By Carol Burris
I met Peter DeWitt, a principal from upstate New York, when he was doing his doctoral research. Peter courageously chose a topic few had explored at the time—whether and how schools safeguarded LGBT students. He chose my school as a study site because we had an active Gay/Straight Alliance and worked hard to make sure that all of our students were physically and emotionally safe.
DeWitt’s research became a book, “Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students,” published in 2012 by Corwin Press. The School Administrators Association of New York recently named him the 2013 SAANYs Educator of the Year. Many of his teachers cheered him on as he received his award. I was happy that my husband and I were there and could offer our congratulations. I am proud of my colleague and friend.
DeWitt also has a syndicated blog, called “Finding Common Ground,” which is published by Education Week. He comments on a variety of topics including teaching and learning, social and emotional intelligence, testing, teacher evaluations and bullying. Recently, he posted a guest opinion on his blog, and raised some hackles at the New York State Education Department. In fact, it provoked a call to him from the SED.
The offending guest blog was by the best-selling children’s author, Phil Bildner, entitled “Calling Out the Testing Bullies” It can be found here: The theme of the blog is best represented by the following paragraphs:
As a former teacher, talking to students about reading and writing and process and creativity is by far my favorite part of being an author. However, as this year’s round of school visits draws to a close, my heart is aching. It is aching because of the abuse taking place in public schools across the United States.
The proliferation of high stakes testing — mandated standardized assessments with critical consequences for the student, teacher and school– has led to the inevitable rise of the testing bullies. The testing bullies are the high stakes testing companies. They, along with policymakers and politicians, are harming our children to the point of abuse.
After posting the guest blog, DeWitt received a call from Tom Dunn, the communications director of the State Education Department. The alleged reason for the call was that Phil Bildner had written that the children of Commissioner of Education John King attend a Montessori school and therefore they did not take state assessments. However, according to Dunn, this private Montessori does give state tests. DeWitt agreed to remove the sentence, but rather than thanking the principal and hanging up, Dunn continued the conversation.
According to DeWitt, Dunn asked him if he really believed what Phil wrote about students being bullied by over-testing. DeWitt was taken aback by the questioning and, after saying he agreed with Phil, reminded Dunn that his blog was his own and did not represent his school or his district. To which Dunn replied,
It’s not like I’m going to call your superintendent.
DeWitt called Dunn back later, after he removed the sentence, and asked Dunn not to call him at his school again. DeWitt said that Dunn responded that if he printed anything that was not true, or if he printed anything that he (Dunn) did not like about John King, he would indeed call DeWitt again. DeWitt referred Dunn to the email address on the blog.
On two occasions, I have heard Commissioner King complain of blogs and their “tone.” I am sure that he is not the only policymaker who is not pleased by the way social media has given voice and organization to those opposed to the current reform agenda. I would suggest that there is an alternative view of blogs — they can also serve as critical friends. As the commissioner for all of New York’s children, it is important that the State Education Department hear what parents, teachers and principals think, especially those who stand in opposition. Without buy-in, no reform can possibly be accomplished.
Unfortunately for some, the consideration of a different point of view is seen as cowardice. College Board President David Coleman did John King a great disservice when he recently told him to not back down in the face of “vultures” in New York who are “trying to take [him] down.”
Intransigence in the face of opposition, much of which is thoughtful and which comes from fine educators like Peter DeWitt, is never a good leadership strategy. John King may see his support of the Common Core and testing as noble, but Phil Bildner also has the right to see the testing of children and the penalties of high stakes testing as “another civil rights crisis,” and a noble cause as well. Both of those ideas need to compete.
That is so because the most important American marketplace is not that of Pearson, Rupert Murdoch, or the businessmen that the commissioner recently implored to support the Common Core standards and testing. America’s most important marketplace is the marketplace of competing ideas.
Not far from Peter DeWitt’s school in Newburgh New York, George Washington uttered what has become a famous quote in support of freedom of speech,
the freedom of Speech may be taken away, and dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the Slaughter.
Peter is certainly not a sheep, and while he will always be glad to correct a factual error, his voice will never be suppressed. And we all, including the State Education Department of New York, should be grateful for that.