As K-12 education in America has tumbled in global rankings, states have responded: more focus on math and science, more teacher accountability, more testing, and more standardized lesson plans. But one history teacher’s resignation letter, posted two weeks ago on Facebook, reads like a last cry from the old guard. The new system, retiring teacher Gerald Conti writes, “seeks only conformity” and “zombie-like adherence.” The profession of teaching, Conti says, “no longer exists.”
In his letter, which has already been shared more than 1,000 times on Facebook (a printout of it is pictured at right), Conti describes the passion that kept him in teaching for 40 years, 27 of them at Westhill High School in Syracuse, N.Y. He describes his approach of “teaching heavy,” based on immersion, intensive research and obsessive attention to detail. He mentions the two signs that hang in his classroom, reading “Words Matter” and “Ideas Matter.” “I have truly attempted to live John Dewey’s famous quotation,” Conti writes, “… that ‘Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.'”
Conti, who is the chair of the school’s social studies department, then details the changes that have occurred at Westhill in recent years that he claims have made this mission impossible. He calls out the school board for “selling children out to private industries such as Pearson Education,” a reference to the company that signed a lucrative contract with the New York Department of Education to design tests for its students, and then came under fire last year when its tests were riddled with errors.
He rues the rise of “draconian” testing systems, the micro-management of teachers, the standardization of curricula, and the over-emphasis on STEM courses — science, technology, engineering and math. “Creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation and innovation,” Conti writes, “are being stifled in a misguided effort to fix what is not broken in our system of public education and particularly not at Westhill.”
New York requires teachers to work 30 years in the state to be eligible for full retirement benefits, but Conti is leaving three years before that time because “to me, it’s not worth it,” he told AOL Jobs.
“It’s the regimentation… [teaching has become] a matter of bookkeeping more than anything else,” he said. “It takes time away from independent work… It takes time away from the students.”
“My greatest worry is that children will graduate without curiosity,” he continued. “… My concern is that we’re not going to have literature in English class. I worry that we’re going to have this gray, stark world.”
The principal of Westhill High School declined a request for comment.
Lament Strikes A Chord
Dozens of colleagues, parents, and former students have commented on the Facebook post of Conti’s letter, thanking him for his decades of service and inspiration, and expressing sadness that so many students will never experience his classroom.
As America has fallen in global educational rankings (to 17th in a recent assessment), schools increasingly have relied on testing and measurable goals. The recent recession renewed criticism that American education doesn’t hold teachers to account or properly prepare students for the job market, and in the past few years, cities and states across the country have devised ways to evaluate teachers based on the test scores of their students. In his State of the Union speech in February, President Obama emphasized the need to “better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy,” and develop more STEM classes.
But these ambitious initiatives leave one question unanswered: is there a place in this new world for a teacher like Mr. Conti?