Open letter to Mayor Gray on Education

Dear Mayor Gray,
As a parent of a child in the District as well as a teacher working for the District I feel a renewed sense of hope in DCPS. I hold hope that the new administration has what it takes to unite teachers, administrators and District efforts towards one common goal of making DC the one of the top public school district in the country.

I absolutely agreed with Kaya Henderson in that you can teach using any platform across the academic spectrum, yet, if the kids can't do the basics in the end it's no good. I also agree that accountability needs to happen in some form to insure top quality service is being provided to the children. Where I see a disconnect happening is that in trying to sift out the bad teachers the good ones are getting trampled, and from what I'm seeing, great teachers who can leave, are leaving the District.

In trying to find solutions to this issue I have read a lot on what top countries are doing and what exactly make them so effective? Let's take Finland, for example. Finland has a system where it's so hard to become a teacher, but once you become a teacher you are fully trusted to teach. In Japan, teachers work collaboratively on best practice goals and observe each other to perfect their practice. I feel the solution to the disconnect I mentioned above lies in these types of solutions where teachers are in charge, or at least more heavily involved in their own professional growth and improving of practices as part of their assessment.

As a teacher of 13 years I work on my practice daily. I teach the same lesson to different kids and each time I tweak my practice to make it better and more effective. In addition, I also read books on education, follow policy, read current research trends, I joined a PLN group online to collaborate with other educators around the country and joined a PLC at work to constantly refresh my soul and my practice....this is why I became a teacher. Good and great teachers naturally want to do better all the time. The ability to work on my own practice and my own goals as a professional is just as important to me as the teaching part, they are inextricably connected.

I loved it when Chancellor Henderson said on her online interview on the DCPS site that she wants other districts to envy our educational system and want to steal our teachers instead of the other way around; which is what is happening now. I believe and know the District has a potential to be the best public school system in the country in testing, in teacher quality, but also first in innovation. I recently read a quote from a Shanghai principal on the PISA (The international test used to compare US and other countries):

Developed countries like the U.S. shouldn’t be too surprised by these results. They’re just one index, one measure that shows off the good points of Shanghai’s and China’s education system. But the results can’t cover up our problems,” he says. Liu is very frank about those problems — the continuing reliance on rote learning, the lack of analysis or critical thinking — and he says the system is in dire need of reform. “Why don’t Chinese students dare to think? Because we insist on telling them everything. We’re not getting our kids to go and find things out for themselves,” he says. As well as the limitations of the Chinese education system, Liu says, it was only students in Shanghai who took the PISA tests, and Shanghai has some of the best schools in China.

When I read this I thought, "So the Chinese (who seem to shine in standardized tests) want to be more like us!!, not the other way around?" When I read this I was also deeply inspired. I knew then that The District could be the best in the country, and also best in the world if we can somehow get all parts of the system to work together in a system that honors all participants. Although I love the simplicity of the TEACH components within IMPACT, it's unavoidable 'gotcha' quality disinvites teachers from the proverbial table and places them front and center of the problem.

America has innovation, creativity, free thinkers, that is where we shine as a nation. In innovation lies the fire that will light up the future for the entire nation and beyond; a future we do not yet know or even envision. I feel we could be top in authentic education by working on 2 aspects, (1) DC has the richest resources in the whole country in our backyards and for free; the Smithsonian museums. As an excellent elementary art teacher who does an amazing job meaningfully weaving history, science, L.A. and math in my curriculum I was disappointed to learn that DCPS does not even have a head of art department. How are teachers to then connect with these institutions and take full advantage of what they offer?

(2) DC has some of the amazing and awe-inspiring teachers; it's DC's second richest resource. Why not take these teachers with a proven record in authentic whole-child education, who can do it all, who can inspire the mind, who can help kids not only memorize facts but to think, analyze, and make kids into self learners and have them be part of the solution. Why not use these teachers to create a collaborative mentoring system that is so rigorous, so demanding for all teachers that once they 'pass' they are trusted to teach. The mentoring system will be like the National Board certification of the teacher assessment world.

To close, last week I heard a lecture given by Dr. Sir Ken Robinson through TED talks. In it he talks about education needing to move from a 'factory model' to an 'agricultural' model. He offers a new paradigm for education. He believes education needs to be likened away from the factory/fast food model and switch over the an agricultural model. We can't make the plants grow, but we can create the conditions in which good growing could happen. I believe the answer to both teacher retention and improving the scores lies in this very powerful analogy. Let's start worrying more about getting the conditions of learning where they need to be to maximize learning and stop putting the majority of our efforts on the gathering of the data.

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