Friday, November 8, 2013

Who Put the Politics in Education? On George Orwell, Grading Schools and the State Board of Education

Today's state board meeting was much more civil than the one I watched online last month and the one I attended and spoke at the time before.  Tensions were certainly high, but it wasn't too crazy.  I have to admit, I left it for a little while after I testified, but I came back in time to listen to some of the presentation for the proposal for a new A-F system.

Since the last time I wrote on this blog, Glenda Ritz filed a lawsuit against the board members for breaking the Open Door Law and going around her back to ask the Legislative Services Agency to begin the grading of schools. (Her suit, unfortunately, was thrown out today).  While there really has been a lot of support for Glenda Ritz and this suit in the press all across the state, there has also been the predictable response from her naysayers. 

Governor Pence claims to want to "take politics out of our schools; take politics out of education" and he supports the board and their desire to bring the grades to the children, teachers and families in schools.  (Um.. how about bringing something else, Governor? Funding, perhaps?) Board member Tony Walker called her lawsuit a "political ploy."   Dan Elsener claimed that Ritz and her department were not moving fast enough to get the grades out, saying: “There’s either a problem with the competence of the department to get it out, or they don’t agree with accountability and so they’re just dragging it out so we can’t do it.”  And then four board members, B.J. Watts, Dan Elsener, Sarah O'Brien and Troy Albert, signed a letter that shockingly (if you watch any board meetings or follow any of the past interactions between the board, the governor, and his newly created department folks who now get to sit at the meetings and add to the agenda) ask Ritz "If you truly want to work in a collaborative manner, then we ask that you drop this lawsuit, put politics aside, and come to the table ready to put the interests of students, teachers and schools first." 

It boggles the mind.

Incredulous at the perspective of these folks who are in such a hurry to get these stigmatizing, hurtful labels of letter grades out to our schools, I decided that I would like to make a public comment on behalf of so many of my friends who are parents trying to buffer our kids from this incredible pressure and stress of testing, as well as on the behalf of my teacher friends who amaze me with their ability to get up every day in this atmosphere and greet their students with energy and inspiration.  I also wanted to call out some of these people (and hopefully word will get to the governor and the state legislature's supermajority!)  regarding who put "politics in education". 

Here is my testimony:

" Good morning.  My name is Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer.  As a mother of four, I want to address a theme I keep reading about in the newspapers recently.  I've seen many people, even some of you, quoted as saying that we need to “keep politics out of education.”   And I thought, “How ORWELLIAN!” 

What could be more political than what is going on in education right now? 

What could be more political than the state legislature deciding that higher test scores are the goal of education and that the sole measure of “success” will be the skill of taking that test?  As a parent, I want my child to be able to delve deep into all kinds of subjects and find his passions.  But when POLITICIANS tie test scores into the future of teachers and schools, that is the inevitable focus.

I have a third grader this year.  What could be more political than the fact that his teacher, the person I entrust his care to every single day, the person who knows BEST, is unable to determine whether or not he is ready to move on to 4th grade? Instead, politicians have decided that their 40 question test is a more accurate measure of his “success,” more than the professional opinion of his teacher.

Politics is behind the drive for data and the fixation on dots on a graph instead of the human experience of learning and growing.  And politics is the reason why I as a mother voted for our superintendent.  We were hoping for the things that she supported and supports: more teaching and less testing.   Focus on the whole child.

And what could be more political than the fact that our head politician, Governor Pence, created this other department and new positions?

I want you to know that there are thousands of us who had hoped that Glenda Ritz would be able to lead us away from the fixation on testing and allow our teachers the autonomy to teach.  As you make decisions about this new grading system (that will exist because politics has so determined that that is what accountability looks like)… bear in mind that true accountability would take into context that children don’t learn in a vacuum, they learn on a developmental continuum.  True accountability would see that all children have the broad curriculum and the arts.  It would take into account how experienced and educated their teachers are and so on.  And true accountability would also hold these politicians responsible for ensuring that funding is in place for lower class sizes, professional development, and the arts.  

As a mother, I know darn well that politics is everywhere in education.  As I try to convey to my little boy who still believes in Santa Claus, that there is more to learning than can be found on a test, I am also buffering him from the fact Big Brother is watching his test scores, ready to label him as a failure.  That is what makes me angry and that is why I (and thousands of other parents) support our superintendent’s assertion of her authority.  These politics are VERY personal."

And then when I saw that I had a minute left, I felt compelled to address the fact that the board was taking credit for the recent rise in test scores in our state as success for their "reforms" (David Freitas said that, I believe).  Here is what I added:

" The fact that you are citing statistical "success" tells us little about whether or not these kids have a love of learning and are learning the interpersonal skills to be adult citizens of tomorrow.  They filled in the correct bubbles; they didn't necessarily create or think outside of the box. Or maybe it shows that teachers, despite the dire circumstances and efforts to tie their hands in the classroom, continue to perform miracles every day!" 

Another parent, Jenny Stevens, spoke also about the grading system and asked what the goals of A-F grades were and what we might assume teachers would consider as the focus? She also asked how, if testing is the behavior that is rewarded, what does it do to help kids? She said that parents want encouragement and engagement for their kids and resources and remedies for their schools and that she couldn't see how a focus on testing does that.

Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education  members Phyllis Bush and Donna Roof drove all the way down from Fort Wayne to testify.  After bringing a much-needed laugh to the room with a crack about whether it was much cooler up by the board and the podium because, perhaps, the hot air was being blown back to the rear of the room, Phyllis went on to speak about the harm of this grading system.  She pointed out that it punishes demographics (amen!) and that perhaps the answer would be to pause on this for a while.

Donna Roof gave an amazing and moving testimony on the parallels between her fight with breast cancer and her fight as a teacher against the damage being done by "reform" right now in the schools.  I am going to post it in its entirety when she gives me the written version.  It was so moving.

Since I split for some lunch after the public comment section, I missed the little fireworks between board members and Glenda Ritz as they tried to decide the next procedure or something (?).  But when I came back I heard the presentation of the A-F committee and their recommendations.  Board member David Freitas asked if something could be added to the accountability formula for school culture or parent involvement, but there is no data on that.  Then later Tony Walker asked if there could be some kind of accounting for parental involvement like the statistics on how many parent-teacher conferences they have. Steve Yager (Southwest Allen County Schools), the co-chair of this A-F panel making the recommendation, said something like, "Why would we punish the teachers for parents who don't show up to conferences?" (hear, hear).

Although I do appreciate the fact that these board members are recognizing that there is more to a school than test scores and more to accountability, also... the very suggestion that we might give points or anything to those schools with more parental involvement is worrisome.  I can tell you where they won't get those points: at schools with high concentrations of poverty. We can predict that the lowest test scores will also be at these schools. Why are these board members, the governor, and the state legislature in such a hurry to dole out these grades? Why do they want these labels slapped on the schools, kids and teachers within? What is the purpose of these grades? How will they help my children get better educational opportunities? How will it help the teachers improve instruction? These are questions they should answer. 

I suspect that this grading system has more to do with fear, punishment and control than actual help.  I suspect that it has everything to do with creating an environment of proving public education is "failing" in order to offer up solutions to that problem in the form of vouchers, charters and turnaround schools.  And I know that the A-F grading system has everything to do with politics in education with absolutely no intention of turning that around.  Don't let them call Ritz's actions, her attempts to assert her authority, "political." Join me in exposing this hypocrisy on the part of Governor Pence and the state's super majority in the legislature in particular. 

Speak up.

"Note to Parents: The new A-F scale is designed to scare you into thinking that our schools are failing, or are not doing as well as you think. This is so you will be more accepting of the corporate privatization of our public schools. Tell me the last time a corporate entity cared about your kids...that's right...they don't, unless they can make money off of them. Open your eyes. And remember first-hand experiences create real knowledge...not a simple scale."
-Jacob Rosecrants

"People will never fully trust grades doled out by politicians for political purposes. The grades are for rewarding friends and punishing the weak." 

From Indiana's House Democratic Leader, Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City.