The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the state’s largest teachers’ union, faces a tough challenge because its members are—rightly—concerned about how standardized testing is threatening both their jobs and their sense of themselves as professionals. But the union’s leadership also is aware of both the organization’s dwindling power in the Legislature—and of the membership’s reluctance to take strong action to fight back. The result is the sort of campaign it announced Monday to seek limits on the influence of state testing on the operation of New Jersey’s public schools.
“Nothing less than the future of public education is at stake here,’’ said one top NJEA staffer, Steven Wollmer, its communications director. He made the remarks after a press conference at which the union announced steps it would take with Save Our Schools-New Jersey (SOS-NJ), a parents’ group, to pass legislation limiting the impact of testing. Wollmer called over-reliance on testing “child abuse” and said he hoped anger about the exams would set off a “full-blown rebellion, ” particularly among parents.
Union leaders announced the major campaign against the latest round of statewide testing–releasing polls underscoring the unpopularity of the tests, promising to form coalitions with parent groups unnerved by relentless testing to push for limits on time and money spent on testing, beginning an advertising campaign aimed at exposing the destructiveness of the exams, and seeking the right of parents to refuse to allow their children to sit for the tests.
The campaign is timed to coincide with the first administration of the so-called PARCC tests. The PARCC test was named after the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, one of two federally funded multistate groups that created the tests designed to measure student knowledge of the so-called common core state standards. The testing coalitions received some $360 million in federal funds to develop the testing programs.
The poll data does show extensive opposition to state-imposed, standardized tests among voters–and even more pushback from parents. For example, 71 percent of parents polled and 62 percent of a wider sample of voters contended “too much emphasis” was placed on state testing in New Jersey’s public schools. By similar margins, the respondents said they favored a reduction in the emphasis placed on standardized testing. The polling data also contends 78 percent of parents worry that statewide testing causes “stress” for their children and 77 percent say it “takes time and money from other educational priorities.”
The polling also shows substantial support for public schools and for teachers, the one group most respondents believed was the most “trustworthy” on issues related to testing. The results also indicated parents want to know about the finances of testing companies and their support for politicians who promote the widespread use of testing. The poll indicated parents want the chance to “opt out” of a statewide testing program, a core element of public education since the 1970s in New Jersey.
The polling also indicated some challenges for the union in its effort to speak a “rebellion” among parents against so-called “high-stakes” testing—testing that has consequences for the students who take the exams and the teachers who prepare them. For example, the polls showed that 69 percent of the general sample and 56 percent of a sample of parents knew “ not too much” or “nothing” about the PARCC tests.
The finding undermines the ability of the NJEA—or any group—to create the impression of an angry wave of parental opposition to statewide testing, reaching some sort of peak now that the tests will be administered in a matter of weeks.
At the press conference, Susan Cauldwell, a spokeswoman for SOS-NJ, said she saw a “groundswell” of parental opposition to the tests.
Perhaps. But a coalition of the same two groups—the NJEA and SOS-NJ—failed last year to gain passage of a bill that would limit the impact of the new state tests. Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the law and an effort to over-ride the veto failed. In its stead, the organizations accepted a useless study commission, the usual face-saver for those who go up against Christie and lose.
By the terms of the union’s own polling, the strongest strategy would be one based on those trusted teachers, but the union’s leaders appeared reluctant to use that potential force. When asked what teachers should respond when their students ask about the value of standardized testing, NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer replied, “Ask your parents.”
Ask your parents?
Steinhauer and Wollmer were repeatedly asked what this campaign against standardized testing expected the NJEA’s members to do—and they repeatedly returned to comments insisting this was a parents’ fight. Angry parents should lead the battle in the Legislature despite the dearth of a strong parents’ lobby in Trenton.
There is something disingenuous about the union’s position. The problem here—the union and SOS-NJ agree—is the “high stakes” nature of the testing. But, in reality, the high stakes, so far, are really only an issue for teachers. Thanks to the new law limiting the power of tenure to protect experienced teachers, student test results can be used to evaluate instructors. That’s very high stakes.
So far, however, poor performance on PARCC has no consequences for students. It is not a graduation test. Not a promotion test. The best Cauldwell could come up with is that it causes stress to children and diverts time and resources away from more productive educational activities.
Those are unfortunate consequences of statewide testing but they are not “high stakes.” Parents often face considerable self-imposed stress in their efforts to buy the right house in the right town and insist their children take all the right courses, excel at the right sports, and engage in the right extracurriculars and volunteer work so they can get into the most selective colleges possible. Those stresses, in many school districts throughout New Jersey, long preceded the stress caused by statewide testing.
The union is only setting itself up for the inevitable criticism—that it is using parents to shield their real concern: The use of statewide test scores to evaluate the performance of teachers.
Teachers are right to object to that use of test scores. And they should be angry about the inability of their union to defeat the privatizers who want to turn public education into a testing plantation where instructors are mere test coaches and learning is a matter of adjustment to the demands of life in a corporate environment.
Maybe the union will get somewhere with its advertisements and its polling data, all timed to coincide with the first administration of PARCC. Maybe its website—njkidsandfamilies.org—will help organize parents to take the lead.
But the corporatizers will prevail for as long as they are more passionate about making a buck from public education than teachers are about throwing that crowd, and their political and bureaucratic supporters, out of the public schools.
Let’s remember that teachers are, by law, required to report suspicions about child abuse. Teachers, by nature and by their choice of profession, are protective of children even if what threatens the kids falls short of something like child abuse. The potential transformation of public education into mind-numbing farm teams for the Gates and Kochs of the world comes close enough–and teachers have a professional responsibility to do what they can to stop it and to demand their unions take stronger positions.