Now is Always the Time to Do What is Right

    Recently, the Ohio Department of Education(ODE) held a phone propaganda conference to inform Ohioans about the state tests that they want students to take this school year (2015-2016). The new (but not really new) tests from AIR will replace the PARCC tests, but will still incorporate PARCC-like questions and possibly even the exact same questions used on tests that AIR created for purchasers in other states. AIR tests in the states of Utah and Florida this past year received less than positive accolades. Recruited for part of the ODE’s propaganda effort was Ohio’s 2015 Teacher of the Year, a high school teacher from Tallmadge, Ohio, and ODE Associate Superintendent, Lonny Rivera, who will soon be replacing retiring State Superintendent, Richard Ross. The following is my sincere plea to those educators who may not recognize the damage that high stakes standardized testing wreaks upon public education as a whole, but particularly on the schooling of underprivileged children.

Dear 2015 Teacher of the Year (and Any Other Educators Who Have Yet to Join The Force),

    I applaud the efforts and dedication that earned you the recognition bestowed upon you. Obviously, like the vast majority of educators I know, you care deeply about your subject, position and students. You have recognized and harnessed the power that teachers possess to impact lives. This ability, that only certain people can master, requires a combination of intellect, heart, endurance, passion, patience, dedication, and crafting. Knowing that, the entire profession should be held in high regard and well respected by politicians, leaders, and society in general. Being a “Teacher of the Year,” provides you with a potentially stronger voice to influence others. Listeners may even offer you a certain level of respect that they will not afford to the profession in general.

    With this great respect, comes great responsibility.

    When you convey to an audience of listeners that standardized high stakes testing is not punitive, or does not require you to teach to a test, you not only misinform that audience, but you forget that while you are lovingly nurturing and nourishing the minds of your students in a supportive community, with a democratically elected and locally controlled school board, there are other students and educators in the state who are enduring the dismantling of democracy, and the enforcement of harmful, non-researched based approaches designed to punish and label children and schools, even if those students and teachers are working just as hard, if not harder, than the staff and student body in Tallmadge.

Below is a comparison of Tallmadge, Ohio, to Cleveland, Ohio.

The cities are 37 miles apart.

2013 Tallmadge, Ohio Cleveland, Ohio
Unemployment Rate 1.8% 15.2%
Median Household Income $53,748 $26,096
Estimated Median House or Condo Value $154,170 $66,600
Average Monthly Rent $655 $631
Foreign Born Residents 2.7% 4.6%

http://www.city-data.com/

    The implications of the data should not need explanation, but it may be necessary to highlight that even when students are from families with a parent working full-time, year-round, they can still be living in a low-income household because wages are so low that many families cannot survive solely on what they earn.

     Growing up in poverty, or in a low-income household, can have significant effects on learning and brain development that have been known about for over a decade. According to the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education, “Biological factors include toxin exposure (e.g., lead paint in older buildings), malnourishment, premature birth from prenatal drug and alcohol use, and vitamin deficiencies in the mother (e.g., folic acid). The NRC identified time between parents and their children to be the most important factor in early child development, and parents in low-income households often do not have the time to devote to their children. Less time with parents means less verbal discussion, less vocabulary development, and less social skill development — all contributing to a tougher time in school.”

    The organization  Zero to Three notes, “Research shows that major adversity, such as extreme poverty, can weaken  developing brain architecture and permanently set the body’s stress response system on  high alert.” Children from low-income families are  “at greater risk than middle‐ or  high‐income infants and toddlers for a variety of poorer outcomes and vulnerabilities, such as later school failure, learning disabilities, behavior problems, mental retardation, developmental delay, and health impairments.” None of this research reveals an actual deficit for the potential to learn, but it does reveal that standardization of learning is inappropriate and abusive to the mindsets of children who already have considerable odds to confront. Massive testing that has never been appropriately vetted to eliminate cultural biases, in addition to the dozens of other reasons high stakes testing lacks validity, has been punitive to our most vulnerable citizens, and has neglected the needs of our most gifted learners.

    Before even considering the disparities in access to resources and opportunities for students in Cleveland compared to those in Tallmadge, there is already an established pattern of risk for students that has nothing to do with the school systems, and everything to do with factors related to family backgrounds and socioeconomic status. Testing is not going to change that. An historical account of housing segregation and job discrimination in Cleveland, and other northern urban areas, reveals that the U.S. government contributed to segregated poverty when returning World War II white GI’s could get low-cost federal home loans to move to the suburbs, while black veterans could not. Then, there is the history of “sun-down towns”  and sun-down suburbs in Ohio and other northern parts of the U.S.  These areas still remain purposefully all white, or nearly all-white today, because they were intentionally designed to exclude other groups, particularly African Americans (3.4% of Tallmadge residents are African American). Testing does not promote integration or support equity. 

    There are adversities for Cleveland students that the majority of the population in Tallmadge and other suburbs may never encounter. Being a teacher anywhere means being a member of an important and necessary profession. We have the power to impact individuals and a collective future. However, when a teacher states from a perspective of privilege, that test scores are not punitive or that teachers do not have to teach to the test, then that someone is either lying or sorely lacks knowledge. If anyone believes that testing does not castigate, then they should go teach in one of the most economically devastated neighborhoods in a city, at a public school that cannot turn away students deemed as “less desirable,” and compare that experience to wherever they are coming from. Were the students retained because of a test, even when the professional educators who worked with the student all year saw growth?

     Take all of the teachers from a school rated “A” by the Ohio Department of Education in a suburb like Tallmadge, and swap them with the teachers at a school labeled “F” by the Ohio Department of Education for a year. Will the grades of the schools automatically be reversed the next school year after a year with new staffs? The odds are in strong favor of the state grades for both schools remaining the same, regardless of a staff swap. Does going to a school with despicable overhead labels hovering every day motivate students or teachers, or does that feel punitive? Teachers work hard wherever we are, but we can’t solve systemic poverty that was cast upon marginalized groups in our society, through generations of discriminatory and oppressive practices, all by ourselves. Educators need society to finally decide that rectifying past wrongs and caring for other people is worth the effort. We do not need another member of the profession touting false information to an audience of listeners or proclaiming that testing is not punitive. 

    We cannot change our country’s history or mistakes made in the past, and we should not regret wanting what is best for our children and working for that aim. Yet, we should also not be a society that continues to ignore the fact that the time to do what is right, is always NOW.

    NOW is the time to reject the high stakes test and punish system that has been discredited and exposed as producing little, but costing much. 

    NOW is the time to stand against punitive labels and inequities.

    NOW is the time to proclaim that our children are not products, and that they do not come standardized.

    NOW is the time to say that access to a quality education should not be a competition. It is a right.

    NOW is the time to decide that our children deserve much better.

    And to decide that other people’s children deserve better also.

    A better time than NOW will not arrive. The time to do what is right is always NOW.

Please join us.

Sincerely,

Just A Teacher

    

    

   

    

 

    

An Ode to Public Education Privateers in Contemporary Times

What’s scarier than ghouls and goblins this Halloween?

Privateers (during the American Revolution) achieved the best results if they could bluff an opponent into believing opposition was futile. When this failed the result was often vicious combat with unpredictable results. Many privateers were captured or sunk when the odds were against them. In spite of all the risks and hazards, the overall effort to cripple Britain’s commercial fleet was highly effective, and fortunes destined to finance the new republic were made. It is estimated that the total damage to British shipping by American privateers was about $18 million by the end of the war, or just over $302 million in today’s dollars.”  ~The National Park Service

An Ode to Education Privateers in Contemporary Times

To you so bold and brazen

So Walton, so Gates, so Broad

Armed with wealth and power

Charity and benevolence are your facade

Fortunes you all have made

Yet more influence is what you desire

Purge, plunder, cripple, damage

Place public education under fire

Our government sanctions your mission

To destroy all love for learning

So full throttle you press forward

With plans for more money churning

You want to create a workforce

Full of clones, ready to obey

Standardize, test, standardize, test

No time for kids to play

You write the false media narrative

Declaring “Public schools are failing!”

You stake claims to dictate policy

And chart a course for smooth sailing

You prepare for vicious combat

When resistance begins to rise

How dare those agitators defy you!

And refuse your toxic lies

Praise to you, education privateer!

Proud lover of edperialism & the testocracy

After all, public schools are only necessary

If you actually care about a democracy

*Inspirational credit goes to Christopher Chase

It’s Time to End the Age of Edperialism

It’s Time to End the Age of Edperialism

Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith

Edperialism – when individuals with more resources and power invade a system that belongs to people who live in the system, exploit those people and their resources, and structure a system to benefit the eduperial power and their interests without regard for the inhabitants of the system.

    Not too long ago, Ohio Governor John Kasich stated that if he were king, he would abolish teachers’ lounges. His statement seemed outlandish not only because most educators do not even know what a teachers’ lounge looks like, but also because he seemed to be aspiring to a tyrannical empire that British colonists considered so unfavorable – they would rather die than surrender to it. However, his words are actually a revealing admission of the fragmentation and privatization of public schools, and of what some have referred to as the testocracy. The combination of attacks on public education from multiple political, wealthy, and privileged factions in our society, who perhaps wish they were an absolute monarchy, is akin to imperialism, or what I refer to as edperialism.

    An honest historical outrospection of any nation’s imperial past calls for contemporary global citizens to denounce imperialist policies as racist, classist, elitist, sexist, and yet still very profitable for the nations doing the exploiting. For the people who lived in the colonies, or for those who remain affected by the remnants of imperialism, the cultural and economic effects have been brutal. Similarly, eduperial powers also called “education reformers”—often people who are extremely wealthy billionaires, hedge fund managers, and bankers—have gazed upon the 99% in this country through their possibly racist, classist, sexist, and elitist telescopes, to totally reshape American education for their own interests. With the goal of controlling resources to scratch the nagging itch for wealth and power, dominant members of America’s elite project a facade of benevolence. Unfortunately, most often their motives have been anything except altruistic or beneficial for the masses. Instead, their obsession with forcing all students to learn a similar curriculum at a similar pace has ruined true learning, and has ignored the very basic notion that all students learn through different modalities at different paces. Just as imperial powers failed to value the cultures of those they wished to exploit, or to recognize the humanity of those they subjugated, ed-reformers fail to acknowledge the credible, substantial amount of research and data that proves not only the failure of their test-based, standardized reforms, but also the harmful negative consequences thrust upon our cities, schools, students, and teachers.

    Recently, it wasn’t King John Kasich who was anointed to rule over American edperialism, so he could finally abolish those pesky teachers’ lounges. Instead, John King Jr. was appointed by President Obama to be the acting Secretary of Education once the current U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, steps down from the post in December. Acting Secretary King may have learned something from the failed edperialism policies he began as Education Commissioner in the state of New York, and he may even  possess characteristics of empathy. Surely, not every general or governor appointed to rule over colonized people during the height of global imperialism lacked superficial empathy. However, true empathy goes beyond simply understanding someone else’s viewpoint, or another person’s perspective. True empathy produces heroes that none of us will ever know the names of. These empathic heroes not only understand other people’s perspectives, but they value them and care about them.  They are grassroots organizers, activists, and agitators, and they are part of the resistance. If Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Secretary Arne Duncan, or Deputy Secretary John King were truly empathic people, brave residents under eduperial rule in Chicago would not have to go on a hunger strike for 34 days to try to save and revitalize a neighborhood public high school. Gandhi only had to be on a hunger strike for six days to change the minds of the British.

    More of the same edperialist approaches or policies from (acting) Secretary King is unacceptable. Our children, our public schools, and the future of our country as a democracy, are at stake under eduperial rule supported by an oligarchy. In the spirit of resistance to unjust, inhumane, and incogitable ignorance, it is time for those with true empathy to demand “insistence on truth,” or Satyagraha. This truth-force, or “the force that is generated through adherence to Truth,” must compel all students, educators, families, and communities to refuse to cooperate with the eduperial powers. We must refuse to submit to the injustices and inequities in education that we are fighting. This means we must refuse high stakes standardized tests for our children and students, and demand that truth and true empathy guide education policy. Power is only held through obedience. We allow the tyranny that we consent to. Our children can’t wait for an eduperial king at the U.S. Department of education to develop true empathy. If Gandhi’s Satyagraha can profoundly shake a vast empire, then imagine what the power of mass-mobilization in our country could do to begin to address the injustices and inequities in public education. Step one of the resistance is deposing the test-and-punish system. It will take strength, persistence, courage, and action. Join the non-cooperation movement. Refuse the tests. Help end the Age of Edperialism. 

What if they gave a test and nobody came?

Let’s find out.

For more information visit http://unitedoptout.com/,

http://www.networkforpubliceducation.org/,

http://www.badassteacher.org/, http://www.fairtest.org/, or

http://parentsacrossamerica.org/

In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, please visit http://refuseofcuyahogacounty.webstarts.com/

   

    

 

What if the executive council of the AFT lived my teacher-life? A (now open) email to Randi Weingarten

Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith <@gmail.com>

Jul 2 (9 days ago)

to rweingarten, bcc: me

President Weingarten, 

 
Thank you for including me on the conference call this evening. It is a relief to hear that many of my brothers and sisters in union have the same concerns that afflict me as a mother, educator, and citizen (except that guy asking about road infrastructure – that was a little out in left field for me). 
 
I will try to be brief so that your staff isn’t deliriously angry about you extending this offer to email you with unanswered questions, but brevity is not my strong suit. I guess if I wasn’t a teacher; I should’ve been a politician. 
 
I’m the daughter of a Longshoreman who raised me in Ashtabula, Ohio, and the granddaughter of a man who told me he went to DC in the 1950s to testify about unions. I’ve been a member of Local CTU 279 in Cleveland, Ohio since August of 1998. I don’t think it would surprise you to read that the culture of education in our city, state, and country is vastly different than what it was when I began.
 
With the Republican National Convention being held in our city next summer, I believe we have a prime opportunity to take action on a national level that will begin to remedy the atrocities that have been occurring in our state with regard to education. The Ohio budget bill is being used to mandate absurdities in education. Ohio got rid of PARCC due to grassroots efforts that encompassed parents, community stakeholders, and educators, but then replaced it within 24 hours with another assessment from AIR that will prove to be equally horrific. Changing the name of the test, or the entity that produces it, does not eliminate the over-testing, nor does it pacify our principles. The legislators and governor demolished democracy in Youngstown last week as they took over the city schools in a late-night, a backdoor deal that included banning any debate on the issue in chambers. Our state teacher evaluation system ties test scores to 50% of a teacher’s annual rating. We have TFA propaganda in abundance as well as a steady stream of TFA candidates not only teaching but now in administrative positions at building and board levels. We have an unregulated charter system that is the laughing stock of 99% of the nation. The other 1% is rejoicing over the billions that they are gathering in profits while they fail our children.
In our district, we have the “Cleveland Transformation Alliance” and “Cleveland Foundation” spitting out propaganda reports, with practically zero credibility, claiming that our schools are failing, our students are failing, and that the teachers are ineffective. The high stakes testing culture has ruined our traditional schools that don’t offer, or barely offer, music, phys ed, art, or vocational and trade subjects that our students are craving. We fuel the school-to-prison pipeline, which fills detention centers with children the system seems intent on disregarding. In Cleveland, my pay is now tied to an evaluation system that has no statistical or mathematical validity and has been implemented with complete incompetence. All of this has left many of my colleagues in fear or apathetic from the defeat they sense. We had one teacher described as a “gentle soul” who “loved her students” placed in “teacher jail” after being bullied by an aggressive, unkind principal all year. CMSD had this teacher removed from a K-8 school in front of her special needs students. Already fragile from other personal issues, Dr. ***** (name omitted in public version) ended her own life because teaching was her life. The callous principal is now working downtown at the board office. 
 
We need our brothers and sisters in union on the largest scale that I have known in my career. The Cleveland Plan is a farce. We all know that by 2018-19, the overarching goal is to have all of our city schools turned into charters. They have been slowly and steadily dismantling us. Unfortunately, our union is viewed as a criminal defense lawyer instead of as a defender of the people. This view is not only held by the public, but by its own members as well. When I’ve been approached about running for office, I scoff at the idea. I don’t want to be an “executive” at a downtown union office, posting pictures of myself at a table at Democratic fundraisers, maintaining a state of oblivion to the daily realities of teaching in a classroom; who will eventually ask the CEO for a job at the board and fight against the very union to which I was once elected (2 names omitted in public version). If someone like me, who came from generations of union workers, who understands and teaches the history of labor in our country, is scoffing at being part of the governing body of the local union, can I be angry at young members for feeling disconnected and disenfranchised?
My teacher effectiveness state rating was dropped from “accomplished” to “skilled” 2 years in a row because my union signed off on a test for 10th grade US History for the “data” part of my evaluation that no one told me about until 2 weeks before it had to be given, and that wasn’t aligned to the curriculum that is in our district’s scope and sequence. It is on public record that I am a “skilled” teacher instead of an “accomplished” teacher, even though I have extensive evidence to fit the “accomplished” rubric requirements, and even though I am a “Master Teacher” and was named the “2013-2014 Cleveland Bar Association Teacher of the Year.” The results of this test from April of 2014 that have been used to supposedly prove that I am an “average” teacher this school year (2015) and last school year (2014) even though I am not even teaching at the same 2014 school any more, have never been given to me, given to students, published in our district database, or revealed to anyone. Due to the merit pay negotiations in our CBA, that means I didn’t get a raise 2 years in a row based on a union decision; the same union that is supposed to be protecting the wages of families. Sadly, I’m not alone in the rank and file with my disappointments.  
 
I file grievances. I email. I speak at school board meetings. I’m interviewed by local and national news organizations. I whistle blow. I blog. I create petitions. I sometimes get a response from the union, just like I sometimes get a response from the district. 
 
It became so frustrating that I formed a group (Refuse of Cuyahoga County) with colleagues to accomplish the things that my union should be doing. We solicit parent input and support. We hold forums and events to inform. We build relationships with families, colleagues, and community stakeholders. We launch counter assaults on our legislators and governor when they don’t do what’s best for kids. We meet with local leaders. We talk to state leaders. We set up meetings with national legislators. We use social media to promote our cause and to inform. We make sure that people know that we care about kids first because once we build that trust, they understand that if we say “teachers need smaller class sizes,” it isn’t because we’re lazy leeches sucking the taxpayer’s money away. It is because we care about kids, and we know research shows that significantly smaller classes make a positive difference for kids. They know that when we say it is time to stop this testocracy, it isn’t because we don’t think kids can achieve, or because we are afraid of losing our jobs or our money, it is because we know from the research that it is harming, not helping, kids. When we build these family relationships, we can say to the district that it isn’t just teachers who want these things, but families of students want them also. It is a lot more difficult to use that leverage in negotiations when the state has already disenfranchised the families in Cleveland and Youngstown with CEOs, mayoral control, and appointed boards, but it is worth something in public opinion polls which leads me back to my questions that couldn’t be answered this evening on the conference call:
 
What can the AFT do on a national level to help our city and state reclaim the culture of education so that teachers are once again valued and respected as competent professionals? So that charters are held accountable? So that schools and students are never labeled as “failing” because they can’t pass tests that aren’t even a valid indicator of their talents or intellect? So that states can’t annihilate a city’s right to democratic processes? So that teachers can’t be punished through public humiliation and loss of pay because they want to work with students who live in high poverty areas? So that teachers feel like being part of the union is contributing to the greater good of society? So that being in the union will feel like being part of a movement for social justice because that is what it was intended to be? 
 
There was a massive campaign in NY, supported by AFT, because of Cuomo’s suggestion to tie teacher evaluations to testing. Our PAY and state evaluations have been tied to test scores for 2 YEARS in Cleveland. We need national attention and outrage while we simultaneously build grassroots support for what we achieve and accomplish with children every day as members in our union of “professionals.” 
 
As Ohio goes… so goes the nation. It works in presidential elections. Let’s make it work to change the national culture that surrounds education.   
 
In Solidarity, 

Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith
 
PS. I’ll be in DC on July 24th-29th. I’d be happy to stop by and say, “hello.” Of course, you can probably tell from this email that I may have a little more to add to the “hello.”

Visit My Classroom at CCJDC & See How Hope Happens

Dear Senator Portman, Senator Brown, and Congresswoman Fudge,

I spent this past school year teaching at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center. I’m sure that you have preconceived notions about what the school and students are like. I can guarantee that your predictions and expectations would evolve after a visit to my classroom.

I work with 15-17 year old male students. Many of them have had childhoods filled with tragedy and have faced obstacles that have left them feeling as if there are no options for them except a life on the street. Most complain about school because it is not designed for students who like to learn with their hands, who can’t sit still for extended lengths of time and be quiet, who are intellectually gifted, or who don’t want to go to college. Instead of changing the system to meet the needs of these most vulnerable students, or providing resources and instituting funded policies that would assist these young men, they are faced with a system often endorsed by politicians that feeds a school-to-prison pipeline.

With all of the research we have about brain development throughout every stage of life, it is inexcusable that we treat these young men as if they have the capacity to make sound adult decisions, particularly when the majority haven’t been given strong social guidance during their crucial developmental years. Instead of endorsing a system of high stakes standardized testing that pushes these students out of schools and bores them into behavior problems that can result in criminal charges, our students need wrap around services such as access to mental health care, addiction treatment, social workers, mentors, nutrition and full healthcare access, and an opportunity to learn in an environment that doesn’t further punish them for poverty or instability in their homes. Families need this support from conception to graduation, not just K-12.

I have had students flourish in my class under the direction of our administrator. They have gone from being chronologically behind grade levels, to being caught up on their high school credits during the time they are incarcerated. These successes give them something that they are lacking in the segregated, impoverished neighborhoods from which most of them begin their academic careers: hope. These achievements can only occur because I have the freedom to design curriculum on an individual basis for my students, the opportunity to design instruction based on student interests and the most recent educational research, and because I am trusted by my administrator to try strategies that I believe may assist my students. Being confined by strict curriculum scripts, a narrow focus on passing high stakes standardized tests, and zero tolerance discipline policies that exist in traditional high schools would only cause further detriment to these students who need the best instruction the most. I am also trusted to adapt my instruction as needed, to collaborate with my partner who teaches the same age group, and to not only learn from successes, but from attempts that were not necessarily as successful as I had hoped.

One student I had this year began his time in my class unwilling to do a lot of work in school. After a little time with us, he began to realize that he was surrounded by people who care, people who have his best interest in mind and heart, and is in a facility that will support him, his education, and his teacher. Through his hard work and some incentives negotiated between myself and the detention officers, the student is now a senior instead of a sophomore, has passed 4/5 state tests, and will not leave our administrator alone about how many credits he has and still needs to graduate. Even in his challenging situation, he now has hope. He has experienced academic success and can now envision possibilities. What if our entire education system was structured to provide this same feeling for all of its stakeholders? What if not only students, but teachers, parents, and the communities that some of these most vulnerable, pushed-out students come from were in a culture of hope instead of one that seeks to marginalize, punish, and contain?

The resources, small classes, and wrap-around services provided to our young men should not be exclusive to a detention center. These supports must be provided to all schools that need them, so that some day my school does not have a detained juvenile population to serve any more. Politicians, policy makers, and wealthy elitists need to stop trying to further deform our education system with mandated testing and pseudo accountability, and instead focus on research based strategies in existence for decades that will adapt schools to fit students’ needs. The damage to students and failure of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top is evident when you walk into our school, or around the community in which we are located. I implore you to come visit my classroom, hear our stories, and meet the citizens that your legislative reforms, and needed reforms, impact every day.

Sincerely,

Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith

Refuse of Cuyahoga County

Lessons “THAT kid” taught me in my classroom:

As a sequel to Why I Tell My Kid Not to Avoid “THAT Kid”

Lessons “THAT kid” taught me in my classroom:

  • Just when I’m about to declare myself to be completely left without a shred of patience, I can close my eyes, take a deep breath, and open my heart up just a little bit more. There are always more patience.
  • It is alright if some days I learn more from them about humanity, than I think I can ever teach them.
  • Save tears of happiness or sorrow for when I’m alone. Seeing a teacher cry even scares the older students who think they are tough stuff.
  • Always focus on the small victories. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and building children is far more important.
  • Don’t allow the lies of education reformers (AKA deformers) to get me down. They have no idea that teaching is part love, part science, part craft, part knowledge, part social, part academic, part trust, part persistence, part determination, and part faith in “THAT kid” becoming an awesome adult one day
  • Be grateful to fate for bringing “THAT kid” to my classroom. because maybe I can help “THAT kid” figure out that being “THAT kid” isn’t really all THAT bad. In fact, being “THAT kid” doesn’t have to be a bad thing at all.

Why I Tell My Kid Not to Avoid “That Kid”

I recently read a letter sent by a retiring veteran principal to his staff in Stewart, Ohio that was published in the Washington Post. He shared his experiences with zero tolerance policies and testing mandates which have made it harder for those in education to just be nice to kids. Just as adults have picked up on this phenomenon, students sense it also. Even in this age of anti-bullying campaigns and organizations founded with missions to increase love and kindness in schools, students witness their teachers reduced to tears because of pink slips and unfair evaluations based on standardized test scores. In extreme cases, like at Newton D. Baker in Cleveland, Ohio, an educator found the unkindness of administration and unfair mandates too much for her gentle soul to bear, so she took her own life; leaving behind colleagues and students to mourn the loss.  Add to this harsh school culture a pervasive fear among students that their teacher’s job, school’s rating, and community’s real-estate values are all intertwined with how they perform on standardized tests, and it is easy to surmise that kindness, patience, and tolerance are difficult to maintain as school priorities, regardless of how many posters are sticky-tacked to school walls proclaiming to be against bullying and for kindness.

 

Zero tolerance policies in schools which have been a feeder for the school-to-prison pipeline, the pressure of high stakes standardized testing, billionaires deciding that they are educational experts, and the distorted view that teachers are to blame for societal ills, are all menacing bricks constructed behind classroom walls, and they can often act as a barrier to the social and emotional learning and bonds that have always been at the foundation of academic success for students. It is even more difficult for students to see examples of empathy and compassion at school when policies support disciplinary actions that lack recognition of the need for a whole-child approach in education, and are often implemented without respect for teachers as well-trained professionals. My 4th grader this year told me in one of our car-ride conversations that he thought his teacher was “the only one at school who really understands people” because he noticed how she bought things to help accommodate her special needs students instead of “yelling at them to sit still.”  I know there are an abundance of caring teachers at his elementary school, but the current climate in education isn’t allowing for evidence of this fact to be as blatant as it used to be. Half of teacher-effectiveness ratings in Ohio are based on test scores, not kindness and being nice. So, just being nice needs to have a solid start in the homes of children.

 

Yet, kindness and caring may not be as much of a priority among parents at schools either, since test scores and grades determine the value of their child’s learning abilities. No one is getting into Harvard or Yale for “just being nice.” I listened to conversations that surrounded me as I volunteered at a working meeting for a school event, and the dominant theme being discussed among the parents was which of their children was in advanced classes, excelling at a dance recital, first chair in an orchestra, or being recognized for honor or merit roles. I do not think that celebrating middle-class privileges, which enrich childhood and foster success for children, is wrong. However, when a recent playground incident that involved an aggressive act by a child was brought up in the conversation, the parents were quick to offer their disapproval of the child, and in agreement that consequences should be doled out, as they continued to relish in the good behavior of their children, and wonder what was wrong with THAT kid. I left that working meeting feeling sad not only for the child injured on the playground, but also for the child that inflicted the injury.

 

I had already heard about the playground incident before it was discussed at that meeting, and it seemed that the child may have some emotional issues. When my son came home that particular day and described the drama on the playground at recess, I asked him what he did . He replied that he gave his statement about what happened to the adults in charge, as instructed. I offered my approval for his actions and asked him if the injured child was going to be alright. Then we discussed what we could do to help his peer who had caused the injury. We talked about not knowing what life is like for that child; if he was struggling with things going on outside of school, and how my son could be a friend without approving of negative behaviors that the other child may exhibit. This is what we have done all school year when my son comes home to share tales about any of the students often labeled as “THAT kid.” For example: “THAT kid” who is not able to cope with a change in the classroom routine without creating a disturbance, or “THAT kid” who randomly shouts out inappropriate words. I explained to my son what I know about the symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome and Tourette Syndrome, so that even if my hunches were wrong, at least he was aware for any future encounters he may have. We talked about not knowing what other kids might be going through outside of school, and I reminded him of the times he may have been struggling through events unknown to his classmates. I encouraged him to be a friend, an example of positive behavior, and an upstander. Luckily, his teacher reinforced this approach by showing love and patience to all of her students every day at school throughout his 4th grade year. Students sensed that in her class being nice was a priority.

Research shows that peers can have a strong influence on behavior, which I am acutely aware of as my son is close to the beginning of his adolescent years, so I am not endorsing harmful or unhealthy friendships. However, understanding and having empathy for conditions others possess, or for struggles others may be enduring, is not an endorsement of inappropriate behavior. Rather, it is building within my son the strength of character to be a leader, even when it would be easier to ignore or taunt children that may not be easy to get along with. He knows kindness is not weakness. Instead, it precipitates a life filled with tolerance, compassion, and happiness.  As Logan LaPlante suggested in his TEDx Talk at the University of Nevada, schools should be able to play a larger role in preparing students for a life of happiness, and not be restricted to just preparing them to make a living. Respecting and honoring “THAT kid’s” experiences without endorsing harmful behavior may not prepare my kid for acceptance into Harvard or Yale, but it will have him better prepared to live a life full of happiness and being nice. And that’s a pretty good start.

Lessons I learned from “THAT kid” in my classroom…

My 3-Minute Plea to the Cleveland Board of Education 3-26-15

Good evening. My name is Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith.

 

Thank you, once again, for this opportunity to speak.

 

This evening I stand before you as a parent advocate. As evidenced by the easy passage of the last school levy, this community and its parents support Cleveland schools, and that respect and support deserves consistent reciprocity. I don’t believe that I need to rehash recent media reports in order to justify bringing attention to this issue.

 

As I briefly share some reasons why families have refused to allow their children to participate in high stakes standardized tests, I hope that you will consider adopting a policy that is respectful and supportive of families who express the desire to direct their children’s education, as protected by the 14th amendment.

 

This is why we refuse…

 

Because children should not have to attend a school labeled “failing,” or labeled anything at all

 

School buildings shelter children with vast amounts of untapped potential. Not failures.

 

FAILURE should never be the name of a monster hovering over a school building making children afraid of how they will do on a test

 

Children shouldn’t have to be afraid of how their teacher will be hurt by their performance on a test

 

Or how their school or community or city will be labeled because of how they do on a test

 

What sort of sane society that supposedly cherishes its children puts that sort of pressure on a child?

 

We refuse because without the data, they can’t label our children or anyone else’s children

 

We refuse

 

Because we know that standardized test scores have only been good at proving one thing: childrens’ life experiences and backgrounds far outweigh the impact that a school or teacher has on their test performance

 

We refuse

 

Because we don’t want our children’s privacy violated & we don’t want test companies profiting  off of our children

 

Because we know that things like art, music, gym, and recess have been shown by research to increase academic success and shouldn’t be reduced or eliminated because kids need to take or prepare for more standardized tests

 

We refuse

 

Because we know that the emotional and social growth of children in school is not measured on a standardized test

 

Because the teacher who delivers groceries to a family in need, advocates for a student, or becomes a student’s confidant, counselor, or role model will never have that data show up in test results & we trust our children’s teachers to assess their progress

 

We refuse

 

Because struggling students should not be made to feel like less than the developing human beings that we ALL started out as because tests are used to label

 

We know that the long term consequences of labeling & retention are profound

 

NONE of our children are “limited,” “basic,” or “common”

 

Words that label can and do. Hurt and Divide.

 

We refuse

 

Because over 2000 education researchers, experts, and professionals signed a letter pleading with our President and Congress to stop relying on high stakes standardized testing to improve education – we have a decade of data proving that it doesn’t work

 

Because there are mountains of research that provide more effective and research proven methods to educate our children and to evaluate teachers and schools

 

We refuse

 

Because when we look at our children, we see their smiles, their talents, their goofiness, the crumbs around their mouths, the dirt on their skin, and the hope in their eyes

 

And when we look at our kids

 

We never see them as data or test scores

 

And neither should you

 

Thank you for your time and attention.

For additional information, please visit:

 

fairtest.org

 

parentsacrossamerica.org

 

teacher-advocate.com

 

http://unitedoptout.com/

 

Or take a look at recent articles and blog posts:

 

http://www.washingtonpost.com/people/valerie-strauss

 

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/

 

http://dianeravitch.net/

 

http://www.plunderbund.com/?s=ecot

 

http://www.plunderbund.com/2015/02/22/do-parcc-reading-passages-exceed-tested-grade-levels/

 

http://www.politico.com/story/2015/02/pearson-education-115026.html

msvigeljsmith.wordpress.com

In Response to the Ohio Department of Education’s “Information on Student Participation in State Tests:” An open letter to the Ohio Department of Education, State Board of Education, and Ohio Legislators

February 5, 2015

Dear Ohio Department of Education, State Board of Education, and Ohio Legislators:

Recently I submitted an open “opt-out” letter to my district administrators and school board members through a blog post titled My Sons and Their Teachers Deserve Better. Apparently my words resonated with others because within ten days it received approximately 15,000 views. I freely allowed others to use parts of the letter that were relevant to their situations for submission to their schools and districts. This letter was a result of culminating frustration with high stakes standardized testing personally and professionally as described in My High Stakes Testing Story. Today a two-page document published by the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) dated February 4, 2015 and titled “Information on Student Participation in Tests” was digitally shared with me. The creation and need for such a document implies that there may have been an inundation of inquiries by individuals who are actively organized and invested in education in our state. Unfortunately, upon review of the document, it appears to be a combination of facts, propaganda, and fear mongering. The purpose of this letter is to clarify the intent of my prior letter, and to address the February 4th publication by the ODE.

 

The beginning of this ODE document contains some accuracy, such as the fact that Ohio does not have an “opt-out” procedure or form. It failed to note that Ohio does not have a law against refusing the test though either. According to the U.S Constitution which supersedes state laws, specifically the 14th Amendment, I am protected by my rights to religious/spiritual freedom in regard to parental control over one’s child. Parental rights are broadly protected by Supreme Court decisions (Meyer and Pierce), especially in the area of education. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that parents possess the “fundamental right” to “direct the upbringing and education of their children.” The ODE document also correctly indicates that possible consequences for Ohio’s children in third grade who do not take the test include the risk of not being promoted to fourth grade. Also, high school students who do not take the tests or ones that do take it and do not obtain certain scores may not be eligible for diplomas. Yet, the document neglected to inform readers that Ohio did not have to choose to be one of the approximately 20 states to link high stakes to tests. This harmful, punitive option was an ill-fated decision that Ohio legislators and the Department of Education will have to concede to eventually, even if its original intentions were genuine.

 

Clearly, the semantics used for the process of “opting out” are irrelevant. As a parent I have the right to refuse to allow my children to participate in activities that are physically and emotionally harmful, particularly when the activities being protested have not provided any data or evidence that my children’s participation will be beneficial. Thus far, high stakes standardized tests in our state have failed to meet mathematical standards for test validity. According to Dr. Randy Hoover (2014) “Test validity is only meaningful in terms of how the test is used and what it is used for.  In other words, test validity is a formal examination to determine the degree to which a test is appropriate and accurate in serving what it is used for. Formal examination reveals that the assumption of Ohio’s tests being valid is false.”  The tests this year are new as schools transition to teaching Common Core, according to the ODE. Therefore, data to support test validity through adherence to mathematical standards and to the criteria for psychometric validity is nonexistent. I do not want my child to be a guinea pig in this experiment.

 

The ostensibly threatening nature of the second part of the ODE document, which seems intent on inspiring consternation among families like mine that are considering utilizing their rights in our democracy to direct their children’s education, is latent with details that lack evidence to support them. Previous results of state standardized tests in Ohio have only produced evidence that how students perform on those tests is directly and statistically significantly correlated to factors beyond a school or educator’s control. In fact, the results of these tests emphatically prove that socioeconomic status, environment, emotional stability, food security, and health are the major determining factors of how students will perform on standardized state tests. Therefore, results from the tests that are used to determine the effectiveness of districts, schools, and educators in Ohio, or are used  to assign an “A-F” rating are really reflecting the income and education levels of families in the community that the students are from, not necessarily the efforts of school systems. The claim that these tests are part of an authentic accountability process for school systems and their educators is ludicrous and it is unethical to continue to purport this information to the public as credible.

 

Yet all of this testing does portray pseudo accountability, as educators across the state are well aware. With this in mind, the ODE “Information on Student Participation in Tests” document offers the following: “A district may have additional consequences for students. For example, a district may include the state’s end-of-course test score in a student’s grade instead of a final exam. Students attending a nonpublic school may have different testing requirements.” I suppose one might conclude that the state never wants to bypass an opportunity to promote the mostly unaccountable nonpublic charter schools in the state. One might also surmise that the state would like to offer suggestions to districts in the event that schools would like to unite with them as they blackmail families into participating in state testing. To assist with this, the ODE recommends districts raise the stakes even higher, and include state tests as part of a student’s overall grade in a course. Even though evidence from research is plentiful and conclusive that classroom teacher created assessments are the most accurate and authentic measurements of student achievement, this endorsement of further detriment to students through high stakes standardized testing is shamelessly asserted. However, it is commendable that there were no false claims in the document to imply that high stakes standardized testing has in any way assisted with closing achievement gaps, because it indisputably has only widened those gaps.

 

As a result of the release of this document February 4th, 2015, that states districts may want to request refusals in writing, I wish to make my intentions and permissions completely unambiguous. I refuse (instead of opt-out) to allow my 4th grader to take any more standardized tests. These high stakes standardized tests have increased educational disparities and inequities including contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline and sustaining generational poverty.  I REFUSE to allow my child to be part of a system that promotes and perpetuates social injustice for ANY of our country’s children, but especially the most vulnerable. I trust his educated and experienced teacher to monitor his growth and progress ALL year long, and I am insulted when his education is reduced to numbers on isolated tests not generated by his classroom teachers. I am exercising my rights under the 14th amendment, under precedents set in court cases cited within this letter and within my notice to my district, and as a citizen in a country that is by definition governed through the consent of the people. Scare tactics and threats are usually the tools of a totalitarian regime when it is challenged, or tools utilized by individuals who feel cornered. Those methods will not work on families in Ohio like mine who are protecting our youngest citizens from emotional and physical stressors. The education and development of our children as contributing citizens is too vitally important to our country and the sustainability of our democracy for us to halt the movement to end high stakes standardized testing.

 

The text of the “Information” document on February 4th, 2015 is indicative of possible concerns that the ODE may have or may be hearing from individuals in the state. Please persist in exploring these concerns as they are presented and consider formulating educational policies that are intelligently designed, supported by research, and done in conjunction with educators and parents. Our children, educators, and the future of our state deserve better than what is currently being promulgated. I believe many other parents and individuals involved in education would express the same sentiment.

 

In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  I am just one parent, one teacher, one citizen, but there is a formidable, thoughtful, and committed group of citizens inspiring me. Do not doubt that fact.

 

Sincerely,

Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith

Berea, Ohio

The High Cost of High Stakes Testing (Spoiler Alert! It Hurts Students with Disadvantages the Most!)

The High Cost of High Stakes Standardized Testing

(Spoiler Alert! It Hurts Students with Disadvantages the Most!)

 

I have a dear friend who values my input on matters in his personal life, then becomes flushed with gratitude after I offer meager scraps of wisdom rooted in experience, which then prompts him to inquire as to how he could ever repay my acts of friendship. I have to remind him that people are not commodities and that not every interaction requires a cost and benefit analysis or exchange. He’s a financial analyst in the healthcare industry, so this fact is not always as evident to him as it may be to someone who has spent 17 years in education, and even longer as a parent. Apparently this tidbit of information that I shared with my friend has not been obvious to those formulating education policy either. If students were not viewed as profit potential, or as indistinguishable data, then the research that conclusively demonstrates that 80% of a student’s academic performance is linked to factors beyond school walls such as environment, family, health, and socioeconomic status would actually be utilized to implement effective societal and educational reform. Doing something productive with regard to the issues that impact a student’s educational advantages or disadvantages, would be much more beneficial than adding more lard to the already obese test company profits. More tests and pseudo accountability are not going to address a single one of the family or societal factors currently affecting student academic performance.

In order to provide a more comprehensive portrayal of what our country is now spending on testing, the American Federation of Teachers published a study in 2013 of two mid-size urban districts with the pseudonyms “Midwestern School District” and “Eastern School District.” The costs of testing ranged from $200-$1100 per student based on the grade level of the student. Hours spent on testing and test preparation ranged from 65-165 hours across the two districts based on grade level, as well.

What has been lost as a result of testing absorbing dollars and  time? Physical education, the arts, and recess have been reduced or eliminated, especially in schools serving underprivileged or special needs students because the curriculum becomes hyper focused on trying to cram test knowledge into students who arrive grade levels behind their middle and upper class peers. Countries with the highest performing students have an approach to education that is exactly the opposite of what we are doing in the United States because there is a bountiful amount of research that reveals children are better students if they have physical activity, exposure to the arts, and when their most basic needs are being met.

In order to maximize academic opportunities, students need to be well rested, well fed, feel safe, and have stability in their lives. Unfortunately, for the first time in fifty years, over half of the children in our public schools meet the criteria for free or reduced lunch, which means they are from low income households that fall within federal poverty guidelines. Educators have always known that it is harder to engage hungry students in learning, and researchers have had evidence for over a decade that food insecurity impairs reading and math development in children. Can we use high stakes standardized tests to feed these hungry children who come from homes with food insecurity? Can we use high stakes standardized tests to eradicate poverty, violence, police mistrust, or feelings of hopelessness? Will high stakes testing assist our students suffering from a  lack of exposure to early childhood literacy development or improve the social skills of a generation growing up dependent on electronics? Have high stakes standardized tests and promises of merit pay inspired our brightest high school graduates to flood the education colleges with admissions applications, or assisted at all with retaining the 40-50% of teachers who enter the profession then leave within five years? Are current educators pleading for positions in “low performing” schools to serve students who possess performance potential not yet reached, where they need additional resources and the best educators the most?  There is one answer to all of those questions: NO.

Worse yet, high stakes standardized testing has negatively impacted students of color, students from disadvantaged socioeconomic environments, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities. I have witnessed and possess evidence of schools removing children from their enrollment lists because a student does not have a history of performing well on tests. I have also seen schools retain students on their rosters because there is a potential for the student to perform well on a high stakes standardized test, even if the student requires accommodations and services that cannot be provided by that specific school. I have serviced students that have become entangled in the school to prison pipeline partly because they are viewed as liabilities that may drag down building test scores. The focus on what is best for students is lost when schools and their staffs are forced to chase chimerical numbers that will determine the effectiveness of their school and possibly their salaries.

The idea of merit pay for educators is a concept fraught with illogical fallacies, not surprisingly concocted by capitalists hoping to profit off of children under the guise of education reform. These capitalists also seem to have convinced politicians to support nonsensical policies, or they have enough discretionary funds to ensure that research and evidence play no role in decision making when it is time to produce or enforce education legislation. I am not even going to waste time inserting a link here about the lack of correlation between improved instruction, student learning, and merit pay. Could anyone who enters the teaching profession possibly be monetarily motivated  by an average starting salary of a little over $36,000 per year? Individuals do not enter education to build tangible wealth, but we are not the martyrs that we were once historically portrayed as either. As professionals with degrees and advanced educations, we deserve salaries that are commensurate with our skills and knowledge. We enter the profession consciously sacrificing material reward for the personal fulfillment that accompanies teaching. However, we also have families that we love and that rely on us for their support. If a consistent salary is contingent in any way on high stakes standardized test scores that actually reflect a child’s upbringing rather than the effectiveness of the teacher, how could any individual choose to risk their livelihood and the ability to support their family in order to work at a school with students who have  challenges and are predicted to perform poorly on standardized tests? This leaves students who need the best educators the most at risk for a continued pattern of teacher attrition and high staff turnover rates, which exacerbates the struggles that already exist. High stakes standardized testing contributes to the perpetuation of educational inequities entrenched in high poverty areas. They do nothing resolve them.

Due to the erroneous and morally egregious high stakes associated with standardized testing such as the ability to graduate from high school, grade retention, or linking teacher evaluations to scores, we have punished the most vulnerable members of our society. How did our country arrive at a point at which OUR CHILDREN could be viewed as potential liabilities? Stakeholders may need to be reminded that we are judged by how we treat our weakest and most powerless citizens. I have great hope for the future if education reform is intelligently designed and research based. However, the prospect of generations yet to come examining our current educational structure should provoke tremendous trepidation among those who helped create this quandary.

In 1954 Chief Justice Earl Warren stated with regard to Brown v. Board of Education   “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunities of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right that must be made available on equal terms.” High stakes standardized testing has completely failed to create equal terms. Instead it has  intensified educational disparities. It is unfathomable that a statement made sixty-plus years ago concerning school segregation, is still so completely relevant in 2015.