If state testing is “child abuse,” then teachers should stop it

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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.

 

 

 

10 comments

  1. Steven Delpome

    My organization once again shows itself to be insincere. If one sincerely believes in a cause, you do not wait for it to be politically convenient to fight. You don’t pass the fight on to the parents.

  2. Julia Sass Rubin

    Dear Bob,

    Parents have been leading this fight all along.

    The parents of Save Our Schools NJ are responsible for the two bills being introduced in the NJ legislature this Thursday.

    These bills will require districts to accommodate students who refuse the PARCC test and to freeze the use of standardized tests for high school graduation.

    You can find more information about the two new bills, and how parents can refuse standardized tests for their children, here: http://www.saveourschoolsnj.org/refusing-parcc-test/

    Two additional bills that the parents of Save Our Schools NJ helped to write – A3077 and A3079 – are already working their way through the NJ legislature.

    A3079 prohibits standardized testing before 3rd grade (when it is required by federal law) and A3077 requires districts and charter schools to notify parents about the costs, uses, and other information related to standardized tests.

    While we as parents welcome the participation in this fight of teachers and NJEA and anyone else who shared our support for public education, these are our bills and our efforts to protect our children from the damage caused to them and to our public schools by high-stakes standardized testing.

  3. Steve Beatty

    Bob,

    After reading your comments, I feel compelled to respond, both as a classroom teacher for 23 years, but more importantly as a parent of two school-aged children in NJ public schools.

    I am pleased that you always take the time to thoroughly weed through the information and noise surrounding it and offer your incitful take on the issues of the day, but when you call the NJEA’s call for parent action on PARCC ‘disengenuos’ I take serious issue.

    You claim that NJEA is motivated from the stance of protecting its members from the result of the tests on their employment and rightfully call that ‘high-stakes.’

    However, you then incorrectly determine that the other resultant impacts of the tests on students and our society are not considered, in your opinion, to meet the criteria of ‘high-stakes.’

    This is incorrect at best and damaging to our society at worst.

    When my 5th grader comes home and cries because she is feeling the pressure of days upon days of test preparation ahead of the actual tests, that is high-stakes.

    When precious financial resources and class time are being used for all things test, instead of on what her district and teachers intended her to learn – not some $360 million monster devised behind closed doors – that is high stakes.

    When we are witnessing, before our very eyes, the highjacking of our public education system by pundits, most of whom have never been in the front of a classroom a day in their lives, that is high-stakes.

    And when we have students being tracked and followed by hundreds of data points and the results of these unproven tests being used as a graduation requirement and God knows what else, that is certainly high stakes.

    I have read your pieces where you rail on the injustices being foisted on our students in Newark and across the state by elected and non-elected officials alike, and have been pleased that there is a voice of reason – a clear voice shining the antiseptic of daylight into a murky room – but then I am equally amazed as you completely miss the larger issue here and misrepresent this fight, finding only fault with my NJEA leaders

    I hope that for all of our sakes; our children, our grandchildren, and of course, our educators and education support professionals, that you will find it in you to re-examine the information here and see that there are, unfortunately, high enough stakes to be shared around.

    • JEM in Jersey

      People are such sheep! Who is raising your childrens’ blook pressure about the tests? The TEACHERS!! I have told my kids not to worry about the test AT ALL as it is not they who are being tested – and guess what? They are no longer stressed out. How can parents be such pushovers? Why shouldn’t a standardized test that tells us, the billpayers, just what percentage of our kids are actually prepared for college by the teaching we pay for. When you implore parents to simply “support the teachers”, it shows that you buy into the idea that holding teachers accountable is the same as not supporting them.

      What really should be done is to forbid test prep. In fact, the test should be given without advance notice as to when, and it should test children in random waves. Then you can monitor how effective the teaching methods are without all the prep. The “prep” is not mandated by the law people – the TEACHERS instituted it. They are the ones stressing the kids out.

      Don’t ever run our own business because you’d never be able to hold your employees accountable. There is nothing wrong with accountability; it is good for the profession, it is good for the children and it is fair to the taxpayers.

  4. Susan Cauldwell

    Bob, Save Our Schools NJ did not “accept” the current Christie appointed Study Commission. We were not part of those discussions and worked until the end to get the Senate to vote on a better alternative, S2154. And “the stakes” are an issue for students, too, when curriculum is narrowed to focus on test prep; when spending on PARCC compliance means spending less in other areas; and when the narrative of failure is reinforced by PARCC, leading to school closures and possible privatization.

  5. Sal Vertelli

    The NJEA is impotent!! It is a little late to start flexing beer muscles!!! The day “The Bully of Trenton started bashing teachers in his first budget address and the weak woman who was our president sat there like a mummy and took it without walking out on him we were done. And Wendell you haven’t done anything but waste dues on political adds that do nothing to harm the Bully. It’s time for the NJEA to grow a pair and get some teeth and stand up this this “Ignorant Bully” that is the only thing that bullys understand!!!!!!!!!!

    • Urban Teacher

      I would suggest that the union will do nothing to protect teachers who take the risky step of advocating for opt out procedures. Administrators would be likely to view these actions as insubordinate.

      Bob Braun: That’s true, but I came of age when teachers went out on strike which is not only insubordinate but also illegal. The teacher union movement wasn’t begun by people who were afraid of being insubordinate. I understand their fears–certainly districts have been punitive–but you don’t go around saying tests are “child abuse” and a “rebellion” is needed and then say but it’s not up to “us” to do anything. That’s just adolescent posturing and legislators–to say nothing of governors–can see right through it.

  6. Galton

    Bob,
    Exactly.
    If the testing is “child abuse” then those who “partake” and facilitate the process are child abusers.
    once again, the union leadership is leading from the rear. The “Some things are worth losing your job for” mantra should start at the top!

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