Shavar Jeffries has never taught a day in his life. Yet, he was chosen to be president of the pro Charter School group Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). DFER is also known to advocate for “tougher” teacher evaluation policies and annual standardized testing; all elements of the corporate education reform agenda.
During a recent debate against the Executive Director of New York Allies for Public Education Lisa Rudley, on Fox’s Good Day New York, and in an Op Ed for U.S. News and World Report entitled Hillary Clinton Needs to Opt In, Mr. Jeffries argues for continued annual standardized testing. He goes so far as to call Secretary Clinton and her husband, former two term president Bill Clinton, “wrong” for wanting to scale back annual testing. His arguments include: testing requirements are “already minimal,” as federal guidelines require less than 1% of testing annually; annual measures provide important information which has lead to increased funding for our highest need schools; and the vast majority of civil rights groups support annual testing.
Taking Jefferies’ last argument first, while 12 civil rights groups came out in favor of annual testing, well over 100 civil rights groups did not. The groups opposed to annual testing led by the Network for Public Education, penned a letter in June 2015 denouncing the practice of annual testing. Jeffries uses the magnetic term civil rights to conjure up images of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fighting against water hoses and attack dogs in the sixties. To Jeffries, Dr. King is a pro-testing charter network coming to save the children from the teacher union attack dogs. The support of civil rights groups, who have been compromised by corporate donations, should immediately invoke questions regarding the group’s integrity and true motivation. The corporate reform agenda has also infiltrated our political discourse, which is probably why an overwhelming majority supported the annual testing portion of the new ESSA Bill.
Jeffries’ second point regarding the positive impact of increased funding for high need communities is misguided for a couple of reasons. First, when compared to wealthier public school districts, Title One schools continue to be chronically underfunded. Second, despite the so called increase in per pupil spending, the achievement gap remains. Third, we can look at average family income to determine the resource necessities of a particular community, as income is the biggest predictor of test scores and college completion rates. Further, studies have also shown that 3rd grade test scores are predictive of high school graduation, so grade band testing (in grades 4 and 7 for example), should be adequate in determining the needs of a particular school.
Finally, although federal guidelines mandate that less than 1% of school time be used on testing annually; because of the high stakes nature of the tests and their connection to teacher evaluations, states, districts, schools, and teachers have narrowed their curriculum and pedagogy to teach to the test. Therefore, the 1% mandate impacts 100% of a child’s learning experiences at school. Learning has now become a practice of answering questions, reading, writing and thinking in a way that mirrors what students will be required to do on a state test not created by educators. Further, annual testing force feeds “grade level” standards and tests created by private corporations onto students who may not be developmentally ready for particular benchmarks. Children are not standardized and child development is not a linear process.
What is most damaging about our test and punish system and why Jefferies’ support is baffling, is our continued overemphasis on English Language Arts and Mathematics. As a result, Science, the arts, project based learning, and Montessori classrooms have all been reduced or removed from the public school curriculum. Consequently, aesthetic learning, and other essential skills needed to truly compete in a “21st century global economy” have been greatly compromised.
Again, Mr. Jeffries has never taught a day in his life. If he had he might argue for the importance of early childhood programs in low-income communities. He would know that proficiency on standardized tests in grades 3-8 does not contribute to nor correlate with college success. He might also argue for portfolio-based assessments that facilitate deeper learning and better align with the collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking skills required for college and career success. In the future, I would encourage Mr. Jeffries to speak with real educators on the ground in district public schools. We work with children every day. We can tell him what needs to be done for our children and communities. Annual testing is not even on the list.
We must have real conversations about the most important factor to learning in our schools —teachers and teaching. Let us design a school system anchored in multiple intelligences that nurture the innate brilliance and joy for learning in every child. Let us work together to advocate for a truly individualized, Whole Child approach to schooling. Our goal must be to ensure the health, prosperity, and happiness of every single child, so that we can fulfill the promise of our democracy. Mr. Jefferies and his colleagues at DFER, if they truly want what’s best for our public schools, must expand their thinking about life, learning, and most of all, children.