"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Friday, November 28, 2014

Two Teachers in Tulsa Represent the Conscience of Teaching

As the NEA and AFT suits cut deals with corporate education child abusers to impose more of their lucrative and immoral business solutions on school children and teachers, the new voices of teaching are stepping forward to protect children and themselves from the rapacious privatizers who are in charge of public education.

From the Tulsa World:
Why are two first-grade teachers risking the jobs they love to take a stand against new student tests and surveys?

Because they know they’re not alone.

“It’s definitely not about my evaluation,” said Skelly Elementary School’s Nikki Jones.

“It’s about watching kids cry and throw chairs and pee their pants and scratch their face until it turns red or they bleed. That’s what it’s about — that’s all that it’s about.”

Jones, 33, and her colleague at Skelly, Karen Hendren, 23, were first featured in a Nov. 16 Tulsa World story about the new use of K-12 student surveys in Tulsa Public Schools’ teacher performance evaluations. They are among dozens of local teachers who have been writing emails to district officials and contacting principals and the local teachers union to raise red flags about the new surveys.

Jones and Hendren followed up with an open letter to parents detailing how “developmentally inappropriate” they feel the surveys are for their 6-year-old students, as well as how new tests are robbing their young students of a significant amount of instructional time.

The stand they have taken has landed them on national news outlets, including the Washington Post and Fox News, plus a host of national education blogs.

Parents and other teachers are calling them heroes for speaking out with the same concerns that have led to organized parent opt-outs and student walk-outs in several other states.

Regina Kelly, whose daughter was in Hendren’s class last year, said the information about the new surveys and the emotional and behavioral toll that new tests are taking on young students were revelations that sent her to Tulsa Public Schools herself on Friday.

“I have been feeling physically ill ever since I read their letter and heard about these children and what they were going through taking these tests and surveys,” said Kelly. “I went to TPS because I wanted to see the survey for myself, but they said they didn’t have any — they shredded all the extras. I really feel as parents we have been left in the dark. These are minor children, and TPS is asking them questions they should be asking parents.”

Jennifer Thornton, a veteran third-grade teacher at Emerson Elementary School, said Jones and Hendren simply expressed what most teachers feel — that they are smothering their students with required assessments.

“I’m not saying all of us should refuse to do our job, but our job is to teach kids,” said Thornton.
“All of this testing has created mounds and mounds of administrative work — printing reports and filing reports, and checking reports and then analyzing reports. There is no balance to be found, and that is devastating because you feel like you’re failing your kids.”

Why don’t more teachers speak out? Thornton says teachers in TPS fear for their jobs.

“We have a lot of administration, and our principals are getting pressure from (their bosses), who I assume are getting pressure from the superintendent. Principals are afraid so then we become afraid, and we have seen TCTA (Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association) leadership speak up on behalf of teachers and get slammed by the superintendent — and that also provides a level of fear for the rest of us to speak up,” she said.

Before the teachers’ story went viral

What many people don’t know is that Jones and Hendren first took their concerns and their pledge not to continue with the Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP tests, and Tripod student surveys for teacher evaluations directly to Superintendent Keith Ballard in emails they each sent on Nov. 9 and 10.

They did so knowing they would be seen as insubordinate.

“The biggest consequence would be losing our job,” said Hendren. “But I just think we’re really in it for the kids — that’s why we’re here, is to do things for kids.

“And so if that means we’re on the line for that, we’re really sticking up for our kids and to us, that’s worth it.”

Jones said her hope was that Ballard would hear about the emotional and behavioral toll the new surveys and MAP tests have had on their students. And that he might consider letting them or other early childhood education teachers find more appropriate accountability measures.

Instead, Jones and Hendren said, the only response they received from the emails to Ballard was a visit from their principal’s boss a few days later. They said they got no real answers to their questions and concerns.

After the teachers took their concerns public, Ballard responded by publicly questioning their experience level and saying refusing to participate “is not an option.”

Thornton said most teachers she knows found his remarks offensive.

“To say they just don’t know how to use the data — that is just so offensive,” she said. “They are amazing teachers. They are poster children — they epitomize what we need in our profession because of the fact that they have the guts to speak up for what they feel is right and risk their jobs.”

New audit underway

Coincidentally, Ballard last week had his monthly advisory group meetings with elementary and secondary school teachers.

“I am willing to listen to teachers and I asked them, point blank, are we doing too much assessment, and I heard in many cases we are,” he said.

“Maybe we are asking too much in assessments. I don’t want to overburden teachers.”

As a result, Ballard said, he has ordered an audit of all tests being done, including all district- and individual school-site-mandated assessments.

Ballard said he has heard the criticism of his initial response to the Jones and Hendren case, but he said his defense of the expansion of MAP testing into the early grades is a direct result of 1,128 Tulsa third-graders failing the state reading test last year. About half were held back because of a new state law.

“I do believe there are high-stakes tests that are onerous, and I think we can do too much assessment. I was against having third-graders retained for one test on one day, and I led opposition to the end-of-instruction tests (required for high school graduation),” Ballard said. “This is no contradiction whatsoever. I truly believe in having the MAP assessment to inform instruction, and many of our teachers believe in that, as well. We must do all we can to eradicate this reading problem we have in TPS.”

As for parents like Kelly, who just last week found a parent opt-out form letter on the website of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing that she said she will be using and encouraging other parents to consider, Ballard said TPS has yet to formulate a response.

“We do not have a policy that permits that, but we would listen to that parent and we would work with them,” he said.

And what will happen to Jones and Hendren?

“‘I’m not going to discuss individual personnel,” Ballard answered.

Newly certified, but not novices

Jones, who is in her third year teaching at TPS, worked in preschools for years before she went back to school herself and got her bachelor’s degree at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa, where she is working on her master’s degree.

She worked previously as a prekindergarten and kindergarten teacher at Early Childhood Development Center-Porter, in west Tulsa. When National Public Radio’s national education reporter came to Tulsa last spring to illustrate how the school district led the state of Oklahoma in the establishment of prekindergarten programs, it was Jones’ classroom at Porter where TPS directed the news crew for its weeklong project.

Hendren is a year and a half out from earning her bachelor’s degree at Oklahoma State University, and she worked in early childhood education all four years of college. She taught at the Sand Springs Early Childhood Center and later worked as a teaching assistant at Tulsa’s Educare I.

Jones said she first began to be concerned about the expanded use of formal assessments with her own three children about five years ago. Networking with other parents who were trying to opt out their own children in a state with no formal policy for doing so led her to United Opt Out National, a nonprofit organization of parents, educators, students and other “social activists” seeking the elimination of high-stakes testing in public education.

She eventually agreed to serve as Oklahoma’s state representative for the organization, which has led her to assist other parents around the state.

The pair said they have received only positive feedback from their colleagues and their current students and their parents.

“Our kids have asked for our autographs,” Jones said, laughing.

“They’ve seen us on TV, and one parent even called out in front of the whole lunchroom to congratulate me. One little boy came to school and said, ‘My mom saw you on TV and said you said we don’t have to take tests in our class anymore.’”

‘Tip of the iceberg’

While parent-opt groups have exploded in states including California, Texas, Florida and Washington, the idea of pushing back against the use of formal assessments and student data collection is still new and officially discouraged in Oklahoma.

In 2013, the state Department of Education investigated and ultimately said it found evidence that Jenks Middle School Principal Rob Miller initiated a parent movement to opt out students at his school from all field tests, which were being used by the state testing vendor to evaluate questions for future use.

Parent leaders at the school said they were behind the opt-out movement, which resulted in 800 students skipping the field tests.

This May, the Bixby school board adopted a policy to allow parents to opt their children out of state standardized testing — not to encourage the practice — but simply as a response to numerous parent inquiries about how to do so.

Under state law, public school students risk retention in third grade for not taking and passing the state reading test and not receiving a high school diploma despite their course grades for not taking and passing at least four of seven state exams in core subjects.

Additionally, state officials have said that schools’ own accountability ratings and even federal funding could be jeopardized if a substantial number of students don’t participate in state-mandated tests.

In July, the Oklahoma PTA adopted a resolution that calls for a ban on policies that force the state’s public schools to rely on high-stakes testing.

Sand Springs Superintendent Lloyd Snow estimated that 25-30 parents in his district opted out of state testing last year, and they couldn’t find a bigger ally than Snow and the Sand Springs board of education, which also adopted the Oklahoma PTA resolution.

“If you look across the country, parents are waking up and wising up about the lost time for instruction and the counter-productive impact it has had,” Snow said of excessive testing, noting that his school district only participates in “the minimum required by the state.

“There are going to be bigger and bigger numbers across the country, and our state and certainly across Tulsa of people who are going to opt their kids out — or they’ll take their kids out of school. And we’ve seen some of that already, too.”

Snow said he respects Ballard and the Tulsa school board for doing what they feel is right, but he is going to be advocating for the Legislature to repeal the requirement for “quantitative” measures on new teacher evaluations, which are the basis for Tulsa’s student surveys and partially for the expansion of student assessments.

“I don’t think it’s developmentally appropriate and meaningful. I respectfully disagree with those,” Snow said.

“What happened with those two teachers was inevitable. I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.
“And it wouldn’t take a whole bunch to have those two become 200. Teachers are not on board with this — they were uninvited to the conversation about assessments. My view: This is just the tip of the iceberg. . . .

Andrea Eger 918-581-8470

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