A lobbyist for students

At the end of this intro is a rewrite, edited down in the neighborhood of a couple hundred words, of this original post. This shorter version appeared in the Cortland Standard on April 24th (page 6). Most important to me is that news media of all formats step up and begin to acknowledge that the “opt out” movement is more than a kerfuffle between a suddenly interested and active teachers’ union and an unpopular and self-interested governor. It is also more than helicopter parents that just don’t understand how good tests are for their children. While much is heard from leaders promoting value for struggling students in underfunded schools via tests, data and a building full of frightened and sad professional educators…many parents are now seeing the inconsistency, evasiveness, and dishonesty in leadership. “Opting out” is not just a fashionable trend. It was not driven by teachers afraid of accountability. It is a public declaration that citizens know they are being misled, that tests are neither truth or the answer. Tests should be the tool they once were-not a weapon of those with dollars in their pockets or dollar signs in their eyes. I like tests. I used to go and score state tests. I used to be able to use the information more efficiently to address student needs and make smart instructional decisions. My daughters are top scorers on these types of things, but that does not stamp a value on the school or their teachers. The misuse of these instructional tools by those with their own agenda in mind, the continued dismissal and disrespect of a profession by those not qualified to even enter the arena…these are the reasons my girls don’t “opt out”, they refuse.

Our leaders continue to defy research and evidence regarding the true needs of our students. Instead of providing more standardized funding and opportunity on the front end, they “opt out” of their responsibilities and hinge school reform on standardized outcomes on the back end-using state tests to enforce and evaluate the efforts of others. The tests and the corporations contracted to create them, meanwhile, are afforded more privacy, respect and protection than the students and teachers being subjected to them. While assessments can provide valuable information when educators are more involved, the current approach isn’t about that. Still, I am not a fan of “opting out”. Opting out is like saying “no thanks” to dessert, and doesn’t address “opting in” to the important stuff: collaborating with teachers, keeping track of progress, homework, behavior, bedtime… and so on. So my children don’t opt out of these tests. They refuse to take them.
But misuse of assessments by politicians isn’t about my kids. It’s about the growing number left behind in the economic competition model of public education. More kids are coming to school tired, hungry, emotionally and economically insecure, with school and academics low on their list of priorities. Children can’t eat tests. Tests can’t hug children. While our governor correctly stated the primary importance of parents and kitchen tables in a late campaign television ad, and has claimed to be a lobbyist for students, he was immediately back on the school attack once reelected. Students will benefit more when our leaders respect the people doing the work that they themselves are incapable of doing.
Whatever the path my daughters choose, I want them to be happy, productive, and smart…not victims of someone else’s plans. To that end:  I value parents, kitchen tables and teachers. I am a lobbyist for students.
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Me, two years ago.

Full disclosure: I am a teacher, a union member, and I feel strongly about the rights of workers to organize and have a voice. I will be at this event, but I will not wear a button, a shirt, or wave a banner with the NYSUT logo. I will be there for my three children, my students, the dedicated educators I work with, my administrators, my school, and my
community. I thank NYSUT for the opportunity.

For too long now a political campaign aimed at turning education into an investment game has been called “reform,” but it is anything but that. Schools are caught on the losing end of coercive funding, forced to submit to trial by standardized tests, and held to a system that reduces a very human endeavor to data-analyzed and marketed to the very companies that will then sell more tests to create more data. While the “free market” is often praised for what it could do, it gets a pass on what it has done to our economy and our society already, and hardly a word is spoken about the bankers and investors whose wealth continues to rise while the rest of the public “shares the sacrifice”.

I do not support “opt out”- my daughters refuse.

State testing has been getting attention lately, mostly because of an “opt out” movement-parents having their children not take the state tests administered in their school. What should be getting the attention, though, is why our leaders continue to defy research and evidence regarding the true needs of our students. Instead of putting effort into providing more standardized funding and opportunity on the front end, they “opt out” of their responsibilities and hinge school reform on expecting a more standardized outcome on the back end-using state tests to enforce and evaluate the efforts of others. The tests and the corporations contracted to create them, meanwhile, are being afforded more privacy, respect and protection than students and their teachers being subjected to this. While assessments and scores can provide valuable information when educators are more involved, the current approach is not truly about that. Still. I am not a fan of “opting out”, and would not blindly promote that approach simply for the sake of making it happen. Opting out is like saying “no thanks” to dessert, and doesn’t address the importance of opting in to the really important stuff: collaborating with teachers, keeping track of overall progress, homework, behavior, bedtime, who their children are hanging out with after school… and so on. So my children don’t opt out, they refuse.

But misuse of assessments by politicians isn’t about my kids, really. It’s about the ever-increasing number of those left behind in the economic competition model of public education. More and more kids are coming to school tired, hungry, emotionally and economically insecure, with school and academics low on their list of priorities. Children can’t eat tests and tests can’t hug children. While our governor correctly stated the primary importance of parents and kitchen tables in a late campaign television ad, and has claimed to be a lobbyist for students, he was immediately back on the school attack once reelected. Students will benefit more when our leaders respect the people doing the work that they themselves are incapable of doing.

So speaking as a parent: elected leaders and those they appoint are put there to serve my children-my children do not serve them. What is the point of “reform”, really, if the most that we are offered is a coercive system that allows the unaccountable to impose accountability; the benefactors of inequitable policy to impose inequity, and politicians to remain secure and safe on campaign contributions funded in part by the diversion of public dollars away from the public? Has the decision been made regarding the value of a hedge fund manager vs the value of firefighters, police, teachers and students? Whatever the path my daughters choose, I want them to be happy, productive, and smart…not victims of someone else’s plans. To that end:  I value parents, kitchen tables and teachers. I am a lobbyist for students.

Kelly Wallace’s (CNN) article, and my response

I came home after a busy day to see this:

I had no idea how big the movement had become until I did this story.

So I read the article. At the end, there is a call for comment through Twitter, or the Facebook page, and I sent this:

     I am a teacher of 15 years. My wife is also an educated professional in another field-but works in schools with children all the time and is very familiar with the norms of child development and students who succeed as well as those who struggle. Our three daughters are very bright. “A” students, and two have taken tests in the past and have done very well. One is past the 3-8 testing range. One particularly strong-willed daughter decided to refuse last year, at the age of 12, on her own. I mean truly on her own. Her mother and I (Mom mostly doing all the difficult legwork) were making arrangements for testing accommodations, and our daughter said “I’m just going to refuse” and something like “It’s not right what they are doing to us”. If you met my 16 and 13 yr old, you would be impressed and I certainly am almost every day.

     We supported her decision because we know her, her abilities, the quality of her school and her educators. We do not need a test. Especially one that is continually justified with more “accountability” for the hardest workers, more sanctimony from and lack of accountability for those doing the real damage to students and schools.

Below are a few quotes from the Kelly Wallace article with my responses:

1) “Those who call for ‘opting out’ really want New York to ‘opt out’ of information that can help parents and teachers understand how well students are doing,” said Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the Board of Regents, in a recent statement.

Tisch is full of it and this statement reeks of strategy powwow lingo that has been coming out of NYSED and the governor’s office (Jim Malatras, Rich Azzopardi (sp?), Cuomo himself…) from the time Obama spat out the words “shared sacrifice”, bailed out Wall St, then began his Race To The Test attack on public education. Teachers know how well students are doing because they see those students every day. Parents/families who have the time and resources to be involved know-and always have. Tisch must know she’s game-playing because her response to backlash against the passage of even MORE onerous evals for teachers and additional testing was to say that high achieving schools (code for mostly well-to-do types) might not have to follow the new guidelines. What is really happening is what everyone knows. As our failed, trickle down, speculation fake money investment economy locks the wealth and opportunity into fewer hands-public education is left to perform triage for the neediest and our leaders are well funded, well protected, and ashamed. And if they are so soulless they aren’t ashamed?

Well then they should be.

What’s next-a Tisch political ad with her in a white sweater at a table helping some girl do homework, lauding the importance of parents and kitchen tables? The truth is our leaders have chosen scapegoat over support and collaborate. One side of this so called battle has a long-established record of being there for the ones without parents and kitchen tables. 

2) (Regarding tests inappropriate for the most struggling learners) To that point, Tisch, of the New York State Board of Regents, has said that the tests actually help the most vulnerable children in our schools, whose needs were too often disregarded in years past.

Almost truthful, but her implication is that hungry kids can eat tests and that it’s “opt outers’ and failing schools that are disregarding needs. I have met with and sat in the office of senators and assembly members-one the head of the assembly’s ed committee. I have been on the phone with NYSED associates and in contact via email with a regent. I was advocating (2yrs ago for then 14yr old) for access to diploma pathways described in regulations as available in ALL schools and to ALL students. After being told that language didn’t exist- I had to point it out and chase it down with someone who is responsible for helping provide opportunities! All of these people who I should be able to trust, and use my time to focus on teaching and parenting…all these people were consistent with 2 themes: 1) Cuomo and Commissioner King were arrogant and had an agenda, and everyone is fearful of Cuomo; 2) The state of school funding in NY means that students will not have the same support or the same access to programs and opportunities. Even if the regulations say “all public schools” will offer certain opportunities, and that “all students” will have access to those opportunity: such is not the case and those pushing tests and consequences know this.

3) “I posed the question to Tanis: If we don’t have difficult tests and tough standards, how will we compete globally, against children from countries where rigor is the norm?”

Do you mean countries like Finland where equity and respect is also the norm, inspiring more equitable success, or other countries where only their best are tested-the brightest and most well-connected with a hope to rise above the overwhelming poverty weighing down the many?

When Obama suggests we are competing with India and China, as if they are models to hold up and ourselves to-I cringe.

Thank you for covering…news in general has been pretty quiet regarding what should be a big deal when considering a gov that went from “I care” in late campaign to guns blazing once he won.

Dan McConnell

@DMaxMJ