Education policy critics march in D.C.

Editor’s note: This Education Week article is one result of a partnership between EdNews Colorado and the weekly education journal, allowing us to provide in-depth stories from a national perspective.

By Nirvi Shah, Education Week

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Teachers and their supporters gathered near the White House on Saturday afternoon to chant, cheer and march for a variety of changes they hope to see in public schools — most notably, a 180-degree shift away from standards- and testing-based accountability.

People march to the White House during the Save Our Schools rally on July 30. Photo/EdWeek

Aside from that message, those who attended the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action in the scalding sun preached everything from boosting support for teachers’ unions to booting U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, to getting more federal money for low-income schoolchildren. Student poverty was repeatedly cited as the most pressing problem in public schools.

The more than two hours of speeches and hourlong march, along with other related events, were organized by teachers and teacher-educators who say they are fed up with test-driven accountability for schools—and, increasingly, for teachers. Speakers ranged from such prominent education authors as Jonathan Kozol and Diane Ravitch to the actor Matt Damon.

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Organizers estimated the size of the crowd at 5,000, but a rough count by Education Week put it closer to 3,000. Before the event, organizers had said they were expecting 5,000 to 10,000 people.

The gathering, according to the organizers, was aimed at sending a message to national and state policymakers about its participants’ disgust with those policies and to highlight their own principles for improving public education. Members have created a series of position papers outlining the loosely organized group’s views on high-stakes testing, equitable school funding, unions and collective bargaining, and changes to curriculum.

For the most part, those aren’t formal policy prescriptions, and no stronger positions emerged from the rally Saturday. However, policy proposals aren’t necessarily among the organizers’ goals.

“What we’re talking about is creating the right conditions, not prescriptive policies,” said Sabrina Stevens Shupe, a former teacher in Denver who has turned full-time activist and was one of the event’s leaders. “There’s no one silver bullet that’s going to save anything,” she added, referring to attempts to craft education reforms over the past 30 years.

Patrick McCarthy, an 11th grade English teacher from Woodstock, Va., said he is tired of devoting weeks of the school year to preparing students for standardized tests. If he had his way, students would instead spend that time writing more, and improving their writing and critical-thinking skills.

“I’m so tired of hearing teachers are the bad guys,” said Mr. McCarthy, who will start his 17th year as a teacher later this year.

The July 30 event appeared to foster a feeling of solidarity among teachers from across the country who say they have felt under attack. Teachers from Central Falls, R.I., where a move for wholesale replacement of the district high school’s staff drew headlines last year, and from Wisconsin, where a new state law curbed collective bargaining rights for most public employees, made a point of attending. However, not everyone present could pretend to be likeminded on every issue.

Raquel Maya, a graduate student studying elementary education at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, said she understands the arguments against merit pay for teachers—a policy measure that many teachers oppose. Her mother is a longtime elementary school teacher who Ms. Maya said has lost some of her passion.

“But you do need accountability” for student achievement, and testing provides that, she said.

A young attendee at the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action on July 30. Photo/EdWeek

The four-day Save Our Schools gathering also attracted hundreds of teachers and parents to American University on July 28-29 for a series of workshops and seminars about fostering activism and engaging parents, among other topics.

Some of the organizers’ methods during their stay in Washington have been unorthodox. On Wednesday, for example, they created an art installation of 50 dolls, each inside its own cardboard box to represent teachers’ feeling of being boxed in, and placed it outside the U.S. Department of Education headquarters. The move earned them an invitation to speak with Secretary Duncan and members of his staff.

However, the organizers rebuffed an overture from the White House. Although they have denounced the No Child Left Behind Act and the Obama administration’s continued emphasis on high-stakes testing, organizers declined an invitation to meet on Friday with Roberto Rodriguez, a White House education adviser. Organizers cited a busy schedule and instead urged members of the administration to observe and join the march.

Kelle Stewart, a 1st grade teacher from Portsmouth, Va., said she attended in part because five years of teaching exclusively in Title I schools had led her to believe the money spent on testing could be put to better use. In addition, she said that not enough teachers and parents are a part of the debate about education reform, and that the Save Our Schools movement is an opportunity to correct that.

“As teachers, this is a chance for us to model appropriate behavior and how to disagree with each other respectfully,” she said. “We want to encourage healthy debate—it only makes for a richer discussion. That’s a democratic guiding principle, and we have a chance to reiterate that to our students.”

She said had it been her choice, the event organizers would have taken up the White House on its meeting invitation.

“We have to compromise,” she said. “We have to work together.”

The movement has also been the subject of criticism, most notably from the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based advocacy group for charter schools and other forms of school choice. The center took issue with the SOS group’s call for additional federal money for schools but less prescriptive accountability and testing requirements.

The SOS coalition “advocates for the status quo, and reform to them is about money, control, and no high-stakes tests or accountability,” Jeanne Allen, the center’s president, said in a statement. “SOS is about deforming education, not reforming it. They put up the guise that this is for the families and students, but in truth, these groups want to restrict and remove any power parents have in their child’s education.”

Testing Targeted

On Saturday, another art installation set up at the rally involved several tombstones, each inscribed with a message noting the deaths of imagination, creativity, joy, freedom, and critical thinking, among others. The cause of death for all of them? They were killed by high-stakes testing, in the opinion of the organizers.

Attendees cheer speakers at the Save Our Schools rally and march. Photo/EdWeek

Mr. Damon, the actor and Academy Award-winning screenwriter, told the crowd that his strengths and talents couldn’t be measured by any test, and that his mother, an early-education professor, had made sure he didn’t take any standardized exams.

“My mom went to the principal and said: ‘It’s stupid. It won’t tell you anything. It will just make him nervous,’ ” he told the star-struck audience. His imagination and love of acting came from the way he was taught, he said.

“None of these qualities that make me who I am can be tested,” Mr. Damon said, then went on to pay tribute to the crowd.

“There are millions of us behind you. Our appreciation for you is deeply felt,” he said. “We love you, and we will always have your back.”

The event also drew the endorsements of others in the entertainment world, including the actor Richard Dreyfuss and the comedian Jon Stewart. Mr. Stewart, who recorded a video aired during Saturday’s rally, joked that he couldn’t attend in person because a dog ate his car.

Events around the country were organized in state capitals to coincide with the march in Washington for those who supported the cause but couldn’t travel so far. Still, marchers in person Saturday included teachers and supporters from at least as far away as California, Idaho, and Texas.

The marchers sported megaphones and signs as they stopped traffic, at one point drawing cheers from protestors who were denouncing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The SOS crowd carried a collection of signs that read “Wisconsin is the canary in the coal mine,” “Build Schools Not Bombs,” and “A Charter School is Not Superman”—the last a dig at the 2010 documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” which many educators have criticized as denigrating regular public schools.

“High-stakes has got to go! Hey-hey! Ho-ho!” some of the crowd chanted.

Support From Unions

The Save Our Schools movement began with a small group of teachers, including former Connecticut teacher Jesse Turner, now the director of the Literacy Center at Central Connecticut State University, who walked from Connecticut to the nation’s capital last August to protest the No Child Left Behind law and the Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s signature school improvement competition.

The Save Our Schools efforts predated actions by state legislatures across the country this spring to curb teachers’ collective bargaining powers and tenure, said Bess Altwerger, a member of the movement’s organizing committee, who hosted a reception for Mr. Turner last summer. The attacks on unions and collective bargaining further galvanized the group, however, and eventually both national teachers’ unions threw their support behind the Save Our Schools effort.

The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have donated about $25,000 each to the effort, although most of the rest of the donations have come from one-time gifts provided through the Save Our Schools website, according to organizers. Conference organizers estimated that they’d raised over $125,000 in all. After this weekend, they will have to begin fundraising efforts anew to keep their work going.

Another large donation came from Ms. Ravitch, the education historian, who said she contributed $20,000 she won for the 2011 Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize. Ms. Ravitch, who co-writes an opinion blog for Education Week; Mr. Kozol, a former teacher who has written extensively about educational inequities; and the educator and school reformer Deborah Meier, who blogs with Ms. Ravitch, were among those who spoke at the July 30 rally as well as during the conference at American University.

The SOS group will wrap up its gathering with a closed-door meeting Sunday, at which participants will try to determine how to keep the momentum from the rally going. Movement organizers haven’t disclosed the meeting’s location, and it is not open to the press.

Elaine Mulligan, a former special education teacher who is now working on a federally funded technical-assistance project in special education, attended even though she is unsure whether the event will have any long-term effect.

But it’s a start, she said, noting that she brought a friend who doesn’t pay attention to education issues.

“I don’t think it will work. I think it’s incremental, and I have to do what I can,” she said. “Maybe [my friend] will tell someone, and maybe they’ll tell someone. I hope that everybody does the same thing.”

Note: Several people who blog for or have worked for Education Week are involved in the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action. Education Week Teacher opinion bloggers Nancy Flanagan and Anthony Cody are on the organizing committee. Endorsers of the event include Education Week opinion bloggers Peter DeWitt, Diane Ravitch, and Deborah Meier; former reporter James Crawford; and Ronald A. Wolk, the founding editor of Education Week and the chair emeritus of Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit corporation that publishes it. Education Week and Education Week Teacher are not affiliated with the movement and take no editorial positions about it.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.