Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Tell Senators that A-F Grading System Fails

Tony Bennett’s system of punishment for schools (or maybe I should call it: privatization tool) is being called into question tomorrow morning.  The Senate Education Committee is meeting to hear a bill that would void “the administrative rule that establishes the A through F designations”  (SB416) and require instead something that would not pit students against their peers in an Orwellian-termed “growth model.”

In January of 2012, I went to the Department of Education with a friend to testify against this A-F metric system of evaluating schools.  It was a packed room full of educators and even a mayor.  Every single person I heard person testified against this punitive method of evaluating schools. I remember one principal or superintendent had to pause to fight back tears and compose himself as he undoubtedly felt the devastating injustice of this draconian system of evaluation and the effects it would have on the caring teachers and innocent children in his school.

This is what I said to one D.O.E. board member and three other official-looking people (Dr. Bennett and the others apparently couldn’t make it to hear in person this outpouring of emotion):

“Hello.  My name is Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer.  I am here as a parent of four children in public schools.  I represent many of my friends who can't be here at 10 in the morning on a Tuesday because they are busy at work or caring for their children at home.  I'm sure there are hundreds of people across the state in our shoes.

I am deeply concerned about these efforts toward "reform" which directly affect my... OUR kids.  This morning I am speaking specifically of this new grading system for elementary and middle schools, which is setting up a third of them to fail.  When I tell my friends and neighbors that this grading system is based on a curve, they are shocked.  A curve sees 34 % plus not making the bar!! 

Now, I am a product of public schools and so I can think critically.  I can only assume this is designed exactly for that purpose.  And I can only THEN assume that the agenda is to take away local control and take over our public schools through private companies or by turning them into privately-run charter schools.  

I believe education should see the child as the center of policy.  And if you have the child as the focus, then you are meeting him or her where he/she is on the developmental continuum.  We should be looking at the WHOLE child, not just a test score.  An evaluation of schools should be based on their improvement wherever they are --- it is NOT an equal or level playing field for all children and they don't learn in a vacuum.  We must be fair to all schools and all children.  

My own children are so much more than a test score.  My school is a wonderful caring environment of learning--not a factory or business.  And my children's education is NOT a commodity. 

I would hope we as citizens of this democracy would be supporting public schools as the cornerstone of that democracy... NOT trying to turn them into a for-profit venture and designing them to fail.


Unfortunately, the testimony fell on deaf ears.  The A-F system went through and the first set of grades under this new law came out just before the election in November and Glenda Ritz’s amazing and inspiring victory over Dr. Tony Bennett.  As we all suspected (and as anyone who has read about standardized testing knows) the hardest hit schools were those with the highest concentration of poverty.  For an excellent review of this, please read Steve Hinnefeld’s blog post: "Indiana's grading curve runs uphill for high-poverty schools"

Here is a letter I’ve written to the two schools in my city that received an F under this system of setting schools up to fail.  I am posting it in honor of those two caring communities (schools) and in hopes of inspiring others to write on behalf of their own schools labeled as failures or near failures with this weapon of punishment.  Write to your state senator and to the Senate Education Committee.  Tell them to stop punishing schools and extend help instead.

Dear Schools of Caring and Community,

We want to express our most heartfelt support for you and all that you do to make your school great.  As parents, grandparents and members of this city and community at large, we know that this system imposed on us by the state is neither fair, nor accurate, and completely unjust.

Your schools work exceedingly hard for children and their families to create a caring and welcoming environment.  The teachers and staff at your schools recognize that in order for children to find their passions and to achieve to the best of their individual potentials, they must meet each individual where he or she is on the developmental spectrum and address as many of their unique needs as possible.

We have seen the statistics of many families at your schools and know that there is a segment of your population who find it very hard to make ends meet.  Perhaps families have to move away from the school for a while in the middle of the year to live with grandparents in another area.  Perhaps there are single parents struggling with two jobs trying to make ends meet.  Regardless of each individual situation, we know that a child who is hungry or tired, who has moved often and who has not had the luxury of being read to regularly or given the extras (music lessons, sports activities) that money can buy, may not do as well on a standardized test.  The grading system imposed on us by the state is on a curve.  That means that there will always be losers, the bottom third of the curve.  We recognize that it is not a level playing field across our community and that there should be no losers when it comes to our children and their education.

That’s why the work, the arts, the extra things that your schools do is so important and valuable.  A good teacher knows that “not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that is counted counts.”  Sometimes the goal is to help a child be able to sit still and pay attention so that she CAN learn.  Sometimes the goal is to help a child solve conflicts without aggression so that he can grow up to get along with others.  Sometimes the goal is to get a child to really think about a problem and find a creative solution.  Sometimes it is just that spark of curiosity or that joy of finding a subject that interests her which makes a child a lifelong learner. 
None of these things are deemed important to the state that seeks to punish the child and the teacher for not showing quantified progress on a stacked means of measurement.  But we who understand children and learning, know that these things listed above, things which are not tested, are the only way to achieve real progress.

Please know that we reject the idea that all of your hard work, innovation and caring is reflected in the state’s decision to give you an “F”.  We as a community care about you and will continue to support you in as much as we are able, recognizing that a child (and a school) is so much more than a test score.
I know many of you are discouraged by the constant onslaught of punishments and hurdles and game-rigging aimed at public schools by our state legislature.  You've testified, made phone calls and sent emails.  But we just can't give up.  Please speak up.  If you can get to the statehouse, go tomorrow. If you can call, please let these senators hear your voice.  We need to also let these schools know that we support them and that we know that teaching and learning IS so much more than test scores.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Happy Valentine's Day to My Teacher

I love Valentine's Day.  I remember the parties we had when I was in elementary school and the joy of opening each of my little valentines at home to see what treasures my classmates had given me.  The candy hearts with sayings, the chocolate and the special cards are still vivid in my mind.  In second grade, Joey, my crush, underlined the word 'not' on his card: "It's not puppy love, Valentine!" (Did that might mean he like-liked me? Or not at all? ) But  I also remember making the biggest valentine for my teacher, Ms. Drake, whom I adored.

Ms. Drake was my favorite teacher. I loved her.  I loved her huge afro and her big gold hoop earrings.  I loved her platform shoes and pantsuits (yes, I'm old. It was around 1975) and, above all, I loved what I learned in second grade.  Ms. Drake taught us that women had to fight like heck to get the right to vote.  She taught us that "Ms." was a neutral title and that men didn't have any such titles to show their marital status.  I remember being incredulous that women hadn't been able to vote before 1920.  I knew it was different to be a girl already.  I knew boys were supposed to be stronger and tougher.  I rejected all of that and was hearing about ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) from my mom, a League of Women Voters leader, at home.  But I didn't feel connected to Susan B. Anthony until that year.

Ms. Drake, an African-American, also taught us about the Civil Rights movement.  I learned about Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and I distinctly remember learning about Dr. Charles R. Drew, the African American surgeon who pioneered saving lives with blood plasma and, legend then had it, died of blood loss after a car accident because he was black and wasn't allowed in the white hospital.  I remember the horrible injustice of the history I was learning.  But what Ms. Drake taught was not just the untold (particularly back then) history of the United States' people seeking equal rights; it was her inspiration that stayed with me.

Empowered by the love and confidence Ms. Drake gave to me, I was determined that year to become the first woman president of the United States.  I asked my mom to give me jobs with the League of Women Voters so that I could become more politically active.  I had my grandfather buy me thick children's history books in the used book store because I knew I would have to learn a lot to be smart enough to be president.  And I wrote my inauguration speech which I still have somewhere in a scrapbook.  I think it was a nearly-plagiarized version of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech.

To be sure, there are other significant memories I have of that year.  For instance, I spent much of my second grade days doing my work sitting in the corner. I was a talker.  Unfortunately for Ms. Drake, I was a talking-out-of-turn talker and her discipline sometimes included creating new corners with bulletin boards on wheels for me and my social friends. I don't remember feeling humiliation or shame, however. (Perhaps if I had, I might not have become so comfortable there?) I remember it as par for the course of my experience--just as I remember sitting at her feet on the floor while she talked to us about civil rights.

I reflect on all this to illustrate the point that teachers do not just teach history.  They do not just teach reading, writing, and arithmetic.  They teach children self-control and social skills.  They teach them about injustice and kindness and courage.  They teach them to find their passions.  And teachers inspire and empower children to be responsible, passionate and active citizens of tomorrow.

I am not a Hillary Clinton. But I am politically active.  I believe we should all be working toward social, racial and gender equality and I hope I have instilled that in my own four children.  I believe in the power of love and I believe in teachers.  I believe that public education can be that force of securing the equal opportunity we are all promised in the Constitution.

The freedom of teachers to do these things is being nearly obliterated in the state of Indiana today.  Private interests (ALEC and the like) have hijacked our state legislature (whom we, perhaps on this subject, unwittingly voted for) and are now actively dismantling public education. Over 1,300,000 of us voted for an inspiring brilliant teacher in Glenda Ritz to lead the way of our Department of Education and, as I write, Bob Behning and his friends are likely voting on bills that would render her powerless to stop these privateers from turning our schools into a for-profit venture.  I hope, if you read this, you will write and call the state legislature and declare your support for public education in honor of the teachers who have made you who you are today.

I do this for Ms. Drake and the countless teachers who have loved, encouraged and inspired me throughout my life.  Happy Valentine's Day.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Choosing Public Schools

Massive changes are taking place in education today. These changes emphasize "accountability" and "outcomes." This poses serious questions: who is "accountable"? What "outcomes" do we as a society want for our children? As a mother of four children in public schools, I want my kids to love learning. I want them to play, create, and find their passion. I want them to learn to resolve problems with friends and have the freedom in their day to use those skills. I want them to learn to respect others and be responsible. I want so much more than can be found on a test or quantified with a score.

If public schools want to keep their families from seeking alternatives, they have to affirm what they've been trained in: child development is vast and varied, teaching is an art form and play is children's work. I know that they have to have good test scores in this era of test-mania, but at what cost? Exhausted teachers crunching numbers and grading constant assessments do not have much energy left over. The teachers at my son’s school continue to give them group projects, art, drama, and hands-on experiments, which, in this era of data-collecting, are mini acts of rebellion against standardized testing. They know that children will be happy in school if they feel connected and if it is fun. My son still has a lot of fun. But kids at other schools where they do more laser-targeted skill drills might not be enjoying themselves as much.

A new charter school is coming to my town. As charter schools go, it is more benign. It's a "public" charter school and not for profit. If approved, it will be the second such charter school in our college town. The first school has been around for a few years and has a very long wait list to get in. I imagine the demand will be high for this one as well. And it kinda makes me want to cry.

Why is there a “need” for this, another charter, in a relatively small city with schools that are doing very well by most standards? Why would parents leave their neighborhood school to put their kids in a lottery for these charters? To answer that, we need to look at this “Race to the Top” of educational policies that threatens to leave all of our children (and our democracy) behind.

When my 18 year-old son was in elementary school he had a lot of recess and time to play. His school day was shorter so that when I picked him up from school, he could play outside with his friends. The neighbor kids came over and they had a regular game of pretend in the backyard playing with sticks and pinecones. In third grade, his teacher clearly encouraged the children to be socially engaged with their community. They performed for the residents of a retirement home. They discussed habitat and environmental destruction and studied endangered species. They made dioramas and posters and models of their animals. Their studies culminated with a showcase of their animals after which the "entrance fees" they collected from their visitors (friends and family) were donated to the environmental organization they chose and voted on.

Contrast his experience with my 8 year-old son now. My youngest child has one recess a day in second grade. His school day was recently extended so that, aside from that one break of play in his day, he is in structured school time from 8am when we leave the house to around 4:15 when he returns. When he eats a snack and does his homework (very light load for him, thankfully), it’s nearly dinnertime. There is no time for him to go outside and roll over a log to watch roly-polies. How will his curiosity be sparked? With no freedom to play and explore, how will he learn?

This is an example of how the world of education is turned upside down today. Teachers know what children need. They know how to make learning fun and how to assess the growth of their students. But teachers/educators are not deciding this policy. Instead, politicians and business people (like the chambers of commerce) think that they know best. With test scores being wielded as both a carrot and a stick, our schools are forced to focus on performance on a test rather than the love of learning. Instead of using a standardized test as a gauge to see what the child's needs are, they are being used to label children, teachers, schools and whole districts as either "failures" or "successes." These politicians and business folks have created a crisis by repeating, "our public schools are failing." And so the schools have set about proving that they aren't failures or risk being taken over by the state and its partnered private companies waiting in the wings.

To prove “accountability,” our teachers are forced to collect data. Our children have become data points on a graph. My 18 year-old's second grade report card showed that he was working on something ("needs improvement") developmentally in one area and exceeding in others. It had space for the teacher to praise his creativity in a handwritten note and to explain his strengths. The report card my second grader comes home with now has "benchmarks" of specific skill sets that he is working on, coded with numbers. It is practically undecipherable. I know I'm not alone in thinking that I would far rather have a handwritten note from his teacher telling me what his strengths and weaknesses are and what we can help reinforce for him at home.

Schools must debunk these test scores for the community. They shouldn’t validate the state’s attempt to fail our schools by declaring pride (or worry) in our grades. Tell parents that there are better ways than the ISTEP to measure student success. Tell them that the state decides the cut score and what might be passing the ISTEP this year could be an entirely different bar the next. This is not some objective use of data. Tell parents that these grades from the state are on a curve, relegating a third to the failing status automatically. Tell them that these grades reflect socioeconomic status better than the actual abilities of kids. Reinforce the idea that the teacher is the ultimate authority and knows better than a test how their children are learning and growing. Educators can explain to parents that children learn on a continuum and reassure them of the individual differences in learning and growth.

And what about “accountability”? We are all accountable. Thursday the House Education Committee voted to redirect over $47 million toward private and home schools in the name of “parental choice.” Now our public schools will make do with even less. Will the parents who are aware (and able) “choose” to send their kids to charter schools or private schools because those schools are committed to play or have the luxury of smaller class size? With the loss of their per-pupil funding comes the loss of parents who invest time and money into bettering their school community. The input for the school board and its decision-making in the community doesn’t apply to the charter schools. Private school parents might not see the need to pass a referendum to maintain smaller class sizes or programming in the public schools they no longer attend. We are further divided as a community and isolated from one another as a society.

"Accountability"must mean that we take responsibility and support public education. We must commit ourselves to all of our children. Public schools are our common space where the future citizens of our country learn and grow together. What would we do if there were no "choices"? What if, like Finland, we had no private/charter schools? We would have to choose to get along, to better these schools and help the ones that were struggling. This, then, is a call to action. To embrace public education we must recommit ourselves to supporting, respecting and fully funding it. We must hold our public officials accountable for this as well. At the hearing on the bill to expand vouchers, Rep. Lucas said, "The government should not have the monopoly on schools." We must make him and the other representatives like him understand that this is NOT a game of Monopoly, this is not a business venture-- this is our children's future. Their education, this public system of education, is not only their Constitutional right, but the cornerstone of our democracy.