Down with “Conformity, Standardization, Testing and a Zombie-Like Adherence to the Shallow and Generic Common Core, Along with a Lockstep of Oversimplified So-Called Essential Learnings”

Criticism can be an important force for good. In early 2013, Gerald “Jerry” Conti, a teacher in the Westhill School District in New York, wrote a letter stating that he would retire at the beginning of the new school year. He has two more years to go in order to get the full retirement benefits for 30 years of service, but he is unhappy with much of what is going on the education profession in the United States. In his resignation letter, he wrote, “With regard to my profession, I have truly attempted to live John Dewey’s famous quotation (now likely cliché with me, I’ve used it so very often) that ‘Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.’ This type of total immersion is what I have always referred to as teaching ‘heavy,’ working hard, spending time, researching, attending to details and never feeling satisfied that I knew enough on any topic. I now find that this approach to my profession is not only devalued, but denigrated and perhaps, in some quarters despised. STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] rules the day and ‘data driven’ education seeks only conformity, standardization, testing and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core, along with a lockstep of oversimplified so-called Essential Learnings. Creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation and innovation are being stifled in a misguided effort to fix what is not broken in our system of public education and particularly not at Westhill.” He added, “A long train of failures has brought us to this unfortunate pass. In their pursuit of Federal tax dollars, our legislators have failed us by selling children out to private industries such as Pearson Education. The New York State United Teachers union has let down its membership by failing to mount a much more effective and vigorous campaign against this same costly and dangerous debacle. Finally, it is with sad reluctance that I say our own administration has been both uncommunicative and unresponsive to the concerns and needs of our staff and students by establishing testing and evaluation systems that are Byzantine at best and at worst, draconian. This situation has been exacerbated by other actions of the administration, in either refusing to call open forum meetings to discuss these pressing issues, or by so constraining the time limits of such meetings that little more than a conveying of information could take place. This lack of leadership at every level has only served to produce confusion, a loss of confidence and a dramatic and rapid decaying of morale. The repercussions of these ill-conceived policies will be telling and shall resound to the detriment of education for years to come.” In an interview with the Post-Standard of Syracuse, New York, Mr. Conti said, “This whole thing is being driven by people who know nothing about education.” However, much of his criticism is directed at education below the university level. He said that he supports the “university model” of teaching: “You hire the best people for the job and let them do the job.” He added, “I can’t teach any more. I spend too much time bean counting.” In the conclusion of his letter, Mr. Conti wrote, “For the last decade or so, I have had two signs hanging above the blackboard at the front of my classroom, they read, ‘Words Matter’ and ‘Ideas Matter.’ While I still believe these simple statements to be true, I don’t feel that those currently driving public education have any inkling of what they mean.” Mr. Conti put his retirement letter on his Facebook page, and the letter went viral. Many people posted comments about the letter. Sally Dee posted on Mr. Conti’s Facebook page, “MR. CONTI! Thank you for having the guts to speak your mind, and teaching me how to find mine.” Ethan Kocak wrote that “to teach history in such a way that it was both engaging and interesting (and I think also his habit of creating a sort of narrative) takes special skill — skill that evidently isn’t appreciated or even considered acceptable by the unimaginative vogons [Vogons are an unpleasant alien species that appear in Douglas Adams’ satiric book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy] in charge of administering our education. Mr. Conti, you actually helped me realize there was more to American history than [BS] about pilgrims.”

For Further Information: Charley Hannagan, “Goodbye, Mr. Conti: a Westhill High teacher’s retirement letter hits home with students, parents.” The Post-Standard (Syracuse, New York). 2 April 2013; updated 3 April 2013

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