Thursday, April 18, 2013

Learning. (This post is super wordy. Sorry.)

I am currently taking an e-course created by Jeanne Oliver.  Jeanne is amazing and inspiring in so many ways.  She is intelligent, thoughtful, funny, artistically gifted, a lovely writer, loving, honest, open, motivated.  She is also abundantly generous, and regularly has give-aways for her classes, and products from her own line of clothes and accessories, as well as products that she uses and recommends.  I was lucky enough to win this latest course, called, "The Journey of Letting Go {Creating Beauty from Ashes}".

A badge from The Journey of Letting Go e-course by Jeanne Oliver
Each week she puts up videos in which she discusses her philosophies, thoughts, ideas, and how they apply to the course content.  Then there are videos demonstrating different techniques and materials, and projects to use them in.  SO FUN!!!

In one of the "philosophy" videos for this course, she talks at length about taking responsibility in your life and relationships, and being honest with oneself and others.  Much of what she said really struck my heart.

I have been finding many opportunities lately to practice using open honesty to remedy situations.  In fact, we had a "Thing" in our family this week, and her timely discourse on the subject of taking responsibility helped me to figure my way through it.

The skinny of the Thing is this:  The New York State Educational Department has implemented new (soon to be nation-wide) standardized testing for children in grades 3-8.  My daughter is in 7th grade.  She heard through the grapevine that some parents were choosing to opt their children out of this testing for various reasons. She was piqued, did some research, and presented her findings to her father and myself.

We initially put her off, saying, "What's the big deal?  You are smart and always do well on these tests.  Just suck it up, do your best, and get through it." Nice, huh?  (Do I smell a Parents of the Year award?  Or did I forget my deodorant???)

She didn't give in.  She insisted that we do some research for ourselves, and we would see what she was upset about.  She was morally opposed to the whole dang thing.

So I did some research.  I found a lot of compelling evidence both for and against the testing.  I also did my usual Facebook poll, as I have done in the past when I was looking for a swath of viewpoints on a particular subject.

In the end, I decided that I would send the principal of the school an "opt out" letter which was adapted from a letter that was sent to me as a template of sorts.  The original letter had been written by a parent who was very familiar with the education system, and he shared it with the intent of educating and giving the tools to other families who felt the same way.  There is a copy of the letter after the break at the end of this post.

We heard immediately from my daughter's principal.  He respectfully let us know that we could opt our daughter out if we chose to, but that she would be required to sit quietly in her chair for the duration of the testing.  No reading.  No talking.  No sleeping.  Just sitting.  Quietly.  If you know my kid, you understand how truly difficult that would be.  The tests are 1.5 hours each for ELA on three mornings this week, and then 1.25 hours each for math on three mornings of next week.  It may not sound like much each day, but it would get old for her in a hurry.

So, the Thing in our house continued.  We talked and talked and talked, and finally decided that at this time we would acquiesce, and retract our opt-out declaration.  I am a weak social anarchist.

*le sigh*

After that, we were able to settle down and get back to regular stuff.  My research on the NYS standardized testing was concluded, and I was able to continue with my usual momma/ wifely duties of grocery shopping, laundry, workouts, animal care and (YAY!) my online art lessons.

The whole time, though, in the back of my head (and sometimes the front), were nagging thoughts about how I had handled the situation from beginning to end.  I was embarrassed.  I had conflicting emotions over whether I had researched enough, given it enough thought, given it TOO MUCH thought, and why I had backed down when I was cornered. (Okay, not really cornered.  Counseled.  That is more fitting.) 

I decided that this would be another great opportunity to take responsibility, be honest, and thereby allow the situation to unfold and resolve in a peaceful, satisfying way. 

So I wrote another letter (see also after the break at the bottom of this post) to the principal of my daughter's school.  And then I wrote this blog post about it.  And I feel much better about it.

Of course I am not perfect, and a lot of people may disagree with me, but I am really trying to put myself out there, including my faults, and take comfort in knowing that I am not just a bystander.  I am reaching out, learning, making connections to other folks in the hopes of enriching each others' lives. That is so important to me.
A work-in-progress of a class project (color and additional embellishments will be added).  I was inspired, for sure.

Here is a copy of the first opt-out letter I sent, which was written by someone else, but contained the information needed to make it official:
Thank you for all that you do for our school.  We are thankful to live in this town and to send our daughter to such a quality school.  Our decision below is founded in the trust in and respect for good public schools.

We are writing to respectfully inform you that our child, under our guardianship and advice, will be scored as a “refusal”, with a final score of “999” and a standard achieved code of 96, on all State testing including ELA, Math and Science as described in the NYS Student Information Repository System (SIRS) Manual on page 63. Please note that a “refusal” is not the same as “absent” as they are defined differently and scored with different standard achieved codes on page 63 of the SIRS Manual. Also note that on page 20 of the 2012 Edition School Administrator’s Manual it is explained that “The makeup dates are to be used for administering makeup tests to students who were ‘ABSENT’ during the designated administration dates.” Our child will specifically be scored as a “refusal”, not “absent”, and so will not be subject to make-up tests.  This letter provides written verification of a “refusal” for the tests mentioned above.

Additionally, we refuse to allow any data harvested from our child to be used for purposes other than the individual teacher’s own formative or cumulative assessment. Any assessment whose data is used to determine school ranking, teacher effectiveness, state or federal longitudinal studies, or any other purpose other than for the individual classroom teacher’s own use to improve his or her instruction will not be presented to our child. To be clear, our child will not participate in the following:

· Any state assessment other than Regents exams.
· Any so-called “benchmark” exams whether they are teacher-designed or not,  
since these exams are imposed by entities other than the individual
            · Any surveys, or “field tests” given by corporate or government entities or testing

Please utilize the provision of the NYS Testing Program Educator Guide to the 2013 Common Core which, on page 9, explains “When Students Have Completed Their Tests….that student may be permitted to read silently.”

We consider these assessments unnecessary and harmful to our students, teachers, administrators – our public schools and therefore our democracy. Since we do not believe our schools are in crisis, we do not wish to participate in this attempt to rectify some nonexistent problem.  We trust our schools, and we trust our teachers. 

We encourage the school district to take a leadership role in an open discussion of the costs and benefits, i.e. the rationale, for the testing fad and, more importantly, the intersections between corporate, political, and educational interests.  We believe that our child’s education should be trusted to those who are most experienced and who personally know the needs and individual requirements and talents of each child. Teachers already know how to determine those needs and requirements without mandated standardized testing.

Here is (an edited-for-personal-safety-version-of) what I wrote today in hopes of making repairs:
I want to thank you for many reasons.  We truly appreciate you and your entire staff as educators and human beings.  We boast about the quality of your school at every opportunity. 
We also appreciate the fact that you called us regarding the letter that I sent on Monday.  I apologize if I put you or any of your staff in a difficult position.  I obviously used a letter which was written by someone else, who shared what he wrote with others so that they could use it for themselves.  He expressed all of the points that were concerning to me, so in the interest of time, I used it.  Up until the minute I sent that letter, I was not sure if I should bother.  I know that the new testing is a contentious subject.  I had some lively and informative debates about it last week.  Many of the people that I spoke to are teachers.  They overwhelmingly encouraged me to pursue opting our daughter out of the testing.   

As you know, we ultimately pulled back and encouraged our daughter to take the tests and do her best.  It seems like the best way to handle the situation for the time being, and in the interest of her comfort during the testing times.  That being said, the reasons that we sent the letter remain.  The ideas expressed are still valid as far as I am concerned.  

I would like to share some of the things that people said to me.  The first four quotes are from 4 different teachers, all of whom are thoughtful, intelligent, respected educators:

"As a retired teacher, I see these tests as a colossal waste of time, energy, and focus. Teachers don't fear evaluation; they just want fair, consistent, relevant assessments that don't unfairly involve students. Albany will not listen to teachers so any decision that you make needs to be shared there. Parents need to get on buses and force Albany to at least recognize them!"

"[Increased State Testing and unfair/ inaccurate methods of measuring classroom and teacher success] is why I retired when I did."

"Many teachers I talk to when I substitute in the schools are saddened by the path our schools are taking. They say the joy and creativity have been taken out of teaching and they just feel like robots. Some say that they would never have gotten into teaching had they known it would end up like this. It's very sad."

"I am also retired, and did not teach in a classroom as I was an instrumental music teacher, but I have heard nothing good about the testing that is being done now. None of my former colleagues are happy with the guidelines that they are being forced to follow, teaching to the test instead of encouraging independent thinking."

And one more, from a particularly opinionated friend: 

"There are sample questions on website. Type in at the top "sample questions." I believe grade levels pop up at the bottom. After looking at a few of the math word problems for 3rd graders, it is no wonder these kids are under stress. The other thing that concerns me is that the scores on this one test are 40% of a teacher's yearly evaluation. Why? Personally, I don't get why the state needs these tests to evaluate student intelligence or evaluate a teacher's ability to instruct. All children learn at differing levels and they don't even take into account the differing socio-economic situations or even language difficulties or other possible learning disabilities that are present in our classrooms. Both of my sons are college grads, one has a BS In Business Administration and the other has a BS in Mechanical Engineering and they both had issues with the misleading/confusing wording of the questions for fourth graders. Personally, I think all politicians should take this test and we should evaluate them based on their scores. I bet a few might be losing their jobs as a result, IF their scores represented their ability to do their jobs."

These are, of course, only a few personal opinions, but they are a good representation of the sentiments of many people that I have heard from when I engaged in this dialogue with them.   I feel that these concerns should be explored by the powers that be in our educational system.   

I understand that some teachers might be biased, or even afraid of the results of these tests. I have certainly taken that into consideration. However, I am basing my thoughts and decisions on the teachers that I know whom I respect in every way. They are not people with a hidden agenda. They are people who love teaching, take their jobs very seriously, and want what is best for their students, their schools, and the future of their profession. 

Please know that I am not by nature a reactionary revolutionist. I have a very strong urge to go with the flow, and resisting that urge is nearly painful.

I hope that I have adequately conveyed our respect for you and your staff.  Thank you again for your consideration and support in all matters, past and present.  

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