Today I share an exchange between a Seattle, Washington, parent and her son’s teachers, regarding his education. Sahila Changebringer writes:
Thursday 21 October, 2010... I wrote and sent this to my child’s teacher, other staff, the principal and the co-chairs of the parent body at my son’s school - Room 9 Community (public) School, in Shoreline, Washington...
Hi there Ms. A (and your fellow teachers)...
This is a bit meandering because its hard to tie it up in one or two short paragraphs... I apologise for the length and its convolutedness...
Ms. A - I wanted to thank you for the very informative time we spent at parent-teacher conference last week. I value your insight and feedback about how Connor is doing academically and socially. I also value your enthusiasm in your work and your obvious dedication towards and love for the children at Room Nine.
There are a couple of things that came up in that conversation that troubled and continue to trouble me, though.
I don’t know if you are aware how active I am as an advocate working AGAINST the current wave of education ‘reform’ sweeping this country. I have been involved for the past 2.5 years, first within the Seattle Public School District and now more nationally, with other parent, teacher and community groups. I know a great deal about what’s going on and the issues behind the agenda, as well as the research that disproves much of the agenda’s justifications for this push.
Specifically, I (with thousands of other people around the country) am working against the implementation of more standardised (high stakes) testing, tying teachers’ performance evaluations and pay to those test results, dissolving the concept of ‘tenure’, union busting, and allowing alternate routes to certification, such as Teach for America recruits.
How does this relate to Connor and Room Nine?
On this year’s school contract form, I specifically asked that Connor not take part in any standardised tests. As a parent, my legal right to withdraw him from that testing supercedes the District’s attempt to make standardised testing mandatory.
I take this stand for many reasons - all of which I am happy to discuss in person. One of the main issues for me is that education/learning is not about test-taking.
Another reason is that many of the tests on the market do not give teachers any data that is useful to differentiate their instruction, and two recent reports have specifically refuted that Value Added Measures (testing) is an accurate reflection of a teacher’s effectiveness in class, with error rates as high as 25-35%. I have these references and am happy to provide them.
The more personal reasons I have for taking this position are these:
I think Connor is a bright, sensitive, curious child, eager to learn. His kindergarten year at AS#1 was a year of emergent learning through play, with very little formal structure or instruction.
Then, coming to Room 9 for grade one last year, he had a difficult adjustment to make. He complained often that he had to sit too long, that there was no ‘fun’ happening and he was afraid to commit what he knew to paper.
He was judged to be “at risk” on the DIBELS ... I thought this was a ridiculous position/label to put on a six year child, not valid given my own philosophy on learning through experience and not valid given the form of his kindergarten year. I did my best not to buy into the ‘hysteria’ of that label.
Connor began to read independently two weeks before school finished for the summer (we were offered summer camp but I turned that offer down)...
Over the summer he began to devour books and now he’s reading (with comprehension) at the 4th-5th grade level, though his standardised test results do not show this...
Each child has his/her own rhythm... at some point you have to take your hands off the wheel and let them grow at their own pace - and that pace has nothing to do with “norms” or grade level expectations or standardised tests...
So, under the tenets of the current education ‘reform’ agenda, do I credit his teacher (Ms. M) with his progress or not - seeing he made all those strides over the summer on his own? Or should Ms. M be penalised because it took Connor until two weeks before the end of school to begin to read and theoretically he had failed to make adequate progress during the year?
Yes, I credit Ms. M for creating the environment where he could absorb all her effort and care and internalise the strategies she was imparting to her class, and carry it inside until it was ready to be processed and utilised...
And no, she ought not to be penalised because a child takes however long he/she takes to reach a developmental and educational milestone.
The point of all this is that we are operating in a nonsensical paradigm. Connor is ‘performing’ only ‘averagely’ on the computerised standardised tests, but he’s reading 2-3 grade levels above expectations for his age, on the individualised tests he does one on one with you, Ms. A.
What factors explain this discrepancy, and which results should I believe? And should I (or the District) hold you, Ms. A, responsible for Connor’s results on an unreliable standardised test?
We are always late for school, and we often miss part of math - surely then, some of the responsibility for Connor’s ‘performance’ should lie with me? (And no, that is unlikely to change for a number of reasons:
▪ Connor still has a sleep deficit to make up, I don’t believe children sleep because they are lazy - they sleep because they are tired, and I won’t wake him to satisfy some factory-model time schedule...
▪ I am living in difficult circumstances and I am doing the best I can with what I’ve got...
▪ We are living to our own ‘rhythm’ and some things take precedence in our lives. Education is a synthesis of what happens in and out of the classroom and Connor is learning important lessons in other arenas, so I make a daily judgment call as to what is the first order of the day - sometimes getting to school by 9.10am does not make it to the top of the list or priorities. I do not say this with disrespect - I am concentrating on living life in a particular manner and there is sometimes a clash between my principles and the currently accepted/imposed ‘norms’).
I know you are an excellent teacher Ms. A, and I trust you with my child’s learning process. I want you to use all your skill, your years of experience and your dramatic and artistic talent to make learning a wonderful adventure, not a boring chore, for Connor and his peers. And I expect the character of Room Nine as an alternative school to give you the scope to do that.
But last week, you talked at length about the District looking at the standardised test scores, and holding you accountable for them and judging your effectiveness as a teacher only on the basis of those results.
And you were pushing me to give Connor homework time (which I don’t/won’t do), so his “scores” don’t fall further.
And I have seen for myself that the math work the children are doing in class now comprises more and more worksheets instead of hands-on activities. And guess what? The work sheets have multiple choice answers on them, with BUBBLES/CIRCLES to fill in...
And one (misguided) parent helper spent the time I was there a couple of weeks ago, admonishing children to make sure they coloured the bubbles within the lines.
This is not education, and it certainly is not “alternative” education....
This is teaching to the test, both in content and form...
This is holding children hostage - making them responsible/laying the burden on their shoulders for adult ‘success’...
I do not want Connor participating in this fiasco...I will not enable it to go forward...
So, I hereby formally state that I withdraw my son - Connor T. Changebringer-McCoy - from any standardized testing held within the school and I ask that when he would be scheduled to take part in testing, he be given the work/activities he and his classmates would normally have been doing in that time.
And I hereby release Ms. A, the principal, the staff and Room Nine Community School from any liability/responsibility for my son’s academic progress.
Please ensure that a copy of this communication is printed off and placed in Connor’s file.
I am happy to talk with you in person about this issue.
and here is a reply I received from one of the teachers at the school...
I have great respect for your position. As the last of the "old guard" from the formerly alternative Room Nine I read your remarks with a bit of sadness. The type of learning environments you are describing have virtually disappeared from the public educational landscape. Some of this was our own fault--too many kids graduating from alternative schools who could not do math or write an essay. But they often had plenty of other valuable skills.
Personally I drank the John Dewey constructivist and Vigotsky developmental "cool aid", but there is not much room for these approaches anymore. They are difficult to implement and not scalable. I was attracted to the small schools movement because of this belief.
Educational policy is cyclical and perhaps our grandchildren will think all this emphasis on measurement and management was ill-conceived. We are certainly back to the old factory mentality in my humble opinion. Way too much of this is driven by politics obviously.
I believe that if you wanted to really make a difference in children's education you would put two teachers in every challenging classroom in America. Forget about all the rest of the window dressing---bloated professional development, wasted technology investments, misguided building upgrades, policy wonks, state bureaucracies, multi-million dollar testing program, etc. But the educational corporate interests and entrenched special interests do not have any motivation to revamp the system around student-teacher ratios. In Washington State the voters passed an initiative to bring these ratios down (and hire more teachers)..well the legislature ignored this and in fact has now increased class sizes and effectively frozen teacher hiring (or lay offs)
Yes. Teachers will fall into line with the reforms. Most teachers are "wired" to want to get "A's". Many also do not have much real world experience outside of the classroom. We will teach to the tests and scores will go up. Will children be better educated for the changing world? Hmm. I think some disadvantage children, who were previously written off by our culture, might get a chance that they would not have had without reform. So we will skim off more of the best and brightest out of the unwashed masses.
On the subject of reading: you and I are old enough to remember when the idea that kindergarten children needed to learn how to read and write would have been laughable. Some of us in kindergarten knew how to read but only because we wanted to and kept pestering our parents to read to us. Nobody in school expected any sort of reading proficiency in kindergarten. We played a lot and that was OK.
So it goes.
It makes me want to cry - what we are doing to our children....
Sahila Changebringer works with other Seattle parents, including the editors of SeattleEd 2010 and members of the Seattle Shadow School Board to advocate for children Her blog is Bringing Change, Sahila-Style.
What do you think? Is this parent wise to shield her son from the tests? What would happen if more parents took this stand?
Image used by permission of author.
The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.