Editor’s Note: The Observer’s August edition represents our Annual Education Issue. This is the second of two cover essays written by outstanding Oklahoma educators exploring how we can fix a system crippled by standardized test mania. The first essay by Dr. John Thompson was posted Aug. 11.
BY CLAUDIA SWISHER
Years ago, near the beginning of my career, I had a principal who made the point that student success depended on the relationship between student, teacher and parent. He drew a triangle on the blackboard [yes, a real blackboard!] and labeled each side. That image and its symbolism have stayed with me.
For success, all three of us must share goals and objectives, share communication, share honesty. A strong partnership of the three doesn’t insure success, but the chances are better that together we can send a student into the world prepared to live a productive, satisfying life.
Education “reformers” are working hard to destroy this triangle for their own purposes, but we know triangles are strong.
Parents have been told their schools are failing, their children’s teachers are bad. They’ve been told they need a “trigger” to fire all their teachers and start their school over as a charter school.
They’ve been used, as have teachers, as pawns in “reformers’’’ efforts to privatize our public schools and profit from state funds set aside to educate our students.
Research shows parents may believe other schools are failing, but they, by and large, support their own schools. We believe in each other, and in the students we educate.
Teachers know this narrative is wrong, and we have attempted to use our voices in this fight, to tell our stories, to rally for our students. I know from experience that teachers are summarily ignored by policymakers and are characterized as whiners, slugs [remember Frank Keating?], pigs at the union trough.
Our partnership is a triangle, and parents and students need to also find their voices.
I belong to several groups online where the focus is public education. In one group, last spring, parents told heartbreaking stories about their children’s angst over test preparation and tests. Children coming home fatigued, stressed, sometimes in tears.
Parents were sharing with each other, but they needed to be sharing with policymakers, the same policymakers who have deftly characterized educators as money-grubbing, lazy, self-centered.
If teachers can’t be heard, maybe these powerful stories from parents and students will break through.
Changes in Oklahoma laws are barreling toward us all. Our students’ lives and parents’ lives and teachers’ lives will be impacted in completely unknown ways. Some have already begun to change the way schools do business.
Because of the Achieving Classroom Excellence [ACE] graduation requirements we are now seeing students who have taken and passed all required classes being denied their diplomas because of End of Instruction test scores.
Families have had their privacy violated, and students’ lives devastated. It’s time they speak up in defense of their children.
Another law will take effect next school year. Any third grader who doesn’t read at grade level on one test – one day in April – will be denied the opportunity to move to fourth grade.
Doesn’t matter what math scores say, doesn’t matter how close the reading score was. Doesn’t matter if the parents and teachers know a student can be successful in fourth grade. Doesn’t matter if the test company has failed to deliver appropriate materials.
All decisions have been taken out of the hands of the professionals and parents who know these students – the partnership triangle will be ignored. Students will be failed.
A colleague and I attempted to engage the bill’s author, Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, in a dialogue. We tried to tell her standardized testing is not the best way to measure proficiency, that students develop at different rates, that this bill [now a law] would create havoc for our children. She responded by telling us it was a positive bill [now a law], and would reduce the number of students receiving special education services.
Teachers’ voices were ignored and marginalized. We must empower parents’ voices in this debate. We must empower students’ voices. We are a partnership.
High-stakes testing is already used to grade schools across the state and will soon be part of teachers’ evaluations. With the addition of Common Core, we can expect more assessment. It may be time for parents to explain, in clear terms, what high-stakes assessment is doing to their children, holding policy makers accountable for their decisions.
Another triangle image I’ve heard describes the effects of “reform” … Take our first triangle and flip it on one of the points. Imagine all the corporate reformers, education foundations, the Billionaire Boys Club, the testing corporations, the textbook corporations, the private school owners at the top of this inverted triangle, eager to sell their wares, pushing down. Think of state legislatures continuing to write more and more laws, piling mandates on top of conflicting mandates, eager to demand “accountability” of everyone but themselves, pushing down.
Think of school districts attempting to comply with these mandates, attempting to play the game that will show their schools in a positive light, pressuring schools and principals for results. Think of principals aware their job security rests on results at their schools, pressuring teachers and parents and students.
Now, imagine that partnership of teacher, parent, and student as the tiny point of the triangle, bearing the weight of all the reform. The entire reform triangle demands that this personal relationship among parents and students and teachers support all the reformers and administrators by being collaborators. Enough. Parents have strong voices … it’s time they use them.
There are a few parent groups forming to raise awareness. The Oklahoma PTA attempted to speak in public remarks to the State Department of Education about the folly of the A-F grades. We also have two Parent Legislative Action Committees in the state, the Tulsa Area PLAC and the Oklahoma Central PLAC.
Parents are reaching out to each other with facts and stories. Their mutual support and their compelling stories will be hard to ignore.
I hear parents tell me they’re nervous to go up to the Capitol and talk to their legislators. They say they don’t know how to write an effective letter. They don’t know what to say. They’re busy raising their kids and don’t know how to stay informed and involved.
I understand all these concerns, but I’m a teacher and I know how to support people as they learn new skills.
I want to work with parents across Oklahoma. I want to use my training as a writing teacher to help parents find their stories and their voices. I want to help them flood the Capitol with the terrible reality of the damage education “reform” has wreaked and will continue to wreak on our children.
I hope parents begin to use their parent voice and hold policymakers accountable, make them face families affected by these laws, make them look into the eyes of a child whose education career has taken a legislated detour.
I want to help capitalize on that strong partnership pyramid to bring balance back to Oklahoma education.
– Claudia Swisher recently retired from Norman North High School after teaching for 39 years in three states. She is a National Board Certified Teacher and recipient of the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence Medal for Excellence in Secondary Education and the Oklahoma Education Association Instructional Excellence Award.