NYSED and the Fear Machine, just one last post!

This is my third post concerning the NYSED memo (see here and here) and I apologize if it seems like I’m having trouble moving on.  I guess I was having a bit of trouble as this memo kept rearing its ugly head.  So I decided it would be beneficial for me to get a lot of frustrations off of my chest by writing a letter directly to the author of said memo.  I wonder if I’ll get a response.  Maybe I’ll send one certified letter per week until I do!

To: Steven E. Katz

From: Danielle Boudet, concerned parent of a public school child

RE: your Memo dated January 2013 “Information on Student Participation in State Assessments” http://www.p12.nysed.gov/assessment/ei/2013/student-participation.pdf

Dear Mr. Katz,

I am writing today to express my concerns about the memo you sent to New York State schools back in January.  I found the content and the tone of the memo to be peremptory and disrespectful to the rights of parents.  It is a disgrace that you and the New York State Education Department are not listening to parents concerning the excessive amounts of testing our children must endure in public schools.

In recent years, there has been so much education reform thrown at our schools that they are struggling to keep up.  Teacher morale is at its lowest.  Stress among students has risen drastically.  Budgets are being shaved and programs are either being cut or are under constant threat.  And never in our nation’s history has there been so much testing in our public schools as there is today.  It sickens me and I will not play the pawn in this game of progress and accountability.  And neither will my children.

My son is only in Pre-Kindergarten and although he is not yet subjected to the torture of high-stakes state testing, he is already a victim of a number of corporate-created computerized assessments.  Although the ostensible purpose is to help the teacher gauge the progress of his or her students, I find it a complete waste of time and money, and far too much classroom time is being devoted to measuring progress through one assessment or another.  I have opted my son out of these assessments and will continue to do so.  And yet, his classroom teacher is still able to successfully monitor his academic progress without the test–Go figure!

It is not my intent to detail the demerits of excessive testing as there are many.  Rather, the purpose of this email is to state that I will continue to opt my children out of all state-mandated and corporate-driven tests, and any testing method that isn’t used solely for the individual classroom teacher.  Among the many reasons we will boycott these tests lies the great financial burden on our local districts, and the homogenization of education as creativity and individual teacher innovation are replaced with a one-size-fits-all approach.  Know that I am not alone and every day more and more parents are waking up and becoming disgusted with current education reforms and excessive testing.

I am an informed, responsible, and involved parent!  I act as the best advocate for my children.  Historically there has been on the part of parents an unquestioning trust in our schools and teachers that the right decisions were being made for our children.  This used to work.  Parents and schools were allies, working together to give students the best possible education.  Sadly, there is little local control over education today and the decisions are being made by God only knows what bureaucratic office.  The best interests of my children are ignored when their teachers’ hands are tied, and their administrations and Board of Education have become only ‘yes’ men.  Unfortunately, tactics like your memo force parents and schools to divide and become enemies.

Parental rights in the area of education are broadly protected by various Supreme Court decisions.  In the case of Meyer and Pierce, it was repeatedly held that parents posses “the fundamental right” to “direct the upbringing and education of their children,” and “the child is not the mere creature of the State: those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right coupled with the high duty to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”  As I understand it, religious objection is a widely accepted and legally protected reason for opting out of many practices, such as dissection or testing.  My research-based and philosophical abhorrence of these testing practices is tantamount to religious reasoning.  I strongly feel that opting out is the moral and ethical thing to do and I will exercise my parental rights to make this decision for my children.   

It would be unthinkable for a school to ignore such deeply seated beliefs and wishes.  It is a school’s right to support a parent’s choice.  I will go further and state that it is a school’s responsibility to uphold such parental wishes.  The legal framework for ignoring such parental decisions has yet to be fully laid in New York State, but I believe that parents’ civil rights to direct the type of education their children receive will continue to be upheld in a court of law and that informed and involved parents will win favor in the court of public and media attention.

The January memo that you sent to the Superintendents and Principals of New York State Schools was an audacious move to drive yet another wedge between schools and parents.  How dare you presume any governing power over the decisions I make for my own children?  How dare you bully schools into not respecting parental wishes?  Why are you threatening to punish our schools?  In your memo you stated, “The failure to comply…   …will have a negative impact on a school or school district’s accountability, as all schools are required to have a 95% participation rate in State testing.”  I understand that schools must answer to NYSED.  But our school has done nothing to break your rules!  Schools across the state exist in too much fear to oppose your mandates.  But if they simply honor a parent’s request, it would be unconscionable to impose ANY sanctions.  Explain to me how it would be fair (or productive for that matter) to punish 94% of students if 6% choose to dissent because of ethical and moral reasons?

Mr. Katz, I am realistic.  Although I am disappointed with the direction of current education reform, I do not expect my letter to sway your policies in any way.  I do not expect this letter to have any impact on the current curriculum being developed.  I do not expect a sudden moratorium on standardized tests.  I do not expect a sudden realization that the Common Core is coming at us too fast and with too little research into the efficacy of such standards.  And, I do not expect a genuine scrutinization of APPR and other such mandates.  As much as I disagree with much of the reform taking place in education, I see it as a train riding at full speed.  We need to put the brakes on, but stopping will take some time.

But I do expect something and this is what it is:  I do expect support and respect for parents that have a different set of beliefs than your own.  Your January memo was grossly misguided.  And now the right thing to do would be to issue another memo to New York State superintendents and principals.  This time you must set the record straight.  You must tell school administrations to honor parental decisions and respect parental input when it comes to the educational experiences our children are getting.  Schools should be allowed to listen to parents without the fear of repercussion.  Retract your threatening memo, Mr. Katz!  It is the moral thing to do.  And it is the legal thing to do.  I will repeat:  Our schools have done nothing to disobey your mandates.  You should not punish them!

Sincerely and in the best interests of my children,

Danielle Boudet

Occupy Kindergarten

Experienced and innovative kindergarten teacher, Kurt Schwengel, poses a question during his Santa Monica TEDx talk.  “Why has kindergarten changed so much over the last 30 years when the kids have remained the same?”

His passion for teaching kindergarten is tremendous, and he intends to remain in that positon until his career ends or “they pry the crayon from his cold, dead hands!”  Despite this he says he no longer teaches kindergarten; He teaches 1st grade.  State Standards have forced him and all kindergarten teachers to teach reading at a level that was previously 1st grade.

“Think back to your kindergarten experience….It probably didn’t involve any reading.  It probably involved a lot of running around, blocks, crayons, getting into trouble, and social growth… But now it’s all reading,” Schwengel explains.  The state standards are filled with mandates about what these young kids should learn, but the one things it’s missing according to Schwengel is FUN!

Kurt Schwengel makes a vivid comparison between a typical kindergarten ‘curriculum’ in the 1970s to that of nowadays.  The state standards he must now teach are many, and the assessment he must give his kindergartners the first week is enough to crush the spirit of any 5 year old.  “How successful do you think they feel the first week of kindergarten being given this test”, he asks?  He adds, “What kindergarten was meant to be was a year of personal and social growth, we’ve turned it into a full academic year.”

Burdened with the mandates of state standards, it’s easy for a teacher to just give in and open the ‘box of curriculum’ and teach with worksheet upon worksheet.  “They would have us become a worksheet factory in kindergarten instead of that wonderful social year,” says Schwengel.  “It would just be worksheet after worksheet to meet these incredibly rigorous state standards.”

And the result, Schwengel warns, is that “we are creating a generation of kids who are not going to enjoy reading.”  He recalls his own youth when he learned to read in a fun and developmentally appropriate way.  He wasn’t tested in kindergarten and made to feel a failure.

His TEDx talk becomes more hopeful as he says that the state standards dictate what he must teach, they do not dictate how he does it.  His methods are brilliant, engaging and fun as his goal is “to hide the learning from the kids.”  He believes that kindergartners should be playing games– lots of games, including Go Fish with sight words instead of numbers, or learning to count by 2’s through classroom basketball!

Yes, kindergarten with Kurt Schwengel seems like a lot of fun–the way I feel kindergarten should be.

My own son just turned 5 and he attends a full-time PreK program at our local school.  PreK is the new kindergarten we’re told and even at this level, New York State has issued mandates.  The kids are already focused on writing and reading and math.  We’re lucky that our kids still have nap time, snack time, recess, art, music, library, and gym.  They are still allowed to engage in free-play.  And although the learning is kept to a minimum, I do worry at times that he’s still just not ready to sit there and be silent.  A good portion of this “learning” is done with worksheets and that concerns me as well.  My son hates them.

My son has a friend who is just two months older than he.  She made the age cut-off to start school a year earlier so she is now in kindergarten in another district.  She does not have nap time.  Her mother has shown me the many Pearson worksheets she does on a DAILY basis– usually around 8 a day.  Her recess period is only 20 minutes at the end of the day.  Her classroom teacher uses a system of discipline that punishes the children by taking away a portion or all of recess.  There have been days when my son’s friend has be punished for falling asleep at her table.  She has lost precious recess minutes on several occasions.

When I watched Kurt Schwengel’s TEDx talk, I had to smile and think, “this is what kindergarten should be like!”  This is what it could be like.  Our school principal has said on several occasions something similar to what Schwengel said.  The state might dictate curriculum, but teachers are free to teach that curriculum in any innovative and creative way they choose.  But will they?

I’m hopeful that there are more teachers like Schwengel out there, but I’m not yet convinced.  Will my son’s kindergarten experience be filled with fun and play?  Or will he receive a worksheet curriculum, a crushed spirit, and an atrophied sense of curiosity and wonder?  I’m scared to death.  I can’t let that happen.  I won’t let that happen.

NYSED and the Fear Machine, revisited

You might recall my post–my reaction–to the memo that NYSED sent to all schools across New York State back in January.  If not, you can read that here, and also read the memo itself.

The opt out movement is growing!  Across the state, more and more families are saying NO to the overuse of standardized testing in our public schools.  Parents across the nation are questioning the value of these tests and growing tiresome at the countless hours spent administering tests and prepping for them.  We are sick of creativity and innovation being stripped away from our children’s education.  And we’ve had enough with programs being cut while precious resources are being funneled into the expensive corporate-driven testing system.  In a powerful gesture of civil disobedience, we are opting our children out of this testing craze or teaching them to do so themselves.

Opting out is a bold move, and it can be scary.  Some school administrators have been wholeheartedly supportive, while others have been entirely difficult.  Most schools just don’t know how to react, as they are stuck in the middle.  It is true that they are required to administer these tests.  But there is no law stating that our children have to take them!  There is much confusion, and NYSED’s fear tactic memo only adds to it.  And in a way it has worked.  More and more schools are responding to parents’ opt-out letters stating it is not an option.  Parents are unsure what to do.  And it makes matters more uncomfortable when the dialogue with one’s school must become a battle.

But I urge you!  If you decide to opt out, be strong.  Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t.

A member of New York’s opt-out group called NYSED to inquire directly about their threats and this is what he learned:

I called Mr. Katz two days after the memo was released to specifically discuss the statement that says, “The failure to comply with the requirements provided above will have a negative impact on a school or school district’s accountability, as all schools are required to have a 95% participation rate in State testing.” Steven Katz could not answer one single question that I had, so I was transferred through 8-10 different people until I finally talked with Shibu Joseph from the Office of Accountability. Mr. Joseph was very helpful. He reports directly to Assistant Commissioner Ira Schwartz and has first hand knowledge.

There is NO direct negative financial impact on a school district that does not meet the 95% participation rate as explained through the ESEA Flexibility Waiver. There could be an indirect negative financial impact only for Title I schools because if a Title I school is listed as a “Focus School” then they have to set aside 5-15% of their Title I funding into a “set aside” account for special improvement projects. By not meeting the 95% participation rate they could be listed as a “Focus School”. However, if they are already listed as a “Focus District” then there would be no further penalty. And remember, it ONLY applies to Title I schools. The lawyers I have contacted are saying that if a school district is going to lose this Title I money SOLELY because parents opted-out of testing, the courts would most likely rule in favor of the parents. Children have a right to free public education and if NYSED is going to require monies be set aside for Title I schools because parents are standing up for their children then the courts would most likely intervene and stop the “set aside”.

Our member went on to add this:

Remember, you don’t need permission from the adminstrators at your child’s school in order to opt-out. Of course, it is always better if we can maintain a positive relationship with administrators, but in the end it is your child. They cannot force your child to take the test. My attorney says it would be an easy lawsuit if they tried to force a child to take the test after you put it in writing. But, of course, we don’t want to take our school districts to court if we don’t have to. My children’s school district has not been as cooperative as I have hoped. But my 2 daughters are still not going to take any tests, and they are not going to sit for any make-up tests either. And, honestly, even if a Title I school falls below 95% partitcipation rate I don’t think that NYSED will impose the 5-15% “set-aside”. If they are going to penalize 95% of children because 5% didn’t take the test then that would be an easy court case as well. Plus they don’t want to be on the front page of the newspaper for denying funding to 95% of children when 5% were standing up for a good cause.

Smart advice!  And I agree.  My children will never take any of these tests.  NEVER.  Period.  Furthermore, my children will never take any corporate-driven benchmark or progress-monitoring assessments as well.

We must not be bullied.  We must not second-guess ourselves.  It is more important than ever to opt-out.  To join the conversation, we’re at http://www.facebook.com/groups/OptOutNewYork/ or search for your state’s opt out group, or join the national movement here http://www.facebook.com/groups/unitedoptout/

Our numbers are growing.  Our message is strong.  Are you in?

It’s our money! Are you outraged yet?

An Antique Teacher

Thanks to WGRZ TV in Buffalo for this piece about the cost to taxpayers of NY’s APPR.

If the use of NY’s RTTT money doesn’t make you furious, just think about the budget shortfalls in your district. Think about what’s already been cut and what’s on the chopping block for this year Remember, it’s this same mandate (RTTT) that has been the driving force behind the APPR mess. It’s the same mandate that has your child tested and tested and tested – losing precious instructional and play time!

Is it really a good use of OUR MONEY? Wouldn’t it be better to use the money to restore programs that have been cut? Wouldn’t it be better for KIDS if teachers were hired to relieve overcrowded classrooms? Wouldn’t it be better if our kids NEVER had to take a high stakes test?

OPT OUT! SPEAK OUT! Time is running out………it’s…

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Where’s the Smock?

Today’s post is more of a rant.  Attribute it to the right cocktail of sleep deprivation, depth of thought, conscious awareness, the tenuous purposes of the Common Core Learning Standards, and possibly a number of other things.  I guess I’m just in that kind of ranting mood.  Maybe the birth of this rant comes from my place as an artist, so I pose a question:

Where’s the smock?  Didn’t it used to be a common item on the list of things to bring to elementary school?  I thought so.  I remember it.  Maybe yours was an apron.  Maybe it was one of your father’s old button-up shirts.  But you kept one at school because it was commonly accepted that as a young child, you were likely to encounter a messy project or two.

And here’s the rant!  I find it such bullshit that the only “art” my kid does at school involves picking up an innocuous crayon and “building hand-strength” through the humdrum, drilling, and deadening activity of coloring in a print-out picture–someone else’s artwork, if you want to call it that.  It seems that even art cannot be fun anymore.  I won’t even get into the fact that for decades, disciplines like art and music have survived at the fringe of what is commonly accepted as curriculum.  But what purpose does it serve my son now?  Yes, they are “building hand-strength.”  This is what I’ve been told on several occasions when I was shown his “artwork.”  So art’s purpose is nothing more than a means to an end– get these 4 and 5 year olds writing their letters and numbers so that they can reach the rigorous standards set forth by New York State’s arbitrary Common Core.

I guess you don’t need a smock for that.

Finger painting with the kids

The joyful mess of finger-painting!