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.

On Test Scores and Poverty

  To understand how unique our current historical moment is, and in particular, how much powerful corporate interests have seized control of BOTH political parties, ask yourself  the following questions:.
When FDR spoke of a third of a nation “ill-housed, ill clothed, and ill-fed” did he identify raising student test scores as a major component of his program to heal a wounded nation?
When LBJ launched the anti-poverty program, did low test scores of young people living in poverty represent a major target of the programs he initiated?.
When Dr King unveiled his idea for the “Poor People’s Campaign,” was poor performance on tests among the nation’s poor a central subject of his rhetoric?
   The very posing of these questions moves us into the  realm of absurdity- yet in state after state, and in the US Department of Education, “closing the achievement gap”- i.e. raising the test scores of students in poor communities- is lauded as the civil rights cause of our time and the one sure fire method to reduce inequality in a society where every other policy seems to maximize it.
  Do current policy makers know something that FDR, LBJ and Dr. King didn’t, or is the egalitarian rhetoric underlying their obsession with raising student test scores disingenuous and self-deluded?
 While I cannot pretend to know what policy makers, in their heart of hearts, really think, I do know this—that since No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001, child poverty has skyrocketed, the concentration of wealth at the top of the society has grown, the prison industrial complex has expanded, and the gap in college admission and retention between poor and wealthy students has expanded
And as for schools, we see the wealthy sending their children to private schools with few tests and a huge emphasis on the arts- and the poor and the rapidly shrinking middle class sending their children to schools which are stripped down test factories with beaten down and demoralized teachers
.This is the ugly reality that the flowery rhetoric of inclusion hides
  If narrowing the achievement gap is an anti-poverty strategy, is the single most ineffective such strategy in modern America History..

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.

In NY State, Those Who Once Attacked Teachers Have Parents in Their Crosshairs

Perhaps the most famous quote describing how most people looked the way during the rise of Nazism is the following

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

This statement has a chilling applicability to the top down, billionaire funded “School Reform” movement, especially in New York State. The movement began by demonizing teachers, blaming them for the failure of our public schools to prepare children for a global economy, and reduce racial disparities in educational achievement. In New York State, this campaign led to the Governor ramming through legislation requiring that teachers be rated on the basis of student test scores and removed if they had unsatisfactory ratings. Many principals and teachers warned that this legislation would result in a vast increase in testing in the state’s public schools, and the institutionalization of “teaching to the test.” Most parents in the state ignored these warnings, thinking that they were self serving and that greater “teacher accountability” would be in the interests of their children and families.

However, as this legislation began to be implemented, many parents began to discover that what teachers and principals warned about was occurring with breakneck speed. More and more, children were coming home bored and angry, telling parents they hated school because all that was going on was “test preparation,” and that the activities they enjoyed most- art, music, recess, gym- were being cut to make room for it. Some were having anxiety attacks on the eve of the tests. Some had to be put under a doctor’s care.

Small groups of parents in the state began organizing to protest what was happening. They discovered there was a national movement to “opt out” children from high stakes tests, and decided to create a version of this in New York State that could help their children. They approached school authorities and asked that their children be exempted from state ELA and Math exams.

The response to them, from New York State Education officials, was immediate and vicious. They were, and still are, told that Opting Out is illegal. Not only were they threatened with legal action by the State, their CHILDREN were threatened with everything from participation in extracurricular activities, access to special needs services, placement in magnet programs, even promotion to the next grade! These individual threats were coupled with an attack on the parental Opt Out movement in the media, describing it as a threat to the great progress the state has made in creating a great education for all children

The viciousness of the State’s retaliation to parents and children who choose to “Opt Out” should be a warning that something profoundly undemocratic and destructive is happening in New York’s public education system, and that the only way to do anything about it is for all stakeholders- principals, teachers, parents, students- to organize to dismantle the Test Machine being shoved down their throat

School Reform in New York State has become the smokescreen under which powerful interests, seeking profit or political gain, have launched one of the most far reaching attacks on popular democracy in recent memory. It is time to fight back before it is too late

Melissa Tomlinson’s “Rosa Parks” Moment

This is an amazing moment in the history of Public Education discourse. Our own Melissa Tomlinson, a long time public school teacher from New Jersey known to all BATS as “Love Light” has engineered a media breakthrough of unimaginable proportions. Not only has her story of being bullied by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie been on numerous national media outlets, not only did she present her side of the conflict with great eloquence on the Ed Show, but her letter to Governor Christie has, of this moment, registered 115,500 views on my blog and is being posted on a growing number of education websites.

Think about what just happened. A public school teacher, with no name recognition and no official position has, through courage and force of intellect, made herself a major figure in public discourse about education policy. This is something which, to my knowledge, has almost never taken place in recent years. A representative of the one group who has been excluded from policy discussions about education has crashed the policy makers party. And done so with grace, dignity and  eloquence. What she has done reminds me of what the great Rosa Parks did in Montgomery Alabama nearly sixty years ago. Though she was not arrested for her actions,  she demonstrated her clear moral superiority to the powerful official  who tried to silence her and became a symbol of resistance to thousands, perhaps millions, of others in her position.

I feel proud to have known and worked with Melissa Tomlinson. And so proud of everyone who has made the group she is part of such a force on the national scene

This is a huge breakthrough for  every teacher in the country whose voice has been silenced and  whose competence and right to speak on the issues of the day has been mocked