Paul Karrer: Schools lose with Race to the Top
A letter to my president, the one I voted for.
Your Honorable President Obama:
I mean this with all respect. I'm on my knees here and there's a knife in my back and the prints on it kinda match yours.
You're righting the wrong guys with your Race to the Top program, which provides grant money that "might" go to schools if they comply with unproven, absurd draconian "reforms" such as shuffling teachers around.
You're hitting the good guys with friendly fire.
I teach in a barrio in California. It's a public school. I have 32 kids in my class. I love them to tears. They're fifth-graders. That means they're 10 years old, mostly. Six of them are 11 because they were retained. Five more are in special education and two more should have been.
I stopped using the word parents when I talk with or about my kids because so many of them don't have them.
Amanda's mom died in October. She lives with her 30-year-old brother (a thousand blessings on him). Seven kids live with their grandmothers, six with their dads. A few rotate between parents.
Fifty percent of my 10-year-olds have visited relatives in jail or prison.
Do you and Arnie Duncan understand the significance of that? I'm afraid not. It isn't bad teaching that has taken things to the current stage. It's poverty. We don't teach in failing schools. We teach in failing communities.
It's called the ZIP code quandary. If the kids live in a wealthy ZIP code, they have high test scores. If they live in a ZIP where the people are poor, guess how they do.
We also have massive teacher turnover at my school. Now, we have no money. We haven't had an art teacher or music program in 10 years. We have a nurse twice a week.
And due to No Child Left Behind, we are punished most brutally. Did you know that 100 percent of our students have to be on grade level? That's like saying you have to get along with 100 percent of your cabinet (and unlike my kids, your cabinet gets to quit).
You lived overseas, so you know what conditions are like in the rest of the world. President Obama, I swear that conditions in my school are Third World. We had a test when I taught in the Peace Corps. We had to describe a glass filled to the middle. We were supposed to say it was half full. Too many of my kids don't even have the glass.
And then, of course, there are the gangs. They are eating my kids, their parents and the neighborhood.
One of my former students stuffed an AK47 down his pants at a local bank and was shot dead. Another one of my favorites has been incarcerated since he was 13. He'll be 27 next month. I've been writing to him for 10 years and visiting him in Level 4 maximum security—he's in chains behind bullet-proof glass—in Salinas Valley State Prison.
Do you get that it's tough here? Charter schools and voucher schools aren't the solution. They are an excuse not to fix the real issues. You promised us so much and now you want to give us merit pay based on how the kids do, no matter their circumstances?
You're making it real hard to vote with enthusiasm.
Can you pull the knife out now? It really hurts.
Paul Karrer, who teaches at Castroville Elementary School, writes about education for this page.