And just like that grandparent who always has a story that inspires and sheds lights on some fundamental truth in life, Ravitch read aloud the story of one fifth-grade teacher from California, which explains how school reform efforts are affecting his students and the community. The teacher’s remarks are published here, edited for brevity:
“Dear President Obama:
I mean this with all respect. I’m on my knees here, and there’s a knife in my back, and the prints on it kinda match yours. I think you don’t get it.
Your Race to the Top is killing the wrong guys. You’re hitting the good guys with friendly fire. I’m teaching in a barrio in California. I had 32 kids in my class last year. I love them to tears. They’re 5th graders. That means they’re 10 years old, mostly. Six of them were 11 because they were retained. Five more were in special education, and two more should have been. I stopped using the word ‘parents’ with my kids because so many of them don’t have them. Seven kids live with their ‘Grams,’ six with their dads. A few rotate between parents. Here’s the kicker: Fifty percent of my students have set foot in a jail or prison to visit a family member.
Do you and your secretary of education, Arne Duncan, understand the significance of that? I’m afraid not. It’s not bad teaching that got things to the current state of affairs. It’s pure, raw poverty. We don’t teach in failing schools. We teach in failing communities. It’s called the ZIP Code Quandary. If the kids live in a wealthy ZIP code, they have high scores; if they live in a ZIP code that’s entombed with poverty, guess how they do?
We also have massive teacher turnover at my school. Now, we have no money. We haven’t had an art or music teacher in 10 years. We have a nurse twice a week. And because of the No Child Left Behind Act, struggling public schools like mine are held to impossible standards and punished brutally when they don’t meet them. Did you know that 100 percent of our students have to be on grade level, or else we could face oversight by an outside agency? That’s like saying you have to achieve 100 percent of your policy objectives every year.
It’s not bad teaching that got things to the current state of affairs. It’s pure, raw poverty.
Charter schools and voucher schools aren’t the solution. They are an excuse not to fix the real issues. You promised us so much. And you want to give us merit pay? Anyway, I think we really need to talk. Oh, and can you pull the knife out while you’re standing behind me? It really hurts.”
“This frames what I’m talking about,” said Ravitch. “I get eMails like this every day from teachers and educators across the country. Race to the Top is hitting the wrong guys. It’s not the teachers, but poverty that’s failing our children. It’s not teachers, but failing communities that are hurting our children.”