Last week I was invited to speak at a Rally for Public Schools in Pittsburgh, PA. Organized by a grassroots organization called Yinzercation and lead by a passionate advocate named Jessie Ramey. The event was amazing.
I was asked to explain the opt out movement and how fighting corporate education reform was the true Civil Rights fight of our generation.
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The text of the speech.
I have been a professional educator for over 20 years. Elementary school, Middle School, college. Three years ago
My wife, my son Luke and I went to a parent teacher conference with Luke’s language arts teacher. She was concerned and so were we. His grades were dropping.
So we met and we found out that Luke was having problems completing writing prompts. As an example the teacher handed us one of Luke’s papers. It had a zero on it.
What was wrong my wife and I wondered? Luke’s teacher asked him to help explain his errors.
You see the writing prompt had asked Luke to:
“Write about the two most exciting times you have had with your family.”
Luke’s teacher handed Luke his paper and asked him to read his response.
Luke read: WHOO HOO! Let me tell you about my great family vacation in the Adirondack Mountains.
Luke’s teacher interrupted, “hold right there” “Now Luke explain to your mom and dad what’s wrong with your response.”
Luke slightly embarrassed, replied, “Whoo Hoo is not a sentence and writing prompts must Always start by restating the prompt as the opening statement.”
Luke’s teacher looked at my wife and I and simply said that’s the problem. “If he did that on the PSSA his response would be scored a zero.” And as much as she hated to admit it she was under tremendous pressure to make sure that her kids score well on the PSSAs.
I was angry. My wife was angry.
Luke was actually experimenting with writing and trying to communicate to his readers a sense of excitement
But this disastrous system (PSSAs) was forcing his teacher comply with “the powers that be”
The PSSAs were forcing Luke to parrot sentences in a pre ordained structure so that low paid temp workers would be able to score it.
That was the moment when my wife and I decided that something had to be done. We weren’t exactly sure what to do but we had to do something. So after some discussion we decided that Luke was not going to take the PSSAs. Our son was not going to participate in a system that forced teachers to comply with educational mandates constructed by politicians and other “reformers” that had absolutely no credentials in education.
We were not going to allow Luke to provide “DATA” that would be used by a system that in the end was really only designed to label LUKE, THE TEACHERS, THE SCHOOL AND THE COMMUNITY AS FAILING! We were OPTING OUT!
So after one appearance on CNN and FOX I along with five other educators, parents, and idealistic “radicals” founded of United Opt Out National. And for the last three years we have been spreading the message of opt out across the country. We have committed ourselves to ending this system of comply or be punished education.
Or as we say on our web page: “We are committed to ending corporate driven and test mandated education reform.”
Locally that means that I have essentially made myself available to any individual or group interested in opting out of this punishing system.
Look learning that you have to write for a low paid temp worker to make sure you get the right score so that a teacher and school won’t get punished is not the learning I want for my child or any child in public schools. That is not the promise of public education and this is not accountability. This is fear, intimidation and blame and I will not let my children (my daughter is now an opt outer) take part in it. So if you questions for me after I can’t wait to speak to you later.
But I wanted to end by reading a letter I wrote to teachers in Seattle. If you haven’t heard (Which wouldn’t be surprising because the media is essentially squashing the story) teachers in Seattle have organized their own opt out movement. Teachers! Not parents! Are refusing to administer the high stakes test (called the MAP) given in Seattle. So in support of their courageous action I wrote and published this letter on the blog atthechalkface.com.
Dear Seattle Teachers,
Stay strong! As this opt out continues to grow (And I believe it will) advocating for “authentic assessment” is absolutely essential. The reality is that any high stakes standardized test is ALWAYS going to be an invalid indicator of student learning.
Start using the language of learning over terms such as “achievement” and “growth.” These terms are embedded in high stakes standardized testing. The reform narrative exploits terms such as “achievement” and “growth” purposely to avoid talking about what really matters—learning. Therefore “authentic” assessment under the direction of professional teachers is the only type of assessment that can truly demonstrate learning.
This is so key in the larger fight against the reform movement. The reform narrative is all about “achievement” scores and rankings and presents a false narrative of failing public schools. This narrative rests on scores from standardized achievement tests and purposely distorts reality so that the public believes achievement and learning are synonymous. What you and your colleagues have done is finally opened the door to allow for a new narrative to compete and hopefully replace the failing schools narrative!
The real issue is the Civil Rights violation that has occurred during the reform movement’s reign of testing. Yes there is a “gap.” However, we know the last 10 years has done nothing to improve that gap. In fact the “real” gap has actually increased—for all kids—but poor and minority kids have been damaged to an even larger extent. They have been denied a fully funded public school experience. A rich experience in the arts, music, physical education, history and other content areas has been cut because they are not tested.
This is the message to take forward. The Seattle /Opt Out is truly a movement in support of restoring and in a lot of cases finally providing a fully funded and supportive public education to children that have for decades been excluded from this fundamental right due to the fact that they live in poverty. Once we change the narrative and reveal the reform movement for what it truly is—a massive civil rights violation that has denied a generation of children a powerful education, the public will continue to support you.
This is a fight to provide 90% of the children of this country a solid and powerful education that will allow them to learn to think critically and imagine new possibilities.
This is advocating for the ultimate freedoms—the freedom to think, the freedom to imagine, the freedom to create, and the freedom to dream.
No more false labels of “failing, below basic, inadequate, needs improvement.” This is the language imposed on us by standardized tests as pushed by the reform movement. It is meant to destroy powerful public schooling and relegate most children to menial jobs in a dead end economy that only creates wealth for powerful. No more! My children and your children deserve the same type of educational experience that the powerful demand for their children.
This is truly the Civil Rights fight for our generation!
Timothy D. Slekar, Ph. D.