A Letter to My Son's Teacher

I had no idea.

If you asked me one month ago for my perception of teachers in the Arizona public school system, I would have scoffed, rolled my eyes, and launched into my usual rhetoric about my son being set up to fail, that teachers are just tired and unmotivated place-holders in a classroom full of deteriorating minds, and that my son would be better off finding a passion and focusing on that because there was no way he was going to learn anything anyway.

I met with you in 3rd grade and blamed you for the chaos and confusion that Common Core had caused in my home. I met with you in 4th grade and became infuriated that my son’s ‘average’ testing was enough for you when average meant so little to me. I met with you in 8th grade and stormed out after you told me there was no money for textbooks and that YouTube was the only suggested resource to help my son with his homework. Frankly, I haven’t met with you since, because why should I?

I sat back during the Red for Ed movement, numb to your cries for better treatment…

Side Note: Arizona was just ranked 51 out of the 50 states + Washington DC in the US for treatment of teachers.

But I had no idea. I was completely ignorant to the challenges you face every day. That inconsistent expectations, lack of support, lack of professional development and a dire sense of hopelessness plagues you every single day. I had no idea that the fact that you have even stuck it out this long sets you apart from almost 70% of other people holding your position.

I had no idea that Arizona has made it almost impossible for you (and our children) to succeed.

How Did We Get Here?

No Child Left Behind (Adequate Yearly Progress)

Intended to address the disparity in the quality of education at low-performing schools, the goal was to get 100% of children to proficiency levels in reading and math within 12 years (by 2014). The mechanism to achieve this goal was a dramatic expansion of standardized testing and tied federal education funding to the administration of state-wide assessments. No Child Left Behind prohibited federally controlled curriculum, leaving it up to the State to determine their own tests and their own state curriculum standards.

“We're gonna spend more money, more resources," Bush said at the time, "but they'll be directed at methods that work. Not feel-good methods. Not sound-good methods. But methods that actually work.” - President George W. Bush, 2001

Did it Work?

According to the Education Progress Meters compiled by the Center for Future of Arizona as of 2018, it would appear it did not. With 44% of Arizona’s children achieving 3rd Grade Reading proficiency levels and 41% attaining 8th Grade Math you could say we didn’t even get close. But that’s not the only issue.

Unintended Consequences

Standardized testing created a landslide of unintended consequences .for our education system. I speak now to the education system in Arizona, where my 14 year old son currently attends public school.

Defining “Standards”

By now, we’ve all heard the statistic about Arizona falling somewhere between 48th-50th in the United States for our education system. We see the statistics above about how we stack up in reading and math, but the question that needs to be asked is “According to what test?” Between 2001 and 2016, Arizona has measured their standards according to AIMS testing, AZMerit Testing, Performance-Based Letter Grades, some with NAEP testing, and even now we’re looking again to change our testing in a move that could potentially cost AZ millions in federal funding.

But funding isn’t the only concern with unstandardized standards. In situations where teachers are forced to “teach to the test,” they are not even sure what standards to be teaching to. This leads to confusion in curriculum, lower test scores, and overall inconsistency in expectations for what teachers are required to accomplish.

The “Other” Subjects

When was the last time your child mentioned their Social Studies class? With so much emphasis put on reading and math, a study done within the Miami-Dade School District - the state that also brought us performance-based letter grades for schools - found that less-effective teachers (in raising test scores) would get shifted to other areas, like early-elementary grades or social studies. *Refer back to Center for Future of Arizona Progress Meters and note 24% statistic on Quality Early Learning.

“Evidence on the importance of early-grades learning for later-life outcomes suggests that a system that pushes schools to concentrate ineffective teachers in the earliest grades could have serious unintended consequences,” write Jason Grissom of Vanderbilt and Demetra Kalogrides and Susanna Loeb of Stanford

Teacher recruitment & retention

Ask any Superintendent or School Administrator how concerned they are about standardized test scores and they’ll tell you the ONLY thing keeping them up at night is the lack of qualified teachers available to guide, teach and mentor their students. Currently, Arizona has over 69% of their teacher positions left vacant or filled by unqualified staff.

Source: Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association

Source: Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association

Assuming that number is probably highly concerning for you, consider that even when a qualified teacher is placed, the chance of them staying given the circumstances of the position are extremely low.

Source: Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association

Source: Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association

Recruitment and retention aren’t just about the numbers. In a recent focus group held in Rural AZ, new teachers vocalized sincere disappointment in the lack of orientation/onboarding and mentorship provided upon certification and new employment. In what other work environment do you get a degree, start a new job, and have zero guidance or training while under such strict requirements to attain unattainable standards? Additionally, teachers who had committed their career to education, long before they were bound to standardized requirements, note that the worst unintended consequence has been in eliminating their ability to truly ‘teach’. Without the freedom to inspire the youth, holding them only to an expectation of achieving a “Standard,” we have tied their hands and yet still hold them accountable for not being the leaders we had tasked them to be.

I realize now that I was blissfully ignorant, but now that I know, I understand the importance of taking action. As the AZ Rural Development Council begins to look into the systemic issues that plague our education system, we’ll be seeking out organizational partners, programs and resources that may begin to make a change. We’ll compile and share information on how each person at every level can get involved to be a part of the solution. We hope you’ll stay tuned and engaged as we continue to better understand these challenges together.

I write this letter as an apology to the teachers of Arizona. As a parent and as a human invested in the prosperity of our state, I have let you down. I wholeheartedly wish I knew the solution, and I’m certain you do as well. But I do know we won’t find it through blame and judgement. I beg you not to give up; to continue to approach each day with the passion with which you began your career. I beg you to look into my son’s eyes like I do, and believe that the work you are doing will forever change his life. Neither one of us may have a textbook for that, but we do what we can with the tools that we’re given.

Thank you for all that you do.



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About the Blogger

Liza Noland is a marketing, branding and community development specialist, cultivating entrepreneurial and economic ecosystems in rural communities across the state of Arizona. As the Director of Rural Programs for the AZ Rural Development Council, Liza acts as a bridge-builder, developing collaborative partnerships and programming to enhance prosperity in #RuralAZ.