A few months ago, Chris Roberts, a young teacher in Northeast Ohio, received an email through StudentsFirst recommending that he sign up for their Teachers for Transformation Academy. He signed up for their mailing list a few years ago because he was initially attracted to the StudentsFirst talking points. A self described libertarian-leaning Republican, Chris was intrigued and decided to apply for the position. After some recent phone interviews, Chris was offered the position of Ohio’s Teacher for Transformation Fellow along with an attractive $5,000 stipend – a very nice paycheck for the young teacher and father of three.
As the fourth-year teacher researched into their agenda in preparation for the work ahead, Chris realized that he no longer believed in the work of StudentsFirst as he once had. His personal experiences as a teacher and a father had caused him to realize that StudentsFirst doesn’t actually put students first, but instead promotes the ongoing attack on teachers that we see in society today.
Chris ultimately declined the position yesterday, composing a detailed letter explaining his decision. He shared the letter with us, and now we’re sharing his amazing response with you.
Thank you for the offer to serve as a member of the Teachers for Transformation Academy and a $5,000 stipend to promote the StudentsFirst agenda in Ohio. I am truly honored to have been selected to be Ohio’s Teacher for Transformation. However, I have decided to decline your offer, and I want you to understand why.
I had initially thought that by joining the Teachers for Transformation Academy that I could help make a difference in education, a difference in the lives of the millions of children who go to school everyday. However, I’m afraid that the difference that would be made would be for the worse. I was initially drawn to StudentsFirst’s ideas as a new teacher. A few years ago I saw an episode of Stossel in which StudentsFirst was showcased. I liked most of what I heard about the organization. And when I saw the movie Waiting for Superman, I thought I was convinced. Having already been one who leans libertarian, is a registered Republican, and believes in free markets and the inefficiency of government-run entities, I liked a lot of what I was hearing. It made sense to promote charter schools to provide competition; it made sense to base teachers’ pay on their performance; and it made sense to remove the barriers to get rid of poor performing teachers. I knew I was going to be a good teacher, so why should I care about seniority protections? Besides, if there were cuts, it would be those older teachers who would stay and I would get cut, so those seniority protections seemed to hurt me more than they benefited me.
Now after four years in the classroom, my view of education has changed. Now, I am not so convinced that the StudentsFirst agenda is what is best for students. Those “older teachers” whom I felt didn’t deserve the seniority protections were actually some of the most helpful people I’ve ever come across. Their years of experience meant they had a wealth of classroom management advice to share. They weren’t stubborn curmudgeons as portrayed by those trying to “reform” education. They are some of the most caring, loving people I’ve known. Are there a couple of bad eggs every once in a while? Yes. But that is the case in any profession. You occasionally will find a bad doctor, hence malpractice suits. But instead of “reforming” the medical field and basing doctors’ evaluations on patients’ health, politicians instead push for tort reform to make it harder to sue doctors. I guess you could say that Republicans are pushing to protect bad doctors. One of the problems that I see with eliminating seniority protections boils down to money. Schools are strapped for money, it is nearly impossible to pass a levy and the state seems content with defunding. The more experienced teachers tend to be the most “expensive”. Despite their ratings and evaluations, I could see many schools getting rid of those teachers not because they perform poorly, but because it would be cheaper to bring in a new hire. Students could suffer from this.
As a parent, I have a problem with the evaluation systems being pushed by StudentsFirst and other corporate-driven reformers. With teachers’ evaluations being based on progress on student test scores, that means students must be tested to an extent never seen before. In every single class, multiple times a year, students are taking more standardized tests. My six-year old daughter told me this summer that she was afraid to go to first grade “because of the tests”. She is afraid she won’t do well on them. That is pathetic. Children should be excited to go to school and learn, but school has become more about tests rather than learning. School is about getting a certain score on a certain test. Education policies are killing children’s natural curiosity and desire to learn. I can’t help but wonder if this is intentional. Are there certain people out there who want to destroy public schools through excessive testing, defunding, and unfunded mandates in order to make people “want” privatization of schools? It sometimes seems like it. Whether intentional or not, unfortunately StudentsFirst’s agenda aligns with this style of reform that we have been seeing take over the public education conversation. Although I believe in free market capitalism, I see that in the case of education the more private corporations get involved in education, the worse our schools get. There are large corporations making these tests, the politicians force these tests upon our schools, and the test companies also make the textbooks and curricula for the schools to follow. It is a terrible marriage of big business and big government and children are the ones taking a hit. Teachers are becoming scripted robots and these corporations are making billions from our tax dollars, which could instead be going towards improving our schools. I, for one, do not want my children subjected to so much testing.
I see the StudentsFirst agenda as being a big part of this trend in education that I disdain, both as a teacher and especially as a parent. The agenda that Students First and other reformers are pushing aren’t going to “fix” education. We are told that having more charter schools will fix things, but a look at recent news shows us that that narrative is completely false. Charter schools are a perfect example of what those of us in libertarian circles call “crony capitalism”. Publicly funded schools run by private enterprise – nothing can go wrong, right? Instead, money is being taken away from public schools, especially ones that need the funding the most.
Students First promotes a myth that “adult interests” get in the way of reform that will help students. As a teacher and a parent, I have come to understand that this line of reasoning is not only misleading, but it’s downright false. I went into education because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of my students. Every day, I am inspired by my teaching colleagues who sacrifice themselves every day in order to ensure their students are challenged, supported and nurtured in ways that will lead them to success in life, not just a passing score on a test. I have further come to realize that the best way to truly make a difference in the lives of my students is by working in collaboration with my fellow teachers.
This year, rather than selling myself out in support of an agenda that bashes unions and seeks to dis-empower those who have committed their lives to the teaching profession, I am proud to have been chosen by my colleagues as an officer in our local union. We join our voices together in order to advocate for our students, and I know that I will do far more to become a better teacher and improve the teaching and learning conditions of my students by working with and through my union than I could ever hope to do by joining your Academy.
StudentsFirst is all about tearing people down, using the funding you’ve received from corporate contributors to advance policies that push testing to put labels on schools and drive good people out of the teaching profession. I would rather work to lift people up. I believe in my students. I believe in my colleagues. I believe in public education.
That’s why you can keep your $5,000.
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