Thursday, March 31, 2016

No, Commissioner Elia, We Don't Trust You

NYS Education Commissioner Elia made a concerted effort to "stamp out" the opt-out movement with her "tool kit" to schools, letters to editors of media, and visits to schools statewide.  In spite of her pleas, all indications as of the first day of ELA testing show that parental refusals either stayed the same statewide, or may have even increased overall.  

For a second year, a small group of activists, including myself and four other educators and parents, crowdsourced a fundraiser to pay for a robocall to NYS parents that was sent on April 3. William Cala, former superintendent of Fairport Schools and an education advocate, recorded the calls in English.  Aixa Rodriguez, an educator, recorded the calls in Spanish

The robocall group raised $5,000 in a week, from over 200 donations, in order to pay for the calls. This year's call was sent to 234,000 parent households.  The message is clear, nothing has changed in the harm that developmentally inappropriate tests is doing to our children.  


Commissioner Elia is misguided in asking NYS parents and educators to “trust her.” She is blind to the fact that “education reforms” have been proven a failure, and that parents overwhelmingly say no to high-stakes tests. She is also tone deaf to changes from the Regents, specifically new Chancellor Betty Rosa who said “I would absolutely opt (my children) out of the tests.”

Elia says: “The tests are shorter.” The reality is that students are facing tests that are designed to take nine hours. Students with IEP/504 extended time accommodations may be facing twice that length. In addition, Elia has made the tests “untimed,” meaning that students could potentially test for the entire school day...for six days. These are not substantive changes, and do nothing to protect children from the stress or loss of academic self-confidence.

Elia says: “We have a new test vendor.” But Pearson’s NYS contract remains in full force until June 2016. All questions on this year’s test are Pearson questions, meaning that students can expect the same confusing equally plausible answer choices, the same developmentally inappropriate reading levels (as high as 9th grade on a 3rd grade test), and the same head-scratching stories such as the “sleeveless pineapple.”

Elia says that there are no consequences for teachers or principals but the reality is that test scores are being used to rank schools and push them into receivership, removing local control. The end result of the receivership process for many schools is turnover to a for-profit charter corporation of the resources we have paid for with our tax dollars.

Elia says, “This year’s test was reviewed by 22 NY state educators.” Twenty-two educators from the entire state is a tiny sampling. But more importantly, at least one of the teachers on the panel expressed disappointment. It appears that the selected educators were not allowed to make changes, suggest improvements, or write alternate questions. They were simply asked to rubber stamp the test questions that were already written.

Elia says that tests help teachers plan and are an “essential part of student experience” Teachers are still being forced to focus on test prep while play, art, music, science, social studies, physical education and even recess take a back seat. As for planning, every teacher uses their own assessments for that task. They do not need state test scores that have no validity, are not received for months, and have many questions that teachers never see.

Elia says tests are the only objective measure to compare student progress. A measurement is only as good as the tool being used for the measurement. These tests have been proven to be flawed, hence the results cannot be used objectively for any comparison.

Elia says that the concerns of parents who opted out of the tests last spring have been addressed. But changes are not substantive, and her words are misleading. Trust her? I don’t think so. The reality is that nothing has changed. Opt out is the one message that NY legislators are hearing loud and clear. If we as parents want real change, we need to continue to send that message - and OPT OUT.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Testimony on Common Core

It has taken me a while to post my testimony to the NYS Common Core Forums last summer. Life gets busy sometimes. Better late than never, so here it is:

I am a retired teacher, also a grandparent.  I am an education activist, committed to ending the disastrous Common Core that threatens the future of our children.

When I first began teaching, we helped students discover the joy of learning, so they would become lifelong learners. We kept in mind that the learning styles and development of children were different. Now all students are expected to learn at the same time and at the same pace. Now we have scripted lessons, dry Engage NY modules, and a de-emphasis of individualized, creative teaching. Common Core, high stakes tests, and VAM have been proven to be the real failure. Yet there is nothing done by those in power to address this failure. This leads me to the conclusion that our education policy is being railroaded to advance the political agenda of hedge fund investors and charter operators. Our children are the pawns, the “sacrifice zone” for the projected profits that can be made.  

Common core standards for young children ask them to use abstract reasoning that does not develop until about the age of 11. Kindergarten children like my grandson are forced to sit and write, complete worksheets, and learn by rote memorization.Young children learn best by play and through instruction that connects to their background knowledge and has real-world connections to their lives. It takes time to develop background knowledge in children. It takes time to let a mind discover, to engage in Socratic dialogue. But today, humanities, music, art, and yes even science are crowded out to make room for English and Math, the only two subjects that matter on the almighty tests. We are not developing thinkers who understand and appreciate their world.

Tests are impossibly hard, with cut scores calibrated to a 1630 on the SAT. Even our governor acknowledged this, and put a moratorium on using the scores for students, but not for our teachers. We face the prospect of losing a large percentage of our teaching force within the next two years. When Michelle Rhee instituted a similar weight of testing into teacher evaluations, DC lost 83% of its teachers. If we lose even a quarter of that percentage we are in trouble, because student enrollments at teacher preparation programs in NYS are down 20-50%. So where are our teachers going to come from to replace those we lose to a faulty evaluation system?

I ask for a return to state standards that were developed by educators, to state testing in (only) grades 4 and 8, to tests that were transparent and informed instruction. I ask for an end to test and VAM-based APPR. I ask that you provide resources and help for schools that are struggling, instead of receivership and criteria that does not allow them to demonstrate success. I ask for respect for all of our students, including special needs and ELL students. I ask for you to return the joyful learning that best provides a successful future for our children.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Why This Education Activist is Voting For Bernie

I think most people will agree with me that the energy and activism in this presidential primary is unlike any in recent history.  It has also increasingly polarized the Democratic party.  As a retired teacher, I stood by aghast as both teacher unions, the NEA and the AFT, made early endorsements for Hillary.  They both claimed that they polled their membership, but I do not know of one person, in active service or retired, who participated in such a poll.

Why am I an education activist?  I have been a Democrat for most of my life.  I engaged in sit-ins against the Vietnam War when I was in high school, planted a tree for the first Earth Day, marched against unsafe nuclear plants at the time of Three Mile Island, and more recently protested fracking.  I first heard of the desire to privatize schools in the early 90's, but did not at that time realize what a threat it was nor how bad it could get.  Who could envision a world in which students sat for tests that were deliberately designed to fail them, designed to close schools and fire teachers?  Who could envision a world where teachers new to the profession had the cards stacked against them in a crap-shoot lottery of test scores and junk science evaluation math that could destroy an entire career in as little as two years?  Who could possibly have seen the harm that could come to children whose academic self-esteem is irreparably harmed because they are told they are failures by a measure that is grade levels beyond their ability?  Or that there would be generations of students who would not know the joy of learning, who would not have access to arts and play in school, who would be focused on test prep instead of authentic, engaging lessons and projects?  That for-profit charter schools would be allowed to take valuable space and financial resources away from public schools who need it the most, and not be held in the least way accountable for what they do with our finances or our children? That there would be a world in which "school choice" would be the mantra of those seeking the complete and total end of public schools, and with it the diversion of our public dollars to those who have rich portfolios.  Yet this is the nightmare world that has been unleashed and like the proverbial frog in the pot, we watched it come forth so slowly that we barely noticed, until the day the pot began boiling.

So back to Bernie.  As the events in education unfolded, teachers understood that the real problem behind the so-called "failing schools" scenario was income inequality.  The schools who needed financial resources the most were denied them, to the point that they could no longer offer a quality education to their students.  We know that the problem is not "bad teachers" as they would have the public believe.  Are there some teachers who could benefit from mentoring and other support?  Of course.  Are there some who should be removed?  As in every profession, the answer is yes, but there is already a system in place for that.  The problem is real and tangible inequality, yet this reality is treated as if it were an invisible non-factor by all those who seek "education reform."  The problem of inequality is caused by wealth that is accumulating to the top 1% of society, at the expense of the poor and middle class.  How does that affect schools?  When I was a student I learned about Maslow's pyramid - that self-actualization (learning and growing) cannot take place until the basic needs, like food and safety, of the individual are met. Have you ever tried to pay attention to a lecture or tv show when your stomach was growling, or when you were frightened?  Yet children in our schools come through the doors hungry and frightened.  Many are homeless.  Others have parents working so many jobs that they have no supervision at home.  Clothing is inadequate for the weather, health care negligible. These children are living harsh lives, and become hardened themselves, to the point of anger and apathy.

The point is, that unless someone desires to make real change in that inequality, to funnel money back into the middle class and poor, to raise the level of existence of those who struggle and falter, then nothing that is done will save our public schools.  Nothing.  And if our public schools go, then our very culture of democracy and all of the ideals this country has been built on, will go with them.  We will be taught what the wealthy want us to know, and that is all.  We will be indoctrinated by a "competency-based, individualized learning" model that has students sitting in front of computers for all or most of their learning time, while every action they take is data mined and recorded -- with the intent of knowing students better so they can be controlled and manipulated easier, so that they can be targeted with products for their consumption.  If you think this is a sci-fi pipe dream, do some research.  See how some states are already controlling curriculum and rewriting history courses.  See the elimination of arts and recess.  See what those who seek a profit from our children say as they develop "anytime/anywhere learning pathways" and implement policy changes that will severely restrict the experiences we need in order to become critical thinkers.  Bernie seeks that economic change, from plans to tax the wealthy and offer free public college, to the raising of the minimum wage to $15 (not $12, as Hillary has stated).  Bernie seeks to build our infrastructure with a substantial one trillion dollar investment -- that infrastructure includes our crumbling school buildings as well as our roads, bridges, airports, etc.

So if you are worried about Common Core, good for you. It is one of those reforms perpetrated by the wealthy, without real input from teachers and educational psychologists.  But Common Core is just the tip of the iceberg.  Without real, substantive economic change, Common Core may go away, but it will just be replaced by something even worse as the myth of "failing schools" continues.

Though Hillary has given lip-service to the support of public schools, regretfully I must inform you I've heard the same promises from Obama.  Obama has been as destructive to public education as any president in history.  Yes, I said it.  That doesn't mean I haven't applauded as he has sought change in other areas and it doesn't mean that I believe he has accomplished nothing during his presidency.  But the truth is the truth.  Under Obama, education reform took over.  Bush's No Child Left Behind became Obama's Race to the Top, which not only furthered NCLB's goals but put them to the forefront as teachers were evaluated and their livelihoods threatened, all based on faulty tests and a value-added evaluation methodology that they could not help but know was faulty in its conception and design.  One can only surmise that the plan was to fire teachers, so that they could be replaced by computers and "facilitators."  They furthered the growth of charter schools that are not accountable, nor transparent, yet are treated to a massive influx of public monies.  They turned a deaf ear to the pleas of educators and researchers from across the nation.

I am sorry to disappoint teachers who are "wearing the H" but Hillary will do more of the same, "Obama 2.0" so to speak.  She is entrenched in the reformer camp.  Her campaign manager, John Podesta, is one of those at the front of the education reform movement. Read Steven Singer's assessment for more on Podesta.  She has backed education reform since her time in Arkansas.  She and Bill both fully backed charter schools during his administration.  She supported the end of tenure and wanted to make it easier to fire teachers.  When asked during the Flint debate whether she believed unions "protected bad teachers" (again perpetrating the myth of the bad teacher being responsible for failing schools), instead of giving accurate information in response to this loaded question, she said, "...we've got to take a look at this because it is one of the most common criticisms."  In the November Town Hall in South Carolina, she seemed to turn around on charters, stating that they do not take the hardest to teach children.  She immediately received flack from the education reform/charter movement and then fell silent on the issue.  Her website has no mention of charters.  Has she evolved?  She says so, but I no longer listen to campaign promises.  I look to past actions to decide, and her history of flip-flopping is too troublesome for me to ignore.

Bernie has come out strongly against privatization of any public service, from prisons to schools.  He is against taking public dollars for private schools.  He supports "public charter schools" that do not seek to profitize our children.  This is a huge distinction.  The problem, though is that charter schools use the labels of private or public as it suits them, claiming privacy when asked for transparency in auditing, and claiming they are public when applying for funds or seeking space in public schools. Bernie is also very pro-union, the only candidate who has actually marched in a picket line.

Though education (and therefore economic inequality) is my number one issue, I am also very much behind Bernie in his commitment to measures that will combat climate change, his no-fracking position, and his health care reform.  One of my sons has spent most of his adult life without health insurance, because he could not afford it.  The plan that he was offered at work had very high monthly premiums, but also an outlandish yearly deductible that he would (outside of a prolonged health crisis) never be able to meet.   My daughter and her husband cannot afford health insurance for him (she has it through work but the cost is prohibitive for her spouse).  That same daughter is deeply in debt for her education, yet pays higher interest rates on her school loans than most people pay on their mortgages. So yes, these are issues that I believe in, issues that affect my family and their future.

So, I am with Bernie to the end.  I refuse to believe (or listen) to most of what the media tells me about his chances.  I am with him because he is right, I am with him because he is ethical, I am with him because he wants to end Citizens United so that we can take back our government, and I am with him because he is our one best chance to stop the education reformers who want to destroy our public schools.  I invite you to research his positions, and join me in the political revolution that will give us a Future to Believe In.