To the Editor:
“What matters most in the decades ahead is the extent to which we cultivate creativity, ingenuity, curiosity, innovation, and thinking differently. These qualities have been the genius of American culture. These traits are not measured by standardized tests.” – Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education.
I have not written in a while. Parents and teachers and community members, however, continue to stop me in my walking or my running or grocery shopping to tell me how much they have valued my letters, agreed with my views, and hoped that I would write more.
My purpose in writing this and the previous letters is to inform and educate the citizens of the towns in the Old Rochester Regional school district on the current issues in education and to connect that information to our own school district. I write again hoping that with informed views parents, teachers, students, and community members will contact the school committees and administrators and ask questions and air concerns.
With no end to the articles to read, editorials to consider, research analyses to digest – the available material detailing the damage being done to education by the data-driven decision-making – I need to encourage everyone concerned to seek information and question our school committee members and administrators before they do further damage to a once stellar and much admired school district in favor of standardized tests and data, computerized instruction and assessment, and school rankings. The data reported is about schools, not our children. The PARCC tests are coming.
Books, articles, editorials, blogs, professional journals, transcripts of lectures, research reports from university studies: Each day we can all read about changes in teaching practice and curriculum development, stress over test taking among even our youngest students, creativity and individuality overlooked and deemphasized and replaced by teaching-to-the-test instruction and the highlighting of isolated test questions – these factors are all doing damage to our children’s educational experience. We all need to remember, as I have said in previous letters, that children go through school only once, and we have the responsibility to offer them the best and most inspiring experience possible. In my view, the notable people not reading and acting on all the current material available on the detriments of standardized testing and the narrowing of curriculum are the administrators and school committees of the Old Rochester District; in particular, the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment, who seems to focus on data, assessment, and numbers and to neglect instruction and creativity. Rather than recognizing and celebrating the well-respected, high-performing district we have formerly celebrated, the current environment is becoming more and more of a teaching-to-the-test driven one.
Another reason for another letter is my recent experience as a member of the Strategic Plan Forum. I was happy to join the Strategic Plan Committee, because I care about the students and the schools of the Old Rochester Regional District, and I thought I could contribute a credible voice and work with others toward formulating the five-year plan. The whole experience could not have been more of a letdown for me and for others. Many of those with whom I interacted were parents; some were parents new to the district, eager to contribute. Although I had nothing to do with the planning of it, I was embarrassed for my school district as we sat through the most uninspired, unenthusiastic, talk-to-you-from-a PowerPoint presentation. The first forum was the assembly of the entire group in the evening in the high school cafeteria; all constituencies present – parents, teachers, administrators, and community members. Everyone in the room had received a packet with the research done on the district in terms of demographics, enrollment projections, housing markets in the towns, school test scores, etc. My tablemates and I spoke about how we had read the information prior to attending and some of us had highlighted important points. I had read the complete packet twice. The information had been sent to us by Diana Russo, the Superintendent’s administrative secretary, who is always organized and prepared – clearly and consistently showing competency way beyond her position and beyond those of our two highest administrators.
Superintendent White with no enthusiasm in his voice introduced the consultants who were hired to facilitate and thanked those present for being there. No time was given for those present to identify themselves and to state which constituency they represented. The Strategic Plan Steering Committee was never introduced, although the existence of such a body was mentioned several times. Because I had recently retired as a teacher in the district, those at my table turned to me to fill them in. I did not know who was who in the room, except for a couple of administrators and teachers. Very poor planning on the part of the facilitators. When I got home, I timed how many seconds it would take to state my name, my town, and my place as a community member. It takes seven seconds. So how long would it have taken for everyone in the room to do the same? Not very long. Also, why not tell everyone who was on the Steering Committee. My tablemates began to feel that it was a real secret.
On to NESDEC, the presenters: The presentation was a projected slide show of all the information sent ahead of time. The NESDEC leader read to us what we had already read. Why were we there? No discussion followed. We had had a “light supper” and left with no new information, dismissed in less time than the two hours allotted.
On the following Saturday, small groups met in the superintendent’s conference room for our focus group discussions, again facilitated by NESDEC. We listed strengths and weaknesses for the district that were paraphrased and projected on a screen. Very little time was given for discussion. Our Assistant Superintendent was not even present at my group’s assigned time, and our Superintendent seldom looked up. Again, as someone who loves our district and cares about education, I was embarrassed and disappointed. Why our administrators could not have come up with an innovative plan for developing a community form, I don’t understand. Why they turned to NESDEC, an antiquated group with no new ideas, I don’t know. I will add more on the Strategic Plan experience in another letter, since I need to move on to another topic today.
I have read so much recently about how more and more young students are being diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, anxiety, and autism. That is a fact. We ask, “Why?” A plausible emerging answer is that very young students are being required to sit and do tasks for which they are not ready academically, physically, emotionally, and developmentally. The young students are frustrated, act out, withdraw, recognize failure, lose recess privileges, and further lose self-esteem. Parents and teachers want a reason. They do not often enough see the readiness element; hence testing and a diagnosis and perhaps medication – ah, they see there is a solution. Given a more hands-on, creative, and inspiring learning environment – focused on their abilities and readiness and knowing the connection to successful reading, math, and writing success – most students will thrive and become excited about learning, rather than anxious. Children want to learn. If some students struggle even after appropriate and engaging learning experiences, then some monitoring and testing is, of course, warranted.
As Mrs. Demers, whom many readers may remember as the most enthusiastic, creative, and masterful kindergarten teacher at Rochester Memorial School for many years, often said, “Readiness is everything.” Mrs. Demers was a gentle genius, who knew that constructive play and carefully crafted education experiences, not drill and standardized testing preparation, is what young students need to be learners. Mrs. Demers once told me that the throwing and catching a ball that we do with young children is more effective in getting children’s brains ready to read than all the practice in letters and sounds that we often do.
In keeping with the same beautiful educational philosophy as that of Mrs. Demers, 121 authors and illustrators of children’s books recently published a letter sent to President Obama and Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, expressing their concerns over the current overuse of testing and narrowed curriculum.
The letter reads, in part, “Our public school students spend far too much time preparing for reading tests and too little time curling up with books that fire their imaginations.” and “This year has seen a growing national wave of protest against testing overuse and abuse. As the authors and illustrators of books for children, we feel a special responsibility to advocate for change. We offer our full support for a national campaign to change the way we assess learning so that schools nurture creativity, exploration, and a love of literature from the first day of school through high school graduation.”
You can check out the entire inspiring letter and the list of authors and illustrators who signed by searching for: Public Letter on Standardized Testing from Authors and Illustrators of Books for Children and Youth. The letter is clearly a call for concern and a call to action.
Another source to consider is Hal Salzman, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University, who writes on education and economic policy. I will include only a brief quote from an article. Please check him out, too.
“’What’s really peculiar about the whole test-score hysteria is that they use it as a proxy for the U.S. “competitiveness and innovation,” as though we don’t have actual measurements,’ said Salzman, an expert in science and engineering labor markets and the globalization of innovation. ‘The country continues to lead on innovation, economic performance, and all the results that these things are supposed to indicate … It doesn’t mean we don’t want to improve education,’ Salzman said. ‘But the fear that’s driving it is unfounded. The problem we have is not at the top or at the middle. It’s at the bottom. That’s what gets lost in averages and rankings.’”
I am going to end here. I have more information to share on Pearson (particularly on their new profit-seeking involvement in teacher certification through standardized testing in New York State); on our district’s use of Galileo, a computerized assessment program on which our students are spending way too much time; and the coming PARCC tests, the nationwide testing attached to the Common Core that has already been piloted in New York State. In New York, four year-olds in public pre-school have been given standardized multiple-choice tests. Please seek out information on Pearson and also on the New York State districts that are already opting out of Race to the Top and PARCC assessments, because of the many problems with the test. The ORR District is currently headed in the direction of implementing measures that have already shown themselves to be flawed.
More letters to come.
Thank you for reading. Please take advantage of the information available, and please remember that the school committee members are representatives and should hear from their constituents. As always, if you would like to contact me, email me with comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Teresa R. Dall
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