Wednesday, February 05, 2014

My opening statement for the Board of Regents interview:

Legislators, I appreciate the time you are taking to be here for these interviews. I’d like to introduce myself. I grew up in the southern tier of New York and attended colleges and universities around the state. I taught English to over two thousand individual students, grades seven to twelve, between 1978 and 2009. I also taught writing to many students in our state college and university system, and I have been teaching pre-service teachers about the best ways to develop students’ writing and literacy over the past five years. My work in the classroom and my recent study and research into the transition of writers from high school to college have brought me here for this discussion with you.

New York’s public schools are not broken. NAEP scores have mostly been leveling off over the period of years leading up to Race to the Top. Students from other countries flock to our schools, colleges and universities, and have for some time.

Although some nations may have higher test scores on internationally-administered assessments, the United States provides universal, inclusive K-12 education, and thus we test all students, where some nations restrict the test-taking, or perhaps even the opportunity for education, to only their top students.

Our schools are not the cause of a weak economy or a compromise to our national security.

Many if not most of the problems our educational system faces cannot be blamed on teachers or principals, but rather on poverty and segregation, which are far more complex problems we need to tackle as a society. Teachers are not in the profession to make money. They DON’T make a lot of money, which may contribute to other problems we are trying to solve.

Accountability is a requirement in every job: elected representatives know that as well as anyone. But evaluating teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores is a flawed system. Teachers simply cannot control all the factors that affect student test performance.

All students, of differing abilities, from families with varying incomes, and from any school district, urban, suburban, or rural, should be able to attend a public school with adequate resources, with a staff that values learning rather than test scores. Not all learning can be measured by a paper and pencil (or computerized) test. We must rely on the informed judgment of professionals who spend time with our children as they are learning.

Policy makers must neither rely on Hollywood for information about schools nor encourage Hollywood to promote and disseminate erroneous educational narratives. Nor should we rely on those with a product to sell. Profit is not the bottom line in a school, nor is widespread, uncontrolled collection and storage of data about our children and their families.

Policies developed without consulting those who are in classrooms contribute to inequity. In the case of the increased testing that accompanied NCLB and now Race to the Top and the institution of Common Core Learning Standards, the increased time spent on testing and preparing students for testing situations reduces the time spent reading freely chosen books, writing sentences with original ideas, sharing those ideas with others, and pursuing in-depth understanding of topics in which they are interested.

As I talk to former students who are now parents, and other parents around the state, I find that their voices have been missing until very recently. The communities surrounding our local schools, our school officials, and especially students have felt trapped by the newest initiatives. Teacher educators, busy helping pre-service teachers negotiate an entry into real classrooms, are left out of discussions about teacher preparation. I would like to bring their voices into our discussions here in Albany.

When I began my teaching career, almost 40 years ago, New York State’s public schools were among the best in the nation. A Regents’ diploma was considered golden. I taught English classes using an excellent set of language arts standards developed and revised by teachers, informed by continuing research, over the years. I do not advocate a return to any “good old days,” but I hope to contribute to an informed collaboration between the Board and the legislature. Many eyes are on New York State, and I would like to help restore our system’s national reputation for the sake of all children across the nation.

Healthcare for new mothers and focused attention on early childhood education are excellent first steps. Involving experienced educators in all aspects of educational policy and practice will be another good step. Age-appropriate goals, smaller classes, access to a good library with a knowledgeable librarian, a balanced curriculum including physical activity, the arts, and a range of academic study every day: educational experts agree on these requirements. Involving teacher educators in planning will help us to prepare new teachers who can feel confident working in any public school. Time that is being spent on testing and preparing students for testing can be returned to children and their teachers for wide reading and thoughtful consideration of whatever they read about, to develop thinking, reading, and writing skills. Money that is spent on software, hardware, and printed material to support the tests can be given instead to principals who can make their schools marvelous places where students can become passionate about their learning.

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