The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Are education groups really listening to their members?

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“It is a recurring narrative about how the leadership in so many education organizations is more responsive to those in power than to those whom they represent.” That comes from the following post about how one particular organization, the New York State PTA, dealt with the requests of some local members over the issue of high-stakes testing. It was written by award-winning Principal Carol Burris of South Side High School in New York, who 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.

By Carol Burris

During the summer of 2012 parents, educators and professors from the Niagara region of New York State came together to talk. They shared a common concern about state testing and the oversized role that it was playing in the lives of kids.

The previous spring’s testing season had been especially harsh. The 2012 tests for Grades 3-8  (with the infamous question about the talking, sleeveless pineapple) were long and grueling. The third-grade state tests were now nine hours in length; just two years before, they took less than three hours to complete. The tests now served an additional purpose—the results would be used to evaluate teachers.

The folks from Niagara would never be characterized as radicals. They were mostly PTA moms led by a soft-spoken, elementary school principal, John McKenna. Their instinct was to work within the system. They decided there would be no better group to represent the interests of young children than the New York State PTA.

The group worked hard that summer to prepare a resolution against the ills of testing for submission to the annual State PTA convention. Although they were past the April deadline, the State PTA allowed emergency resolutions. Surely the test debacle of the spring, with its negative effects on children, would be seen as an emergency, they thought.

In September their resolution received the formal endorsement of the Niagara region. It asked that the role of high-stakes testing be diminished and that practicing educators design the 3-8 assessments. The press release clearly stated the group’s concern. “There are so many families who see their children suffer from the anxiety and the fear caused by these tests,” said Mary Beth Carroll, Niagara Regional PTA Director. “It seems as if we’ve gotten away from the purpose of the tests – to identify areas where schools need to improve, rather than evaluate the child and the teacher.”

Their optimism quickly faded, however, when the New York State PTA told them their resolution did not respond to an emergency.

Although the members of the Niagara Region PTA were disappointed, they were determined to carry on. Next year would be better, they thought. And so they further refined their resolution and submitted it again. Meanwhile, the New York State PTA developed its own position paper on the issues. That paper was remarkable in what it did not say–in fact it appeared to be deliberately designed to say nothing at all. There were only vague references to the effects of high-stakes testing, along with a “thumbs up” for the Common Core State Standards and APPR, the state’s controversial teacher evaluation system. The group took heart that their stronger resolution would be approved by those attending the Convention, allowing the State PTA to take a stronger stand. However, once again it was rejected by the resolutions committee with a letter that outlined the reasoning.

The rejection letter was an odd response that talked about Regents exams (the resolution was for 3-8 tests only) and criticized Niagara for not defining “high stakes testing,” It claimed that the position paper that the New York State PTA had recently issued was in conflict with the resolution, because it called for student scores to not be used in teacher evaluations. In fact, the NYS PTA position paper never mentioned the use of Grades 3-8 tests scores in APPR at all. It used the term “multiple measures.”

At the NYSPTA conventions of 2012 and 2013, Principal John McKenna and two parent representatives read statements of concern about testing from the floor. As he told me, “Our statements were met with great applause and support from the membership.”

That support strengthened their resolve to create a resolution that would be acceptable. In 2014, the Niagara Region PTA broke their resolution in half, creating two different resolutions to meet the objections of the state committee. “The ask” in one resolution was a review of APPR and a delay in its use for employment decisions. The second resolution asked for a delay in the use of high-stakes testing, a return to the development of assessments by teachers and a restoration of school funding.

Once again, the resolutions were rejected. I asked Kelly Chiarella, the resolutions chairperson, why that was the case.  She told me, via email, that the resolution did not meet the “criteria required to move forward for consideration at the Annual NYS PTA Convention.”  The reasons for rejection were shared in writing and in individual conversations, she said. Despite two requests, they were not shared with me.

Jeanette Deutermann is a Long Island mom who founded LI Opt Out, a group that now has over 22,000 members.   In her efforts to stop Common Core Grades  3-8 testing, Deutermann experienced her own frustrations with the leadership of the New York State PTA:

“Many of the locals PTAs have been willing to educate parents on the problems of high-stakes testing. They have been active members in the Opt Out movement. However other local leaders seem fearful to stand up against New York State PTA’s support of high stakes testing and the Common Core. The last straw was when New York State PTA coordinator Bob Aloise went around to local PTAs to tell parents that Opt Out was illegal and that Child Protective Services (CPS) could be called if they kept their children home from the tests. We were flabbergasted that an organization dedicated to the welfare of children would spread such nonsense clearly intended to frighten parents.”

This weekend, the New York State PTA convention will take place in lovely Saratoga Springs.  There will be an updated resolution stating that local PTAs should warn parents and kids about the dangers of herbal cigarettes and another that expresses worries that “e-cigarettes contain fruit and candy flavors (such as cherry, chocolate, gummy bear and bubble gum).” But members will not have an opportunity to vote on whether the PTA should take a strong stand on testing, or whether it’s a good or bad idea for kids’ scores to be used to evaluate their teachers.

I find the above to be a fascinating story.   It is a recurring narrative about how the leadership in so many education organizations is more responsive to those in power than to those whom they represent. In this regard this organization is hardly alone. I suspect that many leaders at this time of  “full steam ahead”’ reform are so anxious to keep their seat at the table that they do not want to alienate those who serve the dinner.

The New York State PTA has the right to reject the resolutions of the Niagara Region PTA. Perhaps they fundamentally disagree and support the state’s test-based reform agenda. They may honestly believe it is in the best interest of kids. If that is the case, then it is up to the rank and file of the organization to change the leadership, or be content with the status quo.

There is a better way forward. As so many organizations from PTAs to teacher unions seem less relevant than ever before, it seems to me that listening deeply to the concerns of members is a good strategy for revival. Taking courageous stands may have short-term costs when the powerful at the table don’t pass you the dessert, but in the long run the loyalty of membership grows and that gives far more sustenance. In this time of top-down federal and state reform that is breaking the back of democratically controlled schooling, responding to the concerns of members must be restored in representative organizations if public schools are to survive.

I suppose it is always nice to have a seat at the table. It is important, however, to be sure that those you represent are not the main course.