Saturday, October 25, 2014

An Upset Educator’s Letter to Oprah — ‘Ask teachers.’


By Cynthia McCabe

After Oprah Winfrey aired a special Monday on education, many educators were angry at what they believed was the media mogul jumping on the teacher-bashing bandwagon. Immediately after the show, upset commenters filled more than 200 pages on Winfrey’s message boards. But one took her disappointment right to Winfrey, writing a heartfelt letter directly to the television star.

Britton Gildersleeve, a college writing teacher in Oklahoma who also helms the Oklahoma State University Writing Project, said she wrote the letter “in a white heat, I was so angry,” following the show’s airing. In her 20 years, she’s never seen the public and self-appointed education “reformers” so willing to bash educators, Gildersleeve said.

“I think it’s convenient,” Gildersleeve said, pointing out that even those willing to bash teachers they don’t know can easily remember a favorite teacher from their own past.

Her letter to Oprah wasn’t a personal attack, Gildersleeve said.

“I don’t dislike Oprah,” she said. “I understand she has a good heart. But why didn’t she have anyone on the show,” who could speak to the challenges of public school teachers? The show featured Microsoft founder Bill Gates, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and Davis Guggenheim, the director of the forthcoming education documentary Waiting For Superman.

A highlight from her letter: “If you want to change education, Oprah, don’t make the mistake everyone else has. Ask teachers. Would you have a conversation about the national state of medicine and health care without asking for the input of doctors, nurses and patients? And yet we have left parents, teachers and students completely out of this critical talk.”

Following is the full text of the letter:

Dear Oprah,

I teach. Given, I teach at university level, but I’ve been teaching for several years — about 20, to be exact. And I’ve seen the changes that No Child Left Behind — and your beloved testing — have made in my students. None of the changes are good: students want to be spoon-fed (they are in testing environments); students want to do only what will get them high grades. The list is long and sad.

I also direct a non-profit federally funded professional development grant for teachers, pre-k to university, the Oklahoma State University Writing Project. It’s the local site of the National Writing Project, an amazing partnership among research universities, classroom teachers, and schools. Not to mention the inclusion of parents and students. All of these voices are absent in the current national conversation.

Oprah, let me tell you about Oklahoma teachers and their classrooms. Many of my friends and colleagues at the high school level have more than 170-200 students in their classrooms. Do you think a student is worth 10 minutes a week from his/ her teacher? Outside of the classroom? Do you think a “good” teacher should spend that much time on weekly grading — 10 minutes a student? Please do the math: that would mean another 83+ hours weekly, Oprah — outside of classroom. IF each student receives 10 minutes of attention on his or her work outside the classroom.

“Don’t they have plan periods?” I hear people ask. No, many don’t. “Plan periods” went the way of smaller classrooms — there are too many school duties: hall monitors, cafeteria duty, mandated professional development that has nothing to do with the school’s demographics. And even if they did, that’s less than five hours weekly…

And yes, good teachers work a lot of outside hours. Unfortunately, in Oklahoma (where our average teacher salary ranks 47th in the country), many teachers need to take part-time jobs. Does this impact their teaching? Certainly. It also impacts the ability for a single mother of two or three children to put food on the table and pay the rent. Do you want teachers to spend more time on students? Lower classroom size — hire more teachers. And pay them competitive salaries — competitive with other career paths requiring a minimum of a bachelor?s degree. Even nurses (another under-rated career) make more than teachers do.

You don’t want teachers to have tenure? Then figure out a way that a principal in a small town (like, say, Skiatook, Okla.) will be unable to fire teachers s/he doesn’t like. Not because the teacher is ‘bad,’ but because the teacher attends the wrong church. Or maybe doesn’t attend church at all. Small towns — and big ones, as well — have politics, Oprah. And surprise: they affect every decision in a school, even to the detriment of teachers.

Tenure doesn’t keep bad teachers in the system — there are ways, as others have noted, to fire teachers. Your guest, Michele Rhee, notes that she fired hundreds. Many had tenure. And many probably weren’t bad teachers, unfortunately. Ms. Rhee, who once thought it was okay to tape students’ mouths shut?? She’s now in charge of evaluating schools? Let me tell you, Oprah, I teach pre-service teachers, in addition to my job directing a NWP site. Not ONE of my students would think that’s okay.

You can’t fire a doctor without just cause, Oprah — there’s a system. Is that ‘tenure’? Or trying to be sure that in this ostensible democracy, we have the right to confront our ‘accuser,’ and hear what is being said about us. Each year in Tulsa, Okla., new teachers don’t make the grade. Even in the third year of teaching, we let teachers who don’t work out go. Unfortunately, we lose an enormous number of teachers — good ones — who can’t deal with the incredibly complicated paperwork, the overtime demands, the lack of time to do what they went to school for: teach.

I wish someone who knew even a little bit about real classrooms, the heart-breaking challenges teachers face daily (teachers spend an average of $400 annually, out of their own meager salaries, to equip their rooms), had a national forum. I wish one of your guests was a real teacher. John Legend? Really? Come on, Oprah, I don’t try to tell John Legend how to make music; he’s going to tell me about teaching? Or perhaps you’re stereotyping? Instead of John Legend, why don’t you have Pedro Noguera, who wrote a stunning book discussing the problems black males face in the system (The Trouble with Black Boys)? Or Mike Rose, who’s worked for decades with working class, side-lined students and schools of America? Or Diane Ravitch, who recanted her support of NCLB because it not only doesn’t work, it harms students?? And Race to the Top is simply an Obama-ised NCLB, I’m sorry to say.

Why don’t you, with your great forum for change, invite real classroom teachers to talk about what it’s like to teach homeless students with no resources (students or teachers)? Why don’t you ask my son, who recently graduated with a Master’s of Arts in teaching, what it’s like to teach students living in foster homes for drug abuse, rape — both victims and perpetrators — violence, assault? Why don’t you ask him how he struggles to be a “good” teacher? And wonders — daily — what that even means in the context where he finds himself?

If you want to change education, Oprah, don’t make the mistake everyone else has. Ask teachers. Would you have a conversation about the national state of medicine and health care without asking for the input of doctors, nurses and patients? And yet we have left parents, teachers and students completely out of this critical talk.

If you want real change, invite real teachers to your show, Oprah. The irony is that the conversation seems to valourise teachers, saying that “good” teachers can change things for kids. So can smaller classrooms, food, adequate resources, the freedom to teach according to a child’s needs. But then, that’s not what the “experts” are saying, is it? Unfortunately, the “experts” have no real experience with students. Or teaching. Or classrooms. They only know how to tell the teachers in the trenches what to do?

Wondering how in the world education came to this pass,

Britton Gildersleeve


274 Responses to “An Upset Educator’s Letter to Oprah — ‘Ask teachers.’”
  1. Kim says:

    Thank you Britton Gildersleeve! If I watched Oprah, I would have said the same amount. I have been teaching for 8 years. I currently work in a school where most children live in section 8 housing. I have students come to me saying they did not eat dinner last night because there was either no food in the house or no one was there to feed them. I teach 2nd grade! Most of these students go home to either an empty house or to an older sibling who is busy with other things. I have seen what children can do with the support from the home side. I have a student who not only gets special ed services at school, but mom realizes she needs to do something on her end. That child was barely reading 15 words a minute. With the help of the school and support of her mom, she is now at 32 words a minute. Apparently we are gods! We can perform miracles. It takes more than just an hour a day to teach a student how to read!

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  2. Kimberly Montgomery says:

    I have been teaching for 24 years. Things have really changed. What happened to the days when teachers held some respect in the eyes of the public?

    Teachers, who attend college not just for a BA or BS degree but who also attend an extra year to complete credentialing and student teaching, are not worthy of being considered a professional. Why? Many even go on to get Graduate degrees (I have two Masters Degrees), and even we are not considered a professional in the eyes of the public. We are public servants, and as such we have no say even though we are the experts in our fields. It seems the term ’servant’ has been taken literally by those in our government who dictate to us how to do our job. I personally feel like I’ve been jumping for years through hoops at the whim of politicians pandering for votes who have no idea what it is like to be a teacher or to be in a classroom.

    I, like many other teachers, spend my summers and many ‘off’ days during the year creating new curriculum, and/or reworking lessons, in order to meet the needs of the varied learning levels in my classes. I love my job, but it is exhausting. Working with over 160 kids, at least 30 of whom are RSP with IEP’s, have 504s, or have been diagnosed with ADHD. I chose to take these kids because I know I can make a difference in their academic success. Another 30 are really struggling because they are so far behind. The rest are divided between the ones who care and will work, and those that don’t give a hoot about school and want to disrupt the learning process of others and my ability to teach.

    Along with developing curriculum to meet the needs of a varied population, comes assignments that need to be graded. I used to comment on the 160+ papers I grade, but do not comment nearly as much anymore because no matter what I say or do, a majority of my students look only at the score and never use the information given to fix it or to carry that information over to the next assignment. I do not enter a passing grade until they pass with 80% or higher on tests, so maybe next term I’ll make it everything, and not just tests, which means they will have no choice but to redo things (or do it well the first time) and pay attention to my comments. Who would have thought I’d have to do that to get kids to do more than just barely get by, which is enough for too many?

    Getting kids to do homework anymore is a Herculean task, and it is never anything new, always something they just need to finish. What happened to the days when a kid would never dream of talking back or not turning in their work?

    Let’s not even talk about what it is like to get kids to THINK. Many won’t even listen to directions being given, won’t reread them on their paper or the board after you’ve read it to them and explained it, and won’t follow them. Then, they act surprised when they are marked down for not reading and following the directions. They want to be spoon fed and given the answers, but I won’t do that. I tell them we are going to “Push through what is hard,” and find ways to find answers rather than being passive learners. They fight it for about the first half of the year until they realize, I am not backing down. Then all of a sudden, many of them turn the corner, but not all.

    Grades just came due for mid-terms. I’ve had only a handful of parents contact me about their student’s progress in class. That’s a problem, too. I have a website with my weekly agenda and handouts and resources, and I communicate with parents via email. I return calls promptly, and yet as the years pass, fewer and fewer parents seem interested until the very end of the year when it is time to graduate from 8th grade, and then they are up in arms about not knowing their child was doing so poorly, even though numerous notices were sent, and they want to know is there any extra credit? Really? Of course it doesn’t matter in the end because even though students may fail their classes, the only punishment is not crossing the stage. They will still be passed on to high school.

    The system our politicians have created has done our kids a grave disservice. We cannot continue to pass kids along who don’t have grade level skills, and NOT because their teachers are incompetent, but because teachers are swimming upstream as fast as they can against incredible odds in many cases. In elementary school, kids develop at different paces until they all start to catch up with each other in fourth grade. However, if students are not grade level by the end of third, they should not be passed on to the next grade. Decades of doing so has proven to be very harmful to our kids.

    We cannot hold kids back without an act of God it seems. Don’t want to hurt little Susie or Johnny’s self esteem. Well, imagine their feelings of self worth down the road when they can’t read or do basic math? If kids, who didn’t have their basic skills down by the end of third grade were not passed on to fourth grade where all those skills are built upon and things get harder, we’d have far fewer kids in middle school who test two or more grade levels below where they should be in reading and math. Let me tell you how sad it is to see kids giving up because they really can’t do the work. So, I,and so many of us, work even harder to assist those kids in being as successful as possible.

    Will all of them end up in college? No, nor should everyone end up in college. We are not all made of the same cloth, so why assume everyone wants to or needs to attend a four year university and get a BA/BS degree?
    Again, we have done our kids a disservice by treating them all the same. “You are all the chronological age to be in first grade, so you must all be ready for first grade”. False! Kids are not widgets in a factory made all the same way. Every child can learn and should be given all the educational opportunities available to challenge them, but we must be honest in admitting that educational opportunities need to fit the child.

    I am tired of defending my profession and hearing that education is in shambles. I’m tired of hearing that I don’t have a ‘real’ job because I have time off during the year. If I didn’t, I would have burned out a long time ago. I work very long hours. I do not just go home when the bell rings and show up the next day prepared to teach. I have meetings before and after school. I spend lunch time helping kids and often do not get to eat lunch. I’m lucky if I get to use the restroom. I prepare for the next day after any meetings I’ve attended, then I go home and grade papers (160 every time I assign something to assess whether skills and concepts are sinking in or not) until 11pm sometimes before going to bed in order to get up at 6am to start again. I am tired, but I wouldn’t give up my job for a higher paying less stressful job in the private sector, either. I am a public servant and proud to be of service to my community as a teacher. I want us to work together to reform education for the best interest of our kids, not corporations and politicians.

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  3. Maria says:

    Thanks for saying what thousands of us feel.
    I retired after 31 yrs. of elementary teaching because of administration problems and the six weeks worth of “testing” in a year that takes away from the “teaching” I used to do. Giving little ones only 20 min. of recess for the total day makes for antsy and disruptive kids, naturally. But that’s all we’re “allowed”. Our rooms have been 92 degrees and yet we’re suppose to keep “teaching”. Yet there is a federal program that ALL kids eat breakfast in the classroom, daily. That’s another 20-30 min. out of our “teaching” day.
    I retired, too early financially, because I couldn’t sell my soul anymore. It doesn’t mean I’ve stopped “teaching” though. I go in to help “teach” one full day a week. (withOUT pay but to help the kids and my friends)
    I could write for hours but can now have “a life” without my teaching responsibilities taking up my time.

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  4. Kelli says:

    I would challenge anyone who is not a teacher TODAY to spend just one month teaching. I would bet my paycheck that they don’t last, let alone make a difference in the lives of their students. With diminishing resources available, frozen salaries for the last 3 years, and tougher challenges facing our students we are “expected” to put in double, triple, or quadruple the time “out of the goodness in our hearts”. Please do the math…. and thank you to Ms. Gildersleeve for pointing out that would be more than 80 hours a week. Plan periods? IEP’s, meetings, student make-up work, parent contacts….. that is why it’s midnight and I have just spent the last 4 hours of my Friday night updating my class website. The rest of my weekend will be trying to catch up with family….. and grading work that is over 2 weeks old. I do it because I love it, but a thank you once in a while would be nice!

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  5. george lazar says:

    I retired last year after 35 years of teaching industrial arts and special ed in an urban, difficult, community. I believe teaching is an art. One needs to have a talent for understanding and relating to people,patience and creativity along with the energy to continue the battle day after day. If new teachers can demonstrate these skills for some internship then they should be given the freedom of an artiest to ply their skills with student without fear.

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  6. lynne says:

    Thank you for writing this letter. It was definately needed and many of us felt exactly the way you do. Oprah missed this mark on this one!

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  7. Lisa Gelatt says:

    Very well stated! I have spent the last 30 years as a parent and volunteer in the public schools.
    I don’t think we should complain about something that we are not willing to do something about. Parents “dump” their children in the laps of the schools and don’t do anything except complain when they don’t like the outcome. We need to get involved and assist the teachers even when our children are grown. I am payng for these schools and it is my responsibility to get involved in the education of the future!!

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  8. Liz Strubbe says:

    Oprah’s show certainly made us finally speak up. I have never written a response before but could not just ignore this. Yes, there are teachers that should not be teaching; just like there are doctors, lawyers, electricians, etc. who should not be in there professions either. In 37 years I have seen both good, caring teachers and teachers who should never have entered the profession. Those bad apples don’t last…they usually leave as soon as they have the chance to do so. Others, through mentoring become wonderful teachers.
    Who does stay? Professionals who have to deal with opinionated people that know very little about teaching except that they were students at one time in their life. People who would not be in their professions if there had not been teachers in their lives. People who have nothing better to do than to bash professionals that earn by far less money than most professionals but work harder and more hours than most. It is very disappointing that Oprah did not give equal time to both sides of the topic. Oprah, do we get our time too?

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  9. jaymie says:

    “TEACHING IS THE PROFESSION THAT CREATES ALL OTHERS”!!! Help us create, not devistate!

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  10. Sarah B says:

    The reason I wasnt offered a contract after my first year of teaching was not because I was a “bad” teacher, it was because I did not do enough worksheets and I did not cater to the politics. The principal told me what a great job I did, how wonderful a teacher I was and then told me because I did not do as many worksheets as he wanted (6-7 per kid per day, 136 students) he was not going to offer me the contract he had for me on his desk. I told him that was fine and I was going to go be a firefighter! And I did! Now some decade later, I am working hard on my masters degree so I can do what was my passion all along.
    Tenure, as it exists in other states, doesnt exist in mine. The firing process is long and hard if you dont flat out break the law or hurt someone. It is what it is because of people like my first principal who have a game you have to play to be in his good graces. This same idiot put a woman with a masters degree in biology (she was certified in science and from Ohio) teaching state history (not Ohio by the way) because he wanted to as he said “be rid of her”. She taught history for 7 years at last count, before she finally retired.
    I worked in another underpaid profession, but was specialized enough to make about 30,000.00 a year. It was more than I would have made teaching with a BA or BS, but not as much as I will make with a MS or MA. I worked with the product of the “test test test” NCLB system and almost all of those guys were useless. They could not do basic tasks without constant supervision. Oh they could take a test, but practical application of skills took more time with these guys than it ever did with the newbies some 15 years ago. Its a mess what the NCLB has made in our schools, and I pray someone will give teachers a voice. I doubt its gonna be Oprah though.
    I have said it before and I will say it again, people, especally parents, have to stop blaming the teachers and take responsibility for the education of these kids in places where teachers arent, like home. As I reenter the educational relm I have discovered, much to my dismay, these kids are being raised by videogames and cable TV! There were kids like that when I taught before, but it seems so much more prevelant now.
    Oprah needs to spend some time in the school where I am practicum teaching. That would open her eyes.

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  11. Karen Detweiler says:

    The recent discussions about education that are being heard everywhere [Oprah, The View, NBC -- extensive for days -- and more] actually seem to be campaigns against teachers. Just about all we hear is that the problem with education is bad teachers: pay teachers according student test scores to get rid of bad teachers; we aren’t able to fire bad teachers; bad teachers are just moved to other schools [one network interviewee called it “the dance of the lemons”]. How can the problem be the fault of the teachers? Why is the discussion not broadened to include state departments of education, school district administrators, and parents? Where is the evaluation of these? If there are so many bad teachers, state departments of education and local school district administrations must have low licensing requirements, poor student teaching programs, poor supervision of student teachers, lack of mentoring, and no probationary period with remediation when necessary if so many bad teachers are hired and kept. I don’t believe there are many bad teachers. Teachers do not decide class size, curriculum, facilities, having assistants in large or early elementary classes, which students they have or the mix of students. None of the systems I worked in had a union or tenure,and all had a probationary period during which dismissal could occur at any time. I recently retired after 40 years of teaching and being a librarian in public education. I had contact and worked with teachers at all grade levels. I can count on my fingers the bad teachers I have seen [in different schools in different states] in all those years. The great majority of teachers are dedicated, conscientious, hard working, and caring [and they spend their own money on supplies, their own time and money on professional development/relicensing, and their own time on preparation, etc.]. Most of the bad teachers I have seen got promoted to administration, where they protected administration, cut items [such as teacher assistants, supply stipends, planning time, other staff so teachers had to have lunch duty, hall duty, and even double classes because there was no sub for an absent teacher], increased class size, and increased non-teaching duties as other staff positions were cut. When facilities, class sizes, materials, parent involvement, student abilities, and home situations all are equal, then possibly merit pay based on student test scores would be fair. In the last system I was in, we had “magnet” schools which students had to apply for. One was three miles from “my” school – it received an updated library with all new furniture, assistants, special materials, and other “perks”. Students wore uniforms, and parents and students had to sign contracts for participation/involvement, doing homework, etc. If the program and contract were not followed, the student was sent back to his/her zone school. Why is it OK to have different facilities, materials, standards, and support? These things should be equal for all. We had a student with severe behavior problems, so he was sent to the school with a special program for students with behavior problems. They could not handle him, so they sent him back to us – his zone school. One fourth grade class had all students reading below grade level and a fourth grade class across the hall had all students reading above grade level. The administration said the placements were random. Kindergarten classes had 27 students ages 4-6, some with severe adjustment problems, and many with inadequate pre-reading skills, and one teacher – no teacher assistant. You try it. Let’s stop the attacks on teachers and look at the entire system, especially top heavy, overpaid [in comparison to teachers] administrations.

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  12. Barbara says:

    I could write a novel about this subject but I will sum up my thoughts in several ways:

    * Teachers are the first ones to be blamed when things go wrong and the last to be thanked when things go right.

    * Everyone thinks they know what it’s like to be a teacher because they have been a student–just like they know what it’s like to be a pilot because they’ve ridden in a plane.

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  13. Brittany Welch says:

    I just wanted to tell Britton Gildersleeve, IT IS ABOUT TIME! I am so thankful that there are people like you who aren’t afraid to speak their mind; no matter who you may be speaking to. I am not a teacher, but I am finishing my degree to become a teacher and I am already tired of hearing the bad raps that teachers receive.
    Thank you for standing up,

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  14. James Guier says:

    Well said. We are all part of the problem unless we speak up. Thank you.

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  15. Anne Appleyard says:

    I will join the thousands of other teachers who want to thank Britton. She said it well and thoroughly. Why can’t there be a forum of teachers on Oprah to tell what we’re going through? I’m tired of being bashed and blamed, and for once, I wish the ‘experts’ would come to the people who are really the EXPERTS– teachers– to get our input on what is working and what would make a difference for our students. We know because we live it and breathe it every day!

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  16. Bill says:

    Thank you, Britton Gildersleeve. You did an excellent job of presenting the facts and standing-up for us teachers and public education. You are definitely my heroine. I really admire and appreciate you for speaking up.
    I wish more of us were like you. It is time for us, teachers, to follow your lead.

    Many thanks to you and may God bless you.

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  17. Hank Warren says:

    Unfortunately, the current conversation regarding the state of American public education has been commandeered by an entrenched bureaucracy of administrators, politicians, and media pundits who have little practical knowledge or understanding of the teaching process. The truth about what is actually happening in our public school classrooms has been precluded from the debate. This is precisely my purpose for writing “It Simply Must Be Said—A View of American Public Education from the Trenches of Teaching.” While the book has been acclaimed by critics, teachers and general readership as a “must read” for anyone concerned with the state of our educational system, those in a position of influence on educational issues have shown little interest. Despite my sending or offering complimentary copies to most of the individuals on Oprah’s panel, as well as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Time Magazine’s Joe Klein and Amanda Ripley, Journalism Online’s Steven Brill, and even President Obama, I haven’t received a single response. It seems as though the “blame teachers, tenure, and the unions” agenda is now so firmly established that any viewpoint deviating from this narrow focus is disregarded.
    While Davis Guggenheim’s film, “Waiting for Superman” has thankfully resulted in some pundits realizing that you can’t hold teachers accountable for everything, active public school teachers continue to be conspicuously absent from the “educational reform” discussion. As a practicing 34 year veteran teacher, it is terribly frustrating to have written a comprehensive book detailing the issues facing classroom teachers, including numerous recommendations for truly meaningful school reform, only to be ignored by those in power. If Foreword Clarion Reviews is correct in stating that “Warren’s is a voice that deserves to be heard in the national debate on the quality and progress of education,” I, like millions of others, am more than ready to participate.

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  18. Fred says:

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  19. Kelly Flynn says:

    Britton Gildersleeve, your letter is perfect, eloquent, and true. I saw both of the Oprah shows on education and I agree with you 100 percent.

    But the million dollar question is this: How DO we get teachers in front of a national audience? How DO we take the reins in the education “reform” conversation? I am a former high school teacher. I left the classroom to pursue a career in journalism. For seven years I wrote a weekly newspaper column about education, from a teacher’s point of view. I researched education policy and talked to teachers all over the country, and it is crystal clear to me that teachers need to step up and assert themselves. The thing is, with NCLB and all of the resulting paperwork and documentation requirements, teachers have less time than ever to advocate for their profession.
    Kelly Flynn, author of Kids, Classrooms, and Capitol Hill: A Peek Inside the Walls of America’s Public Schools

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  20. Susan says:

    Cathy Coates’ story should be the national movie made named “Waiting for the Truth”

    Does the public realize our Special Educators are not helping teachers? An aid to sit with a student and do their work for them doesn’t count.

    Does the public know that proportionately most of new dollars in education funding is not going to general education (thus, how can we expect improvement), but rather “most of the real increase in school spending has not been on increasing the resources of schools’ regular academic programs. Rather, larger increases were devoted to special education, a program that consumed very few dollars in 1967. The conventional argument—that there has been a productivity collapse in elementary and secondary education because funds have increased without a corresponding improvement in academic outcomes—we concluded is flawed. It is unreasonable to expect additional funds to produce higher academic achievement for regular students if the additional funds have been directed to students with special needs.”

    and here is another article that also points this out:

    If the public is outraged by the soaring costs of education, and the general population of students poorly demonstrated achievement scores, then perhaps they should spend a day in school today. Schools today are not your mother’s (or daddy’s) schools. But alas, I of course know this can’t happen because conveniently, no one from the outside is allowed in our classrooms without a background check. That should tell you something right there. But yet, these are the same people telling how to do our jobs.

    I vote for getting public school funding decisions out of the general public, since they can not and do not know what is truly happening inside our classrooms and what teachers truly do.

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  21. MPeterson says:

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  22. Cynthia McCabe says:

    Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. Check out this great article on what teacher tenure is and is not: You might be surprised to see that many of these myths are pushed by Waiting for Superman. Also, be sure to see what critics across the country had to say about Waiting for Superman’s attack on teachers here:

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  23. Kent says:

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  24. Carla says:

    Things I have done in ONE day, as a teacher…
    Today I…
    Administered first aid
    taught PE
    Gave a kid breakfast
    gave psychological support to kids and overworked colleagues
    tied a shoe
    taught a group of girls that teasing hurts
    comforted someone with a family loss
    taught my class of fourth-graders how their government works
    taught a girl with no English how to read a bit better
    explained why it’s not ok to call someone a racial slur
    reviewed basic math concepts every human should know
    introduced the art of Remington
    raised the self esteem of a boy who thought no one cared
    hugged and waved at over 15 students I’ve never had in class, but know me
    told jokes to keep kids engaged
    assured a parent that there was hope, even with severe vision problems
    told a past parent I would be available for help
    dressed up and showed up after work for a Halloween event because my kids wanted to see me
    demonstrated how to write legibly and carefully
    had NO prep time
    worked during lunch
    realized that I haven’t had a raise all year
    kept teaching with a raspy voice-did not stay home
    paid for my own materials
    paid more for health coverage-can no longer go to any doctor I want
    showed love and respect, and gave my all to 29 future adults
    remembered that I have adored all 400+ students I have ever had


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  25. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  26. Michelle says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  27. Heather says:

    I would really like to hear Oprah’s response to this letter. It surprises me that she didn’t invite teachers to be part of the panel on her show. She has said many times over the years that if she hadn’t gone into journalism, she would have become a teacher. So why isn’t she asking for the opinions of teachers?

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  28. Ronnie says:

    Has Oprah responded? No. She needs to. She once said that she was pro-teacher. I’m sick of the negative media attention we get at educators. Without tenure and the NEA, I would have been fired four years ago because the principal and assistant superintendant aligned themselves with conservative board members who didn’t want an out gay teacher in the district where I teach district. I’m a good teacher, but my sexuality put an unneeded target on my back. They made my life hell for about two months until the NEA fought back and called off the dogs. Thankfully I continue to be a role model in a district finally rid of of bad leadership.

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  29. Karen Larson says:

    The New York Times Book Review posted an excellent summary of the book, “The Myth of Charter Schools.” Check it out. The charter school is the current threat to public teaching, teachers’ unions, and teachers’ rights. Arm yourself with the facts and bust up the myths of charter schools with this book or even the review.The Myth of Charter Schools
    November 11, 2010
    Diane Ravitch
    Anthony, a fifth-grade student hoping to win a spot at the SEED charter boarding school in Washington, D.C.; from Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’
    Ordinarily, documentaries about education attract little attention, and seldom, if ever, reach neighborhood movie theaters. Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for “Superman” is different. It arrived in late September with the biggest publicity splash I have ever seen for a documentary. Not only was it the subject of major stories in Time and New York, but it was featured twice on The Oprah Winfrey Show and was the centerpiece of several days of programming by NBC, including an interview with President Obama.
    Two other films expounding the same arguments—The Lottery and The Cartel—were released in the late spring, but they received far less attention than Guggenheim’s film. His reputation as the director of the Academy Award–winning An Inconvenient Truth, about global warming, contributed to the anticipation surrounding Waiting for “Superman,” but the media frenzy suggested something more. Guggenheim presents the popularized version of an account of American public education that is promoted by some of the nation’s most powerful figures and institutions.
    The message of these films has become alarmingly familiar: American public education is a failed enterprise. The problem is not money. Public schools already spend too much. Test scores are low because there are so many bad teachers, whose jobs are protected by powerful unions. Students drop out because the schools fail them, but they could accomplish practically anything if they were saved from bad teachers. They would get higher test scores if schools could fire more bad teachers and pay more to good ones. The only hope for the future of our society, especially for poor black and Hispanic children, is escape from public schools, especially to charter schools, which are mostly funded by the government but controlled by private organizations, many of them operating to make a profit.
    The Cartel maintains that we must not only create more charter schools, but provide vouchers so that children can flee incompetent public schools and attend private schools. There, we are led to believe, teachers will be caring and highly skilled (unlike the lazy dullards in public schools); the schools will have high expectations and test scores will soar; and all children will succeed academically, regardless of their circumstances. The Lottery echoes the main story line of Waiting for “Superman”: it is about children who are desperate to avoid the New York City public schools and eager to win a spot in a shiny new charter school in Harlem.
    For many people, these arguments require a willing suspension of disbelief. Most Americans graduated from public schools, and most went from school to college or the workplace without thinking that their school had limited their life chances. There was a time—which now seems distant—when most people assumed that students’ performance in school was largely determined by their own efforts and by the circumstances and support of their family, not by their teachers. There were good teachers and mediocre teachers, even bad teachers, but in the end, most public schools offered ample opportunity for education to those willing to pursue it. The annual Gallup poll about education shows that Americans are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the quality of the nation’s schools, but 77 percent of public school parents award their own child’s public school a grade of A or B, the highest level of approval since the question was first asked in 1985.
    Waiting for “Superman” and the other films appeal to a broad apprehension that the nation is falling behind in global competition. If the economy is a shambles, if poverty persists for significant segments of the population, if American kids are not as serious about their studies as their peers in other nations, the schools must be to blame. At last we have the culprit on which we can pin our anger, our palpable sense that something is very wrong with our society, that we are on the wrong track, and that America is losing the race for global dominance. It is not globalization or deindustrialization or poverty or our coarse popular culture or predatory financial practices that bear responsibility: it’s the public schools, their teachers, and their unions.
    The inspiration for Waiting for “Superman” began, Guggenheim explains, as he drove his own children to a private school, past the neighborhood schools with low test scores. He wondered about the fate of the children whose families did not have the choice of schools available to his own children. What was the quality of their education? He was sure it must be terrible. The press release for the film says that he wondered, “How heartsick and worried did their parents feel as they dropped their kids off this morning?” Guggenheim is a graduate of Sidwell Friends, the elite private school in Washington, D.C., where President Obama’s daughters are enrolled. The public schools that he passed by each morning must have seemed as hopeless and dreadful to him as the public schools in Washington that his own parents had shunned.
    Waiting for “Superman” tells the story of five children who enter a lottery to win a coveted place in a charter school. Four of them seek to escape the public schools; one was asked to leave a Catholic school because her mother couldn’t afford the tuition. Four of the children are black or Hispanic and live in gritty neighborhoods, while the one white child lives in a leafy suburb. We come to know each of these children and their families; we learn about their dreams for the future; we see that they are lovable; and we identify with them. By the end of the film, we are rooting for them as the day of the lottery approaches.
    In each of the schools to which they have applied, the odds against them are large. Anthony, a fifth-grader in Washington, D.C., applies to the SEED charter boarding school, where there are sixty-one applicants for twenty-four places. Francisco is a first-grade student in the Bronx whose mother (a social worker with a graduate degree) is desperate to get him out of the New York City public schools and into a charter school; she applies to Harlem Success Academy where he is one of 792 applicants for forty places. Bianca is the kindergarten student in Harlem whose mother cannot afford Catholic school tuition; she enters the lottery at another Harlem Success Academy, as one of 767 students competing for thirty-five openings. Daisy is a fifth-grade student in East Los Angeles whose parents hope she can win a spot at KIPP LA PREP, where 135 students have applied for ten places. Emily is an eighth-grade student in Silicon Valley, where the local high school has gorgeous facilities, high graduation rates, and impressive test scores, but her family worries that she will be assigned to a slow track because of her low test scores; so they enter the lottery for Summit Preparatory Charter High School, where she is one of 455 students competing for 110 places.
    The stars of the film are Geoffrey Canada, the CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides a broad variety of social services to families and children and runs two charter schools; Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system, who closed schools, fired teachers and principals, and gained a national reputation for her tough policies; David Levin and Michael Feinberg, who have built a network of nearly one hundred high-performing KIPP charter schools over the past sixteen years; and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who is cast in the role of chief villain. Other charter school leaders, like Steve Barr of the Green Dot chain in Los Angeles, do star turns, as does Bill Gates of Microsoft, whose foundation has invested many millions of dollars in expanding the number of charter schools. No successful public school teacher or principal or superintendent appears in the film; indeed there is no mention of any successful public school, only the incessant drumbeat on the theme of public school failure.
    The situation is dire, the film warns us. We must act. But what must we do? The message of the film is clear. Public schools are bad, privately managed charter schools are good. Parents clamor to get their children out of the public schools in New York City (despite the claims by Mayor Michael Bloomberg that the city’s schools are better than ever) and into the charters (the mayor also plans to double the number of charters, to help more families escape from the public schools that he controls). If we could fire the bottom 5 to 10 percent of the lowest-performing teachers every year, says Hoover Institution economist Eric Hanushek in the film, our national test scores would soon approach the top of international rankings in mathematics and science.
    Some fact-checking is in order, and the place to start is with the film’s quiet acknowledgment that only one in five charter schools is able to get the “amazing results” that it celebrates. Nothing more is said about this astonishing statistic. It is drawn from a national study of charter schools by Stanford economist Margaret Raymond (the wife of Hanushek). Known as the CREDO study, it evaluated student progress on math tests in half the nation’s five thousand charter schools and concluded that 17 percent were superior to a matched traditional public school; 37 percent were worse than the public school; and the remaining 46 percent had academic gains no different from that of a similar public school. The proportion of charters that get amazing results is far smaller than 17 percent.Why did Davis Guggenheim pay no attention to the charter schools that are run by incompetent leaders or corporations mainly concerned to make money? Why propound to an unknowing public the myth that charter schools are the answer to our educational woes, when the filmmaker knows that there are twice as many failing charters as there are successful ones? Why not give an honest accounting?
    The propagandistic nature of Waiting for “Superman” is revealed by Guggenheim’s complete indifference to the wide variation among charter schools. There are excellent charter schools, just as there are excellent public schools. Why did he not also inquire into the charter chains that are mired in unsavory real estate deals, or take his camera to the charters where most students are getting lower scores than those in the neighborhood public schools? Why did he not report on the charter principals who have been indicted for embezzlement, or the charters that blur the line between church and state? Why did he not look into the charter schools whose leaders are paid $300,000–$400,000 a year to oversee small numbers of schools and students?
    Guggenheim seems to believe that teachers alone can overcome the effects of student poverty, even though there are countless studies that demonstrate the link between income and test scores. He shows us footage of the pilot Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier, to the amazement of people who said it couldn’t be done. Since Yeager broke the sound barrier, we should be prepared to believe that able teachers are all it takes to overcome the disadvantages of poverty, homelessness, joblessness, poor nutrition, absent parents, etc.
    The movie asserts a central thesis in today’s school reform discussion: the idea that teachers are the most important factor determining student achievement. But this proposition is false. Hanushek has released studies showing that teacher quality accounts for about 7.5–10 percent of student test score gains. Several other high-quality analyses echo this finding, and while estimates vary a bit, there is a relative consensus: teachers statistically account for around 10–20 percent of achievement outcomes. Teachers are the most important factor within schools.
    But the same body of research shows that nonschool factors matter even more than teachers. According to University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber, about 60 percent of achievement is explained by nonschool factors, such as family income. So while teachers are the most important factor within schools, their effects pale in comparison with those of students’ backgrounds, families, and other factors beyond the control of schools and teachers. Teachers can have a profound effect on students, but it would be foolish to believe that teachers alone can undo the damage caused by poverty and its associated burdens.
    Guggenheim skirts the issue of poverty by showing only families that are intact and dedicated to helping their children succeed. One of the children he follows is raised by a doting grandmother; two have single mothers who are relentless in seeking better education for them; two of them live with a mother and father. Nothing is said about children whose families are not available, for whatever reason, to support them, or about children who are homeless, or children with special needs. Nor is there any reference to the many charter schools that enroll disproportionately small numbers of children who are English-language learners or have disabilities.
    The film never acknowledges that charter schools were created mainly at the instigation of Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974 to 1997. Shanker had the idea in 1988 that a group of public school teachers would ask their colleagues for permission to create a small school that would focus on the neediest students, those who had dropped out and those who were disengaged from school and likely to drop out. He sold the idea as a way to open schools that would collaborate with public schools and help motivate disengaged students. In 1993, Shanker turned against the charter school idea when he realized that for-profit organizations saw it as a business opportunity and were advancing an agenda of school privatization. Michelle Rhee gained her teaching experience in Baltimore as an employee of Education Alternatives, Inc., one of the first of the for-profit operations.
    Today, charter schools are promoted not as ways to collaborate with public schools but as competitors that will force them to get better or go out of business. In fact, they have become the force for privatization that Shanker feared. Because of the high-stakes testing regime created by President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, charter schools compete to get higher test scores than regular public schools and thus have an incentive to avoid students who might pull down their scores. Under NCLB, low-performing schools may be closed, while high-performing ones may get bonuses. Some charter schools “counsel out” or expel students just before state testing day. Some have high attrition rates, especially among lower-performing students.
    Perhaps the greatest distortion in this film is its misrepresentation of data about student academic performance. The film claims that 70 percent of eighth-grade students cannot read at grade level. This is flatly wrong. Guggenheim here relies on numbers drawn from the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). I served as a member of the governing board for the national tests for seven years, and I know how misleading Guggenheim’s figures are. NAEP doesn’t measure performance in terms of grade-level achievement. The highest level of performance, “advanced,” is equivalent to an A+, representing the highest possible academic performance. The next level, “proficient,” is equivalent to an A or a very strong B. The next level is “basic,” which probably translates into a C grade. The film assumes that any student below proficient is “below grade level.” But it would be far more fitting to worry about students who are “below basic,” who are 25 percent of the national sample, not 70 percent.
    Guggenheim didn’t bother to take a close look at the heroes of his documentary. Geoffrey Canada is justly celebrated for the creation of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which not only runs two charter schools but surrounds children and their families with a broad array of social and medical services. Canada has a board of wealthy philanthropists and a very successful fund-raising apparatus. With assets of more than $200 million, his organization has no shortage of funds. Canada himself is currently paid $400,000 annually. For Guggenheim to praise Canada while also claiming that public schools don’t need any more money is bizarre. Canada’s charter schools get better results than nearby public schools serving impoverished students. If all inner-city schools had the same resources as his, they might get the same good results.
    But contrary to the myth that Guggenheim propounds about “amazing results,” even Geoffrey Canada’s schools have many students who are not proficient. On the 2010 state tests, 60 percent of the fourth-grade students in one of his charter schools were not proficient in reading, nor were 50 percent in the other. It should be noted—and Guggenheim didn’t note it—that Canada kicked out his entire first class of middle school students when they didn’t get good enough test scores to satisfy his board of trustees. This sad event was documented by Paul Tough in his laudatory account of Canada’s Har- lem Children’s Zone, Whatever It Takes (2009). Contrary to Guggenheim’s mythology, even the best-funded charters, with the finest services, can’t completely negate the effects of poverty.
    Guggenheim ignored other clues that might have gotten in the way of a good story. While blasting the teachers’ unions, he points to Finland as a nation whose educational system the US should emulate, not bothering to explain that it has a completely unionized teaching force. His documentary showers praise on testing and accountability, yet he does not acknowledge that Finland seldom tests its students. Any Finnish educator will say that Finland improved its public education system not by privatizing its schools or constantly testing its students, but by investing in the preparation, support, and retention of excellent teachers. It achieved its present eminence not by systematically firing 5–10 percent of its teachers, but by patiently building for the future. Finland has a national curriculum, which is not restricted to the basic skills of reading and math, but includes the arts, sciences, history, foreign languages, and other subjects that are essential to a good, rounded education. Finland also strengthened its social welfare programs for children and families. Guggenheim simply ignores the realities of the Finnish system.
    In any school reform proposal, the question of “scalability” always arises. Can reforms be reproduced on a broad scale? The fact that one school produces amazing results is not in itself a demonstration that every other school can do the same. For example, Guggenheim holds up Locke High School in Los Angeles, part of the Green Dot charter chain, as a success story but does not tell the whole story. With an infusion of $15 million of mostly private funding, Green Dot produced a safer, cleaner campus, but no more than tiny improvements in its students’ abysmal test scores. According to the Los Angeles Times, the percentage of its students proficient in English rose from 13.7 percent in 2009 to 14.9 percent in 2010, while in math the proportion of proficient students grew from 4 percent to 6.7 percent. What can be learned from this small progress? Becoming a charter is no guarantee that a school serving a tough neighborhood will produce educational miracles.
    Another highly praised school that is featured in the film is the SEED charter boarding school in Washington, D.C. SEED seems to deserve all the praise that it receives from Guggenheim, CBS’s 60 Minutes, and elsewhere. It has remarkable rates of graduation and college acceptance. But SEED spends $35,000 per student, as compared to average current spending for public schools of about one third that amount. Is our society prepared to open boarding schools for tens of thousands of inner-city students and pay what it costs to copy the SEED model? Those who claim that better education for the neediest students won’t require more money cannot use SEED to support their argument.
    Guggenheim seems to demand that public schools start firing “bad” teachers so they can get the great results that one of every five charter schools gets. But he never explains how difficult it is to identify “bad” teachers. If one looks only at test scores, teachers in affluent suburbs get higher ones. If one uses student gains or losses as a general measure, then those who teach the neediest children—English-language learners, troubled students, autistic students—will see the smallest gains, and teachers will have an incentive to avoid districts and classes with large numbers of the neediest students.
    Ultimately the job of hiring teachers, evaluating them, and deciding who should stay and who should go falls to administrators. We should be taking a close look at those who award due process rights (the accurate term for “tenure”) to too many incompetent teachers. The best way to ensure that there are no bad or ineffective teachers in our public schools is to insist that we have principals and supervisors who are knowledgeable and experienced educators. Yet there is currently a vogue to recruit and train principals who have little or no education experience. (The George W. Bush Institute just announced its intention to train 50,000 new principals in the next decade and to recruit noneducators for this sensitive post.)
    Waiting for “Superman” is the most important public-relations coup that the critics of public education have made so far. Their power is not to be underestimated. For years, right-wing critics demanded vouchers and got nowhere. Now, many of them are watching in amazement as their ineffectual attacks on “government schools” and their advocacy of privately managed schools with public funding have become the received wisdom among liberal elites. Despite their uneven record, charter schools have the enthusiastic endorsement of the Obama administration, the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Dell Foundation. In recent months, The New York Times has published three stories about how charter schools have become the favorite cause of hedge fund executives. According to the Times, when Andrew Cuomo wanted to tap into Wall Street money for his gubernatorial campaign, he had to meet with the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a pro-charter group.
    Dominated by hedge fund managers who control billions of dollars, DFER has contributed heavily to political candidates for local and state offices who pledge to promote charter schools. (Its efforts to unseat incumbents in three predominantly black State Senate districts in New York City came to nothing; none of its hand-picked candidates received as much as 30 percent of the vote in the primary elections, even with the full-throated endorsement of the city’s tabloids.) Despite the loss of local elections and the defeat of Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty (who had appointed the controversial schools chancellor Michelle Rhee), the combined clout of these groups, plus the enormous power of the federal government and the uncritical support of the major media, presents a serious challenge to the viability and future of public education.
    It bears mentioning that nations with high-performing school systems—whether Korea, Singapore, Finland, or Japan—have succeeded not by privatizing their schools or closing those with low scores, but by strengthening the education profession. They also have less poverty than we do. Fewer than 5 percent of children in Finland live in poverty, as compared to 20 percent in the United States. Those who insist that poverty doesn’t matter, that only teachers matter, prefer to ignore such contrasts.
    If we are serious about improving our schools, we will take steps to improve our teacher force, as Finland and other nations have done. That would mean better screening to select the best candidates, higher salaries, better support and mentoring systems, and better working conditions. Guggenheim complains that only one in 2,500 teachers loses his or her teaching certificate, but fails to mention that 50 percent of those who enter teaching leave within five years, mostly because of poor working conditions, lack of adequate resources, and the stress of dealing with difficult children and disrespectful parents. Some who leave “fire themselves”; others were fired before they got tenure. We should also insist that only highly experienced teachers become principals (the “head teacher” in the school), not retired businessmen and military personnel. Every school should have a curriculum that includes a full range of studies, not just basic skills. And if we really are intent on school improvement, we must reduce the appalling rates of child poverty that impede success in school and in life.
    There is a clash of ideas occurring in education right now between those who believe that public education is not only a fundamental right but a vital public service, akin to the public provision of police, fire protection, parks, and public libraries, and those who believe that the private sector is always superior to the public sector. Waiting for “Superman” is a powerful weapon on behalf of those championing the “free market” and privatization. It raises important questions, but all of the answers it offers require a transfer of public funds to the private sector. The stock market crash of 2008 should suffice to remind us that the managers of the private sector do not have a monopoly on success.
    Public education is one of the cornerstones of American democracy. The public schools must accept everyone who appears at their doors, no matter their race, language, economic status, or disability. Like the huddled masses who arrived from Europe in years gone by, immigrants from across the world today turn to the public schools to learn what they need to know to become part of this society. The schools should be far better than they are now, but privatizing them is no solution.
    In the final moments of Waiting for “Superman,” the children and their parents assemble in auditoriums in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Silicon Valley, waiting nervously to see if they will win the lottery. As the camera pans the room, you see tears rolling down the cheeks of children and adults alike, all their hopes focused on a listing of numbers or names. Many people react to the scene with their own tears, sad for the children who lose. I had a different reaction. First, I thought to myself that the charter operators were cynically using children as political pawns in their own campaign to promote their cause. (Gail Collins in The New York Times had a similar reaction and wondered why they couldn’t just send the families a letter in the mail instead of subjecting them to public rejection.) Second, I felt an immense sense of gratitude to the much-maligned American public education system, where no one has to win a lottery to gain admission.

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  30. Patrick Sarsfield says:

    “Would you have a conversation about the national state of medicine and health care without asking for the input of doctors, nurses and patients?”

    And yet, that’s just what we did (at least, we opted not to listen in any meaningful way…just bribed the AMA which represents only 10% of the nation’s doctors, to go along with it)

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  31. John says:

    >I wish someone who knew even a little bit about real classrooms, the heart-breaking challenges teachers face daily (teachers spend an average of $400 annually, out of their own meager salaries, to equip their rooms), had a national forum.

    I’ve been trying to get one started, but have inadequate computer resources and no $ for getting this out there.

    the title says “Iowa,” but it’s intended to be national, just as the Iowa Cauacuses every four years are, in a sense, a national forum on politics.

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  32. Steve Gilmore says:

    My 13 year old triplets are currently attending a charter school in NC. It is absolutely the best learning environment that they could possibly have. They have their own curriculum and will not teach to the state and national tests. They have such diversity in their curriculum and tremendous parental support.

    Teachers there are excellent but not any better than other teachers around the country. Usually in city and county school systems, teachers face disrespect and have no input on the curriculum being taught. There is also a far lower rate of parental involvement. Violence is a part of daily life. Teachers cannot be a surrogate parent. There are too many children having children and too many births from people that cannot afford it. Until our society that is largely entitlement driven can prevent this, we will be seeing this only get worse.

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  33. B. Walker says:

    I’m beginning to realize that all the people outside the field of education as well as those inside that don’t really have a clue what it takes to teach a classroom (Michelle Rhee) are probably not as stupid as they at first seem. The attacks on our teachers as well as these “fix it all” programs such as “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” are, I believe, a long range plan to “dumb down” our society! How else is the U.S. labor market supposed to compete with 3rd world labor markets paying children pennies a day to produce virtually everything we use each day?

    In twenty years or less children won’t know what they’re missing in the educational process. They will know how their school did on their Race to the Top tests because the principals will be richly rewarded and they may get a sticker acknowledging their “success” as determined by the official “dumb down society” criteria. But sadly, they won’t know the history of this nation and how our government is supposed to work or who wrote the Gettysburg Address. “By the way,” they’ll ask, “who’s that guy Walt Whitman and what did he ever do? George Washington Carver, oh he was a politician a long time ago.” they’ll mutter.

    They will however, be able to work the hound out of some machine in a factory making less than minimum wage. (They’re beating out the children of Mexico, Guatemala, Pakistan & Cambodia at that point whose older relatives came into this country to teach us how to do it) “Who needs college? This is hard cash man! After another 25 years I’ll nearly have my mobile home paid off! I may even buy a car!”

    Yeah, the critics of our educational system are right on track and our nation is racing towards full employment for all! Whoopie.

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  34. Tivon Thurman says:

    I have been teaching for nine years, and I can honestly say that I am happy that Britton Gildersleeve wrote this much needed letter. I have taught in the inner cities of Detroit, and in the college town atmosphere. I notice how easy it is for people who don’t teach, or have never taught are quick to blame teachers, and quick to say we make too much money. It is really depressing, because every good teacher that I have known, including myself has put countless amounts of hours, money and time into teaching. We put up with a lot from Administration, and then the senate wants to diminish our tenure. We put up with attitudes from our beloved students daily, and all we want them to do is study outside of school more. When I was in Detroit and coaching basketball, I had to put up with the fact that most parents wouldn’t, or couldn’t pick up there students after basketball practice was over, so I had to drop them off so they wouldn’t get harmed in the dark, cold Detroit streets. I had to put up with hostile parents, for miscommunication issues, after I repeatedly left them voicemail messages and e-mails regarding their student’s behavior and lack of effort. We have to put up with the counties voting “no” on the millage that would guarantee funds and resources for our students. We have to put up with constant changes from Administrators who change policies so fast, we don’t even know if the old one would have solved the original problem. We have to do professional development seminars all of the time, and still plan our lessons for the next day. New teachers have to put up with lay-off threats because older teachers are afraid to retire because of the economy. I can go on and on about what we have to put up with, but the part that hurts me the most is when people see us as the problem to a “village wide” problem. Please take the time to talk to a teacher in your life the next time a vote comes around that can assure educators resources. Please talk to a teacher the next time someone bashes them at the dinner discussions. People who don’t teach should try it out someday.

    I wish I had more to say but I ran out of time.


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  35. It’s very hard to pinpoint all the difficulties concerning the education in the United States. Once we have completed the education process, we move on to our careers and other goals in life. We can only remember are own personal experiences as students ourselves. So we can only compare and/or contrast education based on prior experiences if we aren’t in the field of education.
    The people that are so critical never stop to think how they got where they are. It was by a teacher. All or most of whom they have now admittingly dispise. Oh well, they may have one good teacher. Le’ts be fair here.
    Here are some misconceptions I have noticed in the 25+ years I have taught:

    1. We compare our student’s achievement to other nations because we compare and contrast the quality of our schools among all other schools in our nation. Granted research tells our nation we are producing young adults that are lower academically than other first rate world nations…. this must be a sign the US isn’t doing their job. Even though we are heterogenous country with multiple diversities— no problem here. Super Teacher to the rescue.
    2. Public schools are the worst schools for our children to attend.
    3. School teachers are for the most part the major problem with academic achievement. After all they can’t produce children of their own so they really don’t understand the need for educating others.
    4. There are adequate resources for students to reach their potential in all our public schools that’s why we pay taxes.
    5. All public schools have the same access to adequate resources regardless if they are federally funded for the most part, charter schools, or just plain old public schools anywhere in a given location.
    6. Parents, community, businesses, and individuals are doing all they can to make school the best place for learning for our children. This is evident anytime you visit a school especially in grades 9-12.
    7. Students are eager to achieve academic excellence. They are aware of the value of academic achievement and the important role it place in adult life. Our country stresses this.
    8. We, the US citizens, look for ways in which we instill the value of education in all areas of life for the betterment of our future generations. This is done in obvious and not so obvious ways.
    9. We understand that rewards for achievement are not a quick gratifying process and we exemplify this in our culture at large.
    10. We, citizens of the US, try not to place blame on one entity for our short-comings but try to address problems with workable solutions to bring positive change to the academic situation at large.
    11. Technology and money will make sure students continue to stay in school and learn.
    12. When students pass the state examinations, they have a greater chance of be successful in life overall. At least if they pass the tests, teachers won’t get fired…two problems solved.
    13. All public schools are created equal so it’s got to be the faculty not the, staff, school board, state official, parent, community, businesses and/or the feds if things just don’t go as planned. After all, in all our public schools, parents, community leaders get first hand assessment of their input in children in their schools.

    And I guess that’s all I have to say about how I think some view education. So if any one thinks we have fallen short in an area, you need to let the designated people know about it. Since I missed the show did Oprah address these issues???

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  36. Jeff Sokolik says:

    Great letter!! . I do not believe there is another profession like teaching that involves someone taking on several tasks as being a teacher,coach ,substitute parent, and guidance counselor and more .It does not end when the bell rings ,but it can last a lifetime.Some students come back as a colleagues and become friends ,because someone touched their lives and they decided to to become a teacher also.It is great to be a teacher when your older students come back to tell you how well they are doing ,things like this make teaching worth while if you are not teacher I guess you will never understand.

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  37. Beth Magazzo says:

    What was Oprah’s response? Any?

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  42. Lisa says:

    I, too, teach at the college level. Unless you live with me, you would have no idea how many hours are spent on preparing lectures, creating/grading exams, advising students, committee work, and the ever present ‘publish or perish’ looming over you. Certainly, we have ‘all that time off!!!!’ But in all honesty, I’ve never had an entire week during the course of my six years of teaching during which I didn’t have to open my laptop, respond to student emails (yes, in the summer, too), deal with parent phone calls (you heard that right..even in college!) work on projects, write articles, or tweak my syllabi. This is NOT a 40 hour week…not even close! I do it because I love it, but it gets harder every year with new demands on our time, new technology to learn, and students who require more ‘motivation’. When I stop loving what I do, I’ll quit teaching. I hope its not for many more years.

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  43. Karla Keller says:

    Wow! Well said Britton! I also want a clear explanation of why I am to blame for a student not making progress when that student takes a 3week vacation just prior to testing. Tell me why a student with a diagnosed brain injury that cannot read more then 10words per minute does not qualify for special services in third grade. How about the girl who was molested in the weeks just prior to testing but had to test or the school would be accused of holding students out of testing? Our country is filled with these stories. Yes there are some bad teachers, bad doctors, bad lawyers, bad police officers, even bad clergy. But we all know, deep down, that blaming, name calling hurts innocent bystanders as often as the targets.

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  44. J Rho says:

    I must say I am surprised that Oprah did such an episode. Usually, she is very supportive regarding teachers in our nation. Since I am a teacher (and at work during this time), I did not watch the episode but wish I would have!
    This is my 13th teaching and have taught several grade levels. 6th grade for 5 years, 5th grade for 4 years and going on 4 in 3rd grade. It is disheartening to see how poorly our nation views our teachers! I work very long hours every week and on the weekends, spend ALOT of my own money for my classroom and work hard to engage my students each day, each year. I also have a Masters’ degree that I earned while teaching in the classroom. Yes, being a public school teacher is a lot of work but it just so upsetting when we are not treated as professionals. I teach in a higher income school district now (but I haven’t always) and it just burns me when parents come in and tell me how to do my job. I don’t go to their office or home and try to tell them how to do their job. We just want to be recognized as professionals…as we are.
    Also, a growing disturbing trend I have noticed is that more and more, my students don’t want to THINK. They don’t read directions, nor listen to directions after being explained 2-3 times. They (and many of their parents) expect to be spoon-fed. I feel sorry for these kids because when they become adults, that attitude won’t cut it in a career!
    Please Oprah, as Ms. Gildersleeve stated, please ASK teachers their opinion when you want to know and portray our daily lives..…not stuffy politicians/whatever (really?? taping a students mouth shut??? is she on crack?!??) or musicians.
    I am disappointed in you Oprah FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER…shame on you!

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  45. Renee says:

    I too enjoy watching Oprah, as I am originally from the Chicago area. However, I do agree that education and what is expected from teachers has changed dramatically and the sentiments that were portrayed on this particular episode were not accurate or fair. I graduated college with a teaching degree and taught for seven years. Most of those years, I worked every minute outside of school to create the best learning environment possible for my students. Unfortunately, I was met with resistant administrators, parents, and students. Since it was greatly affecting my personal life, I chose to make a change this year. I left teaching and returned to school to study a completely different field. It makes me sad that I was not able to stay in education, because I come from a family of educators and I enjoyed seeing the positive gains I did make with my students. However, I know that many other effective teachers are leaving the profession because they are not treated fairly and are sometimes put in dangerous situations. Hopefully, this will change in the future with these small steps, including this letter to Oprah and others stepping up to be effective change agents.

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  46. Sandra Kunz says:

    Dearest Oprah….I finally had time to sit and read my current NEA Today and Ms. Gildersleeve’s response to your show regarding….”Waiting For Superman.” Let me tell you, TOOTS, Superman has landed in every responsible, caring and GOOD teacher’s classroom in this country. I’ve watched you for 25 years…I’m a fan….I’m just surprised that anyone with any level of intelligence would pass such judgment without taking time to talk to teachers in each state, rich and poor district….administrators or even custodians around the country to see what we are doing for kids. I feel blessed that with all I am required to do, and it’s a lot and changing all the time, I still love my job, love my students and I’m dedicated to my profession and my colleagues. Please take time to understand that Superman is a fictional character and the real heroes are the educators who spend time and money (their own) to assist each child’s need to so that no child is left behind. As trite as that sounds, it is our intent to educate and do our best each day, with or without the mega millions of Bill Gates or the promise of merit pay. I do what I do because I love and I KNOW I make a difference in each of their lives…just ask them. Sandy Kunz

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  47. Steve D. says:

    I have been teaching for 5 years now and the climate is CRAZY! Thank you so much Britton Gildersleeve for speaking the truth.

    A documentary must be made from a teacher’s perspective.

    Waiting for Superman is pure garbage, meant for sheep.

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  48. Dave says:

    As an educator at the elementary level for over 10 years, I have a favorite saying for NCLB – “Life is not multiple choice, it is essay, short answer and sometimes fill in the blank.” We need to teach our students how to solve problems in which the answer is not given to them on a multiple choice test, then we will truly leave no child behind in our race to the top.

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  49. Tina says:

    This letter brings tears to my eyes. This is how I feel but have been unable to express. I too was incredibly disappointed when I began watching Oprah’s education special. I am so mentally and physically tired of being villainized for being a teacher. So much so that I feel if I knew all that I was going to be subject to as a teacher I may have made a different choice 20 years ago. Which is unfortunate for I love these kids like my own. In some cases I am the only one who cares about them.

    Thank you Britton!!

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  50. Stan Flax says:

    As the saying goes, “You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”. If the raw material (student) is not prepared to learn because of conditions outside of the classroom, as Ms. Gildersleeve’s letter to Oprah succinctly points out, no matter how good the teacher, that student simply cannot learn.

    The guests Oprah had on her show never ever stepped into a classroom in their lives. As to the dragon lady (Rhee), she is obviously biased against teachers.
    School is not a substitute for the home; teachers are not substitutes for parents. In today’s world, unfortunately teachers get little respect from their students in great part because too many parents admonish their children to challenge teachers’ authority, constantly telling their kids about how cushy teachers have it–they only work until 2:30 or 3:00 pm and have their entire summers off.

    The Oprah session was geared toward building audience approval–keeping her ratings high–and was totally biased. Unfortunately, too many people who watch Oprah’s program are swayed by whatever she preaches. Her audience will run out and buy anything she endorses. In my opinion, this does not say very much for the mentality of those who comprise her audience. When I studied social psychology as a graduate student I remember a session dealing with the abuse of credentialism in persuading people to believe the speaker.

    I taught at the university level for over 50 years, the last 20 as a full-time professor at St. Thomas University in Miami, before retiring in 2004. Since that time, I taught as a substitute in public elementary schools and as a part-time instructor at a private boys’ high school. I was voted “Professor of the Year” three times as St. Thomas and the senior yearbook of 2002 was dedicated to me. My reputation was that of being tough but good–I cared about my students but “caring is not coddling”.

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