Accountability, John King, and So Called Special Interests

special-interestsOur government is built upon a foundation of accountability.  We elect people to serve our interests in government.  If they don’t do a good job, we can kick them out next election cycle.  It’s not a perfect system, of course, but it’s pretty good overall.

This style of government was – in a big way – influenced by the events 240 years ago.  In 1773, the colonists revolted against the British Parliament for not having a say in how they were being taxed.  Today, parents, teachers, and students find themselves the ones without representation.

Throughout the country, Common Core and Race To The Top are being implemented.  Though I’m a fan of having a nation-wide education policy, in general, Common Core is just badly written and its implementation winds up giving corporate interests more say in our children’s education than we have.

In New York State, our kids were subject to a series of high stakes tests.  We were warned that scores would be low but that this would be a "baseline" by which future success would be measured.  Considering that only 30% of kids passed the tests, I’d say we’re setting the bar pretty low to start with.  The biggest issue here is the accountability, or the lack thereof. of all of the parties involved.

I’ve written before about Pearson education and how the lack of oversight on the tests combined with their business interests (selling textbooks and courses) gives them a clear incentive to have students do poorly on the tests they design.  Today, I’d like to focus on Commissioner John King and the New York State Education Department.

The New York State Education Department (NYSED) gets to decide education policy for all of New York State.  Districts can decide not to abide by some rules, but NYSED can "lean on" them to get them in line (for example, by withholding funding).  So when NYSED says the high-stakes tests are going to take place, local school districts have little say in the matter.

Voters don’t get to choose NYSED members – they are appointed by the legislature.  We do vote for the legislature, but many times legislators either feign ignorance or are purposefully ignorant as to what is happening in the education system.  It’s better (in their minds) to act outraged that high stakes testing isn’t making our kids’ education better and promise to get to the bottom of it, than it is to know how bad the situation is beforehand and risk being blamed.  Furthermore, the Commissioner gets appointed by the NYSED’s Board of Regents.  He is two steps removed from any voter accountability.

Recently, Commissioner King held the first in a series of town hall meetings intended to open a dialog with parents and teachers who were unhappy with the state’s overemphasis on tests and with Common Core.  (You can watch the town hall here.)  Parents and teachers who attended were told they would have an hour to make statements.  In fact, only a half hour at the end was allotted for statements.

To make matters worse, John King interrupted the statements period so that he could rebut the statements.  When the crowd got upset that their limited time was being eaten into, King remarked "We’re not going to go on until I speak."  Understandably, this met with resounding boos from the attendees.  At least one parent was escorted from the grounds by the police which soured the crowd even more.

After twenty minutes, the statements period was closed out and parents were told that those with written statements could hand them to a representative instead.  Commissioner John King ducked out the back to avoid any further parent interactions.

The very next day, Commissioner King cancelled all further town hall meetings, blaming "special interests" for hijacking the meeting.  Specifically, his statement read:

I was looking forward to engaging in a dialogue with parents across the state. I was eagerly anticipating answering questions from parents about the Common Core and other reforms we’re moving ahead with in New York State. Unfortunately, the forums sponsored by the New York State PTA have been co-opted by special interests whose stated goal is to ‘dominate’ the questions and manipulate the forum.

The disruptions caused by the special interests have deprived parents of the opportunity to listen, ask questions and offer comments. Essentially, dialogue has been denied. In light of the clear intention of these special interest groups to continue to manipulate the forum, the PTA-sponsored events scheduled have been suspended.

Let’s break this apart bit by bit, shall we?  First of all, he "was looking forward to engaging in a dialogue."  The last time I checked, a dialogue is an even back and forth.  If one person has all the speaking time and attempts to silence all dissenting opinions, it’s not a dialogue, it’s a monologue. agrees, calling it a "conversation between two or more persons."  It sounds to me like Commissioner King was actually expecting to monologue his way through the town hall meetings and didn’t expect to hit any dissenting opinions along the way.

Next, there’s his mention of "special interests" who "dominated" the questions.  The people who attended the meeting were parents and teachers.  Was he seriously calling concerned parents a "special interest"?  Or was he referring to the teachers who have seen firsthand the damage this is doing to our kids?  I, for one, am willing to embrace the label as I have two very special interests in the educational system:  They’re called my children!

He also mentioned how they dominated the forum.  The last I checked, during the two hour forum, King spoke for about an hour and a half.  He left only twenty minutes for questions and during that time he interjected to talk more.  If anyone dominated the discussion, it was Commissioner King.

I agree with Commissioner King.  Dialogue has been denied.  It wasn’t from some "evil" grouping of teachers and parents, though.  It was denied by Commissioner King himself.  He tried to manipulate the forum to his benefit, failed miserably, and then tried to pass blame to everyone but him.

Even now, people are calling for King’s resignation.  Sadly, I don’t think this will cause real change.  Instead Commissioner King will likely become a scapegoat.  He will be publicly fired and blamed for the fiasco.  Then, they will appoint a new commissioner to continue on the same over testing path hoping that parents and teachers will be placated by this token gesture.

Don’t fall for it.

The goal here is not Commissioner King getting the boot.  The goal here is to ensure a good educational future for our children.  The goal is to make sure that our kids don’t dread going to school because they’ve got test after test to take.  The goal is to stop punishing creative students because their answer doesn’t fit into the box that Pearson has drawn for them.  The goal is to allow teachers to assess how their particular students will learn best instead of forcing them to follow a "one size fits all" plan that actually fits nobody.  We cannot be distracted by a show firing because what is riding on this is our children’s future.

Demand educational accountability from the New York State Department of Education now!

One Voice Rally Speakers and Songs

The One Voice Rally gathered a large crowd of students, teachers, and parents protesting the over-testing of our children,  It also had some wonderful speakers and singers who eloquently expressed the problems we all had with the absurd testing regime masquerading as "education reform."  You can watch the entire video here or click on each speaker’s name below to jump to their speech/song.

One thing to note: I can’t possibly cover all of the speakers here. If I skip a few, it’s not a reflection on their speech but on the length of a reasonable blog post.  The entire video might be nearly three hours long, but it is well worth the time spent watching.

Dick Iannuzzi, president of NYSUT, spoke, among other things, about how State Education is trying to spin protests from parents and teachers over Pearson field tests.  Field tests are tests given not to assess a student’s knowledge, but to test the questions themselves.  Are they too confusing?  Are they too easy?  Can students answer them properly without taking too long to figure out the answer?

In any other circumstance, people taking field tests would be compensated for their time and effort.  Our kids, however, are being REQUIRED to take these tests.  In many instances, parents aren’t even being told that the tests their kids are getting are field tests.  And the kids aren’t paid anything.  They aren’t compensated at all.  All they get is the added stress of more tests to take.

State Education Commissioner King tried to claim that the protest was the union trying to "create a more tense environment around testing."  Now, I don’t know about you, but when my kids are given tons of difficult tests and then get MORE tests snuck in just to give the big business making the tests some free assistance in doing what they’re being paid to do, I feel tension and my kids feel tension.  The union doesn’t NEED to create any tension.  State Ed and Pearson created enough on their own.

Ricard Ognibene, from the Fairport Educators Association, spoke for the New York State Teachers of the Year.  He related stories of students who have begun hating school thanks to the tests, teachers who found that the testing regime has taken up all of their testing time, and parents who were told that their kids wouldn’t get additional math instruction because they needed to spend more time on the computer getting ready for next year’s standardized tests.

Jeremy Dudley rocked us with his rap song "Stop This Madness."  While this got the crowd chanting (and NHL screaming the title phrase), it also contained many very important points.  For example:

out of touch and out of tune we under teach and over test,
while cutting funding in the very places that we should invest,
everyone including kids can’t help from feeling over stressed,
So tell us how and why with kids in mind this system is what’s best,

In those four lines, Jeremy Dudley summarizes the entire problem.  By focusing so much on testing and cutting funding for anything else, we keep teachers from doing their job and students (not to mention parents and teachers) wind up over stressed.

Perhaps his best point, though, was this:

And if we walk along the money trail,
There’s profit to be made when we perceive that schools fail,

Pearson is being paid to create and administer these tests.  What happens if students don’t do well, though?  In that case, Pearson will get more money for textbooks, teacher education, additional testing, and much, much more.  If students do well?  Not as much money flows to them.  In other words, it is in Pearson’s economic interests to have the students do poorly.  And since the testing isn’t being done in a transparent manner, there’s no check to make sure they don’t abuse their position to generate more money for themselves.

Joyce Powell came from New Jersey.  Even though this rally was for New York’s educational system, she reminded us that this isn’t just a problem in New York.  New Jersey and many other states are facing this test abuse.

Nikhil Goyal, author of One Size Does Not Fit All, was different from most of the speakers.  He was the youngest speaker, by far, having just recently graduated from high school.  He decried the "drill, kill, bubble fill" culture.  He pointed out that standardized tests aren’t effective.  During a test, he left the Scantron blank and left the room in protest.  He even was given a multiple choice test for gym class.  (I’d like to see those questions.  You have a jump rope, do you a) crawl under it, b) jump over it, c) throw it in a hoop, or d) pineapple.)

Nikhil reminded people that young people are always at the forefront of social change and, to that end, is organizing a student rally next year.  He encouraged more students to either refuse the tests or walk out of them outright.

Tom Chapin, singer and songwriter, came onstage to first sing his song "Not On The Test" with Michael Mark.  In this song, he consoled a third grader that he’ll do fine on the test if he just forgets anything that isn’t on the test.  He told the student not to get stressed because that might make him do worse and then his teacher would suffer.  He also pointed out that, thanks to a lack of funding, his school has removed art, music and anything that isn’t on the test.

Next, they sang an anthem that Tom wrote for the rally.  "One Voice", spoke directly to State Ed about how parents, teachers, students and districts were united against over testing, under teaching, and unfunded mandates.  They even included a humorous line about an acronym for parents/teachers/students/districts:  "PTSD… Just like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – it’s what we’re all going to have if this keeps going on!"

There were so many more wonderful speakers that day.  They all energized the crowd and helped us realized that we’re not alone in our disgust for this situation.  The problem is far from solved, but the rally helped to focus everyone for the fight to come.  And if State Education thinks that we’ll back down, they’re sadly mistaken.  After all, our kids’ education is at stake.

Photos From The One Voice United Rally

On Monday, I wrote about Common Core, the over-testing that is stressing our kids, and the emphasis on tests that is causing teachers to need to focus their lessons only on what will help their students fill in the right answers on a Scantron form.  We attended the One Voice United rally to help protest all of this.

When we arrived, there were already a lot of people gathering.  Buses had taken people from Long Island, Buffalo, and lots of places in between.  Everyone was converging on the Empire State Plaza in Albany, NY and many people were carrying some amazing signs.  It was quite a sight to behold.  I could use more words to describe it, but I think I’ll let these photos tell the story.

crowds crowds2 outside-box-not-inside-circle pearson-profit pearson-profit-pupils-pay robbed-education teacher-voice graveyard afraid-to-fail dont-erase-our-progress end-overreliance keep-for-profit-out-of-public-education pirates retirees-say-let-teachers-teach rotten-to-the-core where-is-the-logic lacks-common-sense pearson-killing-education

Rotten To The Common Core

protestersOn Saturday, B, the boys, and I joined somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 other people in a rally to protest the state of education in New York.  There are many problems, but they all seem to stem from two words: Common Core.

Awhile back, it looked like we had a problem.  Our students were graduating high school and college and finding that the job markets demanded much more from them.  So a solution was devised.  And, in typical politician form, it was decided that students’ progress needed to be measured.  After all, we needed to make sure, at every step of the way, that kids were being taught in the right way and that teachers were teaching in the right way.  Anything else would go against the politicians’ great plan.

The federal politicians demanded that all schools follow set guidelines.  However, they neglected to include one important piece to help schools follow said guidelines: funding.  This was what is called an "unfunded mandate."  Basically, they said: "You are required to follow this but we won’t pay for it at all."  So school districts were faced with a difficult choice: Raise taxes or cut extraneous subjects.  Where "extraneous subjects" are things such as art and music that don’t get reflected in the test scores.

Ah, the tests.  Remember how I mentioned that the teachers and students needed to be measured at every turn?  Well, the best way to do this (if you are a politician setting the rules) is by requiring the students to take tests.  In New York State’s case, it was decided that next year would be the first year that "Common Core" was implemented but that this would be the first year for the Common Core tests.  How can you test on something that hasn’t been implemented yet?  Easy.  You call it a baseline.  Scientists use it all the time.

Of course, scientists don’t typically experiment on children without their parents’ permission.

So the kids were forced to take extremely difficult tests.  Couldn’t get much worse, could it?  Of course, it can.

rotten-to-the-common-coreFirst of all, remember that the teachers are being tested too.  No, they’re not filling in Scantron forms.  Instead, their students’ scores will reflect on their annual reviews.  If their students do poorly, they do poorly.  Never mind if their students include kids with dyslexia or other learning disabilities that make tests a poor method of measuring knowledge.  Also, you should probably ignore that the kids, already stressed by the prospect of difficult tests, will find additional pressure on them once they realize that their beloved teachers will get punished if they do poorly.  No pressure.

NHL-JSL-ProtestingIn fact, once you tie teacher reviews to the test, you create a situation where the teacher HAS to teach to the test.  Any time that the teacher spends outside of test preparation is time lost and the potential test scores decrease.  The entire curriculum becomes All Test All The Time.

This isn’t hypothetical.  Many kids are experiencing this already.  A friend of mine, Mitch (aka GayNYCDad), has had his elementary school child come home all school year with practice test questions and practice tests as homework.  His entire course of study has been designed to prepare him to answer some multiple choice test questions correctly.  Time spent actually learning is time lost because the only thing that is important is The Test.

And just as one final insult, the test is designed and run by Pearson Education.  New York State pays Pearson $32 million over four years to administer the test.  With millions of dollars (not to mention millions of children’s futures) at stake, you’d think there’d be some accountability, right?  The tests are definitely open to inspection by educational professionals who make sure the questions are developmentally appropriate?  Right?


The tests are super-secret.  Teachers aren’t allowed to look at them at all.  Parents are forbidden from seeing them.  The tests are to be filled out by the students and then sent back to Pearson for grading.  Once graded, the tests "vanish."  I know of at least one instance where a child, overwhelmed by the stress of the situation, vomited on the test.  When State Ed was contacted, they said to bag the puked upon test up and send it back to them.  Under no circumstances were they to simply toss it in the trash!

As for the test questions, I know of four teachers (who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons) who peeked at one question.  These four teachers (who all have advanced degrees) answered the question themselves and they each came up with different answers.  Just to be clear, this was a multiple choice question and one teacher came up with A, another B, a third C, and the fourth answered D.  If teachers have trouble answering these questions, what chance do our kids have?

It gets worse, though.  Pearson has included passages from their books in the New York State tests.  So districts who buy books from Pearson have an advantage over districts who don’t.  Yes, Pearson is leveraging the tests to increase their own sales.  Big business helping itself get bigger at our kids’ expense!

What about the politicians who are forcing this on everyone?  Surely they can be reasoned with, right?  After all, they are elected officials and so answer to the public.  Unfortunately, New York Education Commissioner John King, Jr. has dug in his heels against all opposition  In fact, King’s communications director, Tom Dunn, has tried to bully a principal who blogs on the side into taking down a critical blog post about the tests.

I’m not opposed to tests in general and better educational standards are a laudable goal.  However, over-stressing and over-testing our kids is wrong.  Taking teachers and confining them into ONLY what is on the test is wrong.  And pouring millions of dollars to a big business with no accountability is wrong.

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