An open letter to America from a public school teacher

Dear America,

I’m sorry. You entrusted me with your children, and I have failed them. Please know that I had the best of intentions. I didn’t want to leave a child behind. I wanted to help them win this race to the top. You asked me to test them, and I tested them. I gave them choices: A, B, C, D, and sometimes even E. I didn’t just test them though; I spent hours showing them how to test, and I prepared them for that by quizzing them. My quizzes and tests were rigorous, too, just like you asked.

I have to be honest with you, though: my heart wasn’t in it at first. I had this ridiculous idea that art and music and drama and activity breaks would help my students grow. Maybe it was all those years of allowing my students to be creative. To think, I once had my English class produce a full-length play with original music and student-designed sets. I wasted weeks and weeks on that frivolous project. Sure, my students enjoyed it then, and okay, many of them still e-mail me and tell me that was the highlight of their high school experience, but I know now that if I had only had them sit in rows and practice for the ACT, if I had only given them short passages and had them tell me which of the five choices best described the author’s tone, they’d be so much more fulfilled in their lives.

After all, what did they really learn? How to access their imaginations? Developing original thoughts? Teamwork? I may as well have taught them how to file for unemployment.

Last year, our school district did away with our arts education classes. I was stunned along with the other misguided “professionals” with whom I taught. That was before I came to the stark realization that painting and sculpting and drawing might be nice hobbies to have, but they’re certainly not going to help adolescents as they compete for the jobs of the future. Do we really want a bunch of flaky artist-types distracting us? The art teacher is a barista at Starbucks now, which at least allows her to use valuable skills and restore middle-class security. And she makes a great latte.

Some people want to blame parents for the failure of American students to achieve. If parents would only spend more time engaged in enrichment activities with their kids like reading to them or taking them to museums or on nature hikes. Parents are busy though; I don’t think I really took time to consider how busy they are. We must also remember that it’s not a parent’s job to teach their children. That’s why they pay us.

Some parents are like I was and have this notion that they have a responsibility to be their child’s first teacher. One actually asked me why we spent so many days on test prep activities and why there wasn’t a program in our school to help foster her daughter’s love of music.

I told her what our superintendent told us: If we don’t teach them how to test properly, how do we expect them to perform well on the test? And just because our school doesn’t have band or orchestra any more, that doesn’t stop her daughter from taking lessons after school. I then directed her to our district website that assures all parents that we are preparing their children for the technology-driven world of the 21st century and beyond.

That’s why we moved many of our classes online. Kids love computers, and as with many innovative schools, ours allows students to take classes on their own through a program called Edgenuity. Why burden teachers with teaching skills and concepts that students can easily learn online? The learning modules guide students through lessons at their own pace while keeping them subdued and compliant. As our leaders in the White House have told us, students are empowered by “individualized learning and rich, digital content.” While the initial investment was costly, our school was able to reduce the teaching staff by four teachers. What a great lesson in economics for our students.

Despite all of these innovations; despite increased enrollment in advanced placement classes; despite electives like Algebra II and Earth Science; despite replacing our library with a computer lab; despite the timed readings, standardized lesson plans, and healthier lunches, our students are still ranked below Russia. We are failing them. I am failing them.

I have a plan though. Yes, it is a little selfish. As you requested, in the coming years, my pay will be tied directly to my students’ achievement. Since we measure this achievement through standardized testing, my goal will be to spend every minute of every class teaching to the test. Some lessons, of course, will be on the proper use of a #2 pencil for efficient circle darkening. With a nationalized curriculum, so much of the guesswork will be taken out. It won’t be the most exciting or “fun” class for my students, but what they fail to understand is that education is all about job security and competing in a global marketplace. Why else would we send our kids to school?

This is a standardized, multiple-choice world. I know that now.

Michael Mau

This post originally appeared at McSweeney’s.

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