Over 1,000 NYC parents, whose children attend schools in 31 of 32 city districts, write to the Mayor and Chancellor and are ignored; teachers & principals threatened with disciplinary action if they speak to parents about standardized tests administered in school.
PRESS CONTACTS: Megan Devir
On numerous occasions, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina has emphatically declared that the success of New York’s schools depends on engaging parents and families in every aspect of school life. Indeed, she purports that parent engagement is so crucial to her vision that it is one of four “pillars” upon which her chancellorship is based.
Yet, when, in a grassroots effort, more than 1,000 parents whose children attend 228 schools (in every borough and in 31 of the city’s 32 school districts) signed a letter (attached) asking for a meeting with the Mayor and Chancellor to discuss their concerns about the absence of free and open dialogue around high-stakes testing in city schools, their request for engagement yielded no response; the administration failed even to acknowledge receipt of the letter.
Now, in an indication of the NYCDOE’s true regard for parents and parent rights, a superintendent has been caught on tape telling families at a public forum that their children’s teachers and principals cannot share their honest and expert opinions of the state’s standardized testing program. The superintendent, District 15’s Anita Skop, claimed that such speech would be “political,” and therefore prohibited by the state since educators are public employees. Parents in the audience were in an uproar, claiming that testing should be an educational, not a political, matter and that a parent body wanting to hear educators speak freely about the value and validity of high-stakes testing was no different than wanting to hear educators speak about the value and validity of homework policies. Skop insisted educators shouldn’t talk, “I can tell you this is the policy in New York City.” While Skop spoke about city policy, the Brooklyn forum took place against a backdrop of major developments in educational policy elsewhere. ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act), the successor to the No Child Left Behind legislation, was just signed into law in Washington and in New York, Governor Cuomo’s task force on the Common Core submitted its own suggestions regarding annual state testing.
Another forum panelist captured in the video, Network for Public Education Director Carol Burris, was until recently a principal on Long Island. Asked why she, like other educators from outside the city, did not feel too intimidated to speak out about their concerns with the tests, Burris responded, “My superintendent knew that I was vocal and my board of education knew that I was vocal, and they were courageous people.” Why, unlike elsewhere in the state, and contrary to the interests of children and parents, is NYCDOE deliberately choosing a restrictive and contorted interpretation of a state regulation, one originally meant to prevent campaigning?
“To form my own opinions about the state tests,” said Tim Dubnau, a District 15 parent who attended the panel, “I need to hear what my children’s principal and teachers think. They know my kids, and they have actual on-the-ground experience seeing how testing affects children and
what goes on in the classroom. When I heard the Superintendent frame teachers’ concerns about the harms inherent in high-stakes testing as political, it felt like she was saying that testing is really just about politics. I also wondered why the examples of educators being ‘political’ didn’t include teachers who pressure students to take the tests or principals who mete out punitive repercussions to opt outers. I’ve heard of those sorts of threats for years!”
Parent Kemala Karmen sees this as a failure of the NYCDOE to prioritize the interests of children. “If testing is just about politics, and teachers cannot share their professional judgment, why should parents support these tests? Tests should be educationally sound.” By silencing educators, the NYCDOE and NYSED are making a conscious choice to deny parents information. Instead of educating and protecting our children, they are allowing politicians to use students as political pawns. This conclusion is corroborated by the de Blasio/Farina DOE’s refusal to amend the “Parents’ Bill of Rights” to include the right of test refusal, even though the City Council voted unanimously in Spring 2015 to insert right to opt out language in the bill. District 15 parent Johanna Perez makes clear why this omission is so crucial. “My sister was the only one in her Bronx school who had even heard of opt out–and that was only because I told her about the movement to opt out in her niece’s D15 school. Many parents, especially those in communities of color, aren’t even aware that they have a right to refuse!”
When a superintendent of schools says that teachers, as representatives of the state, cannot talk about the educational value of the tests that they administer to children, we have to question who exactly is being political. When Chancellor Farina and Mayor de Blasio define a conversation between parents and teachers about an educational matter as political, parents feel disregarded, and children lose.
Parents from hundreds of schools await the overdue response of the Mayor and Chancellor to their letter, and to the establishment of free and open dialogue about the state tests. There should be no barrier placed between parents and educators. Educators should be free to express their concerns and parents should have access to information so that they have a solid basis on which to make the decision to opt in or opt out of the tests.
ATTACHMENTS: Video, Talking About Testing Forum; Parents’ Letter to the Mayor & Chancellor (includes list of schools attended by children of the parent signatories); Cover Letter to Parents’ Letter