George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Have You Written to the President Lately?

December 11, 2009

My colleague, Anthony Cody, has initiated a campaign urging teachers to write letters to President Obama sharing our opinions of his education policies. Please visit the Teachers' Letters to Obama Project, where educators are posting their letters.

Here's the letter I have written:

Dear President Obama,

I've lost count of the number of African American boys in Oakland, California, where I work, who say they want to be the president when they grow up. While I pray that their hopes will be realized, the curriculum and instruction I observe every day in Oakland's classrooms will not produce our future leaders -- and not because the teachers don't aspire to do so.

The education policies you and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are enacting will not produce individuals capable of doing what you have done or becoming who you have become. I beg you to take a closer look at the contradictions in your education policies and rethink them.

Eight years of No Child Left Behind did not produce the results that even its defenders hoped it would. Yet I know you are aware of the shortcomings of NCLB. One of the reasons I voted for you was because of your commitment to reform the act. However, the policies promoted by Duncan this last year focus entirely on test scores -- closing down schools that can't raise their test scores, tying teacher pay to test scores, and ranking teacher-preparation programs by how well they increase test scores.

In spite of all the data and all the research that indicates that these measures have not resulted in better outcomes for children, Duncan is moving ahead. This seems like NCLB on a whole new scary level.

President Obama, please consider the long-term, irreparable consequences of continuing to develop an education system that revolves around standardized testing. Please consider how this policy affects low-income children of color in our cities.

Every week, my work takes me into dozens of classrooms, and most of the time this is what I see: teachers who are committed to the success of their students implementing scripted curricula designed to teach basic skills, and students quietly filling out worksheets.

Our black and brown children are not learning to think, discuss, or debate. They are not learning to problem solve, or pose inquiry questions, or explore their histories or cultural legacies. They are not learning to view an issue from many angles, or how to communicate with people who think differently than they do, or to listen to each other.

They are not developing the range of skills that will allow them to write an autobiography such as Dreams from my Father, nor to prepare a speech such as your masterpiece on race that you delivered in Philadelphia.

Furthermore, our schools are struggling to inculcate in students a joy for learning. The rote memorization, one-size-fits-all scripted programs, and testing-frenzied atmosphere is producing students who may eventually acquire basic skills but may have no interest in novels, no passion for mathematical thinking, and no curiosity about the past or present.

Middle-class parents -- who can't afford private schools -- will continue to supplement their children's education by paying for music and dance classes, instruction in foreign languages, summer science camps, exposure to art and performances, and so on. While such experiences used to be -- and still should be -- a part of the school day, now there is no time for anything other than reading and math, particularly in schools with low test scores.

President Obama, do you recognize that these test-driven policies promoted by Duncan will widen the achievement gap into a chasm? That our society will become even more inequitable?

What is the cost for low-income children of color of focusing so much time and money on raising test scores? When will those costs be assessed?

Hold schools accountable, please! Hold everyone who works with children accountable to educate every single child, and hold educators accountable for working cooperatively to improve the outcomes for all children -- not to compete against each other for which teacher can get the highest test scores.

Furthermore, demand multiple forms of assessment, demand measurements of a student's performance in creative tasks and critical thinking. Hold schools accountable for developing a child's problem-solving skills, curiosity, and ability to work in a team. Are these skills not essential to succeeding in this century? To being a leader?

I implore you, President Obama, to reconsider the approach you are taking to reform education. I urge you to listen to the proposals of educators, researchers, and teacher leaders who disagree with Duncan's approach. I invite you to spend a day with me, touring classrooms in Oakland and meeting the children who will hold you accountable, because, thus far, the education policies enacted under your administration are not likely to produce very many African American boys who will master the range of academic skills needed to become the president of the United States.


Elena Aguilar

Educator, Oakland, California

What might be some suggestions you have for President Obama and Arne Duncan? Join the Teachers' Letters to Obama Project, and write your own letter. It's important that our voices are heard.

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