litmus tests

As NYSUT endorses testing opt-outs, city union holds back

PHOTO: Justin Weiner

It wasn’t long before Karen Magee, the feisty leader of the state teachers union, steered the conversation on a radio program this week about the budget brawl in Albany to testing.

New York State United Teachers, along with its national and New York City counterparts, has made no secret of its problems with standardized tests. The required annual exams, which New York students will take this month, stress out children, warp instruction, and fuel unfair teacher evaluations, the unions say.

But as a rising number of parents decide to register their opposition to the tests by keeping their children from taking them, the unions have stopped short of endorsing the boycotts, saying only that parents should have a right to “opt out.” On Monday, Magee vaulted over that invisible line.

“I am saying that I would urge parents at this point in time to opt out of testing,” Magee said on the show Capitol Pressroom. (“Wow,” host Susan Arbetter replied.)

Last year, tens of thousands of students across New York sat out the state exams, as did more than 1,900 in the city — a tiny fraction of the 410,000 students who took the tests, but a 450 percent increase over the previous year. In addition to their loathing of standardized tests and how they can dictate what is taught in schools, many of the boycotters are also driven by their opposition to the Common Core standards that the tests measure and the teacher evaluations that rely on their results.

All that has forced union leaders, who back the standards and the need for student assessments but worry about over-testing and unreliable evaluation systems, to take increasingly nuanced stances on testing. The city’s United Federation of Teachers has managed to juggle those positions while at the same time mobilizing parents and teachers who are hostile to high-stakes testing, all without endorsing test refusal.

The union has been able to do that since members who openly back the opt-out movement are still in the minority. But with Magee’s comments coming as advocates predict record opt-out numbers this month, union leaders face new pressure to embrace exam boycotters.

“It’s really frustrating for those who are fighting the good fight to be turned down” by the unions, said Nancy Cauthen, a parent member of the city opt-out group Change the Stakes. “It seems like a little too much energy goes into maintaining their seat at the table,” she added, “rather than worrying about their membership and kids.”

Magee, who won control of NYSUT last year by pledging to take a harder line against state education policy, made her comments this week as state lawmakers battled Governor Andrew Cuomo over his plan to increase the weight of tests in teacher evaluations. In an interview with Chalkbeat, she said the union decided to encourage parents to opt out because of a “groundswell” of support for the movement among teachers and parents.

But in separate comments Monday, she suggested that a massive number of boycotters could undermine the evaluation system. “Statistically, if you take out enough, it has no merit or value whatsoever,” she told reporters. Her comments drew rebukes from a top state education official and Cuomo, who called them a “political tactic.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers, of which NYSUT and the UFT are both affiliates, quickly jumped in. She posted online that she would boycott New York’s tests if she had children in the public schools, and that she understood “why @NYSUT and parents are calling for an opt-out.”

Laura Scott
PHOTO: Sarah Darville
UFT President Michael Mulgrew and AFT President Randi Weingarten attended a rally against Gov. Cuomo’s education policies at P.S. 10 in Brooklyn last month.

The influential historian and education blogger Diane Ravitch was quick to praise Weingarten for “personally endorsing” the opt-out movement. Other observers were more skeptical, asking if the AFT would now direct resources to the cause.

In an interview, Weingarten offered a nuanced take on testing, but stopped short of backing Magee’s decision to encourage test refusal. She said parents should have the right to opt out their children from the tests, and that teachers should have the right to “give parents both the pros and cons” of skipping the exams.

But she added that teachers are not necessarily protected if they refuse to administer mandated exams. And she said her union would not “run a campaign” advising parents to boycott the tests, as Magee implied she plans to do.

“There’s a difference between supporting a parent’s right to opt out and playing a leading role,” Weingarten said.

Unlike Weingarten, UFT President Michael Mulgrew did not rush to respond to Magee’s opt-out remarks. In an interview, he noted that he has previously said he backs parents’ right to boycott the exams and that his union is affiliated with NYSUT.

“That’s what the state president has said,” he said, referring to Magee’s comments. “We support our state union.”

Mulgrew represents a different membership than Magee, whose members hail from suburban and upstate districts with far higher opt-out percentages and some school boards that endorse test refusal. He also works closely with city schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who takes a middle-of-the-road stance on testing similar to his. (Fariña told principals in a memo Tuesday to “reiterate the value” of tests to parents and students, but also to respect their decision to opt out.)

UFT President Michael Mulgrew and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have both called for a reduced emphasis on testing but avoided endorsing the test opt-out movement.
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
UFT President Michael Mulgrew and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have both called for a reduced emphasis on testing but avoided endorsing the test opt-out movement.

Still, some city teachers have partnered with opt-out groups, discussed the movement with interested parents and sometimes encouraged them to join, and even pledged not to administer the tests. As they do, they are looking to their union leaders for support. Lauren Cohen, a fifth-grade teacher at opt-out-friendly P.S. 321 in Park Slope, said Magee’s comments this week made her wonder if the UFT would follow suit.

“Does this mean I can say what I really feel now and the union will protect me?” said Cohen, who is a member of the union’s Movement of Rank and File Educators, or MORE, caucus. 

Cohen introduced a MORE-sponsored resolution at a UFT meeting last week calling on the union to back parents who boycott the tests, to protect teachers who speak out against testing and “conscientious objectors” who refuse to give the exams, and to distribute opt-out materials. The measure did not get enough votes to be brought before the full membership, which some attributed to resistance from the union leadership.

Mike Schirtzer, a MORE member who helped write the resolution, said the union should conduct polls and host forums to gauge how many members support test refusal. Schirtzer, who teaches at Leon Goldstein High School for the Sciences in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, said he believes the number is larger than the leadership may realize.

“There is a huge groundswell of teachers getting behind opt out,” he said.

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defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.