Sunday, January 8, 2012

Open letter welcoming Legislators back to the Capitol

Sent to members of the Appropriations and Education Committees of the Oklahoma State Senate and House of Representatives. I will try to write to them each week and share the notes here. I always cc our Superintendent of Public Instruction. 

Dear Legislators,

Welcome back! We’ve had a successful semester of school and I know you’ve been working hard on the legislation you’ll be introducing and supporting.

I would like to share two articles I’ve read just today that I hope will inform your work and mine as we begin another Legislative season. I know we have the same goals: to provide all the children of Oklahoma with a quality education. I hope teachers and legislators can find common ground in this quest. Remember, every teacher in your district has valuable knowledge and experience you can tap to help you through this session.

My friend, Anthony Cody, a teacher in California, recently wrote an opinion piece for CNN that turns the traditional status-quo/reform dialogue on its ear. He reminds us that the current atmosphere of standardized testing has had ten years to prove results and has not. This environment is now the status quo. He tells us what true education reform should look like, and it’s not what’s going on in our state right now. We are mired in the status-quo. Testing, and an over-reliance on test scores, is something to reform. It is no longer part of education reform.

 In the past few sessions, the Oklahoma Legislature has made standardized testing more and more high-stakes, adding to the status-quo of the testing culture. We know that is an abuse of standardized tests, which are a quick snapshot of a student’s achievement, one day in April. But now, in Oklahoma, third graders will be retained, high school students will be denied diplomas on the basis of one test, one day in April. Soon teachers will be evaluated on that one test, one day in April.

Somehow policymakers believe that one score, one day in April is an accurate evaluation of the day-to-day interactions between teachers and students. Somehow policymakers believe this one score, one day in April mitigates family circumstances, family poverty, parental education, childhood hunger and poor health. So, teachers will now be evaluated and perhaps fired based on that one test, one day in April. Schools will be graded on the same test. As Anthony states, to believe in the magic power of one test, one day in April, ‘narrowly define[s] student outcomes…’ and he suggests that real reform ‘…will challenge us to elevate rich assessments rooted in the classroom, featuring authentic evidence of student learning.’

Read Anthony’s editorial to see the wisdom teachers can bring to the discussion of school reform.

Including the wisdom of educators is the theme of Tom Watkins’ editoral. Watkins is the former Superintendent of Schools for Michigan and he laments the recent demonizing of teachers in our society. ‘Rhetoric from the state and our nation’s capital has never educated a single child. It is out teachers who know their subject matter, who have a passion for teaching and learning…’ He points out in Michigan, just as in Oklahoma, educators have been left out of the discussion of any education reform.

He asks the question we teachers in Oklahoma have been asking: ‘If education is the key why are we locking teacher out of the education agenda?’ I respectfully ask you that question. Why have classroom practitioners and administrators frozen out of your deliberations about new legislation?

Superintendent Watkins ends his piece with a challenge: “But if you are a policy-maker…consider re-evaluating how you can harness the talents of the master-link in the learning process – our great teachers.’ Oklahoma also has teachers who can help you strengthen your legislation and carry out reasonable mandates. We can show you how a proposed bill will help or hinder current requirements and earlier mandates. We can tell you what works in the classroom and what can’t be done.

I challenge you with another line from Watkins’ piece: ‘Show me how this helps teachers teach and out children learn.’  Please keep that statement in your heart and head as you begin to deliberate about legislation this coming session.

Teachers are the experts in our classroom, in what works and doesn’t in a school. We are the experts in working with parents, and in assessing real, authentic student learning. We are ready to help, to add our voices to the discussion.

Claudia Swisher

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