Monday, September 19, 2011

Changing the Narrative. Ending the Fear. Saving our Public Schools.

September is almost over.  Teaching to the test is in full swing. When talking to people in your community, it's a great time to pop the question,  "What do you think about students opting out of the state test?”

Often, the "opt out" question elicits a look of fear.  There is concern that schools, students or communities will be punished by opting out.  Many are fearful of letting people down.  Some tell me we need accountability. Parents in suburbs are afraid that opting out will cause their schools to receive less funding. Parents in low socioeconomic areas want to raise their children's test scores in the hopes of avoiding school closure and corporate takeover. Teachers are afraid they may lose their job or get punished in other ways.  Many of these fears are founded on fact; many are founded on fiction.

We are ruled by fear in our current education system.

One of the first things I learned as a teacher was the importance of helping children feel safe in the classroom.  It was important to ask children questions in a way that allowed them time to think, converse or research before responding.  If they were fearful, they would not engage.  Also, if they weren’t equipped with tools to support engagement, they could not engage to their full potential. 

Some fears are based on fact.  We know teachers who have been transferred or “let go” after speaking up about the negative effects of corporate education reform. We know children who have been punished after the parent opted the child out of the state test.  We know some parents are benefiting from the state test because their children are good at taking tests, and the test scores are helping their children get in to the best magnet schools.  Sometimes we are in survival mode, and fear based on fact requires us to make decisions to protect our jobs and our children’s well-being.

Some fear is based on fiction.  Some states say that you cannot opt out of the test, when actually you can.  Some schools say that you will lose funding, when in actuality you won’t.  Some teachers remain silent, when in reality, they can speak up, given the appropriate tools and support to do so. 

It is difficult to make decisions when the narrative we are told is full of untruths and fear is used to keep us silent.

We are told that the accountability system is raising up our schools, when in reality, it is this exact accountability that is destroying our schools.  How do we change the narrative? 

Last week Arne and Karen Duncan wrote a letter to their children as they headed back to public school.  It told me a narrative – better yet – a fantasy for many - about Claire and Ryan’s school.

They said, “We also want you to enjoy so many other enriching experiences that are so important to a complete education. We know you have great music, art, and physical education teachers at your school, and we believe that these subjects are essential for a well-rounded curriculum. And so is recess. We want you to have fun!”

The story I know, that permeates our nation’s schools goes like this – the test is important, more important than anything in the classroom including the teachers or students.  PE, fine arts, science and other enriching activities will be cut if necessary in order to find money and time to prepare for the test.  There is no time for recess.  There is no time for fun.  And, if you are a child in a charter school, understand quite clearly that you have a dollar sign on your head – and this dollar sign is more essential than a well-rounded curriculum.

Arne and Karen say, “Our hope for you this year is that you will be challenged academically. You have some terrific teachers to support you.”

The conversation I hear from Washington is that the main challenge is increasing scores on the test so that we can Race to the Top. This challenge is even greater in the low socioeconomic areas where school closure is looming in the event that scores remain low.  I haven’t heard anything about good teachers; I hear that young college graduates with no teaching degrees will save the day, but actual credentialed teachers with master’s degrees are typically bad and do nothing to improve student achievement.

Arne and Karen's story and my story do not match.  When I read their letter for the first time, I thought it was a joke – I thought that someone had created it in an effort to demonstrate what Arne ought to be doing for our public schools.

Will he let us eat cake too?

How can two narratives co-exist?  They will co-exist as long as fear continues to exert power by creating silence and thwarting our ability to make effective decisions in order to change the narrative. 

Does it feel like Arne is rubbing salt in our wound by publicly displaying this letter to his children, while other parents are observing their children squeezed into co-locations (public school and charter school existing in same building)? 

Is he unaware of the schools in which test rally calls permeate the buildings and test prep started the second week of school, with four days of pretests to determine how to plan to teach to the test all year long?

As Arne’s children head out to explore (he states, “we will continue to explore the natural world at nature centers, museums, and many of the other great resources in the Washington area”) does he not recognize that almost 1 in 4 children live in poverty here, and that the concept of exploring is a fantasy for many? 

Does he not recognize that many children do not even have transportation to get to the charter schools he currently promotes?

Arne’s narrative is insulated from the fear, poverty and the punitive consequences which are arriving top-down to schools in our country.  Schools in suburbia are also relatively insulated from the drastic consequences of NCLB and RTTT.  Those who are not insulated, typically schools in low socioeconomic areas, are attempting to fight back, yet many have not yet found their voices or their tools to do so.

How do we change the mantra: high stakes testing is necessary to improve student achievement in our schools?  How do we make Arne’s story about his own children’s school, the narrative for all schools?  Do we wait until high stakes testing affects our children, our neighborhood, and our community in drastic ways, such as shutting down schools or co-locating schools?  Do we wait until PE and fine arts finally disappear from the schools in the suburbs?  Do we wait until our child’s teacher is required to sweep and clean at the end of the day (due to custodian cuts) rather than be available to children for extra academic support? When do we say ENOUGH?  We have choices which can halt the destruction of our public schools and our democracy. Are we willing to help America's children who are already suffering today, under corporate education reform mandates?

We can step up now, together, and organize and share our resources and make our demands  heard.

Or, we can sit back, watch, and wait, until they come for us. 

They are coming.  Whether you are living in the city, the country or the suburbs.  They are coming to take our schools.  This fear is real.  It is founded on fact and the narrative is true. Public schools are disappearing all over our country as schools are privatized methodically and strategically. Corporate education reformers are anxious to make money and profit from your neighborhood school. We are the Big Enchilada

The narrative they are telling us, high stakes testing is necessary in order to improve achievement in our schools and allow our children to Race to the Top, is not true.  The test is set up to fail our schools. The corporate education reformers have put a dollar sign on every child’s head in America and they are waiting for their chance to take it. If we understand this, we can fight back with our own narrative and protect America’s children.

We must fill our tool belts.

Question Arne and Karen’s letter to their children and the hypocrisy of his top-down policies.  Beware of Rhee’s belief that mayoral control will save your schools.  Examine RTTT waivers for NCLB – which is worse?  Beware of Teach for America, The New Teacher Project and any other newfangled teacher program that comes your way and does not involve teachers with actual teaching degrees. Don’t take charter schools at face value – dig deep – they are typically filled with  unqualified and overworked teachers. Beware of test pep rallies and candy dangled in front of your child in order to encourage your child to do well on the state test. Look up the definition of child abuse.

Determine your story.  Determine your method for opting out of the current narrative.  Has your school lost funding for art?  PE?  Is your child having severe anxiety over the test?  Has your child’s class size increased?  Is your child bringing home test prep samples?  Are you being asked to participate in a school fundraiser to raise money for teacher’s salaries, while your state spends millions on the state test?  Does your child get adequate recess and lunch time? Does your charter school have  teachers with teaching degrees? Why do you think the charter school allowed your child entry and turned your neighbor’s child away? Who is your superintendent and where did s/he come from? Why are teacher bonuses and teacher evaluation tied to state testing and how does this affect teachers' interactions with their students? Is your school unable to purchase basic supplies

Get empowered. Begin to question.  Talk to your neighbors, educators and your community.  Create your narrative based on what you have questioned, researched and know to be true.

We are at the tipping point.  If the narrative changes, the big bad wolf will become less powerful.  We are many.  They are few.  Fill your tool belt, join hands with your neighbors and act now.

Monday, September 12, 2011

United Opt Out: Action for Week of September 11th - Sharing Parent Flyer

Our action at United Opt Out for the week of September 11th is to become familiar with the parent flyer listed here, at our website and on our Facebook group page – and then share it with ten or more people (Facebook, email and/or print out). We need to be able to articulate the reasons for opting out as people begin to ask us WHY? The current narrative MUST be changed. High stakes testing destroys childhood, destroys public schools, and violates our constitutional rights. In order to change the narrative, we must understand it and articulate it with conviction. Share the flyer. Spread the word. And do not forget our long term goal for September – we need petitions on opting out for EVERY STATE. We can not sit back and watch as America’s children suffer. See parent flyer attached here. Thanks everyone!
Parent Flyer

Sunday, September 4, 2011

United Opt Out National: Action for week of Sept 4, 2011 - Petition Writing

Good morning everyone! Our action for this week is petition writing. We would like a petition for each state which allows the people in your state to declare that they will opt out of high stakes testing. Remember that there are multiple ways to opt out.

Of course, the slam dunk is opting out of the state test. However, we can also opt out by changing the narrative as we talk to neighbors, politicians, and civic organizations. We can opt out by making our opinion know in creative ways – bumper stickers, t-shirts, community art projects. We can opt out by breaking the cycle – questioning, challenging and meeting with groups. We can opt out by sharing alternatives – sharing research showing what works (,, collaborating with public school classrooms that support our beliefs successfully, and more.

Please use the resources here at our website ( to assist you in writing your petition – a quick petition can be written by looking at the link for the parent flyer and the link called “what does it mean to opt out.” And of course you can include specific information for your state to support parents who are directly planning to opt out of the state test. We will post sample petitions here on our facebook page docs asap. Let us know if you need help!

There are multiple ways to opt out. Declare that we are doing it. Start your petition today and post the link here once it is written. It’s possible that we might get doubles or triples for states, so claim your petition now by letting us know you plan to write one at our facebook group site OPT OUT OF THE STATE TEST:  The National Movement.  Thanks everyone!!! Share your petition – spread the word – opt out!!!!

Here is the link for beginning your petition.
Your title should be very brief, like a newspaper headline, but it should also communicate as specifically as possible what your petition is about.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Why Opt Out of the State Test? A Better Question Might Be...Why Opt In?

How are public school children benefiting from the state test? I don't believe they are.  The corporate reformers currently running our public education system would like us to think the test is benefiting our children.  They’d like us to think like capitalists and race our way to the top, yet, in a system of public education – which is designed to provide a whole and equitable education to ALL children – when you begin racing, the economically disadvantaged children and those with special needs get left behind, and our democracy ceases to exist.

This year Colorado is planning to spend 49.5 million dollars on state testing according to the Assessment Solutions Group.  Standardized testing does not improve student achievement.  

With high stakes testing in place across our state, it becomes necessary for teachers to teach to the test.  If we want Colorado’s kids to be good test takers, rather than creative and critical thinkers who have been exposed to art, music, PE, and more, well then, our children should take the test. Students living in areas of poverty and high need will receive a larger dose of teaching to the test than the kids in suburbia.  Why?  Simple.  Teachers and administrators dealing with high stakes attached to testing (teacher evaluation and potential school closure) are going to focus on the test in order to salvage a school or a profession. A child’s test score becomes tied to the monetary funds the school and teacher receive – so in essence, the child is working for the school and the teacher – which is a definite violation of child labor laws. 

Remember recess?  Even in suburbia it is on the decline.  Why?  There’s simply no time for it, because we are Racing to the Top – and that includes five year olds.  Recently my neighbor informed me that her kindergartener did not get recess because there was simply too much curriculum to cover. Why are kindergarteners (and other grades) missing recess?  In order to get a jump-start on that state test of course.  As a former kindergarten teacher, I can promise you that back in the day, five-year-olds spent their days in kindergarten learning to socialize and stretch their limbs and their imaginations - that was the main curriculum.  Reading, writing and math all occurred as was developmentally appropriate.  Ask Alliance for Childhood about the state test - check and see just how developmentally appropriate our common core standards (which are tied to the state test) actually are - the quick answer - not so much.  

Why are we Racing to the Top?  Did any of us ever stop to wonder?  Is it really true that our nation's test scores are in the gutter?  Sure, if you look at the scores and account for poverty.  The United States has the second highest percentage of children living in poverty in industrialized nations.  If we take the poverty card out (free and reduced lunch), and look at our international NAEP scores, suddenly, our scores are quite good.  Poverty needs to be addressed. 

So, what’s wrong with taking a test?  We all had tests growing up, right?  Yes, we did, but we did not have as many tests growing up as we do today and the stakes were not as high.  Under Race to the Top, the testing regime will include more tests. 

The CDE states, “The attributes of the new system include: statewide summative assessment for grades 3-11 to measure math and reading and writing; statewide summative assessments in science and social studies at least once in elementary, middle and high school; school readiness measurements for grades preschool through grade 2; formative instructional supports and interim assessments; the Individual Career and Academic Plan (ICAP); an 11th-grade nationally recognized college placement assessment; and that the assessments are capable of being administered online where applicable and fiscally practicable.”  Note the words “fiscally practicable.”  Based on the financial cuts our schools have taken, what is “fiscally practicable?” 

I would also question the declaration, “If it’s a good test then teaching to the test is okay.”  I can’t imagine any standardized test being “good enough” to allow all curriculum and all class time to go towards teaching to the test.  A test that is distributed state-wide, by nature, must be somewhat easy to score – therefore, multiple choice and short responses, and ultimately tests online seem to be a good fit – at the expense of real thinking, real problem solving and exploration of all concepts and ideas outside the realm of the test.  No test is good enough to use as the sole indicator of student or school success – other indicators must be included to get a true picture of a child’s needs and strengths.  Indicators should include the teacher’s evaluation of the child.  Today’s teachers can tell us more about the children in their classrooms than any state test.  

What do the CSAP scores tell us?  They tell us which children are living in poverty.  Standardized state testing is a great indicator for determining poverty areas.  However, we already know where the poverty lies and we also know just how bad it is. 

Kids Count Colorado states, “For Colorado’s kids, the effects of the Great Recession have been both immediate and far-reaching. From 2008 to 2009, the number of children living in poverty in Colorado rose by 31,000, a jump from 15 to 17 percent. Forty-seven thousand more children were living in families where no parent had regular, full-time employment.1 Median annual income for families with children dropped from $65,800 to $64,000.2 More children were likely to commit suicide or be victims of abuse or neglect. Fewer teenagers graduated high school or found jobs. Since 2008, the number of unemployed teens increased by 14,000, rising from 60 percent to 65 percent in Colorado.3 More children were likely to experience homelessness, hunger, food insecurity and obesity. These are the realities for many Colorado children of the Great Recession.”  

The state test also tells us if students are getting better at taking the test.  The test is not a one shot, here it is – poof - now it’s gone - sort of gypsy show traveling through town.  Oh no – make no mistake - it’s a David Copperfield show.  It is practiced and practiced and practiced so that it will succeed if at all possible.  CSAP rally calls fill the schools. Students are given treats to encourage and entice them to do well on the test. Unfortunately, we are not magicians.  Colorado’s children come with varying experience, ethnicities, economic levels and talents. We can practice for the test every single day of the year – but if our children have minimal access to books, food and healthcare, as well as language barriers, it is doubtful that they will perform well on the test.  

Poverty is the problem, yet no one is willing to tackle it, let alone acknowledge it.

However, we have an abundance of money to throw at tests.  Interesting isn’t it?  In a state where between 2000 and 2009, our child poverty rate was the fastest growing in the nation, we are able to feed them more tests, but unfortunately they still lack food, shelter and more.  And school budgets are cut everywhere – staff is let go, schools are closed, class sizes increase, yet…we have 49.5 million for the test???

I’m also asked, but…if our kids don’t take these tests – how will they ever perform well on the ACT or SAT?  First off, many colleges no longer require those tests.  Secondly, I believe I took the ACT and SAT, without having tests rammed down my throat my entire educational career and guess what?  I survived, and I am not a good test taker.  I think what prepared me for the test was a public education full of diverse thinking, creativity and the freedom to explore past the test.  Seriously – do we have such little faith in our children and our teachers who teach them?  

The clincher question is this one…Won’t my school lose funding if I opt my child out of the test?  

The answer is no.   Find me a school in Colorado that lost funding due to children not taking the test.  It’s important to know that not only can you opt out, but when you do, it does not count as a “zero” for the school. It counts as nonparticipatory and nothing more.  Therefore, it cannot effect the funding of your school.  It can effect the accreditation of your school, but again, find me a school in the nation that lost its accreditation due to students not participating in the test.  They don’t exist.

What you will find, nationwide, is schools that have been shut down due to low test scores.  These schools are notoriously in high need, high poverty areas.  These schools are then taken over by the private sector; charter schools move in and corporate reformers move in and fill these schools with new teachers (many without actual teaching degrees).  These schools have very loose regulations – charter folks actually move to Colorado due to our loose regulations.  For many of these schools anything goes, at the expense of children’s education – and they can exclude or include – their choice.  Charter schools are not required to allow all children entry.

I’m not okay with Colorado’s kids being reduced to a test score.  I consider the current deprivation occurring in our public schools to be abusive.  I am not okay with children being denied recess and fine arts.  I am not okay with test prep taking priority over creative and critical thinking.  

What has happened to us?  Have we become complacent?  Brainwashed?  Exhausted?  All of the above?  Are we going to just sit back and say, yes to the test?  TAKE our children.  FEED them the test and nothing more.  FEED them short answers, multiple choice and test rally calls.  Forget child development – forget that five year olds need to move, jump, run and play. Should we accept more cuts to education while hanging on to the test - at the cost of 49.5 million?

Finland, one of the top education systems in the world, would say, NO.  

 Just ask a teacher in Finland
·        where children aren’t expected to show up at school until the age of seven. 
·        where teachers are held in high esteem and respected and trusted. 
·        where teachers actually assess and evaluate students, teachers and schools. 
·        where teachers are required to have bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees. 
·        where there are no mandated standardized tests except for one at the end of a student’s senior year in high school

Ask President Obama about his daughters’ school, where there is no mandated state standardized testing, and where, quite honestly, school sounds a lot like Finland.  

And then, think hard about what’s important, and opt out.  Quit racing to the top with the corporate reformers.  Their pockets are filling up faster and faster. They are racing and they are WINNING – not our children.  We will never get to the top because our children are dragging a boulder tied to their feet - it’s called the standardized state test. Let it go, and let our children create and grow again.  Opt out. Join us at United Opt Out National to find out how. All children have a right to a whole and equitable education in our democracy.  Let’s bring it back to them.