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A Mom Goes to Tallahassee

Susan Notes: When she heard that the Democrats on the prek-12 education committee of the Florida House of Representatives wanted a parent to testify at their hearing, Lara McKnight volunteered, and she took her kids with her. I watched Lara's performance, and then I asked her to write about the experience. You can watch the hearings at http://www.myfloridahouse.gov. Click on "committees," then under "education" select "PreK-12." The archives are located in the lower right-hand corner. Lara is about an hour and 52 minutes into the session.

Lara notes that she can't take credit for her "hot hair":

My hairdresser insisted that I not look "too mom-ish." But looking like the quintessential PTA mom not only helped me when I professed to "not understand the complicated ways of the legislators" (a'la "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer," an old SNL skit!!) but I hope it might also influence those who would fear not being "professional" enough to address their government.

Also, when they asked me a question I wasn't sure of, I used the same tactic I use with my own kids. . . I just started talking about something else. Who knew my skills as a mother would come in so handy?

Gloria Pipkin Comment: On March 28, 2006, the prek-12 education committee of the Florida House of Representatives met to consider a number of bills. The last bill on the agenda was HB 1427, the House Democrats' education reform package, which they call "Every Child Matters." This is the first time since Jeb Bush has been in office that the Democrats' alternative to Bush's so-called "A-plus plan" has gotten a hearing. A member of the House staff called and asked if I would attend the hearing and speak to it during the section of the agenda for public testimony. The staffer also asked if I could help them find a parent who would address the stresses of FCAT. I put out a call on our FCAR email discussion list, and Lara McKnight responded promptly and positively.

The bill sponsors were entitled to call an expert witness in their behalf, and USF professor Sherman Dorn (also a longtime FCAR member) was their choice. He and Lara were the two speakers in favor of the bill. I was to be the third, but time ran out before my turn came. The Republicans had their own expert witness, a psychometrician.

by Lara McKnight.

Because I have dedicated myself to an unending quest for truth, justice and an end to the current use of high-stakes testing to "label" my children, when Gloria sent out the call for someone who would share their story with the House Ed. Committee, I answered. (And no, I don't wear a cape and tights. I also don't like panty-hose! Forgive me, I digress. . .)

Then I started thinking about all of those letters I had sent to those people on the committee over the past two years. Only a few ever responded - but one or two actually invited me to come to Tallahassee "sometime."

It was at this moment that I decided to have a confidence shut-down. I thought of a thousand reasons why I shouldn't go. But my husband told me to quit whining and just go, even said he'd take the day off and drive me. We also decided to take all four kids, ages 18, 13, 12 and 4 (and a neighbor kid we affectionately refer to as "Moochie") along for the ride.

I spent two days at my computer, typing and deleting. . .this was it! My big chance. I had to find a way to convey three years' worth of tears and stress and anxiety and meetings and tests and evaluations and phone calls and letters into five minutes that was going to knock their socks off.

I wound up with some notes, a few pre-fab observations and decided the rest would just have to come from my head and my heart. I prefer eloquent quotes by creative people to statistics anyway. Like when C.S. Lewis wrote (I'm paraphrasing) "The task of the modern educator is not to tear down jungles, but to irrigate deserts." Don't you love that? Or Beatrix Potter's observation that she was glad she never attended formal school because it would have rubbed off some of the originality!

I didn't realize that my five minutes of fame were the result of a bill the Democrats had put together that would take some of the "scratch" out of FCAT fever. I don't care much for politics - although I believe that many politicians really care about what they are doing. I decided to appeal not to the "legislators" but to the Moms and Dads on the committee.

"I homeschool my son Kelly. He is an FCAT failure." I'd okayed my introductory statement with the young man before I included it in my monolog, and asked him to sit right behind me, so that they could look at him, so that his sweet little freckled face was burned into their memories.

I followed that with a story: Last week, he and I had an amazing discussion about art (it's a whole stream-of-consciousness thing and would take a while to explain) but we wound up looking up Rodin on the internet. As we were reading a bio, we came across a quote where Rodin states, "Michelangelo saved me from academicism."

I asked him what he thought that meant (because I was just guessing out of context - Webster says academicism means "traditional formalism") and he responded, "Well, I guess it means you have to think outside the box if you want to be great."

(As a side note, my "FCAT Failure" had me order Dante's Inferno as he'd learned that Rodin AND Michelangelo both used Dante's concept of Hell to produce some of their most famous works. Why? BECAUSE HE WAS INTERESTED IN LEARNING MORE!)

Then I talked about the problem not being using the test as a tool, but using it as the ONLY tool. (I should have said, "You shouldn't hammer a nail with a monkey wrench!" But actually, I've done that. . .its a girl thing!)

After offering my son as an example of the negative impacts of mandatory retention, threats, and desperate attempts to re-shape his learning style, I introduced my daughter. She is a 13-year-old honor roll student who alternately scores well or poorly on the test. The result of low numbers is a remedial reading class. We dodged the bullet this year after we opened up a can of "Momma Mac's Whoopass" on the reading coach, but next year we've been told we won't have the same recourse.

This is a young lady who volunteered last summer at the Vet's office because she might want to be a Veterenarian herself. She organizes the paperwork for our family business. She has her junior lifeguard certification, plays the violin, and reads the heck out of "Teen People." (She obviously comprehends what Hillary Duff is doing at any given moment!!) But, it doesn't matter what else she does in her life, my daugter is labelled "in need of remediation" based on a single test administered on a given day.

Stress may play a huge factor in the discrepancy. My daughter also breaks out in hives and cries often during test week. Of course, her teachers want her to do well so that they can pay their mortgages - that might cause a bit of stress. And the administrators want to make sure that the teachers are teaching the kids how to do well on the test so that they can buy computers or give the janitors a bonus. And the legislature just keeps adding more stipulations to what they call their "A-Plus-Plus" plan which adds fuel to the fire.

Sure, I can gripe all day long. . .but surely there must be resolution to the conflict. I asked the Committee Members to consider that a child is multi-dimensional. That in determining ability, they should include standardized test scores, but also classroom grades and teacher and parent input. Then I thanked them and tried to sit down.

But they had QUESTIONS. . ."Have you ever taken the FCAT?" "Do you agree with social promotion?" "Don't you think they're going to have to take a test sometime?" "Are you aware that the graduation rate in Florida has increased. . .blah blah blah." I had to stop them!

I said something to this effect: "I am not here to offer statistics or persuade you to do away with the test. I am simply attempting to put a face on the people you hear about every day who are suffering because of the negative impact of this test."

Then I used a great analogy my Mommy had offered me: "Imagine the 'Children of Florida' as a jigsaw puzzle, with each child having his or her own shape, and individuality. In order to make the puzzle fit together nicely, you can trim off all those curves and pieces and make them into perfect squares. And the pieces of the puzzle will fit together perfectly. But the picture still won't look right."

(Did I mention that, since I've had kids, my Mom just keeps getting smarter??)

I don't know if I changed anyone's mind. . .my hope was to plant some seeds. I figued they'd provide the fertilizer :) I pointed out my other children: my son who, at 18, has always scored well on his FCAT and was revelling in the idea of telling his Government teacher what he had seen. And my 4-year-old daughter, whose party affiliation was the "Slumber Party" for most of the proceedings but who also represented the future of Public Education.

So, to sum it up: I had the chance to go and say what was on my mind. I was scared, but I did it anyway. I took the kids to make a point, and they were not only well-behaved, but learned so many important lessons.

I'd encourage other parents with similar issues to address the people in charge. They're "just folks" like you - but they need to know what is really happening. They need to see that our stories are not just the stuff of "Urban Legend" - but that real people are suffering.

— Lara McKnight
Testimony, Florida House of Representatives


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