Monday, September 20, 2010

Oprah’s Education Antics

I was going to write a scathing response to Oprah Winfrey’s recent ratings whore out extravaganza, a disgustingly callous display of feigned outrage and finger-pointing, but instead I found this letter from Stephanie Sandifer of the the edublog Change Agency.

Dear Ms. Winfrey,

I appreciate your efforts to highlight problems with our education system, but I am extremely disappointed that you failed to include any teachers as guests on your show today.  By doing so, you presented only one side of the story – a side that is decidedly pro-charters & privatization and anti-union/anti-teachers.

Your daytime show is highly influential and many viewers trust that the information you present on your show will be balanced, fair, and positive.  Unfortunately, by only inviting guests who are neither classroom teachers nor educational experts, your show today failed at being balanced, fair, and positive.  Instead we were presented with “experts” who blame all public education ills on classroom teachers.  Simply being a former student of the public school system does not make one an educational expert.

The problem is much bigger than it was presented on your show or in the film Waiting for Superman.  The problem does not lend itself to easy solutions like just firing ineffective teachers or opening more charter schools.  In fact, many of the current solutions being put forth by our policy makers (more high-stakes testing, teacher accountability tied to single test scores, etc.) will not solve the problems.  The problem is much more systemic and involves the broader community – it is not confined only to the four walls of the classroom.

I have worked so very hard for many years as a teacher and eventually as an administrator in inner-city schools in one of our nation’s largest urban school districts.  I know many people – former public school colleagues – who left the public school environment to work for KIPP and YES Prep charter schools.  I also know educators who left KIPP and YES Prep when the “super heroic” expectations left them extremely burned out.

I do recognize that KIPP and YES Prep are very successful with many of the students that they serve.  However, administrators at those schools will be the first to admit that their program is not designed to serve ALL students.  They are not designed to serve the students who have no parental support at home and they are not designed to serve students with special needs.  Public schools are charged with serving ALL of these students and do not have the luxury of demanding that families sign “contracts” stipulating the expectations of the students and their parents.

My biggest concern is that current reform efforts – including the growth of charter schools – are focused entirely on vilifying teachers and holding only teachers accountable.  I agree that we should have highly-qualified teachers in every classroom, but I also recognize that this will still not solve all of the problems that our schools face.

In my experience and in my research I have yet to find sustainable and/or effective classroom or campus-based solutions to the following:

  • Students who come to school hungry on a daily basis
  • Students who go home to abusive/drunk/drug-addicted parents
  • Students who have no home to go to at the end of the day (yes, I had a student show up once in filthy clothes and out of “dress code” – he had been kicked out of home and was living on the streets for 3 days)
  • Students who work full-time hours – working evening and late night shifts – to help support their families
  • Students who come from homes where education just isn’t valued

You see Ms. Winfrey, for charter schools to be a solution, there must first be caring parents or caregivers at home who make the effort to enroll their children in those charter schools.  This is too frequently one of the issues not discussed when praise is heaped upon successful charter schools. Parents must first “opt in” to charter schools.  What about the children who don’t have parents who know or care to “opt out” of the public education system?

What happens to our public education systems when all of the high-achieving students from affluent and/or middle class homes have opted to transfer to high-performing schools and/or private/independent/parochial schools, all low-income students with caring and concerned parents “opt in” to charter schools, and the public schools are left with students who have no support at home (for whatever horrible reason) and special education students (who have no charter or private school options)?  What highly qualified teachers will we find to teach in those schools?

To be fair, I do support the continued growth of charter schools, online/virtual school programs, and other innovative solutions.  I also continue to believe strongly in the value and promise of a free public eduction system that serves all students, and I strongly support innovative and creative efforts to reinvent our public education system so that it meets and exceeds the needs of ALL students.

As for the issue of “highly-qualified” teachers — I believe this depends on who is defining “highly qualified.”  There are so many issues to address with regard to pre-service education/training and pipelines, new teacher induction, and in-service professional development and support.  Once a teacher is in the classroom – do we define “highly-qualified” as “one who achieves high test scores or shows ‘value-added’,” or as “one who challenges students to think critically and creatively”?

Additionally, are we defining “highly-qualified” by teacher behaviors that you highlighted on your show today?  I am referring to the teacher qualities that you mentioned:  staying at school until 11:00 p.m. to help tutor students, and carrying around a school-issued Blackberry to be available to students 24/7.  If so, then is the teacher who leaves work every day at 4:00 to pick up his or her own children from school not “highly-qualified” or even adequately committed to the education of his or her students?  What about the teacher who chooses to not be available 24/7 so that they can lead a life that has a healthy work/life balance where they allow for quality time with their own families?  Are we really asking teachers to be so committed to their students that they make personal sacrifices to do so?  I hope not.

By the way, when I was a younger teacher I did take late night and weekend phone calls from students  — often just to let them know that there was an adult in their life who did care.  I now have my own family and I have scaled back my work hours as well as my availability to students in order to be fully present with my own children and my spouse.  While I am committed to being a dedicated and caring educator, I also understand that there must also be healthy boundaries and balance in order to avoid burnout and neglect of my own family.

You see, while I am a dedicated and hard-working educator, I am also now a parent and I believe very strongly that a child’s first and most important teachers are his or her parents.  I do not take this role and responsibility lightly.

As I have high expectations for myself as an educator and a parent, I also have high expectations for other educators AND for all parents.  I also have high expectations for all students and I firmly believe that the “learning” part of the equation is the students’ responsibility.  We are all individual parts of multiple and complex solutions, and when we (meaning: educators, policy makers, and the media) fail to hold EVERYONE accountable then we cannot expect to achieve complete success.  When we fail to hold everyone accountable then we should not profess to have solutions for all schools, all teachers, or all students.

You have accomplished so much and made such a positive impact with your show over the many years that it has been on the air.  It saddens me that your show today did not present all sides of our very complex and badly-in-need of reinvention education system.  I hope that in the future you will make an effort to give equal airtime to other voices and other solutions.

Respectfully,

Stephanie Sandifer

Parent, educator, concerned American citizen

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