The North Country Alliance for Public Education presents a Forum for Education

After a year of talks and planning, our new group is official, and last night we moved forward to help bring positive change to our schools! In front of a packed house of approximately 400 people, The North Country Alliance for Public Education presented and listened to an open, honest conversation about the deterioration of public education. Assemblywoman Janet Duprey was the keynote and there were 6 panelists including myself. IT WAS AWESOME! 

Though I didn’t feel I could share my entire 10 minute speech, I hit the main points about narrowed curriculum and the excessive testing my son and his peers have endured. You can see my speech in its entirety below.

 

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“I’m so happy to see you all here. Last year at this time I think many of us felt like lone wolves in this conversation about the current education reforms, so it’s great to have a crowd here this evening.

 I’m not sure that everyone is aware but forums such as this are happening all over the state, which speaks to the growing unrest about what is being forced upon public schools by the federal government, our governor, the commissioner of education and the board of regents. At 5:00 this morning I proudly watched a tape of yesterday’s senate hearings where two of our Alliance members, Kathryn and Margarita gave heartfelt, honest testimonies about the scary state of education. The time has come for all of us to be honest about what is happening to our schools.

 I come from a family of educators, so I grew up with an appreciation of school and all it had to offer. Yet, it wasn’t until I became a MOM that I fully understood what that word SCHOOL should mean for each child. As mom, I envision school as a safe, caring environment, with well-trained teachers who are afforded the time to get to know my child’s social and academic strengths and weaknesses. I also envision a strong parent-teacher relationship, with mutual communication throughout the year. But many times over the last couple years I have been forced to ask myself, “Are my expectations unrealistic?”

If you have ever spent an hour or two in an elementary classroom, you gain a new appreciation for teachers. My children have had amazing teachers, but I feel that the current reforms are leaving their teachers with less time to differentiate instruction, less time to communicate with their teams and parents, and less time and resources to provide for individual student needs.

 For my son, the Common Core worksheets and tests started coming home regularly in 2nd grade. It was apparent when I met with his teacher that the new core curriculum had been thrust upon her team shortly before school began and that they were doing their best to follow the state and locally imposed programs and mandated tests. Thankfully, she felt it best not to put grades on the tests since so many students were “failing” them, but even at 7 years old most students just knew. Sadly, most of what I have seen come home since then are worksheets and tests, and I believe that is in part because teachers have not been given time to properly train for a new curriculum, and because they fear for their jobs if their students do poorly on the state exams.

 My breaking point as a mom came last year, about midway through 3rd grade when my son stopped wanting to go to school, particularly on Fridays. This was extremely upsetting as he had always thrived at school. Thursday nights were stressful at our house because every Friday without fail, he would face three tests, always ELA and Math based. I think it’s important to point out that my son wasn’t stressed because he was doing poorly on the tests—on the contrary he was doing quite well considering the developmental inappropriateness of the new curriculum. I believe it was the stress of sitting for extended periods of time as well as the laborious nature of the reading tests and always encountering those few questions that didn’t seem to have a “right” answer. I would find out later that twenty page benchmark exams in ELA and MATH were also being administered every 8-10 weeks, and I noticed a pattern in my son who was very withdrawn during those weeks. We shared some tears during those evenings, and it actually came to a point where I felt guilty making him to go to school. I would often drop him off at school and cry on my drive to my school. I even called the school psychologist to ask what to do because for the first time in my life as a mom, I had no idea how to make my child feel better.   

I was not only a concerned mom. There was a bigger picture in my mind. The teacher in me was asking, “If my son, who reads well above grade level is feeling frustrated, then what is happening to the students who are reading at or below grade level?” My son answered that for me when he mentioned one day that he had friends who hadn’t yet passed a test. Sadly, our system, had already labeled those children failures at 8 years old. I really began to wonder why all of this seemed like a “lose-lose” situation for STRUGGLING as well as ADVANCED students. The struggling students were constantly “failing” and the advanced students were bored and stressed with the never ending tests and the constant focus on ELA and Math. My son began mentioning sitting for extended amounts of time waiting for other students to finish their tests. While I was happy that he had time to read books while he waited at school, in my mind, all of this was valuable time during a 6 hour school day that he should have been soaking up knowledge with his teacher as well as participating in hands-on learning that seemed to be missing from the curriculum.

When I began voicing my concerns to administrators, the answers I received were discouraging. I inquired about the reading tests that seemed to purposely trick students and the response was, “We need this more rigorous curriculum to compete with other countries.” When I talked of my son’s tears and frustration, I was told, “Your son seems perfectly happy when he’s at school” AND “Maybe he senses that you are stressed about all of this?” And when I asked why we seemed to be jumping headfirst into a narrowed curriculum with no research base the response was, “I’ve been in education for over 30 years. Don’t you think this is just another reform?”     “BUT MY SON ONLY HAS ONLY ONE CHANCE AT 3rd GRADE”, was my reply to that last comment.  

I don’t know if these administrators really believed what they were telling me or if they were giving me the answers they thought they had to in their positions. The answer to that question didn’t really matter to me because I was just a mom trying to make sure her child was having his needs met in the classroom. I have since come to realize that this new system seems to be pitting the adults in children’s lives against each other instead of helping them work together for each child. Needless to say, when I realized things were not going to change, I stopped voicing my concerns and took matters into my own hands by minimizing grades and homework that came home, by supplementing textbook stories with science experiments and research, AND with the help of the FSO, by starting a readers’ club at school to bring fiction and discussion to avid readers like my son. In doing these things I was able to make school tolerable again for him and for myself. But the teacher in me always returned to that question, “What about the children who do not have parents that are able to do these things? Aren’t those the children who need a well-rounded, developmentally appropriate public education most?”

By the end of 3rd grade, my son and his classmates had taken over 500 pages of tests. I realize it is hard to wrap your brain around that number. I came to this number because I began requesting copies of every benchmark exam my son took, and I made copies of every test that came home to be signed. By then, I had heard stories of children crying on Thursday nights and Fridays, students spending excessive time with the nurse, children scratching at themselves in frustration and children having breakdowns, refusing to go to school—all under the age of 10 years old. There were parents who pulled their children to home school and parents who decided to pay tuition to send their children to the local private school. AND THIS WAS HAPPENING ALL OVER THE STATE. How could this be acceptable in our schools?

Our children cannot afford another year such as the ones I have described. I believe the system is in many ways failing our children, and I believe that labeling them “failures” when they are as young as 5 years old and teaching them to fill in bubbles instead of teaching them to color inside the lines, is failing our country. What skills will this next generation, a generation of “inside the box” test takers, have to contribute to our country if curriculum continues to be narrowed and children are not allowed to follow their dreams, use their imaginations and learn at a developmentally appropriate pace? THIS IS TRULY WHY I AM HERE.

If you are here tonight, it means that you also have concerns, and this is a start at making your voice heard. You could start with your child’s teacher. Ask if he or she is supported in providing a well-rounded, appropriate education to your child? If you are uncomfortable with the answer you get, speak to the principal, the superintendent, the board of education. Ask at the beginning of the year what tests your child will take, how those tests are developed, and what they will be used for. Find out more about the new, controversial state exams that are no longer used to help teachers identify our children’s strengths and weaknesses but are used to identify our children by a number and, in my opinion, unfairly grade teachers and schools. Write letters to our senators, assembly people, the governor, the regents and the commissioner of education. And most importantly, know who you are voting for when you go to the polls. I can’t think of anything more important than finding out what a political candidate is willing to do to make sure our educational system thrives. I’m so thankful that we have Janet Duprey here with us tonight. She has been a friend to many educators and parents during this process.

I am also very thankful that we live in a country where ALL children have a right to a public education, and I want to make sure it stays that way. My children’s school still has art, music and regular physical education, however many public schools no longer have these programs because more money than ever is being spent on testing and curriculum. This year, I am increasingly concerned as a parent and a taxpayer with the amount of time my children’s teachers have been pulled from the classroom to attend training for curriculum in the form of modules that, in my opinion, are often not appropriate for teacher or student. They seem to provide a “one size fits all” approach to our children with little room for differentiated instruction or critical thinking. I believe they also take away a teacher’s ability to teach from the heart, as those of us in the classroom know is of utmost importance.

I TRULY believe that every child has some form of inner genius inside just waiting to be tapped, BUT no test or module will ever identify those gifts that a child has to offer. I’d like to end by sharing some powerful words from a couple concerned fathers that I call “super” dads.  

 One father says,

“I don’t want my children to be told what to do or who to be. I want my children and all of our children to have open minds, to be able to think from both sides of the equation and to be able to chart their own courses based upon their dreams, their desires and their capabilities.”  

 Another dad writes,

“It comes from within, the drive to advocate. To “be” an advocate is to feel the cause within ones self, to feel it as part of your own being. What drives you? What do you stand for? One day I awoke appalled at the thought of my children participating in mandated public school practices that speak to corruption, profits, politics and agendas– not true education, progress, and love. This drive, this quest, is not adjacent to me, it is within me. It is my own. It is my being. When I breathe, so do my children. When they breathe, so do all children. And when all children breathe, there is a glorious future. This is about breath. The respirator of education is parent, teacher, love. There are some, however, that will suffocate education for their own selfish purposes. To them I say “breathe smoke.” We must and we WILL preserve the LOVE of education. Our children LOVE to learn, and we will forever afford them this right.”

The eloquence of those last couple lines says it all. By being here tonight, we are all advocates for positive change in education.Thank you.”

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