The following below is my statement of purpose of Vanderbilt’s Ed.D program in K-12 Education Policy and Leadership:
Her name was Desiree; she was my student in junior English and an elective called Critical Thinking at a Title I high school in Nashville. Desiree is a bright girl, something she is incapable of knowing at the school where she is. Before I met her, Desiree lived in a world of low expectations; everything about her seemed less than average she seemed a small girl in an unimpressive high school filled with students that 90% of licensed teachers will not even consider interviewing for. But Desiree can write, but no one knows this. She had four sophomore English teachers; all her teachers were fired or quit because they could not handle the high demands of working at this school. No teacher noticed Desiree because her aptitude for writing was lost in the system. There was no system for Desiree–her teachers were lost in the policies of attendance referrals, suspension referrals, and psychological referrals. But there were no policies for Desiree; there was no way to recognize her uniqueness.
It was poor policy that led to my collision with Desiree. I was also the victim of failed policy–laid off from my first teaching job even after having student Advanced Placement scores that exceeded my more veteran peers. I lost the seniority draw in budget cuts, and I needed a new school. Desiree needed a new teacher; she needed someone who could cut threw the distractions of what she was “expected” to be to see what she actually was–an under-served, unchallenged student.
And thus, I was an ex-AP teacher in a new world, a world most educators never see. I was with a week and a half’s noticed thrust into teaching a set of students whose sophomore education had been mostly a poor patched together work of four teachers’ efforts. I had an elective to teach with no guidelines and a population of students in poverty who were not used to being made to think deeply or express their inner voices, if anyone either bothered to ask. Under a mandate to raise writing scores, which had plummeted in previous years, I was supposed to focus on borderline students–those who might just past, it was the unwritten policy of the job. The goal was to get more 4′s on the state writing exam for 11th graders (out of a possible 6). The previous year’s mark was 61% pass (4 or higher) with only a handful of 5′s (considered strong writing) from an honors class.
Few things irk me more than a rule that I find counterproductive. I was stubborn: I had not left AP to put myself into a culture of worksheets and low expectations. I taught my students persuasion, I taught them how to make a narrative argument, I taught them how to read nonfiction, I taught them how to look for symbolism in The Glass Menagerie. I taught at a level that was not supposed to be possible because that was the culture.
Desiree blossomed. She made a 5 on the writing exam; she became happy to be in English class. She encouraged her friend next to her; she made a 5 as well. Three more boys in that class, two of which had failed other class, made 5′s. Overall, 75% of my students passed, a school high with over a quarter of them receiving 5′s–more students from that one class made 5′s then all that school’s honors and AP students.
That was years ago. Now I look back, and I see how many school rules have worked against education–”teach only out of the prescribed book,” never-mind that my kids cannot read it. My first district mentor once horrified me by ordering me to only give answers that were in the back of my teacher’s book because the district had paid too much money for it; it was supposedly too much for my AP kids to offer other suggestions. When I declined, she accused me of insubordination. At the Title I school, I was supposed to teach these four “essential literature” books to my students. Because the books were by black authors, my inner-city kids were supposed to be able to relate. They didn’t–they were all books about mature adult issues. I found them literature that they did find relevant by many different authors, and they enjoyed that more than what the guidelines said students “in this population” should be taught.
Along with my teaching, I read education blogs and journals on a daily basis; it is where I generate new ideas as the ones that clear “policy” barriers are usually not fully implemented or out of date. I am intrigued by techniques that I see school reformers using, that I read from university departments, that I uncover analyzing active research. I strongly believe that there is a need for people who have taught in all kind of teaching situations who can also advocate, consult, and implement effective scholastic policies. I have taught effectively in middle-class, inner-city, and affluent high schools. I have seen the benefits of sound policy, and I have seen poor policy implemented because it was not thought out or researched. I have seen how policy affects the gifted, the special needs, the popular students, the forgotten students, and the educators.
I am applying to Vanderbilt because I believe that I must better myself to improve education policy. I want to discover and to test new ideas, to advocate policies that improve the academics of forgotten students like Desiree and all those students who needed someone to tell those sophomore teachers to look for them. I dream of being a better practitioner of better policy.