Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A teacher quits: 'My profession is being demeaned'

The voices against school reform are not quieting. In Charlotte tonight, a citizens group will attend the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meeting dressed as zombies to protest the use of standardized testing to evaluate teachers and schools. And in New York, a high school teacher laments in a resignation letter gone viral: "I am not leaving my profession, in truth, it has left me."

First, Charlotte: Mecklenburg Acts, led by the thoughtful Pam Grundy and Carol Sawyer, doesn't like the dozens of new exams North Carolina is rolling out this year. The group doesn't really like much at all about high-stakes testing, which it believes does great damage to schools and students. Last year, Mecklenburg Acts backed a national resolution that called on school boards to build evaluation systems that didn't require a role for standardized tests.

Our view on this: Like Grundy and Sawyer, we think that CMS has sometimes splashed around too much in the testing pool, and like CMS superintendent Heath Morrison, we're wary about the introduction of too many new N.C. tests.

But although our schools are filled with fine teachers, there also are too many instructors and schools that don't provide the education our children deserve. Testing, when combined with other types of evaluation, helps shine a light on those struggling classrooms, and it gives school systems and educators something measurable to note and improve. Deemphasizing those tests too much does a disservice to families who wouldn't otherwise know that their schools and teachers are not doing the job they should.

Do teachers teach to the test? Yes. But those tests provide a strong representation of what we want our children to learn, and the best teachers understand that they have time for other types of engaging instruction, too. You don't have to look hard to find examples of that throughout CMS.

Still, great teachers understandably resist the limitations that standardizing testing puts on their creativity. One such teacher in New York quit recently, and his resignation later below has prompted much education and media buzz. It's a cry from the classroom about the dangers of the reform culture - and a reminder of the elusive balance between nurturing the best of our educators and holding the worst accountable. Peter St. Onge      

Mr. Casey Barduhn, Superintendent
Westhill Central School District
400 Walberta Park Road
Syracuse, New York 13219

Dear Mr. Barduhn and Board of Education Members:

It is with the deepest regret that I must retire at the close of this school year, ending my more than twenty-seven years of service at Westhill on June 30, under the provisions of the 2012-15 contract. I assume that I will be eligible for any local or state incentives that may be offered prior to my date of actual retirement and I trust that I may return to the high school at some point as a substitute teacher.

As with Lincoln and Springfield, I have grown from a young to an old man here; my brother died while we were both employed here; my daughter was educated here, and I have been touched by and hope that I have touched hundreds of lives in my time here. I know that I have been fortunate to work with a small core of some of the finest students and educators on the planet.

I came to teaching forty years ago this month and have been lucky enough to work at a small liberal arts college, a major university and this superior secondary school. To me, history has been so very much more than a mere job, it has truly been my life, always driving my travel, guiding all of my reading and even dictating my television and movie viewing. Rarely have I engaged in any of these activities without an eye to my classroom and what I might employ in a lesson, a lecture or a presentation. With regard to my profession, I have truly attempted to live John Dewey’s famous quotation (now likely cliché with me, I’ve used it so very often) that  “Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.” This type of total immersion is what I have always referred to as teaching “heavy,” working hard, spending time, researching, attending to details and never feeling satisfied that I knew enough on any topic. I now find that this approach to my profession is not only devalued, but denigrated and perhaps, in some quarters despised. STEM rules the day and “data driven” education seeks only conformity, standardization, testing and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core, along with a lockstep of oversimplified so-called Essential Learnings. Creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation and innovation are being stifled in a misguided effort to fix what is not broken in our system of public education and particularly not at Westhill.

A long train of failures has brought us to this unfortunate pass. In their pursuit of Federal tax dollars, our legislators have failed us by selling children out to private industries such as Pearson Education. The New York State United Teachers union has let down its membership by failing to mount a much more effective and vigorous campaign against this same costly and dangerous debacle. Finally, it is with sad reluctance that I say our own administration has been both uncommunicative and unresponsive to the concerns and needs of our staff and students by establishing testing and evaluation systems that are Byzantine at best and at worst, draconian. This situation has been exacerbated by other actions of the administration, in either refusing to call open forum meetings to discuss these pressing issues, or by so constraining the time limits of such meetings that little more than a conveying of information could take place. This lack of leadership at every level has only served to produce confusion, a loss of confidence and a dramatic and rapid decaying of morale. The repercussions of these ill-conceived policies will be telling and shall resound to the detriment of education for years to come. The analogy that this process is like building the airplane while we are flying would strike terror in the heart of anyone should it be applied to an actual airplane flight, a medical procedure, or even a home repair. Why should it be acceptable in our careers and in the education of our children?

My profession is being demeaned by a pervasive atmosphere of distrust, dictating that teachers cannot be permitted to develop and administer their own quizzes and tests (now titled as generic “assessments”) or grade their own students’ examinations. The development of plans, choice of lessons and the materials to be employed are increasingly expected to be common to all teachers in a given subject. This approach not only strangles creativity, it smothers the development of critical thinking in our students and assumes a one-size-fits-all mentality more appropriate to the assembly line than to the classroom. Teacher planning time has also now been so greatly eroded by a constant need to “prove up” our worth to the tyranny of APPR (through the submission of plans, materials and “artifacts” from our teaching) that there is little time for us to carefully critique student work, engage in informal intellectual discussions with our students and colleagues, or conduct research and seek personal improvement through independent study. We have become increasingly evaluation and not knowledge driven. Process has become our most important product, to twist a phrase from corporate America, which seems doubly appropriate to this case.

After writing all of this I realize that I am not leaving my profession, in truth, it has left me. It no longer exists. I feel as though I have played some game halfway through its fourth quarter, a timeout has been called, my teammates’ hands have all been tied, the goal posts moved, all previously scored points and honors expunged and all of the rules altered.
For the last decade or so, I have had two signs hanging above the blackboard at the front of my classroom, they read, “Words Matter” and “Ideas Matter”. While I still believe these simple statements to be true, I don’t feel that those currently driving public education have any inkling of what they mean.

Sincerely and with regret,
Gerald J. Conti
Social Studies Department Leader
Cc: Doreen Bronchetti, Lee Roscoe
My little Zu.


annnort said...

The unions have demeaned your profession and ruined our education system along with the progressive politicians who are more concerned with political correctness than with teaching children. Until the federal government and labor unions get out of public education, there will be no teaching "profession." Unions are for the mobs. Whoever heard of a true professional joining a union?

Skippy said...

Quiter, but hey the good news is that this is but just one teacher, over 600,000 "quit" looking for a job in the last jobs report.

LMA said...

Mr. St. Onge, as a parent seeing the dim light at the end of the CMS tunnel (everyone will be in high school next year, hallelujah), I can tell you from experience that these tests have taught my children NOTHING, and they learned less in classrooms that regurgitated high test scores. Why? Those classes were taught to an endless refrain of "this is going to be on the EOGs, so you'd better memorize it." Once the EOGs were passed, the "information," deemed unnecessary by a brain not taught to think, disappeared. The students were not taught how to retain what they learned, or even how they learned -- they were taught rote memorization. These tests do not serve as an accurate measurement of anything but the ability to teach to said tests, and to imply otherwise demeans teachers (who didn't sign up for this when they chose education as their profession, I daresay) and students alike.

Pamela Grundy said...


Thanks for the compliment. We appreciate it.

We do question your statement that the tests "provide a strong representation of what we want our students to learn." Heath Morrison has as well. As we noted in a recent opinion page piece, the superintendent is well aware that even the new "improved" exams are unlikely to measure anything but content, which isn't the most important component of our childrens' education.

As he put it at a recent school board meeting, the key to education today is "twenty-first century skills" such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving. "I worry that in the mania of all this testing, that we're not going to have the time to actually stress these skills," he noted.

Shamash said...

Unfortunately, this is what we get when we try to "educate" everyone exactly the same.

Don't trust the schools.

Schools are now social experiments to try to get the worst members of our society to behave well enough to stay out of prison and function at the bare minimum level to be employable by the "service" industry.

Teach your own children or they WILL be left behind by the rest of the developed world outside the US who do not share our social ills.

Peter St. Onge said...

Hi Pam,

As I wrote in the post, we share the superintendent's wariness with the number of new tests. But I think it's wrong to dismiss the tests as merely "content." Here's what I found in the tests my son took last year:

"In preparing for this week’s End of Grade tests, the fifth-grader in our house took sample exams that called on him not only to grasp early algebra and geometry, but to show comfort with comparing and contrasting data and identifying complex numerical patterns.

In reading, he needed to demonstrate the ability to identify fictional plots and themes, to understand and explore words through the author’s perspective and intent, and to use deduction to sift meaning from non-fiction material."

That's not just vocab words and algorithms. It's a strong representation of what he should be learning at that grade, and that's true for tests in other grades, as well.

Those concepts, along with the skills you and Dr. Morrison cite, can and are being taught in classrooms here.


Wiley Coyote said...


Public education has been imploding for decades and those educators you claim need testing in order to figure out where problems are - ARE the problem.

There are two things that Pam Grundy and I agree on and those are; today is Tuesday and we don't need excessive testing in schools.

Being against excessive testing is NOT being against school reform.

School reform is doing away with diversity as a driving principle.

School reform is fully auditing the school lunch program to find out exactly who should be getting the extra funding and help needed to succeed and kicking those gaming the system off of the program.

School reform is drawing school boundaries around schools that make sense and accepting that the student makeup of that school may wind up being all of one race or a majority thereof. Again, get out of the diversity business and educate the kids to their needs and abilities.

School reform is implementing other avenues for kids to succeed, with technology and vocational programs.

School reform is allowing teachers to do what you hired them to do - teach!

School reform is telling parents you have a zero tolerance policy against bullying, bad manners, lack of respect and other disruptive behaviour.

The United States of America did not get to where it is today by spending billions on pre-K programs, excessive testing and giving over half of students everything for free.

The highest national graduation rate was 79% in 1969.

Go back and look what has transpired in public education from 1969 to today. You seem to think testing is reform. It's nothing but a different flavor of elixer being sold by educrat and political snake oil salemen.

Gipper1965 said...

"The unions have demeaned your profession and ruined our education system..."

Except there are no teacher unions in North Carolina so your point is b.

"...along with the progressive politicians who are more concerned with political correctness..."

Seriously? "Merry Xmas"

"Unions are for the mobs. Whoever heard of a true professional joining a union?"

Tell that to 1000000's of coal miners, steel workers, longshore men

Carol Justus said...

As long as the republicans want school vouchers--meaning they want private schools so those who cannot afford them will not have the skills to compete in the world they will be able to hire them for the same wages they are paying their nannies and gardeners the other illegals they bring in to do their work.
This way they will not have to keep them secret for they will already be citizens but having to work for the same wages.
Now the republicans who control the legislatures will not reallocate school funding to help the poorest schools fix their buildings and hire qualified teachers in the subjects they teach as do the richer districts!!!

Skippy said...

Poster 1:57 the teacher is from NYS a liberal utopia that has teachers unions, so who has the B. now? And pretty soon those coal minors will be looking for a new profession as the union sold out for Obama.

And this teacher is quitting because he is tired of "indoctrinating" and is exacerbated about the lack of critical thinking in other words, they are dumbing down the students on purpose which in itself is indoctrination.

We need to revamp the entire public school system and get rid of the unions, they have no business in the school, period.

blockhead said...

Somebody else beat me to this, but what the heck...

annnort said...

The unions have demeaned your profession and ruined our education system...

Apparently the education system has failed annort, but it has nothing to do with unions. Public-employee unions are prohibited in North Carolina. It is this kind of brainwashed hogwash, parroted by nonthinking right-wingers, that has made it difficult to improve education in North Carolina. BTW, North Carolina has the lowest unionization rate in the nation, but the fifth highest unemployment rate. How do you explain that, annoort? Remember, you folks blame unions for offshoring and job losses. Why, then, don't we have the nation's lowest unemployment rate? (Here's a hint: For the last century, this anti-union state has actively recruited low-wage industries by advertising that we have docile, non-union workers. They came, with one thing in mind - cheap labor - and when they found cheaper labor in Latin America, the Far East and China, off they went).

blockhead said...

Skippy said...

And pretty soon those coal minors will be looking for a new profession as the union sold out for Obama...We need to revamp the entire public school system and get rid of the unions, they have no business in the school, period.

Well, Skippy, you can become Exhibit A on the shortcomings of our schools. "Coal minors?" Are they little children who work in mines? In addition to your spelling, you might try an occasional period in your sentences. They're free, and handy for ending run-on blather.

Shamash said...


I'd caution everyone against believing the marketing hype ANY educrat SAYS about what their curriculum teaches or what their tests actually test.

NO ONE is going to say that they are simply teaching or testing things that students memorize and regurgitate or repeat until they are driven to tears.

Even if that is EXACTLY what they are doing.

They're much more clever than that.

Educrats know all the buzz words and know they have to include them in their descriptions to get their curriculum, tests and textbooks taken seriously (or even for them to be sold to the schools in the first place).

Check what this education blogger had to say about his experience viewing the "new" Common Core "aligned" textbooks...



I found two versions of these new “aligned” textbooks:

1.Textbooks with new covers and the same exact lessons contained between the covers. Sure, the state standards that were previously cited are now replaced with Common Core State Standards (CCSS). But, the lessons and assignments are the same as last year’s edition.

2.Textbooks with new covers and additional lessons interspersed in the book, but the new lessons have no connection to the rest of the material.


I have a math degree. My second grader performs at a sixth grade level according to the standardized tests he takes.

This is mostly due to the instruction he receives at home.

That is what his teacher tell us too. Because she does not teach what he knows.

What he is being taught in second grade is extremely simple in comparison to what we have taught him.

And it is darned repetitive, too.

He is being bored to distraction in class.

However, when I read the absolutely foolish gobbledygook written about the watered-down, dumbed-down textbooks they are teaching, you'd think that only an Einstein could comprehend them.

However, those textbooks was written so that ghetto children in Chicago could comprehend them.

So, basically, they are still just adding numbers over and over again until it eventually "sinks in" to even the dullest child.

No matter what they call it or how sophisticated they try to make it sound.

krruss said...

Mr St. Onge should talk to some teachers. My wife, a long standing teacher claims that the bubble tests are mostly designed to make money for the testing companies. Many of the questions are set up to trick the students, with close-to-the-correct answers, rather than being a true assessment of what a student knows.

Additionally from my own perspective, I have two teenagers. One is a straight - A student, including these first two years in college. She does not do well on bubble tests, and only tests out above average. Far below her actual capabilities and performance in school. My son is a bubble whiz. He took the SAT as part of Duke TIP in middle school, and beat 3/4's of that years high school students. His actual performance in school does not match his imaginary performance in the standardized testing world. I think bubble tests should be part of the picture but should not define a student's (or teachers) performance.

bp said...

As a parent trying to compare my neighborhood school to the various magnet programs in order to choose the best school for my child, I have found the standardized test results to be meaningless. If high stakes testing is determined to be a well researched, valid way to measure the skills that we want students to have, I would like to see a nationally standardized measure of growth (not a benchmark) for the different subgroups of students at each school from year to year. This would enable me to make an informed decision regarding how well a school meets the needs of other students who are similar to my child. I would imagine that parents and teachers would benefit from standardized data that represents a student's growth and specific strengths and weaknesses rather than the the "on grade level" benchmark. Further, if schools and teachers are going to be evaluated according to students' high stakes testing performance, a growth model appears to be the only approach that would make sense. Am I missing something when I look at the data?