Dear School Committee: Please Trust Us

Here in Lewiston, Maine, a small group of experienced elementary school teachers put their thoughts together in an eloquent letter, which they presented to the local school committee on Monday night.  Their thoughts will ring true with teachers and parents everywhere.  

To the School Committee Members,

Fidelity is defined as “faithfulness to a person, cause, or belief, demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support.”  We are asked to teach with fidelity, by following specific scripted lessons and assessing their learning using time consuming, cumbersome tools that interfere with what feels best for our students.

We stand here now with fidelity to no one else but our kids.

We are speaking from the heart, from our expertise and from experience.None of us wish to ever be administrators.  We have reached our professional goal of being classroom teachers, and we are completely fulfilled in our roles.  When we share these thoughts, keep in mind that our only motivation is to do what is best for our students.  In fact, we worry that in raising our concerns we may be seen as being negative or non-compliant- yet we only wish to do what we feel is right.

We have been openly sharing our concerns for three years.  In the fall of 2013, we rejected the merit pay associated with students test scores and delineated why we felt paying teachers for high test scores was detrimental to students.  We hoped our voices would promote change and give us more time with our students.

This has not been the case. New initiatives have been added, decreasing the time needed to plan quality lessons.  This is detrimental to the motivation and growth of our students. Equally upsetting are the number of teachers who are leaving the district or resigning early due to the unreasonable demands put upon teachers.

We are concerned for our profession and the result of losing quality teachers.  If this trend continues in Lewiston, what will the future hold for our students?

The art of teaching feels lost.  We do not feel that we are allowed to use our talent as teachers. We feel that the current practices in education are attempting to turn us into facilitators.

The beginning of the year is a time to connect with our students.  The goal of every teacher should be to know our students within the first few weeks.  This is done through opening activities, interest surveys, and our observations/interactions.  There is no time for this, nor is there time to use information we would have gathered about what moves our kids, what they care about and what they could be motivated to participate in.  Rather the beginning of the year finds us bogged down with formal assessments, which leaves our students feeling overwhelmed and anxious, rather than feeling comfortable in their new surroundings.  Please remember we are talking about students who are six, seven, eight, nine and ten years old.

Moreover, managing students behavior in our our classrooms has become more challenging than ever.  We strongly believe that our students’ struggles are fed by the increased amount of testing and rigid curriculum we are forced to use.  No longer do we work to help our students meet grade level standards through methods and materials that we know will motivate our students to succeed.

We deal with anger, aggression, defiance, disrespect and non-compliance in our students daily.  We struggle with chronic absenteeism and wonder specifically when this became a problem for so many students.  Certainly, with the data we have collected in the past ten years we could investigate if there is a direct connection between increased testing pressures, rigid curriculum and these struggles.  We have no doubt that there will be.

Another concern we have about assessment is being asked to quantify everything students do. But there are so many things that we teach that are not quantifiable.

These are the most meaningful learnings for children and include things such as perseverance, work ethic, understanding the qualities of a friend, healthy risk taking, and developing personal strategies for academic and civil success.

Regarding the quantitative data we do collect, we often find the various results conflicting.  The inconsistent data is not surprising to teachers, since there are so many variables at play for each child.  In every classroom, there are children who come to school with many distractions and more pressing matters.  Even children who come to school with all their needs met, express resentment about the over-testing.  We do our best to impress the importance of performing well, but what is important to district leaders, is not always important to 9 year olds.

These are children who, by our calculations, are assessed for a minimum of eleven full school days, and this figure does not include our common assessments or teacher-created unit assessments.

We are not sharing these concerns because we don’t want to work outside of the contract hours.  We are expressing our concern because, due to the district’s expectations, we are not able to adequately plan for our students and create meaningful lessons that are differentiated, nor can we consistently engage in authentic, ongoing formative assessment in a way that informs our instruction. This is incredibly discouraging and must be addressed if we want to keep quality, experienced teachers, and more importantly, encourage students to love learning.

We know that standardized testing serves a specific purpose, but we also believe that we are going beyond what is required by the state and federal laws.  As teachers, we are assessing our students all throughout our day.  We do this naturally all day long.

We wonder how much data is enough?

At what point are we over-assessing? We want to know where our students are, however, we feel that the number of assessments and the time they require actually takes away from from us knowing our students, since we spend so much time sifting through data.  Data that is often conflicting.  Frequently, we find discrepancies between what we know about our students and what test results show.  Some tests that even measure the same things result in scores that contradict each other.  When we reflect on why these discrepancies exist, we see a multitude of variables completely out of our control, including individual student development, family life, social situations between peers, physical and mental health, student motivation, amount of sleep, technological challenges and the list could go on.

We are qualified, we are experienced, and we are caring.

We once felt confident in our knowledge of students and how to best understand and meet their educational needs.   Now we feel like we fail our students daily, and we are constantly trying to navigate feeling conflicted between doing what our expertise and experience tells us we should do, and what unreliable test results and the district demand we do for children.

Finally, we are concerned about our colleagues who are new to this profession.  Without the opportunity to gain wisdom and confidence about their own ability to assess and let their findings inform their instruction, we wonder how will they ever grow into professionals who are independently capable and confident in their skills?

We feel that this culture of over assessment communicates a lack of trust in your teachers.  We have invested in our own development as professionals, and LPS has as well.  We have increased our expertise by acquiring advanced degrees, many of which Lewiston Public Schools paid for.  We care very deeply about our students and how they are learning and growing.  Trust that we care, and trust that we are fully capable.  You have invested in us as professionals.

Please allow us to do the jobs you have hired us to do, and trust that we know how to do it best.

In closing,  we are standing before you with 70 combined years of teaching experience.  We have Bachelor’s degrees in Education and Masters Degrees in Curriculum and Instruction, Elementary Education and Literacy Education.   We are licensed and credentialed professionals.  We ask that you please not buy into the rhetoric that you are constantly fed about assessment.  Please understand the reality we have presented this evening.

Listen to the parents who have expressed their concern and frustration.  Examine the amount of parents who opt out and consider their reasons for doing so.  Listen to your teachers.

We are fighting for our students, our schools and our profession, and we are hopeful that our leaders will consider making changes.

Yours in Education,

Ernie Gagne

Jody Raio

Molly Tripp

Jennifer Groover

Bonnie Bannister

Author: Emily Talmage

My name is Emily Talmage and I teach fourth grade at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine. In addition to teaching in Lewiston, I have also taught special education and general education in New York City, including one year at a “high-performing” charter school in Brooklyn. I also have two master’s degrees; one in Urban Education from Mercy College, and another in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. I have also worked as a research analyst and assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia and Oldham Innovative Research in Portland.

8 thoughts on “Dear School Committee: Please Trust Us”

  1. Emily- this letter is amazing! I’d love to share my recent article on fidelity with them. Could I send the pdf to you?

    Would you be interested in publishing my MEA keynote on principled resistance? It ties in really well with this post.

    Doris

    Doris A. Santoro Associate Professor of Education Bowdoin College 7400 College Station Brunswick, ME 04011 207.798.4309 @DorisASantoro

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  2. I taught math at Lewiston High School for twenty-five years ending in 2013. I think the sense of despair and conflict with the direction expressed here for the elementary schools has its reflection in the high school, and probably in between. I met a prospective parent at an event this weekend and had to hold myself back from saying, “I’m not sure the program will be good enough.”

    Lewiston has adopted an “assembly-line” mentality in the past several years as the superintendent has taken more and more control. First, he hired as a principal a person who had never been in a school with as many students as she would now have staff. That didn’t work. Most recently, there has been a decision that there is no need for honors level math courses – in a school with approximately 400 students in each course. “Honors” does not mean “more.” It means “different.” A friend in the English department retired last year, stunned by the assertion from above that there was “no need to read a book.”

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    1. Mr. Perkins! How I remember you so warmly! I am Jennifer Groover, one of the teachers who wrote this letter. You may remember me as Jennifer McClure, a graduate of LHS, class of 1992, of which you were the wonderful class adviser. Thank you for your comments. I will continue to fight…for kids.

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  3. You guys are awesome! Keep up all the hard work that you do for our kids. I will never forget everything you all have done for Shelby when she was in elementary school with you. You will always have my support.

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  4. I worked as a teacher’s aide way back in the 70’s. I saw the best of the best and only one teacher who could not teach in the chaos she allowed. Let the teachers do their jobs. They spend a lot of time with your kids and may know them better than you do. There is a lot of time they don’t get paid for because they care enough to give hours at schools and at home. If you don’t believe that teaching is a hard job, try home schooling your kids. You will see how much effort and time it takes. Most kids will be okay unless they get no support at home. Kids get out of it what they put into it. If you have a complaint about a teacher, make sure it is legitimate because it may just come from home and the attitude of the parents.

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  5. When does the begging end and action begin?? We have, all over this country, been begging, educating, yelling, crying for this madness to stop with absolutely nothing to show for it but more of the same. They ignore us. They belittle us. They look down on us. Really how long are we going to continue to beg?? All the while our children are being destroyed. Any child that entered Kindergarten 4 years ago has already been destroyed beyond repair (see research by Dr. James Migram – Standford U – CC Feedback and Validation Committee). It is time for hard core action. I believe until teachers nationally walk off the job and parents nationally pull their kids out of the public system we will NEVER see an end to what we know is damaging to our children. The longer we allow it to continue the more complicit the very people that are fighting to save education will be in the ultimate destruction of education. Personally I no longer giver presentations. I no longer go to Nashville. I no longer beg anyone. I spend my time helping parents that truly want to get their children out of the public system and into home school realize their dream for their children. We are too late. We trusted too long. Now it is time to take back our power. It is time to take back our children. If you want to do it you will, if not you will make excuses. I guarantee if we stand up and FIGHT back they will be coming to us begging us instead of us begging them.

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  6. This Spring an elementary school in Lewiston received a robo-call bomb threat. You might be asking why I am putting a narrative about a bomb scare on the assessment blog…
    Here are my thoughts on the testing and bomb threats and the impact that these choices are making on the next generation: I believe the changes in education are leading to decontextualized memorization, and seriously impacting students’ abilities to problem solve. By teaching to the test and promoting decontextualized memorization we are not teaching children to think, reason and envision the impact of a decision. Instead we are teaching students to do just what they need to do to reach what they personally consider adequate status, maintain that information in their short term memory and move on to the next session. Learning is no longer exciting, classrooms are missing the enthusiasm sparked by a great lesson, extinguishing the love of learning. And after reading the letter, teachers want to see the enthusiasm again.
    I believe that the love of learning is being suffocated by the Common Core expectations. and all of the assessments. The disappearing natural love of learning is now directly impacting how students feel about themselves, their peers, their teachers and their school. As stated in Emily Talmage’s letter, teachers no longer have time to know their students. They assess, correct and then prepare for the next assessment. The lack of personal interactions between students and staff increases the disenfranchisement of students. This disconnect whether it is academic or emotional is why someone is able to make bomb threats.
    Little people need big people to speak for them, just as the Lorax spoke for the trees. Big people need to stop immersing little people in environments where they can not see how this connects to that or how a decision influences the outcome. Big people need to remember that learning needs to take place in a wide variety of ways, and assessment needs to be authentic. Parents need to hear their child’s excitement as they recount a lesson they learned or a discovery they made. They do not need to hear their child say I don’t want to go to school today, my belly hurts.
    I still remember a great interdisciplinary lesson while climbing trees as a child. The lesson covered physics, geometry, biology, math, verbal expression, deductive and inductive reasoning skills. You see I was challenged to climb the skinniest tree that would support my climb to the top. I misjudged the diameter of a tree, and also ignored the lack of leaves indicating the tree was dead at the top, All of a sudden I heard a snap, crack and learned first hand the principle of gravity, geometry with the arching of the tree as it snapped, verbal expression, …. you get the picture!
    Please let children climb imaginary trees in their classrooms once again. Please let teachers create environments where teachable moments are once again the norm and not the rare exception. Please let schools be a place that children want to go to EVERY day because they love to learn new things and they feel loved. Please let children be humans again and not merely a number, a test score, or data used to evaluate a teacher. Please make schools a place that is so wonderful no one will ever have to experience a bomb threat.
    Thank you for listening.

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    1. What you want for our children is honorable but will never happen in the current public school system. And the agenda has its fangs dug in so deep sad to say there is no saving our public education system. It is time for parents and teachers to take control. If you continue to subject our children to the abuse they experience in the public school system then we only have ourselves to blame. Time to stop whining, stop begging and start doing something about it. Fighting the system is not going to bring results. We must circumvent the system. Time to STARVE THE BEAST. As long as we continue to feed the beast what it needs to survive the beast will grow larger and stronger.

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