A Teacher’s Dilemma: Take a Stand Against Testing or Keep Abusing Children

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What am I?

 

Seriously. What is it I do for a living?

 

When I wake up to go to work in the morning, am I preparing to be a teacher or a test proctor?

 

Am I engaged in the practice of nurturing young minds or am I a tool of the establishment?

 

Should I be held accountable to the dozens of students in my classroom, their parents and the community – or to my administrators, the bureaucrats and moneyed interests ordering us around?

 

I ask these questions not as a rhetorical device. I really don’t know the answers. Because the solution begins with me.

 

Today was not a banner day in my classroom, and I can honestly say it was not my fault.

 

I had to give my 7th grade students the Classroom Diagnostic Tools assessment in Reading/Lit for grades 6-high school.

 

If you’re not familiar with the CDT, this is an optional test offered by Data Recognition Corporation for students in Pennsylvania’s public schools. It’s a way to assess student learning to predict whether they’ll pass there annual federally mandated standardized tests (also created by Data Recognition Corp. in the Keystone State). In addition, it offers example questions of the type that students struggled to answer correctly on the diagnostic.

 

It’s very helpful if you want to print out a buttload of test prep, give it to students and then read the paper quietly at your desk – something I never do.

 

For the second straight year, I’ve been forced to give it to my students three times annually – twice before the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests and once after.

 

I am not a fan.

 

Students hate it. It does not return valuable data. And it takes precious time that I could be using to actually teach something.

 

When I told my kids they were going to have to take the assessment this morning, one girl said, “I hate the CDTs. It stands for I Can’t Do This.”

 

Another girl had a more visceral reaction. When she saw the letters “CDT” on the board, she literally began rolling around on the floor and groaning.

 

These are the kinds of students I have – victims of generational poverty, malnutrition, childhood trauma, violence, drug abuse and systemic racism and prejudice. Strong-arming them into another standardized test isn’t doing them any favors.

 

Compare their reaction this morning to yesterday’s lesson.

 

We had just finished a unit on plot using Dr. Seuss stories and cartoons to illustrate complex concepts like exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, resolution, theme, etc.

 

I made a competitive review game through a program called Kahoot, and kids were out of their seats, jumping around, squealing with delight as they demonstrated their knowledge of what they’d learned. It got so loud one of the principals came running over from the office to make sure things weren’t getting out of hand. But what he found were students so engaged by the work they could barely contain themselves.

 

Heck! I even gave them a test of my own creation right afterward. There were no groans. There were no protests.

 

They sat at their seats like grown adults, concentrated and answered the questions to the best of their abilities.

 

Compare that with today’s assessment.

 

Behaviors off the hook. Sullen looks. Demands to use the restroom, go to their lockers, visit the nurse – ANYTHING but be here in class and do this test.

 

Why the difference?

 

Because they knew what was expected on MY test, and they knew they could meet my expectations. I was there for the lesson. I made the test. I would grade it. I have a relationship with these kids and they know I will assess them fairly.

 

But not on this standardized CDT nonsense!

 

Data Recognition Corp isn’t there for the lesson. It has no rapport with students. Kids don’t know what the expectations are and don’t think they can meet them. And they have no sense that this multi-billion dollar corporation will grade them fairly for their efforts.

 

So they act out.

 

They throw wads of paper or airdrop pictures to each others’ iPads.

 

And here I am in front of this room of unruly children forced to have to defend the bullcrap garbage that I’m being coerced to do to them.

 

I want to apologize. I want to tell them this is not my idea. And after a while, I even DID that. But it’s no use.

 

It matters little whether the executioner does his job with reluctance or not. He’s still here to end your life. And I was still cast in the role of ending their education for the day and replacing it with “proof” that they aren’t good enough.

 

When the test was over, so many children showed me their scores with hurt faces.

 

“Mr. Singer, I really tried!” one boy said.

 

“This is rigged!” another said.

 

And what am I supposed to say to that? Should I explain how they’re right – how standardized tests have always been culturally and economically biased? Why would they care!? What kind of teacher would that make me!?

 

I know this is wrong, but I still do it!?

 

What use am I?

 

What purpose do I serve enforcing policies I know to be detrimental?

 

I went through five years of college to become a teacher – not a prison guard. But on days like today that’s what I am. I’ve devoted over a decade of my life to nourishing children, not ordering them all to march in line single file.

 

But here I am, a paid thug who browbeats and coerces innocents into doing things they don’t want to do for purposes that won’t benefit them and will in fact be used against them.

 

I wonder what the school board would say if I had the guts to stand in front of them at a public meeting and tell them.

 

I guess I’ll just have to keep wondering because the last time I tried to address that august body without an explicit invitation, I was told I wasn’t allowed to do so since I don’t live in the district where I teach.

 

But sometimes I question whether the elected representatives of my district even understand what I’m being bulldozed into doing in their name.

 

Do you know I am abusing your children? I am crushing their creativity, their self-respect, their curiosity. Is that really what you want of me? Is that what you hired me for?

 

Don’t get me wrong.

 

It’s not really anything new. I’ve been doing this for almost 15 years. It’s just harder every year.

 

I heap on justifications – you have to do the bad stuff so you can do the good stuff. You have to enforce the testing so you can do authentic teaching.

 

And every year the mandates get more restrictive, the teaching gets a little less and the testing a bit more.

 

Meanwhile, politicians pretend like they’re doing something to fix it. Gov. Tom Wolf (whom I generally like) cuts off a few days from the PSSA tests this year. But he keeps the recommendation that we take the CDTs. He keeps the entire test-and-punish framework in place. Like most Democrats, he’s willing to twiddle around the edges but has no guts to do away with what’s wrong and replace it with what’s right.

 

Meanwhile, parents in my state are generally clueless.

 

You have some strong advocates here and there. Some moms and dads who understand what’s going on. But most are either oblivious, too busy putting food on the table, in jail or dead.

 

I used to send home a letter to parents reminding them of their right to opt out of standardized tests. It almost got me fired.

 

And for my efforts, I think maybe one or two parents over five years actually took me up on it.

 

I go to my local union and tell them my concerns. They nod and ask for more information and then quietly forget it.

 

Meanwhile, the national unions are behind the testocracy 100%. They’ll wag their fingers and complain about testing, but they’re too busy making sure the teaching profession even exists tomorrow to stop for small potatoes like bad practices.

 

I feel so alone here.

 

I’m pulling my hair out and the only response I get is from the choir (Hallelujah!) and the corporate education reformers (How dare you!?).

 

The majority stays silent. And complicit.

 

I’m just not sure I can do it anymore.

 

I’ve thought about calling in sick whenever I have to give a standardized test. It would be a lot of days, but I could do it.

 

That might be safe, but it would be cowardly.

 

I’d just be saving myself the pain and humiliation of giving the tests. My students would still be forced to take them.

 

So what do I do?

 

I write.

 

I write blogs like this one.

 

I pound out my cares and reservations, put them in a virtual bottle and set it adrift on the seas of the Internet.

 

It’s a constant gamble.

 

Someday someone may read them who can end my career.

 

Or maybe someone with the power to make a difference will read them.

 

Maybe that’s you.

 

Maybe it’s all of us.

 

I don’t know.

 

I have no solutions today. Just shame and regrets.

 

A dilemma that I cannot solve.

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The Joy of Opting Out of Standardized Testing

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Testing season is a gray period in my classroom.

 

But it’s a joy in my house.

 

As a classroom teacher with a daughter in the public school system, I’m always struck by the difference.

 

In school I have to proctor the federally mandated standardized tests. But I’ve opted my own daughter out. She doesn’t take them.

 

So at home, I get to see all the imaginative projects she’s created in her class while the other kids had to trudge away at the exam.

 

“Daddy, daddy, look!” she squeals.

 

And I’m bombarded by an entire Picasso blue period.

 

Or “Daddy, will you staple these?”

 

And I’m besieged by a series of her creative writing.

 

My daughter is only in second grade and she loves standardized test time.

 

It’s when she gets to engage in whatever self-directed study strikes her fancy.

 

Back in kindergarten I missed the boat.

 

Even as an educator, myself, I had no idea the district would be subjecting her to standardized tests at an age when she should be doing nothing more strenuous than learning how to share and stack blocks.

 

But when I found out she had taken the GRADE Test, a Pearson assessment not mandated by the state but required by my home district in order the receive state grant funding, I hit the roof.

 

I know the GRADE test. I’m forced to give a version of it to my own 8th grade students at a nearby district where I work. It stinks.

 

Ask any classroom teacher and they’ll tell you how useless it is. Giving it is at best a waste of class time. At worst it demoralizes children and teaches them that the right answer is arbitrary – like trying to guess what the teacher is thinking.

 

Then I found out my daughter was also taking the DIBELS, a test where she reads a passage aloud and is given a score based on how quickly she reads without regard to its meaning. In fact, some of the passages test takers are forced to read are pure nonsense. It’s all about how readers pronounce words and whether they persevere through the passage. It’s not so much about reading. It’s about grit.

 

No. My precious little one won’t be doing that.

 

I talked candidly to her kindergarten teacher about it. I trust her judgment, so I wanted to know what she thought. And she agreed that these tests were far from necessary. So I set up a meeting with the principal.

 

The meeting lasted about an hour. Sure, it was a little scary. No one wants to rock the boat. But even he agreed with most of what I had to say. He didn’t feel as strongly about it as I did, but he respected my wishes and that was that.

 

Ever since, my daughter hasn’t taken a single standardized test.

 

For me, it was a political statement as well as a parental one. I wanted to do my part to chip away at the corporate school reform movement. I know how much they rely on these test scores to justify closing poor schools like mine. I don’t want to give them a chance.

 

But little did I know what bliss I would be providing for my little one.

 

Beyond politics, I thought I was just protecting her from a prolonged period of boredom, unfair assessments and cognitively invalid measurements.

 

I wanted to shield her from adult woes. What I didn’t realize was I was opening a door for her creativity.

 

It’s amazing. All the other poor children sit there dutifully filling in bubbles while she pours her heart out onto the page.

 

She loves creating these illustrated books telling the wildest narratives: Colorful superheroes blast bad guys into oblivion. Game show hosts get lost in other dimensions. Even her Mommy and Daddy get in on the action riding Yoshi through Super Mario land.

 

Often she adds text to these adventures. Her spelling could use some work, but I’m impressed that an 8-year-old even attempts some of these words. Sometimes she writes more in her adventure books than my 8th graders do on their assigned homework.

 

I’ve even noticed a marked improvement in her abilities during this time. Her handwriting, sentence construction, word choice and spelling have taken a leap to the next level. While her classmates are wasting time on the assessments, she’s actually learning something!

 

I wish I could provide the same opportunities for my students that I have for my daughter.

 

It’s strange.

 

As a parent, I have the power to make educational decisions on behalf of my child. But as a trained education professional, I’m not allowed the same privilege.

 

Don’t teachers stand in loco parentis? Well this is loco, so let me parent this. Let me at least talk to their parents about it – but if I do that on school time, in my professional capacity, I’m liable to be reprimanded.

 

I have studied standardized testing. It was part of my training to become a teacher. And the evidence is in. The academic world knows all this stuff is bunk, but the huge corporations that profit off of these tests and the associated test-prep material have silenced them.

 

I have a masters in my field. I’m a nationally board certified teacher. I have more than a decade of successful experience in the classroom. But I am not trusted enough to decide whether my students should take these tests.

 

It’s not like we’re even asking the parents. We start from the assumption that children will take the tests, but if the parents complain about it, we’ll give in to their wishes.

 

It’s insanity.

 

We should start from the assumption the kids won’t take the test. If parents want their kids to be cogs in the corporate machine, they should have to opt IN.

 

As a teacher, I can try to inform my students’ parents about all this, but at my own peril. If the administration found me talking about this with parents, I could be subject to a reprimand. Giving my honest educational opinion could result in me losing my job.

 

As you can see, it hasn’t stopped me. But I teach in a high poverty, mostly minority district. My kids’ parents often don’t have the time to come up to the school or even return phone calls. They’re working two or three jobs. They’re struggling just to put food on the table. They don’t have time for standardized tests!

 

So every test season I sadly watch my students trudge away at their federally mandated bubbles. I see their anxiety, their frustration, their sad, sad faces.

 

And it breaks my heart.

 

But then I come home to my daughter’s exuberant creations!

 

You would not believe the joy of opting out!

Fighting for Public Schools Means Fighting Against Systemic Racism – United Opt Out Education and Civil Rights Summit

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What do you do when you hold a civil rights summit and none of the big names show up?

That’s what happened last weekend when United Opt Out (UOO) held its Education and Civil Rights Summit in Houston, Texas.

We invited everybody.

We invited the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). We invited the National Council of La Raza “The People,” the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Urban League and several others.

None came.

But instead we were host to many of these organizations individual members.
Just how many people came to the Lone Star State for the summit? Thousands? Hundreds?

More like dozens.

Not only did the major civil rights groups neglect to send their leadership, but the bulk of our nation’s education activists also stayed away.

United Opt Out had just gone through a major reorganization on philosophical grounds. Only three of its long-time board members remain – Denisha Jones, Ruth Rodriguez and Ceresta Smith. They have since been joined by five new directors – Gus Morales, Zakary Rodriguez, Erika Strauss Chavarria, Deborah Anderson and Steven Singer (me).

The directors that left the group did so for various reasons, but some of them split along ideological lines. Some thought United Opt Out shouldn’t work with labor leaders or civil rights groups that weren’t perfectly aligned with all of UOO’s goals. So they left. Those who stayed are committed to working with almost anyone to push forward the cause, piece-by-piece if necessary.

As a result, this organization that had been growing by leaps and bounds, finds itself starting afresh. While last year’s conference in Philadelphia drew progressive luminaries like Chris Hedges, Jill Stein and Bill Ayers, this year’s gathering was more low key.

But it was far from somber. In fact, the board’s vision was vindicated in the most amazing way during the summit.

As Jesse “The Walking Man” Turner discussed the importance of reframing school policy to include students basic humanity, Gus looked up from his phone and announced, “The NAACP just ratified its moratorium on charter schools!”

We all stopped what we were doing and went to our phones and computers for verification. Denisha found it first and read the resolution in full.

We cheered, laughed and hugged each other.

This was exactly the kind of change we’ve been talking about! In fact, Julian Vasquez Heilig, education chair of the California and Hawaiian NAACP chapter, had originally been scheduled at the summit as a keynote speaker. When the resolution that he had been instrumental in crafting came up for a vote at the national NAACP meeting, he understandably had to cancel with us. Clearly he was needed elsewhere.

And now one of the largest civil rights organizations in the country has taken a strong stance on charter schools. Not only does the NAACP oppose charters as a solution to inequities experienced by children of color, they’ve now gone beyond mere ideology. They’re calling for action – no new charter schools.

It is a tremendous victory for parents, children and teachers everywhere. And a much needed win for civil rights and education activists. The civil rights community (including the Black Lives Matter movement) is starting to acknowledge that Brown vs. Board is right – we cannot have “separate but equal” school systems because when they’re separate, they’re rarely equal.

Let me be clear – UOO did not achieve this triumph alone. It took many people, some of whom probably have never heard of us. However, activists supporting our movement such as Julian were strongly involved.

And if we had listened to the naysayers who proposed only working with perfectly like-minded groups, this might never have happened.

As a national organization, the NAACP still supports standardized testing as necessary to hold schools accountable for teaching all students. But this was not always the case.

In October of 2014, there were 11 civil rights groups including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) who wrote a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to reduce standardized testing.

Then in January of 2015, a full 19 Civil Rights organizations including the NAACP wrote to Congress asking lawmakers to preserve annual testing.

What changed in those three months?

All of these organizations accept huge donations from the corporate education reform industry including some of the richest people in the world like Bill Gates. While none of us were present at these decision making sessions, it seems clear that fear of losing their funding may have forced them to make hard compromises.

Should we then as education activists wipe our hands of them? Should we refuse to work with them on some issues because we disagree on others?

United Opt Out says no. We’ll work with almost anyone where we can, when we can. And the results were on display with the NAACP resolution calling for a charter school moratorium.

Perhaps now that we’ve found that common ground on school privatization, we can do the same with standardized testing. Perhaps we can help educate them about the history of this practice, how it was a product of the eugenics movement and has always been used to support white supremacy and keep people of color and the poor in their place.

If we can make that argument, think of the potential. Perhaps leadership at these big civil rights groups would be less willing to compromise if they understood that standardized testing was used to justify mass sterilizations of American citizens and it was greatly admired by the Nazis. Perhaps if they understood that our modern standardized assessments are little better and create a racial proficiency gap by their very design – maybe then threats from rich white philanthropists won’t seem as important. Perhaps if they understood that schools can best be held accountable by reference to the adequacy of the funding they receive and a detailed accounting of what they do with it, these organizations might be less inclined to rely on multiple choice testing.

In fact, this is why we were there together in Houston in the first place. We wanted to make our case to these same civil rights organizations.

They may not have sent their leaders, but their members were already here. And we spent the time working together to find ways to make our case.

It was really quite amazing.

Audrey Amerin-Breadsley, professor and author of the blog Vamboolzed, gave us an incredibly accessible and informative keynote on value-added measures (VAM), the practice of using students test scores as a way to evaluate their teachers. For instance, did you know this common practice was originally based on a model for the cattle industry? It’s junk science and has little relation to education, teachers and students. All it does is pit students and teachers against each other creating a culture of fear where educators can be unfairly fired at any time – not the best environment for learning. Yet ignorant, lazy and/or corrupt bureaucrats still champion it across the country as a solution to improving schools.

Sam Abrams, Director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education (NCSPE) and an instructor at Columbia University, explained in minute detail how corporate education reform relies on bad statistics and is bad business. He explained how academics blinded by economics and unencumbered by any real-life experience of public schools came up with this scheme, which has been disproven by the facts again-and-again. Not only do the highest achieving countries such as Finland go a different route, but those that follow this market driven model find student achievement suffering. In short, our current education policies are really faith-based initiatives, a faith in the invisible hand of the market, and an ignorance of reality.

But perhaps most heartening was the series of talks given by the locals. Houston Federation of Teachers is one of the few labor unions to pass a resolution supporting parents rights to opt their children out of standardized testing. In fact, teachers and parents even run a free Opt Out Academy for children not taking the tests so that their education continues while their peers suffer through these useless assessments. We got to meet parent zero, the first parent to refuse testing in the district. We heard the community’s painstaking process of spreading the movement one family at a time. This was in effect an opt out cookbook, a how-to for anyone wishing to bring this social justice action to their own neighborhoods.

It was a weekend to give anyone hope.

We were small but we were powerful. Given a few years to rebuild, UOO could well be much stronger than we once were. Meanwhile parents across the country continue to refuse these tests for their children at an exponential rate.

There are many struggles ahead. But we have made real progress toward our goal of providing an excellent education for all children.

No longer can our governments be allowed to keep discriminating against them based on the color of their skin, their parents bank accounts and other factors. We’re standing for all students, because we don’t see them as consumers or data points. We see them as children, as human beings. And we stand together to protect and preserve that shared humanity.

What better way to spend a weekend?

You Can’t Be Anti-Opt Out and Pro-Democracy

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Our lawmakers have a problem.

This summer they doubled down on one of the most anti-democratic mandates in the federal repertoire yet they claim they did so to protect states rights.

Here’s the problem.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of public school parents across the country opt their children out of standardized testing.

But Congress voted to keep mandating that 95% of students take the tests.

It all happened with the much celebrated bipartisan passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the federal law that governs K-12 schools.

While lawmakers made changes here and there to let the states decide various education issues, they kept the mandate that students participate in annual testing.

They didn’t leave that to the states. Whether they were Republican or Democrat, almost all lawmakers thought it was just fine for the federal government to force our children to take standardized tests at least every year in 3-8th grades and once in high school.

If any school district, has more than 5% of students that don’t take the tests – for whatever reason – the federal government can deny that district funding.

Think about that for a moment.

Our lawmakers are supposedly acting in our interests. They’re our representatives. We’re their constituents. They get their power to pass laws because of our consent as the governed. Yet in this instance they chose to put their own judgement ahead of ours.

They could have made an exception for parents refusing the tests on behalf of their children. They just didn’t see the need to do so.

Why? Because they were worried about minority students.

It’s a laughable claim in so many ways.

It goes something like this – without standardized testing, we’ll have no way of knowing if public schools are educating students of color.

Let’s say for a moment that this were true. In that case, we can expect no parent of color would ever refuse standardized testing for his/her child.

First, this is demonstrably untrue. Black and brown parents may not be the most numerous in the opt out movement, but they do take part in it.

Second, in the majority of cases where white parents refuse testing, that would have no bearing on whether testing helps or hurts students of color. If the point is the data testing gives us on black kids, what white kids do on the test is irrelevant.

Third, even if opting out hurt students of color, one would assume that it is the parents prerogative whether they want to take part. If a black parent doesn’t want her black son to take a multiple choice exam, she should have the right to waive that exam and the responsibility would be on her head.

So there is absolutely no reason why lawmakers should have overstepped their bounds in this way and blocked all parents rights about what the schools do to their children.

It is a clear case of governmental overreach. And there are plenty of parents just waiting to bring it to the U.S. Supreme Court for the ultimate Constitutional test.

However, that probably won’t happen for the same reason it never happened through the 15 years of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) which also contained the annual testing rule.

The federal government has never withheld tax dollars based on students not taking standardized tests. officials at the U.S. Department of Education have made threats, but they have never devolved into action.

The bottom line is this: they know how Unconstitutional this mandate is, and they aren’t itching to have it tested in the highest court in the land.

It would open a whole can of worms about standardized testing. What is the federal government allowed to do and not allowed to do about education policy?

The ESSA is an attempt to reduce the federal role, but keeping the annual testing mandate was either a grievous mistake or the last vestiges of federal hubris.

But let’s return to the reasoning behind it – so-called civil rights fears.

Various groups including the NAACP asked for it to be included to protect minority students. Annual testing is the only way, they claimed, to make sure schools are teaching students of color.

It’s nonsense.

There are plenty of ways to determine if schools are meeting the needs of minority students – especially since most students of color go to segregated schools.

Even after Brown v. Board, we have schools that cater to black kids and schools that cater to white kids. We have schools for poor kids and rich kids.

It is obvious which schools get the most resources. Why isn’t that part of this “accountability” scheme? We can audit districts to see how much is spent per pupil on poor black kids vs rich white kids. We can determine which groups go to schools with larger class sizes, which groups have more access to tutoring and social services, which groups have expanded or narrowed curriculums, which groups have access to robust extra-curricular activities, which groups have the most highly trained and experienced teachers, etc.

In fact, THAT would tell us much more about how these two groups are being served by our public schools than standardized test scores. We’ve known for almost a century that these test scores are more highly correlated with parental income than academic knowledge. They’re culturally biased, subjectively scored and poorly put together. But they support a multibillion dollar industry. If we allow a back door for all that money to dry up, it will hurt lawmakers REAL constituents – big business.

So why were civil rights groups asking the testing mandate be kept in the bill? Because the testing industry is comprised of big donors.

Only a few months before passage of the ESSA, many of these same civil rights groups had signed declarations against standardized testing. Then suddenly they saw the light as their biggest donors threatened to drop out.

Make no mistake. Standardized testing doesn’t help poor minority children. It does them real harm. But the testing industry wrapped themselves up in this convenient excuse to give lawmakers a reason to stomp all over parental rights.

The conflict wasn’t between civil rights and parental rights. It was between parental rights and corporate rights. And our lawmakers sided with the corporations.

Let me be clear: legislators cannot be against opt out and in favor of individual rights.

The two are intimately connected.

Our schools have no business telling parents how to raise their kids. But our parents DO have a right to do the opposite. In fact, that’s how the system is supposed to work.

We, parents and citizens, control our schools – not you, our representatives. The principal can’t say you haven’t a right to opt out your kid. He’s just your representative. So is the teacher.

Everyone who works in the school is there to do what you want them to do for your child. Yes, they are well trained and have a world of knowledge and experience that we should draw on. And in most cases, they’re being forced to confront us by lawmakers who are tying their hands and directing them to do the dirty work.

We have common cause. We need to stand with our teachers and principals, our school boards and education professors. We need to stand together against lawmakers who think they know better.

In short, we don’t need lawmakers consent to opt out. They need our consent to stop us.

They get their power from us. They work for us.

And it’s time they get to work and rescind the annual testing mandate.

We Are All on the Lunatic Fringe – The Centerless Battle Against Corporate Education Reform

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It was one of the strangest meetings I’ve ever had with a state legislator.

Why?

First of all, we were all teachers.

Even the legislator. Even his Aide!

Pennsylvania State Rep. Dan Miller (D-Mt. Lebanon) had been a history teacher before he sought a law degree and higher office.

His aide had been a Pittsburgh Public School teacher before she was furloughed and found a place in the representative’s office.

And, of course, there were the seven of us – all teachers at my school district.

We crowded together in his tiny district office to talk about how standardized testing is destroying public schools.

Which brings me to the second strangest thing – Rep. Miller didn’t just agree with us, he did so knowledgeably.

I’ve sat across a table from an awful lot of lawmakers, and they almost always try to find common ground. Disingenuously.

Sure! I agree teachers are important! That’s why we need to fire more of them!

You bet neighborhood schools are vital! That’s why I want to close all the public schools and replace them with charters!

Uh-huh! School funding is critical but not more so than classroom teachers. That’s why we’re cutting your budgets! We want to see what you can do!

None of that at Rep. Miller’s office.

When we brought up how important it is to allow parents throughout the Commonwealth to opt their children out of standardized tests without penalizing their school districts, he praised parent rights.

When we described how the definition of school accountability has changed from holding lawmakers accountable to holding teachers accountable, he talked about the sad scapegoating of the profession.

And when we told him about how standardized testing is failing our students, he told us how it would have failed him if he were a student today.

“I wasn’t a very good student,” Miller admitted. He loved history and aced that class consistently, but he barely squeaked by in most other subjects.

The first book he read all the way through was “North and South” by Elizabeth Gaskell – in 11th grade! Why? Because it interested him. “Jane Eyre”? Not so much.

And he admitted that in today’s environment where nothing is counted a success unless it generates a high test score, he would have been lost and probably would have dropped out.

Which brings me to the third strangest thing – Miller isn’t playing partisan politics. As a Democrat, he isn’t blaming everything on the Republicans.

“This is a bipartisan issue,” he said. There’s no reason why both parties can’t agree on what needs to be done to help our schools.

So why doesn’t the legislature do more?

Ignorance. “There’s a low level of analysis of bills down there (in Harrisburg).” Local government usually does a better job.

The representative’s teaching background gives him an edge, he says, but most legislators simply don’t have that knowledge base to draw on.

There’s a lot of good will in the capital, he says. “Most legislators aren’t trying to cause a problem.” They want to try to achieve something, but if those experiments fail, the consequences are dramatic, long lasting and hard to correct.

He even talks well of our Republican ex-Governor Tom Corbett, whose education policies – in my opinion – have crippled the state’s schools.

“He was always polite to me, “ Miller says. “He just didn’t talk.” He wasn’t approachable.

By contrast, Gov. Tom Wolf comes to you. Miller recalls walking in to his own Harrisburg office and Wolf was sitting there waiting for him because he had something he wanted to talk about. Wolf is well liked, even among Republicans. They might not agree with the new Democratic governor, but they have to admit he has the best interests of the state at heart.

Perhaps its Miller’s infinite good will that’s propelled the Democrat with only two years in state office to the House Education Committee.

Republicans have dominated state education policy for years. They still do. But in Miller we have someone who actually has a say in one of the most critical areas in the state. And he knows what he’s talking about, takes time to meet with real live educators and sympathizes with our cause.

Which brings me to perhaps the strangest aspect of the whole meeting – Miller’s analysis why more isn’t being done to combat the testing industry.

“The groundswell isn’t there,” he said. “You’re still the fringe.”

He praised teachers unions like the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) for being excellent advocates. He said lawmakers get all their emails, but the emphasis seems to be maintaining pension benefits. He understood why this is so, but the issues we were talking about didn’t seem to register on most legislators radar.

It’s bizarre.

If true, there are a heck of a lot of folks on the fringe.

Rep. Miller, himself, for one.

The majority of public school teachers, too.

And the more than three thousand Pennsylvania students whose parents opted them out of standardized testing last year – they’re on the lunatic fringe.

Heck! If we’re all dangling on the outer edge, who’s in the middle? Where’s the mainstream?

Perhaps its just a matter of perception. Maybe the other side just has better public relations.

If so, it’s up to us to spread the word until all of us counterculture anti-standardization and anti-privatization folks are seen for where we really are – at the axis of real school reform.


Thank you to Meagan O’Toole for setting up the meeting. Thank you, Ben Lander, Yvette Robinson Logan, Mary Cay Rojtas-Milliner, Susan Olsen, and Roslyn Stulga for speaking out for your students and profession. And most of all thank you, Rep. Miller, for meeting with classroom teachers to talk about what’s going on in our state’s public schools and actually listening to our stories and advice.

Parent Power Can Crush the Testocracy – and the Government is Scared Witless

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“We need to change accountability for schools to be more holistic. My greatest frustration is that I can’t do it fast enough.”
Pedro Rivera, Pennsylvania’s Education Secretary

Parents, you can.

It doesn’t matter where you live. It doesn’t matter what laws are on the books. It doesn’t matter if your state is controlled by Democrats, Republicans or some combination thereof.

No government – not federal, state or local – can trample your parental rights. If you don’t want your child to be evaluated based on standardized tests, your child doesn’t have to be. And if a majority of parents nationwide make this decision, the era of standardized testing comes to an end. Period.

It has already begun.

Across the nation last school year, parents decided to opt their children out of standardized testing in historic numbers. The government noticed and functionaries from New York to California and all places in between are scrambling to deal with it.

In the Empire State one in five students didn’t take federally mandated standardized tests. State education commissioner Mary Ellen Elia responded yesterday by threatening sanctions against schools this year with high opt out numbers. In short, if in the coming year too many kids don’t take the test in a given school, the state will withhold funding.

It’s a desperate move. If the public doesn’t like what its duly elected officials and their functionaries are doing, those same officials and functionaries are vowing to punish the public. But wait. Don’t those people work for the public? Isn’t it their job to do our will? It’s not our job to do theirs.

The message was received a bit better in U.S. Congress where the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is being reauthorized. Two drafts of the law that governs K-12 public schools were approved – one in the House and one in the Senate. And both specifically allow parents to opt their children out of standardized testing. But can schools be punished for it?

The House version says no. The Senate version says it’s up to each state legislature.

These bills are being combined before being presented to President Obama for his signature. If he doesn’t veto the result, one might assume that at worst the issue will become each state’s prerogative.

But you’d be wrong. The state has as much business deciding this matter as does the fed – which is none. This is a parental rights issue. No one has the right to blackmail parents to fall in line with any government education policy. It’s the other way around.

In my own state of Pennsylvania, opt out numbers this year were not as dramatic as in New York, but they still sent a message to state government.

The number of students opted out of state tests tripled in 2015, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. PSSA math opt-outs rose to 3,270 students from 1,064 in 2014. PSSA English language arts opt-outs rose to 3,245 from 1,068. Those are the largest jumps in the nine years of available data.

And it’s not only parents who are concerned. Teachers continue to speak out against high stakes standardized tests.

Thousands of teachers have told State Education Secretary Pedro Rivera that school accountability needs to be less about test scores and more about reading levels, attendance, school climate, and other measures, he said. They have concerns about graduation requirements and the state’s current system of evaluating schools.

It’s not like these criticism are new. Education experts have been voicing them since at least 1906 when the New York State Department of Education advised the legislature as follows:

“It is a very great and more serious evil to sacrifice systematic instruction and a comprehensive view of the subject for the scrappy and unrelated knowledge gained by students who are persistently drilled in the mere answering of questions issued by the Education Department or other governing bodies.”
-Sharon L. Nichols and David Berliner, Collateral Damage: How High Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools, 2007

Corporate education reformers complain that testing is necessary to hold schools accountable. However, the results are not trustworthy, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, itself! In 2011 and now again in 2015, officials are cautioning against using test scores to compare student achievement from year-to-year.

“The 2015 assessment should not and cannot be compared to the 2014 and 2013 assessment,” Rivera said. “It’s apples and oranges. Schools are still working on aligning curriculum to standards. They’re still catching up to teaching what we’re assessing.”

Each year students and teachers are told to hit a moving target, which was the reason also cited for caution four years ago.

While Rivera laments the issue and his inability to change anything soon within the government bureaucracy, parents are not thus encumbered.

All you have to do to save your child from being part of this outdated and destructive system is opt out.

But don’t stop there. Talk to other parents. Talk to classroom teachers. Organize informational get-togethers. Go to the PTA and school board meetings. Get others to join you.

And if the government threatens to withhold funding, lawyers are waiting in the wings to start the class action suits. Withholding taxpayer money expressly put aside to educate children because those same taxpayers disagree with government education policy!? Just try us!

Governments are tools but we hold the handles. If enough of us act this year, there will be no testing next year. Functionaries can threaten and foam at the mouth, but we are their collective boss. If they won’t do what we want them to do, we have the power to boot them out.

A multi-billion dollar industry has sprung up around high stakes standardized testing. Lobbying dollars flow from their profit margins into the pockets of our politicians. But we are more powerful.

Because you can’t serve your corporate masters if you are voted out of office.

The Final Straw: Cancel Our Labor Contracts, We Cancel Your Tests

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You can’t do that.

All the fear, frustration and mounting rage of public school teachers amounts to that short declarative sentence.

You can’t take away our autonomy in the classroom.

You can’t take away our input into academic decisions.

You can’t take away our job protections and collective bargaining rights.

You can’t do that.

But the state and federal government has repeatedly replied in the affirmative – oh, yes, we can.

For at least two decades, federal and state education policy has been a sometimes slow and incremental chipping away at teachers’ power and authority – or at others a blitzkrieg wiping away decades of long-standing best practices.

The latest and greatest of these has been in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Earlier this week, the state-led School Reform Commission simply refused to continue bargaining with teachers over a new labor agreement. Instead, members unilaterally cancelled Philadelphia teachers contract and dictated their own terms – take them or get out.

The move was made at a meeting called with minimal notice to hide the action from the public. Moreover, the legality of the decision is deeply in doubt. The courts will have to decide if the SRC even has the legal authority to bypass negotiations and impose terms.

One doesn’t have to live or work in the City of Brotherly Love to feel the sting of the state SRC. For many educators across the nation this may be the last straw.

For a long time now, we have watched in stunned silence as all the problems of society are heaped at our feet.

Nearly half of all public school children in the United States live in abject poverty. This is not our fault. We did not pass the laws that allowed this to happen.

We did not crash the economy and then allow the guilty parties to get away Scott free – in most cases to continue the same risky financial practices all over again.

We did not cut funding to programs designed to help the poor – public assistance, childcare, counseling , job placement, etc.

We did not slash state and federal taxes for the wealthiest Americans, corporations and big businesses resulting in less public money to do the jobs we give the government.

We didn’t even get to provide more than the most minimal input into the dominant education policies of the land. School Choice, No Child Left Behind, Common Core, Race to the Top – those were written and enacted by bureaucrats, politicians and billionaire philanthropists.

But somehow we’re to blame.

Teachers dedicate their lives to fight the ignorance and poverty of the next generation and are found guilty of the very problem they came to help alleviate. It’s like blaming a doctor when a patient gets sick, blaming a lawyer because his client committed a crime or blaming a firefighter because an arsonist threw a match.

The Philadelphia decision makes clear the paranoid conspiracy theories about school privatization are neither paranoid nor mere theories. We see them enacted in our local newspapers and media in the full light of day.

Step 1: Poor schools lose state and federal funding.

Step 2: Schools can’t cope with the loss, further reduce services, quality of education suffers.

Step 3: Blame teachers, privatize, cancel union contracts, reduce quality of education further.

Ask yourself this: why does this only happen at poor schools?

You never see a rich school dissolve its contract with its teachers. You never see a rich school declare it will become a charter to increase educational outcomes.

Why is that? Is it because rich schools are so poorly managed they can’t see the benefits of these excellent strategies – or is it because no one cares about the poor?

Poverty has been the driving factor behind the Philadelphia Schools tragedy for decades.  Approximately 70% of district students are at or near the poverty line.

To meet this need, the state has bravely chipped away at its share of public school funding. In 1975, Pennsylvania provided 55% of school funding statewide; in 2014 it provides only 36%. Nationally, Pennsylvania is 45th out of 50 for lowest state funding for public education.

Such chronic neglect by the state left poorer Philadelphia neighborhoods unable to make up the difference financially. In 1998, exasperated school administrators threatened to close the district unless the state paid its fair share.

The matter went to the courts with the district suing the state for not providing “thorough and efficient” funding and discriminating against the district’s largely non-White population. After a long series of negotiations, in 2001 lawmakers quickly created contentious legislation to take over management of the district.

Since the schools were in distress (read: poor), the state decided it could do the following: put the district under the control of a School Reform Commission; hire a CEO; enable the CEO to hire non-certified staff, reassign or fire staff; allow the commission to hire for-profit firms to manage some schools; convert others to charters; and move around district resources.

And now after 13 years of state management with little to no improvement, the problem is once again the teachers. It’s not mismanagement by the SRC. It’s not the chronic underfunding. It’s not crippling, generational poverty. It’s these greedy people who volunteer to work with the children most in need.

We could try increasing services for those students. We could give management of the district back to the people who care most: the citizens of Philadelphia. We could increase the districts portion of the budget so students could get more arts and humanities, tutoring, wraparound services, etc. That might actually improve the educational quality those children receive.

Nah! It’s the teachers! Let’s rip up their labor contract!

Take my word for it. Educators have had it.

There will come a time – that time may have come already – when teachers refuse to be the scapegoats for poor policies made by poor decision-makers to fleece and rob the poor.

It all comes down to standardized tests. Bureaucrats don’t know how to measure educational achievements without them. After all, they’re not, themselves, educators. That’s why every major educational “reform” of recent years requires more-and-more of these fill-in-the-bubble falsely objective, poorly written and cheaply graded tests.

In fact, standardized test scores are used to determine whether a school is “failing” or not. It was, after all, one of the chief justifications used for the state takeover of Philly schools.

However, educators know the emperor has no clothes. We know the best predictor of high test scores is a student’s parental income. Rich kids score well, poor kids score badly. Standardized tests don’t measure knowledge. They measure economics.

That’s why parents across the nation are increasingly refusing to let their children take them. It’s why colleges are increasingly lifting the requirement that applicants even take the SAT.

Teachers, too, have begun refusing to administer the tests. However, this is risky because in doing so they are in jeopardy of being fired for insubordination.

But times are changing. The two biggest teachers unions in the country recently came out in favor of protecting educators who take this principled stance.

Alice O’Brien, head of the NEA Office of the General Counsel:

“NEA supports parents who chose to exercise their legal right to opt their children out of standardized tests. When educators determine that a standardized test serves no legitimate educational purpose, and stand in solidarity with their local and state association to call for an end to the administration of that test in their schools, NEA will support those educators just as it did in the case of the teachers who protested the administration of the MAP test at Garfield High School.”

AFT President Randi Weingarten:

“We supported teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle when they refused to give redundant tests. We supported early childhood teachers in New York when they shined the light on how abusive it is to give bubble tests to 5-year-olds. On the testing madness that’s sapping the joy from our classrooms, teachers are the canaries in the coal mines, and we support their advocacy. Ultimately, though, it’s up to parents to make the decision whether to opt out.”

It follows then that educators should refuse to administer standardized tests across the country – especially at poor schools.

What do we have to lose? The state already is using these deeply flawed scores to label our districts a failure, take us over and then do with us as they please.

Refuse to give them the tools to make that determination. Refuse to give the tests. How else will they decide if a school is succeeding or failing? They can’t come out and blame the lack of funding. That would place the blame where it belongs – on the same politicians, bureaucrats and billionaire philanthropists who pushed for these factory school reforms in the first place.

This would have happened much sooner if not for fear teachers would lose their jobs. The Philadelphia decision shows that this may be inevitable. The state is committed to giving us the option of working under sweatshop conditions or finding employment elsewhere. By unanimously dissolving the union contract for teachers working in the 8th largest district in the country, they have removed the last obstacle to massive resistance.

Teachers want to opt out. They’ve been chomping at the bit to do this for years. We know how destructive this is to our students. But we’ve tried to compromise – I’ll do a little test prep here and try to balance it with a real lesson the next day. Testing is an unfortunate part of life and I’m helping my students by teaching them to jump through these useless hoops.

But now we no longer need to engage in these half measures. In fact, continuing as before would go against our interests.

Any Title 1 district – any school that serves a largely impoverished population – would be best served now if teachers refused to give the powers that be the tools needed to demoralize kids, degrade teachers and dissolve their work contracts. And as the poorer districts go, more affluent schools should follow suit to reclaim the ability to do what’s best for their students. The standardized testing machine would ground to a halt offering an opportunity for real school reform. The only option left would be real, substantial work to relieve the poverty holding back our nation’s school children.

In short, teachers need to engage in a mass refusal to administer standardized tests.

“But you can’t do that,” say the politicians, bureaucrats and billionaire philanthropists.

Oh, yes, we can.


This article was published on Diane Ravich’s blog and the Badass Teachers Association blog.