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Make Room at the Table for Teachers

Posted: 2011-08-16

I decided the time is right to post this Phi Delta Kappan piece from December 2007. I'm inspired to post this because I've been thinking about the fact that NCTE, my professional organization for more than three decades, didn't fight NCLB, didn't fight Race to the Top, and now is not fighting the Common Core Standards and Assessments but instead, is publishing books and pricey online courses to get teachers "aligned."

For three decades, I felt I could rely on NCTE to take a strong stand on pedagogy. For the past nine years, since the passage of NCLB, they have let me down, and I feel much more angry about their behavior than any misdeeds of the NEA and the AFT.

I still think the Educator Roundtable was a noble effort. Philip Kovacs came up with the idea, and a group of us discussed and argued all the points of the petition in e-mail. It was a long, frustrating process, but we stuck with it and managed to come up with a credible document.

But for all the complaints about NCLB, we only managed to get something over 35,000 signatures on that document. (I don't remember the exact number.) How could this be? How could it be that a couple of million teachers didn't sign it immediately? And knowing this, why did I go to the SOS march in Washington D. C. believing 100,000 teachers would be there with me?

What would it take to get teachers to speak out for their profession? For the children? What would have happened if NEA had encouraged its 3.2 million members to support the Educator Roundtable Petition?

NEA opposed the Educator Roundtable petition, telling their members not to sign it. I suggested to the Phi Delta Kappan editor that it might be interesting to have a debate between NEA and Educator Roundtable. You can find Joel Packer's article representing the NEA position here.
Point of information: Joel Packer, then-director of education policy and practice for NEA, no longer works for the union but is executive director of Committee for Education Funding.

by Susan Ohanian and Philip Kovacs

IT DOES not surprise us that we have much

in common with the NEA leadership. After

all, a number of Educator Roundtable founders

have a long history of strong union activity.

We agree with Joel Packer when he argues

correctly that NCLB "is not working,"

that the AYP (adequate yearly progress) policies

are "fundamentally flawed," and that the

legislation is âan unfunded, unfair, and unattainable

mandate that largely labels and punishes schools and

denies all children their basic right to a great public

school.â Despite these statements, we fear that the NEA

leadership -- by insisting that it cannot work to dismantle

NCLB and replace it with an education policy

more suitable to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

-- teeters close to moral bankruptcy.

We call on union leaders, members of Congress, and

their Business Roundtable allies to do something radical:

we ask them to listen to the highly qualified teachers

who work with children every day. People who claim

to care about the survival of public education need to

know that No Child Left Behind is sucking the very

lifeâs blood from our profession, demanding that teachers

become readers of scripts rather than professionals

engaged in the critical work of educating the children

in their care.

As long as union leaders refuse to insist that teachers'

voices be brought to the forefront in curriculum decisions,

teachers remain muzzled and impotent. Make

no mistake about it: this silencing of teachers is catastrophic

to the health of our nation. What is at stake

is not only the status of teaching as a profession but

the very future of a generation of children who are being

regimented into Stepford automatons. Finding little

resistance from educators, corporate reformers have replaced

the language of growth, development, creativity,

ingenuity, and responsibility with words straight from

the factory floor: performance, accountability, standardization.

An education system that valued the informed voices

of Americaâs teachers would look much different from

the system that teachers and students currently suffer

under. And it is time to give teachers the respect that

most of them deserve, by inviting them to become central

figures in shaping classroom practices and local education


We make these issues quite clear in our petition (see

the sidebar, page 273) and on our website, though Mr.

Packer continues to push the NEA lie that our organization

does not "propose any positive changes or alternatives."

The duplicity here is twofold:

1. Mr. Packer was privileged to witness our earliest

conversations and knows exactly what our proposed

"positive change" is: give teachers a genuine voice in

policy setting, implementation, and evaluation.

2. The NEA leadership agrees with that position.

As Mr. Packer put it:

We know that top-down programs and mandates developed

by those far removed from the classroom donât work.

Programs that actively involve educators and parents in

shared decision making with their school leadership and that

include support from the federal government -- through

technical assistance and useful educator-friendly guides to

best practice -- should be the focus of the next ESEA.

Note the use of the phrase "the next ESEA." Don't

they mean "the fixed NCLB"?

The NEA leadership cannot use the acronym NCLB

because they know what we've maintained for the better

part of a year: NCLB will never allow the type of

shared decision making that the NEA leadership correctly

calls for. NCLB is premised on the belief that

teachers and administrators are primarily the problem

and not worthy of being part of the solution.

This is

a fundamental tenet of the law.

Furthermore, NCLB mandates a predetermined path

to educational salvation â regardless of what parents

or teachers might desire â as âfailingâ schools must

follow NCLBâs sanctions, sanctions that ultimately lead

to the firing of the very teachers and administrators that

the NEA leadership claims to support. If âthe next ESEAâ

is going to support teacher collaboration and agenda

setting, we must first dismantle NCLB so that teachers

have the freedom to engage in such work.

Mr. Packer claims that âthere is no chance that Congress

will repeal NCLB.â Here we urge the NEA leadership

to join the nationâs children and revisit their history

books. Doing so will help them recall that there

was âno chanceâ that the flat Earth orbits the Sun, âno

chanceâ that slavery would end, âno chanceâ that women

would vote, âno chanceâ that a Rosa Parks would refuse

Unfortunately, as national data suggest, it may be

that children arenât learning this history, as a myopic

focus on raising scores in math and reading (reading,

not literacy) has led to a reduction in time spent wrestling

with the past. Given that poor and minority students

suffer the most from curricular erosion, they may

never learn that the phrase âthere is no chanceâ is generally

uttered by those who fear precisely the opposite.1

The number of people calling on Congress to repeal

-- not patch up -- the legislation grows daily, increasing

the chance that NCLB will be replaced with educator-

led reform. Moreover, the people calling for an

end to NCLB are not fringe radicals, angry leftists, or

accountability-phobic laggards. Recently Paul Houston,

the executive director of the American Association of

School Administrators, used the pages of this journal

to argue that "while there are aspects of the law that

could be fixed, there are flaws in it that are so fundamental

that there is not enough paint and spackle in

the world to make them presentable."2 His conclusion:

The great danger we face is that, in our rush to build skills,

we undermine our wisdom. Then we will all be left behind.

For that reason NCLB needs to be deposited in the

dustbin of history, and Congress, with the assistance of educators

and other citizens, needs to think more broadly

and deeply about how to build on and make use of the talents

of our poorest citizens.3

While the NEA leadership ignores calls from such

luminaries as Paul Houston, they cherry-pick from the

work of others. Mr. Packer closes his piece by quoting

from the work of the highly respected and nonpartisan

educational researcher Richard Rothstein. We believe the

NEA needs to revisit this work. Rothstein calls NCLB

and its philosophical underpinnings "fraudulent." He

worries over the "unjustified sense of failure and humiliation

for educators and students" caused by NCLB.

He points out that proficiency for all is an "oxymoron."

Writing in Education Week, he states baldly:

The No Child Left Behind Act cannot be "fixed." It gives

us a "sense of urgency for national improvement" at the

price of our intellectual integrity, and an unjustified sense

of failure and humiliation for educators and students. It's

time to return to the drawing board.4

When a researcher says "cannot be fixed," it is generally

bad form to use his words in an argument calling

for a "fixed" NCLB. One does not "return to the

drawing board" to fix. We return to the drawing board

when we are ready to start over.

Given widespread and growing opposition to the

law, why is the NEA leadership taking the organization

down such an unpopular path? Perhaps it is the

leadership's proximity to the very people and organi-

zations it should be protecting its membership from.

The NEA is a member of the Partnership for 21st Century

Skills, a corporate-funded think tank that pushes

a standardized curriculum with standardized assessments

while giving lip service to such âlife skillsâ as having

the financial, economic, and business literacy skills to

make wise decisions. Not wise enough to recognize when

democracy has been subverted in the name of profit,

of course.5 Other members of the partnership include:



⢠Blackboard, Inc.

⢠Cable in the Classroom

⢠Cisco Systems


⢠Intel Foundation

⢠LeapFrog SchoolHouse

⢠McGraw-Hill Education

⢠Microsoft Corporation

⢠Oracle Education Foundation

⢠Pearson Education

⢠Texas Instruments


According to Apple's Steve Jobs, "What is wrong

with our schools in this nation is that they have become

unionized in the worst possible way."7 We are unclear

as to what, exactly, the NEA and Apple do together

in the partnership, but it seems clear to us that

the hundreds of millions of dollars that corporations

such as McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Oracle, ETS, LeapFrog,

and Blackboard earn from NCLB's mandates make

NEA's participation in the partnership problematic at


Who on that list benefits from more tutoring, more

testing, more forced use of unproven technology? Certainly

not teachers or students. Certainly not communities.

Certainly not democracy.

Given that no research supports the use of standardized

tests to engender a more intelligent, critical,

engaged, compassionate, or reflective citizenry, and given

that recent research shows that outsourcing public education

to private tutoring companies does nothing to

help students learn more, we believe the NEA leadership

owes its members an explanation of its support

for a think tank calling for both. Weâd like a clear explanation

as to why the NEA leadership supports legislation

that subjects students and teachers to unproven

tests and worthless tutoring.

It is time to respect the informed decisions of classroom

teachers and to stop paying outside testing companies

to produce measurements that have been shown

to be poor indicators of student success.8

Mr. Packer warns that "those who do not articulate

a positive set of changes to the law will simply not be

at the table in negotiating improvements to it." We

suggest that the NEA leadership heed Malcolm Xâs

warning: âSitting at the table doesnât make you a diner,

unless you eat some of whatâs on that plate.â We wonder

if the NEA leadership understands how the members

feel as they watch their union leaders scramble for

a place at a table whose functionaries would relegate

teachers to the role of a subservient, script-reading, cleanup

crew. Perhaps it is frustration with the NEA leadership

that has led thousands of members to reject their

national leaders and set up their own campaign to eliminate


We'd like to extend Mr. Packer's useful table metaphor

and recommend a scientific study showing that

people get more out of a meal --physiologically and

psychologically --when they enjoy the food.10 We are

sure that children get more out of school when they

enjoy being there, and we are sure that teachers are

able to better use their talents when they can enjoy being

in healthy and supportive classrooms.11 Cognitive

scientists certainly know this to be true.12 We wonder,

then, why the NEA leadership ignores the way NCLB

squashes the joy out of school, causing children to

vomit13 and driving highly qualified teachers from the

profession in droves. Here are some comments gleaned

from those who have signed on to our petition:

⢠My daughter entered teaching 10 years ago with

a real determination to help children in impoverished

areas and a real gift to accomplish this. I am really afraid

that NCLB has finally made her lose her teacher's soul.

This has been a year of frustration, admonitions from

her administration to ânot ask questions, not express

concerns, and donât think,â and hours of having to surreptitiously

try to provide children what they need to

learn to read. NCLB must be dismantled before all of

our excellent teachers lose their teachersâ souls. --Donna


⢠I am witnessing the demoralization of a good teaching

staff due to NCLB. Iâm also seeing valuable, experienced

teachers opting for early retirement because they

canât bear to do what is wrong for the students they

love. I know of many young teachers who are tempted

to seek jobs in more affluent school districts so that

they can try to keep the passion to teach rather than

have it âbeatâ out of them by the dictates of NCLB.-- Sheryl Loomis

⢠I am retiring early primarily due to the manner

in which I am forced to teach and assess. I don't teach

much reading anymore; I am too busy testing children.

I have read the comments of others who have signed

and agree fully. There must be a better way than NCLB.

Fund education the way it should be so that there are

less than 20 students in each class, with enough updated

computers to meet the needs of today's children. Give

teachers some control over what goes on in our classes.

We feel we are fleeing a sinking ship, after giving our

entire lives to our students and our profession. It is a

sad way to end a career. -- Wendy Lego

⢠As a past teacher of the year I am greatly distressed

over NCLB. The program was rigid and removed the

teacher from the equation. I resigned after 40 years of

teaching. I had several more good years of teaching left

in me but I quit due to the very narrow scope of NCLB.

There is way too much testing on beginning learners!-- Judith Depew

⢠This act killed thinking in the classroom -- it is

why I left the classroom after 23 years of teaching elementary

school. --Karen Kolar

We have documented hundreds of teachers who are

leaving or thinking of leaving the profession because

of NCLB's premises, mechanisms, and goals. If we understand

Mr. Packer correctly, the NEA has also documented

hundreds of stories from affected educators.

Is anyone in the NEA leadership reading them? Is

anyone listening to the teachers they are supposed to

be working for?

The ultimate outcome when highly qualified teachers

leave classrooms --especially those in low-income

neighborhoods -- is quite clear, and the NEA leadership

knows it. As Mr. Packer phrases it, "NCLB is presenting

real obstacles to achieving the original purpose

of ESEA." We will never achieve ESEA's goals when

current legislation undermines them.

To err is human; to admit it, remarkable. As early

supporters of NCLB, the NEA leadership must stand

tall and own up to its error. The sooner the leadership

accepts this and supports replacing NCLB with legislation

more teacher-, student-, and community-friendly,

the sooner we can return to the original intent of

ESEA. When the NEA leadership argues that NCLB

is "an unfunded, unfair, and unattainable mandate that

largely labels and punishes schools and denies all children

their basic right to a great public school," we want

to be hopeful. But actions speak louder than words,

and the NEA leadership's decision to side with corporate

reformers rather than with the teachers who pay

their salaries --but certainly not their dinner bills --

says a great deal about the priorities of the organization.

Our hope now is that the leadership will abandon

its "stay the course" philosophy and listen to the

teachers, educational luminaries, and thousands of concerned

citizens calling for a new direction.

1. For a heart-wrenching account of NCLB's effects on poor and minority

students, see Linda Perlstein, Tested: One American School Struggles

to Make the Grade (New York: Henry Holt, 2007).

2. See Paul D. Houston, "The Seven Deadly Sins of No Child Left Behind,"

Phi Delta Kappan, June 2007, p. 744.

3. Ibid., p. 748.

4. See Richard Rothstein, Rebecca Jacobsen, and Tamara Wilder, "'Proficiency

for All' Is an Oxymoron," Education Week, 29 November 2006.

5. For more on the organization's goals, see www.21stcenturyskills.org/


6. For the complete list of members, see www.21stcenturyskills.org/index.


7. See Gregg Keiser, "Jobs Bashes Teachers Unions," PC World, 20 February

2007, available at www.pcworld.com/article/id,129214-c,current


8. For the most recent study showing grades given by teachers to be

more accurate predictors of college success than the SAT, see Saul Geiser

and Maria Veronica Santelices, "Validity of High School Grades in Predicting

Student Success Beyond the Freshman Year: High School Record

vs. Standardized Tests as Indicators of Four-Year College Outcomes,"

Research & Occasional Paper Series, Center for Studies in Higher Education,

June 2007, available from http://cshe.berkeley.edu/publications/


9. To learn more about this movement, see www.eliminatenclb.org.

10. For more on this point, see Barry Glassner, The Gospel of Food: Everything

You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong (New York: Ecco/Harper

Collins, 2007), pp. 1-2.

11. For more on this point, see Judy Willis, "The Neuroscience of Joyful

Education," Educational Leadership, Summer 2007, online edition,

available at www.ascd.org/portal/site/ascd/menuitem.a4dbd0f2c4f9b


12. For more on emotions, learning, and human development, see Daniel

Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships

(New York: Bantam Dell, 2006).

13. Lawrence Harvey, "Overburdened, Overwhelmed," American School

Board Journal, April 2003, available at www.asbj.com/2003/04/0403cover


A Petition Calling for the Dismantling

Of the No Child Left Behind Act

1. You may not agree with every point on this document, written trying to take into consideration as many complaints as possible. If you

agree with one, please sign and then spread the word. 2. Conservatives and Liberals wrote this legislation, many with the best of intentions.

As laws do not always look the same once they are enacted, we need reflective legislators to help us replace NCLB with educational

policy more suitable to life, liberty, and happiness. 3. We are not opposed to federal support of public education, and we do not oppose

ESEA. We support teachers and students, and both suffer under NCLB. 4. Teachers have written us asking if they can be fired for signing.

This is still the U.S.A., and teachers are entitled to voice their opinions, just do it from your home. 5. Want to do more than sign a petition?

Switch your e-mail address to âpublicâ and we will add you to our mailing list, or register at www.educatorroundtable.org.

To: U.S. Congress

We, the educators, parents, and concerned citizens whose names appear below, reject the misnamed No Child Left Behind

Act and call for legislators to vote against its reauthorization. We do so not because we resist accountability, but because

the lawâs simplistic approach to education reform wastes student potential, undermines public education, and threatens

the future of our democracy.

Below, briefly stated, are some of the reasons we consider the law too destructive to salvage. In its place we call for formal,

state-level dialogues led by working educators rather than by politicians, ideology-bound âthink tankâ members, or

leaders of business and industry who have little or no direct experience in the field of education.

The No Child Left Behind Act

1. Misdiagnoses the causes of poor educational development, blaming teachers and students for problems over which they

have no control.

2. Assumes that competition is the primary motive of human behavior and that market forces can cure all educational ills.

3. Mandates data-driven instruction based on gamesmanship to undermine public confidence in our schools.

4. Uses pseudoscience and media manipulation to justify pro-corporate policies and programs, including diverting taxes

away from communities and into corporate coffers.

5. Ignores the proven inadequacies, inefficiencies, and problems associated with centralized, "top-down" control.

6. Places control of what is taught in corporate hands many times removed from students, teachers, parents, local school

boards, and communities.

7. Requires the use of materials and procedures more likely to produce a passive, compliant work force than creative, resilient,

inquiring, critical, compassionate, engaged members of our democracy.

8. Reflects and perpetuates massive distrust of the skill and professionalism of educators.

9. Allows life-changing, institution-shaping decisions to hinge on single measures of performance.

10. Emphasizes minimum content standards rather than maximum development of human potential.

11. Neglects the teaching of higher-order thinking skills which cannot be evaluated by machines.

12. Applies standards to discrete subjects rather than to larger goals such as insightful children, vibrant communities, and

a healthy democracy.

13. Forces schools to adhere to a testing regime, with no provision for innovating, adapting to social change, encouraging

creativity, or respecting student and community individuality, nuance, and difference.

14. Drives art, music, foreign language, career and technical education, physical education, geography, history, civics, and

other nontested subjects out of the curriculum, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

15. Produces multiple, unintended consequences for students, teachers, and communities, including undermining neighborhood

schools and blurring the line between church and state.

16. Rates and ranks public schools using procedures that will gradually label them all "failures," so when they fail to make

adequate yearly progress, as all schools eventually will, they can be "saved" by vouchers, charters, or privatization.

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