"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, April 04, 2011

Peggy Robertson to Obama, Duncan, and the Billionaires Who Own Them

My guest is Peggy Robertson, who taught kindergarten, first, second, fourth, fifth and sixth grade in Missouri and Kansas for 10 years. She was hired by Richard C. Owen Publishers in 2001 to serve as a Learning Network coordinator and spent the next three years training teacher leaders and administrators in educational theory and practice in various states. In 2004 she became literacy coordinator for the Adams 50 School District in Westminster, Colorado. A version of this appeared onher blog, Peg with Pen..
This is an open letter to President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Bill Gates and other billionaires who have invested millions of dollars in support of business-driven education reforms.
A letter by Peggy Robertson
Dear President Obama, Mr. Duncan and The Billionaires’ Club:
We neglect children if we do not provide them with food, adequate clothing, and an environment which allows their health to thrive. We neglect them, too, if we starve them intellectually by depriving them of books and other reading material.
Your favored school reform centers around standardized tests. Children will be tested at the beginning of the year, the end of the year, during the year (could be monthly, weekly; this remains to be seen) and they will be tested in many subjects – not just reading and math. We plan to Race to the Top, quantifying our students’ achievements as we go.
I know you like statistics so here’s one for you: Almost 25% of our children live in poverty.
Talk to a hungry child and try to quantify how the child feels. Talk to a sick child and try to measure the short and long term effects of untreated illness as they trudge to and from school. Visit a child in a school without books and you just try to tell me how you’re going to measure those spiritless, vacant eyes.  
As a teacher, I never found a standardized test to be useful in telling me about the needs and strengths of my students. I already knew these things by observing my students every day. I listened to them, asked them questions, read and evaluated their work. I talked to them, watched them, and saw how my students changed from day to day.
I worked in very wealthy schools and very poor schools, so I have been able to watch how wealth and poverty play a part in a child’s education.
When a child came to school hungry, he or she couldn’t pay attention. When a child came in dirty and smelled bad, I noticed that he or she turned inward and avoided their classmates and avoided my eyes.
When a child came in tired because he had been babysitting his younger siblings while his mom worked the night shift, I noticed that he fell asleep at his desk.
When a child spent the previous night hooking up a long extension cord from the neighbor’s trailer to their family’s trailer to get electricity, she was filled with anger, unable to concentrate and had an impulse to lash out.
When children were poorly clothed, they were uncomfortable, often cold, sick and lacking confidence to even consider their own potential.
A child who browsed a school library that was filled with only old, tattered books was less likely to read, and more likely to get involved in gangs.
The standardized test did absolutely nothing to support the child, nor did it do anything to support my ability to meet the needs of the child. I already knew what the child needed. And I knew that the standardized test was the least of my students’ worries.
I have also watched children in wealthier schools. I have seen their clean clothes, their well-packed lunches, their light skip as they enter my classroom. I have seen their independent reading books fall out of their desks due to lack of room to store the surplus books that the parents keep buying.
I have seen their keen, excited glances as they talk, share and brainstorm new ideas and creative thinking. I have heard their laughter fill my classroom and spill into the hallways and the playground. I have seen their parents go off to work where they make money to provide food and shelter for their children. I have heard the parents discuss the child’s college fund and the unlimited opportunities in the child’s future.
The standardized test was useless in improving achievement in these schools as well. I already knew what these students needed, because I am a teacher and I am a professional.
I can tell you my students’ strengths, their needs and their attempts without looking at the results of a standardized test. I evaluate my students during the school day, at home and in my sleep. I assess them as they read, write, talk, move and breathe. Educator Stephen Krashen states, “The repeated judgments of professionals who are with children every day is more valid than a test created by distant strangers.”
I am highly offended, President Obama, Mr. Duncan and the Billionaires’ Club, by your lack of respect for me, and your audacity in assuming that you can help me evaluate my students. You don’t know my students and you don’t know what I know about teaching, learning and children.
You see, I studied education and actually did extensive teacher training, as well as completing my master’s in English as a Second Language and pursuing additional doctoral work in Multicultural Education. I am a teacher and I am a professional.
I have read Krashen’s article entitled “Children need food, health care, and books. Not new standards and tests.” It is crystal clear that we do not need state standardized tests to tell us how America’s children are doing within the public school system.
In addition to the teachers’ observations, we also have the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, which “is the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas. Assessments are conducted periodically in mathematics, reading, science, writing, the arts, civics, economics, geography, and U.S. history.”
The NAEP is given to a sampling of children across our country and is then used to show how the results would look within larger groups. As Krashen says, “If we are interested in a general picture of how children are doing, this is the way to do it. If we are interested in finding out about a patient’s health, we only need to look at a small sample of their blood, not all of it.”
I can dance, laugh, sing and do somersaults in my classroom in an attempt to help the child pay attention and do well on the state test. But if a child is hungry, tired or sick, I doubt that the resulting test score will reflect and enhance what my student really needs and really knows.
Butthe wealth of knowledge they have about life leaves me speechless. You should read one of their reading logs. Now that is an evaluation that would be useful. Many of the children living in poverty know how to problem-solve and maneuver through life in ways that would leave me crying alone in a corner if I attempted to do the same. They don’t need standardized tests to label them failures.
American children not living in poverty, by the way, score extremely well on international tests. Our children living in poverty are the ones scoring poorly. Poverty is the problem.
As Krashen states, we can protect our children from poverty by feeding them, providing them with health care, a clean environment and school classrooms and libraries filled with books.
Arne and  Eli at Inauguration Ball 
Studies state very clearly that fewer books mean lower reading scores. Since scores are what you’re looking for, why not take that test money and buy books instead? The books would remain in the library for years to come and be read numerous times – not held under lock and key and placed on students’ desks at designated times each year. And imagine how much time our children would have to read if teachers could quit teaching to the test.
Let’s ditch our reliance on standardized tests. If the United States would provide our poorest children with healthy food, school nurses, clean school environments and books, we could easily score at the top of the world. We wouldn’t need to concoct a crazy race to get there.
Peggy Robertson

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