Last week’s blog discussed increased student testing, the use of the results to rate teachers, and concerns about the effects that these changes will have on the quality and kinds of learning that students experience in today’s schools. With national concern about ensuring that schools provide an education that keeps America competitive, there are also questions about the current course of action that utilizes extensive testing for reform.
Following the recent ELA tests there was an outcry by students, parents, and teachers throughout various social media forums about not only the length of the exams but the content of the reading passages and the ambiguity of questions. National media jumped into the debate. New York State responded by excluding a section from the scoring. (One can only imagine if other test items were similarly flawed yet will be used for high-stakes ratings of students and teachers.)
There are real costs to these tests. Districts are required to use time and money for administration and scoring. By the fall taxpayers must purchase or design new assessments for the K-12 system. The new testing mandates, which are unfunded, must be paid for with money that supports existing programs, hence the call for mandate relief.
I had a recent conversation with a state official who was reluctant to support a recommendation for a particular mandate relief item because a single special interest group had a stronger voice than the general parent population of public school students. We agreed that it would not be until parents were actually losing services and programs such as the arts, extracurricular clubs, sports, electives, or acceptable class sizes that they would actually speak up. The official reminded me that special interest groups, not parents, are organized.
However, there is great potential via the unity and strength of an alliance of our parents and teachers when they come to agreement about what is best for our students. A vehicle for this collaboration is the PTA, although this volunteer organization is frequently underutilized and understaffed. Nationally, there has been a decline in PTA involvement.
The PTA can be a powerful voice in influencing education policy. As a result of greater awareness of unfunded and increasing state mandates, PTA groups in southern and central Westchester have recently organized campaigns to communicate concerns to legislators about how unfunded mandates are draining resources from valued programs and services. There is also concern about the overuse of testing and how parents can have a voice in the state’s decisions.
Over the past few years we have observed international and national acts of protest such as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. Activism is in the air, but because I believe that, at least on a local level, despotism is not the culprit, our approach does not have to be so radical. We have a system and mechanisms that can be used to effect change.
A first step might be simply to join, participate, and even lead in PTAs in SOCSD. As local districts face challenges about over-testing, new unfunded mandates, or state aid cuts, there is a greater need to coordinate a local organization that can represent our students and fight for a quality education that is based on sound and well-rounded learning experiences rather than political agendas that are fueled by special interest dollars and ideologies.
As the PTA reaches out to the community over the next few weeks, they will be seeking volunteers who will not only help them to plan assemblies and field trips but will also help to educate parents about unfunded mandates, abusive testing policies, and the external politics that threaten local control and the common good that public schools have and should always provide to each community.
To view all of Dr. Mitchell's blog entries, please go to http://sites.socsdblogs.org/superintendent