Case study: How politicians ignore parents on school reform

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo during a news conference at the Capitol on Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo  (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

If you read this blog regularly, you will be familiar with Carol Burris, an award-winning principal from New York. She has done a remarkable job for well over a year detailing the botched school reform efforts in her state.  (You can read some of her work hereherehere,  here, and here.) Below is a new post from Burris, of South Side High School, about the growing opt out movement in the state. Burris was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and in 2010,  tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. She is the co-author of the New York Principals letter of concern regarding the evaluation of teachers by student test scores. It has been signed by thousands of principals teachers, parents, professors, administrators and citizens. You can read the letter by clicking here. 

 

By Carol Burris

“I have attended and spoken at legislators’  forums across the state, written letters and made countless phone calls, yet Albany has ignored me.  Refusing the tests is the best way to send a strong and unified message to Albany that can’t be ignored.”

Those are the words of Julie Bigger, a public school parent from the Sherburne-Earlville School District in New York’s rural Chenango County.   Julie is far from alone in her objections to New York testing and the Common Core State Standards.  Beginning in October of 2013 and throughout the cold winter months, New York parents flocked to forums to meet other like-minded neighbors who are opting their children out of upcoming state-mandated standardized tests for grades 3-8.  Opting out has become their means to express their displeasure at the Common Core, standardized testing and the loss of local control resulting from the New York State Regents reform agenda.

Parental discontent has not gone unnoticed.  Last fall, state Education Commissioner John King scheduled a series of public forums to hear parent concerns.  When the first forum, in Poughkeepsie, became boisterous, King abruptly cancelled the remaining forums, only to reinstate them with new rules designed to dampen the anger. Despite restrictions on who could speak, and in some cases even attend, the crowds and the emotional energy grew.  Parents, often holding back tears, begged the commissioner to slow down, providing examples of the negative effects of the too-rapid implementation of the Common Core curriculum on their children. Teachers  described how the pressures of high-stakes tests were destroying their schools and their students’ love of learning.  Legislators in attendance seemed sympathetic to parents’ plight, in stark contrast to the commissioner and Chancellor Merryl Tisch, whose responses were described by attendees as practiced and defensive.

When it came time, however, for the legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to act, they refused to translate their stated displeasure of Common Core implementation into constructive change.  Despite strong outcry, Assembly leader Sheldon Silver managed to get a majority of members to reappoint three of the four incumbent Regents while choosing a controversial and inexperienced candidate for the one open spot.  The legislature then hastily lumped all of their promises to slow down the Common Core into a budget bill designed to move the “reforms” ahead without truly addressing concerns.

Dan Ferrick, a Long Island father of four, is opting out his elementary school children. He describes the bill as a “slap in the face” to all of the parents across the state who pleaded with the legislature and governor to intervene.  “It is obvious that they think we are stupid—all this bill will do is make everyone angrier than they are now,” he said.

The governor, however, described the bill as containing “signature reforms” to protect students.  A close inspection, however, shows the bill will not bring substantive change.

The bill bans the recording of grades 3-8 test scores on permanent record cards and student transcripts.  This is a protection without meaning. The permanent record card is an anachronism in an age of computer records.  If districts still record scores on cards, the cards would never leave the district.  Banning 3-8 scores on the high school transcript is equally inconsequential. I have never recorded elementary and middle school standardized scores on a transcript. Why in heavens’ name would a college have any interest in the scores a student obtained when they were 9 years old?

Equally as meaningless is the bill’s mandate that state testing not consume more than 1 percent of a student’s instructional time each year.  Even though time on state testing has ballooned in the past few years in New York State, the commissioner clocks the time spent on state testing as “less than 1 percent.” Not only does this legislation not cut back testing time, it would allow it to increase.  In a rather odd attempt to micro-manage the classroom, the legislature also banned “test prep” to 2 percent of school time, leaving others to define what test prep is, or even how this law can be enforced.  The concept of trying to classify and regulate classroom activities is absurd.

Although the bill puts some restrictions on the use of grades 3-8 tests for retention and placement decisions, the legislature did not have the courage to put an absolute ban on the use of scores. Instead the bill allows schools to use the test scores for placement and retention decisions, as long as other factors are used as well.   This is no small matter.  The tests have resulted in an expansion of the achievement gap, which can result in discriminatory outcomes when the tests are used even in part,  as Alan Aja and I explain here.  Finally, the bill did not satisfactorily address parent concerns regarding the sharing of student data.  According to Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, “It is not even clear if its provisions would stop the commissioner’s plan to share our children’s most private data with inBloom Inc.”

Even before the tests begin, “Opt Out” is catching fire across the state. Stacey Sturdy has been lobbying her legislators to change the course of testing and reform. She created a grassroots group in her small district of Worchester in rural Otsego County.  On the Sunday prior to testing, 25 percent of 3-8 students’ parents had decided to opt out in her district.  Stacey said, “My husband and I decided early on that our children would be refusing the test, as a last ditch effort to show our governor and Commissioner King that parents are the ultimate voice for public education.  We will not stand by and watch our beautiful rural school be corrupted by indoctrinating, age-inappropriate curriculum; then set up for failure just so a charter school can take its place.”  Stacey has also decided to run for the school board to continue to make a difference.

On suburban Long Island, the home of the 16,000-member group known as Long Island Opt Out, founder Jeanette Deutermann struggled the day before the testing began to keep up with the reported numbers of students opting out.  Some districts were reporting numbers well in excess of one-third of all potential test takers, with more letters continuing to arrive in school offices. By the end of Monday, with 65 of the 122 Long Island districts reporting through volunteers, Jeanette was aware of more than 8,850 opt-out requests in those 65 districts. More requests are expected to arrive on Tuesday and it is likely that this year, as last year, test takers will also pull out of tests once they begin. Meanwhile, gubernatorial hopeful, Robert Astorino, announced via video that he and his wife will opt out their children rather than allow them to serve as “guinea pigs” in what he characterized as Cuomo’s Common Core experiment.

It has become clear that in New York state, the “canary in the coal mine” of the Common Core reforms, parents are sending a clear message by opting out.  In the words of Seaford, N.Y parent, Heather Umhafer:  “This is a democracy. However the democratic process was left out when it came to the Common Core.  We are fighting back. It’s the only way and we do it by ‘choosing to refuse’ and ‘remember in November.’”

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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