We Didn’t Start the Fire But We Will Fan the Flames

Anne Tenaglia is an educator, author and education blogger. Her blog, entitled, Teachers Lessons Learned can be found at: http://teacherslessonslearned.blogspot.com/

We Didn’t Start the Fire But We Will Fan the Flames

For at least a year, teachers around the nation have been talking about the travesty that is high-stakes testing. As required by the US Department of Education, all students from grades 3-11 must take annual tests that need to show constant improvement. Indeed, with NCLB, the idea is that ALL children will be able to pass these tests or else. “Or else” means sanctions, which can include extra professional development, additional personnel, smaller class sizes, constant documentation of progress, and possible “reconstitution,” that is, replacing the principal and at least 50% of the staff at the non-improving school. Transferring the school to a private for-profit charter organization is also a last-resort possibility along with closing the school and sending the students to neighboring schools or existing charter schools.

Having taught at a school that was identified as failing and received the extra professional development, personnel, and constant documentation, I feel qualified to have an opinion about what works. When we were tagged as a failing school, our scores hovered at the 20% to 40% range for proficient students. We knew our situation was not good but had begun to make changes to improve. Our teaching staff was heavily involved in writing curriculum for math, writing and social studies for the school district. We had changed our Math program to one of 5 that were identified as “reform programs.” We felt a need to do this, as our current math series did not help the students or teachers to “do” meaningful math. We spent two years training our teachers in the new methods of teaching math and had begun to see some success especially in the open-ended questions. We wanted to change reading series but it was an either-math-or-reading budget situation.

When the school district put us in the failing category, we were beneficiaries of tens of thousands of dollars worth of new books for every subject. Luckily, our math series was on the School District’s list of approved series. We received extra professional development in reading and math during the school day to tutor us in the new methods. Our school also got an assistant principal, a Parent Liaison, and an assigned substitute teacher to insure delivery of the curriculum. Class sizes in the lower grades were decreased to a 17:1 ratio.

That was all well and good but with the extra resources came a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth when the District evaluators did their Walk-Through each year. Eight to ten people would fan out across the school with their clipboards and pop in on classes throughout the school. They stayed for 30-45 minutes, observing, checking off items on the checklist and asking kids about what they were learning. Later in the day, teachers would meet with them and get feedback on what they saw. Not much of the feedback was useful but most of it was given in an “I gotcha!” manner of thought. One year they bemoaned the lack of words on the word wall, while the next year they told us word walls were obsolete. Much of the advice given to us was not useful for our students or their teachers. Each year the teachers and principal dreaded their visit.

After three years of walk-throughs and extra supplies, books and personnel our school finally showed the progress demanded by NCLB and we were removed from the restructured schools region of the district. Unfortunately, along with the removal of the label of failing school, came the removal of all of the supports we had been given, and within 8 years, we were back in the failing category.

Back to high-stakes testing, what had helped our teachers be able to improve the scores of the students? It was the extra professional development, the smaller class sizes, the assistant principal to handle discipline, the Parent Liaison who set up educational programs for parents, and the assigned substitute teacher who knew the kids and their potential. These were the things that helped us boost our scores. When they were removed, so was our progress. Why?

It was not because we had bad teachers, who became good then bad again. It was because children who live in high-poverty situations needed extra help to get them on a path to educational success. Children growing up in poor neighborhoods start school behind their middle class counterparts and then continue losing ground as school continues. Because of poor pre-natal care, healthcare availability, unstable families, trauma and violence, and insecure home and food situations, our students need safe schools that provide the care and support that they need in order to succeed. Testing them without providing the support is not going to give them what they need. Hanging promotion and graduation on these tests will not make the students perform better if they don’t have the extras.

Some students will still have trouble passing the tests even with the extra supplies and personnel because they are in Special Education classes or are English Language Learners. Children with certain disabilities need instruction and assessment that comes from their specific learning methods. Taking a bubble test in material that is two or more years above their instructional level will not lift them up to their grade level. It will only serve to frustrate them and decrease what self-esteem they have left. English Language Learners are required to take the tests after only one year of instruction in English. Imagine moving to a foreign country, being immersed in the new language and after only one year being required to read and write at the level of the rest of your grade-mates. They are doomed to fail the tests and so be denied promotion or refused a diploma. And their teachers will be evaluated on their scores.

Teacher evaluation is but one reason that high stakes tests are damaging. I have personally witnessed special ed kids and emotionally fragile students crumble under the standardized test format and lack of appropriate accommodations. Students who had come a long way during the year, from not completing any assignments to being able to do half of what the other students did on grade level, were completely frustrated during the test and ran out of the room, unable to take the rest of the test. These students were capable of doing grade level work without the great stress of the high-stakes tests, but unable to show progress having to take the tests without accommodations. How many children need just a pat on the back, frequent breaks, fewer questions, or a confident “You can do this!” to complete the tests, none of which we can offer because of test security. Yet, their school success is incumbent on their ability to do the tests. Limited-English students are forced to read passages that are far beyond their level of understanding and answer questions that are tricky and vocabulary specific. What chance do they have of succeeding in school if this is the only way they are assessed that matters?

Last year, tens of thousands of parents refused to allow their children to take the standardized tests. This year, the city of Chicago decided not to administer the PARCC test to its students this year for the above reasons. The movement has spread across the nation and finally has caught up to Philadelphia. Last year only 16 students opted-out of the testing, while this year100 parents from one school, Feltonville, have chosen to refuse the testing. Many of the students are ELL or special ed students who have little chance of passing and much chance at frustration. Six teachers at the school have taken it upon themselves to educate the parents to their rights to opt-out their children. Although the parents are sent reams of information about the tests, they are not told about their rights to opt-out. The teachers passed out flyers and held meetings off school property so as not to take school time.

Why did they do this? Because their students are the most educationally vulnerable and they have no one else to stand up for them besides their parents and teachers. The School District has set up some disciplinary actions against the teachers to be announced at a future date. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Caucus of Working Educators, the Badass Teachers Association, and some members of Philadelphia City Council have expressed their appreciation and support of the efforts of the Feltonville 6.

The rest of the school faculties in the city schools need to fan the flames of the fire that the Feltonville 6 started. The fire needs to spread throughout the state of Pennsylvania and the rest of the nation to grab education back from the corporate education “reformers” and put it back into the hands of educators, who have the knowledge and the welfare of the students at heart.

Still learning!

For more go to: http://teacherslessonslearned.blogspot.com/

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