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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

When the N.Y. State Education Dept. Tried to Censor This Blog

By Peter DeWitt — June 09, 2013 4 min read
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Mr. Dunn’s phone call seemed less about correcting an error and more about flexing his NY State Education muscles.

Recently, the New York State Education Department wanted to censor this blog. My friend Phil Bildner, a best-selling young adult novelist who is also an amazing school presenter, asked to write a guest blog entitled Calling Out the Testing Bullies. Phil is a former middle school teacher from New York City, and I highly respect his writing and his opinions.

Phil wrote,

The proliferation of high stakes testing -- mandated standardized assessments with critical consequences for the student, teacher and school-- has led to the inevitable rise of the testing bullies. The testing bullies are the high stakes testing companies. They, along with policymakers and politicians, are harming our children to the point of abuse."

When I posted the blog, I figured I would get some reactions. After all, I know who “follows” me on Twitter and understand that John King, the New York State Commissioner of Education reads my blog. I recently did an interview with him for another publication and he ended the interview by saying, “I read your (Education Week) column.”

Truth be told, I like that. I was hoping it showed that he listens to another perspective, and perhaps, he would change his mind about issues facing public education. As a principal, I receive countless memos and “guidance” from the New York State Education Department (NYSED), so my blog affords me the opportunity to provide my own guidance on issues facing the state of New York or the country as a whole. It’s the reader’s choice to read it.

However, one member of King’s staff went over the line after he read Phil’s guest blog.

Tom Dunn Reaches Out
Tom Dunn, the Director of Communications for NYSED contacted me at school. The issue was that Phil had written that the commissioner’s children went to a Montessori School where there are no state assessments. Tom told me the Montessori School in question, does in fact, give state assessments. I will leave it up to them to share whether they count for 20 to 25% of a teacher’s evaluation or if they give all of the exams that the public school system has to give. Mr. Dunn didn’t provide that information.

For full disclosure, I did meet Mr. Dunn after I interviewed the commissioner for Vanguard Magazine. We had one conversation that lasted all of 30 seconds and it involved me thanking him for allowing the interview with Commissioner King. I may not agree with most of what the state education stands for these days, but I was thankful for the 90 minutes they provided me for the interview. Mr. Dunn and I are not friends...nor are we colleagues.

When the phone conversation began, Mr. Dunn accused me of asking that same question about the Montessori connection during the Vanguard interview, which is not true and I reminded him of that. I went as far as saying I had the audio tape to prove it.

What Mr. Dunn failed to tell me during the phone call was that he asked the Vanguard editor the same question a week earlier and the editor stated that “I did not ask about the commissioner’s kids,” which means that Mr. Dunn knew this information before he confronted me on the phone.

I apologized for the mistake and assured him I would take the sentences out that focused on the Montessori School. Mr. Dunn then asked me if I believed “that blog” that Phil wrote. At first I told him it was not his concern and then I said yes. When he tried to push the conversation, I told him I would edit the blog and tried to get off the phone.

After making the edit, I called him back...

I wanted him to know that I took the section out but then something changed. I needed to set a boundary because I felt that Mr. Dunn stepped over the line. I wanted to make one thing clear...that he should never call me at school to discuss my blog ever again.

My Finding Common Ground blog is about education but I do not speak on behalf of my school or district. Mr. Dunn said, “It’s not like I’m going to call your superintendent.” I told him my superintendent reads my blog but I do not speak on behalf of him either and said that if he wanted to get in touch with me, he could use the e-mail link on the right side of the blog. He argued several times and said he would continue to call me at school if he didn’t like something or if I posted an untruth.

The Voice of Educators
Public education has reached a very sad point but it will change. In a recent Times Union interview, Commissioner King said that he, “blamed the concern about field tests and standardized testing on the state teachers union, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT).” The New York State Education Department should stop blaming issues on teachers and principals. After 12 years since the beginning of No Child Left Behind standardization and then Race to the Top standardization...it’s not the teachers who are to blame.

Their communications director should spend less time trying to coerce and intimidate educational bloggers who are trying to get out the truth, and spend more time listening to the voices of teachers, parents, students and principals. Collectively, there were thousands of them who converged on Albany, NY yesterday for the June 8th Rally. I hope some leaders from State Ed were in the crowd because one thing is for sure...our voices won’t be stifled.

In the End
My concern over the phone call is what’s next? One phone call for an error. A second one because I used strong language or criticized the commissioner? What will be the next thing I write that State Ed does not like? If there is something untrue about my blog, post a comment at the end or send an e-mail like everyone else.

My secretary is too busy to take calls about my blog, nor should she have to. I don’t post blogs at school and my students and staff are my first priority. We are trying to meet the deadline of getting through our End of the Year SLO’s. Unfortunately, Mr. Dunn’s phone call seemed less about correcting an error (which may or may not be true) and more about flexing his NY State Education muscles. We have about as much time for State Ed phone calls as they do for ours.

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Read also:
The Story of an Offending Blog Post by Carol Burris (Washington Post)

Burris to King...Listen AND Learn by Diane Ravitch

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.