Sunday, February 26, 2012

Arne Duncan Must Go

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has never taught. He has no classroom experience and no background in education other than in administration, and watching his mother who was a tutor. He's the top ed guy, and he was never even a teacher! Obama made a really bad choice. Could you imagine if the Surgeon General was never a doctor? Or the Attorney General never a lawyer?

Duncan attended private schools all of his life. He graduated from Harvard with a degree in Sociology. He has applauded the mass firing of teachers at a high poverty high school in Rhode Island. He is pushing for teachers to be evaluated based on student test scores. This is now happening in the state of New York. Duncan has endorsed the publication of teacher data reports, based on highly unreliable data, in NYC. He believes that increased testing, teacher bashing, and market based reforms will fix our schools. He doesn't understand child development or the effects of poverty on learning. He needs to go. Please sign this petition to dump Arne Duncan.

Duncan served as CEO of public schools in Chicago, which are 90% poor. Here's a snippet of what Duncan accomplished:

"Under Duncan, Chicago took the lead in creating public schools run as military academies, vastly expanded draconian student expulsions, instituted sweeping surveillance practices, advocated a growing police presence in the schools, arbitrarily shut down entire schools, and fired entire school staffs.” From Henry Giroux and Kenneth Saltman, Obama's Betrayal of Public Education? Arne Duncan and the Corporate Model of Schooling, 2008

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Success Defined by Test Scores (Zzzz...)

I write this blog to inform parents about the importance of the arts in public education. After learning that the arts had been drastically cut in Allentown elementary schools, I decided to start an after school art club at my son's school. All children should be given the chance to discover their talents at school. Our school board directors made short sighted decisions which have contributed to a narrowed, test driven curriculum. Kids are bored and are losing interest in school. I do what I can to bring art to our school, and to bring back some of the experiences that have been unfairly and unjustly taken away from our children. I can display art work for students and parents to view at a special PTA event at the end of March. At least it will be a little something for our kids to take pride in. The hallways are dull, and they lack displays of colorful, original student work. Our school seems to be defined by its test scores, rather than its student work.

By focusing on test scores and AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress), a school can provide the concrete numbers that can be referred to when comparing and labeling schools. In our district, if a school continually makes AYP and shows growth over a two year period, a special Keystone award is given to the school. When I look at the test score data from over the past 10 years, it doesn't really look like growth to me. Our scores in 2002 were higher than 2011 scores, because poverty rate was not as high. Our district celebrates our PSSA "success" stories with great fanfare, and even describes schools as "entering the winner's circle." So does that mean schools and students were previously losers? It looks to me like the data is being manipulated to align with the unrealistic goals of NCLB. Or it just means that teaching to the test is working. Both scenarios are equally bad, and either way, parents are being duped. High stakes testing is a charade, and I can't support a charade disguised as a success story.

Standardized testing does measure some specific knowledge, but it does not measure things like a school's learning environment, or kindness of staff, integrity, bettering the lives of students, school/community initiatives, collaboration, student's best work- these attributes should not be viewed as tangential to school success, they are essential. There's no data collected on how much a teacher improves a student's life. Right now, public schools are defined as successes or failures based solely on standardized test scores. Where is the evidence that high test scores lead to accomplishments in adult life? Where is the data that shows high test scores will really make a difference in improving our nation's future? Schools and students are so much more than test scores. Education is much more complicated than AYP. I would much rather celebrate real student success, and a high quality curriculum infused with the arts, instead of success defined by test scores (Zzzz....).

Sunday, February 5, 2012

My Letter to Parents: The Truth About PSSA Testing

I received a letter from my son's school about the importance of upcoming PSSA testing. The tests will be spread out over a 17 day period, with a pep rally, quiz shows, a special party for students who achieve perfect attendance over the month of test prep and 4 weeks of testing, and a performance by a local entertainer. The letter says "the students know how important these tests are for their future." I decided to respond by writing a letter to parents to tell them the truth about high stakes testing.

Dear Parent,

I am writing to my express my concerns about the amount of instructional time that is spent on standardized testing. I realize that the ASD must comply with state and federal testing mandates, but according to a letter sent to parents, nearly 4 weeks (17 days) will be dedicated to PSSA testing, and another month focused on test preparation. In addition to this, several weeks of instructional time is spent on 4Sight testing, and benchmark assessments. And then there is time and money spent on gimmicks like a PSSA pep rally, assemblies, and treats tied to high stakes testing. Last year's PSSA Pep Rally cost the district close to 20k, and the expensive computer equipment streaming the event failed. Our principal has communicated to parents and students that the tests are very important for their future. I disagree, and here is why:

Research has shown that 10 years of testing under NCLB has failed to significantly increase academic performance. Projections of the percentage of schools in PA that will fail to meet the unrealistic goal of 100% proficient by 2014 is 77%. (Source: Most schools across the country will fail to reach this goal by 2014, around 82%, according to Education Secretary Arne Duncan. These schools and students will be labeled as failures. But Duncan's plans to reform NCLB include even more testing. (Race to the Top) High stakes testing and punitive accountability measures have demoralized both students and teachers. Curriculum has been narrowed to focus on limited skills measured by standardized tests.

Federal funding should not be tied to test scores. If all schools are required to meet the same standards, then all schools must be fully funded. School districts like the ASD which serve mostly poor children, are set up for failure under NCLB, since we don't have access to the same resources as the wealthier districts. Policy makers continue to ignore the the real cause of low student achievement- growing child poverty. Testing and standards do not address the effects of poverty on learning, or the funding inequities.

There is no evidence that high stakes testing benefits children, so parents and students should not be told that the testing is important for their future success. In fact, testing and a test driven curriculum encourages dropping out because it diminishes a child's joy of learning. The only people who benefit from high stakes testing are the testing and text book companies, like Pearson, who are making millions off of our children. 4Sight testing is unreliable, and some studies show that the 4Sights don't even align with the state standards. Some districts have dropped the 4Sights.The "value added" data obtained by interim testing has a very high margin of error. Yet this unreliable data is used to place students, and in some states, is now tied to teacher performance (conditions of Race to the Top). 4Sight info:

NCLB has been a failure on many levels. Education experts and scholars have done studies, and their findings are documented here at this important website:
under the heading "NCLB's Lost Decade for Educational Progress." This report is easy to read. I support public schools, and public school teachers, but I will not support high stakes testing. It goes against everything I know about child development. Parents do have the right to opt their child out of state testing See: A massive opt out would be a way to finally end this testing charade because it would take away the "data" that is being used to punish students and teachers, and ultimately destroy public education. Parents need to know this information. Learning is not a race with winners and losers, it's a journey. We need to take back our schools, and provide equal opportunities for all students. Children are more than test scores. Parents can write to President Obama, and our State Representatives. I have done that, and I have joined the national group "Parents Across America." We can fight to get the laws changed, and to include teachers in policy making instead of CEOs, billionaires, and politicians. If parents would like to join me in starting a group to act on this important issue, please contact me.

Angie Villa