Lost Arts - The Teacher Project

So many people I know have a story about a teacher who changed their life.  For me it was Eileen Daniel Riddle and James Gilchrist.  On a Sunday afternoon in Agoura Hills, Calif. a group of us got together with these Read more

Diane Ravitch: Why all parents should opt their kids out of high-stakes standardized tests

Original article by Valerie Strauss, The Washington Post The Network for Public Education, a nonprofit education advocacy group co-founded by historian Diane Ravitch, is calling for a national “opt out” of high-stakes standardized testing, urging parents across the country to Read more

The Other PARCC

On a weekend in December, I took a borrowed camera and lights and headed to Montclair, New Jersey. All weekend long, one after another, public school parents and students tromped down the basement stairs in the home of a Read more

Lost Arts – The Teacher Project

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So many people I know have a story about a teacher who changed their life.  For me it was Eileen Daniel Riddle and James Gilchrist.  On a Sunday afternoon in Agoura Hills, Calif. a group of us got together with these two remarkable teachers, to share our stories and our gratitude.

Lost Arts

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Co-writer Kemala Karmen
Deputy Director, Co-Founder NYCpublic

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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. I made this film for all the teachers who pour their hearts into children, yet live in a world where there is scant appreciation or even understanding that teaching is no mere job, but a manifestation of love, a calling.

No one chooses to be a teacher for the money. The pay, for incredibly difficult and exhausting work, isn’t enough to make it worth it. Many parents struggle with one or two kids, but multiply that by 25 or more, for 6 to 8 hours a day, and it’s a long day. The oft-repeated (and inaccurate) tropes of “big pensions” and “summers off” indicate a failure to comprehend the demanding circumstances teachers face in order to do their jobs–and the actual figures stamped on their pay stubs. Over the years, education policy has done little to rectify this ignorance and, some would argue, has actually stoked its fires.

Gone are reasonable budgets and an emphasis on enrichment. The arts, music, science, social studies, geography, shop, drama, sports, school orchestras–vanished or, if still extant, much more limited and restricted. Still, schools and local PTAs try to fill in where they can afford to, and teachers try to make it work in the classrooms. But the enormity and pain of these losses is palpable, and recent enough that the cuts continue to sting. Just the other day, a friend lamented about the diminished role the arts play in her children’s school–the very school she had attended as a child. When she was a student, the arts infused the school day, every day. The recorder, the violin, singing, the school play–these were the norm, not an exception. Her children, on the other hand, have curated arts experiences, little tastes of this art or that, “extras” parachuted in at predetermined points of the school year. This makes the job of teachers all the more difficult. While there has always been, and will continue to be, a subset of children who thrive in the classroom with little more than the “3 Rs,” a pencil, and a bit of lined paper, the regular presence of the arts and other enrichments provided teachers the means of reaching a wide array of children for whom traditional seat work had proved a woefully insufficient inducement.

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Let me be clear that I’m not waxing poetic about years past. There’s never been a time where we achieved equity and equal funding for all schools. Still, in recent years, we have been systematically stripping away everything that inspires children, and for those with the least, we’re replacing it with an austere, remedial world of basics, and no more.

Somewhere along the way, those who make education policy lost their way. They may have started from a place of good intentions, of wanting to ensure that all children got their due, but the obsession with metrics that now dominates our schools is predicated on the false assumption that children can be standardized, that they all need exactly the same thing at exactly the same time, and that there are ways to accurately measure that they have all hit whatever pre-determined benchmarks they are expected to hit at precisely the same moments. Compared to the hard work of real education, which requires nuance, skill, and the creativity to meet individual children with unique strengths and challenges, this standardization approach–also known as the “business” or “accountability” model–is literally and figuratively cheap. It also makes it easy for politicians to blame teachers and schools when the standards aren’t met. In essence, we are using data to try to quantify the educational progress of children, while losing sight of what inspires them to learn, and what inspires teachers to educate. This is how we value our children and the teachers who spend so much time with them.

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That brings me back to my own experience of school. Today, it’s doubtful I would have tested out of high school, much less continued on to college. If we continue with the test-centric business model of education, we build failure into the system and we dishonor and underappreciate those who try so hard to bring our children to their fullest potential. This dishonor, sadly, is the true state of “teacher appreciation,”–which is observed in the U.S. this week (aka “Teacher Appreciation Week”)–with McDonalds discounts and other dubious rewards.

The film represents my gratitude, and my hope. I hope we can stop for a moment and realize we’re destroying the immense value teachers bring to our children, and with it, our messy, imperfect–yet amazing–public education system.

Diane Ravitch: Why all parents should opt their kids out of high-stakes standardized tests

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Original article by Valerie Strauss, The Washington Post

The Network for Public Education, a nonprofit education advocacy group co-founded by historian Diane Ravitch, is calling for a national “opt out” of high-stakes standardized testing, urging parents across the country to refuse to allow their children to participate in this spring’s testing.
In a video released on the network’s website, Ravitch says families should opt out of state-mandated high-stakes testing in part because the scores provide “no useful information” about the abilities of individual students and are unfairly used to evaluate educators. She also notes that testing and test prep take up valuable class time that could be better put to use providing students with a full curriculum, including the arts.

“Opt out is the only way you have to tell policymakers that they’re heading in the wrong direction,” Ravitch says in the video, aimed at parents.

Ravitch has been the titular leader of the movement against corporate school reform since the publication of her 2010 book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” which explains why she had abandoned her support for No Child Left Behind and test-based school reform. From 1991 to 1993, she worked as assistant secretary in charge of research and improvement in the Education Department of President George H.W. Bush and served as counsel to then-Education Secretary Lamar Alexander. She was a supporter of No Child Left Behind, the chief education initiative of President George W. Bush, until she researched its effects on schools and students and concluded that it led to a narrowing of curriculum, an obsession with test prep and demoralized teachers.

What has become known as the “opt out” movement has been growing in various states for a few years, sparked by standardized test-based school reform that began under the administration of the younger Bush and gained steam under President Obama. A growing number of parents are refusing to allow their children to take tests that they believe — and that assessment experts say — are being used in an improper manner to evaluate students and teachers.

Last year, the opt-out movement was strongest in New York state, where about 20 percent of students refused to take the state’s “accountability” test, but tens of thousands of students in other states did the same thing. In fact, the U.S. Education Department issued more than a dozen letters to states where opt-outs were reported, warning them of possible sanctions if at least 95 percent of all students are not tested. The 95 percent threshold is set in federal K-12 education law, first in No Child Left Behind and then in its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

In New York, officials reacted to the opt-out movement by making the mandated tests shorter, removing time limits and temporarily saying that the scores won’t be used to evaluate teachers for years. Betty Rosa, the newly elected chancellor of Board of Regents, the state’s education policy-making body, said that if she had children who were of an age to take the state-mandated Common Core tests, she would keep them home on testing day.

The Network for Public Education is a coalition of dozens of groups that advocate for public education. It recently issued a state report card that evaluated states on criteria seen as promoting a professional teaching force, equitable and sufficient funding, and equal opportunities for all students to succeed.

The nonprofit National Center for Fair and Open Testing, known as FairTest, which fights the misuse of government-mandated standardized tests, says on its website that the average student takes 112 tests between kindergarten and 12th grade and that the assessments “are frequently used in ways that do not reflect the abilities of students of color, English language learners, children with disabilities, and low-income youth.”

Indeed, Yohuru Williams, Fairfield University professor and a board member of the Network for Public Education, has argued that annual high-stakes testing feeds racial determinism. He said in a statement:

“Choosing to opt out is one way of fighting back against the tide of corporate education reform with its emphasis on high-stakes testing, which has had a traumatizing effect on young people. We have a moral responsibility to demand that the government attack the real source of inequality in American society, which is poverty, rather than promoting schemes that discourage rather than encourage social justice.”

Both FairTest and the United Opt Out National, a grass-roots organization affiliated with the network, have information on their websites about opting out. FairTest says that despite threats from policymakers, it knows of no school or district that has been sanctioned for testing opt-outs.

How to Opt Out of the NY State Tests

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A short, informational and fun primer on Refusing the Tests!
Please Visit optoutnyc.com/opt-out/frequently-asked-questions-faq/
or NYC Opt Out on FACEBOOK!

Children of the Unraveling

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As we find ourselves careening into the dystopian unreality of this presidential election, I’m scouring the creative landscape with a survivalists instincts to understand the forces driving the chaos of what’s unfolding, I had the good fortune to see a music video release Our Love is a Garden from a new album Hope & Sorrow by Wilder Adkins. Directed by Marcus Tortorici and edited by a colleague, Heather Danosky, I was struck by the perspective these three millennials shared in their collaboration and it gave me a glimpse into some of the attitudes that are part of the undercurrent of social and political upheaval. It’s a beautiful song and the video is an exceptional visualization, suffused with an aura of the incomprehensible swirling around us. Wilder’s song is about the garden, in a biblical sense, but Tortorici tells us the visual story of a pair of lovers who come to this “garden” without the experience of innocence, while the lyrics speak an older language of love’s fragile nature, and how difficult it is to travel together through the landscape of union and life.

Something about the song and the visuals made me ask them how they felt about the world around them, what they see in the news, in the forces and velocity of what’s being released upon us. Heather stated very simply that she was terrified, and had no idea where her life’s trajectory would take her. Marcus shared the feeling of how hard it is to connect with people because there’s such a pervasive attitude of protectiveness and caution. It felt to him like people withhold their real or vulnerable selves and are disconnected from the very idea of it. Wilder told me he keeps the tools of his craft small and close at hand so he doesn’t need much in the way of resources to express himself. All three of them shared a similar sense of mistrust and confusion as to where all of these chaotically unfolding events would take them.

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Although all three are at the point where their creative energies are propelling them into the lives they’re meant to have, they talked about not being able to see around the next corner. They expressed difficulty in having expectations about the future. The more they explained the feelings that lead them to the music and the visual interpretation, the more I was struck by how familiar this emotional landscape seemed. I was staring into an experience I’ve seen from a different perspective and I recognized the face of my son, of this age, which instantly propelled me into his life.

Born at the dawn of the internet, growing up in Los Angeles, at first in a gentle life. He had neighborhood friends, bikes, and skateboards, accented by video games, swimming parties, roller coasters, and birthday parties. One afternoon the city erupted in flames from the immense injustice of the Rodney King verdict and the ’92 riots unfolded. We lived close enough to be inundated in the smoke and sirens and we watched the steady stream of images from inside our home, unsettling and traumatic. Then early one morning the house began to shake so hard it felt as though it was ripping apart and the ceiling of our bedroom opened up to a dark sky while our house filled with dust. It was a long time before the shaking faded into his memories while the weave of his family was pulled loose in divorce.

Before long, the house, the pool, and the neighborhood were gone and his life in Brooklyn began. Then the World Trade Center Towers came down, 20 blocks from his school. A door opened in his bedroom, with the beginnings of social media and YouTube. The images of change and upheaval were no longer witnessed in the newspaper or on the family TV, he discovered them in the dark, often alone, as we invaded Iraq and the deluge of destruction poured in through a wire. During his college years, he began to see my life change. The f company I created deteriorated with incredible speed when the recession took hold. There was a brilliant flash of hope as Barack Obama was elected President, but the unraveling continued. He made his way home from school as we moved from our house. My company closed. We moved again, and again until finally there was no more room for him. I pushed him out as he transformed into his adult self and the world he entered was not one of promise and potential, but shaped by limitations and scarcity with hope in short supply.

He is a cautious and wary young man, creative and soft spoken. He can erupt in joy and laughter, but it’s always tempered. There’s little room for reckless abandon in a world of frequent change and unexpected loss. These children of ours having grown up in a hyper internet connected world have seen and experienced so much more than I did. They possess the tentative sensibilities of those who have experienced first hand, this unstable, dramatically changing world from the wide-eyed vantage point of a child.

While watching the groundswell of political activism within the ranks of these children of the unraveling, suddenly the notion that so many of them would passionately support an experienced and wizened veteran senator instead of youthful vigor as the embodiment of their hopes and dreams, doesn’t seem as incongruous as it did prior to the simple act of experiencing this song and video. Although this vision of the garden with its absence of innocence conjured a series of dark, complex and difficult memories for me, it left me feeling hopeful. They took the dreams and recollections of their experiences and transformed them into something quite beautiful. The capacity to find and feel love remains and it will be interesting to see what they weave out of it.

Our Love Is a Garden from Marcus Tortorici on Vimeo.

Source: Michael Elliot

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.