WEST HARTFORD — In just a week's time, Elizabeth Natale has turned from a middle school English teacher quietly frustrated with education reform into a national voice for colleagues throughout the country.
In an opinion column for The Courant last week, she vented her dissatisfaction with education reform, and her words went viral on the Internet, touching a third rail for teachers in Connecticut and beyond. Through Facebook and social media, the column has reached thousands of people throughout the country.
Natale, an English teacher at Sedgwick Middle School, wrote that she was considering quitting a job she loves because of "government attempts to improve education" that are "stripping the joy out of teaching and doing nothing to help the children."
Her words resonated with teachers who told her in emails that the column reflected their feelings and brought some to tears. "Thank you for being brave enough to write it," a teacher from Georgia said.
Nationally, Natale's words struck a chord as teachers everywhere are dealing with reforms similar to those implemented in Connecticut this year — a new teacher evaluation system, new academic standards known as the Common Core State Standards, and the trial of a new computerized testing system.
"There's no question that Elizabeth Natale has captured the mood among classroom teachers who are caught in the straitjacket of the Common Core and the entire regimen that evaluates teachers on the basis of their students' scores on virtually meaningless standardized exams," said author Jonathan Kozol, who wrote the classic "Death at an Early Age" about his first year teaching in Boston.
Deborah Meier, who has spent almost 50 years working in urban schools and is vice chairwoman of the Coalition of Essential Schools, said that Natale's views are "probably the sentiment among teachers who really love teaching and have been doing it for a while."
"It tears me apart," Meier said of the reform movement. "It takes the heart out of teaching, which is human interaction. … I think we needed reform, but we are driving diametrically in the opposite direction of where we needed to go."
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said, "I totally understand this teacher's sentiment."
"We have a toxic situation when everything is reduced to a test score; when no attention is paid to the social, emotional, nutritional and health needs of kids; and when educators are given inadequate resources, training and time to actually teach to the Common Core State Standards,'' Weingarten said in an email.
But Weingarten said "even with all of this, polls have found that an overwhelming majority of teachers support the new standards, but too many feel unprepared and unsupported."
She said that "to reclaim the promise of public education — and keep great teachers in the profession — school administrators, principals, lawmakers and others must listen to teachers about what they need to prepare their students for the real world."
Robert Rothman, a senior fellow of the Alliance for Excellent Education and a supporter of Common Core, said he thinks Natale's column is "very sad."
"I don't want to cast aspersions on her concerns," Rothman said, but added that he thinks that the new standards will deepen and strengthen students' learning. Although Natale said in her column that she thinks that reform is "killing children's passions" rather than fostering a love or reading and writing, Rothman said, "I just don't see that."
Rothman said he thinks that states need to do a lot to ensure that teachers are prepared to use the standards. He noted that a National Education Association poll in the fall found that about 75 percent of teachers support the Common Core, either wholeheartedly or with some reservations.
A Time Of 'Unprecedented Change'
Natale, 56, who has taught English for 15 years, said she "wanted to voice what so many teachers are saying." Her column has been shared tens of thousands of times on Facebook and she has received dozens of supportive posts and emails.
"I haven't run into a teacher since September who isn't saying the same things I am, but people are a little nervous about taking a stand on this."
"I said, 'When is someone going to stand up and say something outside the hallway because that's where all this conversation is going on.' … I did not expect the reaction I got."
She wrote the column one Saturday morning sitting in her pajamas on the couch in her den with laundry piled high around her. Her husband was tired of hearing her complain about the reforms, so she decided to put her thoughts in an essay.
"It poured out of me," she said.
She had a draft in an hour. "I then revised it, revised it, revised it … which is what I've always done and wish my students would do."
A former newspaper reporter and college public relations professional, Natale changed careers because she wanted to work with children. "I decided to get off the sidelines and into the game," she said, and enrolled in a post-baccalaureate program at Central Connecticut State University to become certified for the job. It took her two years.
Natale said she is concerned about changes in education that, as she wrote, are requiring "teachers to march lockstep in arming students with '21st century skills.'"
"In English, emphasis on technology and nonfiction reading makes it more important for students to prepare an electronic presentation how to make a paper airplane," Natale wrote, "than to learn about moral dilemmas from Natalie Babbitt's beloved novel 'Tuck Everlasting.'"
She also criticized the new Smarter Balanced Assessment computerized test, which is replacing the Connecticut Mastery Test in most districts this year. Natale said this week, "I just look at the amount of money for buying Chromebooks and the mice and the mouse pads and the headphones. … Really? Is there something better we could be doing with the money?"
Natale said she hopes that her willingness to speak up will encourage other educators to do the same.
In Connecticut, Mark Waxenberg, executive director of the state's largest teachers union, the Connecticut Education Association, said, "I think it's fair to say that [Natale's column] reflects the opinion of the overwhelming majority of teachers in the state today."
"I think what's happening in Connecticut is a perfect storm," Waxenberg said. "It really is extremely overwhelming, not only for the teachers, but for the students and the classroom."
Connecticut Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said that Natale concerns are "authentic and justified" and that he expects they are widely shared at a time of "unprecedented change in public education."
"The concerns regarding the level of the burden and the kind of anxiety [teachers] are experiencing is authentic and legitimate and justified," Pryor said. "We need to listen more to teachers regarding the kind of flexibility and support they need."
Pryor said that for the most part, educators in Connecticut and nationally agree that "reaching for higher standards is critically important" in the educational system. "What's essential is that we continuously receive feedback on the implementation of our efforts," he said.
Next week, the state will introduce a new workshop and Web-based seminar program designed to help teachers adapt to the new Common Core State Standards.
"We are going to be offering more and more supports in partnership with school districts as well as teacher unions and other stakeholders," Pryor said, "to ensure that we meet the needs of teachers."
The reforms underway in Connecticut and in many states throughout the country were largely prompted by federal incentives designed to improve the quality of education and to close achievement gaps that run along socioeconomic, racial and ethnic lines.
Like many states, Connecticut has a new evaluation system that ties a teacher's performance rating to students' achievement, including test scores. Educators throughout the state have been creating a new curriculum that aligns with the Common Core State Standards and will prepare students for the Smarter Balanced Assessment test. Students will take the new test on computers. It will be given as a trial in most districts this spring and will replace the Connecticut Mastery Test next year.
Anne Jellison, a Meriden elementary school principal and chairwoman of the Connecticut Association of School Administrators, said that Natale's column expressed "a sentiment that is pervasive" among many administrators and teachers.
"I've had people say out loud, 'If I could find another job that interests me, I would get out at this point,'" Jellison said.
She said she hopes the column helps people "understand the magnitude of the pressure that teachers are feeling in Connecticut."
She said the changes are "too much at once. It needs to be thought through. … This [reform] was one of the fastest things I've ever seen in my career."
Alan Addley, Granby superintendent of schools, said "the frustration and exasperation felt by some teachers is understandable.''
In his 16 years in the district, Addley said in an email, "I have never seen my teachers and administrators more stressed than they are today."
He said that the reforms underway "are good for schools, but they are arguably the biggest changes in education during the past twenty years. Changes and paradigm shifts of this magnitude are difficult and simply require a more measured and flexible implementation plan" that supports students and teachers.
"It is too much, too quick, and all at the same time," Addley said. "An educational system solely built on compliance, accountability and pressure runs the risk of boiling over and losing its best teachers. It is critical that we build a profession that values and keeps our best and brightest teachers."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun