Opt Out Goes Viral

We’ve gone viral again! And the Governor is listening. On Sunday, the Post-Gazette published Kathy Newman’s terrific Op Ed about why she is opting her son out of high-stakes-testing. [See “A Plague of Cheating”] In the past 48 hours, over 23,000 people have shared that story on Facebook from the paper’s website and it has generated an incredible nationwide discussion with over 300 public comments. Yes, over twenty-three thousand people have not only read about our grassroots movement but have shared the story (we know the actual number of readers is much, much higher and still climbing fast as I type).

So it comes as no surprise that Governor Corbett’s office is paying attention. The press secretary for the PA Department of Education, Tim Eller, has a letter-to-the-editor in today’s paper responding to the Op Ed. It is full of incomplete statements and rhetorical red herrings, and demonstrates the way in which this administration continues to purposefully mislead the public. So let’s take a closer look, shall we? [All references to Post-Gazette, 4-2-13]

First, let’s point out that Mr. Eller uses “Ms. Newman” throughout his letter, refusing to acknowledge her academic credentials as Dr. Newman or Professor Newman. These are subtleties that matter, because Mr. Eller and this administration are corporate-style reform adherents who continually discount the experiences and expertise of professional educators. Instead, they promote the idea that our schools ought to be run by those with business credentials and no education experience whatsoever. This is one of the key principles of the privatization movement, which wantonly and inappropriately applies corporate doctrine to public education (for example, placing the bottom-line above all other considerations, seeking efficiencies by closing “failing” subdivisions of the system, outsourcing, demonizing collective bargaining, and more).

The first thing Mr. Eller does in his letter is to revert to the tired old line we heard over and over again last year during the state budget debate, claiming that “Gov. Tom Corbett didn’t cut $1 billion from education. Since taking office, the governor has increased state support of public schools by $1.25 billion.” If that’s not enough to make you laugh out loud, I don’t know what will. Budget cuts were hardly the focus of the Op Ed piece, so it certainly tells us how sensitive this administration remains on the issue. Mr. Eller and his bosses can repeat this line until the cows come home, but it does not make it true.

As we have reported extensively, when Gov. Corbett took office, he slashed nearly $1 billion from our schools – and then locked those cuts in again last year, so now our children are missing nearly $2 billion. As you may recall, what the Governor did in 2011 was collapse several line items in the budget into one, under “Basic Education,” so he could claim that he had increased education funding, when overall he has drastically decreased funding to our schools. Our kids know this: they are the ones sitting in larger classrooms, missing nearly 20,000 of their teachers who have been lost these past two years, and without art, music, science, gym, full day Kindergarten, transportation, field trips, books, supplies, and even tutoring. These cuts are real and cruel.

In a rare moment of full disclosure last year, even Gov. Corbett admitted the truth saying, “We reduced education funding if you look at it as a whole. … and if you listen to my words, I always talk about the basic education funding formula [also referred to as the basic education subsidy].” [Capitolwire, 2-9-2012 (subscription service); for reference, see PADems 2-10-12]. (For a complete analysis of the budget, based on the state’s own published numbers, please see “The Truth About the Numbers.”) To claim that Gov. Corbett has increased state funding for our schools is patently absurd and intentionally misleading the public. But this letter is full of misleading statements.

Mr. Eller next asks rhetorically why those opting out don’t want “students to graduate with the skills and knowledge to be successful in life.” That is exactly the point. High-stakes-testing is damaging our children’s education. Their curriculum has been drastically narrowed, real learning time has been slashed as teachers are forced to “teach to the test,” and the tests themselves take up weeks and weeks of class time. Families are opting out precisely because they care about what their kids are learning (and not learning due to these tests).

Mr. Eller implies that there must be nothing wrong with high-stakes-tests because they “have been in place for more than a decade” and then slyly suggests that the opt out movement has become active only “now that they will be used, in part, to evaluate educators.” Of course, educators have been talking for ten years now about the problems with No Child Left Behind and its testing mandates. And as the effects of high-stakes-testing have gotten worse and worse, families have also started fighting back. The misuse of student testing to evaluate teachers (they were not designed to measure teaching effectiveness and therefore are invalid for this purpose) is only the latest straw, just adding more high-stakes.

In just the past few years, we have seen dramatic changes in our schools due to the double whammy of high-stakes-testing and budget cuts. The tests have been used to label public education a “failure,” and to justify mass closings of schools across the country for the first time in history – and then in many instances, the handover of displaced students to privately run charter schools. Meanwhile, as schools such as the one my children attend scramble to raise test scores, we have seen everything from the elimination of rest-time for Kindergartners to a huge expansion in the number of tests and the testing period. By one count, my sixth grader will take 23 standardized tests (most with high-stakes attached) this year, up nine from last year. All this while he is sitting in a math class with 39 students in it.

Yet Mr. Eller has the nerve to say that his own kids complain about taking quizzes and asks then, “Should we abolish all forms of assessment?” Of course not. Families who are opting their children out of high-stakes-testing believe in quality assessment. We want to know how our children are performing in school. But PSSAs are not designed to give any meaningful feedback about learning to either students or their teachers. In fact, the test results are not even available until the following school year, long after a teacher might be able to use the information to help a child. We don’t need high-stakes-testing to tell us how our kids are doing when we have multiple measures already in place: homework, end of unit exams, report cards, meetings with teachers.

Next Mr. Eller tries to mansplain to Dr. Newman how the state has “applied for a waiver to provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Once approved, adequate yearly progress will no longer be measured … under the waiver application, it would not be used for this year’s assessments.” As we have reported, waivers are no favors. When the federal government grants a waiver, it frequently imposes mandates that spell bad news for public schools.

For instance, in New Jersey, the waiver requirements imposed on that state have created yet a new labeling and blame system: the Garden State will now make a list of 75 “priority” and 183 “focus” schools that will receive mandated interventions, including possible closure or conversion to charter schools. Forty-five parent groups and civil rights groups have petitioned U.S. Secretary Duncan to stop the process, which will affect the poorest schools with the highest percentage of African American and Latino students. The coalition noted that the state has also classified 122 “reward” schools, which will receive financial bonuses, and are located in the wealthiest districts in the state. They concluded, “The blatant economic and racial inequity built into this classification system harks back to the days when such segregation and inequity were policy objectives for our State.” [Save Our Schools NJ, 10-15-12] (See “Waiver no Favor” for complete details.)

Finally, Mr. Eller says that, “Public schools must be held accountable to students, parents and taxpayers.” That word “accountability” is corporate-reform speak for labeling schools, teachers, and kids as failures. If we were serious about accountability, we would be sending additional resources to struggling schools, not threatening to close them down. We would make sure that we had a modern funding formula that equitably distributes our tax dollars to school districts. Now that would be accountability. Yet Gov. Corbett eliminated our modern formula when he took office, making us one of only three states in the entire nation without one. [See “Back to the Budget”]

And press secretary Eller closes with the most specious argument of all. He posits that we must have high-stakes-testing to “ensure that the $27 billion — local, state and federal taxes — Pennsylvania taxpayers put into K-12 public education is being used to educate our kids.” Really? We have to have damaging high-stakes-testing to make sure kids are learning? You know what the research actually shows? Under NCLB and high-stakes-tests, kids are learning less. Less. They know how to take tests, but they can’t reproduce the results on different forms of assessment because they actually are not learning content. [Koretz, Measuring up: What educational testing really tells us. Harvard University Press, 2008] We are spending untold billions in this country on test development and testing – all benefitting private test company bottom lines – and our kids are not learning more at all.

And Mr. Eller’s $27 billion is a red herring if ever there was one. By combining the state education budget with federal and local dollars, he arrives at that eye-popping figure, designed to suggest that we are somehow over-spending on our schools. In point of fact, Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom ten of all states in the entire country in the proportion of education funding provided by the state. What this means is that Pennsylvania pushes the majority of responsibility for education funding down onto local towns and cities, which must raise property taxes to pay for their schools. This over-reliance on local property taxes is one of the primary reasons we have such great inequity in the keystone state, with wealthier communities often able to provide much more for their students than poorer communities.

So let’s summarize: our state does not adequately, equitably, or sustainably fund public education. Governor Corbett has slashed funding for our schools by nearly $2 billion these past two years, while distributing the state budget in the least equitable manner so that poor kids get the least. While our children suffer under staggering cuts to their programs, they are subjected to ever most high-stakes-testing that does nothing to actually provide meaningful feedback to families or their teachers. The stakes are so high that we now have a plague of cheating scandals across the nation as adults try to game the system.

This is not our vision for great public education. Parents who are opting their children out of the PSSAs next week are committing an act of civil disobedience aimed at the very heart of inequality in our country. They are doing so as an act of dedication to the institution of public education. Mr. Eller calls the opt out movement “flawed thinking,” “off the mark,” and “quite disturbing.” I would call high-stakes-testing those very things.

3 thoughts on “Opt Out Goes Viral

  1. Pingback: Opt Out Goes Viral – @ THE CHALK FACE knows SCHOOLS MATTER

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