Dear Arne Duncan,
I hope this letter finds you doing well and that you are enjoying the start of summer! I am writing to you because I am extremely concerned about the current landscape of public education in our country. Late last year I wrote a similar letter to Dr. John King, Commissioner of Education here in New York State, about my concerns but he never responded. I hope my efforts in writing to you won’t meet with the same fate.
As the Lead Learner (principal) of Cantiague Elementary School in Jericho, NY, which is a public school on Long Island, I have the honor of serving a community of about 400 amazing students, 80 passionate and dedicated staff members and 300 invested families. My primary responsibility as the Lead Learner of this community, which I think is the same with every other Lead Learner, principal and assistant principal in our country, is to do what is in the best interest of children - children are our focus and meeting their needs (academic, social, emotional, psychological, etc.) is our collective goal.
Unfortunately, with the tremendous emphasis on high stakes testing, the push to connect a significant portion (40% here in NYS) of teacher ratings/evaluations to student scores on standardized tests and the budget cuts we are all facing (many schools are losing classroom teachers, mental health staff and specialists due to cuts) I am worried that the focus is no longer on children but instead, is all about numbers. These numbers come in many shapes and sizes... student scores on tests (poorly constructed tests that do not assess what students know but instead test their stamina and ability to pick out the right answer without getting distracted by the other tricky choices); points out of 100 for all educators’ end of year evaluations (teachers and principals); dollars in the form of incentives based on Race to the Top (where it is debatable if the schools that really need the money in each state are actually getting the money and then being held accountable for how they use that money); number of students in a classroom as districts cut positions and these numbers continue to grow. The list can go on and on but from my perspective, the message is quite clear - children are not the focus; numbers are the focus.
Yes, numbers matter. Accountability is important. Results are critical. Data is imperative in helping guide instruction and charting student growth. Yes, numbers are extremely important but they should never matter more than our children and the educators dedicating their lives to our children. During this school year, from about the last week of February to the last day of school, the focus for us was on numbers. Whether it was trying to figure out how much time to dedicate to test prep or how much homework to give so we felt our children were “prepared” to sitting with teachers during the last couple of weeks of school and reducing them to a number/category during their end of the year evaluation meeting. This is what is happening in our schools today Mr. Duncan and in my opinion, that is not right. Our kids should have time to create, think critically and collaborate to solve important problems (as a former basketball player, you know how important collaboration is to the success of the team and the individual). Our kids should not be spending their time trying to find the “right” answer. Our kids need more. Our kids deserve better. Our kids should be the focus. This has been crystallized for me in my role as a father. Not only am I seeing the terrible impact of all these numbers at work but I am also seeing how they are affecting my son. His joy for reading, writing and school in general is starting to fade and that concerns me on so many levels.
Fortunately, after hearing you speak last week at the National Association of Elementary School Principals Conference in Baltimore, it seems that you feel similarly on many points. You agree that our children should be the focus. You expressed your concern with things like AYP and high stakes testing (there are those darn numbers again). You spoke about the importance of educating the whole child. Hearing you say these wonderful things gave me hope. Not much hope, but just enough. I started to wonder if you could take those words and turn them into action.
Near the end of your talk, you suggested that as principals we should make the time to get our local politicians and legislators into our schools so they can see the direct effects of “reform efforts” including NCLB, RTTT, high stakes testing and the never ending budget cuts. This is where I started to lose that small glimmer of hope. Mr. Duncan from what I can see in your bio on the US Department of Education site, you have never been a classroom teacher or building leader and so maybe you just don’t understand how things work inside a school. Most of us don’t have the time to try and get in contact with our local politicians so we can lobby for the things that our kids deserve (I agree we should make the time). Instead, we spend our days teaching, learning, handling various crisis, making hundreds of decisions in the span of an hour, being surrogate parents, serving as psychologists, making sure our children eat lunch and have all the tools they need to learn, grow and become college and career ready. On a typical day, most educators don’t have time to use the bathroom. On some days, we don’t even have a bite to eat because we are trying to maintain our focus on what matters most. Our time must continue to be dedicated to what matters most - our children. Our time cannot be wasted on a bunch of disconnected numbers.
This is where you can help Mr. Duncan! As the United States Secretary of Education here is an opportunity for you to support your words with actions that are critical to the success of our children. You could start by reaching out to our local politicians. You could arrange visits to our schools and you could spend the entire day in the different classrooms to understand what our children do well and where they still need to grow. You can see what resources are lacking. You can begin to understand how much the high stakes testing has affected the self-confidence of our children and educators. You can begin to see that the joy of teaching and learning is being tested. You can see the “reform” efforts (NCLB, RTTT, etc.) are not closing the achievement gap - instead, the gap is becoming wider and seemingly unmanageable. You can see that the focus seems to be on the “stuff” we are using to teach - the resources, textbooks, instructional modules, etc. - and not on the educators who are doing the teaching. You can see that the focus is shifting away from our children and heading toward the numbers. Hopefully, in your position as Secretary of Education in this great country, you can help affect change in our schools so that the current landscape of public education begins to shift back towards the positive; back towards our children.
Please know that I welcome the opportunity to work with you to bring about the changes our children deserve and need - and I am sure that many other educators feel the same way and would join our efforts. I am not trying to dump this problem in your lap but I am hoping to raise your awareness so that we could work together to advocate for our children and ensure that they have the education they deserve and need to be ready for whatever they encounter in the future.
Tony SinanisSchool Leader, Public School Educator & Father