Worried about the State of Public Education? This Letter is a Must Read!

EDUCATION WATCH-What is most personal is most universal. These words from Carl Rogers came to mind when I read this letter from the parents of Los Angeles public school students in response to an annual survey. The letter serves to be a report on the state of public education. It is posted here with their permission and with identifying names partially redacted.


November 15, 2017 

Dear Superintendent King and LAUSD Board Members, 

As parents at R____ Elementary, we are writing in response to your student experience survey. We feel that if you really wanted to hear our opinions, you would have given us space -- at the very least in a comments section -- to express them. Giving your intentions the benefit of the doubt, however, we are creating that space with this letter. 

The format of this survey epitomizes the aspect of LAUSD education that we are LEAST satisfied with: an apparent obsession with numerical, rather than qualitative, data. Willingness to sacrifice expression and genuine engagement in the name of standardization and check-box “accountability.” In short: standards = standardization = standardized “tests” = LAUSD/Ed Department hears only what it wants to hear (positive or negative, depending on the hearer’s love of charter schools). 

The tone of the survey is set from the beginning: “Today you will be completing a survey…” This is not an invitation, or even a request. Indeed, it is as if we are sitting in a test environment; we have been assigned a compulsory task. The only thing helpful about this instruction is that it gives us greater insight into the way our children will be treated when their “opinions” are sought or their “learning” evaluated by LAUSD. Not only do we do not like it, we feel it is actively destructive. 

We are generally very happy with R___ Elementary, particularly with the quality of teachers, the principal, and staff. We particularly love the enthusiasm that Principal W____ brings to her work, the love that she, her staff and teachers express for the students, and the openness to parent involvement. Were we to fill out the bubbles on the extremely limiting set of questions you provided, most of our responses would be highly positive. 

But what if they weren’t? If we are not satisfied with the overemphasis on “college and career readiness” for FIRST GRADERS, or the fact that “tests” are given in multiple choice, standardized-test-prep form to FIRST GRADERS, where would we register that opinion? Should we answer “Rarely” to “This school provides high quality instruction to my child?” With no opportunity to elaborate, what do you, as Board members, learn from this? 

Nothing. Thus, we suspect that this survey is an exercise in increasing teacher/principal anxiety and thus “standardization,” rather than a genuine inquiry. 

But again, because you (kind of) asked for our opinions: We want our children to be educated in an environment of love, curiosity, kindness, and safety. We want them to learn to read and figure because these are part of understanding and being understood by others, the bedrock of responsible, democratic citizenship -- NOT just skills for a future workforce. R___ does a great job creating this environment within the limits it has been given. 

We are less satisfied with the range and quality of the course offerings and facilities. Specifically, how is it possible that there is no dedicated art teacher or music teacher, no visual arts facility, not even a part-time arts integration specialist, at a VISUAL ARTS AND PERFORMING ARTS MAGNET PROGRAM? Our children have attended regular public schools in two other states, one rich and one poor, but BOTH of these had better arts facilities (not to mention P.E. facilities and Spanish language instruction) than R___’s. And we understand that at $17/student per year, R____ has MORE arts funding and programming than other schools!?! All LAUSD students deserve better. 

The arts are not extra: they are fundamental. Fun, free play, and physical exercise (all of which the creative arts encourage) are fundamental. We are not making this up: There is ample research that demonstrates the correlation between art engagement and “academic” achievement. The arts emphasis at R___ was instituted by the prior principal because she understood that it increases students’ intellectual and creative engagement with all aspects of the elementary curriculum. The arts (including ample physical movement) increase the ability to focus, to problem solve, to think critically and creatively, to feel empathy, respect, and collective responsibility. Students do BETTER on standardized tests for what that’s worth. It also makes kids love learning and coming to school!  

Could there be a more important basis for future learning and innovation than this? 

While our children do not complain about going to school, other than it is “just worksheets” (we know it’s not) and there is no running allowed on the playground (?!?), they are manifesting stress reactions. In conference our teacher admitted “School is stressful.” But WHY IN THE WORLD SHOULD THIS BE? Is there worry that if kids do not FEEL that they are “working” (or if their work does not register as labor to adults), that they won’t actually be learning? Could this be the reason that “rigor” and “college and career readiness” are the slogans of the day, rather than “preparing the citizens and innovators of tomorrow?” 

The Webster’s definition of “rigor” gives a clue: 

1. a (1): harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment: severity

       (2): the quality of being unyielding or inflexible: strictness

       (3): severity of life: austerity

1. b: an act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty

2. a tremor caused by a chill

3. a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable; especially, extremity of cold

4. strict precision, exactness

5. a: obsolete: rigiditystiffness

    b: rigidness or torpor of organs or tissue that prevents response to stimuli

    c: rigor mortis 

In whose interests is this “rigor” being enforced? Not our children’s. Perhaps Microsoft’s? The titans of industry or finance? There is no pedagogical basis for inflexibility, discomfort, severity, austerity, or even strict precision for its own sake. Our teachers are hamstrung by its demands, especially by the standardized forms in which it must now be expressed. In the interests of rigor, vigor (active strength of mind and body) is suppressed. 

LAUSD’s (and the Education Department’s) approach here is short-sighted, and it is back-firing. Our first-grader has already told us on several occasions that they will NOT go to college. Why? Because that would mean more school, and why would you sign up for that if you didn’t have to? We hope they will change their mind, but LAUSD is not helping. Displacing the economic anxieties of adults onto children is not productive. It encourages anxiety and conformity, not the creativity and innovation we need for future cultural and civic (and, yes, economic) health. 

We are passionate believers in truly public (not “non-profit,” for-profit or private-public) education as the basis for democratic citizenship and building our children’s capacity for empathy, engagement, and innovation. We believe every child has the right to a safe, exciting environment that nurtures creativity, in-depth inquiry, and, most important, the desire to learn more and more. 

We believe that experienced teachers are professionals, and that their professional expertise should be honored and nurtured, not “standard-ized.” We believe, as do all the many teachers we’ve talked to, that “standards” should be based on child-development research, not on industry or adult-anxiety-based ideas of “rigor.” We believe magnet programs should be based on genuinely different pedagogical approaches, because one size does not fit all, but that ALL children deserve creative, well-rounded, vigorous education. Magnet programs should be incubators for best practice, which should be transferred to all public schools. 

In our experience, R____ Elementary is doing the best that they can to pursue this, under some mighty constraints of funding and -- even more distressing -- administrative demands for standardized “accountability.” We support the principal, staff, teachers, and students there with our full hearts.


(Karen Wolfe is a public school parent, the Executive Director of PS Connect and an occasional contributor to CityWatch.)  Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.