Wednesday, June 17, 2015

When Private Interests Take Over Public Schools

The fight against privatization of public schools is thought to be one against moneyed, hedgefund charter investors who want to make a profit off of our children.  There is another kind of fight against private interest takeover that has been going on in East Ramapo, NY for years, and it is time that it got more of our attention.

About five years ago, the population of Ultra-Orthodox Jews in East Ramapo used bloc voting to take all of the seats on the public school board of education.  They have continually defunded public schools in favor of the private yeshivas their children attend. They conduct closed-door board meetings and do not respond to public outcry. They are depriving the mostly ethnic and impoverished public school students of their constitutional right for a quality education. Over 100 teachers have been cut from public schools, along with other staff that includes administrators, teaching assistants, guidance counselors, and social workers. There are no longer advanced courses in East Ramapo public schools, though there are plenty of opportunities in the yeshivas.  Music, art, sports, extracurricular activities, high school electives, full-day kindergarten have all been either cut back or eliminated. Jewish as well as other religious clergy, civil rights groups, the New York City Bar Association, and others have asked the state legislature to take action.  The Assembly passed a bill calling for state oversight of this abominable and shameful self-interest, but the Senate is sitting on it and has taken no action. I just called Amedore and was assured he will get the message today before the session ends. I made a case that this is segregation at its worst, and why is the state advocating for receivership and state takeover of "failing" schools and giving this district a pass? PLEASE CALL YOUR SENATOR TODAY. This is a civil rights issue and a moral issue.  If action is not taken today we must continue advocating for these students.  

Friday, June 12, 2015

About Those Tax Credit Mailers And Robocalls

If you live in New York, you have surely been inundated with numerous robocall messages, glossy mailers, and tv commercials that plead for us to "stand up for our schools" by passing the Education Tax Credit.  I have been both frustrated and angry that this huge lobbying effort (in one day I can get up to three mailers and a robocall) shamelessly uses distorted facts and misrepresentations to achieve their end goal.  The deep pockets behind this campaign wants legislators to pass a backdoor voucher scheme that will reward the 1% while removing needed money from the tax stream.  Cuomo does not seem to mind that this expense would come at a time when most NY schools are still being squeezed between a rigid tax cap and underfunding from the state.

The New York Times recently "outed" those behind the Coalition for Opportunity in Education.  Hedgefund billionaires Bruce Kovner, Ira Rennert, Julian H. Robertson Jr., and Paul E. Snyder have donated to the group, with their stated aim being "school choice" and the privatization of our public schools.  COE has been one of the top ten lobbying spenders for the past two years, with their campaigns costing upwards of a million dollars. Eva Moskowitz and her StudentsFirstNY and Families for Excellent Schools PACs have also chimed in with television commercials.  One can almost see the salivation of investors like these as they think about the "opportunity" for investment that will occur, once they get those pesky public schools out of the way and take them over with for-profit charters.  Their first step towards that goal would be to open the "back" door for vouchers in New York State.  Once the door is open a bit, it would be much easier to march on through with full voucher plans like the one recently adopted by Nevada, where they will now give each child a voucher for $10,000+ to pick the school of their choice.  No matter what happens to the public schools that are not first on the wish-list of students, it will be survival of the fittest. We are supposed to believe that these hedgefund capitalist "reformers" are spending so much of their money on lobbying because they have the "altruistic" belief that market competition will "save our students."  Because, after all, market competition has done so well in other public service areas - like health care, cable television and internet, etc.  We just aren't supposed to notice the high costs and minimal service that creeps in once a profit margin is established.

This ALEC-inspired scheme will create a deficit of up to $150 million from the tax stream in the first year, with at least $70 million reserved for the rich who will receive a 75% tax credit for their up-to-a-million-dollar donation to the swanky private schools of their choice. Compare that to the current maximum state deduction of $22,000, and you can see that Elizabeth Lyman, a financial expert for the New York Citizens' Budget Commission, was right when she stated in a New York Times article  that the bill is "an extremely lucrative benefit likely to serve the state's wealthiest taxpayers."  Indeed, some have stated that only those with an "accountant on speed-dial" would be able to take advantage of the tax break. Cuomo's allegiance to his hedgefund donors is firmly established, as it appears he will pull out all stops to get them what they want, even pushing for a linkage between the Assembly's preferred rent control measures and the backdoor voucher, which is popular in the Senate.  

Cardinal Dolan and other religious leaders have praised the bill, hoping that through the $500 "scholarship" that is included, parochial schools will be saved from the exodus of students that has been growing every year over the last decade.  What they do not understand, is that their loss of students is primarily caused by the existence of tuition-free charter schools, and a small scholarship is not going to solve that problem.  The $500 scholarship is also not going to give students who would not already be attending a private school, the ability to do so.  Actually, though this year's voucher scheme does not include charter schools, the fact that Moskowitz et al is involved in the lobbying clearly reveals their hope that the backdoor will soon be opened for their charters and lead to the expanded market they so desire. Vouchers could just be the last nail in the coffin for both parochial and public schools.

Cuomo gave a snarky comment to the NY Times that "the predictable sort of Manhattan liberals" were concerned about the possibly unconstitutional blending of church and state that will occur with the tax credit. The fact of the matter is that this proposal violates one of the principles our country was founded on, and every citizen should be concerned about that.  In states like Georgia, Louisiana, Wisconsin, and Florida when backdoor voucher measures have been legislated, taxpayer funds went to schools that taught  creationism, racist intolerance, homophobia, and/or science denial curriculum.  Because the funding comes via a "donation" and not directly from the state, the state has no say in curriculum that is taught, and there is no financial oversight allowed.  

Those mailers that go out warn us that if we do not pass the ETC "there will be less funding for pre-K and afterschool programs, like art and music classes."  The exact opposite is true. The chances of donors coming forward with a gift to public schools is remote, given the fact that the overwhelming majority of current donors give to private, not public, schools.  In fact, the negative effect the credit will have on the tax stream will most certainly lead to less funding for public schools, not more.  And as for that "reimbursement" to "hard-working teachers" for out-of-pocket expenses, there is already a $250 federal tax deduction that teachers receive.  The public school teachers that I know would not want to take a tax credit that would impact the funding of their schools.

A recent Q-poll stated that 66% of New Yorkers were in favor of the tax credit, probably due to the heavy media campaign of the hedgefund coalition.  With the Assembly ending its session on June 17, it is CRUCIAL that we get the correct information out to the public - by sharing the truth with as many people as we can reach.  It is also crucial that we support those Assembly members who are standing strong against this proposal in spite of the printed slurs and robocalls against them.  We are up against big money, so it is more important than ever that our voices be heard.  Pick up your phone, fire up your email, and tell your legislators that you expect them to support public schools and vote no on the Parental Choice in Education Act.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Troublesome Record of MaryEllen Elia

Most of the time, it is not the people who come in with arguments blazing that you have to worry about.  It is the sweet-talkers, those who say they "are listening," who do more damage to opposition because by making "nice," they deflate the ire from which protest is born. From the press conferences that MaryEllen Elia has given since she accepted the job as New York State Education Commissioner, she could be pegged as a sweet-talker who nonetheless rigidly adheres to a "reformer" (or some would say deformer) dogma.

Once word leaked out that MaryEllen Elia was to be appointed, New York State parents, activists, and educators took to search engines to thoroughly research her background. Already troubled by the lack of transparency and stakeholder input in the search for a state education leader, what they found out about her work record proved even more disconcerting. Elia was paid a million dollars so that the school board could let her go "without cause" from her superintendent job in Hillsborough School District in Tampa, Florida.  For a district to be willing to pay that much in a "parachute payment," one might guess there had to have been some valid concerns and not just political angst.  Elia was a pro-Common Core, pro-high-stakes testing, pro-ranking/stacking/firing teachers, pro-voucher and pro-school choice kind of super who was also cozy with Jeb Bush.  As superintendent, she managed a 100 million dollar grant to Hillsborough from the Gates Foundation, intended to improve teacher evaluations and link them to testing. She also advocated for and used merit pay.

Elia's evaluations by Hillsborough Board members refer to her intimidating leadership style which created a "culture of fear," her lack of communication and transparency, and her lack of investigation and follow-through after the deaths of four students.  In her plus column, she was willing to go head to head to fight against expansion of a for-profit charter company with a questionable record, so she is apparently not a pushover for moneyed charter interests.  Let's further investigate her record.

1.  Elia's Record on School Choice
Pro-choice policies that Elia supported during her years at Hillsborough contributed to some district schools becoming "sacrifice zones" with high violence and crime rates, disproportionate suspension rates for minority students, and a lack of connection between schools and communities. The result was that the school district failed to provide a sound education for thousands of their students, and has one of the worst black graduation rates in the state.  

Prior to her 2005 appointment as superintendent at Hillsborough, Elia was head of the district's magnet school office.  Problems began in 2001, when a federal order requiring busing to integrate schools was lifted, in favor of the district's position that racial segregation had been eliminated.  The district then decided to move ahead with a "controlled choice" plan that would encourage racial diversity through magnet schools that would supposedly bring middle-class students to inner city schools, and inner-city kids to the largely white and more suburban schools. 

The district rapidly converted middle schools into specialty magnet schools for science/technology, criminal justice, and performing arts.  They chose students through a lottery system that was weighted based on zip code, income, and other diversity factors. Elia and her supervisors, however, overestimated how many parents from high-poverty neighborhoods would sign their children up for the magnets in other areas of the district. Poorer parents often do not have transportation, and they work long hours. They therefore chose to keep their children in schools in their neighborhoods, even when they were labeled as "failing schools."  By the time it became clear that this was a problem, thousands of middle school students had been displaced and were without a neighborhood school to attend, because those schools had already been converted to magnets. Elia and other district leadership were slow to respond to the problem. They tried to "take back" some of the magnets and return them to neighborhood schools, but were met with resistance by parents who were looking forward to the opportunity for a magnet experience for their children.  Unwilling to oppose the parents, the district backed down.

Two schools were converted to K-8 schools, but they were severely overcrowded and did not have enough resources to accommodate the students.  When that failed, the district bused students to other schools, like East Tampa's McLane Middle School, Mann Middle in Brandon, and Madison and Monroe Middle Schools in South Tampa.  At McLane, the high-poverty student body felt alienated, had to endure long bus rides (where violence often began and ended their day), and became immersed in a school culture that was gang-influenced to the point that students were "arming themselves out of fear."  The school had scant resources to deal with homelessness and learning disabilities, classroom fights and attacks on teachers, and "flash mob fights" at arrival and dismissal times.  The "school-to-prison pipeline" became firmly entrenched, with an average of one student a week leaving the school in handcuffs.  Administration enforced punitive discipline measures that fell disproportionately on black students.  While black students made up 52% of the student body, they accounted for 90% of the expulsions.  

In spite of the severity of the problems caused by the school choice plan she had enthusiastically embraced, Elia was promoted to Superintendent of the district in 2005.  In 2014, nearly ten years later, inequity issues at schools like McLane remained largely unsolved and a complaint with the USDOE Office for Civil Rights was filed by Marilyn Williams, a community activist.  She states, "Without a doubt, this district has built one of the worst school-to-prison pipelines in the state of Florida."  The complaint cited the discriminatory harsher penalties and disproportionate suspension rates for black students, and the fact that high-poverty students were denied access to experienced teachers.  Elia's response to the latter was a pay incentive plan that gave teachers who volunteered to relocate a 2% pay raise the first year, and 5% after that. Those in the highest-poverty schools got a $1,000 recruitment bonus and a $2,000 retention bonus after the first year.  The school climate improved somewhat with a new principal - but the large-scale busing which is the root cause was never addressed.

It is clear from the magnet school fiasco that Elia and other district leadership did not have a firm grasp on the logistics of the community in the district.  As superintendent, Elia did little to address the worst of the concerns, until forced to do so by a federal civil rights complaint. 

2.  Those Heartbreaking Deaths on Elia's Watch
No administrator, teacher, or community member should have to go through the death of a student, especially when that death happens during school hours.  When that death may have been prevented, it is a tragedy of outstanding proportions.  During Elia's reign as superintendent at Hillsborough, four students died in her district.  

In January 2012, a seven year old special needs child died on a schoolbus.  The seven year old had a neuromuscular disorder and could not control her neck and head.  An IEP required the school district to stabilize her head, especially during transportation.  School personnel on the bus failed to do that, and when her head tilted forward it cut off her airway. At the time, a 21-year old district policy required the driver to call dispatchers instead of 911. It is possible that if 911 were called immediately, the little girl may have been resuscitated. In spite of the horrible circumstances, Elia did not thoroughly investigate the incident to assess whether the district should change or reform conditions that may have contributed to the death.  She relied on an investigation from the sheriff's office that stated there was no wrongdoing.  Worse yet, she failed to inform the school board of the tragedy.  The family filed a lawsuit against the district, finally bringing the matter to the attention of the board and the public.  There are those who called for a task force to examine the policies about calling 911, but there was also a call for an investigation into why it took a lawsuit to bring attention to the death.

On January 17, 2014 yet another child died in the district, this time at Seminole Heights Elementary School, leading to another lawsuit.  Stephen Maher, lawyer for the family, stated "Another child has died because of the failure of the school district to call 911 and perform CPR and other life-saving measures."  The child complained of a severe headache and was sent to the back of the room to lie down.  When he started vomiting, the school nurse was called.  The nurse then called the parents and left a voicemail telling them to come pick up their son. By the time they arrived, his lips were blue and he was unresponsive.  Only then was 911 called.  He was operated on for a brain hemorrhage, but he had been without oxygen for too long and did not survive.

School policy seems to have been complicit in the death.  In the fall of 2013, teachers in the district had been shown a videotape with instructions to either call the front office first in a medical emergency, or call 911 if they had access to a cell phone.  If those instructions had warned them to call 911 immediately, the child may have been saved.  This is especially troublesome in light of the fact that this incident occurred TWO YEARS after the 2012 death, and the district still had not adequately addressed their procedures for medical emergencies.  It was not until March of 2014 that a policy to first call 911 was instituted, with additional requirements training bus drivers and aides in how to handle students with disabilities.

Two more children died at Hillsborough while Elia was superintendent.  In September 2012, an autistic sophomore at a public charter school in the district drowned at a back to school pool party. The following month, a Downs Syndrome child ran off from gym class and drowned in a pond that was on school property.  While there is not a legal claim that school policies could have prevented these two accidental deaths, questions linger as to why special needs children in the district were not more thoroughly supervised.

The most troubling aspect to many, aside from the deaths themselves, is that the district, led by Elia, failed to act in an expedited way to investigate the circumstances around these deaths, and propose or institute reforms that would make the chances of other deaths far less likely.

New York State has a deep schism between the "have" and the "have-not" schools. Equitable funding and the establishment of meaningful community-based policies are crucial to address the issues that poverty presents to many of our schools.  To solve these problems is going to take a massive effort and the collaboration of many diverse groups.  In light of Elia's record, I fear she may not have what it takes to lead our state in a productive, and not punitive, course of action.  So far, her soundbytes repeat a mantra of testing and Common Core, and not the need to solve the real problems that impoverished districts face.

Friday, April 24, 2015

We Demand An Investigation Into Pearson Tests

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman
Office of the Attorney General
The Capitol
Albany, NY   12224-0341

Dear Attorney General:

I am writing to demand an investigation into the Pearson-created standardized tests that are being given to New York State children in Grades 3-8.  As you know, the tests are paid for with tax money, through a contract negotiated with New York State.  The tests are designed to fail students, with questions that are written beyond grade level, ambiguous “equally plausible” answer choices that would confound even an adult, and developmentally inappropriate vocabulary and reading texts.  Mr. Attorney General, do you know what “plinth” means?  Because that was one of the vocabulary words on the sixth grade ELA, along with the words ephemeral, paroxysm, clamorous, tutelage, furlong, absconders, and surmised.  Equally difficult vocabulary was noted on the ELA for other grade levels, along with archaic text passages that are grade levels beyond the students ability or interest.

Last week, Dr. Roy F. Sullivan, Carol A. Sullivan, M.S., and Rebecca F. Cooper, Au.D., of P-O-S-E, published a comparison study of the ELA assessments that were given to Mineola.  I quote:  “Findings reveal significant issues with face validity of the NYS ELA examination as currently implemented. NYS ELA test passages for Grades 3 and 4 in 2013 and 2014 present an exaggerated range of grade-inappropriate reading levels effectively rendering invalid any test questions based on these passages.  Reading levels for NYS-released 2014 Grade 3 passages were well above grade level, well above the level for 2013 Grade 3 passages and even higher than Grade 4 passages for 2013.”!report-why-ela-is-invalid-unreliable-/cx6r

We are now hearing reports from parents and teachers that children were crying throughout both the ELA test and the Math test this year.  An anonymous Facebook poster remarked that the “fifth grade exam was like a borderline Regents exam” and another that “the Grade 3 math exam was akin to a middle school math exam.”  Children are being traumatized by these exams that are failing 70% of our students, lowering their self-confidence for learning and instilling test anxiety that could become a serious handicap to them in the future. 

The exams are rife with errors.  On the ELA, one of the exam questions misnamed a character, confusing students because it was not applicable to the passage.  On the Russian version of the math exam, passages were written in Korean.  And those are only the errors we know about.  Gag orders and secrecy surrounding the tests makes it impossible to identify all of the mistakes and errors within the exams.

There is little to no transparency on these exams.  When information on questions is “leaked,” (as happened with the “Pineapple and the Hare” question years ago, when the nonsensical question created a tidal wave of complaints), there is no response and no remediation or adaptive improvement by Pearson or State Ed of the test questions on future tests.  The difficulty of these exam questions has been at a level grades beyond student age/developmental abilities for three years, and protests have been made, but the tests continue to be as difficult or more difficult for students, year after year.  Many of the questions ask for abstract thinking processes, a cognitive ability that does not develop until the average age of 12.  One can only make the conclusion that Pearson and/or NYSED wants children to fail these tests.

I have also heard that the cut scores are set after the tests are graded, guaranteeing a failure rate that the state chooses.  Surely that must be an unethical practice.  In addition, if students, parents, and teachers are never allowed to see most of the questions on these tests, then how are teachers to appeal “ineffective” or “developing” teacher ratings based on the tests?

At least one of the 2015 ELA tests featured a text and questions that also appeared in a Pearson test preparation book, giving an unfair advantage to schools that could afford to purchase Pearson products.  This has also happened on previous tests.  Again, complaints fell on deaf ears.

I am requesting that you conduct an investigation into the Pearson tests.  You could start by giving the exams to adults.  I have no doubt that they will have problems with many of the questions.  The paying for faulty tests that are clearly designed to fail our children and thereby fire our teachers, is an unethical fraud perpetrated on the children of taxpaying NYS citizens, and deserves your attention.

I look forward to hearing from you,

For more information that will help you write your letter, see

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Don't You Dare Call This Opt Out Movement a Labor Dispute

A Guest Blog by Lily Alayne Owen

Lately there is constant discussion about the relevance, efficacy, and morality of the NYS tests. I met someone at the gym a few weeks back, who described the children in her 3rd grade class last year, who had vomited, sobbed, and shown obvious signs of distress. I had heard of these things before, when I read similar accounts on the internet. Before meeting this teacher, I had assumed it was all rhetoric, based on a mere handful of kids. When I spoke with her, I realized that this distress is not an isolated incident, but a widely observed phenomena. Children everywhere are seriously struggling with these tests. Children want to please the adults around them, because they generally want to do well on whatever tasks are put in front of them. Children trust parents and teachers to present them with appropriate challenges and they trust us to help them through those challenges. They don’t expect to be tricked, deceived, or abandoned during a difficult time. What must it feel like to a child experiencing these NYS tests?

It seems that those who are in power in NY State feel that our children belong to them, to be used at their discretion. It also seems that these same people, elected officials, have become drunk with their power and have taken from children the basic rights that all humans deserve and which are increasingly even afforded to animals. Children have a RIGHT to be protected from unnecessary suffering and psychological and emotional abuse. Do politicians and education leaders believe that children are not capable of mental anguish? Do they believe that children are not capable of suffering, of emotional distress, of understanding complex situations? Do they think kids can perform as well in a high pressure situation?
Children are capable of seeing and sensing the shades of gray. They have the same emotional attunement that has guaranteed the survival of our species and they know when the adults around them, particularly the adults to whom they have strong bonds, are struggling. This is a relevant component of empathy. Children can sense the seriousness of high stakes tests, even if they don’t know the implications of these tests. No child should feel responsible for any adult, they should not be saddled with the tremendous responsibility of helping to determine which of their beloved teachers get to keep their jobs, and which ones get fired. The burden of that responsibility would be oppressive to most adults, and it is absolutely crippling to the compassionate hearts and delicate minds of children. It is unconscionable for any adult to put this weight on a young child’s shoulders in the name of education.

Knowingly causing another human to suffer is abuse. When a private individual, a parent for example, abuses a child, the state sees fit to remove that child from his parents for protection. What, then, should we parents do when we see that the state is abusing our beloved children? Should we not take the same action and remove the state's access to our children so that the state, too, can be prevented from harming and abusing our youth? This is what the OPT OUT movement is all about. Parents reclaiming their Constitutional right to protect their children and raise them in the way they see fit. We parents intend to keep refusing until officials and legislators reconnect with the empathy, compassion, and basic understanding of human development needed to contribute in a meaningful way, to a discussion about education. Children are not robots. They are complex, beautiful, disorganized, spontaneous, creative, magnificent little creatures. They are not miniature adults. They are not inanimate objects. Misusing governmental authority for the sake of the profit of private companies is an unscrupulous corruption of power. Doing so at the tremendous emotional and psychological expense of children, is unforgivable.

I find it strange that politicians and government leaders assume that children cannot experience emotional distress in the chokehold of high stakes testing, when they also assume that children in 6th grade are capable of comprehending and manipulating language that is at a 10th grade reading level. Children ARE, in fact, capable of incredible suffering when put in a difficult position.
The job of a child is to wildly engage with life; to conduct a constant series of passionate experiments with his or her surroundings. To try out behaviors, to learn self control, to ask millions of questions, to create hypotheses and constantly test them in dialogue with adults and with their environment. It is the job of children to make mistakes, sometimes huge ones, in the service of learning. It is their job to be imperfect. They are works in progress. Their progress comes from an ever more complicated set of mistakes.
In order to fly an airplane, you can’t just set off in a straight line, in the direction of your destination. You have to aim in the general direction and then you must make a series of corrections of little mistakes as you get closer and closer to your destination. So it is in learning, too. The best we can hope for is that our children will be bold enough to make the essential mistakes in life that will guide them to their greatest discoveries and learning. My hope for my children is that they will have a growth mindset. I want my children to know that people are not born brilliant mathematicians or architects or doctors or writers or artists. Babies are born with potential and children and adolescents hone skills and follow passions, which turn them into great mathematicians, architects, doctors, writers, and artists. And how do children hone these skills? How do inexperienced little people know how to follow their passions in a way that becomes gradually more sophisticated? Their parents. And their teachers.
As a mother I see teachers as one of my biggest allies in life, in raising my children, in teaching them how to be good humans, to help them think critically and be knowledgeable about the world around them. An attack on teachers is an attack on my family, because teachers and schools are simply an extension of parents and family. I hope that this comparison will help people understand why this is such a deeply personal battle: a battle, for which some of us would offer our lives.
In my life, there has been no greater gift, than that of my parents and teachers.   As a child my mother educated us in hundreds of fascinating topics during the summer, after school, and on weekends. She dragged me on insufferable house tours, charming architecture walks, to darn near every national park in the United States, and she and my grandmother taught me the name of every flower in our backyard gardens. My mother stocked our house with craft kits and science kits. She took us to musicals and played Dvořák records around the house. My mother taught me what it was like to love learning. She made the world come alive.
When I entered school I found that there were others like her, who were absolutely obsessed with the joy of learning. These special people were my teachers. From elementary school to graduate school there have always been teachers who made my head swirl with difficult ideas and excitement. It just makes sense that when learning is fun, it creates motivation and a virtuous cycle. The intrinsic rewards of joyful learning guarantee that a happy student will never stop wanting to learn and grow.
Now I have my own children, four of them. And they are wide-eyed and excited and making messy mistakes all over the place. Now I watch as they experience the miracle and joy of imagining, hypothesizing, modeling, and refuting. I set out everyday to model for my kids that learning is a lifelong adventure. I trust their teachers to give them room to grow and the courage to take risks as they explore their world. I know their teachers have the best possible knowledge and skills to help fan their curiosity, develop their critical thinking, shape their character, and teach them to find answers to their most burning questions.
Which brings me to the point of this whole post.
Parents and teachers are more alike than different.
We love our children. We want to protect them. We know what is best for them.
Don’t you dare call this Opt Out Movement a Labor Dispute.
This movement, most definitely is a Dispute about Love.

What Harm Are We Doing to Our Children?

In the current controversy surrounding high-stakes testing of our children, there are those who call such testing “child abuse,” and those who state that tests could never be tantamount to abuse.  The truth lies somewhere in between.  Studies do seem to point to the conclusion that a high-stakes testing environment is harmful to children, and may even have lifelong consequences.  

Over the past three years, there have been many reports of test anxiety in students during Common Core tests.  As early as November 2013, a group of eight principals in New York State wrote to parents to express their concern that, among other things, students were crying during tests, vomiting, losing control of their bladder or bowels, and at least one child was banging his head on the desk.  Before Common Core testing, incidents like these were not commonplace in classrooms.  In 2014 and now again in 2015, teachers and principals report students crying before, during, and after tests, while parents are sharing stories online of nightmares and other signs of anxiety in their children. Children are expressing feelings of negative self-image and inadequacy, and there are also reports of self-harming after the receipt of scores.  Before Common Core, New York administered language arts, social studies, science, and math tests for years, without such widespread signs of anxiety.  What happened?  And is it important to understand the implications of test anxiety in children?

Most who hear of test anxiety, are not overly concerned.  There is a general mindset that such anxiety happens to only a small substrate of the population, and that it only has effects on children during the hours of testing, a small percentage of their life.  In fact, the American Test Anxieties Association estimates that high test anxiety affects about 16-20% of students, with another 18% of students experiencing moderate test anxiety.  That equals about one-third of our students, or about ten million children.  The problem is also on the increase since the advent of high-stakes testing, and could have lifelong consequences. The AMTAA states that such anxiety can "restrict career choices and lower quality of life."

Dr. Natasha Segool, a psychology professor at the University of Hartford, was one of the researchers who conducted a study of children in grades 3-5 in Michigan schools in 2013.  The study showed that children were "significantly more anxious when taking statewide assessments compared to other classroom tests."  59% of the test subjects reported moderate text anxiety about high-stakes NCLB testing. 11% of the children surveyed reported severe psychological and physiological symptoms tied to the assessments.

In Segool's study, teachers also reported their own anxiety about student performance on NCLB tests, and researchers feel that such anxiety may have the potential to indirectly influence student perceptions. The higher the perception of rewards or sanctions by students, the more heightened the anxiety.  Researchers Denscombe (2000) and Putwain (2013) state that fear appeals by teachers, or repeated messages about the importance of test scores, can exacerbate the development of stress and anxiety in children.  Even when teachers do not overtly stress the importance of the test, when the fate of their career is tied to student performance, they will unknowingly pass their own anxiety on to the children. In such an atmosphere, scores on high-stakes tests have the potential to make children internalize messages about their own ability to learn and succeed.

Using "motivation" techniques such as Success Academy's "red-lining" and shaming of students by rewards or punishments, creates a situation where anxiety and stress is heightened.  This is especially troublesome for the population that Success Academy serves, because a 1993 study by Turner, Beidel, Hughes and Turner found that the prevalence of high test anxiety among African American elementary school children could be as high as 41%. The advent of high-stakes testing would certainly exacerbate such anxiety, and leave students extremely vulnerable to negative consequences of the boot-camp type school environment. Consequences of this institutionalized bullying include in the short term, increased lethargy, sadness, jealousy, anger, resentment, and failure-acceptance.  In the long term, students would develop a lack of empathy for others and disengage from their own learning, thereby preventing the development of higher level thinking skills.

Studies have proven that chronic stress and anxiety changes brain chemistry. The effects of chronic stress are most harmful to children on the autism spectrum, or those with neurological, sensory, or developmental delays.  Child Psychologist Dr. Gary Thompson believes that ADHD, English Language Learners, and gifted students are also highly vulnerable to negative effects of testing.  He likens what is occurring in the US today to a huge, untested, "social experiment," which lacks parental "consent that would inform of possible damage that could result from the experiment."  

Negative outcomes from test anxiety include decreased school-related motivation and low academic self-concept. Studies have also shown a significant correlation between test anxiety and generalized anxiety or mood disorders (Owens et al, 2012).  Damage associated with prolonged stress includes desensitization, loss of imagination, loss of humor, loss of spontaneity, self-injury, and inability to concentrate. The results of prolonged and chronic stress do not manifest completely until teen or early adulthood, when an increase in mood disorders and personality disorders such as narcissism and antisocial behavior appear.  

What are we doing to a generation of students who are enduring chronic stress and anxiety for much of the school year?  The damage inflicted by test-obsessed, data-driven education "reforms" may result in a greater incidence of psychological problems that will affect the well-being and economy of our society.  Parents are taking a stand and saying that they will no longer allow their children to be put in jeopardy for the sake of political gains.  It is time that our governments listen, and be held accountable to end the high-stakes testing that is endangering the future of our children.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Public Comment to NYSED on Teacher Evaluations

I am writing to express my deep concern over the Governor’s proposed education reform to the evaluation of NYS teachers.  It is my belief that this plan would be disastrous to public education in our state for a number of reasons.  

My concern is not unfounded.  Evaluating teachers by “Value Added Methodology” based on student test scores is a deeply flawed plan that has no validity in practice.  Surely the NYS Education Department and the Board of Regents have taken notice of the studies that have thoroughly discredited this methodology.  All one needs to do is “assess the assessment” over the past years.  One-third of New York teachers moved from one category to another each year on that measure.  In other words, a teacher could be found “highly effective” one year, and “developing” or “ineffective,” the next; or vice versa.  There is no consistency in the ratings, which should be a huge red flag to those overseeing the rating system.  Lack of consistency is tantamount to lack of validity.  The proposed plan worsens this effect because a teacher can still receive an ineffective rating, even though they were developing or effective on the other three categories of the system.

A brief prepared jointly by the American Education Research Association and the National Academy of Education warned against using the VAM scores in high-stakes evaluation, and the American Statistical Society (a group whose findings should be weighted heavily, since this is not an “educational” organization) stated that using these VAM scores “can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.” Research states that teachers have at most 1-14% impact on student test scores, yet our governor would like to base 50% of the evaluations on such measures?  It is ludicrous.  

Those teachers most at risk are the ones we need the most. Special education teachers selflessly give to our neediest students. Because these students are often tested at grade level (regardless of their intellectual age) they will not show "growth" on the test scores that judge their teachers. These students show progress in a thousand different ways, but these ways are not going to show on a grade-level test, alternative assessments are needed.  Also at risk are teachers of English Language Learners. Only 3% of these students show proficiency on the test because - duh - they do not speak the language yet. Also at risk are gifted teachers or teachers of highly able students in excellent districts - these students often max out the tests, hitting a "curricular ceiling," and so do not show growth. Teachers in high-poverty communities, where psychological and social problems abound - these students are not going to show growth unless they have the resources of well-funded, well-staffed community schools where they receive social services as well as instruction.

The worst consequences of the proposed evaluation system are on new teachers just entering the profession.  They have four years to receive three “effective” ratings.  Anyone who has stood in front of a classroom remembers those first years of finding self-confidence and developing techniques as a teacher. Many first-year teachers leave the field entirely because of the stress associated with learning the profession.  To tie new teachers to a system that basically counts them out if they receive ineffectives on test growth scores during their first two years, is a plan that dooms many new teachers who may have developed their skills if given time and mentoring.  How would you even determine their growth score for the first year, when they did not have a class the prior year?   If a new teacher somehow miraculously gets effectives the first three years, and then has a rough class the fourth year and gets a developing - well as Assemblywoman Nolan said, they "get another bite at the apple" for a fifth year.  But if that is not effective, they are gone.  No recourse. All the years and expense to get a master's degree so they can put their passion for helping children into a teaching career?  ALL HOPE GONE! They will never teach in NY again. But they will still be saddled with school debt.

Who will want to go into teaching in our state?  Enrollment at teacher prep colleges is already down 20-50% in NY!  We need quality professionals to teach our children.  Who would really consider teaching children with identified disabilities, ELL’s, or teaching in high-poverty areas, when they know they would most likely lose their career after two years??

In Washington DC (where this whole debacle occurred years ago with Michelle Rhee) they dropped the weight of VAM/test scores from 50% to 35%.  Maybe that's because they lost 83% of their work force when they instituted an evaluation system similar to what Cuomo advocates.  Wisconsin has also given teachers more discretion in how student performance factors into their evaluations.  NJ has gone down to 10% weighted on the tests.   TN has also backed down from a reliance on VAM.

The plan for “drive-by evaluators” is also preposterous.  Who will be the evaluators?  Administrators cannot “trade schools” to spend hours evaluating professionals in other districts without putting their own school, their primary responsibility, at risk.  Paid evaluators?  Where will the money come from?  Will it be yet another unfunded mandate?  And who will do this – certainly not Pearson, who already hires the scoring of these all-important high-stakes tests out to anyone with a college degree via advertising on Craigslist and Kelly temps.  And certainly not our State Education Department, who has shown their lack of attention to detail and follow-through in performing important tasks (like vetting exam questions for grade appropriateness and managing the timely scoring of exams, for example). An evaluator cannot do a teacher observation justice without a deep, ongoing understanding of the school culture, population, and issues that affect the community.  

The tests themselves are designed for failure, calibrated to an SAT score of 1630, with “passing” cut scores adjusted after the tests are scored.  Literary analysis indicates that test reading passages and questions are often three grades beyond the age of the children.  “Equally plausible” answer choices (favored by the Pearson tests), require abstract thinking, a cognitive skill that usually does not develop until age 12.  70% of New York State children fail these tests.  I would like an answer to my question of how Pearson and New York State Education Department does not know the literacy level on these tests are years beyond the students' grade, and how they think it is at all fair that they are making a whole generation of students think they are failures.  The psychological and emotional effects of this are profound and will not be fully realized for years, but I am very fearful that we are in for a "statistically significant" rise in mood and personality disorders due to low self-esteem and chronic stress engendered by the tests.

Worse yet, studies show that high scores on tests correlate with superficial thinking skills.  In other words, the better a teacher does at encouraging deep critical thinking, the worse her students may fare on the exams (Alfie Kohn).  We are therefore looking at a system that will put our most qualified, master teachers at risk of losing their jobs.  Before my retirement, three colleagues that I considered master teachers (in-depth projects, critical thinking, heightened student motivation) were labeled “ineffective”  and had to create a teacher improvement plan. They did not understand how their high-functioning students did not show growth, and they could not get an answer from the district or from State Ed as to what formula was used to label them "ineffective" or "developing.". It was completely humiliating for these teachers, who had put more than a decade each into their development as master teachers.

An increase of any amount in the weight of standardized testing on teacher evaluations will most certainly lead to increased emphasis of tests in curriculum and lesson plans, with the children suffering with more test prep as important developmental thinking and "whole-child" instructional goals get put on hold.  No time for debates or projects.  No time for multimedia experiences or field trips.  No time for arts, humanities, music, service projects, character education.  The teachers will have no choice if their career and their livelihood depends on it.   

I am also quite certain that there are lawsuits in NYSED's future should they move forward with firing teachers based on these widely criticized, and poorly constructed, tests.  One entity that should be fired immediately, is Pearson because of their ineptitude, unless they were instructed by State Ed to deliberately make tests that are developmentally inappropriate, confusing, ridiculously long and age-inappropriate for students.

Parents have responded with an overwhelming protest, pulling their children from the tests in record numbers and responding to every survey that has been conducted that, No, they do not agree with increasing the weight of standardized tests in teacher evaluations.  Will you listen?  Or will you also be bullied by our governor, who has nothing but disdain for the students, parents, and teachers he is supposed to represent?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

From the Mind of a Student

The following guest blog was written by Vivienne Owen, a 7th grade student.

Do you think most kids like to take tests? That they like to essentially be in a high pressure situation with their grades at stake? Especially if it is hammered into them that they must do well? This is what the state test has turned into. 

As if all the studying for it and pressure isn’t enough stress for kids as young as 7 or 8, now almost the ENTIRE curriculum is based on doing math the way the state will give you credit for, instead of letting kids do it the way they can understand.  Writing pieces have to be set up with strict formats that the state likes, discouraging young writers from just getting ideas down and editing later. This can’t be teaching kids much, can it? And most of the time if you do things the way you can do them best, you get in trouble or get points taken off.  This is not really achieving school’s purpose, to prepare kids for life and furthermore, it is making intelligent kids feel stupid because they can’t grasp the common core way of doing math, or anything else for that matter, again discouraging intelligent young people.

The test preparations have gotten out of hand, probably because teachers are scared to death of being fired, but they can’t say anything, so they just begin test prep from the first couple weeks of school so the students do well on the test. But students AREN’T LEARNING ANYTHING from this, and isn’t learning the entire purpose of school?

These tests DON’T HELP ANYONE. They are taking away good teachers from students who need them the most. Is this fair to those students? No. And in an already high pressure environment, which tends to make students uneasy, the tests are designed not to test our knowledge but to trick kids so they’ll get questions wrong and fail!! So these tests are really not a very accurate measurement of a student’s intelligence or a teacher’s capability.

The state tests do not affect kids later in life, they are full of trickily worded questions, and curriculum is by far too centered around them. So why are we still taking them? Your kid doesn’t have to. You can send in a letter saying they’re refusing.  They can refuse on the day of the test (they should say “I’m refusing, score me a 999 and they should NOT FOR ANY REASON TOUCH THE TEST OR BUBBLE SHEET!) and they can tell their friends.  You can donate to the cause, and also post about this on social media, using the hashtags #morethanatestscore and #refusethetest. Your help will greatly benefit public education, and you and your kid have nothing to lose, so why are they still taking the test? Have them REFUSE THE TEST, and maybe soon kids can start LEARNING something in school.

Refuse the Tests Robocall Campaign

Over the last ten days, I worked with four very dedicated education activists and teachers to crowdsource funds for a robocall to all NYS parents.  We were successful, and believe it has had an impact on the number of last-minute test refusals that came into schools on April 13th as well as those that came in on the day of the ELA test, April 14.  The following is the campaign's final press release.  For more about our process, visit our guest blog on Anthony Cody's Living in Dialogue.

A small grassroots committee of education activists, teachers, retirees, parents and grandparents raised nearly $17,000 in only ten days to pay for a robocall that informed parents that they have the constitutional right to refuse Grades 3-8 state tests.  Two different versions of the robocall were delivered on Sunday, April 12th.  State English Language Arts tests begin on April 14, and math tests that will begin April 22.   

Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham law professor and candidate against Andrew Cuomo in the last gubernatorial primary, recorded the message in English.  In order to reach the large Hispanic and Latino population of the state, Aixa Rodriguez, an educational activist and high school teacher, recorded the message in Spanish. The results of a poll taken at the conclusion of the call indicated that more than 50% of parents who responded intend to refuse the tests.

Last year, more than 60,000 parents across New York State “refused” their children out of testing.  This year, tens of thousands across the state have expressed their concern about the increasing emphasis on tests that are ruining the education of their children, but many parents do not know they have the right to refuse testing.  Supreme Court cases have upheld this right that is based on the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, stating in the case of Meyer v. Nebraska that parents possess the “fundamental right” to “direct the upbringing and education of their children.”  

Some school districts respond to parents with confusing information that can be interpreted as threatening and punitive, as well as intentionally misleading. Letters to parents often claim that if the school does not achieve 95% student participation on the test, their school district will incur loss of funding. Ken Wagner, Senior Deputy Commissioner of NYSED, admitted in a television interview that those penalties would not occur for “several years.”  Parents in many districts are given inconsistent information on the effect test refusal has on selection for alternative instruction services (AIS) or other programming.  NY State Part 100.2 regulations allow individual school districts to “develop and maintain on file a uniform process by which the district determines whether to offer AIS…,” and these procedures can be different in every school district. State regulations do not discuss test refusals resulting in the mandated provision of AIS, or the elimination of students from other programming.   

Many districts mislead with semantics, telling parents that there is no “opt-out” provision for the tests in NYS.  In reality, parents always have the right to refuse the tests for their children.  A test refusal is scored as a “No Score - Code 999” on the test, and has no repercussion on the student, the teacher, or the school.  Though school districts like to be informed ahead of time so that they can make alternate arrangements for students, test refusals can be made right up to the day of the test.  

The tests themselves are designed for failure, calibrated to an SAT score of 1630, with “passing” cut scores adjusted after the tests are scored.  Literary analysis indicates that test reading passages and questions are often three grades beyond the age of the children.  “Equally plausible” answer choices (favored by the Pearson tests), require abstract thinking, a cognitive skill that usually does not develop until age 12.  70% of New York State children fail these tests.  Only 5% of students with identified cognitive disabilities, and 3% of English language learners, achieve proficiency on the tests. Test scores are negatively correlated with zip codes, with impoverished communities having higher failure rates. The result is that teachers lose their jobs, and schools are wrongly declared failures, while the real issue confronting schools in trouble is poverty and lack of funding.  The ultimate goal of the Governor’s “reforms” appears to be the replacement of public schools with for-profit charter schools.  

Children are the pawns in this political game, and their education is short-changed.  In his zeal to “break the monopoly” of public education, Cuomo’s education “reforms” double down on testing by weighting test results more heavily in teacher evaluations.  This will surely force even more test preparation as teachers fight to keep the careers they worked hard to establish.  As creative and authentic types of instruction are lost to testing, our children lose their self-confidence along with their enthusiasm for learning.  More class time is now devoted to practice for testing with workbooks and worksheets, instead of authentic learning through projects, experimentation, and constructive inquiry.  Music, art, social studies, enrichment, and science is crowded out to make more time for language arts and math, the only two subjects that matter on the tests.

Eric Mihelbergel of the New York Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE) believes that test refusals may double or triple this year.  A large increase in refusal numbers will send a powerful political message to New York State, as well as to our federal government, that parents will no longer allow their children to be used as a profit market for testing corporations, politicians, and government bureaucracies.  For more information on refusing tests, visit or