When I first got involved in education activism four years ago, with the publication of a piece "In Defense of Public School Teachers" I did so because the elected officials in New York and around the nation, under the mantle of "school reform" , were blaming public school teachers for problems in the society that were not of their making and trying to subject them to numbers based "accountability" protocols that would squeeze the life out of teaching. I saw the best teachers I knew, those who were my former students, and those I worked with in Bronx community history projects, feel as though they had become demonized and marginalized by people who had little real life understanding of wat their job entailed. Since they lacked the power to speak freely about what was happening to them, I felt it was my duty to speak in their behalf.
Four years later, there is still just as much pain and rage among the nation's teachers. Now that I am publicly identified as a "teachers advocate' I probably get 4 or 5 emails or Facebook messages a week from teachers around the nation describing the fear, stress, humiliation and erosion of professional autonomy they experience as student test scores have become the major indicator of judging teacher effectiveness. It is because of such experiences that I have launched, with the support of United Opt Out, a Teachers Oral History Project that will allow teachers viewpoints on current education policies to be recorded and preserved
But this past week, as I have become involved with an Opt Out movement in New York State that has inspired thousands of families to demand that their children be allowed to sit out state tests, I have become even more appalled by what current school policies are doing to children. The stories I have heard from parents about their children's school experiences have been even more heartbreaking than those I hear from teachers. The flood of high stakes tests into the schools of New York State has not only turned instruction into test prep, making once eager youngsters hate going to school. it has produced anxiety attacks and stress related disorders on a massive scale among students as young as 8 in schools around the state. And these stories are not confined to one demographic group. I have gotten them parents in small towns inner cities, middle class urban neighborhoods and in suburbs. Children are traumatized by the length of the tests, by steadily growing difficulty of the material they contain and by the fact that their teachers jobs depend on how well they perform,. And God forbid a student or a family should decide not to take the test! In more than few school districts, children who have chosen to opt out have been have been browbeaten, insulted, threatened with loss of extracurricular activities and access to honors programs, told they will never get into college, told they are jeopardizing their teachers jobs, told they will be responsible for lowering real estate values in their neighborhood, even in a few instances, told they are unpatriotic and giving aid and comfort to terrorists!
Given what I have seen and heard this week from the parents of New York State, I respectfully suggest that we, as a nation, need a long period of soul searching to examine whether the test driven policies that are being imposed in the public schools of the nation with breakneck speed are good for children. The two weeks of testing that the children of New York State are currently enduring comes perilously close reaching abusive proportions. A society that loves and values its children would not accept this as the norm.