Our Letters to Obama: the 338 Word Challenge

Last week, President Obama reminded us all why his election gave many of us so much hope. In 338 words he spoke of how he wanted his daughters, Sasha and Malia, to have their learning tested. He described a low-stakes, low pressure environment, with the results used not to punish them, their teachers or their school, but simply to find out what their strengths are, and where they might need extra support. He spoke of the need to avoid teaching to the test, and the value of engaging projects that would make students excited about learning. President Obama has made sure his daughters can learn this way. If only Department of Education policies would allow students in our public schools this same privilege!

President Obama needs to understand
. Those of us who care deeply about our children and public schools cannot support his candidacy if he does not fix his education policies so they align with what he said on March 28th.

We have created a petition asking President Obama to support the Guiding Principles of the Save Our School March and National Call to Action, which are aligned with his. Please sign it here.

And we want to help him and Secretary Duncan understand how their policies must change.

If you are a student, in 338 words or less, please describe how you want to learn and have your learning tested.

If you are a parent,
in 338 words or less, describe how you would want your children to learn and have their learning tested.

If you are teacher,
in 338 words or less, say how you think your students will learn best, and how we should measure their learning.

If you are a citizen, in 338 words or less, say how you think our schools ought to be helping students to learn, and measuring learning.

Please send your finished letters to us here. We will gather these messages over the next few weeks, and on May 1, we will send them to President Obama and Secretary Duncan. We will also make the collection available for download so that everyone can understand why we need dramatic change for our schools.

President Obama, we want for America’s children what you want for yours.

0 thoughts on “Our Letters to Obama: the 338 Word Challenge

  1. Susan Davis

    Dear Mr. President, last week, you reminded us all why your election gave many of us so much hope. You spoke of how you wanted your daughters, Sasha and Malia, to have their learning tested. You described a low-stakes, low pressure environment, with the results used not to punish them, their teachers or their school, but simply to find out what their strengths are, and where they might need extra support. You spoke of the need to avoid teaching to the test, and the value of engaging projects that would make students excited about learning. Your daughters ARE in that kind of situation in a private school. If only Department of Education policies would allow students in our public schools this same privilege!

  2. Beverly Wixon

    Dear President Obama:

    My ninth grade students do not learn in any one way. They learn and display their new knowledge is myriad methods. Some learn best through old-fashioned lecture. Some learn best in collaborative pairs. Some learn best through drill and practice. Some learn best through repeated exposure to material in a variety of ways.

    Additionally, students do not display what they have learned in one way. Some are fantastic test-takers. Some create fabulous projects and presentations. Some teach other students. Some quietly show their progress by contributing to class discussions.

    Sadly, Mr. President, the only method outsiders see data on is the state standardized assessment. You do not see the slow change in a student who begins to believe in himself and begins to participate in class. You do not see the student pulling his hair out as he stresses over the state assessment, even though he recently created an online project that properly included and identified all the elements of literature. You do not see the student who speaks NO English yet is forced to take a test completely in English.

    Please, Mr. President, let us end high stakes testing. Students do not mind taking an annual standardized test, but they do not want or need or learn from taking 8 reading tests a year, 8 math tests a year, 6 writing tests a year. Testing does NOT equal learning.

    Teachers read research. They deal with the policy changes of governments. And, because they see their students every day, they know best how students learn. Why not allow them to do what they know?

    Thank you so much for listening, Mr. President. Please consider the children, and let teachers teach instead of test.


    Dr. Beverly A. Wixon

  3. Evelyn Begley

    Dear Mr President,

    I am very upset that my grandchildrens school has no Art or Pe.Now
    to hear that they might loose Music also i am at a total loss. I
    thought that our children are suppose to have the best education.

    People that come to the uNited States seem to be getting so
    much more than our own people who have been born here
    in the United States. I am at a total loss and i am starting
    not to believe in the government. Also the children who
    have no medical and get medical thru the state dont
    get the full benefits like those people who come
    to the United States. Please help out
    children to have the best education that they should
    have please make sure that we dont loss any more
    educational programs.

    Some children can not take tests and need to do the testing
    on a one on one basis. also some children need to be tested
    for different problems. Please save our special educational
    programs, art and music. Give back to the schools what
    it should have Thankyou Sincerely a single mother who is helping
    raise her grandchildren Evelyn

  4. Clare Kirchman

    Dear Mr. President,
    My child came home the other day complaining because he was asked to spend time practicing “bubbling in” during his class in preparation for our state high stake standardized test called FCAT. His school has worked diligently for the last month in prep for this test. No one has had PE for a month. No one has had social studies, science or art. No one has had music. The reason? The school needs everyone to do well so they can stay open another year. They are also paying all the children for score increases. My child will get $25 for each level increase on the test.

    Practice isn’t limited to this past month. The whole year is spent in FCAT prep. It just isn’t as intense as the weeks leading up to FCAT. Now I hear the state has passed a new law saying that teachers will be evaluated based on how my kid does in their class. So, the pressure isn’t high enough this year to perform? Next year they’ll have to promise trips to the new Harry Potter theme park in Orlando to get higher scores I guess.

    Why is this a problem if the test is based on things the kids should know? Because it excludes everything else. It excludes art, music, social studies, foreign language, critical thinking, creative thinking, creative writing, PE, etc. My child only learns what is on the test for much of the year. What will be the outcome? A generation of kids who meet the minimal standards of FCAT and no more.

    I hope you will consider talking with Arne Duncan about RTTT. This is what it gets you. I don’t think you would want this as a parent. Please reconsider your support of high stakes testing. It is an education killer. Thanks, Clare Kirchman

    • Dee Camp-White


      I too referenced the FCAT in my response to President Obama, which I posted below. My frustration is equal to yours. Now our Florida legislature is just days away from approving Governor Rick Scott’s $1 billion cuts to the education budget.

      Florida’s concerned citizens need to contact our representatives NOW, and stay involved in the process of restoring the education of our youngest citizens and Priority #1 in our state.

      Thanks for your post. I stand with you.

      Dee Camp-White
      Dream Lake Elementary School
      Apopka, Florida

  5. Mike Archer

    Dear President Obama,

    The misuse of standardized testing dumbs down high-school curriculum and impedes college readiness. High Schools are becoming test-prep centers. Valuable electives are falling away, replaced by test-prep courses. Vocational training for the career-minded student has been weakened. Sacred classroom time is under attack as required testing takes up more and more of the students’ time at school.

    The misuse of standardized testing also creates a fake system of accountability. Your own DOE studies show random error rates of 26 to 33 percent using this method to evaluate teaching. My state, Florida, ignores this reality thanks in part to your RT3 policy.

    The primary indicator of test scores is income. Teachers cannot create jobs, but you can.

    Many teachers feel betrayed by what they perceive as your sellout to the testing industry. Given the circumstances, it’s very hard to argue with them.

    I am an NBCT who walked for you and talked for you last election. But I would not expect much support from teachers unless you straighten out the misuse of testing. It is pernicious, dishonest, and destructive to students and schools.

    Your focus should be on teacher training. I don’t mean con-artist consultants, but real academic training at accredited colleges and universities. Provide tuition credits. Push teachers to grow their knowledge and skills in a legitimate academic setting.

    • Dee Camp-White


      I too am a teacher in Florida. What is happening to our profession and our students as a result of recent actions by the Florida legislature is unfathomable to me. Parents and teachers need to join forces to stop the madness, before we are again at the bottom in all measures of educational quality.

      I hear you. I hope our President and Governor Scott do as well.

      Dee Camp-White
      Dream Lake Elementary
      Apopka, Florida

  6. Claudia Swisher

    How do my students learn best? Depends on the student. C giggles over Don Quixote, getting all the jokes. B, a ninth grader, still reverses his ‘b’ and his ‘d’ on his Logs. K can’t sit still for 45 minutes, and he’s a senior. S looks deep beneath the surface of the characters in his books. N loves finishing books to find more. D reads David Sedaris and Stephen King. T just found Piece of Cake and is inspired to find success in her life. H knows he reads slower than his classmates, but he reads every day.

    These students, ninth through twelfth, have one thing in common. They’re all in my class, Reading for Pleasure. Some are gifted readers and writers, some still struggle; some excel. But for one hour a day we all read together and we all write together.
    This is authentic assessment. Every day we read and every day we write. I respond and give students an audience for their insights. We all read. We all write. We all deepen our comprehension.

    I know from research and my own observations, every student improves over our semester. Some tell me their ACT scores have improved. Some tell me their English grades improve. Some feel more confident in their abilities to read and interpret text on their AP tests.

    But my class is in jeopardy. With the push for career-ready-is-college-ready from our new State Superintendent, my elective will be squeezed out of the curriculum to make way for more required courses. Fewer choices for students means those with artistic gifts, musical gifts, will be forced to take classes that do not interest them, to become ‘career and college ready.’

    I mourn for my students who are weighted down by tests and test preparation. I mourn for every student who will not be allowed to reach his potential in my school because of arbitrary tests and requirements that do not honor the people my students are. They deserve better – they deserve the education your own girls enjoy.

  7. Sara Taylor

    Dear Mr. President,

    I am an educator, and have been for years.
    Standardized testing has certain limits, but I agree with your pre-presidency speech that described the need for “low-stakes, low pressure environment, with the results used not to punish them, their teachers or their school, but simply to find out what their strengths are, and where they might need extra support.”

    Over the years, I have seen testing take the place of learning as the number-one priority of my students and their parents. This is not progress!
    I am in almost constant contact with teachers as part of my job, and the pressure on them has become unbearable as well. If their students to badly on standardized tests, it reflects badly on them.

    This situation is an enormous waste of resources on the part of our educators, and almost guarantees that students will be encouraged to “just pass”, after which they will be pushed through to the next grade, with or without the foundation they will need to succeed in the future.

    Please, Mr. President, remedy this situation. We are in an education crisis.

    Sara Taylor

  8. Sharon Martin

    Dear Mr. President:

    I am one of your fans, but I have some issues with your education policies. Testing is not education. Race to the Top seems too much like No Child Left Behind.

    I have two children. My son, Carson, didn’t work so hard in school, but his test scores kept him in advanced classes. His little sister, Jenny, always a good student, never could understand why she wasn’t allowed in the G&T programs with her brother. She got nervous over tests, and the results were predictable. That didn’t stop her from earning a scholarship in engineering or from getting a graduate degree. The tests didn’t define who she was or is. But for too many children, tests will either open doors or close them.

    What can we do to make education about critical thinking, problem solving, and the joy of learning? How can we make teachers part of the solution instead of victims of bad politics?

    I will do my best to make my classroom a place of wonder. Meanwhile, I will wait for you to consider what we teachers have been trying to tell you.

    Sharon Martin

  9. Bill Younglove

    Dear Mr. President,
    Many months ago, in Denver, your esteemed wife, Michelle, told students that she did not always “test well”; that students should not judge their abilities based upon such singular testing. Now, you have added your own common sense statements abiout what should be the real role of tests in education, namely informative, to guide good, interesting instruction. That simply has not been, cannot be, the case under No Child Left Behind legislation. What we want for our own children, the best learning situation, we should want for all. You can help that happen–still.

    Bill Younglove (a 45 year educator)

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  11. Dee Camp-White

    Dear Mr. President,

    I’ve been an elementary public school teacher for 38 years, an adjunct professor of education for 15, a parent for 41, and a grandmother for 11. That’s 105 years of aggregated experience on the teaching side. Add to that my 65 years of learning from my grandmother, parents, teachers, friends, and colleagues from grades K-20. Just so you know where I’m coming from.

    Children learn in a dynamic environment, surrounded by fascinating problems to be solved. They need the freedom to choose their activities while being presented with progressively more difficult tasks. Beginning in infancy, learning is a social process. By interacting with peers and adults, learners make discoveries, share, and celebrate. “Kid watchers” (teachers and parents) note individual student differences and preferences and plan activities that motivate and stimulate. We lead by example. We share our own excitement about a book we just read, a personal goal we reached. We model the joy of learning, as well as the frustration of not knowing or understanding, and the perseverance needed to break through and move on. As parents and teachers, we continually ask ourselves if the learning is relevant. Are we preparing our children to acquire the knowledge, attitudes, and skills they will need to create a safe, happy, successful life without us?

    It’s also important to consider the question, “Are children learning what we’re teaching?” I used checklists of skills to keep track of the progress of my students in the 1970s and still do, although the checklists have been updated to match the curriculum standards. I saved samples of student work from the beginning of the year, to compare with what they could do at year’s end. I counted the number of digits per minute a child could write multiplication facts, and taught the child to track daily results on a chart. Over time, we celebrated the “learning curve”. This I also still do. Each spring, my students took a standardized test in reading and math. At year’s end, I looked at work samples, self-assessments, data from teacher-made tests, textbook-based exams, performance ranked by national norms, report card grades, and “teacher judgment” to evaluate a child’s readiness for the next grade level. I felt confident sharing my “portfolio” of evidence with the Principal and the child’s parents.

    Thirty years ago, standardized testing was a one-day event. Now I spend the first 7 months of third grade preparing my class for two days (70 minutes each day) of reading assessment that will determine if they are promoted to fourth grade. The kids don’t know that starting with Day One, we are on a mission to” acquire reading fluency by the end of third grade.” I artfully guide my charges through their first “chapter book” by introducing vocabulary, discussing characters and setting, and asking the “higher level” questions that teach “cause and effect” and “compare and contrast” so they can determine “Which title best fits the story?” (Main Idea). I spend a few class periods after the “Winter Break” to make sure they can “bubble” the answer choice, and admonish them to “read ALL of the choices before you mark your best answer”. Necessary evils. Will my kids still want to curl up with a “just right” book (one at his/her personal independent reading and interest level) after the dreaded test is over?

    As I write this, I need to wait about another month to get the results of my children’s performance on the high-stakes FCAT reading test. Parents are on pins and needles, because a “Level 1” score means four weeks of “summer reading camp” and then another testing opportunity to prove achievement of reading fluency in order to be promoted to Grade 4. One of the most powerful uses of assessment to promote learning is feedback. Since I’m not allowed to look at the reading passages of the “secure” test, I can only tell my students “you did your best”. But I won’t be able to use the FCAT results to inform instruction for further growth in reading. Parents will get a 4-page report with numbers and explanations, but their bottom-line is “did (s)he pass?”

    I know colleges need a way to evaluate applicants, so those high school end-of-course exams and competency tests have relevance. Likewise, administrators from the local school to the federal level need data to evaluate the success of programs and initiatives. Why don’t you just ask us teachers what works and what doesn’t? Apple, Google, and Pixar are just a few examples of successful business models that factor in the input of the people doing the actual work.

    Mr. President, I know you’ve got a lot going on, so let me just make one suggestion for moving the politically-charged morass of education reform forward. Let’s keep some money back from the corporate test developers and eliminate high-stakes testing at the elementary school level. Developmentally, this kind of assessment is inappropriate for young children. Elementary educators have the tools and skills to ensure that each child’s school days are filled with both joy and accomplishment. We can do this without the burden of one-size-fits-all accountability.

    Trust me.

    Dee Camp-White
    Dream Lake Elementary
    Apopka, Florida

  12. Karl Wheatley

    It will help the cause if you use the words “assess” and “assessed,” not “test,” “tested,” “measure,” and “measured.”

    Using the words test and measure reinforces the idea that what we need are tests that measure student learning. Tests do not truly “measure” anything–they are one type of assessment, but what we need are assessments that assess what matters most.

    Most good assessments are not traditional tests, and certainly are not machine scored standardized tests.

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