Sunday, April 3, 2016

Jia Lee and Staff Won't Be Gagged -- Earth School Teachers to Parents On Testing and Public Education

"We are bemused by this lack of agreement from local and state officials, while questioning the wisdom of a school system that would disempower teachers from discussing the merits of educational mandates with the families they serve.'' .. Earth School Staff,

Staff of Earth School where Jia Lee is chapter leader

A Letter to Families

A Letter On Testing and Public Education

Dear Families,

Our staff recognizes the inherent discomfort in discussing differences in educational values and choices. Our commitment to the children in our community continues to be our priority regardless of the testing choices of families. This year, we will have students who sit for the State Tests and they will be nurtured and supported through the process. We will also have students who opt out of State Tests and they will be nurtured and supported through alternative learning and assessment activities. 

Public education is important to us. As teachers, we share a deep commitment to our school’s mission and have chosen public education because that is where our values lie. The founding teachers of our school envisioned a “dream school”: a public school to serve diverse students and families. Our participation in public education comes with responsibilities and implicit agreements–a social contract. We agree that all of society benefits when children have access to quality education. We also share the uniquely democratic hope that children who learn together will later govern together with more compassion, more social cohesion, and a greater sense of civic responsibility.

From its founding, public education has held a political purpose. Thomas Jefferson viewed education as a necessary foundation of democratic life. In practice, however, public education has been deeply inequitable. It is fitting, therefore, that the “spark” of the modern civil rights movement came in the form of a legal challenge to educational equity. Thurgood Marshall successfully argued that “separate was not equal” in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka. If we believe in public education from Thomas Jefferson to Thurgood Marshall, two things seem necessary: first, we must preserve the “public-ness” of public education — democratically governed and in service of the public good. Second, we must fight for equity in education.  

In the past decade, an alternative vision for public schooling has taken hold. Education philanthropists have poured billions into “remaking” public education. The Common Core Learning Standards were an important first step in that vision. Bill Gates, whose foundation primarily funded the Standards, explained, “When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well and unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better.” He was citing a well-known business strategy already working for products like the the SAT and high school exit exams. When extended to elementary schools, tax dollars flow to private vendors offering tests, data management, hardware upgrades, and a range of pre-packaged curriculum solutions laser-focused on raising test scores. 

Policymakers have embraced reforms with a simple logic: Test scores provide the data for judging the success and failure of schools, and private companies hawk product solutions to keep test scores high. The new reforms promote business efficiency and doing more with less, which has emboldened policymakers wanting to cut budgets. The solution to persistent gaps in education achievement is to raise standards and test scores, rather than fight for financial resources, or demand government action to address societal inequities.

In this decade of reforms, Earth School has endured severe budget cuts. We have lost an assistant principal and a math coach, cut support team to a part-time position, and lost two of our four office staff. We are not budgeted for Physical Education, Dance, or Music. This year’s state education budget fell $4.4 billion short of its constitutional obligation for equitable school funding as determined by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York ruling. In past years, teachers have feared that the State would bring in a new principal to “remake” our school around testing outcomes. 

Having a small school results in a small pool of test-takers, meaning that one test, even a single test question could impact our school’s data significantly. That fact, along with ever-changing test formats and the manipulation of complex scoring formulas, made our ratings highly irregular. In one year, we would be ranked in the top quarter of schools for our size and in other years at the bottom.
The State tests are of little educational value to our school. As teachers trained in education assessment, we recognize several cardinal mistakes in the implementation of the tests:
  • Teachers were not allowed to design the tests for their students and curricular goals.
  • The tests are not individualized to students’ abilities or learning goals.
  • Teachers are not allowed to see the tests.
  • Teachers are not allowed to discuss tests with students in order to better understand their thinking.
  • Multiple-choice questions limit students’ ability to thoughtfully respond to literature or demonstrate problem-solving in math.
  • The tests are summative, meaning they cover an entire year’s worth of work, rather than providing periodic feedback that would inform instruction as it happens.
  • Test results are scored 1-4, are released in the summer, and rank students rather than illuminating students’ strengths and weaknesses.
  • Test questions have been notoriously poor in design and wording.
  • The tests are redundant for teachers who assess students daily and communicate that information in meaningful ways to parents.
State Tests do not have educational value, they have political value. The tests are a fixture of a reform movement hoping to manage a closed system where testing buy-in creates demand for education products and motivates schools to “do better” with less. The rules of that business model are absurdly simplistic: a successful test score is equivalent to a successful education. It is equally simplistic for schools to game the system: Increase blocks of math, reading, and writing, cut back on everything else, and drill students on packaged curriculum or software that most mimics the format and expectations of standardized tests.

When parents at our school became some of the first in the city to opt their children out of State Tests, teachers recognized their action as a political statement. Parents voted their values and made it count: They denied policymakers and business reformers the tests, the blunt instrument that had been used for years to cut school budgets, shutter schools, funnel public dollars into private contracts, de-professionalize teachers, outsource assessment, and deny children a holistic education. 

We applaud them for preserving the vision of a “dream school” that would teach reading,  writing, and math, but would also have a strong social studies curriculum on citizenship, the environment, and social justice, an art program, cooking, physical education, music, dance, annual traditions, where teachers are respected as curriculum leaders and ethical decision makers, a nurturing environment for social and emotional growth where differences are embraced, and where the educational lives of students are not standardized. Their choice was not a choice of convenience, nor based on the perceived aptitude of their child. They made the choice because they wanted to be a part of a new conversation in education policy, one that returns to the roots of public education: 

What is the purpose of public education in a democratic society? How can we ensure that all children receive an equitable education?
On a final note, we are well aware of news articles featuring the efforts of local and state officials to prevent teachers from criticizing the State Tests. Meanwhile, our newly elected Chancellor of the Board of Regents spoke freely in saying, “If I was a parent and I was not on the Board of Regents, I would opt out at this time.” We are bemused by this lack of agreement from local and state officials, while questioning the wisdom of a school system that would disempower teachers from discussing the merits of educational mandates with the families they serve. 

The Earth School Staff

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