President Barack Obama remembers his fifth grade teacher, Ms. Mabel Hefty. In 1971, Barack was a "kid with a funny name in a new school, feeling a little out of place, hoping to fit in like anyone else." He recalls how "Ms. Hefty taught me that I had something to say -- not in spite of my differences, but because of them. She made every single student in that class feel special. And she reinforced that essential value of empathy that my mother and my grandparents had taught me." Barack remembers how Ms. Hefty made every child feel special. He remembers she encouraged empathy with others. He does not remember teachers who stressed skill acquisition. He does not fondly recall teachers that pushed testing. What had the greatest impact him as a human being, something he claims to carry with him as President, is feeling special and a sense of empathy.
But as President, Barack Obama has pushed a completely different education agenda, certainly not one based on his experiences in Ms. Hefty's classroom. Obama's Race to the Top initiative promotes Common Core skills based instruction tied to round after round of high-stakes assessments. No one gets to feel special. No empathy here. Ms. Hefty would be very disappointed in her star pupil.
My memories about teachers are not much different from Barack's. When I was in middle school I joined the school's math team, even though I was not particularly interested in math. The reason was my official teacher, Brenda Berkowitz, was coach of the math team. My mother had died and my father would sometimes rush out to work without leaving lunch money. Ms. Berkowitz always checked that I had lunch and when I didn't she lent me twenty-five cents to buy a salami sandwich at the local deli. I don't remember one lesson she taught in math, but I do remember the salami sandwiches. Ms. Berkowitz was definitely my best teacher ever.
The National Education Association interviewed celebrities about their most memorable teachers and their responses are remarkable similar to mine and Barack's. Patti La Belle, from Philadelphia, talked about Ms. Eileen Brown who "was very helpful to my family and me. She and I became close friends and are good friends." Zoe Saldana remembered Ms. Dilia Mieses Ritmos Espacio de Danza of the Dominican Republic who taught the "importance of perseverance and discipline." Hilary Swank remembered the elementary school teacher who gave her her first acting role in a school production. Oprah Winfrey most memorable teacher was a fourth grade teacher who "believed in me." Oprah "learned to love learning because of Mrs. Duncan." Friendship. Perseverance. Acting. Love of Learning. No Common Core here. No high-stakes testing.
The NEA also interviewed elected officials, some of whom voted for Race to the Top. Former United States Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia thanked "Mrs. W. J. B. Cormany who "taught me to put my best efforts into everything I undertake, a lesson so important that it has remained with me to this day." Senator Dianne Feinstein of California thanked Ms. Virginia Ryder who "took me under her wing, giving me individual attention, and enabled me to go to a good high school." Senator Lisa Murkowski from Alaska thanked Ms. Hattie Buness who "opened the world for me when she taught me to read, to explore, and to question." Congressman Paul Ryan, now Republican Party Speaker of the House of Representatives, thanked Frank Douglas who "taught me more about the world in six months than I had learned in 18 years." Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah thanked "Ms. Eleanor Smith who "inspired me to go on to college at a time when the most that could be expected of me was to continue to work at the trade that I had learned. She told me that one day I would be a great poet." A lot about best efforts, but who would have thought Orrin Hatch loved poetry?
And a special thank you to Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester who just pulled the state out of the Common Core PARCC high-stakes assessment consortium. The PARCC test is collapsing, down from 26 states to five plus Washington DC. Smarter Balance, the other national testing group is down to fifteen states after a high of thirty-one. Some states had belonged to both testing groups.
As a result of the Obama Race to the Top and Common Core initiatives, the average student in some United States big-city schools now takes over 100 hundred hours of mandatory standardized tests during their school career. Eighth-grade students are the most tested. They sit through between 20 and 25 hours of standardized tests, which makes up about 2.3% of school time. And this does not include ordinary teacher-made, school-wide, or district tests.
Under Race to the Top and Common Core students, teachers, schools, districts, and states are evaluated based on the high-stakes standardized tests, transforming schools from places where students like Oprah learn to love learning and Senator Murkowski learned to question into test prep academies. There is no more time for acting and poetry.
You have to wonder if Ms. Hefty would have been willing to be a teacher under these circumstances and what would have happened to that little boy with a "funny name" called Barack Obama.