Why progressive education reform is needed

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In June 2016, members of different Rochester-area education organizations—including teachers, college and university professors of education, parents, and retired teachers, principals and superintendents—met to discuss statewide concerns regarding the imposition of Common Core Standards and high-stakes standardized testing on all New York public school students and schools. 

Dan Drmacich

The 2017 state testing cycle had resulted in approximately 20 percent of all New York parents “opting” their grades 3-8 children out of high-stakes, standardized tests. The state Legislature, following the demands of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, had passed legislation that required the use of student test scores as critical criteria for judging the effectiveness of teachers, regardless of student readiness, resulting in considerable teacher backlash. Our research and discussions led us to conclude that overwhelming evidence exists to oppose the imposition of Common Core Standards and standardized tests. 

As a result, we created the Rochester Coalition for Public Education, to educate the public about testing and standardization research, as well as lobby for progressive education reform with the local, state and federal education policy makers. Since then, our coalition has testified to the state Regents, the commissioner of the state Education Department and the Rochester Board of Education; written essays; co-sponsored community forums with nationally-known authors and educators; lobbied with legislators; and co-sponsored a Rochester community-read of the book, “The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better,” by internationally acclaimed testing expert and Harvard University professor Daniel Koretz. 

Our coalition is not opposed to the use of valid and meaningful standardized tests to assess the progress of student groups. However, the current New York obsession with standardized testing for high-stakes purposes of judging individual students, teachers and schools must change because of the following, large-scale, documented, negative impact of current testing practices:

  • Holding English as Second Language students, who have little or no English language experience, accountable for passing standardized English exams, after only one year of learning English;
  • Using unreliable, invalid, non-field-tested standardized tests for holding students accountable;
  • Holding all students accountable for meeting grade-level expectations, when some students are not developmentally ready or who are not receiving the resource the help they need; especially special needs students;
  • Using invalid teacher evaluation score results, largely based on test scores of students with substantial variables in their lives that negatively impacts their growth and development;
  • Punishing students, teachers and school communities, by labeling them as failures, negatively impacting their self-esteem and motivation;
  1. Making teachers focus on “teaching-to-the-test,” rather than student interests and areas not often tested, like citizenship, music and current social problems, and
  2. “Grade inflation,” from extra tutoring, and teaching “guessing” skills. 

We urge the Board of Regents to adopt the following research-based recommendations for any use of standardized testing:

  1. Test student sample populations vs. all students
  2. Set realistic, appropriate test score goals
  3. Use “performance-based” vs. memorize and regurgitate tasks
  4. Pilot for validity and reliability before implementation
  5. Test what is essential
  6. Use human judgment as part of the process
  7. Involve the public in a direct and meaningful way

We also:

  1. Urge the RCSD board and Board of Regents to encourage individual Rochester high schools to apply for entrance into the Regents-sanctioned state Performance Standards Consortium, and if accepted, to use the consortium’s Performance-Based Assessments, or create and implement a BoE- and Regents-approved model that is similar. The consortium’s research on student performance shows significant success and growth of students when compared to similar student groups in comprehensive high schools.
  2. We also urge the Board of Regents to expand the grade levels of the consortium from 9-12 to K-12. The success of consortium schools provides hard evidence that their philosophy and use of alternative assessments and curricula is working, while the current “test and punish” system has had little, if any, significant success with New York State urban student populations over the past two decades. 
  3. Moreover, we strongly urge that Rochester and all New York parents of students in grades 3-8 receive clear, concise information about their rights to “opt” their children out of any state high-stakes standardized tests.

We have also significantly expanded our agenda to include the following:

■ The problems and inequities the Rochester City School District is experiencing with student growth and development are directly related to regional historical and current institutional and structural racism, resulting, not only, in separate and unequal education provisions for Rochester students, but also in housing, employment, tax equity and other variables for advancement. A  Monroe County Regional Policy and Governing Board must be created to facilitate the development of socio-economic and education policies and actions for creating fair and equitable solutions for all Monroe County residents. Focusing on only Rochester schools and students will not completely solve these issues, since they are regionally created and maintained.

■ The organization and delivery of current curriculum, assessment, teacher-student relationship and teaching and learning practices are, in many cases, not research-based and need substantial transformation to those that are constructivist and learner-centered, if we hope to facilitate the development of socially responsible, happy, successful citizens.

■ Student performance isnegatively affected by trauma and conditions that children often experience from concentrated poverty, and funding is needed from local, county, state and federal agencies to create extensive teacher, social worker, psychologist, restorative justice, medical, job training and parent counselling positions in all RCSD schools at rates that far exceed the current student/teacher formulas for funding these positions. 

■ The creation of urban community schools as places and sets of partnerships between individual schools and community resources, with an integrated focus on academics, youth development, family support, health and social services and community development leads to improved student learning, stronger families and healthier communities.

■ There is no valid research to support any form of mayoral control of education. We are, however, in favor of mayoral partnerships, such as the partnership modeled at Rochester’s School No. 17.

■ All forms of education privatization, including charter schools, vouchers and corporate tax credits for student scholarships are harmful to public education, since each reduces funding for public schools that critically need essential resources, increases segregation, diminishes democratic participation, and, in general, results in only small percentages of schools demonstrating significant growth, in comparison to public schools with similar demographics.

■ The RCSD board needs to establish a standing committee to encourage the creation of new, viable, innovative schools that can compete with charter schools for the growing number of RCSD students leaving the district and recover the funds leaving with those students. Collaborative groups of teachers, parents, students, administrators and concerned citizens have creative, research-based concepts and plans for new schools that will attract, retain and effectively educate students looking for schools that can meet their needs and interests.

■ New York’s “next generation” version of Common Core State Standards does not include enough teacher and human development specialist input, many of its expectations are developmentally inappropriate, and associated teaching and learning are largely driven by poorly designed, high-stakes standardized tests. Locally developed options, approved by local BoEs and the Board of Regents, with NYSED assistance should be approved to generate much more student relevance and motivation.

Our coalition members will continue to vigorously advocate for progressive, research-based education reform. We are available to meet with any organization to discuss and plan collaborative strategies to reach our goals. 

Dan Drmacich is coordinator of Rochester Coalition for Public Education and former principal of School Without Walls.

One thought on “Why progressive education reform is needed

  1. Glad to see strong opposition to charter schools, government takeovers of schools & high stakes testing in this platform. These all injure education.

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