Dear NC third-graders: I'm sorry for all the meaningless tests

Posted on February 18, 2014 

Over the past months, we’ve gotten more Points of View submissions and letters to the editor than we can possibly print from teachers and other educators and those who love and support them. Especially in the wake of Gov. Pat McCrory’s announcement about his plan to increase pay for beginning teachers, the number has increased – especially the number that are simply too long to print. So here is a sampling of the sorts of good but too-long letters we’re getting. These are basically unedited.

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The first is a letter from Wendi Pillars, an English as a Second Language expert who teaches in a rural high-poverty school in Siler City. She wrote this letter to her third-graders. The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss published this letter on her blog, The Answer Sheet, this week. Read the post here.

Dear third-graders in North Carolina,

Kids, in case I haven’t told you lately — I hope you don’t mind if I call you my kids — you are the many reasons I love my job, inside and out. I have come to recognize the nuances in your looks, behavior, and motivation these past few months.

And I don’t like what this year is doing to you.

I want to apologize.

I want to say I’m sorry for the academic pressures you feel as eight and nine year olds. I know you are nervous about the End of Grade (EOG) test you keep hearing about—it’s unlike anything you’ve ever encountered, and it seems so important to so many people to quantify you with a number.

I want to apologize for the 54 mini-tests you are required to take between now and the EOGs because of Read to Achieve laws. Your parents may not know this, but these tests will cause us to lose a tremendous amount of instructional time—time when you and I could be reading together, exploring ideas, and finding innovative ways to communicate your new knowledge to others.

When you take these mini-tests, I cannot tell you what you missed, what the correct answers were, or delve into your thinking. But I will look you in the eye and tell you whether you passed or not. And when I do…

I want to apologize for how few hands-on projects and extra resources I am able to pull into our classroom. The extra testing is taking up precious planning, collaboration and preparation time—which now must be spent making test copies, stapling them, scoring, then storing them securely, as if your future depended on them.

I’m sorry for the other new reading assessment system we have implemented this year, too. Those of you who have the most difficulties with reading and comprehension must be retested every 10 days. About two-thirds of you are in that position, which means I must test 2-3 of you each day to fit it all in.

These one-on-one tests are time-consuming and so I have to assign all of you a lot of silent, independent work so I can test. I give you interesting assignments, but all the testing means that we have less time as a class to work together on developing your language skills.

I want you to know that I am so proud of you for persevering and for so many of you continuing to try your ding dang best.

A, I have seen you grow five reading levels since August, your self-esteem blossoming.

P, you are now three reading levels ahead of where you were, and your sense of humor and dramatic flair tell me more about your potential than any test could.

C, this year has been hard and I know you are still struggling with reading, but I also recognize your savviness in listening and presenting your case in arguments.

J, I have seen how you made a conscious decision to try hard this semester, and wow, it has made a difference. It’s too bad that the tests you’re taking don’t indicate how much you’ve grown.

As we enter the season of heavy-duty testing, I renew my promises to you:

I will seek the gifts you bring to the classroom, and point them out to others.

I will learn as much as I can about you so we can make the best possible use of the learning time we do have.

I will push you and maintain high expectations, but I will be fair.

I will share my own love for learning, language, and reading with you.

I will admit readily when I do not know or when I make mistakes.

I will seek help from my colleagues if I can’t provide what you need.

I will learn from you—how to laugh, how to see through your eyes, and how to be a better teacher.

I will light my flame from yours, and return the favor when you most need it.

And in return, I must ask you to keep trying. To give your best effort. To ask questions. To wonder. To read, and read, and read. To take your curiosity out into the world. And, most of all, to trust me when I promise that learning is about much, much more than what tests can measure.

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This is from Jennifer Smith of Apex, who says:

I’ve been reading all of the articles lately regarding our schools, and I wanted to get in touch with The News & Observer.

Four years ago, my family made a huge decision, to leave Northern Virginia for Wake County. We made this decision, not only because of the house we could afford but also because North Carolina had such a great reputation in its educational standards. Over these past four years, I’ve watched those educational standards deteriorate.

I have two boys in Wake County schools, and I have been involved in both of their education from kindergarten. I’m currently on the board of the PTSA at my older son’s middle school. This gives me an added benefit, I get to see how things go from a parent’s point of view but also how things go for the teachers. I see how stressed out my younger son gets because he can’t learn a new math concept before they have to move on to another one a few days later. I see how the teachers are stressed because they are being judged based on standardized test results and not by how they actually educate our kids. I see how much personal money teachers use to buy supplies for their classroom because there are no funds available.

Every day when I read the newspaper, I find another disheartening article about the school system. Teachers have one of the lowest paychecks in the nation. Teachers can’t teach other than to the tests and laws enacted by people who generally have no experience in education. Students are unable to grasp a concept before the teachers are forced to move on to another topic. Tenure is being taken away in lieu of a $500 bonus which is only being given to the top 25% of teachers. Teachers who have worked hard to achieve a master’s degree in education are told they will not get any additional pay. Third graders are being stressed and stretched to the limit because of the new “Read to Achieve” law. New teachers are being offered a raise (a minimal amount), while experienced teachers get nothing. Textbook funds have been reduced to almost nothing and the state wants every school to use digital textbooks by 2017…never mind that the schools have literally no funds to upgrade their technology to accommodate these digital textbooks. And, the latest, the county wants to limit what gifts parents can give to their children’s teachers. This is the straw that broke the camel’s back for me as a parent.

Teachers are to me and my children extended family. Both of my sons adore all of their teachers, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for all of them. I see what they go through, the efforts they make and the love they have for their career. If I want to give them a gift at Christmas or as a “Thank You” for all of their hard work, I should be able to do so without question. No parent gives a teacher a gift card in an attempt to “buy” a grade for their child. We give these gifts in appreciation for what the teachers do and all of the blood, sweat and tears they give for their craft.

I think the state needs to listen to the people, both teachers and parents, who elected them to their offices. Our state’s educational system is becoming a national laughing stock. We aren’t teaching our children everything they need to become well rounded citizens of this state and our county. We aren’t letting teachers do what they want and love to do, teach. Our children are not getting the education they deserve. Our teachers’ aren’t getting the appreciation that they deserve. Our parents are not allowed to show our appreciation to our teachers. Things don’t just need to change, they have to change!

Jennifer B. Smith

Apex

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Two Special Teachers Filling a Hole in My Heart

When I was in first and second grade, my mother grew more and more ill and died on Mother’s Day of 1952. During that first summer I don’t remember anyone talking about her or her death. I do remember the sad way that people looked at me. When I asked my father about her, the pain on his face silenced my questions. Memories and conversation about my mother were buried in the ground with her body. I silently created images of her in heaven in a room complete with wallpaper and furniture and felt that she was watching down on me. Sometimes that image helped shape my behavior but not in third grade. By the end of that summer I felt very needy, angry and hurt. In the fall, I entered Mrs. Lincoln’s 3rd grade classroom in Ohio and fell madly in love with this kind, gentle, gray-haired and oh-so-loving woman. I am positive she knew about my recent loss and embraced me wholeheartedly but I don’t remember her ever talking about my mother or about my feelings. It was 1952 and that just wasn’t the norm.

Up until third grade, I was always well-behaved in school; never got into trouble and was a model student but not in 3rd grade with Mrs. Lincoln. I craved her attention so much that I did everything possible to get more than my share. I had to stand in the hall for misbehaving and was sent to the principal’s office not infrequently. But the best was having to stay after school to “help” Mrs. Lincoln. I washed blackboards; cleaned the chalk erasers and did other chores. I was in heaven! It was so much better than going home to an empty house.

Of course it is clear to me now that I misbehaved in order to get Mrs. Lincoln’s attention that year. By the end of third grade, I had settled down and don’t remember this behavior with Miss Genis in fourth grade but I loved her also! Her gray hair was always perfect and she wore matching earrings and necklace - every day with a dress and high heels - how did those teachers do it!

She was very strict; required lots of memorization and writing of spelling words in neat script five times every day of the week with a test on Friday. I loved her mature femininity, her strictness and thrived on her structure. She was just what I needed!

By fifth grade I had a new stepmother and could go home for lunch and had someone at home after school. Life settled into a 1950s type middle class small-town childhood.

Two of my granddaughters are now 7 years old, and I often look at them and think about when I was 7. It makes me realize in a new and profound way just how devastating mother loss is for a young child and how important teachers can be.

I will ALWAYS be grateful for those special teachers who helped bridge this emotional gap for me. Teachers still do that for children every day, and I feel honored that they did it for me. It also fuels my political anger at the current politics in North Carolina and who dismiss teachers with tokens of appreciation. How can they not remember the teachers who made a difference in their lives and in the lives of their children? How can they not care about the children now in the classrooms struggling to learn? How can they not care about the future of this state? I have no answers only anger this morning as I read the headlines.

Barbara Walls

Cary

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Let’s Get Things Straight about Teacher Salaries

North Carolina teacher salaries have been an extremely hot topic in the state’s political arena. However, the legislature and the local media have been providing the public with misinformation about the true status of N.C. teachers’ pay. There are multiple issues that are negatively affecting teachers’ pay and each needs to be addressed.

1. The first, and most pressing, issue is the freezing of teachers’ salary steps and experience levels is unclear to the public. Salary steps, which are promised salary increases deemed by the state of North Carolina to award teachers for advancing in the career field, have been locked since 2008. As a result, teachers with seven years of experience are paid the same salary as first year teachers.

2. The next concern is that one pay raise has occurred in the last six years. The increase was so minimal that it wasn’t even considered a salary step advancement. It simply elevated the base pay for all teachers approximately 1.2%.

3. The public needs to understand that salary steps and pay raises are not identical. Salary steps reward experienced teachers. Pay raises are provided to all teachers and help keep pace with inflation. These are two entirely separate methods for pay increases and NC teachers haven’t received either in recent years.

4. A good starting point for improving teaching conditions would be to recognize those lost years of experience. For example, the salary schedule is misleading as it does not reflect the true levels of years experience in one’s career. Seventh year teachers should be paid as seventh year teachers - as the state legislature promises teachers when they publish a salary schedule.

5. The NC legislature’s first attempt to raise teacher salary was a pitifully concealed method for trying to convince teachers to willingly surrender their basic rights to due process. This is the infamous “25% plan” - where the state promises a $2,000 pay increase for the top 25% of teachers in exchange for their career status protection rights. However, what the legislature isn’t revealing to the public is that they are indefinite as to the source of that money, even if it were actually reasonable to identify the top 25% of teachers. The money for these raises was not earmarked in the budget; therefore, it may or may not exist. The reality is that teachers could surrender their career status before the state legislature rescinds its promise.

6. Governor McCrory recently proposed a pay increase that will benefit beginning teachers, but alienate experienced teachers. Approximately one-third of NC teachers will actually benefit from the pay increase - leaving over 60,000 NC educators still struggling to survive on NC’s low teaching salary. With nearly 50% of NC educators leaving the career field within the first five years of teaching, one has to ask if beginning teachers are really the pool of educators in which we should be investing our tax dollars?

7. Let’s get this fact straight - McCrory’s plan is not an increase in teachers’ base pay. If it were, all teachers would see an increase. His plan is an increase in starting pay for teachers. This may seem like trivial semantics, but to teachers, there is a tremendous difference between the two phrases.

The state of North Carolina is not honoring its promised steps in the salary schedule, is not providing pay raises to maintain the rate of inflation, is promising a $2,000 raise with money it may or may not have - in exchange for teachers giving up their basic protection rights, and is proposing a plan that rewards inexperienced, less expensive teachers over the more costly, career educators. Cumulatively, this makes for a humiliated and frustrated workforce. Let’s make sure the general public understands the truth about NC teacher pay and takes action to ensure the perception aligns with the reality!

Paul Kebker

Raleigh

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From a Potential Teacher and Future Duke Graduate

By Dominique Beaudry

It pains me to admit it, but I’m starting to rethink my plans to stay in the Tar Heel state.

Next year, I will graduate from Duke University. I’m a local girl, born and raised in Concord, and I have always wanted to teach high school in the Old North State. But to be honest, the laws recently passed by the state legislature limiting teaching tenure and advancement, as well as the noticeably non-competitive teacher salaries, have made me rethink my plans to remain here.

Don’t get me wrong -- I love teaching more than any other job in the world.

I’ve spent hundreds of hours preparing, studying, tutoring, mentoring and working in the classroom. I have a genuine enthusiasm for human development and I love being with children. I want a job that makes a positive impact in people’s lives.

But I’m worried about working in a state that’s pulling the rug out from under the career I love so much. In North Carolina, a teacher’s starting salary, even with a master’s degree, would be about $35,000. If I moved to teach in D.C. or Maryland my starting pay would be at least $10,000 a year higher.

And then there are the outside offers, the alternative career paths that snatch up countless potential educators each year. An analyst position at an investment bank pays more than three times what a teacher makes in this state when you include bonuses. A consulting company or an oil company would offer similarly competitive salaries. Every day, I talk to talented friends at Duke who would make great teachers but who have loans to repay and bills like everyone else.

On Monday, Gov. Pat McCrory announced a $5,000 pay raise for starting teachers over the next three years. That’s a step in the right direction, but at the end of the day, it’s a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. New teachers could still earn more by crossing the state lines – or taking other kinds of jobs. Without a real long-term plan to address teacher pay and to support education more generally, our schools are going to lose more and more great teachers.

Why does North Carolina make life so hard for teachers? I want to use my Duke education, my passion and my work ethic to give back to the state that raised me. I want to inspire and enable future leaders to take an active role in building their communities. I want to help young North Carolinians develop their passions so their lives become more than just a 9-5 job. And I want to use my experience teaching to later create policies that are realistically implementable in the classroom. I grew up here, I went to school here, and I want to give back here.

Why are the governor and the General Assembly making these kinds of dreams such a difficult career choice for people like me?

Dominique Beaudry is a junior at Duke University and a N.C. School of Science and Mathematics alumna.

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Drop Back and Punt

Your Feb. 12 editorial concerning Sen. Phil Berger’s efforts to “improve” education in North Carolina was on target. As you pointed out, “improving education first requires doing some studying to thoroughly understand the problem and discussing solutions with educators.”

Over the last several months, readers of the N&O have found out politicians and others, who are not educators, are making recommendations for changes in teacher’s tenure, evaluations and salaries; student testing for accountability and promotion beyond the third grade; the creation of charter schools and providing vouchers to attend private schools; and the evaluations of individual schools in the state. None of these articles provided valid research information that support the adoption, development and operation of the proposed changes. In addition, the articles provided little to no information that would allow the reader to determine what impact they would have on the current education programs in the state and what they would cost the taxpayers.

What we desperately need to do immediately is to “drop back and punt.” That is to say, we need to put a halt to making all these changes until we know how they impact on teaching and learning. In other words, we need to conduct scientific research to determine the effectiveness of current educational methods and procedures, the recently adopted ones, and those proposed for the future.

Some of the principles and procedures that should guide this research follows:

The research effort should be under the jurisdiction of the North Carolina State Board of Education with the support of educators, politicians and taxpayers.

The State Board of Education should have the authority to employ research specialists in higher education institutions and businesses to conduct needed research.

Plans for conducting the research projects should include objectives, problems an outcomes and done on a pilot or trial basis prior to full implementation.

A special effort should be made to determine whether newly adopted strategies or programs should be administered in the existing public schools or chartered or non public schools. In drawing these conclusions, cost and effectiveness should be factors of consideration.

Decisions regarding the use of tests should focus on accountability as well as providing essential data for determining students’ remedial needs.

Conduct studies to determine the roles that legislators and school board members should assume in making changes in education.

To the extent possible, students and their parents should be involved in research activities. Parental support is a key factor in the academic success of students.

A specific effort should be made to make valid adjustments regarding the academic achievement of individual students, schools, school districts and states. When student achievement is adjusted to reflect family income and education level of parents, low achievement students frequently perform better than high achieving ones. When performance is related to measured potential, the gifted in our schools could be the greatest underachievers.

Obtain teachers, students and parents reactions toward proposed changes in education.

Finally, and most importantly, a quality education for all the children and youth in North Carolina will be enhanced if educators, politicians, parents, students and citizens work together.

Dr. H.T. Conner

Former Assistant of Planning, Research and Development

N.C. State Department of Public Instruction

Raleigh

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The current proposal to increase beginning teacher’s pay over the next two years is an insult and a slap in the face to veteran teachers. The 2007-08 teacher pay scale paid teachers holding a bachelor’s degree with 15 years experience $41,290. This year’s pay scale pays teachers holding a bachelor’s degree with 15 years experience $39,650. Any way you slice it, our teachers have endured a $1,640 pay cut over the last six years.

Additionally, teachers receiving advanced degrees will no longer receive additional compensation. Veteran teachers have also had tenure taken away. Tenure simply guarantees that teachers cannot be dismissed on a whim (for instance, a school board member’s niece needs a job.) It does not deter principals from taking steps to ensure that there are quality instructors in the classroom, including dismissal if necessary. Without tenure, teachers have no protection from whatever unjust dismissal may arise. Teachers have been told that the top 25 percent of them will receive a $500 raise in exchange for their tenure. I have not spoken with any who would exchange their tenure for $500.

In fact, the Guilford County School Board has refused to put a plan in place to select the top 25 percent because they don’t want to take tenure from their teachers and they don’t want to deal with the morale issues that come from such actions.

North Carolina was on its way to paying teachers and treating them as professionals. There have been giant steps backward in recent years. Anything short of a substantial pay raise for all teachers and re-instatement of tenure is unacceptable if we are to retain quality teachers for our children. I call on the General Assembly to adjust the salary scale to what it would be without the last six-year freeze and place teachers on it according to their experience and degree, and to re-instate tenure to those who have earned it with beginning teachers being able to earn career status as before (all this with no strings attached.) North Carolina’s teachers have done more with less for long enough. They have increased student achievement as directed and assessed by the state’s testing program. As more schools achieved exemplary status for student achievement, the bonuses for doing so were taken away. Now the politicians have determined that a new testing program is needed. North Carolina’s teachers will have their students showing growth using this instrument as well.

Our teachers are among the most hard-working, innovative, caring and productive in the country, and it’s time we started paying them the dollars and the respect they deserve.

Teddy Shelton

Retired principal

Pinnacle

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