Testing: Educators and Parents Push Back
2014 was supposed to be the year that every U.S. child would be proficient in reading and math. They are not. Instead, 2014 was the year that NEA and its members said: Enough is enough! It’s time to end the nation’s stupid, obsessive focus on high-stakes standardized tests that don’t help students learn. In March, more than 30,000 educators, students, and parents marched in Oklahoma, calling for an increase in state education funding and a decrease in the barrage of standardized tests that students face each year. Then, in July, NEA’s Representative Assembly launched a campaign to stop “toxic testing” and end the “test, blame, and punish” system that has dominated public education since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001. Teachers now spend nearly a third of their time on test preparation, administration, and review. Parents understand that this is time wasted. Pushed aside are art, music, physical education, social studies, science, and the richness of a broad curriculum. Lost is any sense that education is about educating the whole child.
“More and more Americans understand that over testing is taking a toll on our students and on what and how we teach,” said National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García. “Students and teachers continue to lose more and more class time to testing and test preparation, and that time should be spent teaching and learning a rich, engaging curriculum.”
If you agree, sign the open letter from NEA and the educators of America, calling for a renewed focus on student learning.
The Student Debt Crisis
In 2014, the nation’s student debt topped $1.2 trillion, and tens of thousands of Americans graduated from college owing an average $33,000 each. At these levels, student debt isn’t just a burden—it’s a barrier to the American Dream. That’s why, in May 2014, NEA educators launched NEA’s Degrees Not Debt campaign. On schools and campuses from California to Florida to Maine, faculty, staff, and students are raising their voices, and demanding solutions to the nation’s college affordability crisis. In June, NEA Student member and future teacher Brittany Jones, who owes $70,000 for her teacher education, testified to a Congressional committee. “I think everybody should have the opportunity to pursue their dream,” she told lawmakers. Meanwhile, NEA Higher Ed member Lauren Zavrel, who owes $80,000 in student loans, journeyed from Clackamas Community College in Oregon to the East Wing of the White House to watch President Barack Obama sign an order making student loans more affordable. “I’m here to advocate for my students and students across the country in similar situations, and I also think it’s about time we prioritize education.
It’s time we step up and advocate for students,” said Zavrel. NEA and its members believe every American deserves a fair shot at higher education, regardless of family income or background. If you agree, take NEA’s Degrees not Debt pledge.
The Assault on Teacher Due Process
In 2014, the folks who hate unions got a new idea: Blame teachers’ due process rights for students’ poor performance. Never mind that states with the highest student test scores also have the strongest unions and job protections. And never mind when they say “tenure” it’s a misnomer—they are not jobs for life. What we’re really talking about is due process for teachers who might actually be fired for the wrong reasons. And never mind that the real obstacles to student learning, like hunger or homelessness or lack of English language fluency, are ignored entirely when so-called “reformers” focus on a red herring that suits their profit-motivated efforts to privatize public education.
Educators and their unions are not backing down from this battle. In May, after six teachers represented by the North Carolina Association of Educators filed suit, a judge ruled that the state’s repeal of due-process protections was unconstitutional. Then, in June, the California Teachers Association promised an appeal of a deeply flawed decision around tenure in that state. “Let’s be clear: This…is yet another attempt by millionaires and corporate special interests to undermine the teaching profession and push their own ideological agenda on public schools and students while working to privatize public education,” said then-NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. In July, the tide turned in Tennessee, when lawmakers actually listened to teachers and backed away from a proposal to link the renewal of teachers’ licenses to their students’ test scores. “Even though this is something the governor and education commissioner wanted deeply, the power of teachers got it overturned,” said Bryan Massengale, a middle school band director.
The End of Zero Tolerance?
The “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies that caught fire in the late 1990s and 2000s met with cold water in 2014. By the time school started this past fall, a handful of the nation’s largest districts, including Los Angeles, Broward County, Fla., and Montgomery County, Md., had officially retired the policies that too often led to the arrests, expulsions, and suspensions of millions of students, especially students of color and students with disabilities.
These changes were overdue, according to a June report released by the Council of State Governments Justice Center with NEA and other advocacy groups. Zero tolerance policies built the “school- to-prison pipeline” that have pushed unprecedented numbers of kids out of schools—without ever making their classrooms safer. Instead of zero tolerance, what works for all students, and what has grown in popularity across the U.S. this year, are “restorative practices” that stress time, training, and a commitment to respectful listening. “I have a picture on my wall of a huge tree with its roots. The point of restorative practices is to get to the roots,” said Rita Danna, the restorative justice facilitator for Littleton, Colo., schools, to NEA Today in June. To help educators do that, NEA partnered with the Advancement Project and others, in the spring of 2014, to release a restorative practices toolkit.
“Start by reflecting on your own practice, and what you do in your classroom,” urged Harry Lawson, associate director of NEA’s Human and Civil Rights department.
Common Core Controversy
Not only were the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) one of the top education issues of 2014, they were also, somewhat unexpectedly, one of the hottest political issues of the year. Opponents on the right and left took aim at the standards, triggering a backlash that leaves the successful implementation of the CCSS on shakier ground. NEA has always supported the standards but recognized early in the year that the botched implementation in many states called for a “course correction.” Specifically, NEA said policymakers needed to treat educators as professionals and give them the necessary resources and time to learn the standards, develop appropriate curriculum, and collaborate with colleagues.
Still, the challenges of implementation alone can’t explain the intense opposition in many states. A recent poll indicated that the public was more aware of the standards than in the previous year, but that the majority had received most of their information about them from television or radio—not the most reliable sources of information. Far fewer people had heard about the standards from their school, teachers, or district.
Clearly the rampant misinformation that can be found on cable news, for example, polluted the national discussion. So, where are we now? Although the backlash is real, only two states, Indiana and Oklahoma, have completely dropped the Common Core. Efforts to follow these states, or at least revise the standards, have been underway for some time in Louisiana, Missouri, and South Carolina. Unfortunately, for too many politicians, opposition to the Common Core has become a litmus test of their ideological purity and they are more than happy to use the standards as a political football, diverting attention away from the critical work of supporting educators. “Our students’ futures aren’t a game,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “These standards are an opportunity for all students to have access to a great education, but are being overshadowed by a propaganda war on TV and poor implementation by too many states and districts on the ground. Educators need the resources, time, and training needed to get it right for students.”