Monday, April 29, 2013

Teacher Oral History Project- The Rationale

Ever since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, America’s public school teachers have been subjected to an unprecedented, bi-partisan attempt to transform their work place environment and hold them accountable for the alleged failures of the nation’s public schools to produce greater equity and contribute to American global competitiveness. Under both the Bush and Obama Administrations, teachers have found their careers and their futures increasingly defined by student test scores, while their job rights and tenure protections have been steadily undermined by new policies at the state and federal level which require closing of failing schools and removal of teachers who consistently rate low on new test driven evaluation systems. The atmosphere surrounding these policies has often been toxic, with the press and elected officials keeping up a steady drumbeat of chatter on the dangers posed by “ bad teachers,” and with budget conscious officials denouncing teachers as pampered and overpaid. Alternative certification programs like Teach for America have added to the sense of insecurity, giving school districts powerful incentives to replace veteran teachers with young people receiving lower salaries who are unlikely to stay in the profession . When you add to the mix favoritism toward charter schools, experiments with on line learning and merit pay, and the implementation of the Common Core Standards without trial runs which demonstrate their effectiveness, you can see why many teachers regard this era as a tragic one for their profession. The statistics bear this perception out. This year, a Met Life Survey of Teacher Satisfaction registered its lowest level in history, and the average length of a teacher’s career has plummeted to five years, from a level that was more than double that in the 1980’s.

One of the hallmarks of all the above mentioned policies is that they were implemented without significant teacher input. Teachers have been conspicuously absent from Education Reform Commissions appointed at the state, local and national level, with preference given to business leaders and heads of major foundations. Mayoral control of schools in large cities has also eroded teacher power by removing opportunities for key stakeholders in the public schools to have day to day input into their management. What we have had, for the last ten plus years, is top down initiatives imposed on teachers rather than developed with them.

Given the total exclusion of teacher voices from the shaping of Education Policy, and to a large degree from the media, who have bought into the “Bad Teacher” narrative, it is important to find some vehicle for teachers to describe what those policies have meant “on the ground” in their classrooms and communities. This is the purpose of the Teacher Oral History Inittative launched by United Opt Out with the support of teachers and education scholars around the nation. Our goal is to have teachers around the country to describe how they have experienced No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, and the policies stemming from them, in their professional lives, and offer their own suggestions for how to improve classroom learning, promote student engagement, and make schools more integral parts of the communities they are located in. To promote the creation of local oral history projects, adapted to local conditions, we will be creating a national digital archive for teacher oral histories through United Opt Out, with full protection of the confidentiality of respondents. We have some guidelines and protocols for how to start such projects, but will not dictate the questions asked, the strategies for recruiting participants, or the mechanisms for acquiring project sponsors. Teachers have had too much experience with policies implemented from the top down for us to mirror that approach in launching this project. We are going to play the role of facilitators. What actually goes on in interviews will be left to the local organizers

Although the official launch date for the Teachers Oral History project will probably be June 2013, the idea has already created considerable excitement among educators. We already have tentative commitments to launch local initiatives in more than ten locales, including Orlando, Chicago, Upstate NY, Washington DC, Jersey City, Los Angeles, and several places in New England. We look forward for more educators to come on board and welcome support from individuals, organizations, and foundations who feel that teacher voices need to be heard without restrictions, without compromise, an without fear of retaliation.

Friday, April 26, 2013

It Takes a Child to Raise a Village- Thank You to the Test Refusers of New York State

At the dawn of the last day of the weeks of testing in New York State, I want to offer my sincere thanks and deepest gratitude to the thousands of young people and their families who participated in the largest collective act of Test Refusal in American History.  At a time when high stakes testing is deforming public education in virtually every state in the nation,  when it has assumed the character of a out of control train that no one at the controls seems able or willing to stop, you have shown that people of courage and character can lead us out of a path that will only end in tragedy.  

What you have done has not been easy. You have been vilified, ostracized, threatened,  and in some instances punished in ways that no children of any age should have to endure-  from being forced to sit in silence for hours staring ahead, to being excluded from extracurricular activities, to being told you will be denied promotion or access to honors programs.  A few of you have  been told you are jeopardizing your teachers jobs, your schools funding, or real estate prices in your town; more than a few have been told that your actions will make it difficult to get into a good college

But as in other great movements when people take risks based upon deeply held convictions, this campaign of intimidation has backfired. For the first time since the Opt Out movement has started, civil liberties lawyers have stepped forward to defend Opting Out children and families, and a lawsuit has been filed in Rochester against one such family subject to particularly grievous levels of abuse

And courage you have displayed in the face of this has also brought  unprecedented publicity to the Opt Out movement- literally scores of articles  and tv stories in local media, major pieces in the New York Times and other national publications. Every politician and editorial writer in  the state, and probably most around the nation, now know that thousands of New Yorkers have said no to uncontrolled testing, and some are starting to express doubts about the current direction of education policy in the nation.

Because of this, everyone who cares about the future of public education in the country is in your debt for showing us that resistance to current Education Reforms  policies is both possible and necessary

You have shown us that while "It Takes a Village to Raise a Child" sometimes "It Takes a Child to Lead a Village" 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Money, Money, Money, Money

Teachers and students all over the country are being demoralized and beaten down by  out of control testing. You know it, I know it, every sane person in the country knows it. So why do elected officials and their appointees in State Education Departments keep increasing the number of tests. Are they all on the take?

I's like to say no, they are misguided idealists, but lets do the math, In a nation still mired in recession, where many people are still unemployed or underemployed and most people's jobs are fragile, the nation's wealthiest people, whose fortunes the recession hasn't touched, are pouring tens of billions of dollars into grants and political contributions to make sure their vision of Education Reform, which is all about testing and privatization, is implemented in every part of the county

The hope of gaining access to these funds has totally distorted what should be an in depth national policy debate about the value of testing. Go to any Department of Education, in any city or state, or most graduate schools of Education, and access to grants attached to testing or Common CORE dominates the political and intellectual landscape. No one dares rock the boat less the money stops flowing, even people who know the policies they are being funded for are destructive or outright corrupt

 This is why teachers, parents and student have precious few allies in high places when challenging Test Driven School Reform. Those in positions of influence who have been entrusted with the fate of the nation's children have been for the most part bought and sold

This means that any change in these policies has to come entirely by mobilizing those most negatively impacted by  them- students, teachers, parents.  And those in power will resist that mobilization, whether actively or passively,
for fear that the spigots pouring out dollars will be shut off.

In Support of "Test Resistors" Who Apply to Fordham College

April 25, 2013
Michael Latham
Dean, Fordham College

John Buckley
Director of Admissions
Fordham College

Dear Mike and John
I want to altert you to a growing national movement that I am part of which may affect future applicants to Fordham College and to urge you to welcome application from students who have participated in it

As you may know, there is growing resistance on the part of educators and parents to the deluge of high stakes tests which are being imposed in our public schools as a result of policies made at the national and state level. These tests, which are also being used to rate teachers and schools, have, in the opinion of some of the nation's leading education scholars, stifled creative thinking, turned classroom instruction into test prep, and taken away precious time from activities that most promote student engagement, especially the arts.

People concerned about excesssive testing have written articles, circulated petitions, held demonstrations at state capitols and in Washington, but with little impact on policy, so now the movement has moved into the sphere of direct action. These last two weeks, thousands of students in New York State, with the support of their parents have chosen to Opt Out of State tests, and there have been student test walkouts in Portland, Denver, and most recently in Chicago, where hundreds of student participated in a test boycott yesterday.

This movement is likely to grow by leaps and bounds in coming years, affecting admissions policies in the nation's leading colleges. Many of the "test refusers" are outstanding students, leaders in their communities, who have taken this step as a matter of principle in the face of threats from state or local education officials. A great example of this is a student named Israel Munoz, recently admitted to Fordham College, who is one of the leaders of the Chicago Test Boycott, and will hopefully come to Fordham to work with me on the Bronx African American History Project!

I am therefore urging you both to take note of this growing movement, and to tell the people on your staffs to welcome applications from young people who choose to forgo standardized tests as a matter of principle, and give their applications the most serious consideration.

At at time when ill-conceived testing policies, imposed by leaders of both major parties, are deadening the minds of young people in our public schools, these young test resisters represent the kind of independent thinkers, concerned citizens, and people with a passion for justice that the entire Fordham community has always welcomed, and have made Fordham College such a special place,


Mark D Naison

Professor of African American Studies and History

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Why Opting Out Won't Hurt You in College Admissions

Some people  have expressed concern that if their children refuse to take certain standardized tests as a matter of principle, they will forfeit their opportunity to attend a top college. As a college professor at one of the nation's premier liberal arts schools, Fordham College, I actually think the reverse might be true- that standing up for principle and explaining why you did so on your college essay might actually enhance your chances of admission

Here's why. Faculty members at top liberal arts colleges do not adapt their educational philosophy to what is currently in fashion among elected officials or the media. They do not jump when Arne Duncan, John King, Chris Christie or Andrew Cuomo tells them to jump. Many are in disciples which have traditions of self-governance that go back to the 16th Century and they respond very badly when people tell them how they should think or what they should teach. In line with that tradition, they have a special appreciation for students able to think for themselves, and defend unpopular beliefs in a serious and principled way.At the best schools, faculty members like these serve on admissions committees and their voice is determintive. They will, I am confident, assure there will be no discrimination in admissions for young people who Opt Out

Monday, April 22, 2013

Letter From an NYC Teacher to the NY State Regents About the Destructive Impact of Recent State Tests

April 22, 2013

New York State Board of Regents and Dr. John B. King, Jr., Commissioner of Education and President of the University of the State of New York
New York State Education Department
89 Washington Avenue
Albany, New York 12234
Dear New York State Board of Regents and Dr. John B. King, Jr.,
I am an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at a Title I elementary school in New York City. This is my seventh year of teaching in the same school. Prior to becoming a teacher, I worked in sales for textbook publishers. In defining what it means to be a teacher, I have always held the belief that, first and foremost, I must serve as an advocate for all of my students. It is this deep-seated conviction that has inspired me to write to you.
Last week, I administered the grade 5 Common Core English Language Arts (ELA) test to a group of 10-year-old former English Language Learners (ELLs). Over the course of three consecutive days, they were asked to answer a total of 63 multiple-choice questions on two different answer grids, and eight short-response questions and two extended-response questions in two different booklets. In order to do this, they had to first carefully read and re-read a large number of reading passages.
Most of the grade 5 students throughout New York State received 90 minutes each day (a total of four and a half hours) to complete the tests. As former ELLs, the students I tested received an additional 45 minutes of testing time each day. Thus, they sat in a testing environment for a total of six hours and 45 minutes. If they had not received extended time, most of the students would not have finished any of the exams at the conclusion of the standard allotted time of 90 minutes. While I was impressed by the students’ stamina, resilience and overall positive attitude, by the end of day two their test fatigue and frustration were visible. This week, they will receive the same amount of time as the state administers to them the 2013 Common Core Mathematics test. By the end of Friday, April 26, this group of former ELLs – fifth graders - will have tested for a whopping total of 13.5 hours.
I ask you to picture your own children and grandchildren – even your 10-year-old self – sitting for that long to complete such lengthy standardized tests. I have a three-year-old daughter and my stomach tightens at the thought of her being subjected to such excessive testing. This brings me to my next point. The 2013 Common Core ELA and Math tests come at the culmination of months-long test preparation in our public schools that include four Acuity Benchmark Assessments (two for each subject area) and countless hours of teacher-created test prep practice. This egregious amount of classroom time devoted to standardized tests is robbing our students of their right to a meaningful education.
I support the implementation of the national Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS). In lesson planning, I regularly refer to the Common Core app on my smart phone to ensure that my lessons reflect their rigor. While I’ve always cultivated an atmosphere of critical thinking in my classroom and have long utilized authentic texts such as The New York Times, the CCLS have aided me in taking my instruction to the next level, particularly with regards to writing. Because my school has adopted the push-in model for ESL instruction, I collaborate and co-teach with a classroom teacher during the fifth grade literacy block. Our unit on Abraham Lincoln – for example - serves as a bridge that takes students from slavery to The Civil War. Not only do we guide students through the complex, higher order thinking task of analyzing and writing about two contradictory speeches that Lincoln gave on slavery, but we constantly make connections to material already learned and to forthcoming material. Our lessons, therefore, are not taught in a random, disconnected fashion. Rather, they are overlapping and reinforcing. I am proud of the CCLS-inspired work that my co-teacher and I do, and I am proud of our ESL students – most of whom are “below grade level” – for meeting our challenges and for applying their new knowledge in other academic contexts. An ESL student who got only 31% of the questions correct on the Fall 2012 Acuity Benchmark ELA Assessment recently brought tears to our eyes when he correctly used the word threshold in his writing, a term that had been taught to him months prior in a different unit.
What differentiates this type of instruction from that related to the state assessments is that the non-test prep work we do in our classrooms is much more inspirational and meaningful to both students and teachers. While the reading passages on state assessments and test prep materials do indeed draw from a variety of authentic, multilayered texts, students are reading only short excerpts that are unlikely to make a lasting impression. Students do not make the same kind of emotional connection to assessment material as they do when analyzing a non-fiction topic in depth or when reading a work of literature in its entirety. The tests and test prep materials neither take into consideration nor honor the uniqueness – the kaleidoscope of emotions – of each individual student. The work I do in the classroom is what motivates me to go to school every day. I am grateful for the opportunity to open children’s minds and to help guide them on their pursuit of happiness. The high stakes testing, unfortunately, poses a roadblock to this.
“Lack of rigor” in our schools is not the only factor contributing to our nation’s broken educational system, as our one-size-fits-all standardized testing program seems to suggest. In my school, we struggle on a daily basis with the effects of poverty and home life instability. How do we as teachers and schools ensure the academic success of all kids whose families do not appear to value education? On top of our instructional duties, we face the Sisyphean task of getting parents more involved. In order to be successful students, kids need to come to school every day, and they need family support in being able to complete their work both at home and at school. The weight given to standardized assessments and the corresponding Common Core Learning Standards does little to address the root causes of dysfunction in our public school system.
I am deeply troubled by the path our state is headed down in assessing our elementary school students, and I strongly urge you to re-think both the design of and the importance placed on state assessments. You are making it that much harder to recruit talented individuals to the teaching profession. The tests are also souring the educational experiences of our youngest citizens, the ones we are preparing so hard for college and career readiness. However, we must also invest more in breaking the insidious, concrete-walled cycle of poverty in our nation. A much greater importance must be placed on fixing the root causes of low academic performance and educational inequities.
Katie Lapham, NYC teacher

Has The War on Teachers Morphed into a War On Children

When I first got involved in education activism four years ago, with the publication of a piece "In Defense of Public School Teachers" I did so because the elected officials in New York and around the nation, under the mantle of "school reform" , were blaming public school teachers for problems in the society that were not of their making and trying to subject them to numbers based "accountability" protocols that would squeeze the life out of teaching.  I saw the best teachers I knew, those who were my former students, and those I worked with in Bronx community history projects, feel as though they had become demonized and marginalized by people who had little real life understanding of wat their job entailed. Since they lacked the power to speak freely about what was happening to them, I felt it was my duty to speak in their behalf.

Four years later, there is still just as much pain and rage among the nation's teachers. Now that I am publicly identified as a "teachers advocate' I probably get 4 or 5 emails or Facebook messages a week from teachers around the nation describing the  fear, stress, humiliation and erosion of professional autonomy they experience as student test scores have become the major indicator of judging teacher effectiveness.  It is because of such experiences that I have launched, with the support of United Opt Out, a Teachers Oral History Project that will allow teachers viewpoints on current education policies to be recorded and preserved

But this past week, as I have become involved with an Opt Out movement in New York State that has inspired thousands of families  to demand that their children be allowed to sit out state tests, I have become even more appalled by what current school policies are doing to children. The stories I have heard from parents about their children's school experiences have been even more heartbreaking than those I hear from teachers.  The flood of high stakes tests into the schools of New York State  has not only turned instruction into test prep, making once eager youngsters hate going to school. it has produced anxiety attacks and stress related disorders on a massive scale among students as young as 8 in schools around the state. And these stories are not confined to one demographic group. I have gotten them parents in small towns inner cities, middle class urban neighborhoods and in suburbs. Children are traumatized by the length of the tests, by steadily growing difficulty of the material  they contain and by the fact that their teachers jobs depend on how well they perform,. And God forbid a student or a family should decide not to take the test!  In more than few school districts, children who have chosen to opt out have been have been browbeaten, insulted, threatened with loss of extracurricular activities and access to honors programs, told they will never get into college, told they are jeopardizing their teachers jobs, told they will be responsible for lowering real estate values in their neighborhood, even in a few instances, told they are unpatriotic and giving aid and comfort to terrorists!

  Given what I have seen and heard this week from the parents of New York State, I respectfully suggest that we, as a nation, need a long period of soul searching to examine whether the test driven policies that are being imposed in the public schools of the nation with breakneck speed are good for children.  The two weeks of testing that the children of New York State are currently enduring comes perilously close reaching abusive proportions. A society that loves and values its children would not accept  this as the norm.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Education Serfs Are Revolting... Democracy is Coming, to the U.S.A.

Should be an exciting week for education activists. The Test Revolt in New York goes into its second week, with more students and families opting out every day; a new Test Revolt may start in New Jersey, where state tests are yet to be administered, and a student walkout against School Closings and Testing will be taking place on Wednesday in Chicago.

Finally, after 12 years of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, where top down reform of education, featuring national standards for testing and accountability, has turned teachers, parents and students into Education Serfs, with little or no control over  what is happening in the nation's classrooms, the Serfs are revolting. Soon, the test makers, the plutocrats, and the politicians who serve them will find that children and teachers are no longer clay in their hands to be molded at will, that they have the power to demand their voices be heard,  their rights be respected, and that atmosphere of classrooms should be built around nurturing thinkers, dreamers, creators and  citizens, not  a compliant labor force for the nation's big corporations.

What we are seeing unfold before us is a popular uprising of massive proportions, crossing lines of ideology and political party, demanding that schools be returned to the people and communities they serve, not controlled by the powerful for profit and personal gain.

Watch out School Reformers!  To quote Leonard Cohen "Democracy is Coming- to the U.S.A."

Why TEST TRANSPARENCY Should be the Next Great Cause of Education Activists

While campaigning for a reduction in high stakes testing, along with recognition of the right of parents and students to opt out of state tests, education activists should also launch a movement for TEST TRANSPARENCY- demanding that tests be made public after they are administered, and that tests after they are graded should be given to teachers so they can use completed tests as an educational tool to HELP individual students, not use them for secret calculations to rate students, teachers, and schools. Test secrecy in its current form is profoundly undemocratic. It protects public officials and test companies from the kind of scrutiny necessary to prevent corruption and abuse, as well as inhibiting public discussion of the value of current test policies. There will be disagreement among people of good will about how much testing we need in schools, but there should be no disagreement of the need to have complete openness about how tests are developed, how they are implemented, how they are graded and how they are used.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Big Breakthrough for "Test Refusers" in New York State

After one week of protests against state testing,  the Opt Out movement in New York State can count many important victories.  First of all, thousands of children in the state, from Long Island, to New York City, up the Hudson Valley, to Western New York and the Adirondacks, refused to take the ELA and Math tests put in front of them, sometimes doing so alone, sometimes as part of large groups in their school.  They did so in spite of the State Education Department's insistence that such acts were illegal, and in spite of some awful examples of intimidation by school authorities. This showed that parents activism around high stakes testing could not be
discouraged by threats and in fact that such threats would backfire.

Secondly, the movement got considerable news coverage, first locally and then nationally, with stories appearing on cable outlets throughout the state, passionate discussions taking place in local newspapers, and finally stories appearing in the New York Times. Washington Post and on  Now most parents in New York state, many in the Tri-State area, and quite a few in other parts of the country know there was a major  Test Revolt in New York State.  It puts an action once inconceivable within the realm of possibility.

Finally, for the first time that I know of since this movement started, Opting Out parents were able to secure representation from civil liberties lawyers in cases of harassment or intimidation of their children. Three different lawyers, including the most respected civil liberties lawyer in New York State, have stepped forward to help embattled Opt Out families. This is also something of national significance, as Opting Out parents in other parts of the nation have had little success in securing such assistance

  When you look at all these developments, you have to conclude that a movement launched by a handful of parents, with no funding, and no support from elected officials, has inspired a public discussion of great power and significance about the dangers of standardized testing and has awakened parents in the state and the nation to the importance of their voice in determining what goes on in the schools they send their children to.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Voices from the Trenches; Teachers Respond to the Impact of NY State Tests on Their Students

From a Teacher in a Bronx Middle School

"The children were expected to sit in absolute silence for three hours! The older special emotionally disturbed children in the school started a riot in the cafeteria !! Direct result of over testing and frustration due to expectations that are outrageously unrealistic and necessary !! Excuse my vocabulary ,but this is absolute bull shit!!!"

From a Manhattan  Middle School/ High School Teacher

Tests at our middle school for students with emotional disturbance have led to major fights and aggressive behaviors. Yesterday, a student was taken to hospital on stretcher and another taken out of the school in handcuffs- middle school! This is an outrage. The tests are purposely impossible so next year, when tests are easier, the government can show 'progress.' They are using our children as pawns in their political schemes with zero concern for their actual educations or their overall well being

From a Brooklyn Teacher and Parent

The biggest hypocrisy of all is the DoE's descrbing its mission as "Children First." No, it's testing first, It's Data First. It's bidding by publishers first. Children come last in this equation. It's disgusting. And... as I've mentioned before, THE CHILDREN NEVER GET TO SEE THE RESULTS OF THEIR TESTS. They will not know which answers they got right or wrong, or if all the instruction on using graphic organizers and chunking text and all that made a difference. The tests will be shredded before kids (or teachers) ever get to see them. So they can not even be used as instgructional tools. Where's the "Children First" in all of this?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Does Anyone Setting Education Policy in NY State Send Their Kids to Public School?

We have an interesting conundrum in the state of New York when it comes to education policy. Not one of the three most powerful people who are shaping public education in this state, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Board of Regents Chair Merryl Tisch, and State Education Commissioner John King send their children to public schools

Is it any wonder that public schools administrators, teachers, and parents are the last ones they consult when determining how many, and which tests to administer in the state's public schools, and how those tests should be used.

Their approach represents paternalism at its best, and insider dealing at its worst, as the policies they have instituted bring huge profits to test companies and consulting firms which can be the source of political contributions. high paying jobs, and board of director positions to public servants who help them get state contracts.

One other thing should be kept in mind, and this hails back to the "interlocking directorates" that social critics discovered among Captains of Industry at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Century. And that has to do with elite social networking. The schools our state education leaders send their children to are the same ones that CEO's of big companies send their children to. And the places they go for vacation are the same ones those CEO's frequent.

This is yet another reason why our high public servants, when they have a chance to appoint an Education Commission, choose CEO's over teachers, principals and parents every time. They are picking their friends and future business partners

Do you think I am being paranoid here? Or am I describing important underlying conditions for the Test Catastrophe which has descended upon our schools?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

In NY Today, Largest Act of "Test Refusal" In American History

I am so proud of the thousands of parents and children who sometimes alone and under duress, sometimes with the support of teachers and administrators, decided to Opt Out of testing in New York State today. This has resulted in the largest collective act of "Test Refusal" in the history of this nation, and it is only the beginning of what will become a huge national movement. New Yorkers are proud, they are smart, and they are tough. Anyone who thinks that the parents of this state are going to stand idly by while state officials wearing ideological blinders or driven by expectations of profit fill schools with tests which bore their children, stifle their creativity, and in the worse instance, reduce them to tears, better wake up and smell the cappuchino. "Something's happening here," to quote Buffalo Springfield, but this time it's perfectly clear. Parents in this state are going to take back our public schools and make them places where children are respected, nurtured, allowed to play and allowed to dream!

To The Children and Families in New York State Opting Out of State Tests

Today, in New York State, democratic renewal takes the form of thousands of children refusing to take tests they and their families deem oppressive. We are all in your debt. You are setting an example for an entire nation where testing has gotten completely out of control due to political opportunism, cynicism and greed. Many teachers, principals, school superintendents- and even a few state education administrators- agree with you but few have been willing to risk their careers to fight a Political Juggernaut that they regard as unstoppable because so much Big Money has been behind it. So it has come to you, ordinary citizens and their children, to stop this Runaway Testing Train.

But there is nothing ordinary you are doing. Taking this action, sometimes in the face of intimidation and threats, is the living embodiment of the democratic spirit in this nation, the same kind of courage that led Rosa Parks to refuse to give up her seat in that Montgomery Bus in 1955, and the four North Carolina College students who refused to leave the white section of a segregated lunch counter in 1960. Those actions eventually sparked a movement to sweep away segregation, but there was no guarantee that would be the result when those individuals took them. They only knew that their conscience would no longer allow them to endure this kind of wrong doing, which at the time was enshrined in law.

The tests that children opting out of today were imposed by state law. Parents are being told that refusing these tests is illegal. But challenging unjust laws, with dignity and purpose and in a spirit of peace, is what makes democracy work when government authority rides roughshod over peoples rights

So once again, in behalf of millions of people around the nation horrified by what testing is doing to our public schools, I thank you for your courage, I thank you for your sacrifice, I thank you for your example

You are truly making history today.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Man Behind the NY Parents Revolt-Governor Andrew Cuomo

To the shock of many people, New York State has become the center of a large and growing parent's revolt against excessive testing. Thousands of children around the state will be Opting Out of state tests this week, even though the New York State Department of Education has insisted such actions are illegal and could have severe consequences for the parents and families who participate and for schools where students refuse the tests.

This revolt is not only due to sheer amount of testing taking place - six straight days of tests, 90 minutes a day for third graders- along with the high stakes attached to them, it also stems from the contemptuous attitude the State Education Commissioner John King has taken towards parents, teachers, and principals who question the usefulness of so much testing.

But let's not kid ourselves, the bullying of families, children and teachers by the State Education Department is a direct extension of the personality of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who rammed a teacher evaluation protocol through the State Legislature that the best principals in the State warned would lead to an orgy of testing and fill school communities with stress.

But our Governor, who was elected in a landslide, sends his own kids to private schools, and has Presidential aspirations which he hopes the billionaires behind
School Reform will support, thought he could dictate education policies which would l keep federal dollars flowing, and write off any opposition from teachers and parents as self-interested whining..

What he didn't count on was that the proliferation of tests his policies required would enrage parents around the state, most of them in communities where the public schools were functioning well, whose children were coming home in tears because test prep had taken over the school curriculum and made their school experience oppressive and boring. In such communities, the new tests and teacher evaluations, introduced with great suddenness as a result if legislation passed in the dead of night had the character of an Alien Invasion or the actions of a Totalitarian Regime.Schools filled with art and music and science and school trips, where teachers loved the children and loved their jobs-- and which parents paid high taxes to fund- were suddenly becoming zones of stress and fear as a result of unilateral actions by the State Government There was no discussion and no appeal. It was the state's way or the highway.

Given the intellect, education, and experience of many of the parents appalled by these policies, the Governor's dictatorial approach was bound to backfire. And it has. You now have a full fledged test revolt in many of the State's highest performing schools districts. And as for Governor Cuumo's Presidential aspirations, they may be disappearing as fast as the incorrect answers rubbed out by Michelle Rhee's eraser when she was Chancellor of DC's public schools

Sunday, April 14, 2013

America's Education Nightmare

Imagine if someone gave you the following scenario- The wealthiest and most powerful people in the country are going to spend huge amounts of money trying to improve education. But instead of using those funds on getting talented and idealistic young people to devote their life to teaching, they were going to direct their funds so that such people gravitated to high paid positions creating and administering tests, assessing and evaluating schools, and joining private companies profiting from the rapidly growing education marketplace. 

That scenario, which an objective observe would say was destined to dismal failure, has become the reality in education policy around the country The money flowing into education from the federal government or private sources has overwhelming gone into management, assessment and quality control rather than recruiting and empowering great teachers and enriching the classroom experience so that children are excited about learning. Indeed, this top down approach has driven great teachers out of the profession and make children hate school.

All over the country, teacher morale is plummeting and children and families are in a state of shock over the uncontrolled proliferation of tests. There is a rebellion brewing, though the powers that be that created the current reality seek to suppress it and mock it. But none of their packaging and propaganda and bluster can hide the fact that you can't improve schools by management techniques that make teachers had their jobs and children hate going to school.

We need a moratorium on testing and school closings, and an redirection of existing funds into enriching classroom instruction while adopting policies which affirm the character of schools as community institutions not just one size fits all institutions shaped by a national blueprint.

If we don't do that, and reverse course quickly, we will lose a generation of teachers and more than one generation of children.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Obedience to the Law Is Freedom

'Obedience to the Law is Freedom'. Thus declared a sign hung over a barbed wire covered gate at a US Army Base, Fort Dix, in 1969. It became a symbol for the movement against the War in Vietnam. Today, it has a chilling resonance to parents who have been told that Opting Out their children from state tests is illegal and will incur severe penalties. To those brave individuals, I cannot recommend a course of action- as that must be determined by the dictates of one's conscience- but I will share a passage on just and unjust laws from one of the greatest human rights documents we have, Dr Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

"One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

Friday, April 12, 2013

A Message to the President from a Bronx Teacher

A Message to the President From a Bronx Teacher

Good Afternoon,
          Angela Davis once said, “The word radical simply means a grasping of the root.”  By that definition, Michelle Rhee is not a radical, as her book title suggests.  I am a radical because I grasp from the root.  In our world of education, that translates to looking to fix the origin of the achievement gap rather than divert from it by blaming teachers for something that we did not cause.  The root of this problem is poverty.
I come from humble beginnings.  I grew up in Edenwald Projects, located in the Northeast Bronx. My living arrangements were…interesting.  It was the house that my mother and her siblings grew up in and apparently never left.  Three generations lived under one roof in our 1C apartment.  The Tanner family that we watched every Friday night had nothing on us.  We were the true meaning of a full house.
There’s a lot that comes with growing up poor aside from lack of material things.  What it often means is ignorance.  When abnormal things are normalized in any community, it has the ability to warp one’s mentality.  It is this warped mentality, coupled with the obvious lack of resources in poor communities that account for low performing students.  My mother was the only one to complete college in her family however, she was only instructed to go in the first place to keep her deceased father’s social security checks flowing, not because anyone valued education.  I stand here today only due to a series of serendipitous events like the one just mentioned, my mother’s incidental education.  She liked children,  but suffered from severe low self-esteem and didn’t feel she was intelligent enough to teach school age children, which led to her picking early childhood education as her major because she thought it would be easier.  Being an early childhood teacher led to her understanding the importance of educating her own child from birth, which led to me having an edge over my peers academically and in life.  It doesn’t make us better, it makes us lucky.  A series of serendipitous events…
Teachers are not the ones to blame for the achievement gap…poverty is.  Even with all of my mother’s discipline, high expectations, support and teachings, I still narrowly made it out of my own way.  By the time I got to junior high, I had developed an attitude.  An attitude that I couldn’t understand at the time but now I can trace back to being angry about things that I couldn’t control.  Sound familiar?  On top of that, being a goodie goodie did not fare well with my peers. My priorities shifted.  I deliberately learned how to speak improperly.  I paid less attention to school and pleasing teachers and more on memorizing lyrics that denigrated women because it was cool. My mother would yell at me and say “I didn’t raise you this way.”  “You’re not the only one raising me,” I retorted.  I’ll say it again, when you live in a community where certain realities are normalized, it begins to warp your mentality.  It is this mentality and the obvious lack of resources in poor communities that account for low student achievement. 
As early as elementary school, my best friend and I would get made fun of for being virgins at the age of eight.  We learned hand games with extremely sexually explicit lyrics…of course most of these kids hadn’t had sex yet, but they still knew too much too soon, which led to them having sex too soon and babies too soon.  These same girls used to see me in the street when I came back to Edenwald to visit my grandmother—my mother and I had moved out by then—wondering why I had not started a family yet.  I was 18 and a freshman at Fordham.  They were on their second, sometimes third child. 
          I chronicle my childhood to offer two points up to the Gods, that is, the policy makers to whose ears I hope are hearing my words.  Number one:  I am an anomaly, a glitch in the sytem.  Being a college graduate from a prestigious university, having two master’s degrees, having a career, these are not typical realities for a project kid.  Just because it is possible doesn’t make it probable.  Realities are usually far  more dismal.  I have family members in jail right now, family who dropped out of high school, who were alcoholics, drug addicts, heroine being the drug of choice.  He grew up during the 70s. Vietnam amputees lined our streets, nodding in their fatigues.  We called it Bum Hill. My relative was sent to rehab several times to get clean, only to come back to Edenwald and within weeks be at it again because it was all around him.  He’s clean now, and has been for years…because he didn’t come back home.  He couldn’t come back home.
          Immediately after graduating from Fordham University, I began teaching in the South Bronx, which made my neighborhood look like Beverly Hills.  Many cannot fathom the kinds of problems that our children are dealing with.  Many of them are lucky to be alive, yet we are concerned with whether they get a three or a four on an exam.  As we continue to be used as scapegoats for societal ills, poverty prevails.
For anyone who says teachers are to blame for our students failing, I have one thing to say:  How DARE you?   Teachers are heroes to a lot of children who have none!  The problems of the ghetto will always be problems of the ghetto until we begin to make changes toward fixing the ghetto. They are the same problems I saw in the classroom twenty years ago as a student.   Children who are angry and lash out because of their home lives, distracting the entire class from learning.  Children with so much on their minds, who stare out of windows all day and never know what’s going on in the classroom.  (Those are usually the children principals tend to ask questions to gauge whether your lesson was effective during an observation.)  Children born in America, with American born parents, who have language issues, that do not understand a simple question because no one talks to them at home.  Parents that suffer from depression and other forms of mental illness.  Children who live in shelters and move every few months.  Children who are neglected, who haven’t had a decent shower in days, whose hair hasn’t been combed, teeth haven’t been brushed. Please explain to me what you would do under these circumstances? Do you know what it’s like to have to have a class meeting to address the bullying of the little girl who smells?  Have you ever had a child ask you to wash his clothes for him because his little nine year old hands can never get the stains out when he washes them out by hand?  Have you ever tried to teach a child whose mother decided she was going to punish his teacher by not giving him his meds that day? Have you ever seen a ten year old girl get stomped out by a parent? How would you feel if you had to confiscate the gang beads a child made using art materials provided for an art project?  What do you say to a little girl whose father was killed in front of her by the police over the break?  You heard the story on the news the night it happened.  You just didn’t know it was one of your students it had happened to.  Try teaching a child who’s father just left him and his mother for another woman the night before.  Who heard his mother crying to you on the phone that she doesn’t how she’s going to survive? Do you know what it’s like to have to raffle off televisions and play stations to get more parents to come to parent teacher conference?  What would you say to the little boy whose social worker just called to inform you that ACS is on their way to pick him up at dismissal because both of his parents have just been arrested?  How do you help the woman who has taken the children of all three of her crack addicted siblings but cannot manage them all in one home?  How do you stop kids from talking about the police cars that are blocking the street in front of your school because there are body parts of a slain mother sticking out of the duffle bags that her son put them in littering the curb?  What makes you think environment cannot impact a child’s cognitive ability, language development, attention, and motivation?
          Because of the issues that plague our community, our students have additional needs.  For one, we don’t need teacher cuts.  We need more teachers.  In my community, there are so many children who are struggling readers that need small group instruction but not enough teachers to pull those children out to give reading intervention.  As a result, these children are classified as special education students too quickly because they cannot read the exam and fail.  If we had more teachers to provide small group instruction prior to special education referral, we could prevent those children from ever entering special education at all.
Students also need more than academic instruction.  As a special education teacher, it is disturbing to see how much emphasis is placed on an exam that many of our students cannot pass.  Many of our students need life skills, and trade skills to ensure that they can still be contributing members of society that know how to get along with one another because in the 21st century, something has happened to the fabric of our nation.  Morality has gone A wall.  Can we teach kids how to act like civilized human beings who do not beat or rape or rob or shoot up schools and communities? The death toll in Chicago equates to that of Afghanistan’s!  We need something in place that will ensure our students learn right from wrong because many are not learning it at home, and if they are, mass media and the streets are teaching them otherwise. 
They need healthier, better educated communities.  They need to grow up in a place that doesn’t normalize dysfunction.  We need more programs to help educate the people of my community, parent workshops, prison to work programs, mental health programs, jobs and small business programs, more affordable art and music programs. This is what kids need to see instead of liquor stores and fast food places. You cannot change a child without first changing his environment. 
          They need teachers who care.  By consistently tearing teachers down, despite our efforts, one thing that is to be guaranteed is an exodus of teachers leaving inner city schools or the profession entirely.   Micro-management of teachers will not make them better teachers, it will make them unhappier teachers, who will begin to hate their jobs.  Micro-management of teachers destroys the relationship that teachers have with their students, and with each other.  It is toxic to the school environment.  Teachers in schools that are micromanaged begin moving to other schools that aren’t feeling the pressure, schools where the stresses of a poverty-stricken community do not exist.   The ones that stick around are shells of their former selves.  They cannot provide the same love and support that they were once able to provide their students.  They watch the clock for dismissal.
           As for all of my teachers who are present today, let us send a message not of hate, as much as we may hate what these policies are doing to our schools, to our children and to our own lives.  While we stand here in Washington, I must quote Dr. King’s advice to his fellow demonstrators.  “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” Let us send a message of love for what we do, and for who we do it for.  So for the media trying to destroy our images, Washington and Mr. President, which by the way, teachers, we have more in common with him than you think, we both know how it feels to be blamed for everything.  We both know how it feels to need other players to get with the program in order to get something accomplished.  Mr. President, I am not the enemy. I am a teacher.  I love what I do.  I love my kids.  Like the teachers of Newton, Connecticut, I’d give my life for my kids.  I have been educated and trained to no end in order to teach my kids effectively.  Some of my kids will still fail the test, as the test only measures certain things.  That doesn’t mean they aren’t all great in some way.  And it doesn’t mean that I have failed them.   Please do not diminish my impact to a test score.  My kids will remember me when they’re old and gray.  They will remember they were loved.  They will remember my passion.  They will remember that someone cared about their future.   Thank you.