Regulators or Educators: Who Should Run K-12?

By: Ruth Herman Wells

Dear Governors and Legislators:

Forty years ago, when I was young and beginning my career counseling troubled students, I often worked with gray-haired, veteran educators nearing retirement. Young and optimistic, I’d tell them my ideas for how to fix K-12 education so it worked better for the growing number of students with challenges. The veterans would listen, then some of them would tell me how their efforts to reform K-12 education had failed. They’d tell me that they’re leaving an education system that functioned no better than when they entered.

My hair hasn’t yet turned gray, but I’m no longer young or optimistic. I spent the last decades wandering North America training teachers to use updated methods to more effectively teach contemporary students. As I teach, I sometimes hear myself saying that I too will be leaving an education system that functions no better than when I entered. If I was more honest, I wouldn’t just echo the retiring veterans from 40 years ago. I’d admit that I’ll be leaving an education system that’s far worse than when I entered it a lifetime ago.

Everywhere I teach, educators say that they’re not only weighed down with more students with serious behavioral, social, academic, and emotional problems, but they must constantly grapple with high-stakes student testing at the same time they themselves take elaborate, costly, high-stakes competency tests to keep their jobs.

Most teachers I meet give their hearts and souls to their students, but after staring at them all day while I talk, I have to say that a lot of them seem to be wearing out long before retirement. Although they say it politely, the educators I train confide that they wonder if lawmakers who work in a state capitol know enough about K-12 schools to properly regulate the system as extensively as they do. They wonder how well you can see into classrooms from Albany, or Sacramento, or Washington, D.C.

I wonder too.

From your office, can you see what I saw at the school in Cincinnati, where I was asked what teachers should say to students after another young African-American boy was shot overnight?

From where you sit, did you know that there are schools in Texas that have been refused permission to move high-stakes testing from the morning after the sudden death of a student?

In Portland, I was asked how to handle the middle schooler who wrote on the state-wide essay exam about his triumphant return to school after he’d dropped out due to homelessness. The boy had received a failing grade. Do you know that such incidents are so common they have a name? They’re “cry for help” essays, written by students losing the battle to manage their pain.

From where you work , can you see Phoenix, where high school teachers asked me what they could do to manage groups of defiant male students who refuse to wear shirts?

In Kotzebue, Alaska, I was asked for solutions for young students who have no sober caregivers to look after them.

Have you ever tried to enter fortress-like South Carolina schools, that following shootings, now have search procedures that exceed those at airports?

For those of you who work in government buildings that aren’t school buildings, are you aware that this is daily life for many K-12 teachers?

Here’s a test for you, Mr. and Ms. Legislator, Mr. and Ms. Governor: Unless you knew what really happens in schools as described above, you failed your final exam.

As someone who spent a lifetime training educators to help challenged students succeed socially, emotionally, behaviorally, and academically, I don’t understand how anyone could effectively manage schoolhouses from state houses.

I believe that if you could see what teachers see from the front of the classroom, you’d agree that K-12 should not revolve around high-stakes testing. If you could see what educators see, you’d know that K-12 should be focused on evolving to better serve the many troubled, challenged and violent students who come through the classroom door each morning.

“There is no more important test of a nation’s place in history than the condition of its children.” I don’t know if he had high-stakes testing in mind when he spoke, but please consider newscaster Tom Brokaw’s words as a plea to reconsider current regulations.

As you work in your government buildings, if you could hear the words being said in school buildings, you’d hear teachers saying: “Legislators and Governors, give K-12 control back to educators.”