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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Teachers Are Afraid To Speak Out

When I began researching education, the first people I went to for information were the teachers. They’re on the “front lines” of education; who better to enlighten me than the people working in the classrooms?

I discovered that many teachers are afraid to speak frankly to parents. They’re afraid of being disciplined, or even fired for “insubordination.” The ones who spoke with me tended to speak carefully, watching their words – almost as if the walls had ears or as if people were lurking around the corner.

Some teachers agreed to talk with me if we met outside of the classroom. Several told me they’d already been disciplined for talking with parents. One teacher talked with his lawyer before he talked with me. Almost all of them spoke on the condition of absolute anonymity. Three teachers began to talk with me, then decided the risks were too great to continue. Some agreed to give me the gist of their concerns, but they wouldn’t let me take notes or tape the conversation. Some teachers expressed sympathy for my project yet refused to talk about their experiences. A frequent explanation: “I just have a few more years to go to retirement. I can’t afford to get into trouble.”

This is a common theme elsewhere in the state and the country. Bob Dean, chair of the math department for Evergreen High School in Vancouver, WA, told me he’s familiar with the fears.

“When I discovered how reform mathematics was cheating our kids out of a proper education, I instantly became involved in trying to change that fact. I know that many teachers are afraid to speak out. …. I have seen gag orders put on teachers and intimidation used to silence them. Anyone who dares to challenge the latest educational fad is labeled reluctant, out of touch, and a non-team player.”

A Spokane high-school teacher told me he’d been disciplined – including verbal reprimands and a letter in his file – for telling parents he thought the district’s reform mathematics curricula wouldn’t adequately prepare students for college-level mathematics. He said he doesn’t believe administrators want his professional assessment of the system:

“Perhaps the most discouraging observation of the past eight years is that there is no longer a professional discussion of these and other problems regarding high stakes testing and related curriculum issues. Teachers of an ‘old school’ philosophy who are critical of the so called ‘fuzzy math’ and discovery based learning – both of which are used in support of the WASL – are vilified, ostracized and sometimes subject to disciplinary action. Techniques that work, like direct instruction and drill and practice of basic skills, are ridiculed and those that use them are seen as incompetent and ineffective teachers. … Collaboration has become coercion.”

But talking with parents about their child’s academic situation is part of a teacher’s job. When teachers don’t do it freely and forthrightly, children have lost an important ally, and parents have lost an essential element of public Accountability.

In February 2008, I interviewed Spokane Superintendent Nancy Stowell. I told her some teachers are worried they’ll receive bad evaluations or be fired for speaking frankly with parents. I added that some teachers believe they’ve been “disciplined” for activity they thought was warranted but that administrators saw as oppositional. This was her response:

“Well, no, it doesn’t surprise me that there are some people who would say that. Certainly, you know, (there is) a wide variety of teachers out there. Some of them very, very successful, and some less successful. And so, you know, people have issues along that continuum. And it’s really the responsibility of principals to work with staff that do have issues along that continuum.

“So if a teacher had an issue about either the math curriculum, or what he or she was teaching, or grade level, or any of that, I can understand that a principal would expect that it would be something the teacher and the principal would talk about rather than the teacher kind of going out there. Because it’s the principal who really knows the teacher, and how good the teacher is, and we all want, you know, excellent teachers.”

Dr. Stowell went on to say that “change is difficult,” and some teachers will embrace new ideas while others will be “more resistant.” Sometimes, she said, the problem can be that teachers “are just not wanting to change.” She said if they have good ideas, however, those ideas should be “shared.” She acknowledged that the district could “do a better job” of developing “feedback loops” as a way for teachers to communicate with coordinators.

To me, it sounds as though Dr. Stowell might be saying that teachers who intend to give parents their honest professional assessment of their child’s academic situation – including comments that could indicate weaknesses in the curricula, school policy or administration – might actually:
  • have other issues,
  • not be "successful" teachers anyway, or
  • just be resistant to change.

Parents, please be aware that – although teachers generally do their best every day in the classroom – many have concerns about being absolutely frank with parents.

Caveat emptor.

The best way to know how things are is to look at what your children know versus what they should know at their age. Have them professionally tested and assessed by people outside of the district. Speak with people who know which skills are required for the future your children envision for themselves. Take steps to fill in the gaps.

Don’t wait until your children are in Grade 12 or applying for college. The longer you wait, the harder it will be. At some point - sooner than you think - it will be too late.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is: Rogers, L. (October, 2008). "Teachers are afraid to speak out." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was also posted November 5, 2008, on at


jimvining said...

Certainly there is a perception by teachers that one should not speak out - but the examples you gave were more in line with insubordination. Teachers should speak out with fellow teachers and administrators - to speak out against the system only with parents is not performing to job standards in any business, much less education.

Anonymous said...

Your state doesn't protect public employees. People lose their jobs for speaking out and your corrupt system doesn't provide justice. Washington deserves to be rolled back into the stone age. Last year alone Washington's drop in enrollment was 54,000 students. School officials are living in a vacuum. Schools should be painted white to reflect their racist policies.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Vining, ordinarily I would agree with you, but these are desperate times, calling for desperate measures. The fact that I am even blogging shows you how low our system has fallen.

To some degree I am achieving success because my adversaries used to enjoy gloating on other forums. I might only be an irritant, but I have exposed a number of individuals for outright bigotry.

Mike Bravo

The Dean said...

Since when is giving a professional opinion about curriculum insubordination? I doubt that any court would uphold that notion. If a teacher is not doing their utmost to use the required curriculum etc that is one thing. However, teachers can't be stopped from expressing their opinion. Of course administrators have ways of making things uncomfortable for teachers.... but that is a two way street.

Sudhakar said...

The fact that ordinary parents have to take matters into their own hands shows how low the public education system has fallen when it comes to serving the taxpayers. I have home schooled my kids at various times during their schooling, for the same reason. Fortunately for me, I can spot a bad math curriculum when I see it. Most parents are bamboozled by eduspeak, and are afraid of retributions against their kids for speaking up. After going through the same charade in three western states, I have learned that I am on my own if I want to guarantee world class education for my kids, and have started a blog of my own. As a taxpayer, the least I expect is for teachers to be honest with me, if in their professional opinion, my child is not getting a world class education. If this is considered insubordination, then I think the system is too far out of touch with their customers, and citizens should be demanding a different system of education from their government.

Anonymous said...

Teachers who might wish to move to another position at some timne have to be VERY careful not to anger their administrators. I have first-hand seen black-balling because friends have let me know that I did not get an interview because an administrator who wanted reform math said I "was not a team player" for professionally being of the opinion that the results gained were far less than with the previous curriculum. Teachers wishing to stay at the same school have to be careful, or they will be shut off from higher level classes. That has also happened to me for being outspoken about how the direction of math in our state is currently downhill in many places.

Anonymous said...

I must offer a connection between the present political season's antics with these teachers' fears. Schools are run totally by Progressives who do NOT accept any dissension from or criticism about their world views. They have no compunction about destroying a person's reputation or professional standing if that person does not remain "within the circle." One of many purposes of teacher unions is to protect them not only from administration but from the results of their own educational training and Progressive philosophies. "Group think" is expected and demanded in public education--all the while making demands for unique treatment for individual students. No wonder our kids are confused with such adult modeling. So the problem becomes, "How do we stop this unproductive behavior, for all our sakes but especially for the children?" Or, is public education to suffer a slow death with devastating effects on our society?

Anonymous said...

My daughter's second grade teacher spoke to me openly and critically about the WASL and about the state of education. She was an incredible teacher. By the time my son had her three years later, she told me it was a good test and he would have "fun" taking it. This about a child who loathed writing and didn't get over his extreme math anxiety until I had homeschooled him for two years.

Anonymous said...

Your comment about Progressives is close to the mark. But I'm analyzing two reform movements -the standards movement (Bush) is more recent than the charter movement(Clinton and Obama). Neither of these movements have succeeded in raising student achievement.

One way to differentiate between the two, was that the charters movement was a grassroots campaign (initially) and the standards movement has always been top-down - supported by grants.

Washington is still out of compliance with NCLB directives, yet they get funded. Without funding they'd be in worse shape. The alternatives for high school dropout failure in Washington is ghastly compared to even an overcrowded school system, like California. I'm sitting in a 40+ class with teenage Hispanics that are learning how to use fractions. Some do not speak English. We have to keep these kids in school, I don't see how they could manage otherwise as adults. But the fact is they continue coming and their must be a reason for why they do. Our district may not meet the expectations of the standards movement, but we are doing a service to the community by teaching all the kids.

Also, rather than focus on curriculum or improving alternative academic tracks, administrators have resorted to news media coverage to make school appear better than they are in reality. Here are some examples of media misuse.

1. Using a war paradigm to describe math pedagogy.

2. Reporting numbers and scores with percentages.

3. Misdirection and misabeling to to intentionally confuse the public and teachers.

Anonymous said...

Well this is how it is in MOST communist countries... you are censored and excoriated for your views and even run out of your job if necessary for not following the party line.

Been there, done that! 35 years.

Anonymous said...

Please join our Yahoo Group dedicated to the problem of the educational system being used for political purposes and not for 'education'.

concerned said...


Thank you for bringing up this subject. As a teacher myself, I think that sometimes teachers may be afraid of offering their professional opinions. More often than not, though, I think it's a matter of feeling almost hopeless about being able to have an impact on the current situation.

Teachers, parents, students and citizens in general should feel free to voice their concerns about education to their elected officials, both at the local level and at the state level.

Thanks again for the post! I look forward to hearing much more from you in the future!

Anonymous said...

Teachers have been frightened to speak out for a long time. Nancy Stole was one of the biggest offenders during the time she was principal. Teachers who spoke out were harrassed by her, and were threatened with insubordination. Her main interest was climbing the ladder

Anonymous said...

My last 10 years in education were exactly what I'd imagined in a Cuban or Soviet gulag or 're-education' camp. Many of us were driven out after being harassed, trashed, intimidated and marked as bad teachers when we were working 12 hours per day to get around this constructivist political nonsense.

It's a real scandal and yet, where is the press?

Anonymous said...

I told my principal that I wouldn't send my child to our high school because of the watered-down curriculum and that we were in need of a change, and two days later I received my letter of non-renewal. As a first year teacher, it has been a shock to see what is happening in our public schools.

Anonymous said...

how many spouses like myself are sick and tired of their spouse coming home only to WORK,it must be done tonight ,it cannot wait,too many in a classroom,too little time to teach too much admin,very little time to teach,one hears of a teacher who committed suicide after an offsted report told her,inadequate,after being a good teacher for many years,my spouse received an award for her teaching only to be told by offsted INADEQUATE,another teacher the best in the school told,yes you have guessed it ,INADEQUATE by offsted,my spouse puts in so much overtime UNPAID at home ,to no avail ,we must work harder said the Head Teacher,how far are these poor teachers being Pushed,even young teachers are crying ,they cannot cope with the work load ,RESULTS are Important ,not the pupil,Teachers are and have been PUSHED over the edge for What? In Europe they are much better yes, They look at how we make so many mistakes and learn from them so they do not do the same.My poor spouse may as well Move into the school .It is SLAVE labour ,and many teachers now want out?I wonder why.This country and it's running of,has a lot to answer for in all areas ,also for goodness lets have Dicipline in schools ,not the pupil rules, OH lets give them detention that will cure the problem,my spouse suffers much abuse from pupils and yes parents who cannot ccontrol their own children ,mainly because they themselves were brought up with No discipline.Wake Up ENGLAND,it is too late for all this nonsense ,bring back England as it was ,not the Laughing stock of the world.Give teachers the respect they deserve and Let them TEACH. yours most Frustrated, B.B.E

Yours MOST annoyed

Anonymous said...

Read Diane Ravitch's blog if you want to understand who and what is behind education "reform." A brief summary: Wall St is calling education the new gold rush, and a group of billionaires are placing their acolytes in public school administrative positions all over the country for the purpose of turning them over to private contractors subsidized by taxpayers. They are trained at the Broad Academy. Gates, Broad, Bloomberg, the Walton family (Walmart), and Pearson publishing are driving most of the changes.

They predict that if test scores fall parents will choose the charter option, and they expect test scores to drop once they implement Common Core. It's no accident that they are teaching useless math designed to confuse and frustrate children. I doubt their own children are wasting time with the lattice method.

Anonymous said...

I always imagine what I would do if I were a doctor and a patient came to me and told me he or she was not feeling well. I would probably do some diagnostic tests. If I discovered that my patient had diabetes I would 1) tell them and 2) suggest a treatment.

If I as a teacher notice that a student can't do something I cannot say anything because it would be bad for the child's self esteem. AND unless the treatment is fun, I cannot suggest it.

Imagine for a moment if your doctor always told you you were perfect in every way and when you asked, well aren't I a bit overweight, he or she replied that you were not to worry since it was true that you really could eat anything you desired and still lose weight. After all there are many books in the bookstore that say it's true.

When doctors did this, they were called charlatans. As teachers, we can't fix the problem if it doesn't exist.....