A few summers ago at the SOS March & National Call to Action, I met a young and enthusiastic, but independent-minded and healthily-skeptical DC Public School elementary teacher, named Olivia Chapman (on twitter: formerly @sedcteacher, now @NGCoachLiv). Olivia has done two guest posts for this blog thus far, one about lessons learned during her first year with DCPS and one about testing season in the same system. This is what I said about her in October 2011:
I was so impressed with Olivia (plus I'm always looking to feature the voices of teachers and education professionals who are on the ground) that I solicited a guest post from her. If she is symbolic of the young, smart, dedicated, and energetic teachers that neo-liberal reformers so often talk of attracting and keeping in the teaching profession, from Olivia's account below, they're not doing a very good job. Who, especially with all those qualities, lasts long in a stifling and absurd environment such as Olivia describes? For our nation's sake, I pray that Olivia and so many of the discouraged newer teachers I've talked to in recent years stick it out. We need you!I am sad to announce that after five years of teaching in DC Public schools, Olivia has resigned and to start her own business with a like-minded friend and former teacher. Olivia received her Professional Coaching Certification and now coaches adults and teens to reach their personal, wellness and career goals. Still passionate about teaching, Olivia's company, Natural Greatness Coaching offers a character education workshop for young ladies in grades 5-10.
Olivia wrote the following in response to DCPS's question on the "Declaration of Intent to Not Return Form for Resigning or Retiring Teachers" :
What could DCPS have done to retain you in the district?
I truly don't think that there is anything that you could have done to retain me in the district. Our educational philosophies do not align, specifically what those philosophies look like in action, not necessarily how they are written and presented. Although it would seem that your will and proclaimed dedication to educating all students and improving struggling schools are aligned to my own beliefs; stating your beliefs and acting on them can be extremely different.
In my opinion and based on five years of experience in a struggling school (which I believe you now call a "40-40" school), the actions that you have imposed that are supposed to be helping to educate all students and improve the education of underprivileged students are backfiring. I know some of your test scores are going up, but that means so little when morale decreases and discontent from the community, teachers and students increase. Additionally, student behavior continues to worsen as their teachers are "impacted out", the students are over-tested and the constant change in leadership causes students to lose faith in anyone sticking around long enough to invest in their successes. Your standards are higher while our resources are lower and the teachers are less effective because of constant turnover and poor training programs (Yes, I am referring to Teach for America and DC Teaching Fellows).
IMPACT and high stakes standardized testing are deteriorating education. I have enjoyed working with each and every one of my students, as challenging as some of them may be, but I can no longer participate in a system that is tearing them down, wasting their time and breaking their spirits. I can no longer participate in the rigid guidelines of IMPACT/Common Core/Standardized testing; it is not what my kids need or ever needed to be successful. Yes, they need quality teachers, learning standards and assessments-but the manner in which you have delivered these three essential components of education are not effective. I have been witness to this for five years. You can throw data and numbers at me all you want, but it is not working for my students nor my school, and I know I am not alone in stating this, especially in Ward 8. You have poured enormous amounts of money into IMPACT and testing and not nearly enough into professional development, technology or character education programs for students. We have lacked the supplies and trainings to properly implement Common Core for the last three years. Honestly, you can call the standards whatever you want, revise them, increase their "rigor", do whatever you please; but until communities, families, parents and students are held accountable for their participation in education, none of this matters.
I believe that every child can learn and has potential to do something great with their lives. Unfortunately, I do not believe that the testing regimen implemented by DCPS is a positive way to show off their potential, their greatness or even their basic intelligence. Also, I do not believe that all of them are cut out for college. I don't believe all children should go or need to go to college to be successful. I believe that what they need are supportive communities of people that help them to maximize their potential and turn their interests and passions into careers (which may or may not require a college degree).
DCPS' commitment to turning children from reds and yellows to greens and blues in reading and math, while simultaneously cutting extracurricular activities and special subjects are 100% contradictory to my moral and educational philosophies. A positive outcome for me at the end of the year is a student who has improved in all subject areas, including the arts, a sport, a hobby or a special interest. Of course, I also want them to improve their reading, as I believe that if a child can read they can do and learn ANYTHING, which is empowering in itself. I truly hope that they understand that as well.
More imperatively, my goal is that each student leaves my class with an increased desire to learn and a more directed focus in regards to what they are interested in, and how they can turn these subjects or passion-based interests into careers. To be honest, whether students score high on a standardized assessment means almost nothing to me. If I cared a little in the past, it was for selfish reasons like trying to stay in the district and not have myself be "impacted out". It wasn't because I actually thought it meant something for the child or their future.
I have battled with guilt over not caring more about test scores, as well as for disappointing my colleagues and school leaders because I refuse to buy into the hype of testing. I refuse to buy into spending hours on test-prep and practice sheets as well as the spirit week and the pep rally the week before DC-CAS begins. I have felt guilty that I may be a liability to my school because I believe that children should be allowed to go to the bathroom during testing, as well as be told that they are on the wrong page of the test booklet, or told to look over their work before they hand it in, or god-forbid, read a book when they have finished their test. I'm sure that by me not falling victim to the intended fear that they try to instill in teachers in regards to cheating and overall testing procedures have been a pain in the butt for my administrators. I just cannot take the whole testing mentality seriously. When I know what my students' real issues are and what the world that they actually face is like when they walk out of our school's doors it is just a reminder of why what you are doing is not really working for these kids.
At this point, I think you have a clear understanding of why I must leave DCPS; it would be a disservice for me to stay any longer pretending that I believe in what you are doing. I believe that the contradictory philosophies are confusing to my students, a pain for my administrators and a burden that I can no longer bear. I will miss the students because their potential has energized me. Their will to learn meaningful content as well as learn about themselves is what brought me back every year. This was a difficult choice to make, because I have really loved watching my students make progress and grow each year. I hope that I will see many of them again.
Thank you for employing me for the past five years, and for giving me the opportunity to educate hundreds of students in DC. Although we do not see eye to eye on what a quality and meaningful education looks like, I do hope that DCPS will one day find success in implementing a program that genuinely improves the education of all district students, especially the struggling schools in Ward 8, who deserve so much more than what they are given.