Alan Singer: You gotta say ” I am a private citizen who opposes high-stakes testing.”

Mar 25, 2016 by

An Interview with Alan Singer: You gotta say ” I am a private citizen who opposes high-stakes testing.”

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Alan, I understand that there is some backlash to all of this standardized testing going on—but in New York City, it appears that teachers cannot express their opinions about all this testing, nor can they encourage parents to “ opt out.” Am I off on this?

I wrote in the Huffington Post about a New York Times report that New York City teachers are being pressured to remain silent in the debate over the impact of high-stakes testing on children and curriculum. At least one district superintendent accused educators who encourage parents to have their children opt out of high-stakes testing of using their official position to promote political action, which is supposedly a violation of public policy. The superintendent told a public forum in December 2015 that teachers and school administrators “have no right to say this is how I feel.” According to the superintendent, “no person who is a public figure can use their office as a bully pulpit to espouse any political perspective.” But this is not just administrator doing this. Several school principals claim they were instructed by either New York City School Superintendent Carmen Fariña or by district superintendents that they and teachers in their school were not to encourage parents to have children opt-out of the tests. A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Education acknowledged that teachers were free to express themselves on public matters as private citizens or as parents, but that they would be disciplined if they did this as a representative of the city school system. How any individual teacher could be mistaken to represent the school system was unclear.

However, in apparent violation of the “law,” newly elected State Education Chancellor Betty Rosa recently support for the opt-out movement saying if she had school-age children scheduled to take the tests she would refuse to have them tested.

2) Apparently the superintendent of schools has indicated that teachers CAN have an opinion in the local supermarket, or mall- but they cannot speak as employees of the NYC public schools. Is this legal?

In 2008, a federal judge upheld Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision prohibiting public school teachers from wearing political buttons in the classroom. But the court permitted teachers to place campaign material into school mailboxes and allowed them to hang posters on the union bulletin board. No one questioned the right of teachers to participant in election activities outside of school.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, public school teachers have significant rights to freedom of expression but do face important limitations. “Generally, the First Amendment protects your speech if you are speaking as a private citizen on a matter of public concern.  However, if you are speaking in an official capacity (within the duties of your job), your speech will not have the same protection. What you say or communicate inside the classroom is considered speech on behalf of the school district and therefore will not be entitled to much protection.  Certain types of speech outside the school might also not be protected if the school can show that your speech created a substantial adverse impact on school functioning.” In this case it is the legal responsibility of the district to demonstrate your speech has an “adverse impact on school functioning.” For example, the ACLU argues that if a teacher writes “a letter to the editor that is critical of the school board for one of its actions or ideas.  A court will likely consider that protected speech because you are expressing an opinion that is a matter of public concern, like any other private individual.”

In apparent violation of the “law,” newly elected State Education Chancellor Betty Rosa recently announced support for the opt-out movement saying if she had school-age children scheduled to take the tests she would refuse to have them tested. Superintendent Carmen Fariña claims she does not want to prevent discussion of the legitimacy of the high-stakes tests, only to keep discussion more balanced. However, in apparent violation of her own policy, Fariña took a public stand on the issue and told a February 2016 State Senate Education Committee hearing, “I am not a fan of opt-out.” While Fariña has instructed principals to respect the will of parents, she also makes clear “I believe that everyone needs to be assessed.”

3) Obviously parents are not stupid and realize that all of this testing takes away from instructional time. Can they comment on this aspect as teachers?

It seems logical to me that parents would want to hear from teachers who they respect as educational experts about the validity of high-stakes tests and the impact of opting out on their children. New York State requires that its teachers complete not only certification but also master’s degrees. It seems counter-productive to silence them. In my Huffington Post blog I recommended that teachers who feel threatened by school or district administrators should meet with parents off-school grounds and outside school time and wear buttons or t-shirts that make it clear “I am a private citizen who opposes high-stakes testing.”

4) On the other hand, if a student is learning disabled in say, math, would not the test results provide some indication that remediation is needed or necessary?

There are already many indicators when a student is having learning difficulty and the high-stakes assessments are not designed to explain why a student is having trouble in a particular area.

5) Who determines in New York City if a student, say, with autism, should be required to take those tests? Is it the parent? Or the IEP team? Or is it mandatory across the board?

In 2015, the United States Education Department rejected a waiver requested by New York State Education that would have permitted assessing students with disabilities at their instructional level rather than grade level. The federal Education Department also rejected a request to exempt English learners who have attended schools in the United States for less than two years from taking the Common Core-aligned state English tests. Since then things may have changed with the new Every Student Succeeds Act, but it remains unclear and New York testing, without exemptions, starts April 5.

6) How rapidly do teachers get the results to actually assist the students with weak areas?

Rapidly? Tests are administered in April. Results come in the next school year so teachers are not able to help their students at all. It is not clear these tests have any educational purpose.

7) What about teachers in charter schools? Are those teachers “ muzzled “ if you will?

Probably worse. Unless they are unionized, there are no tenure or job rights and teachers can be dismissed at the whim of charter officials.

8) What have I neglected to ask?

We need to discuss what we mean by political. Philosophers since Aristotle have argued that every human act is political, but society would be oppressive if all “political speech” was banned. Education would be meaningless if officials gagged teachers from thinking and speaking on social issues. Should teachers be banned from discussing the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, or the cause and impact of climate change with their students because these things are too political? When you silence teachers, you silence students, and you create the conditions for ignorance and dictatorship.

I accept that teachers should not use classrooms to promote candidates. But a major responsibility of teachers is to promote active citizenship in a democratic society and sometimes that means bringing in documents for analysis and offering positions on a contemporary issue to help broaden the way students understand the world.

Over the years I have supported secondary school students and their teachers in activist campaigns against metal detectors in schools, school closings, and budget cuts, in favor of reproductive freedom, and in opposition to militarism, racism, and apartheid. These actions were political in the broadest sense, but also a vital part of their education. It would be disastrous to ban this type of behavior by students or teachers.

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