6th grade math and science teacher Marsha Ratzel's passionate and clearly thought-out Letter to President Obama!
Dear President Obama,

I waited so long for someone to run and become President that inspired me, gave me hope and believed the best about people.  I don't think I worked on a campaign for over 30 years and then your campaign and Presidency came along.  I really believed what you said and believed in you.  I still do. So it is with a heavy heart that I have watched Arne Duncan talk and take over the reins at DOE. 

I couldn't be in more disagreement with how you are proceeding with educational reform.

The federal government hasn't always meddled in schools and since I have felt their micromanaging, I can see very few positives.  NCLB has dumbed down what we teach and how we teach it.  As a Nationally Board Certified teacher in science, I have had to alter how I use the inquiry method for teaching science.  If I use that brain-friendly, lifelong learner way of teaching (which I consider along with the literature to be best practice), my students cannot pass the NCLB tests which only addresses the factoids of science.  Go and read the National Science Teacher Association statement of best practices and you will NOT find emphasis on memorizing facts...you will find asking questions, experimentation, and higher level, critical thinking kinds of recommendations for curriculum and instruction.

Not only has NCLB pushed science teachers away from best practice, it has narrowed the curriculums of schools to address the facts that can be covered by multiple choice questions.  I had hoped your adminsitration would figure out that this will not raise a generation of scientists.  It will not help our students be curious or adopt scientific reasoning and experimentation.  It will relegate science to the memorization of facts.  This is not what we should want for our students...we should want them to be fully involved in inquiry science, asking questions, conducting activities to find out the answers to those questions and learning how to generalize those findings into conclusions that are based on their evidence.  Just look at our state science tests....there is nothing even close to that on those tests.

Additionally we see more and more students who no longer get to do science in elementary schools.  Under the microscope and intense pressure to perform better and better in reading and math, schools have cut time spent on anything but the tested subjects.  One article I read said that time spent on nontested subjects (science and social studies) have been cut by 44%.  44%....can you imagine how dull it is to be in school where there is very little science and social studies.  Can you imagine how ill prepared and how little background students have when they get to me at the middle school level?  It's tragic.

The way in which your policy is moving is only going to continue this narrowing of curriculum.  It is going to have the opposite effect that I think you want...it will not produce more scientists...in fact, I think students will be less and less interested in science if it is reduced to reading and answer fact based questions.  The idea that the remedy for all the ills of science is a national curriculum...well, that's ridiculous.  The only thing this will accomplish is more companies developing narrowly defined sets of facts that will generate more standardized tests for students.  It isn't the curriculum that's the problem.

Please, please, please....you need someone include teachers in reform policy making.  Clearly the people who advise you now don't have a clue what helps students in the classroom.  I'd invite you to come to my room any time, any day and talk with my students.  They'll tell you in a second what helps them learn more.

I also think you have to think about the bigger issues that schools are asked to solve. I'm not making excuses or saying we can't teach them because they come with so many problems.  But to say that those issues don't exist and impact their learning is foolish.   Inside the educational effort of what we do, we are also asked to fix the problems of our society.  Schools are not the place we can solve the community's problems of hunger, poverty, violence and discouragement.  We can work as hard as we can to help students overcome those issues...because kids come with all sorts of baggage...but we can't fix society from the schoolhouse doorstep.  We can't be all things to all kids...unless you are willing to invest huge dollars to bring many more resources to bear that really have nothing to do with education.  Policy that ignores these realities is doomed to fail.  

Thank you for considering this letter and this information.  Again I invite you to come to my classroom anytime and see what it's really like.  I can't imagine being President right now.  So many HUGE problems and I can understand why you blew it on education...the economy, health care, Afghanistan, Iraq to name just a few things must have your head spinning.  I haven't given up on you.  I believe in your Presidency but I don't believe in the policies under consideration or that you are speaking about these days. 

Marsha Ratzel, 6th grade math and science teacher, Leawood, Kansas