I write today to express my dismay at what I have witnessed in the Brattleboro town schools lately, particularly in the last three years. Our town, and the district as a whole, has chosen a path that I believe is stifling the desires of both teachers and students to analyze, reflect, create and explore. Adopting commercial programs (at no small expense) in an attempt to make learning "systematic" not only narrows the curriculum for students but also discourages thinking amongst teachers. The over-emphasis on "data points" from the recently-adopted ongoing assessment system has trumped existing classroom assessment systems that actually give deeper and more comprehensive information about individual students.
These approaches may be easier to talk about -- numbers and graphs are seductive and give the impression of objectivity; and reading a lesson out of a teaching manual is certainly "teacher-proof" -- but do they reflect and encourage the type of thinking and analysis that we want to foster in our students as well as our teachers?
To teachers who thrive on inquiry and analysis of their teaching practices, purchased, scripted programs are demeaning and uninspiring to deliver. Large blocks of time are spent in whole group instruction, which experience tells us is not optimal for most students -- particularly those at both ends of the learning spectrum. While I understand the pressure of NCLB and its inflexibility toward student achievement, I know that there are avenues that would fulfill its requirements and better address the needs of our students while maintaining respect for teachers and the profession of teaching. In an attempt to grasp for coherence and consistency, we are not only giving up precious time for work with small groups and individual students but have also devalued the concept of teachers as knowledgeable resources with valuable expertise. The balance is off between responding to test scores and what they reflect and maintaining a rich, experiential curriculum. As one Brattleboro parent expressed in a recent letter to the Reformer, "an excellent elementary education should be a balance of learning basic skills and developing a love of learning; when the latter begins to be sacrificed in the name of the former, we are all losing out."
In addition to the change in curricular emphasis, I have observed another cultural shift lately: more decisions are being made from the top down, without input from a variety of constituents. Communication and input needs to go up as well as down. This is an area where we should absolutely strive for consistency. We need open channels where diverse opinions are not just given lip service, but are genuinely fostered and regularly sought out. A climate of safety and respect for the full spectrum of perspectives is essential. The nature of the School Board can make it difficult to hear the small voices, and the current climate of anxiety about job security makes it uncomfortable for those small voices to speak up.
I would challenge you, the School Board, to consider two critical tasks: to create channels of communication that are regularly and meaningfully open, where all perspectives have an opportunity to be heard in a climate of safety and to create the expectation with central office, principals and the Board that this is how our whole school system works.
The other is to consider what values you want to be reflected in our community's schools. What you value -- articulated or not -- is what you are going to get. Are test scores the essence of education at this point? It seems particularly important at this time to create and articulate some other values that can be used to drive decision-making about budgets, curriculum, how teacher time is used, and the decision-making process itself. This is not about micro managing, but having a consistent and clear lens through which decisions can be weighed and evaluated. For instance, we know that the business world now needs our students to be able to flexibly move from job to job, work as a team, and think creatively. These attributes are difficult to nurture under the best of circumstances. Teachers need the commitment of the Board and the administration to acknowledge, support and encourage their efforts to motivate students and foster an atmosphere where thinking and forming opinions can thrive.
Certainly it is not just our town or district that is faced with the difficulty of addressing mandates, budget cuts and shifting expectations. Extra attention must be paid in these times: we need to be clear about what we value in our students' education, and how we can openly hear all points of view in an atmosphere of trust. If any of these sentiments resonate with you, please consider what specific steps you, the Board, can take towards implementing change.
Vicki Roach, MEd, worked for the Brattleboro Town Schools as a reading and academic support teacher for 20 years. She writes from Brattleboro.