Diane Ravitch | 8 Powerful Voices for Public Ed Film Series

The first release in a series of 8 viral short videos, Diane Ravitch explains how public education is being damaged by Read more

John Kuhn | 2 School Districts, 1 Ugly Truth

What’s wrong with the way we fund our schools? Listen to Texas Superintendent John Kuhn’s powerful Read more

Linda Lyon | She Served Our Country. Now She's Fighting For Our Kids,

“Privatization is as much about limiting the power of the average citizen as it is about increasing profits.” Watch Linda Lyon from Arizona talk about charters and vouchers and the destruction they Read more

Jesse Hagopian | Teach What Matters

 Teacher Jesse Hagopian shares a devastating classroom story, but it’s not hopeless. We need to teach to the child and not to the test. TEACH WHAT Read more

Johanna Garcia | The Uncomfortable Truth About the Tests

 "You can't heal the inequities that plague our schools by administering tests that are toxic to our kids!". Listen to parent activist Johanna Read more

Lost Arts

Co-writer Kemala Karmen Deputy Director, Co-Founder NYCpublic   The trajectory of my life was forever changed by Eileen Daniel Riddle and James Gilchrist, two high school theater arts teachers who worked at my pre-busing, segregated suburban high school in the early 1970s. I was a struggling student, but they introduced me, and so many others, to what would become a lifelong passion. Read more

The Other PARCC

The PARCC was once the standardized test of choice for many states laying claim to alignment with CCSS. Once parents started to take a look at the quality of the testing, the curriculum it was aligned to, and the costs to their school districts, all of that changed. Parents really do have the Read more

Student Walkout March 14th 2018

Posted on by Michael Elliot in Blog Article, Video Release | Leave a comment

      Washington Post Answer Sheet

Why Our Kids Don’t Love School Anymore

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On a weekend in December, I took a borrowed camera and lights and headed out to Montclair, New Jersey. All weekend long, one after another, public school parents and students tromped down the basement stairs in the home of an MCAS member. She and her fellow parent activists had assembled a diverse collection of urban and suburbanites, so that I could record their testimony. They wanted to talk about the changes that they were witnessing in their schools and in their children, changes which they believed emanated directly from corporate education reforms, and in particular, the upcoming PARCC Standardized Tests. (PARCC, an acronym for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, is a multi-state consortium that has engaged the testing and publishing behemoth Pearson to create the Common Core-aligned computer-based standardized tests.)

Parents and students talked about the dramatic changes in curriculum and a flood of test prep in classes and homework. Some spoke about the massive expenditures for technology and testing materials, as hands-on instructional time declined. Parents of children with special education needs and individualized education plans (IEPs), found the implications of these changes particularly troubling. Many were concerned that the test-obsessed curriculum would undermine their community’s focus on equity and desegregation. Most devastating, parent after parent described an insidious slide in the engagement of their children with school. They were all deeply frustrated and fed up with being ignored by policy makers and the media.

Getting their story out of the basement and into the larger world is what we did with my borrowed equipment on that cold December weekend.

The Other PARCC from Shoot4Education on Vimeo.

No Threat Left Behind: New York City Stifles Opt Out

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Co-Writer Kemala Karmen
Deputy Director, Co Founder NYC Public

With more than 200,000 students — or nearly 1 in 5 of all eligible test takers–refusing to sit for annual standardized tests, New York State made headlines last spring for leading the nation in sheer number of opt outs. The parent-led opt out movement worked hard to get those numbers, getting an unexpected boost from voters disgusted by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s hubristic overreach in pushing the Education Transformation Act of 2015. (The legislation proposed that as much as fifty percent of a teacher’s evaluation would hinge on test score “growth.”)  However, if you take even the tiniest of peeks at the distribution of those opt out numbers, one thing will immediately become apparent: New York City, with a test refusal rate of only 1.4%, is not keeping up with the pack. Why? What’s going on?

As parents of New York City public school children, we can tell you. And it’s not pretty. Whether you are a parent in a “high performing” school with plenty of middle and upper class children or a parent with a child in a “low performing” school with a population weighed down by the stresses of poverty, there is a powerful deterrent custom-made for you when it comes to making the decision of whether or not to allow a child to take the tests.

The most dire of threats, school closure, falls heavily on the city’s 94 Renewal Schools.  These schools, which serve predominantly low-income, minority, and immigrant communities, receive the “Renewal” designation largely due to their poor showing on state tests. (Graduation rates come into play for high schools.) When the de Blasio/Fariña administration introduced the Renewal Program, which is supposed to pump resources into struggling schools, it was positioned as an alternative to the unpopular school closure policy favored by Bloomberg/Klein. But a school can only be removed from the program through an improvement in test scores–on the same disastrous state tests that have been roundly criticized by parents, teachers, administrators, and now, even Governor Cuomo’s own Common Core Task Force.  Parents are scared of losing their schools completely, whether to charterization or state receivership, and the test-based exit criteria pressures them into seeing testing as essential for school survival. In an effort to raise those scores come hell or high water, children who need so much more than drill-and-test are fed the narrowest test-prep workbook curriculum.

The gravest impediment to opt out that the NYC Department of Education hangs over the heads of parents and children in other communities is the middle school and high school admissions process. Unlike elsewhere in the state, New York City has a complicated, and medical-school-competitive, admissions model. (The comparison to medical school is no exaggeration; New York hired the same team who designed the system that matches medical school students to residencies to design the system that matches teenage students to high schools.) Although state law now precludes test scores from being the sole or primary factor in a school’s admission formula, the city still sends student scores to the receiving institutions. This makes parents distrust even those schools who say they don’t consider test scores at all. After all, if the score is right there in front of the admissions team, what’s to stop them from looking and using it to make shorthand determinations about the student? Moreover, admissions rules seem to be constantly changing and no one knows what the future will bring. Currently, in all but a few instances, only 4th grade and 7th grade scores are used, respectively, for middle school and high school admissions, but will the rules change? Every principal will tell you there’s no way to know. Getting into the school that is a good match for your child is on the minds of parents from the moment their children hit the 3rd grade, so the fear around this issue is enough to make any parent pause–and to make many of them think, well, even if only 4th grade counts, to be safe, I probably should have my 8 year old take the third grade test as practice. Ditto, the 5th and 6th grade tests, because 7th grade is the admissions ticket. As for 8th grade, that’s practice for the new, more stringent, high school Regents exams. There are no avenues for discussion here. In many districts, there is no neighborhood middle school that you can fall back on, and few zoned high schools remain. It’s school roulette, and the NYCDOE holds all the cards.

In much of the state, parents were motivated to opt out because they wanted to protect their beloved teachers. They reasoned that refusing the tests would mean there would be no spurious data for test-based teacher evaluations. (Note: No parent we know is saying, “Don’t evaluate our teachers”–just don’t evaluate them via this discredited test-based model.) But here in the city, Chancellor Fariña has stated that growth in test scores should weigh 30% or more in teacher evaluations. Indeed, in some ways the city has outdone the state in tying scores to evaluation: the state sets a threshold of 16 scores before it assigns a teacher rating; in the city a mere 6 scores is considered a sufficient sample for both the state and local “measures.” Six scores is three students taking both the English and Math exams. Imagine: a teacher may have a classroom of 32 kids (the contractual limit for elementary school), but have the lion’s share of their evaluation based on how three children perform. This understandably makes teachers nervous about who those three children might be and families may feel that burden as they weigh test refusal.

Finally, a gag order threat hangs over teachers and principals.  They are not allowed to speak to parents about opt out.  They can offer no insight into the tests themselves, they cannot advise you if the tests are inappropriate for your child, they can only ask you what you want to do.  In many instances teachers and administrators don’t have accurate information themselves on the viability of opt out, so they repeat the lines given them by the NYCDOE: Take the tests!  There is a crackdown going on right now to try and strangle the New York City opt out community entirely.  Teachers and principals are threatened with being labeled insubordinate if they speak the truth about testing.  If they make any attempt to protect children from the abuses of these tests, their careers hang in the balance.  This goes for principals as well as teachers.  Watch as Anita Skop, Superintendent of Schools in Brooklyn’s District 15, clearly following Chancellor’s orders, explains to parents that under no circumstances should teachers or principals speak with parents about their concerns regarding the tests.

There are no protections here, no local school board or activist union to shield teachers and parents from the wrath of city government.  Cross the line and there can be consequences, albeit vague and opaque in nature.  And all of this is coming from the allegedly progressive, education-savvy Mayor Bill de Blasio and his handpicked Chancellor Carmen Fariña. Parents are being denied their rights, educators are being silenced, and it’s the kids who suffer.

You Can’t Measure This

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Co-authored by Kemala Karmen
Deputy Director, Co-Founder NYCpublic.org

Sanise Lebron – CASA MIddle School, Bronx NY from Shoot4Education on Vimeo.

In the sturm und drang leading up to last week’s New York State budget vote, countless letters were written, phone calls made, and backroom deals negotiated regarding the new education policies Governor Andrew Cuomo had tied to approval of his financial plans. Much of that talk revolved around a new teacher evaluation law and the role high-stakes standardized testing should play in assessing teacher accountability. Should a full 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, as the governor proposed, be based on the test-score “growth” of his or her students? Would, as critics countered, such an emphasis lead to a diminution of social studies, science, foreign language, and arts instruction since those subjects are not regularly covered by the tests the state administers?

These questions are certainly worthy of debate; after all, there is no consensus as to the validity of the “value-added measurement” theory that underlies the governor’s proposals — and notable detractors include the American Statistical Association and the National Science Foundation. However, I have to wonder if, by virtue of this narrow focus, Albany has somehow lost track of what really matters for the children who attend our schools.

Certainly, schools must be places where the transmission of academic knowledge occurs, but a good school offers so much more than that; it becomes a home away from home, it is a place where students thrive because they feel safe and seen and valued, and are given opportunities to grow. Likewise, the best teachers do more than simply inform students of the facts and theories of their disciplines. The acquisition of those facts and theories might, imperfectly, be measured by tests. But that is so tiny in the scheme of things. What matters is that the best teachers care. They inspire. They forge relationships that acknowledge that children are complex beings; they see and address students’ needs and possibilities.

Recently, I had a tangible and powerful reminder of these truths. I was watching Jamaal Bowman conduct the weekly “community circle” at C.A.S.A. Middle School in the Bronx. I’d “met” Jamaal, C.A.S.A.’s principal, in a very modern way; knowing that I was looking to film public school experiences, he’d tweeted, “Come tell our story” at me and included a link to a wonderful YouTube video called 7 Habits. It wasn’t long after, that I grabbed my camera and headed to the Bronx. In the community circle, students gave all kinds of testimony: shout-outs to teachers who helped them or pushed them that week, apologies for mistakes or lack of effort, and affirmations for the joyfulness of the school. Jamaal conducted the meeting with the inspiration of a revival and the musical skill of a hip-hop DJ.

As I stared into the faces of these 12-, 13- and 14-year-old children, I saw immense joy. It was clear to me that these students learn and share in an atmosphere of understanding. It is an environment where their voices count, and their adversities are shared, validated, and communicated. What was truly remarkable was how the students worked with each other. As each child rose to give thanks or share regret, there was great respect and restraint shown. When the situation called for it, they were buoyant, enthusiastic, and boisterous. At other times, they grew quiet and focused intently on every word. These were middle school kids, but they were not posturing or sizing each other up or feigning boredom! They were in the moment, and as inspired as I was by the potential that existed in this world of school.

I recorded many of the student testimonies given on that initial trip to C.A.S.A., but for me the testimony of Sanise Lebron, an 8th grade student, best revealed the depth and power of what is happening at this Bronx middle school. She shared her story with her entire school. They watched her deliver the anguish in her life with such grace and beauty. Jamaal and his staff, and the students themselves, have created a compassionate space for children, fully aware that real learning cannot happen in the absence of empathy.

Sanise’s favorite class is Humanities and she hopes to be a lawyer when she grows up, to help transform her community. She is a winning member on the debate team, a huge contributor to the basketball team, and plays softball outside of school. Her best friends are Makala, Angelina, China, and Rebecca, whom Sanise describes as smart, fun, and always there for each other. Although her father isn’t around, she has an amazing mother, uncle, and grandmother who provide her with outstanding love and support. She identifies Ms. De Los Santos, Mrs. Doria, and Ms. Walton as her favorite teachers because they continue to push her and nurture her academically and emotionally.

So, Legislators of New York State, can a standardized test put a value on this?
Source: Michael Elliot

The Teachers Who Change Our Lives

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I graduated from high school as a failed student. When I describe the state of my education from that time I borrow a line from the Woody Allen film Love and Death because “I couldn’t write my name in the ground with a stick.” Now I could tell a story about all the teachers who let me down, which is something I hear all the time at hearings from people speaking up for high standards, common core and the test prep factories of charter schools. They talk about their resentment at arriving in college unprepared, with deficient skills and in need of remediation. But I’m not going to tell that story.

I grew up with a constellation of learning disabilities and was labeled an underachiever in the third grade. In reality, given my resistance, my inattentiveness, my issues with executive function which dog me to this day, I was unteachable. Many will say that’s an impossibility, but to this day, nothing has ever convinced me that I was present and able to be educated beyond what I was willing to take in. The expectations of school were all avoidance for me. I simply saw no value in it and I couldn’t marshal the personal resources to force myself to fit in.

One afternoon, in ninth grade, I was stranded at school because I missed the bus home, and I was waiting for a ride with a friend. He was on the stage crew for The Sound of Music, the spring musical that was being staged at school. He asked me to tag along and help him, so I did. I was small so I could hide under the stage of the outdoor amphitheater, and when the lights went down I’d race out to place props and move sets around. I had a lot of fun doing this, it was exciting, with the music, the singing and everyone taking it all very seriously. At the end of the night I was standing up on the stage waiting for my friend to drive me home when a teacher, Eileen Daniel Riddle walked up to me and asked what I was doing. I mumbled something about waiting for my ride, and she looked at me, then walked away. Moments later she came back with a broom and handing it to me, asked if I would sweep the stage.

She handed me a broom.

From that night on I worked on every play until I graduated. I rarely had time to hang out with my old friends who spent their time rearranging their body chemistry on a molecular level. I couldn’t get enough theater. I had never seen a professional production; I had no aspirations of being involved in theater. I just loved the connection, and belonging to something bigger than myself. I loved building sets, hanging lights, moving flats, and everything that had anything to do with putting on plays and musicals. Fortunately for me, I went to a school that could provide the experience of mounting theatrical productions four or five times a year. My life revolved around that schedule. Eileen was a tough taskmaster and the expectations were high, but she nurtured the desire in me and gave my life shape. That desire propelled me into college, because it was the only place where I could continue working in the community of theater. Once in college I learned to write because I needed the skills in order to develop a real grasp of how stories are told, how the design of a production is lifted from the pages of a script, and how to analyze the themes, the plot, the characters and demands needed to transform a play on paper into a production on a stage, or in a film.

I had a teacher in high school who handed me a broom and in doing so, inspired me to harness my intelligence to service my passion. She was a dedicated high school Theater Arts teacher, and she saved my life. This is what I take away from my failed educational experience, immense gratitude for a teacher who showed me something I’d never seen before, and it became the guiding force in my life.

We live in a time where the teaching profession is so maligned and education budgets have been stripped bare. The Arts have been eliminated in favor of a dirt dry, common core aligned test prep curriculum. So in order to remind parents about the need for solid creative programs in public education and in gratitude to teachers who give so much to our kids, in November I’m shooting a short documentary, interviewing former students and their mentor teachers about the ways in which teachers impact the lives of their students. I’m offering a group of adults the chance to thank the teacher who had such a powerful influence on the shape of their life, and share the story of how it unfolded. Over the years so many people have told me stories about a teacher who changed their life. It may not be the idealized version of some teacher we dream of for our children. For me, this was a tough relationship, born of adversity and failure, where I was lucky enough to encounter a teacher who could meet me where I was, without judgment, but with the inspiration that I needed. All it took was one. If you have a story, and want to share it with that former teacher, visit my Facebook page, Shoot4Education and leave me a message.

Follow Michael Elliot on Twitter: www.twitter.com/shoot4education