Judith Johnson remembers about two years ago when she attended the opening of a new middle school on the banks of the Hudson River—a project that cost about $50 million.
The students attending the new school were coming from a building 85-years-old with crumbling walls and rodents. Because of the state of their old school, and that roughly 70-percent of the students were eligible for free and reduced lunch, Johnson felt like it was important to be there on the first day of school. Shortly after walking walking in with the students, Johnson was alarmed.
“A little boy looked at me, looked at the building and said, ‘Do you really think we deserve this?,’” Johnson said. “Can you imagine at 13 he felt already that the system didn’t really respect him?”
Johnson said similar feelings are creeping into students minds today, and it’s important to thwart them.
“We face a task now in our schools after these years of testing of rebuilding a sense of community, hope, civility, caring and safety for all our children,” she said. “Their spirits are fragile and in formation. They need to embrace hope and a sense of security. They need a belief in America’s fairness and in their ability to dream about and work toward a future that is not categorized by a loss of spirit.”
Johnson relayed the middle school story Thursday night at the Nyack Center, when she was one of many speakers sponsored by Restore Education Funding, an organization formed by concerned parents. The event covered topics like testing on students, school funding, the two-percent tax cap, mandates and more.
Johnson, an assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education in the Clinton administration, was joined by Nyack Schools Superintendent James Montesano, State Sen. David Carlucci, New York State assembly members Ellen Jaffe and Ken Zebrowski and Wendy Gottlieb, a third grade teacher at Valley Cottage School for 21 years.
According to Johnson, the standards and assessment movement in New York schools in the 1990s started off with great promise. She said students knew the only way to pass the tests were through mastering the material, which is not the case with a lot of the standardized testing seen today.
“The assessments were to be reliable measures of achievement, a demonstration of the application of new knowledge to new settings. They were comparable to assessments used in high-tuition private schools,” she said. “You can still see them today guess [when]? When you attend a band or orchestra performance, when you attend a drama production, when you visit a school art gallery and you can see them in science labs. The problem is you don’t see them on standardized tests administered in the classroom and you don’t see them on school report cards.”
Montesano spoke a bit about more about the testing, and how New York’s new annual professional performance review (APPR) allows for even more local assessment testing.
“We can’t simply measure teachers by the spelling tests they make up on a Friday afternoon, you have to have some tests that have some construct validity to them,” he said. “Now, the state has given us a list of approved local assessments that we can use, and they typically come from vendors.”
He added that a nearby school district comparable in size to Nyack estimated the costs of the new assessments would be about $218,000 next year alone to purchase and score the assessments.
“I don’t know that we’re going to get any better in form about our children’s learning,” he said. “In fact, my concern is the vendors on those lists are not [of] the Nyack curriculum in which that we teach. They are not aligned very tightly to the New York state standards, which our curriculums are.”
Gottlieb talked about how the the testing affects students from the perspective of inside the classroom. She said the concept of the testing doesn’t worry her as much as teaching the kids test-taking skills, such as learning to properly fill in bubbled answers. Another issue for students as young as hers is teaching them endurance to sit for 70 minutes for reading portions of the exams.
She added that she notices a lot of anxiety from the students about the standardized tests, from both students who perform well on them and ones who don’t. Gottlieb said there’s testing that occurs in late April and early May on consecutive weeks where the school has to essentially shut down for two weeks so kids can take the tests each day. She thinks they need to spend more time having the students learn about the curriculum and just test on that level.
“Stop testing student endurance,” she said. “Test knowledge.”
The three state officials were asked questions by the audience, who wrote down their questions on index cards and REF members condensed into a few general questions dealing with the topics most audience members asked about. Another big topic discussed Thursday night was mandates, such as Race to the Top, an education reform program that is set to give New York state $700 million over the next four years.
However, Montesano said the overall figure can be a bit deceiving, as a study in the county predicts that the the eight Rockland County school districts will see $400,000 of that money throughout the next four years. Montesano added that the same study said it will cost the districts about $10 million “when you factor in all the teacher training, administrator training, time out of our classrooms.”
One question asked the state officials how to deal with mandates like Race to the Top. Carlucci said a step in the right direction is to hold events like Thursday’s to talk with teachers and administrators to see their thoughts on what’s working and what needs fixing.
“Now that we have this, now that it’s been jammed down our throats, what can we do to mitigate the pain and make sure that we’re not spending or throwing good money after bad,” Carlucci said. “That’s the way we have to tackle Race to the Top.”
Jaffee said she doesn’t feel like the state and federal governments have kept their promise to fund education, and doing things like the tax cap aren’t the way to fix it.
“A tax cap is not going to lower your taxes,” she said. “A tax cap without increased funding at the state and federal level, without funding the mandates in place, are just going to diminish public education in New York state.”
The state officials all said it was a great sign that so many people came out Thursday night, as the Nyack Center was packed, with many people standing in the back or along the walls, with a few even sitting on the floor. An REF member said one of the next steps for the group is to try and reach out to others outside of the district and form a regional group. While doing that, they hope to get a petition with 25,000 signatures about restoring education funding, so they can take it to Washington D.C. and try to get some attention from the federal government.
Zebrowski said he thinks that’s a good next step for the group.
“Moving forward, I really do think we need to increase our voice and increase our advocacy with our federal representatives and the president because the one-size-fit-all approach that comes down from the federal government doesn’t always work for our local schools,” he said.