Thursday, August 8, 2013

"For the Children"-- A Parent and Grandparent Speak Up At The State Board Meeting

Yesterday was my children's first day back to school.  Instead of my annual tradition of hosting a "Back to School" coffee for all of my fellow moms where we enjoy the peace and quiet by making loud conversation and interrupting each other, I went up to the state board meeting to testify on my friends' and our children's behalf. In return, my friends cheered me and toasted their coffee for me.  It takes a village.

Someone needs to speak up as the true parents because these "reformers" are doing plenty of it for us and that just makes me hopping mad. If there's any commonality among all of the things that these politicians keep saying, it's that these changes/ "reforms"  are occurring because they are "for the children".  When our teachers speak out against this, they are accused of trying to "defend the status quo." So it really is up to us parents to tell our stories and explain how the laws at the state level are negatively affecting our kids' educational experiences.  We need to explain what we want in our schools. The problem is that many parents don't really know how to connect these dots between our supermajority and high-stakes testing, for example.  That's why many of us across the state are advocating and making noise.

Yesterday's board meeting was standing room only.  On the heels of the Tony Bennett email-gate, the press was very interested to hear what Glenda Ritz and the D.O.E. were going to do with the A-F grading system of schools.  Right before I got up to speak, I was told that I had to limit myself to 2 minutes. UGH! My whole speech (which I will paste down below) was about 4.  You can see and hear what I got to say, if you go to the website and click on Part 2 of the August 7th meeting and go to minute 60:24.  Right after I spoke, came my "BFF" (best Facebook friend) Phyllis.

Phyllis Bush, public education advocate extraordinaire and founder of the NEIFPE group, drove the two and a half hours to Indy on her birthday with several other devoted members of her Fort Wayne lime-green brigade.  Phyllis did an excellent job, saying that she is really bothered by this "faux accountability" that we are going for in our state.  She asked the board to put a "pause" on this system and first talk to the teachers, parents and kids who are impacted by these grades.

In the end, Ritz said that there was definitely manipulation of the formula last year (hell-o Tony)  and that there were investigations that needed to continue.

I was really bummed not to give my whole speech.  Ah well.  I'm sure there will be another time. You readers can support our kids by being sure to write to these board members.  And the governor.  And your state legislators.  Join my organization, ICPE-Monroe County. Get active.  These reformers who demean and marginalize Glenda Ritz, who continue Tony Bennett's agenda despite our votes, and who continue to tote "let parents choose for their child," are failing to get our message: WE CHOSE GLENDA RITZ TO LEAD.   We must vote OUT these obstructionists to Ritz's policy in 2014 and 2016.  Here's what I was going to say in its entirety:

"Good morning.  My name is Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer.  I'm here today instead of getting my kids off to school on their first day back because, after watching the last board meeting online and reading the newspapers lately, I decided that it was important for you all to hear back from parents. 

I have 4 children and the youngest one is in 3rd grade this year.  It is become of this, the fact that he will begin the massive testing of IREAD3, ISTEP and so on, that I felt compelled to come today.

There's a drastic difference between what school was like for my oldest, who is 19, as compared to what it's like for my youngest, who is nine.  When oldest was in third grade, there was time for hands-on projects, science experiments, and recess. His day was an hour shorter and after school we had time to play in the creek behind his school with friends before we returned home to snack and homework.

My nine year-old is in school from 8:30 until almost 4 o'clock and he gets one recess of about 22 minutes a day.  He brings home fill-in-the-bubble sheets every week.  There is very little sign that he is doing any science and social studies because so much time is devoted to assessing and benchmarking his progress to show growth for the ISTEP.  When he gets home, it is time for homework and then I am making dinner.  He has no down time to explore a leaf floating in a creek. And this is a direct result of testing.  More than that, it is a result of the high stakes attached to them.

If our schools weren't afraid of failing test scores, and the fear of repercussions from the state, we might not have had our school day extended so that they can fit 90 minutes straight of instructional time on reading that is demanded by the state and test prep to ensure results.  Any educator can tell you that test scores are not the end-all, be-all of learning.  Any parent can tell you that her child is so much more than a test score. 

I want my children to learn to think outside the box, not fill in the bubbles.  I want them to be able to discover their passions and be creative--those things cannot be found on a test.  I want them to respect differences of opinion and resolve conflicts peacefully and other traits of good citizenship...but without playtime and recess, how will these skills be learned? I want my teacher to be free to follow children's interests and create her own assessments.  I want my teacher to not be afraid to go off script but to be able to meet my child where he is in his development and go from there.  Instead, our state has enacted the IREAD3 which determines my little boy's future.  Why should a 40 question test from the state decide if he goes on to the fourth grade instead of his teacher.. who has been evaluating his progress and knows his level best? 

I voted for Superintendent Ritz because she understands that kids (including my own) are losing the joy of learning because of the emphasis and overkill of testing.  I fear we are raising a generation of children who think if it's not on the test, it's not important.  Also, we are raising kids in a pressure cooker of testing.

I heard about a child who told his teacher before the ISTEP, "Don't worry, teacher! I've got your back! I'm going to do well on this test so you don't lose your job!"   This is unacceptable for a kid to feel that so much is riding on his testing performance.  Another friend's child was paralyzed with fear that the NWEA was going to determine whether or not she would on to the next grade.  Why should kids feel this much pressure?  And THIS is why so many parents voted for Glenda Ritz: we want educators who know what is developmentally appropriate to be guiding our children's education.

We don't need an A-F system to show us the magic that is going on in schools.  Parents did NOT ask for this system.   We already knew the test scores.  It's not a surprise that the schools with the highest concentration of poverty are the ones with the lowest scores. My kids eat a well-rounded breakfast every morning.  Many kids go hungry.   My kids have been read to every night since they were infants.  Many kids are not.  Do we honestly believe that doesn't make a difference? Do we honestly believe than an F describes the magic of how teachers take kids from hunger and chaotic backgrounds.. and inspire them and teach them self-regulation AND to read??!  Regardless of the speed with which it happens!

If we are going to grade our schools, we parents prefer that they be graded on something other than test scores.  Someone decides that cut score.  Let's grade our schools on whether or not they are offering a broad curriculum.  Do they have enough funding to have small class sizes? Do our schools all have art, music and P.E.?  There's not enough money for that in many districts.  Do our schools have a certified librarian in a library? Do our kids have free time that is child-directed? Is there recess? Does the teacher have a degree in education is able to understand different developmental levels and learning abilities and how to bring them all to their full potential?  Because it is not just content; it's how to get it across to that unique little boy or girl.  $46 million spent on testing could be way better spent on ensure these other things.

At the last meeting, I saw you [look right at Dan Elsener] stopped Superintendent Ritz in mid-sentence.  I wanted to hear her proposal to tweak the IREAD3.  So did my friends.  We want an end to this testing as punishment.  My son who has started 3rd grade today only has one shot at childhood.  And the policies that many of you have supported are threatening the quality of that. I'm here asking you to let our Superintendent, a professional who is the expert here in literacy and who knows how to assess that progress, lead us...with YOUR FULL COOPERATION.

Thank you"

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Tony Bennett's Agenda Lives On: Power Grabs, Education Czars and the July State Board Meeting-- A Drama in Two Acts

[This post was written prior to the news that Tony Bennett rigged the grading system for the benefit of charter school operator and GOP donor Christel DeHaan.  He is said to be resigning today. Read the blog post prior to this one for more on that scandal] 


When Hoosiers voted for Glenda Ritz last fall, we didn't just vote against Tony Bennett. We voted for an expert educator to lead us in the field of education. Our votes showed that we supported her vision as well as her platform. Of the many things that resonated with voters, one of the most appealing for parents and teachers alike might have been the idea that more time should be spent on education and less time on testing.  In addition, we were asserting our desire to have more local control over what goes on in the classroom.

Parents want teachers, not politicians (let alone the corporate leaders who fund them) to give them information about how their children are doing in school.  Teachers want to be trusted to assess this information in the myriad of ways in which they have been trained to do so-- not to be undermined by state-mandated tests removed from the context of the individual classrooms and children's lives.

Immediately following Glenda Ritz's surprise win, our newly-elected governor, Mike Pence, responded to this show of support for educational change (he, having received a paltry 554,412 total votes as compared to her 1,332,755 total) by saying that his own election and that of the supermajority in the state house showed "a strong affirmation on the progress of education reform in this state."

Over a million of us (including, of course, thousands of Republican voters) know this to be false. But Pence, the legislature, and the state board of education (appointed by the governor) continue to show a complete disregard for what Hoosier voters intended and a determination to continue the agenda of Tony Bennett and Mitch (the Censor) Daniels. This was evidenced by the last state board meeting on July 19th.


The massive changes that have taken place as a result of educational "reform" in Indiana during the Bennett/Daniels years have had a noticeably negative impact on the everyday lives of children and teachers. With the legislation and high-stakes testing firmly in place, alongside the gutting of public education funding through vouchers and charter schools,  Bennett and company's influence continues.

For my little soon-to-be third-grader, school has been a drastically different experience than it was for his oldest brother (now in the Honors College at Indiana University).  When my oldest was in school, there was more time spent on recess, playing, hands-on activities, science projects, creative writing, etc.  Now my little guy comes home every week with fill-in-the-blank bubble sheets of test prep.  He has a longer school day (by one hour) than his brother did and he only gets about 25 minutes of recess a day.  I want him to have a childhood.  I want his teacher to be the ultimate authority, creating a developmentally appropriate school experience.  How can she help but "drill and kill" the bubble sheets when she knows that the Indiana state legislature, in all their wisdom, will decide whether or not my baby receives the label of "failure" in third grade through this IREAD3?

I know that my child's teacher knows exactly where he is in his development as a reader.  She assesses and works with him every single day.  But our Indiana state legislators and our governor don't trust teachers.  By demanding that all children pass the IREAD3 or be retained, they have gone against all research that shows that retention is damaging to children's educational future.  Instead, they have opted to punish children for not being able to pass a 40-question reading test, regardless of the professional opinion of their teachers.

Glenda Ritz has said that the IREAD3 was the line in the sand for her in her decision of whether or not to run for office.  She openly criticized the emphasis of money and time on testing-- tests which don't give us information about how the child's knowledge is developing. Ritz acknowledged: " gets down to little ones and we're teaching to test, and [you] can't get that joy of learning..." To her credit, she has done what she can by starting a literacy campaign called Hoosier Family of Readers , using her tremendous background in reading and reading instruction to attempt to make real changes in our literacy success in the state. However, in the last board meeting,  the state board, and Dan Elsener in particular, did not even allow Glenda Ritz to finish her proposal for making improvements on the third-grade reading rule.

ACT ONE:    THE STATE BOARD MEETING, JULY 19TH: In which Dan Elsener claims that a lot of reading teachers are passionate about the IREAD3

In the midst of her proposal for changing the rules (changes within the law, not outside of it), board member Dan Elsener interrupted and asked Glenda to table her discussion. Although ultimately they decided to table it for next meeting (August 7th), it was clear from his attitude and words that he has no intention of allowing any changes in the IREAD3 rule.  I wrote his words down, too, but you can watch for yourself if you click on the third part of that July 19th meeting and skip ahead to minute 35:15.

From Elsener:

"We put a lot of time into IREAD3 and... we need to stick with some things. Seems like we're riding horses and changin' riders too often here...And all this is important especially lookin' K12 and advancing literacy.  I'm wondering if we oughta NOT start rule-making.  If we oughta follow through what we have, and then possibly the next meeting, if it would be your pleasure, say: "I have some additional items I would like the board to explore, and research, and study, about doing even more than we're doing now" and I'm not against improving and building on what we've done and..but, I feel like we're opening up quite a topic. I was ready to discuss it... I see it's approaching one [o'clock] and I would say we oughta be fresh. This is...I respect your career and reading is so important. Given its importance, and given the time we already put in IREAD3, let's leave it as is for now and then come back and open the discussion about, opening up in the field for new discussions, or additions to it or improvements.. I just don't know if we're in a position right now to do this well." 

[Glenda asks how to do that without actually starting a rule-making process.] Dan responds:

"I would just wait on the rule-making process..till we agree what kind of topics we want to open up as a board. We put a lot of time in this.  We have a IREAD3, we worked on it, it's fairly new in the field.  I know people are dedicated to it.. a lot of reading teachers, I know teachers have worked hard.. What if we stay within this rubric for now? And then we open this up about .. to the board.. have a discussion.. what we might wanna consider and expand. So not start on it without a good basis for starting and getting a lot of involvement and maybe send signals out that IREAD3, we're backing away from.  I'm just a little nervous we haven't vetted this together yet. " [then adds as an afterthought..some lip service: ] "I'm open to other suggestions. I'll do whatever. [the board does not respond.]

Glenda then responds: "Well, I would like to continue with the presentation...if you don't mind.  The staff put a lot of work into this and we've had a study session on growth models already. And we've also had a discussion item and I presented a powerpoint and talked to the board about changes that I would be coming forth with... And, again, Dan, I would ask for guidance from the board on how to have dialogue and meaningful dialogue on improving...I don't think that's possible without going through a formal process with the state board of ed."

[Elsener responds but I can't hear it.] 

Glenda asks: "Are you suggesting that we bring it to you in August?" 

[He says something to the effect of "That's what I'm suggesting.. we will work on framing this up..."] 

Then Glenda responds again asking the board: "... in the meantime, what is it that the board needs from me to do a couple of things?... Because we have timelines and assessment pieces we are going to have to consider. We have contracts that are ending.. We have only one year's time.. and it was my hope that not only would we open up the dialogue, because all language can change in the rule-making process..." She goes on to say that "we don't have access to literacy information" that will give us the support to help turnarounds and low performing schools.  And she says" There is a great need that we have the correct type of data that's going to follow the child" [because different schools do different assessments] "in order to have meaningful, systemic change." 

Tony Walker (apparently the yes-man of Dan) asks for a motion. Silence from the board.

Glenda: "The motion is really just to begin the process. Or to table it until the August meeting if you feel we need some more intense dialogue. But when we do that, I want to know from you, what do you need from me? You know, how can I engage you in the dialogue so that we can move forward with a commitment to student accountability in reading..?"

Troy Albert then speaks up saying that he would want to know "what are our current principals thinking? We've only been in this process two years.  We only have a small amount of data to really even go on.  I ... would like to hear from the experts across the state, not only in my building, but all across the state that are dealing with this right now.  What are some of the issues that they have and some of the concerns." 

Glenda assures him that she's heard from a lot of elementary principals who want meaningful data that they can "utilize".  She says: "Superintendents want to know when they are going to get a growth model like the NWEA that they don't have to pay (the) school district level because (they say)" we need this type of information.. WE can't afford it now.  State money, IREAD3 budget would be used..." She points out that we don't know the reading levels of our students at teh state level and, until we have that information, we can't give support like it needs to happen. "We (need to) have a system in which we actually know where our students are performing and know where they're headed..." 

Then David Freitas makes a motion to table it for the next study session.

So much for our expert in literacy leading the way on what that will look like and how to help our Hoosier children become a family of readers. They wouldn't even give her the dignity of finishing her presentation.

But wait-- there's more:

ACT TWO: In which a school board coup d'etat occurs and Dan Elsener becomes Board of Education Czar or Ghost Superintendent

In the Tribune-Star a few days ago, Maureen Hayden had an excellent article on the board's complete disregard for Glenda Ritz and the way that the governor has now undermined her by creating a new special assistant for "education innovation and reform" to his office, Claire Fiddian-Green ( who is the former director of the Indiana Charter School Board).  The state legislature has also appropriated nearly 3 million dollars a year for a budget to the state board over which Glenda Ritz will have no say as the state superintendent.  The board will hire their own staff and they will be answerable to the governor, not to superintendent Ritz.    I saw them vote Dan Elsener in as "secretary". Elsener (a board member who drips with disdain every time he speaks to Glenda Ritz) explain this new situation in the meeting like this (I wrote down his words):

Dan Elsener: "There is a budget now for the state board.  We can hire an executive director and have some resource for strategic planning, prioritization,...assistance in developing plans.. also help us in legal reviews and how we consolidate resources behind our strategic priorities and where we're going forward.  So, with your permission [looks at Glenda] we will interact with you on these various hires, etc.  We'll work through the governor's office and Claire can be..for now.. the interlocker to help us move along with that.  [looks to other members of the board:] I'll be calling on some of you to help with the process, and the resourcing, and the prioritization and the use of that budget. So, um, as your only elected official secretary, I'll work with all of you to put this budget to use and put it to our behalf so we can be a more effective board in helping lead in the K-12 policy and rules of the state of Indiana, okay?" 

 [No one really says anything and Glenda is basically instructed on what kind of formal action to make, with Elsener telling her to say: " give the authority to the secretary to work with.. Claire.. the special assistant to the governor for education innovation to outline what we're going to do with the resources applied in the budget. And put resources to use to help the board do its role and I'll interact and engage the board members where appropriate." ]  

Tony Walker then pipes up with (presumably) an explanation for all of this: "There are areas where the responsibilities of the state board aren't always consistent with the responsibilities and duties of the department.  So we need to be at least mindful of potential conflicts as relates to having staff look at things that we may need have reviewed..that may not be necessarily the same thing that the department's doing." 

Umm... so we will establish our own board and bypass the DOE and Glenda Ritz's authority? Democracy anyone?


Did you think that your vote for Glenda Ritz would mean that Glenda Ritz could lead us away from the drastic and damaging changes happening in our schools? Did you hope that your children would become central to any changes occurring in future reforms? You have to be aware that Tony Bennett has many friends and supporters in our statehouse, on the board, and in the governor's mansion.

Governor Pence has just taken away as much control as he can from her.  This past legislative session has shown that the supermajority has NO intention of allowing local control to occur and Glenda Ritz to lead at the state level.

Last fall we sent a strong message not just to Tony Bennett, but to all of the "deformers" of public education: we want to change direction. We want educators to lead us. We voted for Ritz because our children are not numbers in a data graph and their education is not a commodity to be bought and sold.  We voted for Glenda Ritz because, ultimately, we trust teachers to do what is right for our kids and we know that they, not the Dan Elseners, Mike Pences, Mitch Daniels, Bob Behnings, Brian Bosmas,nor, above all, the Tony Bennetts of this state, are the experts on what works and what doesn't in education. But clearly, we need to send another message! Here are some ways that you can send that message:









Don't let this be the final CURTAIN CALL for Glenda Ritz's authority and for public education's future. It is entirely possible that during the next legislative session, they may try to change her position from being elected to being appointed.  We need you to get involved.