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An Open Letter to President Obama About Our Education System

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Letter from Dr. Thomas Brush to President Obama

April 26, 2012
Dear Mr. President:

Throughout your first term as President, I have remained mostly silent regarding your policies towards education and the preparation of our future teachers. As with many individuals who have devoted their lives to education, I was ecstatic when you were elected in 2008 – believing that the dark days of "No Child Left Behind" were truly behind us. However, as this new election cycle approaches, I can no longer remain silent regarding your education policies.

I have watched as you have supported and even embraced policies and “fads” that have continually undermined our teaching profession – leading to the latest Pew Institute study reporting that our teachers have the lowest level of morale at any time in the history of our profession. I have watched as you have supported policies and “fads” that quality research has continued to determine at best as no more effective than our current education system, and at worst as less effective in providing excellent education to our children (e.g., charter schools, school vouchers, incessant student testing).

My state of Indiana has embraced the policies that are generally supported by you and the US Department of Education, and have increased the testing requirements for both students and future teachers. I just spent an hour today in a meeting with representatives of the testing agency who are in the process of developing three levels of assessment for our future teachers – basic skills, content, and pedagogy. They will earn millions upon millions of dollars in developing and administering these tests (for a fee) to future teachers I work with every day in order to provide some form of measure that determines if they are “ready” to be teachers. The implementation of this system implies that we, experts in our field who have devoted our lives to help individuals attain the noble goal of becoming educators, are obviously incapable of assessing whether students we work with continuously for two or more years are ready to be good teachers. What other profession can you name that asks this of individuals entering their profession? Perhaps students graduating from our School of Business (one of the best in the country) should be required to take THREE tests to determine if they are ready to be ethical businesspeople?

My daughter has recently decided that she would like to be a teacher. In my opinion, she is one of the “best and brightest” – someone who we try to recruit into the teaching profession, She graduated near the top of her high school class, is energetic and excited to be entering a path that will lead her into the teaching profession, and is devoted to teaching in areas of this country where individuals like her are sorely needed, The truth is, in my role as Associate Dean of Teacher Education, I interact with students like my daughter every day. These students are excited, well-prepared, and ready to make a difference. Then I have to explain to them that the State of Indiana and the US Department of Education don’t trust that they are prepared and that they need to take a series of tests “just to make sure.” Why would any of our “best and brightest” want to even consider entering and staying in the teaching profession given the obvious signs presented by the government that they don’t trust that individuals who want to be teachers even have the skills and experiences to enter the profession AFTER they have completed a degree program?

I will close with this. One of the honors I have in my role is to select a speaker for our "Celebration of Teaching" event in which we honor exceptional teachers from across the state. This year, I was fortunate enough to have the recent Teacher of the Year for our state – someone you have met and lauded as an exceptional teacher – agree to serve as the guest speaker for this event. She gave a stirring speech, and in it discussed an interaction she had with a representative from our state department of education who asked her “What do you think you will be doing in five years?” She stated that she could not believe she was asked this question – the answer was obvious. Of course she would be teaching. She then went on to elaborate how many of the new “rules and regulations” regarding teacher evaluation and teacher preparation were discouraging young people from even considering teaching as a profession. I have encountered similar sentiment from prospective students and their parents with whom I interact. Is this what we want to strive for? Relegating the teaching profession to one in which the successful completion of a series of tests is the method for entering the most noble profession?

I urge your administration and your Department of Education to seriously consider the ramifications of the policies you are promoting and supporting at both the federal and state levels. If you truly are committed to recruiting the “best and brightest” into the teaching profession for the long term, I have first-hand knowledge that your current policies and the way they are interpreted at the state level are not providing any incentives for this population of students to enter the profession, and in fact are serving to hinder the recruitment of these students.

I welcome any dialogue you or your staff would like to have on these issues. Thank you for your time and your consideration of these issues.
Respectfully,

Thomas Brush
Associate Dean for Teacher Education
Barbara B. Jacobs Chair in Education and Technology
Indiana University, Bloomington, IN
Email: tbrush@indiana.edu

 

The White House Response

 

The White House, Washington

May 16, 2012

Dear Friend:

Thank you for writing. My Administration is working to ensure all America’s young people have educational opportunities worthy of their potential, and I appreciate hearing from you.

There is no stronger foundation for success than a great education. We must provide our children with the world-class schools they need to succeed and our Nation needs to compete in the global economy. Our classrooms should be places of high expectations and success, where all students receive an education that prepares them for higher education and high-demand careers in our fast-changing economy.

My Administration has made historic investments to strengthen our education system, including our Race to the Top program—the most ambitious education reform our country has seen in generations. Race to the Top focuses on what is best for our students by engaging state and local leaders and educators in turning around our lowest performing schools, developing and rewarding effective teachers, adopting meaningful assessments, and tracking the progress of our students.

To comprehensively reshape our educational system and better meet state and local needs, we also need to reform the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)—a law that has helped advance accountability and expose disparities in opportunities and outcomes, but labels too many schools as failing and imposes too many unworkable remedies. Because America’s students could not afford to wait any longer for Congress to act, my Administration launched a new Federal-State partnership to provide States flexibility to advance educational reforms in exchange for a commitment to raise standards, improve accountability, and help teachers become more effective. The first round of States to receive flexibility was announced in February 2012, and while they are required to maintain a focus on underserved students, they can now move away from one-size-fits-all interventions and mandates and instead do what is best for students.

The future of America’s economic strength is determined each day in classrooms across our Nation. To be successful, we must cultivate a learning environment with an effective teacher in every classroom and an effective principal in every school. Supporting a strong teaching workforce and inspiring school leadership is a top priority for my Administration. In these challenging financial times for State and local budgets, we have worked to help schools keep teachers in the classroom, preserve or extend the regular school day and year, and maintain important afterschool activities. My Administration has also put forward a robust plan to strengthen and transform the teaching profession through a series of investments to help States and districts pursue bold reforms at every stage of the profession. This includes attracting top-tier talent and preparing educators for success, creating career ladders with opportunities for advancement and competitive compensation, evaluating and supporting the development of teachers and principals, and getting the best educators into the classrooms of the students who need them most.

Across our country, young people are dreaming of their futures and of the ideas that will chart the course of our unwritten history. A world-class education system will equip our Nation to advance economic growth, encourage new investment and hiring, spark innovation, and ensure the success of the middle class. Preparing our students for higher education and rewarding careers fulfills our promise to our Nation’s young people and strengthens America for generations to come. To learn more about my Administration’s work, please visit www.WhiteHouse.gov/Issues/Education.

Thank you, again, for writing.

Sincerely,

Barack Obama