My response to Chancellor Dennis Walcott’s email to NYC DOE staff

July 16, 2013

Dear Chancellor Walcott,

I am writing in response to your ‘Extraordinary Year’ email, which you sent to NYC DOE staff on June 26, 2013. In the spirit of diversity, I wish to share with you my year end reflections, which differ from yours. In my view, there appears to be a disconnect between your office and working teachers; thus, my intention is to help bridge this gap.

I prefer to describe the 2012-2013 school year as crushing. This spring, for example, I felt the heavy weight of your initiatives while commuting to and from school. Staring at me from the subway walls were NYC DOE advertisements promoting your Common Core curriculum. They claim – in both Spanish and English – “We’re not satisfied just teaching your children basic skills. We want them prepared for college and a career.” In my seven years of teaching English-language learners (ELLs) at the same Title I public elementary school in Brooklyn, I have never just taught basic skills. Frankly, I find these ads insulting to the large number of NYC teachers I know who have long held high standards and expectations for their students.

During my first year of teaching (pre-Common Core) my second grade ELLs, inspired by the realistic fiction book City Green by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan, wrote letters to Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz persuading him to allow us to convert a local vacant lot into a community garden. The lesson was meaningful on different levels; it made connections to content and to real life, and my students acquired high level academic vocabulary. They were also expected to use reasons and evidence to defend their arguments. In your June 26, 2013 email to us you stated that students are “getting used to supporting their ideas with evidence.” This is not a new skill for our students, nor is it unique to the Common Core curriculum.

I raise this point for two reasons. First, I’m concerned that your message, which implies that pre-Common Core teaching needs to be fixed, is misleading the public. Similarly, as our schools experience budget cuts, I question the large sum of money being spent on the Common Core package – advertising, testing and curriculum – when, in my opinion, our current instruction differs only slightly from what many of us have long been doing.

The biggest change to instruction that I have seen concerns standardized testing. The new Common Core state tests have left me despairing of the future of public education in both NYC and throughout the country. First, this year’s testing resulted in a significant loss of precious classroom time that instead could have been used for meaningful, targeted instruction. I proctored the math and ELA exams to a group of former ELLs in fifth grade. Not only did they sit for a total of 13.5 hours to complete these lengthy exams, but leading up to the six days of high-stakes testing were countless hours of educationally unsound test prep. Four Acuity Benchmark assessments (two in each subject area) also preceded April’s exams.

After the ELA and math tests, I proceeded to administer the four-part NYSESLAT to our ELLs. Nearly 1.5 months were devoted to the administration and scoring of the exam as well as to related administrative duties such as bubbling grids, transcribing scores and answers onto grids for the speaking part and for ELLs in K-2, and packing up the testing materials by following a complex set of directions.

During the 2013 oppressive testing season, our ELLs were deprived of their mandated services. When a co-teacher remarked to me one day that her kids stopped asking her when I’d be back in their classroom (I am a push-in ESL teacher), I knew I had to speak up and vocalize my doubts concerning the value of these tests. Continuing on this road of high-stakes testing and excessive accountability is unsustainable.

My concerns are far-reaching, and this letter has just begun to address them all. Therefore, I would greatly appreciate an opportunity to dialogue with you in person at your convenience. In all areas of life, I believe that we must be honest with ourselves and with one another for real growth and improvement to occur. I am reachable via email at: katielapham1@gmail.com. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Katie Lapham
NYC public school teacher katielapham1@gmail.com

Cc: Barack Obama, US President
Cc: Arne Duncan, US Secretary of Education
Cc: Dr. John King, NYS Education Commissioner

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36 thoughts on “My response to Chancellor Dennis Walcott’s email to NYC DOE staff

  1. Pingback: Remainders: A teacher responds to Walcott’s end-of-year letter | GothamSchools

  2. The sad thing is not one of the people you sent that letter will answer you. Even sadder is that not one of them will even care.

    • People are listening and people do care. I’m not sure at the moment how or when things can change but it is essential in a democracy that people who know speak out. Especially when they are speaking on behalf of those without a voice – in this case, the students. We need more teachers to bravely and intelligently speak out! Thank you!

  3. Walcott will not respond himself to your email, however, someone from his office will. I know because I have emailed him numerous times this year. However, I will like to know what the person on his behalf have to say.

    • A form letter…..might be one that you already received so you might have already heard what the person, writing on his behalf, has to say.

      This testing virus is out of control. 40+ yr veteran so relieved to have gotten away from this…. Being forced “to do harm” to our students. To do things that really are unethical; to be treated as cogs in a machine whose goal is to make things look pretty. To be ignored despite being the real experts. I had so many sleepless nights in my last few years.

    • Thank you for your support as parents. We are seeing, especially in Texas, the power of teachers and parents united against unnecessary testing.

  4. The problem we all face is that money is being made from testing, not from learning, so that is what is pushed. This is not only sad it is dangerous to our students and the future of our nation.
    The greatest resource any nation has is its youth.

  5. Thank you Katie for this thoughtful commentary. Ongoing assessments to guide instruction are an integral part of teaching and inquiry-based learning is key to developing critical thinking skills and creative problemsolving. I agree that such instruction is already taking place in many NYC schools across districts. Please keep up the good fight in advocating for students and teachers in the face of high stakes testing which only benefits the testing industry. Tamara

  6. Pingback: In box. “My response to Chancellor Dennis Walcott’s email to NYC DOE staff.” | Fred Klonsky

  7. Just today I was discussing with a friend (both of us public school teachers) how insulting it is to promote this common core curriculum as a radical change, while for so many of us it isn’t.

    • THIS HAS BEEN MY COMPLAINT FROM THE START! HOW DARE THEY IMPLY THAT THESE STANDARDS ARE ANYTHING NEW! WHAT DID HE THINK WE HAVE BEEN DOING FOR ALL THESE YEARS! I AM HIGHLY INSULTED AS WELL! ALL THE “JOHNNY COME LATELY’S” ARE TRYING TO MAKE IT SEEM AS THOUGH WE HAVE BEEN INCOMPETENT. THE PROBLEM, AS WE ALL KNOW, BUT DARE NOT SAY, DOES NOT LIE WITH THE TEACHERS! ANYONE WHO TEACHERS KNOWS EXACTLY WHAT I MEAN!

  8. I am a retired teacher and when I see what my colleagues have to go through now…it is very disheartening and seems to just add more stress to teachers and students. Kudos to you writing this letter. I hope you hear back from somebody who “gets it.”

  9. Excellent letter. The way I see it, it is the budget cuts that are one of the biggest problems. Programs are lost…especially ones that are the backbones of creativity, expression, mind stretching and harmony. Without these who are we as a people? What are the hopes for the future of our children? How will they become creative problem solvers? Upgrading technologies is great, but there is nothing better than the feel of a crayon, a recorder, or a pencil in the hand of a child. Get these kids moving so their brains can work. All of these build solid basic skills. Commom core has been around for years. Too much emphasis to be placed on testing! The kids feel the the pressure. Hence, the numbers of ADD and ADHD are rising. We have become a society that runs from therapist to therapist and resort to medication to cope with the education system the way it currently is. That is not to say that there are many children that legitimately need to do so..but the numbers are on the rise. You can’t have one type of high pressure test for all students. There is no one kind of student. There are so many types of intellegence and so many learining styles. Can’t lump the kids all together. An elephant can’t fly but if the test is to do so..what does that show/prove/indicate? Fund the schools. Allow teachers to reach beyond what they are mandated to teach..let them TEACH! Provide the schools with what is necessary for success. Don’t lump everyone together… that with the testing…is surely an equation for failure.

  10. I am a parent, not a teacher, but “crushing” aptly describes my experience of this year as well. As a lifelong advocate for public schools in NYC I have never before felt the urge to withdraw my children from public education as I did this year. It’s incredibly disheartening to see what is happening to our schools in NYC.

  11. I too worked with English language learner s for 7 years. I can appreciate what your letter explains to the ignorant chancellor of the dept of education. He has no clue. And yes we have been working on so much more than basic skills. The parents have been mislead with this new common core sham. You said it all send this letter to the newspapers I dare them to print it!

  12. Beautiful, honest, and bold words. As a fellow Brooklyn teacher I can attest how much wasted time is carved out of the school year for testing. And with all the work you do for the NYSESLAT in proctoring and grading, your students miss out of valuable teaching time. I wish the DOE would honor, respect, and listen to the 95% of teachers who show up everyday, love their students, and do the best job possible to ensure a positive future for their students.

  13. Thank you for your courage and for standimg up for teachers, our children/students and parents! I applaud and support you!
    Sincerely,
    Nellian Vidal-Badalamenti

  14. Brilliantly said. As a science teacher I am often treated flippantly by administrators that do not see science as a pathway to language acquisition and mastery. (I just so happened to garden this year as well!) My colleagues and myself have also been teaching to our own rigorous standards and always expect evidence from all of our students as it is the nature of all scientific dialog. Unfortunately, because the correlation between that and what is viewed as valuable “test prep” is lost on those far removed from the classroom, we are not taken seriously. Our reward? Our program and space was taken over July 1st by Tweed in a mad scramble by some to secure safe spots for the city’s upcoming administration change… and we have all been excessed (illegally).

  15. If you can, you should also send this letter to both Mulgrew and Weingarten. IMHO, they both have lost touch with everyday teaching and teachers.

  16. Another important side effect of the testing, apart from the monumental waste of time beforehand, is that students and even teachers have the sense that school is pretty much done after the last of the tests. Anything that could contribute to scores is already in the can, so we’re just marking time to the end. This is despite creative teachers who try to make good use of all of their time. In contrast, where schools use portfolio assessments, I have seen children fully engaged and making contributions and edits to their projects until the very last minute – engaged in peer review, hunting down data, creating charts and illustrations – because this is THEIR work, the record of their growth as a student, and meaningful both to them and to their teachers and peers.
    And like several commenters, I am also outraged by the statement that we used to be content with “basic skills”. For many schools in my experience, Common Core as it is being applied is a serious step down from earlier standards.

  17. Thank you for sharing this letter. More of us teachers need to begin walking the walk with you instead of closing our doors and bitching to the walls. Thank you for the inspiration and the kick in the rear.

  18. I’m a teacher in Louisiana and we’re just now implementing Common Core. Last year was Kindergarten and 1st grade and this coming year PreK and 2nd will be implemented. When we were going to training last summer I remarked to a few of my friends that I felt like the most Common Core changed was WHEN we taught something….like if I normally taught that skill in January, it’s now taught in October. That’s it…the rigor didn’t change, the content didn’t change…just the placement within the school year.

    • Do you like the placement changes? Do they make sense? Other cities and states are finding lessons that were usually taught in upper grades now included in early childhood grades.

  19. Pingback: Teacher: Why the last school year was ‘crushing’

  20. I retired two years ago. I just made it in time. Another year of endless test prep, meaningless and numbing computerized programmed instructional initiatives, interim assessments, field testing, pretesting and testing unconnected to anything that was actually being taught, constant collection of statistical minutia, more appropriate to baseball announcers than to educators, and the elimination of anything other than the “three ‘r’s,” subjects that give context to the skills curriculum, and I would have gone insane.

  21. The intelligence and concerns you displayed in your comments show just how “prepared” you were for the real world and your career…. and I am positive you are not the product of the “common core”….bravo

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