Monday, January 4, 2016

Parent Open Letter to all NYS Superintendents and Board of Education Members — Do the Right Thing

Parents have been shouting from the rooftops what they want: the end of Common Core, the end of the developmentally inappropriate tests (both the level of “rigor” and the soul-crushing length of the tests), the end of high stakes testing (student testing tied to teacher effectiveness or school ratings), and the unfettered collection of their children’s data to stop.  
Tim Farley lays bare the phony rhetoric coming from State Ed Commissioner Elia.


December 31, 2015
Dear New York State Superintendents and Boards of Education Members,

I write this letter to you on the eve of a new year. The past year has brought many changes to education — a new Commissioner, a soon-to-be new Chancellor, new regulations on APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review), new Regents, a new testing company for the NY State tests, the Education Transformation Act, the partial moratorium of provisions of this Act, and the re-write of ESEA to ESSA. We are being told by some that everything is fine now, the parents can opt back in to having their children take the tests, the teachers can take a breath, and the children can stop stressing out. Let me assure you that this is not true.

Despite the well wishes of Commissioner Elia in her recent newsletter, it is doubtful that teachers will have a happy holiday. Ms. Elia tries to assuage the teachers’ fears in the opening paragraph with the following: “The emergency regulation removes any consequences for teachers’ and principals’ evaluations related to the grades 3–8 English Language Arts (ELA) and Math State Assessments and the State-provided growth score on Regents exams until the start of the 2019–2020 school year.” Teachers can take a much needed sigh of relief. Or can they?

In the third paragraph of the newsletter, Ms. Elia writes: “The transition scores and subsequent ratings will be determined based on the remaining subcomponents of the APPR that are not based on the grades 3–8 ELA or Math State assessments and/or a State-provided growth score on Regents examinations. During the transition period, only the transition score and rating will be used for purposes of evaluation, and for purposes of employment decisions, including tenure determinations and for teacher and principal improvement plans. State-provided growth scores will continue to be computed for advisory purposes and overall HEDI ratings will continue to be provided to teachers and principals.” What Ms. Elia gives teachers in the first paragraph, she snatches from them in this one.

In the first paragraph one might infer that no matter how poorly students do on the state tests, it won’t count against the teacher. However, she later clarifies that, in fact, the student test scores can and will be used for “advisory purposes.” Does that mean that teachers can still be fired for “ineffective” growth scores based on their earlier growth scores? You bet it does. The moratorium that the Board of Regents recently put in place is for state-provided growth scores moving forward. However, if a teacher or principal already has two “ineffective” state provided growth scores (2013–2014 and 2014–2015), under the new 3012d, if they receive an additional ineffective this year, they must be fired. In addition, the growth scores of the teacher must still be made available to parents.

As you are all probably well aware, the opt out movement has grown exponentially over the past three years, from about 20,000 in 2012–2013, to 65,000 in 2013–2014, to over 240,000 in 2014–2015. Why are parents opting out in such large numbers? What will happen this spring? Parents have been shouting from the rooftops what they want: the end of Common Core, the end of the developmentally inappropriate tests (both the level of “rigor” and the soul-crushing length of the tests), the end of high stakes testing (student testing tied to teacher effectiveness or school ratings), and the unfettered collection of their children’s data to stop. Additionally, Commissioner Elia signed a new contract with Questar without a full vetting or vote by the Board of Regents. Has enough been done to stop the opt out movement? I don’t think so.
  • We still have Pearson making this year’s 3–8 tests in ELA and math. As a matter of fact, Pearson will also be playing a role in next year’s tests according to this Newsday article. As reported by John Hildebrand, “State education officials said local teachers and administrators will be given a much bigger role, working with Questar to write new test questions. Those officials acknowledged, however, that questions developed by Pearson must be used in tests administered in April and in the spring of 2017, because of the time needed to review new questions for validity and accuracy.”
  • We will likely still have tests that are far too long and far too “rigorous.” Ms. Elia has stated that certain reading passages and some multiple choice questions would be eliminated, but admitted that these changes will not substantially reduce the length of the tests. The tests will still be administered three days for ELA and three days for math for grades 3–8.
  • Despite a promise that onerous field tests would be eliminated if NYSED received $8.4 million to print different versions of the exam, they were provided with this funding but are still imposing field tests on the state’s students.
  • We still have tests tied to teacher and principal effectiveness ratings. As stated above, teachers and principals can still be fired based on state-provided growth scores in grades 3–8 tests from the last two years — and all other teachers will have their effectiveness ratings based primarily on local assessments or high school Regents exams.
  • We still have standards that are developmentally inappropriate and a Commissioner that is determined to make minor adjustments solely at the K-3 level.
  • We still have a system in place that collects enormous amounts of data on our children, without protecting the privacy of this sensitive information. According to Leonie Haimson, Executive Director of Class Size Matters, the Daily Mail reports, “Students’ names, emails, addresses, grades, test scores, disabilities, disciplinary information, health information, economic status, racial status and more,” are being collected by schools, districts and the state; with little or no restrictions on their disclosure.
Last year, the threat of losing any Title I monies for any district not meeting the required 95% participation rate was put to rest by Governor Cuomo, Chancellor Tisch, and then reluctantly, Commissioner Elia. They knew then that if they withheld any money that goes to the neediest students, it would have been political suicide. Yet, despite the fact that the new version of ESEA, called Every Student Succeeds Act or ESSA, specifically bars the US Department of Education from penalizing states that have high opt out numbers, they are still threatening the loss of federal money from any district not meeting the 95% participation rate.
According to this letter, dated December 22, 2015, from USDOE’s Ann Whelan — the threats/sanctions include:
  • Lowering an LEA’s or school’s rating in the State’s accountability system or amending the system to flag an LEA or school with a low participation rate.
  • Counting non-participants as non-proficient in accountability determinations.
  • Requiring an LEA or school to develop an improvement plan, or take corrective action to ensure that all students participate in the statewide assessments in the future, and providing the SEA’s process to review and monitor such plans.
  • Requiring an LEA or school to implement additional interventions aligned with the reason for low student participation, even if the State’s accountability system does not officially designate schools for such interventions.
  • Designating an LEA or school as “high risk,” or a comparable status under the State’s laws and regulations, with a clear explanation for the implications of such a designation.
  • Withholding or directing use of State aid and/or funding flexibility.
Clearly, these threats are being made to quash the opt out movement. However, I assure you these tactics will have the opposite effect.
There are roughly 700 school districts in New York State. That means there are about 700 Superintendents who were hired by locally-elected Boards of Education. These Superintendents work for their communities and they are evaluated by their Boards of Education. Superintendents know that VAM (value-added model) has been deemed invalid and unreliable in measuring teacher effectiveness. Superintendents know that the state tests are too long and are not developmentally appropriate.

One of the claims of the newly written ESSA was that it would re-establish state’s rights and “local control” with regard to education. Do these threats indicate more local control? Instead, the US Department of Education, now led by John King, our former Commissioner, whose rigid authoritarianism was soundly rejected by our state’s teachers, parents, and students, seems to be intent on ignoring what should have been learned through his experience: that parents will be even angrier and more intent on resisting the more they are exhorted to submit.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In any society, it is every citizen’s responsibility to obey just laws. But at the same time, it is every citizen’s responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” It is long past time for our education leaders to lead the charge. The parents will opt out in unprecedented numbers this spring. However, what if the 700 Superintendents refused to administer the tests? What if their locally-elected boards directed them to do so? What if there was a test, but no one took it?

General Colin Powell once said, “Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems, is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”
Who will stand up for the children? Who will stand up for the teachers? Who will stand up for the schools and for public education? Who will demand that we deserve better? If not you, who? If not now, when?

Sincerely,
Tim Farley
New York State Public School Parent

PS — Please share with the Superintendent of schools and Board of Education members where you live.

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