Give Sara Stevenson a computer and a cause—and you’ll be glad she’s on your side. The school
librarian at O. Henry Middle School in Austin, TX is well-known in educational circles for her opinion pieces and letters to the editor which appear in her local Austin American-Statesman, and nationally in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. She hopes her succinct and well-sourced points will give readers an educator’s point of view as they shape their own opinions about the educational reform movement.
Fans include author Diane Ravitch, who tweets about her pieces to the Twitter masses, and even Stevenson’s own colleagues, who she says may not feel as free to voice their opinions as she does.
“My principal has said, ‘Go for it,’” Stevenson says. “But I think there’s a lot of fear with the economy struggling and people with young children [who don’t want to lose their jobs]. I think I’m in a fortunate position to really speak out.”
And speak out she does. She considers the “letter to the editor” one of her favorite platforms, calling them her “therapy,” where she gets to “say my piece,” she says. While she has written a couple of pieces on libraries and education for her local paper, Stevenson says her real push came in 2011 when the Austin Independent School District planned to cut school librarians in secondary schools. Stevenson wrote an opinion piece, tweeted about the issue, and encouraged readers to write to the superintendent of schools. Three weeks later, the positions were reinstated—and a writing warrior was born.
The thread that runs through Stevenson’s pieces is educational reform—the push in our nation for more testing, rating teachers by how their students score on standardized exams, a rise of charter schools, vouchers for private schools, and the opinion that larger class sizes don’t matter if teachers are effective. The issue is bipartisan, believes Stevenson, citing that even President Obama’s Race to the Top grants, created to spur innovation and reform, encourage more testing. And she wonders why people, including Bill Gates, have become voices in this movement, superseding those in the trenches with real-world experience in education.
“Where are we in the discussion?” she asks. “Bill Gates is great guy, but why is he leading the discussion when his children go to private school?”
A former teacher, who’s now in her tenth year as a middle school librarian, Stevenson says she’s not against testing, explaining that evaluating where students stand can be both “useful and wonderful.”
Her objection is that the pendulum has shifted too far, with an emphasis only on programs that improve test scores, with other areas—even physical education—being dropped as extraneous. And while she has no plans to lay down her pen, Stevenson believes real change can only happen when more parties speak up in support—in particular, she says, students.
“Students say they’re sick of it, that they don’t want more testing,” she says. “I’d like to see high school students writing letters. That’s what I think some of the reformers and politicians have lost sight of—what’s good for kids.”
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