Mike McDermott is the principal at Scarsdale Middle School. I had the pleasure of working with him when he was an Assistant Principal at Scarsdale HS, where I taught social studies for 18 years. Presently, he is on the front lines of the movement of NYS principals trying to get President Obama, Secretary Duncan, Governor Cuomo and the NYS Bd of Regents to see the errors of their ways.
Here are the letters he sent to the President on November 15, 2010 and January 30, 2012.
November 15, 2010
Dear Mr. President:
When you were elected president I was elated. As an educator I was hopeful that we could at last leave NCLB behind. Unfortunately I have reached the point of disillusionment as your education policies have unfolded under Arne Duncan. I am now haunted by the lyrics of The Who: “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.” Actually, it’s gone from bad to worse–something I could never have envisioned.
While well-intentioned, the Race to the Top, at least as it is playing out in New York State, is now looming as a long downhill slide into regressive practices and policies. When our District sent out the State assessment results to parents, with cutoff scores raised unexpectedly by the State Education Department, we unnecessarily raised the anxiety level of parents as they saw their child’s scores go from “Proficient” one year to “Meets Basic Standards” the next. As I’ve described it to parents, it’s like having students successfully do the high jump or pole vault and then turn around and say, “Sorry, we raised the bar. You really didn’t clear it.”
I look back with nostalgic pride to the Scarsdale parent boycott of State assessments in 2000. While we were forced into submission at that time by then Commissioner Mills, the result was a courageous commitment by our Board of Education, supported by the Scarsdale community, not to teach to the test and to let our scores fall where they may in the interests of quality education. We continue to follow that philosophy but it will now be much more difficult under the new assessment and evaluation system being fashioned by Commissioner Steiner as part of the Race to the Top. In our view, our standards will be compromised by a system that evaluates principals and teachers as if they were taking a 100 point classroom test. I predict a significant increase in administrator and teacher retirements once the full implications of this policy are played out.
To give you a different perspective on effective education, I invite you to Scarsdale Middle School. Yes, we are an affluent, resource-rich community and school system. But what you will witness is how effectively those local resources are utilized and the engaging curriculum that results from treating teachers like professionals rather than objects of 100 point rating scales. I can show you countless examples of innovative practice, and a unified focus on critical and creative thinking that produces student work of the highest quality. You would hear the passion and commitment of our teachers to their profession and craft.
To illustrate my point, I can tell you about a very small investment in a teacher-initiated visit to Little Rock several years ago to witness the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock High School, the result of which was a visit to Scarsdale by Terrence Roberts, one of the Little Rock Nine. His visit so inspired one of my teachers that she organized her eighth grade students to make a video of the memoir they were reading in class, Warriors Don’t Cry, also by one of the Little Rock Nine, Melba Pattillo Beals.(See “Students Imagine Little Rock, on Film” The New York Times, March 9, 2008). The result of that video was recognition of the school’s work by the Westchester Human Rights Commission, followed by an invitation to the teacher by Facing History and Ourselves to meet with Terrence Roberts as part of a celebration at Newark High School. The teacher was then asked by the Human Rights Commission to work with county government on a disabilities rights campaign. In sum, a significant educational return on a small investment of local funds, not the trickle-down leavings from Federal monies that goes first to politicians and bureaucrats.
Mr. President: If you come to visit us on April 28th you would not find us prepping for the State assessments. Rather you would be a participant in our annual Human Rights Day, a day on which we suspend normal class activities so that all staff and students can be engaged in teaching and learning about human rights issues, whether local, national or international. The power and synergy of the day is palpable.
In a village in South Africa there is a water pump built by Play Pumps International and dedicated to Scarsdale Middle School. It is there because our staff engaged students in discussions about the need for potable water in Africa. They inspired our students to the extent that they raised the money to build the pump that now supplies the village with clean drinking water. This is what education can and should be about and I invite you to come and witness it.
Thank you for your time.
Michael T. McDermott
cc: Hon. Kirsten Gillibrand
Hon. Nita Lowey
Hon. Chuck Schumer
January 30, 2012
Dear President Obama:
I was pleased to hear your remarks in the State of the Union address regarding teachers and education. I couldn’t agree with you more that teacher-bashing needs to stop, as does teaching to the test.
You are also correct that schools need flexibility, especially in high-performing districts like ours, where we can demonstrate on a daily basis the creativity and passion you rightly state should characterize education. Instead, in New York State, we are experiencing just the opposite.
It is very demoralizing to be in education these days. Our state bureaucracy relentlessly blames educators and their unions for allegedly seeking to avoid accountability when all we want is a system that is just and fair. We have a State Education Department full of education neophytes who are using Race To The Top to impose a system of evaluation that is test-driven, unproven, and assumes the worst about teachers and principals.
It has become so dispiriting that twenty-eight percent of principals in New York State (1,280 to date) have signed a petition urging the State to change this new system. They have been supported in that petition by over 5,300 teachers, parents, professors of education, superintendents and citizens at large. As Michael Winerip of The New York Times observed in his November 27, 2011 column, principals never revolt, so this widespread expression of alarm should send a message about the direction in which education is headed. Is it not time (finally) to listen to those of us who have invested our careers in this previously noble and respected profession? Is it not time to pay heed to the professionals who know good teaching and learning?
Being a member of the New York Regents Task Force on Principal and Teacher Evaluations has given me an inside look at how politics has replaced educational goals for those entrusted with the future of our students in this state. It has been a constant battle to keep in the forefront the values of public education that have guided our work up to this point. The attitude and approach of politicians and inexperienced State administrators is driving out the passion and replacing it with cynicism and bitterness. As I have remarked on more than one occasion, it is now understandable that those of us who have been in education a long time would easily confuse APPR with AARP! Rather than continue to be disheartened by the so-called education reforms, many are simply opting to retire, leaving a significant experience gap as they depart.
As in my November 15, 2010 letter to you, I invite you to come to Scarsdale and see for yourself how critical and creative thinking can permeate a district and school’s curriculum. I have enclosed a copy of the Phase II report from researchers at Teachers College, Columbia University, with whom we have been working the past several years as they document Scarsdale’s efforts at infusing critical and creative thinking into the curriculum. Their study branched out this year to include top performing schools in Canada, Australia, Singapore and China. Scarsdale’s effort has been described by Professor Sheridan Blau who heads the Columbia research team as “groundbreaking work” that is “setting an audacious vision” and is “modeling throughout this process the very 21st Century practices it hopes to instill in its students.”
You have the power to shine a spotlight on what is good and right in education, and to have it serve as an inspiration to all teachers and students in our land. It is time someone in Washington took note of this impressive commitment to expand student thinking to a very high level.
It would be our pleasure to show you how your words the other evening already match an educational reality here in Scarsdale, one that could serve as a model of best practice for other school systems. Even a few hours here would leave you feeling uplifted by the work of our students and teachers. It is their work that sustains me during these bleak days of so-called education reform.
Michael T. McDermott
Cc: The Honorable Nita Lowey
Congresswoman, 18th U.S. Congressional District
Mike’s effort needs support. Lets all get behind him and come to DC next weekend.