We need more teachers speaking out. Until this happens, the bullies win. First speak out; then walk out. When they force you to do things that harm children, you have no other choice.
Parents and educators work tirelessly to stop bullying in schools across the nation. In Brookline, I believe that we do a very good job. Our schools are safe and our students feel that. However, there are bullies in education that never come to school. They stand in front of every school in our country and intimidate our students, staff, administrators and school officials. These bullies do not use violence to intimidate; they use policy and politics.
These bullies are the state and national officials that demand an overreliance on testing and support a so-called accountability system that grinds down our students and schools and undermines support for public education. Our government should be instilling support in public education and be held accountable for helping our schools while our communities work to improve schools and measure the progress of students.
This bullying started in Massachusetts with the 1993 Education Reform Act.
While that act created curriculum frameworks and increased funding to help our schools and students, there are many problems with it. One particularly pernicious provision is the state competency determination.
Through this provision, the state Board of Education created MCAS, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. This single test, neither comprehensive nor a system, is a weapon used to bully our students and our schools. An effective and fair comprehensive system would use a variety of measures developed and implemented at the local level without threats.
Our students are bullied into taking the MCAS test up to five times. In some instances, students must take the test again even before they get the results from their last try. If you do not pass this one test, you do not graduate. While state officials deny it, this turns many of our students into failures. It turns students who do not speak English into failures, even if they have been in this country for as few as eight months. It turns students with special needs, who are making great strides but are unable to pass the test, into failures. It disproportionately turns poor students and minority students into failures. The bullies beat these students into perceiving themselves as failures, especially as dropout rates across the state rise.
In response, some districts feel forced to take students from classes in which they excel and are inspired (such as music and art) and schedule them into test prep courses. The inspiration and success of students in these classes could transfer to better achievement in other classes.
Instead, testing becomes education and a good score becomes achievement.
If there were any doubts about bullying, we need only look to Governor Romney's visit to Winchendon after the district was declared "underperforming," a designation based mainly on MCAS scores. Some students held signs in protest, refused to shake the governor's hand and (unfortunately) booed. They understood that he was there for political grandstanding, not to help them. Later, school officials disciplined the students! They disciplined the students for speaking their minds - outrageous! The message? Shut up and take the test. The local school officials are now bullies by proxy for the Department of Education. Of course, it does show that the Winchendon students and parents have learned much about education, politics and protest. They will also now learn the limitations of free speech.
The only new funds Gov. Romney said he would seek for Winchendon would go to full-day kindergarten. (This is ironic, since Romney vetoed $10 million in full-day kindergarten funds last year.) It will be helpful if those funds materialize; but it will be meaningless without continued investment. In three years, when the kindergartners are in second grade, the state can take over the district. One of the more concrete and often touted plans by the state is to fire teachers. Apparently it is easier to bully than to provide districts and schools with the real resources and expertise needed for effective long-term improvement.
Teachers and school officials throughout Massachusetts are bullied. In Brookline last spring, when the School Committee debated whether to abide by the state MCAS regulations, the Department of Education bullied the community by threatening to withhold funds and to decertify our superintendent.
The most frightening piece yet is that the state is just a little punk compared to the bully of the federal government, which insists on unrealistic benchmarks, sets up untenable rules and threatens more takeovers. Look for that story in a future column.
As we deal with all bullies at school, we must resist. We must end the tyranny of over-testing, of accountability run amuck. Parents, students and educators must unite and resist. We must stop the bullies before they enter more schools, before they take over our schools. There are alternatives that give our communities the information they need about schools and that lead to continuous improvement.
Visit www.massteacher.org/issues/mcas for more information.
Philip Katz, a regular TAB columnist, is president of the Brookline Education Association.
This commentary is reprinted from Brookline TAB."