The Religious Reasons My Kids Won’t be Taking the Test

As we head into several weeks of high-stakes-testing here in Pennsylvania, I would like to share with you the religious reasons my children will not be taking the state mandated PSSAs. Here is an open letter I sent to Dr. Linda Lane, Superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools; Dr. Lisa Augustin, Director of Assessment; Ms. Jamie Kinzel-Nath, Pittsburgh Colfax K-8 principal; and all of our children’s wonderful teachers.

April 10, 2015

Dear Dr. Lane and Ms. Kinzel-Nath:

Pursuant to Pennsylvania Code Title 22 Chapter 4, section 4.4 (d)(5) I am hereby exercising my right as a parent to have my children, ____________, excused from PSSA testing on the grounds of my religious beliefs. Please allow ­­­­­­­­­___________ to pursue alternate educational activities such as a research project or volunteering in younger classrooms during testing.

I could stop my letter right there, as that is all that is legally required by the state in order to excuse our children from testing. However, as this is our third year writing such letters, I would like to explain the religious grounds we have for refusing to allow our children to be tested. Even though, under law, no state or school official is permitted to ask us about our faith nor require “proof” of our beliefs, I would like to share these religious reasons with you.

We belong to First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, a member of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN), which is active in education justice. Every Sunday, we recite seven principles that unite Unitarian Universalists. Most of these principles are basic moral and philosophical statements shared by all of the world’s major religions. They reflect the common values of most faiths, from “love one another” and “do unto others,” to respect for the spark of the divine in each of us, and the ethical-humanist imperative to leave this world a better place. Please allow me to explain how each of these seven principles has led us to refuse high-stakes-testing for our own children, and on behalf of all children.

  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Every child is valuable – priceless – and has the human right to a rich, full education. Respecting the inherent worth of every child also means treating each student as an individual, and not a widget being produced in a factory. Standardized testing, tied to an ever more standardized common core curriculum, sorts students into categories (“below basic,” “basic,” etc.) There are serious consequences to this sorting and labeling (see below), but the underlying premise of this standardized high-stakes-testing is to compare and rank students – not to support the individual learning of each student.

This is clearly evident when schools use standardized, normed tests, which force all students into a bell curve, guaranteeing that a large proportion of the children will fail. To get that nice bell shape of test results, with exactly half of the children falling on the “below average” side of the curve, the tests are carefully designed with purposefully misleading questions. For instance, test makers will use tricky sound-alike answers to intentionally trip up English language learners, or culturally specific clues most easily decoded only by students from wealthy families. Pittsburgh is subjecting students to the normed GRADE test not once, but three times a year (a result of accepting state money that came with testing strings attached). Teachers have been reporting the problematic GRADE test questions for years, but the test-maker has not changed them because this “assessment” requires a set failure rate. In what way does this kind of standardized testing respect the inherent worth of our students? When students’ test scores are then displayed for all to see on “data walls” (an increasingly common practice in our schools), how does this respect the dignity of each child?

  1. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

While advocates claim that high-stakes-testing will hold teachers and schools accountable for student learning and therefore promote equity, it often does the exact opposite by reinforcing inequality. High-stakes-testing labels our schools as “failures,” but never results in additional resources to actually help kids. Instead, “failing” schools are often targeted for closure. When you look at the pattern of school closures across the country – including here in Pittsburgh – you can see that districts have closed schools in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods, displacing some students multiple times. Our communities of color have been harmed the most, with places like Oakland and Hazelwood turned into education deserts without a single neighborhood public school.

Schools labeled as “failing” on the basis of student test scores are often targeted with other “reforms” that rarely help children. Our own beloved Colfax provides an excellent example of the “disruptive innovation” imposed on supposedly failing schools. Nine years ago when our family first started at Colfax, its large achievement gap had recently earned it a designation as a “turnaround school.” The district fired every single teacher and the principal then handpicked an entirely new teaching staff. The idea, of course, was that we had to get rid of the “bad” teachers and hire only “great” teachers and that would solve the problem of low test scores. Fast forward almost a decade and you can see that this didn’t work: Colfax still has one of the largest achievement gaps in the city (which is really an opportunity gap made highly visible by the presence of families from some of Pittsburgh’s wealthiest and poorest communities together in the same school).

During this same decade, Colfax students also experienced a relentless series of “reforms,” all aimed at increasing test scores. When we started, Colfax was a Spanish language immersion school, then we lost the extra language instruction to become an “Accelerated Learning Academy” focused on reading and math. We got an America’s Choice curriculum that was supposed to solve everything and added extra periods of reading. We got a longer school day and a longer school year. We got a Parent Engagement Specialist. Then we lost the curriculum, lost the extra time and days, and lost the parent specialist. The district changed to a 6 day week, so we could cram in extra reading and math periods, since these are tested subjects, resulting in a net loss of music, art, language, and physical education. With state budget cuts we lost more music and athletic programs, and we even lost our after school tutoring program aimed at those very students whose test scores continue to cause so much alarm. And class sizes ballooned to 30, sometimes 35 and more students.

Imposing constant churn and disruption on our most vulnerable students in the pursuit of higher test scores is not education justice. Worse, the relentless high-stakes-testing has served to re-inscribe inequality. We recently heard from Jon Parker, a Pittsburgh high school teacher, who explained what high-stakes-testing is doing to students’ sense of self worth in his classroom. Every year, he asks his students to write him a letter introducing themselves. In his class of struggling readers this year, over half of the students included their most recent PSSA rating as part of their introduction. They literally said things like, “I’ll work hard but I’m below basic.”

Mr. Parker explains, “the tragic message from our high stakes test environment is ‘you are your score.’ And if we tell a student he’s below basic regularly from the time he’s in kindergarten, what else would we expect of him? One of the stated goals of No Child Left Behind was to combat the ‘soft racism of low expectations.’ But instead it has created a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies. ‘You have failed in the past; you will fail forever.’ I cannot imagine where I would be if I had that school experience, but I can guarantee you I wouldn’t be here.”

Mr. Parker also examined the ways in which high-stakes-tests are used to exclude students from high-quality courses and programs. He gave the example of a young woman of color in his class right now with a 4.0 GPA – “one of the most well-rounded and motivated students I’ve ever had” – who will be excluded from taking the advanced math and science courses she would like to take next year solely because of a test score.

What’s more, Mr. Parker argued that if high-stakes-tests are meant to indicate which students need support so teachers can help them, they are miserably failing this most basic task. Instead, administrators and teachers makes lists of “bubble students” who are close to the passing mark and focus their energy on moving these students up to “proficient.” The students with the most needs, struggling at the very bottom, are passed over: “they are neglected, perpetuating what has probably been the whole of their educational experience. ‘You’re a failure; you’re not worth our time.’ Then we wonder why we have such disparity in opportunities, a lack of student or family buy-in, negative attention seeking behaviors (for which we then suspend students).”

So if our students who need the most help never get that help, where is the equity? If a young woman of color with 4.0 GPA wants to take advanced math and science classes but and can’t because of a single test score, where is the justice? If children now label themselves with their own test scores and literally believe themselves to be “below basic,” where is our compassion?

  1. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.

Part of accepting one another is recognizing that we each have unique gifts and strengths. We are not all the same. Some students excel in trombone or slam poetry, or are highly empathetic or fantastic story tellers: none of which gets measured by high stakes testing. I am concerned about the intellectual growth of our students as well as the nurturing of their individual spirits. I believe in real learning and more learning time for our children. I support quality assessments that help our children learn and provide meaningful information to teachers to help them meet the needs of individual students. I want tests, ideally designed by teachers, which align with the curriculum and give timely, informative results to parents and students.

  1. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

As a scholar, I am committed to a free and responsible search for truth and I highly value data and evidence in that quest. We now have a mountain of evidence about the negative consequences of the high-stakes attached to testing, as well as the over-use and mis-use of testing. To summarize, these are some of the high-stakes for students:

  • Lost learning time: there’s less time for learning with testing and test prep (for instance, Pittsburgh students now take 20-25, or more, high-stakes tests a year). We have reports in the district this week of students covering up the walls to prepare for testing, rather than spending their time learning.
  • Reduced content knowledge: research shows that students are learning how to take high-stakes-tests, but cannot demonstrate subject mastery when tested in a different format. In other words, they are not actually learning. [Koretz, 2008]
  • Narrowed curriculum: with a focus on reading and math scores, students lose history, civics, world languages, the arts, and other programs.
  • Decreased ability to write: writing portions of high-stakes standardized tests are graded by hourly employees – not teachers – who are often recruited from Craig’s list and paid minimum wage. To “pass” these tests, students are taught a narrowly confined way to answer writing prompts.
  • Subjected to stale, dull methods: educators report that the focus on high-stakes-testing and test-prep means they cannot be creative and innovative in their teaching.
  • Missed teachers and classes: intense security measures prevent teachers from overseeing testing in their own classrooms, so teachers from non-testing classrooms (such as Kindergarten teachers) are frequently pulled from their students to proctor exams.
  • Used as guinea pigs: schools and districts routinely agree to allow their students to “field test” new questions and entire exams for testing corporations without notifying parents or compensating students. Teachers are expected to give a test they did not design, on material they did not teach, to students who will not learn anything from the experience. Those teachers, students, and their parents will never see the results. Last year when the district field-tested text dependent analysis, one principal told us students ripped up the tests and said they couldn’t do it. Field testing further reduces actual learning time and contributes to the stress imposed on our children.
  • Shut out of programs: high stakes exclude students when test results count as extra weight in magnet lotteries or for entrance to gifted programs or advanced courses.
  • Diverted resources: the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on testing in Pennsylvania are not available for classroom education. Most high-stakes tests are written by and benefit the bottom line of a handful of large international corporations. For instance, the new School Performance Profile system, largely based on student test scores, cost Pennsylvania taxpayers $2.7 million to develop and it will cost an estimated $838,000 every year to maintain. This does not include the five-year, $201.1 million contract with Data Recognition Corporation to administer high-stakes-tests to our students. Dr. Greg Taranto, Pennsylvania Middle School Teacher of the Year and member of Gov. Wolf’s education transition team, recently shared with us that state testing will cost us $58 million this year!
  • School closures: schools labeled as “failing” on the basis of test scores can be threatened with closure. These schools are usually in communities of color.
  • Loss of curiosity and love of learning: bubble tests are developmentally inappropriate for the youngest learners, yet are routinely being pushed down into Kindergarten in an attempt to get students “test ready.” The emphasis on “skill drill and kill” fails to stimulate children’s imagination and limits their natural curiosity. At Colfax, I’m concerned this has meant that our “enrichment” period has turned into an extra period of reading skills for most students.
  • Blocked access to facilities: as more and more tests are given on-line, many schools find their computer labs taken over by testing for weeks on end and not available for learning.
  • Harmful stress: children are pressured to not only demonstrate their knowledge but to represent the effectiveness of their teachers and their schools. Teachers are reporting children throwing up, losing control of their bowels, and increased commitments for psychiatric and anxiety issues. Mandated testing conditions, particularly for some special education students, border on child-abuse and some parents are reporting evidence of self-harming behaviors.
  • Internalized failure: struggling students forced to repeatedly take tests that label them “below basic” begin to believe they are “bad” or “worthless” students who cannot succeed in school.
  • Grades: some high-stakes tests are included in students’ grades.
  • Graduation requirements: as Pennsylvania introduces the Keystone graduation exams, evidence suggests that up to 60% of our students of color will be forced out of school without a diploma on the basis of a single score.
  • Altered school culture: schools must empty their walls and hallways for many weeks; classes are under lock-down with limited access to restrooms; some turn to daily announcements or even pep rallies to “prepare” students for testing and all-school field trips to “celebrate” testing (rather than actual learning).
  • Private data tracked: testing companies are tracking an enormous amount of information on our students, from test scores to even discipline data on children. Dr. Taranto told us, “this fact is not disclosed to parents” and he asks, “Who has access to this information? Who will have access to this student data down the road?”
  • Loss of enrichment: schools are eliminating academic field trips and pressuring teachers not to participate in activities that would take students out of school to maximize classroom time (for test prep). During PSSA testing, Pittsburgh’s gifted center also closes so those teachers can be reassigned to proctor the exams in other district schools.

With all of that evidence that high-stakes-testing is hurting students, changing their schools for the worse, and reducing real learning, why are we still giving so many standardized tests? Steve Singer, a teacher in the Steel Valley School District, points out that some tests can serve a political purpose. For instance, the DIBELS test, used to evaluate reading, is owned by Rupert Murdoch, and “cut scores are being artificially raised to make it look like more students are failing and thus our schools aren’t doing a good job.” Yet Mr. Singer explains that the DIBELS “doesn’t assess comprehension,” and “rewards someone who reads quickly but not someone who understands what she’s reading.” Also, he explains that, “focusing on pronunciation separate from comprehension narrows the curriculum and takes away time from proven strategies that actually would help [a student] become a better reader.”

My son’s experience with the DIBELS illustrates the way in which standardized tests can be used as gatekeepers, excluding even very high achieving students from accessing appropriate programs. My son was a “late” reader (which is not really true: he learned to read when he was developmentally ready in the third grade, and became a voracious, wonderful reader). But when he was in second grade, we were told his DIBELS score was too low to allow him to take an accelerated math class. He had taught himself multiplication at the age of four and was bored out of his mind in class. But the teacher had her orders: students needed to be reading 100 words per minute or could not advance to anything else. During our conversation with her about this, she called our son over and said, “I notice that you spend a lot of time looking out the window, like you were just now. Why are you daydreaming?” To which he answered, “Well, I was thinking about how if you have a ball in your hand, and drop it, and it hits the floor but doesn’t come all the way back up, where did that energy go?” I kid you not. He was seven years old and this was his response. The teacher looked right at us and said, “But see? He’s not reading 100 words per minute.”

Ideally, teachers are able to use test scores as just one data point among many to determine what students need to support their learning. But the hyper-focus on testing – and accountability measures that hold teachers responsible for getting every student over developmentally-arbitrary thresholds – means that time and again students are not treated as whole, complex learners, but rather reduced to a single score.

Testing advocates tell us that we must test every child, every year in order to identify inequality and drive reform (something no other high-education-achieving nation in the world does). But we have ample evidence from education researchers that high-stakes-testing is not improving schools. Over 2,000 education researchers recently sent an open letter to the Obama administration and Congress: citing reams of data, the researchers wrote, “we strongly urge departing from test-focused reforms that not only have been discredited for high-stakes decisions, but also have shown to widen, not close, gaps and inequities.” The letter went on to quote evidence at length from a new policy memo from the National Education Policy Center, which effectively summarizes a “broad research consensus that standardized tests are ineffective and even counterproductive when used to drive educational reform.”

Evidence also shows serious problems with using high-stakes-testing to evaluate and rate schools. For example, a detailed analysis of the state’s new School Performance Profile (SPP) rating system found that – despite its claim to use “multiple measures” to evaluate schools and teachers – 90% of the calculation is based on high-stakes standardized tests. Yet “these measures are closely associated with student poverty rates and other out- of-school factors.” In other words, the tests are very good at measuring one thing: a family’s socio-economic status. Even the much-touted Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System (PVAAS) component of the score, which is supposed to calculate projected student growth while controlling for out-of-school factors, instead strongly correlates with poverty. The report raises “questions about whether the measures are a valid and reliable measure for purposes of school accountability.” In essence, schools are being held accountable, not for what students learn, but for the poverty level of the families they serve.

Similarly, teachers are being evaluated on the basis of the test scores of their students. This is an invalid use of data, violating a basic principle of assessment, since those tests were never designed to measure teacher effectiveness. You can’t take a test created to measure one thing and use it to measure another. Nevertheless, the entire teacher evaluation system is built on just this assumption. In fact, the Value Added Model (VAM) used to evaluate teacher “effectiveness,” assumes that student test scores are the result of a specific teacher, independent of all other factors. Yet the American Statistical Association (ASA) released a report last spring strongly warning about the limitations of VAM models, explaining, “Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores” and that “Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.” The statistical researchers concluded, “This is not saying that teachers have little effect on students, but that variation among teachers accounts for a small part of the variation in scores. The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences.”

My son’s situation reveals how inappropriate the entire VAM system can be. He is now several years ahead in math and takes his class at the high school each morning, before returning to Colfax for the rest of the day. However, the state would require him to take a PSSA several grade levels below where he is currently working. In what way would this assess his actual learning this year? This test is clearly not about helping my son in any way: it’s about evaluating his teacher. But if he scores at the very top of the PSSA, as he is bound to do, he is simply demonstrating the ceiling effect – there is no way to “show growth” for this student. Yet his teachers are accountable for the “growth” in each student’s test score. Furthermore, which teacher should we hold accountable for his score – the math teacher at Colfax who does not even have him in school this year? His math teacher at the high school who is not teaching him the material covered on the PSSA?

The American Education Research Association and the National Academy of Education released a report showing that VAM models are highly unstable: teachers rated highly effective one year, are frequently rated ineffective the next. Their ratings also differed substantially between classes taught in a single year. The report also confirmed that teachers’ VAM ratings were significantly affected by the demographics of the students they taught: even when VAM calculations tried to account for this, teachers’ scores were negatively impacted by working with poor students, English language learners, and students with special education needs. Finally, this report demonstrated that VAM ratings “cannot disentangle the many influences on students progress” and stated “most researchers have concluded that VAM is not appropriate as a primary measure for evaluating individual teachers.”

Yet as we place more and more emphasis on holding teachers, principals, and entire schools accountable for student test scores, we have seen a plague of adult cheating scandals erupt across the country. We should not be surprised, since Campbell’s Law in social science states that the more a quantitative measurement is used to make decisions, the more subject it becomes to corruption and the more likely it is to corrupt the thing it was supposed to measure. This is exactly what has happened, with the conviction of 11 former teachers in Atlanta this week who are now facing 5-20 years in prison for changing answers on student tests to raise scores. The superintendent of El Paso, Texas is currently in prison for taking low-performing students out of classes in order to increase the district’s test scores. In Ohio several cities apparently listed low-performing students as “withdrawn” to remove their scores from school totals. Some charter schools are well known for the “charter dump,” pushing students out just before testing season in order to inflate their test scores (sending students back into traditional public schools, where their new teachers will be held accountable for their learning). In Washington D.C. former superintendent Michelle Rhee – now the darling of the corporate reform movement who is famous for publicly firing a principal and massive school closures – oversaw her own “Erasure-gate” but was never held accountable. And right here in Pennsylvania our own former state Secretary of Education, Rom Tomalis, was caught both lying and cheating about student test scores (and then went on to occupy a ghost-job in the state capitol, making $140,000 a year but not showing up for work).

So why are we doing this? Why are we using our children’s test scores to feed a teacher evaluation system that not only doesn’t work, but actually harms teachers who work with our most vulnerable children? Finally, this Unitarian principle requires a commitment to a responsible search for truth, which means we have to be willing to examine the consequences of our own seeking. What if the collection and use of data on student achievement, as measured by test scores, is actually causing harm?

  1. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.

I am exercising my right of conscience by refusing to allow my children to take these tests. Our family cannot and will not be complicit in a system that we see harming others and damaging our common good.

High-stakes testing has also interfered with the democratic process. In many cities that lack democratically elected school boards, mayoral appointees have used high-stakes testing to label schools as failures and then moved to close them in unprecedented waves. Chicago is still reeling from the mass closure of 50 schools in 2013, almost entirely in communities of color. In cities like Philadelphia and New York, state or mayoral control has resulted in the privatization of public schools, handing over large numbers to private charter operators. Where is the democratic process when parents and communities no longer have a voice in public education and what is best for their children? When hedge fund managers are pouring enormous amounts of money into local school board races across the country to stack the deck in favor of privatization? When private charter operators are some of the biggest political donors in the state and refuse to comply with Pennsylvania’s sunshine open-records laws?

  1. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

Pennsylvania’s new Keystone exams pose a particular concern for education justice, as they threaten to fail enormous numbers of poor students and students of color, preventing them from graduating (one of the highest stakes of all for students). The Pennsylvania NAACP has demanded the removal of the Keystones as graduation requirements, calling the use of these tests a “present day form of Eugenics.” With pass rates last year at some impoverished schools in the single digits, how will this form of high-stakes-testing create justice for all? And where there is no justice, there is no peace.

In a letter to the PA Department of Education, the NAACP wrote, “Attaching the Keystone Examinations to graduation is clearly based on the idea that it is possible to distinguish between superior and inferior elements of society through selective scores on a paper and pencil test. … Pushing masses of students out of high school without a diploma will create a subculture of poverty comprised of potentially 60 percent of our young citizens.” The letter uses strong language to object to the impact of high-stakes-testing on our most vulnerable children, including: “human rights violation…unspeakable horror…holocaust on our youth and society…life-long trauma… a system of entrapment for the youth of Pennsylvania…depraved indifference…deficient in a moral sense of concern…lacks regard for the lives of the children who will be harmed, and puts their lives and futures at risk…lynching of our own young.”

If we are serious about the goal of education justice, how can we ignore the impact these tests will have on an entire generation of children denied diplomas, with life-long consequences? Where is their liberty and their freedom?

  1. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

To me, this principle evokes Martin Luther King’s famous quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We are all connected – in an interdependent web of existence – and the oppression and harm caused to other people’s children, causes harm to all of us. We are all harmed by allowing oppression and oppressive systems to continue.

It doesn’t have to be this way. This entire system is only about 15 years in the making. Other countries that we admire greatly for their highly effective education systems do not test like this. If researchers need data to compare we could test sample groups of students, rather than every child. We could test every few years, instead of every year. We could remove the high-stakes for kids and teachers, and go back to using assessments to measure student learning, with the goal of helping students. We could admit that our most vulnerable students – our students living in poverty, our English language learners, our students with special education needs – don’t need more testing, but rather smaller class sizes; a rich, engaging, culturally relevant curriculum; and well supported teachers with adequate resources.

Respectfully submitted,

Jessie B. Ramey, Ph.D.

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Talking about Testing

The movement against high-stakes-testing has mushroomed this year. Students, parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, school boards, and even legislators across the country are talking about the overuse and misuse of testing. A glimpse of what they are saying in a moment, but first: here’s your chance to do some of the talking! Please hold these dates for two important events next week:

  1. Wednesday, March 18th, 6-8PM at Sci-Tech: The Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh community meeting will focus on school funding issues, including a session led by Yinzercation steering committee member, Kathy Newman, on the financial impact of high-stakes-testing. Come learn about these un-funded mandates, how they are hurting our schools, what they are costing state tax payers, and discuss what we can do about it. Dinner at 5:30pm and free childcare available.
  2. Saturday, March 21st, 11:30AM-1:30PM at Carnegie Mellon, University Center: Yinzercation is hosting a “Test In” for the community to come see the tests our kids are taking and answer sample questions. The event will feature Dr. Greg Taranto (a PA middle school principal of the year and member of Gov. Wolf’s education transition team!) speaking about the impact of high-stakes-testing on students. You might remember his op-ed piece that went viral last year. We will also hear from several teachers, including Yinzercation steering committee member Steve Singer. Keep your eyes peeled for more information.

Seriously, you don’t want to miss these opportunities to be a part of the conversation. Now, want to hear what some other folks are saying?

Start with three courageous principals from Canon-McMillan School District, right here outside of Pittsburgh, who recently published an article publicly explaining why evaluating teachers using high-stakes-testing is hurting students and schools. Critiquing the use of Value Added Measurement (VAM) statistical models, Dr. Greg Taranto, Mr. Kenneth Schrag, and Dr. Mark Abbondanza said, “school leaders must take action by ‘pulling the curtain’ back on VAMs to understand the detrimental impact they can have on their educational community. As school leaders, we cannot let the effectiveness of our teachers and the culture of our schools be determined by a ‘magical’ mathematical formula that does not calculate humanity in the equation!” Read the whole article for an excellent rundown on the research literature warning against the use of VAM for teacher evaluation. [PA Administrator, Feb. 2015]

A brand new report released yesterday supports their conclusion. A detailed analysis of the state’s new School Performance Profile (SPP) rating system found that – despite its claim to use “multiple measures” to evaluate schools and teachers – 90% of the calculation is based on high-stakes standardized tests. Yet, “standardized tests measure just part of the expectations we hold for students and schools.” Even more problematically, “these measures are closely associated with student poverty rates and other out- of-school factors—raising questions about whether the measures are a valid and reliable measure for purposes of school accountability.” [Research for Action, March 2015 report]

In other words, SPP scores measure student poverty. Period. Even the much-touted Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System (PVAAS) component of the score, which is supposed to calculate projected student growth while controlling for out-of-school factors, miserably fails to do so and instead strongly correlates with poverty. The report concludes, “our analyses suggest that Pennsylvania’s School Performance Profiles could be interpreted as a complex profile of student poverty.” That’s right: teachers and schools being held accountable, not for what students learn, but for the poverty level of the families they serve. And rather than send resources to support those families, these systems punish schools and teachers, threatening them with closure, firing, and more disruptive “reforms.”

Over 2,000 education researchers sent an open letter to the Obama administration and Congress last month saying the same thing. Citing reams of data, the researchers wrote, “we strongly urge departing from test-focused reforms that not only have been discredited for high-stakes decisions, but also have shown to widen, not close, gaps and inequities.” The letter went on to quote evidence at length from a new Policy Memo from the National Education Policy Center, which effectively summarizes a “broad research consensus that standardized tests are ineffective and even counterproductive when used to drive educational reform.” [NEPC, “Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act: Time to Move Beyond Test-Focused Policies,” Feb. 2015]

OK, so we have local principals, Pennsylvania policy analysts, and national education researchers all pointing to the evidence that high-stakes-testing is not working. What about those most affected: the students? They’re not being quiet either.

Last week, thousands of students in New Jersey refused to take the new high-stakes-tests in that state. In one district alone, a full 30% of the students refused to take the PARCC test, which is being used by several states to align with the new Common Core standards. [WABC-TV7, 3-2-15] One student who did take the test, wrote about the experience in a widely shared piece for the Washington Post: 10th grader Marina Ford explained how much class time she has lost to test-prep, how confusing and error-riddled the tests are, even for honors students like herself, and how these high-stakes-accountability-tests have prevented her from getting ready for the ones that really matter to her, such as the AP exams. [Washington Post, 3-7-15]

And it’s not just in New Jersey. Last year, over 60,000 students refused to take similar tests in New York, and the numbers are expected to be even larger this year when students in that state are scheduled to begin testing next month. [New York State Allies for Public Education] In New Mexico last week, thousands of students refused to take the tests and many hundreds protested by walking out of their high schools. [Daily Caller, 3-2-15] Similarly, last fall over 5,000 seniors in Colorado refused new state tests and hundreds participated in mass walk-outs. [Colorado Public Radio, 11-14-14] I could go on and on.

There are more teachers and principals speaking out and putting their jobs on the line, too. In a piece shared over 10,000 times on Facebook in the past few days, one teacher wrote an open letter to her students called, “I am Sorry for What I am About To Do To You.” Carol Burris, a highly regarded educator who was New York state’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year, is now calling on parents to refuse testing. A few weeks ago she wrote:

“It has become increasingly clear that Congress does not have the will to move away from annual high-stakes testing. The bizarre notion that subjecting 9-year-olds to hours of high-stakes tests is a “civil right,” is embedded in the thinking of both parties. Conservatives no longer believe in the local, democratic control of our schools. Progressives refuse to address the effects of poverty, segregation and the destruction of the middle class on student learning. The unimaginative strategy to improve achievement is to make standardized tests longer and harder. …

“The only remedy left to parents is to refuse to have their children take the tests. Testing is the rock on which the policies that are destroying our local public schools are built. If our politicians do not have the courage to reverse high-stakes testing, then those who care must step in.

“I am a rule follower by nature. … But there comes a time when rules must be broken — when adults, after exhausting all remedies, must be willing to break ranks and not comply. That time is now. The promise of a public school system, however imperfectly realized, is at risk of being destroyed. The future of our children is hanging from testing’s high stakes. The time to Opt Out is now.” [Washington Post, 2-19-15]

While test refusal is one of several strategies to combat high-stakes-testing – and we will be talking about those at our events next week – it is clearly growing across the country, and with good reason. I leave you here with the words of New Jersey parents who made this powerful video, and look forward to continuing the conversation on March 18th and March 21st.

Time’s Up

Pencils down. No more filling in bubbles. The time has come to opt out of high stakes testing. Students in Pennsylvania start taking the PSSAs next week. That means everything on the classroom walls and in the halls must come down, turning our schools into drab, warehouse-like spaces for the next two months. Heaven forbid a student goes to the bathroom during a high-stakes-test and sees a colorful poster in the hallway that helps her fill in a bubble.

TEST DATE GRADES
PSSA WRITING MARCH 11-15, 2013 5, 8, 11
WRITING MAKE UPS MARCH 18-22, 2013 AS NEEDED
PSSA MATH AND READING APRIL 8-19, 2013 3-8, 11
PSSA-M* MATH AND READING APRIL 8-19, 2013 4-8, 11
PSSA SCIENCE APRIL 22-26, 2013 4, 8, 11
PSSA-M* SCIENCE APRIL 22-26, 2013 8, 11
MATH, READING, AND SCIENCE MAKEUPS APRIL 29-MAY 3, 2013 AS NEEDED
*modified for some special education students

High-stakes-tests like the PSSAs are not about student learning. And they are certainly not quality assessments: the tests themselves are riddled with problems, continue to be highly culturally biased, and the results are not even reported until the next fall. This is not meaningful data for teachers to use in teaching their students, and it’s not meaningful data for parents interested in how their children are doing in school. What these tests do instead is create a culture of failure and blame: accusing our teachers of poor performance when students do not do well, and then labeling our schools as failures, and threatening to close them down.

Those who choose to opt their children out of high-stakes-testing are not opposed to quality assessment. Teachers need to give tests so they know what students are learning. The problem is the high-stakes in high-stakes-testing, which has radically changed education over the past decade. Under the mandates of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, high-stakes testing has effectively created the system of “teaching to the test” and “canned curricula.” Teachers have far less control over their classrooms, while students spend more and more time preparing for tests and practicing test-taking skills. Ironically, the impact has been an actual decrease in real learning. While students have mastered test-taking skills, they are not mastering content.

We have watched high-stakes-testing dramatically narrow our school curricula with its laser focus on reading and math. To be sure, these are essential skills but students have lost music, art, foreign languages, history, science, and much more in the quest for higher standardized test scores in these two areas. The Great Recession has exacerbated the situation as schools faced massive budget cuts and were forced to eliminate programs, keeping only those classes that would be measured on the tests. And the stakes are so high – with teacher’s being evaluated on test scores and schools threatened with closure – that now we have a plague of cheating scandals as desperate students, teachers, school districts, and even states try to game the system. Just this past fall, Pennsylvania’s own state secretary of education got caught trying to cheat.

These high-stakes-tests have created a perverse system that is actually harming our kids. In the past year, I have heard countless stories from teachers about the damage they are required to inflict on our children – special education students forced to take these tests with no accommodations, literally banging their heads bloody on their desks in frustration. Or students hiding under their desks sobbing in tears upon receiving test results that seem to suggest they are “stupid.” Or children with stress-related stomach problems and insomnia from the pressures they feel from schools and administrators. And teachers stepping into the hallways to cry, dry their tears, and go back into their classrooms to do what their jobs tell them they must do but they know is wrong. (The final clincher for me personally in deciding to opt my children out of high-stakes-testing came when I read Sheila May-Stein’s account of administering these harmful tests and this piece by Katie Osgood, who teaches special education in a Chicago psychiatric hospital.)

There’s a way to fight back and end this madness. The national Opt Out movement has been growing quickly and taken root here in Southwest PA this year. Parents from Mt. Lebanon to Westmoreland County have been talking to each other will be taking their children out of high-stakes-tests. In the city of Pittsburgh, the movement has been spreading fast in just these past few weeks to Phillips, Linden, CAPA, Liberty, Colfax, Montessori, Sci-Tech, and beyond. Here are some Yinzercation pieces and other resources those families have been sharing:

So how do you opt out? It’s simple. Make an appointment to meet with your school’s testing coordinator (every school assigns a staff member to this role – it could be a teacher or the principal). Ask to review a copy of the PSSA. You can take the time to read the test, or simply hand over your prepared Opt Out letter, which can be as short as: “Dear Superintendent _________, Pursuant to Pennsylvania Code Title 22 Chapter 4, section 4.4 (d)(5) I am hereby exercising my right as a parent to have my child, [insert name here],  excused from PSSA testing because of religious and philosophical beliefs. Signed ________.” Pennsylvania will only accept exemptions for “religious” reasons, but philosophical beliefs fall in this category – and the state is forbidden by law to ask about your religion.

Please feel free to spread this “Opt Out Toolkit” to your networks. And stay in touch on this blog and on the Yinzercation Facebook page to let us know who is participating and at which schools. We will coordinate a press release to get the word out to the media.

Enough is enough with high-stakes-testing. Time’s up.

Waiver No Favor

So Pennsylvania just joined 44 other states in the country that have already applied for a waiver from No Child Left Behind. It’s about time, you might say. But before you go getting excited that our state has suddenly become pro-public-education, let’s stop and take a look at what this really means. It turns out a waiver is no favor for Pennsylvania.

First, we have to remember what No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is all about. While some educators appreciate the way it renewed focus on the lowest achieving students and the racial achievement gap, the act had many other consequences. NCLB established a system of failure and blame, accusing teachers of poor performance when their students did not do well on the tests, and then labeling schools as failures when their students struggled.

NCLB effectively created “teaching to the test” and “canned curricula” giving teachers less and less control over their classrooms, while students spend more and more time preparing for tests and practicing test-taking skills. Students are certainly learning how to take standardized tests, but not actual content. [For details, see “Testing and More Testing.”] The massive increase in school time spent on test preparation inevitably detracts from time on other learning tasks and the laser focus on reading and math tests has drastically narrowed our school curricula: we’ve lost music, art, library, history, science, languages, and more in the quest for higher standardized test scores in these two single areas. And schools that fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) using these test scores are threatened with punitive sanctions, including loss of funding, transfer to a private charter school operator, or complete closure.

High-stakes-testing has therefore set the stage for a plague of cheating scandals as desperate students, teachers, school districts, and even states try to game the system. (See how this has made Pennsylvania’s own Secretary of Education “A Liar and a Cheat” and how the feds just slapped down his latest scheme in “Talking Turkey About Charters.”) NCLB set the unrealistic target of 100% proficiency for all U.S. students in reading and math by 2014, and as that deadline has approached and the proficiency bar has moved ever higher, more schools have “failed.” What’s more, our kids are expected to score proficient on tests that are normed – which by definition follow a bell curve, with half of the test takers always scoring above the mean, and half scoring below. Education historian Diane Ravitch points out:

“No matter how hard you try, a bell curve is still a bell curve. There is no district in the nation where 100% of the children are proficient. The children who are most advantaged cluster in the top half; those who are least advantaged cluster in the bottom half. This is true of the SAT, the ACT, state tests, federal tests, and international tests. And, if you step back, you must wonder why the standardized tests–whose flaws, inaccuracies, and statistical vagaries are well known–have become the measure of all education. No private school in the nation is subjecting its children to this mad scramble to live up to the demands of Pearson and McGraw Hill’s psychometricians.” [“Waiver Madness,” DianeRavitch.net, 9-28-12]

In Pennsylvania, the number of districts making AYP fell from 94% in 2011 to 61% this year. So you would think applying for a waiver would be a good thing, freeing us from the ridiculous binds of this federal act that expects all our children to be proficient a short 18 months from now, and will ultimately wind up “failing” every single school district in the nation. Ah but wait. In exchange for a waiver from this insanity, states must agree to new mandates that are at least if not more harmful than NCLB itself.

This fall, the state of Vermont actually withdrew its request for an NCLB waiver, stating “it has become clear that the USED [U.S. Department of Education] is interested in simply replacing one punitive, prescriptive model of accountability with another.” Under a waiver, Vermont would still have been required to use a single high-stakes standardized test (like Pennsylvania’s PSSAs or Keystone Exams) and then would also have to use those test results for the bulk of a teacher’s evaluation. The state called these “heavy handed methods,” and had been negotiating for flexibility with USED, but determined, “the term ‘flexibility’ is a misnomer.” [Diane Ravitch.net, 10-19-12]

In naming the entire state to her Honor Roll of public education advocates, Diane Ravitch noted that Vermont’s commissioner told the feds, “We cannot continue to expend energy requesting a detailed accountability system that looks less and less like what we want for Vermont. We do not have confidence that the requirements we are being asked to meet is the formula for success.” What’s more, the state refused to lower its cutoff scores as most other states have done to try to get more of their students over the AYP threshold. As a result, while Vermont’s students score consistently well on national exams (such as the NAEP), more than 70% of its schools are not making AYP. [“An Entire State Joins the Honor Roll,” Diane Ravitch.net, 10-19-12]

While Vermont’s withdrawal of its waiver request reflects a clearly reasoned stand on the harm being done to our schools in the name of NCLB and testing, our state’s long holdout was anything but. Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis said his “overriding concern” in not applying for the waiver until now, was that the waiver would force the state to change the way it performs standardized testing and that any few federal laws could then render those changes obsolete. Based on his conversations with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Sec. Tomalis now feels there will be no new federal legislation and appears more than willing to go along with making changes to our testing system to please NCLB waiver requirements. [Post-Gazette, 11-28-12]

What’s more, Tomalis had already applied for a two-year freeze on student testing targets, but the USED turned him down. So rather than taking a principled stand like Vermont, Pennsylvania is going along with the vast majority of other states in the country, ready to do what the USED tells them to do. And this is where it gets dangerous.

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]

And if imposing new, damaging systems on our states was not bad enough, consider the fact that the entire waiver process itself is illegal. U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan is blatantly circumventing federal law in issuing these waivers. As Diane Ravitch points out, “It is not the prerogative of any federal official–not even a cabinet member–to decide to disregard a federal law … If the law stinks, as NCLB does, revise it. That’s the way our legal system works. Once the precedent is set, any future cabinet member may decide to change the laws to suit his or her fancy.” [“NCLB Waivers and Junk Science in New York,” DianeRavitch.net, 8-31-12]

The bottom line is, waiver or no waiver, the high-stakes-testing culture of failure and blame being foisted upon our kids and our schools is a national travesty. In 2014 we are supposed to have 100% of our students proficient in reading and math. What we will actually have is 100% of our schools failing to make AYP. And under all these waiver systems, we will have even more of our poorest, African American, and Latino schools targeted for closure or handed over to private charter school operators. This is the state experimenting with our most struggling kids through school privatization, disrupting lives and communities. It’s insanity and it’s time to stop the madness.

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Evaluating What?

If only they spent this much time worrying about adequately funding our schools. The state Department of Education just released a complicated new formula for evaluating teachers that will take effect next fall. One of the new components is a “building score” that will account for 15% of each teacher’s evaluation. That score includes a variety of measures, including students’ PSSA scores, graduation rates, attendance, and whether or not the school offers Advanced Placement courses. Half of every teacher’s score will be based on direct observation, 20% will come from locally developed factors (approved by the state), and 15% from “correlation data based on teacher level measures.” [Post-Gazette, 10-29-12] Whatever that means.

Do I think teachers ought to be evaluated? Sure. And I’m glad to see the state urging the use of more than just students’ standardized test scores. But there is still cause for concern here, especially with that new building score. The state proposes using a detailed accounting to arrive at that score: 30% based on student test scores, 10% for whether the school is closing the racial achievement gap, 2.5% for third grade reading scores, 5% for promotion rates at K-8 schools … and on and on. The idea is that the quality of a school can be exactly measured with these scores.

The very premise assumes that individual teachers should be held responsible for things largely outside their control. State deputy education secretary Carolyn Dumaresq says this will make education more of a “team sport,” where everyone shares responsibility. But that’s not quite accurate. Other than attendance rates, where is the student accountability for their own education here? Student motivation, completing homework, paying attention in class – these things matter a great deal to learning. And where is family accountability in this equation? Making sure students get to class, supporting their learning at home, and parental engagement are probably the most important factors in student achievement, but they are not being measured here.

Missing entirely from this quantification is a sense of what really matters in education: real student learning (not just learning how to take standardized tests). Well rounded knowledge outside basic reading and math skills. (Where is art, music, science, history?) Character development. Citizenship. The building score misses the point of education. Yet the state intends to make these scores public and then evaluate teachers on them.

Which begs the question, why does the Department of Education plan to exempt charter schools from this teacher evaluation plan? Charters are quite fond of claiming they are public schools, so why shouldn’t building scores apply to them?

I hate the idea of assigning each school what amounts to a grade. But if we’re going to do that, why don’t we turn this into what education historian Diane Ravitch calls “positive accountability”: use those grades to support and improve schools. What if every building that receives the equivalent of a “D” or “F” score immediately receives extra resources from the state and offers of help, instead of effectively undermining the careers of the teachers working in our most struggling schools?

Good teaching matters. It’s just that this is a terribly difficult thing to quantify as the state is trying to do. Especially with standardized tests that were designed to measure a student’s performance, not the teacher’s. All this hyperventilating about teaching effectiveness masks the other giants in the room impacting student learning: massive state budget cuts, the loss of 20,000 Pennsylvania teachers over the past two years, the elimination of tutoring and summer school programs, the erosion of school libraries, slashing of the arts, and serious reduction of early childhood education and Kindergarten.

So do I think teaching evaluation is important? Of course. Are there a few poor teachers in the system? You bet. But when I look around at public education today, teachers do not strike me as the real problem. What if Governor Corbett and his Department of Education spent half that much time worrying about ways to adequately and equitably fund our public schools? What if we evaluate how effective our legislators are in supporting real improvement in public education? Now there’s one score I’d like to see made public.

The Elephant at the White House

So there we were at the White House. Forty “education leaders” from Pennsylvania invited to meet with President Obama’s senior policy advisors as well as top staff at the U.S. Department of Education (USDE). The room contained district superintendents, school board members, principals, college presidents, education professors, representatives from a host of education associations, a super-PAC school privatizer, educational consultants, and various non-profit directors. And one elephant.

This elephant in the room fittingly started as a Republican beast, but has gained so much traction with Democrats over the past decade that it could just as well have been a donkey lurking there in the corner. Whatever its animal form, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was casting a pretty big shadow and it was time to talk about the consequences of labeling our public schools as failures, high stakes testing, and the demonization of teachers.

And so during the first discussion session, I stood to address Roberto Rodriguez, the President’s senior policy advisor on education. I reminded him of what I had told him back in March, when I implored the White House to stop participating in the national narrative of failing public schools. (See “What I Told the White House.”) And then I gave him the view from the ground here in Pennsylvania where our grassroots movement has been fighting massive budget cuts, to let him know what it looks like when our country stops believing that public education is a public good. When it chooses to cut teachers, tutoring programs, nurses, special ed, school buses, music, art, foreign languages, and even Kindergarten.

NCLB has created a culture of punishment and fear, with student “achievement” measured by highly problematic standardized tests that don’t begin to assess real learning, and teachers evaluated on those test scores and little else. It has narrowed the focus in our schools to reading and math, jettisoned real education in favor of high stakes testing resulting in a plague of cheating scandals, and nurtured a system of “teaching to the test” on top of weeks of school time spent on test taking and nothing else. NCLB set a pie in the sky target of 100% proficiency for all U.S. students by 2014, and as that deadline has approached and the proficiency bar has moved ever higher, more schools have “failed” and more teachers have been blamed.

All this supposed failure and blaming has served as convenient cover to gut public education in states like Pennsylvania, where Governor Corbett and the Republican controlled legislature acted as fast as they could to slash $1 billion from public schools, install voucher-like tax credit programs, and privatize struggling districts, handing their schools over to corporations run by their largest campaign donors. But they had plenty of help from the other side of the aisle, because faced with the relentless media barrage of the failing-narrative, far too many people have lost confidence in public education as a pillar of our democracy.

And this has been happening all across the United States, with the backing of mountains of ultra-right superPAC money and ALEC-inspired legislation as well as major new foundation players including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation. This is truly a national battle, and we can’t win this fight isolated in our trenches. We need tone-changing leadership from the top.

My report from the grassroots met with a rousing round of applause from attendees and was followed by a series of equally urgent remarks. Larry Feinberg of the Keystone State Education Coalition warned that President Obama’s policies have looked nearly identical to Republicans on education (with the exception of vouchers, which he does not support) and that he may backfire at the polls with teachers and educators. Feinberg sits on the Haverford school board, a wealthy district near Philadelphia, and reminded the President’s staff that middle-class students in well-resourced schools actually score at the top on international tests. We are ignoring poverty while adding ever more testing, which will drastically expand yet again this year in his district and many others. Similarly, Susan Gobreski of Education Voters PA argued that we ought to have a new national narrative of equity, and that we have choices and need to help the public see that we can make different ones.

For their part, the White House advisors and senior USDE staff seemed to agree. Roberto Rodriguez emphasized that we “need more investment in public education, not less” with a focus on early childhood education, curriculum, wrap around programs, and parent engagement. He reported on the 300,000 teaching jobs lost in recent years, noting the economic implications for the U.S. and warned that sequestration – which will happen if congress does not head off looming mandatory budget cuts this fall – will mean billions of dollars cut to Title I, special ed, higher ed, and other student programs.

Massie Ritsch, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the USDE, talked about the fact that NCLB will be up for renewal next year, and that we here at the community level need to keep talking about “the lunacy that this law has allowed to perpetuate.” Yes, those were his actual words. Think about that. Of those Americans who say they are very familiar with NCLB, nearly half now say that the law has made things worse in this country (and only 28% say it’s better). (See “What the Polls Say.”) And here was the top brass at the USDE agreeing, calling the fallout from this federal law “lunacy.”

Deborah Delisle, USDE Assistant Secretary noted that 30 states have now applied for NCLB waivers to gain some flexibility in dealing with its ever more stringent requirements. However, Pennsylvania is not one of them. Many in the room expressed serious frustration with Governor Corbett’s apparent preference to have our schools labeled failures and refusal to seek relief through the waiver program. And it was readily apparent that the PA Department of Education declined to send anyone to this White House forum, which was hardly a meeting of Corbett’s political foes (after all, Students First PA was there: that’s the group that funnels superPAC millions to the campaigns of legislators who promise to deliver vouchers and give away public funds to private and religious schools through tax credit schemes.)

Delisle also commented on the polarizing effect that NCLB has had on our nation. It has created a climate in which those who embrace the corporate-marketplace-inspired reform mantra of choice, competition, and test-based accountability smear professional educators and public school advocates as “defenders of the status quo” who only care about union perks and not children. But this educational “reform” movement of the past decade has been a bit like the king’s new clothes. A wide swath of America has lined the parade route – Republican and Democrat alike – loudly cheering for the king’s beautiful new royal robes of privatization, but there’s nothing there covering his privates.

This “reform” movement is premised on a false idea that American schools have been in steady decline for the past forty years, which is not supported by the evidence. Despite ample data to the contrary, these reformers continue to insist that our students are falling further and further behind their international peers and promote the NCLB inspired narrative of failing public education. (For an excellent analysis of the data, see Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.) What’s more, they accuse those who point out the obvious – that privatization is not working, that charter schools and tax credits are draining our public coffers of desperately needed resources, that we have to address the astonishing high rate of child poverty – of being satisfied with the persistent racial achievement gap and using poverty as an excuse.

We are at a cross-roads with public education in our country. If we are going to get serious about making sure that every student has the opportunity to attend a great public school – “A school,” as Assistant Secretary Deborah Delisle said, “that every one of us would send our child to” – then we have to get serious about restoring this country’s belief in the public good of public education. It’s time to name the elephant in the room, have a serious conversation about overhauling NCLB, and make the choice to adequately and equitably fund our public schools.

Jessie Ramey of Yinzercation and Sherry Hazuda, President, Board of Directors of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, at the White House, 8-30-12

———————–

White House policy advisors and USDE senior staff participants:

Kyle Lierman, White House Office of Public Engagement
Roberto Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy
David Bergeron, Acting Assistant Secretary, USDE
Miriam Calderon, Senior Advisor, White House Domestic Policy Council
Lexi Barret, Senior Policy Advisor, White House Domestic Policy Council
Massie Ritsch, Deputy Assistant Secretary for External Affairs and Outreach, USDE
Deborah Delisle, Assistant Secretary, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, USDE
Brenda Girton-Mitchell, Office of the Secretary, Director, Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, USDE
Brenda Dann-Messier, Assistant Secretary, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, USDE
Steven Hicks, Special Assistant for Early Learning, USDE
Betsy Shelton, Director of Public Engagement, USDE

What the Polls Say

Two polls out in the past week show some surprising findings for public education with important implications for our grassroots movement here in Pennsylvania.

First, Americans are now clearly saying that the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act has made education worse, not better. [Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, 8-20-12] Overall, 29% of those polled said that the decade old law signed by President Bush has negatively impacted our schools, compared to 16% who thought it has improved them. But among those surveyed who said they are “very familiar” with the law, 48% said NCLB has made things worse, versus only 28% who said education is better.

No Child Left Behind has arguably been a policy fiasco. It massively expanded the federal government’s role in setting local school policy and established a national narrative of “failing public schools.” By focusing narrowly on student achievement – measured only by highly problematic standardized test scores – the law has created a highly punitive system, devalued teachers and educational professionals, villainized teachers’ unions, introduced a lucrative private system of “educational consultants” and businesses, promoted corporate-style reform anathema to the public good, and undermined the public’s faith in their schools.

What’s really interesting is how similar the responses to this recent poll were across political and class lines, and between those with and without a current K-12 child in the household. The bulk of respondents in every demographic felt that NCLB had “not made much difference.” However, with only one exception, those who feel the law has damaged education outnumber – sometimes by as much as two to one – those who feel the law has improved things. That means that Republicans, Democrats, independents, and a large swath of folks across class lines agree on public education policy. Despite a massive effort by the extreme right to polarize the issue, Americans remain largely on the same page when it comes to their schools.

The one exception was among those earning less than $30,000 who split about evenly between those saying things are worse or better under NCLB. This group has the lowest proportion (21%) of people who feel the law has been a problem, and the largest proportion (22%) who feel it has helped. This finding has important class – and probably racial – significance and reminds us that, despite its obvious flaws, NCLB has focused national attention on the most struggling students who are often poor and minorities.

Because NCLB has set the national dialogue over much of public education policy for the past decade, it is encouraging that there is generally such widespread agreement as to its results. And even more encouraging that a great many agree that it is time to dismantle the NCLB boondoggle. In fact, “[t]he results from this survey are in line with a January Gallup poll, which found that Americans tended to favor either eliminating the law or keeping it with heavy revisions. Just 21 percent of those surveyed said the law should be kept in its original form.” [Huffington Post, 8-21-12]

The PDK/Gallup poll also revealed that 48% of those surveyed gave the local schools in their communities an A or B rating – the highest in twenty years. Yet when asked about the general state of American education, only 18% gave public schools the same high grades, while 30% gave them a D or F. Education historian Diane Ravitch calls this “the real accomplishment of corporate reformers” who have been driving “an unprecedented, well-funded campaign to demonize public schools and their teachers over at least the past two year, and by some reckoning, even longer.” [Diane Ravitch, 8-22-12]

For Americans exposed to that constant drumbeat of failing-public-schools, it’s remarkable that any still show support for public education. Yet when asked about the school their oldest child attends, over three quarters – 77% – of respondents gave their school an A or B (and only 6% gave it a D or F). Again, this is the highest rating in twenty years. Ravitch points out that this question “elicit[ed] the views of informed consumers, the people who refer to a real school, not the hypothetical school system that is lambasted every other day in the national press.” [See Diane Ravitch’s excellent full analysis of the poll.]

So when you ask parents about the real schools in their own communities where their actual children go, they are overwhelmingly positive. Similarly, 71% said they have trust and confidence in their teachers, regardless of the incessant bashing they are subjected to in the national media. And perhaps the biggest news for our movement: by far the largest problem facing our schools identified by survey respondents is lack of financial support. Overall 35% identified this option, and among those parents with children in public schools, 43% chose this as the number one problem in education, far outweighing other issues (such as discipline, etc.).

Given this last statistic, it should come as no surprise that another poll last week found Governor Corbett’s approval rating continues to sink. [Franklin & Marshall poll, 8-16-12] Forty-two percent of respondents were unhappy with the governor’s performance, up three points from the last poll in June, while less than a third rated him favorably, remaining steady at 32 percent. What’s more, when asked to rank the most important problems facing Pennsylvania today, people listed education at number three, right behind “unemployment” and “government or politicians,” and right before “the economy,” and “taxes.”

In its analysis of the poll, PoliticsPa concluded “negative feelings toward the government or conceived poor handling of education (particularly with continued ire over college tuition increases and slashed spending for public schools) are likely to account for Corbett’s poor polling.” [PoliticsPA 8-16-12] Indeed. This poll also demonstrates how much Pennsylvanians care about their public schools and just how effective our grassroots movement has been in keeping the spotlight on funding for public education.

We would not see education on the number three spot of Pennsylvania’s concerns if we had not raised our collective voices. And our grassroots movement dovetails others across the country, pushing back against the narrative of failing schools, and helping people to see that our number one concern really is adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for our public schools. Our part in this local and national conversation is working, and we must keep it up!