DECLARING "EDUCATION IS THE CIVIL RIGHTS ISSUE OF OUR TIME" RAVITCH URGES NON-COOPERATION
March 11, 2015 -- At a forum attended by more than 1200 people this past Monday evening at LIU CW Post's Tilles Center in Brookville, schools advocate, NYU Education Professor, author, and blogger Diane Ravitch, invoking the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., declared public education to be the most important civil rights issue of our time, and encouraged parents and teachers to employ similar tactics as those used by Civil Rights activists half a century ago to reverse the reforms that have radically changed public schooling in this and other states across the country over the past few years.
Organized in response to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's education agenda that he outlined in his State of the State address this past January, the event, Standing Together to Save Public Education: A Call to Action, sponsored by the organizations New York Principals and NYSAPE (New York State Allies for Public Education), featured, in addition to Dr. Ravitch, a panel of leaders in the anti-testing movement including South Side High School Principal Carol Burris, Comsewogue Superintendent Joseph Rella, Opt Out Long Island organizer Jeanette Deutermann, and Port Jefferson Station science teacher Beth Dimino.
The Governor's proposals would reform the reforms that he instituted two years ago by increasing the number of privately run, but tax-supported, charter schools by more than 100 state-wide, and by once again changing the teacher evaluation system that the state department of education had approved for each of the state's 700 school districts just two years ago. The changes would raise the percentage that student standardized test scores count towards a teacher's evaluation from 20% to 50%, with another 35% of that evaluation being based on a single observation done by an outside evaluator - as opposed to being done by a building principal or supervisor.
Already, Dr. Ravitch and the other panelists said, teachers are being forced to teach too much to the test. Now, with the proposed changes, even more pressure would be put on educators to spend class periods engaged in test preparation, turning off the youngest students to schooling and destroying their interest in learning. The five emphasized repeatedly that their opposition to the Common Core and the regimen of testing was based on their effects on children’s learning and their feelings about school
Dr. Ravitch began her 40 minute address challenging Mr. Cuomo's assertion that New York State schools are in crisis, pointing out that according to the governor's own figures - only 4% of all students statewide are enrolled in schools designated as "failing" - a problem needing to be addressed she said, but hardly evidence that the entire system is in crisis. She asserted that Long Island, the "epicenter" of resistance to the Governor's education agenda, has many of the best schools not only in the state, but in the nation. 89% of Long Island students, she said, graduate on time, bringing up the state average to 73%.
Repeatedly receiving standing ovations from the audience, Dr. Ravitch, took to task the Governor, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the architect of Race to the Top, the federal program that dangles the carrot of federal aid to states in exchange for basing teacher evaluations on test scores.
The most recent wave of reform, she said, has been motivated by the governor's anger at not having received the state teacher's union endorsement for governor this past November when he received 9% less of the popular vote than he had four years earlier, and his being beholden to corporate interests, in particular the charter school industry, and to Pearson, a company that has received more than $360,000,000 in state contracts to develop tests and test preparation materials.
Challenging the Governor's position that teachers alone are responsible for student performance on standardized tests, she teased, "believe it or not, there are students who do not do their reading or do their homework." Later, more seriously, she spoke of how socio-economic factors that teachers have no control over, such as poverty, are likely to affect a child's ability to do well. She proposed addressing those issues, in part through the educational system, by devoting the funding that has gone towards test development towards pre-kindergarten programs and providing support services for socio-economically disadvantaged students. "Target the problems," she said, "and target the resources toward those problems."
Dr. Ravitch also called into question both the validity of the tests and the Common Core standards themselves. More than 500 experts in childhood development, she said, have said that the learning standards on which the tests are based, are developmentally inappropriate. She then offered examples of some of those standards – for instance, the requirement that every child be able to read at the end of Kindergarten. Every study that has been done, she argued, shows that there is a range of age when one is expected to be able to read from pre-k to second grade. At some grades, developmental psychologists, she continued, have determined that the standards are fully two grade levels above what is considered developmentally appropriate.
"The tests are designed to make students fail," Dr. Ravitch asserted. "Former Commissioner of Education John King predicted before the tests that 70% of students would fail. How did he know?" She asked. "He set the cut score!" she responded to her own question. "The cut scores are designed to fail the majority of students. They are not based on science or objective measures." The purpose, she said, is that “they want public schools to look bad. They want to destroy community support. They want to replace public schools with privately managed charter schools.”
The impact of the testing regimen, she continued, was pressuring teachers to fill school days with test preparation which in turn was turning kids off to learning. "Teaching to the test," she said, "used to be considered unprofessional. Now it's considered necessary."
Dr. Ravitch said that she supported testing - but only ones that are well designed to diagnose student weaknesses and strengths. Under no circumstances, she continued, should they be used to evaluate teacher performance. However, because results of the state tests are not known for several months after they have been taken, and because the questions are kept secret, these particular tests "have no value at all." The unwillingness of the state or Pearson to release test questions, she said, was because the questions are so poorly framed with some having no right answer, others more than one right answer, and still others incomprehensible - even to well-educated adults.
As Dr. Ravitch neared the end of her speech, she rallied the crowd to "organize, mobilize, and defend your children and your schools against political attacks - refuse the test!" "Opt out - that is the best and most effective way - that is the only way you have to express your opposition."
She argued that doing so was a moral imperative, and put the movement against Mr. Cuomo's reforms in the context of other struggles for justice and rights. Quoting Vaclev Havel, the leader of the Czech movement to overthrow communism and that nation's first democratically elected president, she said "power resides in refusing to cooperate with those who impose harmful policies on us and our children." And then referencing Martin Luther King Jr., she continued, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. There is a time when civil disobedience is the appropriate and the moral response to a government that acts with disregard for its citizens and that time is now."
"We must preserve public education for future generations - that is the Civil Rights issue of our time," She concluded.
Following Dr. Ravitch's address, the four panelists continued with the themes that Ms. Ravitch had raised.
Dr. Burris, principal of South Side High School in the Rockville Centre School District, the Long Island leader in percentage of students opting out of the state exams, focused most of her remarks on the cut off scores, and characterized them "as political judgments" with the desired percentage of failing students (32%) being pre-determined, so as to support the reformers’ view that schools are failing. "The real tragedy," she continued, "is the effect it has on our children."
Later in the evening, she addressed a question concerning the performance of American students on International assessments that show the United States only in the middle of the pack. She responded by saying that countries at the top like Finland test very little and questioned whether the tests were meaningful at all. "These countries have equity. We're looking at the wrong measures. Let's look at what they do rather than choosing test scores."
Dr. Joseph Rella, Superintendent of Comsewogue School District, the district with the highest percentage of opt outs in Suffolk County, in his remarks, spoke of the relationship between poverty and student achievement and asserted that that was the issue that needed to be addressed - rather than applying more pressure on both students and teachers by increasing the importance of testing.
He then discussed what he believed to be the motives behind the reforms. By setting up children and schools to fail, with unreasonable and arbitrarily imposed standards and cut off scores, the governor was building support for privatizing, through charter schools, and corporatizing, through testing and test preparation materials, public education. "This is a corporate assault on Public Education," he said, "The plan is to destroy Public Education."
Dr. Rella said that everyone in education has a role to play in reversing the Governor's reforms. "As administrators, we must speak out and support our teachers. If we are silent, we appear to give consent." He advised teachers to steer clear of test prep. "Teach what's important," he said. "Teach - don't cover." Addressing parents, he said, "Exercise your right to fight for what is best for your children. . . . This is not about us, this is about the children in our care."
“The barbarians are in the gate!” Dr. Rella declared, “We are the only one thing preventing an entire generation of students from being sacrificed to corporate greed."
Ms. Deuterman, of Opt Out Long Island, borrowing lines from a national anti-bullying campaign encouraged the audience to be "upstanders" rather than "bystanders." Urging parents to opt their children out of the test, she explained, “sometimes the easiest way to stop a problem is to stop participating in the problem. An upstander recognizes that something isn’t right – that our teachers and students are being attacked and they are hurting and decide to do something about it.”
"I believe it is child abuse," she said. "Stand up and stop being afraid, Opt out and stop the machine. Do not feed the machine - deny them the data. Use the power you have. Be relentless."
Teacher Beth Dimino, who is refusing to administer the exam to her students, said that for a year or two she taught to the test, and realized that it was having a detrimental impact on her students' desire to learn. "I could not do it anymore. I am a teacher." She encouraged other teachers to do the same.
Sitting near the stage in the audience was Zephyr Teachout, the Columbia University professor who was unsuccessful in her bid to win the Working Families nomination for governor this past fall (the party endorsed Mr. Cuomo), and then challenged the governor in the Democratic primary in which she won 34% of the vote. Called up to the stage, she offered a few impromptu remarks. "Public education is the infrastructure of democracy," she said. "Burn down public education and burn down democracy as well."
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