Innovation is Not One-Size-Fits-All: A Letter to Arne Duncan

January 5, 2009 at 10:35 am 2 comments

posted by Max Weinberg ’03, Francis Parker School teacher, Chicago

Dear Mr. Duncan,

Congratulations on your designation as President-elect Obama’s Secretary of Education. I am so excited for Barack Obama to be sworn in as our next president on Jan. 20. I respect Obama’s reputation as a leader, a responsible citizen, a thoughtful and realistic decision-maker, and a loving and loyal partner and parent. I trust that he’s made the right decision in choosing you as the next Secretary of Education.

Mr. Duncan, I began teaching in New York City through Teach For America in 2000. I went into teaching because I believe in the power and mission of public schools to level our playing field and give all children a fair chance to be successful, productive citizens in our democratic society. In New York City, as a Teach For America corps member, I worked in some of the most under-served communities in the country. After several years of being a classroom teacher and of studying pedagogy, I started to form some conclusions. It became clear to me that children learning to think and learning to communicate were skills that could not be taught through test prep and weren’t always judged accurately or objectively through standardized tests. I know we live in complicated times. I, like many teachers I know, see educating ALL children as fairly simple.

Students need to leave school each day having tried something new, thought differently about something they’ve done many times before, and communicated with someone in a productive, meaningful way. I believe that when students are taught to read well, write clearly and creatively, and think critically about cultures and about the sciences, that they will do well on tests. I believe this to be true for all children: rich, middle class, poor, kids with diagnosed special needs, English Language Learners, kids of all races, kids in foster care–all kids. I strongly believe that the culture of testing, which is seen in public schools across the country, including in our fine city of Chicago, undermines our children’s capabilities and is detrimental to the future of our democratic society. It forces teachers and school leaders to take a one-size-fits-all approach; we must get all children of this age to answer these questions in these specific ways. This is not how human beings must operate in the world.

In planning to move back to Chicago, I researched the work you were doing in the Chicago Public Schools. I believe strongly in your support of small schools and your vision to break up large, failing schools to help them gain a better focus on individual children. Research on responsive teaching tells us that children perform better in comfortable, safe environments with teachers who know them as whole children rather than as a mere ID number (or a test score number). Your Renaissance 2010 program is a noble idea that was heavily discussed in my leadership training; it has drawn national recognition to our city. I worry, still, that the children of Chicago will continue to be judged year after year on their performance on standardized tests. I drive around the city and see reminders about practice tests, official tests, test prep days, test make-ups, mandatory summer school for test readiness posted on signs outside of schools, where once there were announcements that honored and recognized the whole child: honor roll, extracurricular events, parent gatherings, or student celebrations.

I attended the open house of one of the top-rated magnet schools in Chicago several weeks ago as a parent looking for a school for my preschooler. The parents in attendance were told by the principal that due to the pressures of testing, children do not partake in a writers’ workshop, are no longer allowed to read independently, or do any truly differentiated work. After this principal announced to prospective parents that her contract had just been renewed for 4 years, she went on to say that her “special education kids are the reason we’re on the ‘watch list’ for the year.’” This top school had not met its yearly test score goal.

As an outsider to this institution, I watched and listened as this school leader conveyed the idea that it’s acceptable 1) to ignore a whole child for the sake of test scores, and 2) to suggest that a small group of children are to blame for leadership and instructional failure. I left this school not knowing how many children love to read and are thoughtful and planful about their reading lives, have an understanding of different ways to communicate through writing and an understanding of the conventions of writing, can think critically about real social, mathematical, or scientific situations, or know artistic mediums and artists. I had no idea whether the children in this school truly enjoy school and whether they have had a real chance to feel successful in trying to master new ideas and concepts.

As an educator, parent of a school-age child, and a participant in our thriving democracy, I worry about this culture of testing. It has moved us farther away from a culture of truly educating the whole child. I know that this particular Chicago magnet school is not unusual for public schools across the country. In my time as a teacher, I have been to many different schools in Chicago and New York that, because of No Child Left Behind and the misinterpretation of state standards, have an identical learning culture in their focus on test results.

I write you to convey my hope that as part of your tenure and Obama’s work to change the status quo, school leaders are encouraged to develop us teachers as thoughtful practitioners. In turn, teachers will develop students to be independent, thoughtful, and just about the work they do in their preparing for the outside world. Beyond school, our children will have very few standardized tests but will have many moments where they will need to think and communicate clearly for themselves.

You have the reputation, Mr. Duncan, of being energetic and in touch with the needs of today’s children. You support reform and the charter school movement as a way to add innovation into our schools. I ask you to do all you can to assure innovation be used not for one-size-fits-all models, but to provide children with basic structures to help all children become thinkers and problem solvers for our changing nation. I am familiar with the two schools that you and President-elect Obama sent your children to in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. Both schools follow the simple philosophy that all children can perform well in our society when their needs as learners (and human beings) are met. How wonderful it will be when we can provide all children with the education they deserve.

Sincerely,

Max Weinberg

Bank Street College of Education, Class of 2003
Third Grade Teacher
Francis Parker School in Chicago

Entry filed under: diversity, philosophy, policy, school reform, standardized testing, standards.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sarah Scott  |  January 6, 2009 at 10:38 am

    Thank you, Mr. Weinberg, for this thoughtful reflection and call to action. The idea that Mr. Duncan has the power to focus on instruction, instead of standardized tests, is an important idea for improving educational outcomes in this country.

  • 2. Heather Koelle  |  January 6, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    Mr Weinberg, your letter is wonderfully well thought out and sensitive to the educational needs of children. I applaud your wisdom and forethought. I believe all kids want to learn if it is presented in a way that piques their curiosity! I hate the rote parrot style teaching for tests, and I was one of the kids in the back of the room reading ahead in the book that was being read “round robin” style in class. I was so bored hearing kids stumble over the words that I sat in the back and finished the book!
    I also appreciate your sympathy for special needs kids. They have just as much right to a good education as other kids do. And with them,too, the key is to teach toward their strengths and interests, as well as practical daily living activities, such as balancing a checkbook.
    I am appalled that kids are “not allowed to read or write” in the school you mentioned. That is criminal! The love of reading should be fostered at the earliest age possible. Books can be brought alive and, as an avid reader myself, can introduce a child to wonderful new worlds, to say nothing of also bringing knowledge of other cultures, history, science and art. Reading a beautifully written book is like heaven to me! Also, the more a kid reads, the better his/her writing skills will be.
    I teach music to kids with special needs, and know that every kid can be reached, regardless of IQ. Keep up your good work, Max! I am with you 100%.
    Heather Koelle

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