Letters to Diane

Renee Agatsuma

Ms. Ravitch:

Thank you so much for being one of the “lone voices” in the media in regards to Education and teachers. I wanted to write you because I wanted to share my store with you – I am a National Board Certified teacher in Science. I actually left education last year and am now back in science – I will be getting my PhD in Public Health Genetics. I miss teaching, though I still am able to teach undergraduates. I taught for seven years – two in NYC, and five in Seattle, but the System and attitude towards teaching has helped push me back into one of my other loves- science. I wanted to write this to give an example of the ways that these reforms are affecting those of us who are actually teaching.

The recent changes in education, espoused by the Education Reform movement drove me out of education. Seattle was lead by a Broad Foundation graduate while I was teaching there, and I had never felt so disrespected as a professional as I did from her. I agree with some aspects of the reform, and have seen first hand how difficult it can be to get rid of bad teachers, but the bad teachers are not the majority. I completely agree with standards, and evaluating teachers, but NOT the way it is being done. If your measurement is invalid then you can’t make claims about progress.

The studies on what works that helps students learn and the idea that we should hold teachers accountable has been corrupted by the system. For example, research shows students should know why they are studying the things they are. I tried to help students look at the “big picture” by giving them a unit outline plan with the key question for each unit and different questions every day. However, in the evaluation process, administrators would come in, check to see that you had a Main Idea on the Board, check to see that you had written the standard that we were covering for that day (e.g. Life Science 1.5e), and maybe ask some students what the main idea was for the day. They might watch 15 minutes of the lesson, but then they would leave. I was lucky to have good administrators who did more than that, but that “board check” was a way to incorporate the research and I don’t think it was helpful.

Standards are starting to be played out with scripted lessons and pacing plans that don’t allow you to meet the needs of your students (which I know was not their original intent). I used the standards as a basis for what students should know (I always thought it was a travesty that my friend graduated high school in a small town north of Seattle without doing a lab report, an official essay, or learning about Evolution). I looked at their prior knowledge, and tried to use it in context to help them learn. A good friend of mine who teaches in a high needs urban school just south of Seattle gave me an example of this today. She got a grant for field trips, and had an all expenses paid trip with transportation to the Seattle Aquarium along with a beach walk at low tide, but she will not be able to take her students because 1) if one 5th grade class goes on a field trip, then everyone needs to 2) field trips take away from instruction time (e.g. test prep). The district administrators presented the new field trip policy by showing this school’s test scores, then comparing it to the number of field trips they went on, implying that field trips brought test scores down. However, they did not adjust for student numbers, and they are mixing up causation and correlation.

I am National Board Certified in Science. I decided to get my National Board Certification because I saw it as a way to improve my practice, look at research, and challenge myself. After what I learned through the process, I reworked many of my units, and I became more involved in school leadership. I was the Science Department co-Chair looking at data from the tests, sat on the Instructional Council, and the Building Leadership team, and volunteered as a cohort teacher with a program called the Urban Scholars (focused in helping African Americans succeed in school and college). I was involved with the University, and with local Biotech firms and organizations in the Seattle area, getting my students to do real science rather than cookbook labs.

However, what started to happen in my District went against everything that I had learned in graduate school about good education (I went to Teachers College) and everything I know about learning science. I taught Genetics. The Seattle Public Schools, under Broad Graduate Maria Goodloe Johnson, declared that Genetics would not count for Science graduation credit (neither would Marine Science, Ecology, Earth Science, Astronomy, etc). I was on the Science Leadership Team for the District, and we tried to tell them that this standardization was the wrong way to go about helping students learn science and meet our state standards. We had designed the courses we did because we wanted to help keep students interested and engaged in science. I have never felt so disrespected as a professional as I did during that last year. We would be told to go to meetings, where they would ask for our ideas an input, then when we would come to a conclusion and it wasn’t what was desired the results would be changed at the District level but “teachers had input on this”. This is a direct result of the corporate reform model where students are products, and they aren’t even asking those of us on the “front lines” for input.

How do we improve this situation? I do think that paying teachers more could help, but more important is giving teachers autonomy, trusting your teachers, and acknowledging that “it takes a village”. Recently, the Seattle Public Schools released data that showed that African Immigrants were doing better on standardized tests than African Americans. Yes, teachers make a difference with students, but society and family also are important. One kid who broke my heart during my first year teaching was a student P. He was a natural scientist, curious, questioning, and smart, but he was also a drug dealer. He was often absent, but when he was at school, he could pick up on what he had missed and help others. Once he came to school after having been attacked with razor blades, after which he was gone for a few weeks. Then he told me he would be gone for awhile; I knew it was because he was going to jail. I’ve always wondered how he might have turned out if he was in a different environment. There are a reason that high poverty schools don’t do well – kids are hungry, kids are distracted, kids are homeless, etc.

Let the teachers teach, and stop treating us like factory workers. Teaching is an art and creative. The aforementioned Urban Scholars was a successful program because of the teacher who led it and Americorps volunteers she mentored. That teacher had to leave the classroom to run the program because it was so much work. She developed guidelines for entry, recruited students, but most importantly she developed good relationships with the students and held them accountable. They were required to attend study session two afternoons as week, and they would be sent a text if they didn’t show up. She worked with parents, helped educate families about the importance of study habits, and counseled kids. She ran weekly meetings with the cohort teachers to talk about individual students, how they were doing, and how we might help them. We were empowered, and did this on our own time. In some ways it is simple – kids need to know you care, they need to be held accountable, and good teachers need to be able to make decisions.

Top-down won’t work – professionals like the ones the reformers say they want to recruit will leave if they are treated like automatons or test-prep machines. I miss teaching, which is why I am glad that I am now TAing an undergraduate class. I focusing on the Public Health implications of the human genome, and policy around genetic testing, and see education as a huge part of that. However, I don’t think I can go back into the Public Education system again. What could have changed this? Smaller classes (it is hard to genuinely meet the needs of all students when you have 150 of them), time for collaboration, teachers evaluating each other, using student work, and student and parent feedback for evaluation, etc. I believe in being evaluated and held accountable, but the focus on testing as the sole measure doesn’t work, and it will drive talented teachers out of Public Education.

Thanks so much for your time. You definitely encouraged me when I was teaching, and still encourage my colleagues who are still teaching.

Sincerely,
Renee Agatsuma