“Opt in” hasn’t been earned

I have seen several articles now, with tone ranging from dismissive to despair, about parents who are demanding better for their children than an economists approach to education. Schools are not intended to be a testing ground for the next best money-saving or money-making idea. Public schools should prepare students for the world that is, while empowering them to make it the world they want it to be. Unfortunately, the deference to data and standardized tests as the last word on the value needed and value gained allows the least accountable in power to deflect accountability onto the powerless. Below is a response to a recent Times Union editorial that echoed the hopelessness of reform-minded testing advocates who seem not to believe that there is a better way. A link to that editorial is included, but has suddenly become available only to subscribers. I have quoted a couple of statements and you will likely get the “gist”. 

The so-called “opt out” movement is not some pointless effort driven by impossible to please agitators. While your April 5th editorial (“It’s time to opt back in”) rightly describes some of the progress that has been made, it’s better to think about that progress like throwing a glass of water on a house fire, and the focus on standardized tests like using a thermometer to discover where the heat is coming from. Yes, the water was a nice gesture, but defending and promoting the tests is like saying that thermometers are the most important fire prevention and fire-fighting tool. It doesn’t take an expert to know better.

 

“Yet this week, as annual standardized tests are given to more than 1.1 million children, opt-out proponents are pushing for yet more parents to let their kids sit them out.

To which one has to wonder: Why?”

Why? If you need to ask then you haven’t thought about it very hard or talked to someone who knows. Real progress will be realized when our leaders separate themselves from viewing children as investment data and tests as a way to justify a sorting, de-humanizing approach to young people and future citizens. My three daughters, 17, 14 and 11, are not allowed to get out of anything just because it is difficult, and their accomplishments and efforts (both academic and personal) extend into the community. I cannot describe the efforts of NYSED, our elected leaders, or even teachers unions with the same level of respect, and I have ongoing communications with all three.

“This is essentially what teachers and parents were demanding. It’s a major course correction that will take time, but it is under way.”

 

Parents are demanding, teachers are hoping because they are the professionals who have continually been sidelined. While tests should remain an important facet of an education, the real test will be if leaders will join with parents and educators in shared accountability for the whole child, not just a test score. That’s what I demand as a parent, and expect as an educator that understanding how learning happens.

 

“So the opt-out movement needs to accept victory. In all the ways that count, it won. The challenge now is to opt in to the task of making this work.”

 

There is no victory until policymakers take a collaborative seat at the shared-accountability table to talk equity, opportunity, and holistic approaches to our developing young citizens.

 

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Hillary doesn’t like “Opt out”

Hillary Clinton wouldn’t “opt out”.  That’s according to her visit with the Newsday editorial board. Exemplifying why union leaders jumped into the deep end of the Hillary pool early on, why teachers would question the honesty and integrity of their union leaders and this candidate, and why thinking parents everywhere will be left to wonder who to vote for.

Hillary apparently:

…opposes evaluating teachers based on student test results as long as the tests are flawed, and thinks the question of whether they’d ever be good enough to rate teachers on is too hypothetical to answer right now.

and believes that:

the creation of the national standards was a bipartisan idea of the nation’s governors that practically everyone supported.

[Here Newsday adds: “She’s right. Until kids started failing to pass the tougher tests and meet the tougher standards, everyone was in favor of them.” in typical suburban mom shame-style]

On rating teachers with tests-once they become “good enough”-“Too hypothetical” is a weak escape route. How about “Tests alone cannot adequately define or measure the most important things teachers are obligated to do in our most challenging neighborhoods and with our most challenging students.”

The thrust of this article was to show that Clinton wouldn’t support the opt-out choice for her own granddaughter, but I imagine that children this supported and enriched would not have too much problem with the tests, anyways. Yeah, you can try to prove something regarding opting out and give an eighth grade math test to a dufus mayor, town council, or a school board here or there, show that they won’t do it, or don’t do so well and say “Aha!”…

But the real issue is that the tests are often developmentally inappropriate for your average child and are designed in a way to suggest that a Clinton grand-baby type student is the standard we should expect of all children.

Well of course the children of richy-rich world travelers will do well and their families may not mind tests- they know their child’s ivy league future from the moment they are born. As long as they get a warm, experiential, gentle type of schooling that merely enhances the life they get outside of school-what’s a little test? (“Just shows how smart my kid is compared to “the poors”, but I already knew that”).

The charter school peddlers love tests, because their whole focus is test performance and if they design their enrollment and programs to target scores they will perform well on test-score comparison to traditional schools left serving the general population.

Maybe when the push is for needs-based funding and equity in opportunities and enrichment, the investments come for community supports to help families send students to school ready to learn, and the effort is put into a holistic form of accountability that measures the future citizen (not market-ready worker bee)-then we can talk about valid assessments to measure impacts of instruction-as a piece of shared accountability.

It takes a village- right, Hillary?

Test this

I am moved to tears by music, joy by smallest and simplest things. That student who once moved throughout the day, unsmiling with his eyes down, who now sees me from the far, far end of the hall and approaches the whole way-arm up, looking right at me, smiling and hand extended to share that enthusiastic handshake I once had to convince him to do; the song I hear coming from the backroom where the kids have gathered-not to dish on boys or drama, but to choreograph dances and belt out show tunes…One thing I know for sure: there is no test that measures the value these people or any person adds or brings to another or to this world- not in any way you can put into a spreadsheet or use to pass judgement. But you can definitely feel it, and you can be part of making that happen, and if you are lucky you get both. Those who focus too much on data lose sight of the people, and if you allow it for too long-you lose time and people.

Parents matter

I am concerned for parents-parents who could be or already have been convinced that they are needy and powerless. Parents  convinced into joining test-peddlers and settling for tests- instead of demanding the opportunities and supports that the test peddlers feel entitled to for their own. Parents convinced by the well-paid pitchmen (and women) to believe that they need to be separated from others and tested more than they need anything else; convinced to maybe even join the promotional shame-splaining tour in support of testing- but in denial of the consequences of its narrow focus. I know the true power of parents and see that power as essential in securing a better future for children.  If you doubt the power of parents, just consider the impact of they have had while refusing to stand for the, neglectful, dehumanizing brand of reform that insists on the undeniable and primary importance of tests while denying the impact of blatantly neglecting obvious needs. These parents defend their children because they know their child does take tests, will take tests, but is waiting until edu-pretenders demonstrate that there is more in their goody bag than tests.

While some parents pushing for more comprehensive reforms insist that they know their children well, have watched impatiently as resources have been drained away from the schools their children attend, and have the education, connections, or both to know that “test and punish” is ed-reformer “ opt-out”- there is another arm of the education reform movement. This one is focused on convincing parents that they lack power and influence to get the change they want and that they instead need to be saved by well funded non-profit political action groups, test score data and an exit strategy from their neglected and forgotten community schools-away to privately operated schools.

This is being called “choice”, and despite the fact the “chooser” might be denied or even pushed out of the school if presenting too many challenges or being unprepared to submit to strict codes of conduct: parents should have choices.  I am fully in agreement with parental rights and power to make choices. But while I agree with this power in terms of a school choice, I also agree in the power to choose to not participate in policy and practice that waters down, narrows, or avoids the comprehensive mission of public education. This comes with a couple caveats:

1) Teachers and unions should be cautious about, or at least be fully prepared to respond to criticisms regarding their involvement with parents in promoting the “opt out” movement. It could appear an avoidance of accountability effort. The best way to respond would be with suggestions for a better more comprehensive system of accountability.

2) So should the investors and school-privatizers be cautious about their promotion of mandatory testing and school/community abandonment over the more comprehensive and holistic methods. It might appear as if they could give a rats ass about poor children and supporting success and opportunity, and were simply looking to force learning on-the-cheap down their throats while saving the best type of schooling for their own.

I have said, and will say again, that I am not opposed to tests, but I support children and truth (the whole truth), so I sometimes share observations regarding the strategies and techniques I observe in edu-reform communications-propaganda. I point out that the propaganda/practices employed promote segregation of cohorts and separation from peers in a rank and sort valuation of human beings that is little different than turning children into cattle. But parents choose, ultimately. And even when I’m trying to make sense out of why some would promote their own choice (to believe that taking a test is the most important thing their child can do to demonstrate their value) while at the same time demeaning the choice of other parents: I still articulate defense of both.

A balanced view usually isn’t enough, though. I am guilty of being white, of being a teacher, of being in a union, of making about 1/5 of what Eva Moskowitz makes, of being a man…other stuff too, I’m sure. There are just so many awful types of “splainin” that I do from those guilty-as-charged positions that my value in a debate with those advocating for urban children is not the same that others bring to the conversation.

Maybe some of the investors in and drivers of reform are more equipped to inform the conversation? Maybe they have the experience and connection to understand. Here are a few of them, you can tell me.

 

arne-duncan2

Tests aren’t best

I don’t know kids

but I like tests

to know more about kids

I think tests are best  (The anonymous corporate reformer who ate Dr. Seuss)

Tests are preparing to descend upon us. The are being discussed in training, warnings, plannings…

But once in a while you get to be with colleagues and plan the good stuff. I was working with my 4th grade team just a couple days ago, when the teacher who happens to have my daughter (the one that I described at the end of my recent charter schools piece) said “I so wish you and Jen would let Ella take the tests…” She went on to describe a recent piece of writing my ten year old daughter had handed in. Rich in detail, vocabulary, personality…She could describe the way my daughter used punctuation and expanded on statements she had made on the topic, and said something like “I’m sure she would be a ‘4’ ” (the top score on the state test).

There was a moment of internal conflict between forces for me:

1) Pride in my daughter. Though no surprise-all three of my daughters excel and are incredible writers, speakers, idea makers, and Ella came home yesterday and penned a letter of not so gentle reprimand to Donald Trump. We’ll say it was regarding his deportment (and not the kind wall-building will assist).

2) Reinforced pride in her teacher/my colleague

3) A brief mourning second for my profession; and

4) Steeling of my resolve when it comes to my feeling about the state tests.

This teacher and my school shouldn’t be made to feel that they need my daughter’s ‘4’ (although I suspect that for the teacher it is really just curiosity and excitement, on her part, to see what Ella would score). In my eyes this teacher exemplifies qualities that show we need to be thinking outside of the testing box. First appearing in January on this Education Post page, something I had written to that regard appeared:

A colleague recently suffered a series of tragedies, starting with the loss of a son who was grown—but still a young man. Despite this, she kept her composure, her warmth, and her professionalism in front of the children she teaches.

One girl, in particular, had come down with a rather serious condition resulting from a strep infection that had not been effectively treated. The student, formerly bright, capable, active, and always well-behaved, had disappeared and been replaced by a withdrawn, nervous, malnourished ghost…but was slowly coming back.

This colleague found ways to be there for her class and involve and encourage this young girl on the heels of and in the middle of the series of her own personal tragedies (that would have had other teachers taking as many days/weeks off as their contract would allow). I watched and listened as she prepared to send kids off for the holiday break with a few small gifts and the advice to hug, love and thank their parents because their parents love them very much.

How she didn’t lose it—I don’t know. But I do know that her whole class, especially that little girl who is sitting three feet away from me right now and doing well, is blessed by the presence of this teacher in her school.

To try and put to words one of the overlooked qualities of great teachers: gift. Something you don’t always see and can’t  possibly test. I think she is one of the ones who has it, and I know that not all do. This teacher is a gift to the profession, and my school is a gem in a low SES, rural district-the focal point of a tiny community and for some students here: the most stable “home” they have. The push to make tests the valuation of vital public institutions and the cornerstone of reform, as opposed to pushing for a shared-accountability/holistic approach, is a cheap-seats strategy that devalues that varied gifts brought by all, students and staff alike, to the classroom. and seeks to legitimize the wrongdoings of leaders. I oppose that strategy,  and my daughters don’t take them.

They used to, and I have no problem with tests, but for me personally, it isn’t about the inappropriateness of treating my children like this or that-my girls continually meet and exceed demands. It isn’t about me rallying a bunch of parents to make some mass-protest statement. It is about the unwillingness of those leaders and the wealthy propping them up to take responsibility for what they have done to our economy and the majority of our citizens. The ripples of excess, exploitation and inequity are slowly turning into a wake, and could to turn into waves that will wash over the most vulnerable if we just allow it. Presume to measure my children, their teachers and our schools in order to distract us all with numbers-I say no thank you. Suggest that new standards, high-stakes tests and fancy formulas mean more than the judgement and priorities of parents, citizens, and parents (and even children)-I say you are mistaken. I do not need a test to help me see quality in a teacher, because every day I see enthusiastic, effective, inspiring teachers who are a blessing in the lives of kids-especially those young ones who simply need to feel like they mean something to somebody.

The reluctance of reformers to discuss approaches that are more respectful of the profession and what it actually demands is why I resist buying into their insanity or selling my children to their tests. Sell it as “special interest” obstructionism, and I will say “Your damn right, all children are too special for that kind of ‘reform’.

But I start with my own, and their teachers.