Dear Ms. DeVos, #letstalk

Dear Ms. DeVos,


You and I are cut from the same cloth. We’re both the descendents of Dutch immigrants. We both went to Calvin. We’ve both called Grand Rapids home, at least for a minute. And we both are passionate about our country’s education system. 


I think we would also agree that when it comes to offering a free, quality education, we are not doing right by all our students. This is especially true for low-income students and students of color


I spent the past five years teaching 11th grade English, Nutrition and AP Language in Memphis, Tennessee and Denver, Colorado. I received my Master’s in Urban Education from Union University. And while I still have plenty to learn, I have a few insights I’d like to share. 


I always told my kids that if you offer advice without a solution, you’re just complaining. So without further ado, here are some ways we can modify our education system to better serve all students in this country: 


Enforce promotion requirements--not just graduation requirements. 


As I mentioned, I taught 11th grade, the end of the line (or close to it). I loved 11th graders, but it always baffled me that my students came to me with such a variance in their ability levels. In a single class, I might have a student who was barely able to read sitting next to a student who was clearly gifted. 


The trouble is that although each teacher is provided with a laundry list of standards to teach each year, we’re also told that if more than 10% of our students are failing, we’re doing something wrong. 


It’s an interesting conundrum, isn’t it? As a result, students receive “participation” points, which often accounts for 65% of their grade. If all a student wants to do is pass, he simply needs to show up and fill in the blanks. Students are literally receiving diplomas for “doing time,” running the clock down for twelve years. 


As a result, there’s a huge discrepancy between graduation rates (which are already low) and college persistence rates. We need to make sure that a diploma means something other than that you sat quietly and compliantly for twelve years. 


In the five years that I taught, I was asked to fill out paperwork each and every time I failed a student--regardless of whether or not they had mastered the 11th grade standards. 


I was NEVER asked to justify passing a student. That’s unacceptable. 


Students, parents, administrators and teachers need to be held accountable for standards mastery at every grade level. Period. 


Let’s create clearer standards for promotion without sacrificing the communal elements of learning. 


To do this, we’ll need access to extensive item banks. This way, learners can read and discuss a common topic or text and be assessed at their individual progress level. 


Support teachers through quality curriculum. 


More than 50% of teachers don’t make it past their 5th year in the classroom. There are a myriad of reasons that can help explain this statistic, but one of them is that teaching is exhausting. 


I LOVED my kids. I really did. I think about them every day. They are my WHY. 


But even my love for my students couldn’t keep me in the classroom past year five. The workload was incredible. Outside of the school day, teachers are expected to grade, submit paperwork, plan lessons, and act as emotional support systems for their kids. 


And while some of this labor is unavoidable, I TO THIS DAY do not understand why I was responsible for planning my own curriculum. 


Are we not all, theoretically, teaching the same thing? Hear me out. 


In theory, every 11th grade English teacher in a public (or charter) school in this country is required to teach the same standards. So why was I up at 11 p.m. making yet another worksheet on Huckleberry Finn?


Let’s provide teachers with resources that are ready to distribute and easy to internalize--ones that have been tested for efficacy. 


Let’s NOT allow teachers to beta test their curriculum for the first three years of their careers. Our students’ time is far too precious to waste.


Let’s give teachers pre-made options for deployment and differentiation. 


Let’s NOT ask teachers to create a custom option for each learner in their class when technology can easily assist with this. 


Track and interpret data. More than once a year. 


As teachers, data should drive everything we do. We should track and monitor students’ progress on a weekly (if not daily) basis. 


And students should know how they’re doing too. 


And so should their parents. 


The problem is that all students see is a grade. And that’s all that matters. But as I mentioned before, the grade doesn’t really correspond to any type of mastery because it’s so bloated with “I-showed-up” points. 


So then we get to the end of the year and, miracle-of-miracles, 90% of our students are passing! But only 20% are reading at grade-level. And even fewer are college or career ready. 


Again, this is entirely unacceptable. Our reporting needs to be more sophisticated than a percentage. Which leads directly into my next point. 


Invest in technology that makes teachers’ lives easier. 


As teachers, we should not be manually tracking and entering student data on a daily basis. Nor should we be analyzing it. 


In a perfect world, we’d treat education like a well designed study. We’d put the same planning, time and energy into curriculum and data collection as we do into big-pharma research. 


In a perfect world, a teacher would have the tools necessary to quickly assess where her students are at and respond accordingly. A teacher would also be able to run reports that analyze the correlation between attendance and standards mastery. We’d be able to use an app or program to identify students as “high risk” or gifted, and provide them with a curriculum to support their individual needs. And all this would happen in REAL time--not at the quarter or semester mark. 


Teachers are NOT statisticians. Ironically, it’s because we were never required to take a statistics course in high school. 


Enter my next suggestion [stage left].


Teach life skills. 


I can’t say this enough. We NEED to rethink what we are teaching our students. I spent hours in high school learning how to rotate an ellipse. That is a skill only engineers need. And while from an equity standpoint, I don’t think certain groups of students should be excluded from these skills, can we please be real?


MOST PEOPLE COULD GO THEIR ENTIRE LIFE WITHOUT ROTATING ANYTHING. 


What people can’t go their life without is knowing how to plan and save for retirement. Financial literacy is a game changer. Nutrition is a game changer. Sexual and emotional health are game changers. COMMUNICATION is a game changer. 


I spent the last five years teaching rhetoric, and as much as I LOVE precise and consistent punctuation, it means NOTHING to people who aren’t emotionally grounded or living a purpose-driven life. 


As much as I love cellular respiration, I know that my students need to know when and how their bodies work so much more. 


And as much as I love irrational numbers, if my kids don’t understand how interest works, they’re in the same boat as the millions of millennials with crippling debt. 


If I learned anything at Calvin, it’s that the world is a wonderfully intricate place, that everything is connected, and that a devoted study of our universe is a tribute to the creator. 


But at the end of the day, we’ve promised American students that their high school diploma will be enough to be a contributor, a functioning human who can offer their GREATEST gifts to the world.


It’s time to radically reform not only how we teach, but also WHAT. 


Shorten the school day. 


This is a no-brainer. Seven hours is too long to be sitting. Flip the classrooms. Minimize seat time. Teach students time-management, and give teachers time to provide feedback. The college model has this right.


Enough said.


Lengthen the school year. 


Summer break is such an archaic tradition. Rest is important, but three months is egregious. Move all schools to year-round and avoid the summer slide that consistently impacts students who have less access to summer enrichment. 


Train teachers to acknowledge their biases. 


We all have biases. Some of them are based in reality, some of them are based in the media, and some of them are based in something entirely different. 


We all need to acknowledge our biases, but teachers especially need to think about how their assumptions affect the people who they are supposed to be nurturing and guiding. 


By acknowledging that we expect certain things of certain people, we’re able to analyze the ways we treat others based on these assumptions. 


As a person of power, our assumptions--whether implicit or explicit--are inevitably going to impact the way we teach. 


Teachers who believe all people can learn teach differently. 


Teachers who understand racial inequity teach differently. 


If we can teach teachers to understand bias in a way that is free from shame, we can nurture a workforce that can speak openly about racism, sexism, and power dynamics that would otherwise be taboo. 


Build empathy through representation. 


I love all people, including white men. But teaching the cannon is no longer acceptable. The conversation has been overrun by the voice of power for far too long. 


Make room at the table. Teach authors who have been silenced. And teach students how to talk about them with empathy, humility and grace. 


We have an amazing opportunity as teachers and administrators to expose young people to diverse experiences and ideas, even in a segregated country. And in doing so, we build empathy for the “other.” 


I was never an other until I became a teacher, and I thank God every day for that experience. I am eternally grateful for my students, who with grace and compassion allowed me to experience and fall in love with their culture and turn me into the person I am now. 


We live in an amazing time where people can step outside their comfort zone without leaving their neighborhood. Let’s do that more in schools. 


Make learning joyful again. 


I had a student who once told me that he loved learning, but that he hated school. And it broke my heart because I remember feeling the...


Exact. 


Same. 


Way. 


By minimizing teacher lift and providing schools with the tools and technology they need to succeed, we can make learning a joyful experience again. 


I believe that all people love learning. 


I believe that all people are geniuses. 


I believe that we have a responsibility to nurture the genius in every person, regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation.


And I think you do too. 


So Ms. DeVos, #letstalk.

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