach the gifted are sometimes unlikely to show many gains. High level students are in as much need of excellent instruction at their level as supposedly low-level students are. Gifted students drop out at a higher rate than the general population-- in part because they are bored. One wonders if teachers of the gifted will start to drop out, too, to go to a position where they can show more value-added gains.

Apparently business leaders are calling for more creativity in their workers. We are killing off creativity in schools, in both teachers and students, and getting ready for multiple choice questions does not make anyone, teachers or students, creative.
You say you want teachers to be in the profession because they care about students. But you assume they are actually in it for the money and try to bribe them with merit pay.

You say you want excellence, which implies that some teachers can do a better job than others, but then micromanage teachers to make them all the same. You tell teachers they will be evaluated on results, but then tell them exactly how to teach, so that they aren't really responsible for the results.

Great teachers are insightful about their subjects, always seeking to grow, to read, to research, to find new ways to think about their subjects and improve their teaching, so you create a set of Common Core Standards that reduce academic subjects to a series of calcified, petrified skills and make growth, change and innovation all but impossible.

We compare our test scores to those of other countries. Yet Finland, for example, which is the star of international test scores, tests as little as possible, has very few standards, values teachers and pays them well, gives them lots of autonomy and focuses on creativity and project-based learning. So what do we do, upon seeing Finland's success? We test everyone as often as possible, even our preschoolers, vilify teachers, create ever more standards, rob teachers of their autonomy, and discourage creativity in teaching in favor of data wrangling and test prep.

People learn best when they are engaged and happy, when there is joy and enthusiasm in the classroom. We are killing off engagement, joy, and enthusiasm, and replacing them with boredom, blind obedience, and stress.

As an English teacher, I teach my students stories about the underdog standing up for what is right, taking the road less traveled. As a teacher, I am being asked to conform, to do as I'm told, even if it goes against everything I believe about teaching.

When I attend our county's Teacher of the Year banquet, I see videos of students, elementary through high school, saying that their teachers are great because they are "different" and "creative" and "fun." And then we go back to being told to all teach in a "common" way the next day.

On a personal note, I won at my Teacher of the Year banquet a few years back, and I now feel that the very things that made me a winner- creativity, insight, creative instruction, creative assignments-- are all liabilities now. I should teach the way I'm told, using the assignments and assessments I'm given, and keep my mouth shut.

Education Secratary Arne Duncan has said we want a "great" teacher in every classroom. Do we even know what that phrase means? What is a "great" teacher? A great teacher comes up with activities, assignments, and assessments that will engage students and lead to real thinking and questioning. If all my activities, assignments, and assessments are scripted for me, what is left for me to do well as a teacher-- talk louder? You can't have standardization and excellence.

I came into this profession because I love my subject,and I want to turn students into readers and writers, and I have creative ideas for making this happen. If I am no longer allowed to do those things, if I am being forced to be a curriculum dispenser, what options do I have? Leave for somewhere that allows me more autonomy? Where might that be-- a charter school or private school? Could this be what we wanted to have happen all along-- to drive our best talent out of the public schools to other venues? It's already happening.

In all of this education reform going on to improve our schools, the discussion we are not having is this: What are schools for? To create an obedient, pliable work force? To create a good economy? To make our test scores competitive with the rest of the world? Until we figure out that these purposes for schools are too shallow to serve, until we figure out what schools are for, everything we'll do to "reform" education is likely to fail.

I can't think of a single thing going on in public education  right now that makes me want to stay in my profession. I know of very few, if any teachers who are happy about what's going on. And yet, no one is listening.

The ultimate irony is this: reformers are saying we should put students first. That is what I try to do every single day in my classroom. But I feel the reformers are putting everything but students first: test scores, data, common standards and assessments, value-added models, and standardized curricula are all coming first. Real, flesh and blood students with real problems, hopes and dreams are the last thing on the reformer's agenda.

I hope you will listen. I hope you understand our frustration a little better now. If not, that would be ironic.

David Lee Finkle