Last summer many of us marched to protest the US Department of Education's policies at the Save Our Schools march in Washington, DC. While there, I met two activists, Pennsylvania parent Tim Slekar and Florida teacher Ceresta Smith. They are now working to organize an "occupation" of the Department of Education, beginning next Friday, March 30. Here is what they have to say.
What are your concerns about the policies coming from the Department of Education?
Ceresta Smith: My greatest concern is the implementation of DoEd policies have many accepting fiction as true fact. High stakes test scores do not indicate that students have learned deeply, claimed ownership to knowledge and learning, obtained the ability to work with others, or developed the ability to think creatively. Nor do they really reflect the quality of a school or a teacher. They suggest trends in regards to cultural practices, social class, and the ability to learn test taking strategies. And to a certain extent they reveal aptitude based on assimilation and cultural bias. The Department of Education promotes these misnomers. The student who scores high on a single math test is going to receive more respect and validation than the young man who scores poorly on a single math test but is able to create a practical and stunning fashion design using recycled materials. Consequently, we are wounding instead of empowering students, teachers, and the overall academic culture. All of us need validation, not a fictitious grade stamped on our school, a misleading number stamped into our consciousness, or a bonus check for a random number that we may or may not have had something to do with.
Another concern is the huge racial and economic divide that the standardized test culture is fostering. Many great teachers are backing away from teaching in minority and impoverished communities, and others are being tossed out of these communities. Schools are very segregated by class and color, and the divide is filled with inequity. Sadly, there seems to be a trend in that the different groups are becoming insensitive and discriminatory toward each other in very harmful and non-progressive ways.
Tim Slekar: My biggest concern is that the current DoEd is implementing policies that have no support in the literature concerning teaching and learning--in fact the policies that this DoEd are pushing are clearly exposed in the literature as at best inappropriate and at worst, harmful. It is clear that mandatory, punitive high stakes testing has done nothing to improve teaching and learning, yet this DoEd is expanding the harmful practice.
Also, it is clear that this DoEd has a disrespect for professional educators as evidenced by the simple fact the current secretary of Education has no experience as a true teacher. Would there ever be a day when the head of the American Medical Association was led by a someone who never worked as a doctor?
How are these policies manifesting themselves in your schools?
Ceresta Smith: In the community in which I live and work, they manifest in how much stability and academic freedom exists in any given public school in contrast to how much stability and academic freedom are taken away. This - of course- has created a culture of separate and unequal based on social class and color. The predominantly African American schools are mostly drill and kill basic knowledge test prep plantations while the schools filled with white students are for the most part free to engage in higher level academics and inquiry based learning. It also has resulted in transient administrative teams and a large number of veteran African American female educators being pushed out of African American schools only to be replaced with administrators and teachers who lack experience but are willing to go along with sanctions and demands that stifle educator autonomy and student learning. These policies also impact the way money is appropriated. More and more tax payer money and federal dollars that are supposed to go toward public education are being redirect into the hands of private profiteers. This negatively impacts school budgets and staff salaries.
What has been the results of your attempts to influence these policies so far?
Tim Slekar: Crickets! Those that are in a position to influence policy actively disregard any information that details the destructive policies of punitive high stakes testing as a measure of student, teacher and school success. I have met with three state level representatives and Senator Casey's assistants. All have acted interested at first but whenever I follow up to check on any actions these legislators might take to reduce the over reliance on high stakes test scores I am stonewalled.
Ceresta Smith: Well, on a personal level I have developed a tough skin and a will to keep fighting. Over all, I have seen the dissenting community grow and effectively defeat some of the anti -public education and anti- organized labor bills here in Florida. We recently defeated the Parent Trigger Bill, and we realized a small victory in a lower court decision on public employees' pensions. Also, the population of parents that opt their children out of high stakes testing is growing steadily.
What are the next set of actions you have planned?
Ceresta Smith: I will continue to lead community teach-ins and accept all requests for speaking engagements. As a member of the Save Our Schools Steering Committee, I will assist with the planning of a Save Our Schools Education Conference to be held in Wash, D.C. in August. As an administrator for United Opt Out, I will continue to raise awareness as to the power in opting out of high stakes testing in effort to end the use of testing as a tool to destroy equitable, and quality public education.
We are currently actively supporting parents across the country that have decide to opt out of high stakes testing. Also we are planning a large Occupy movement at the Department of Education in Washington DC (March 30- April 2). Look here for details.
Who do you expect to be participating?
Ceresta Smith: Those who are opposed to institutionalized racism and discrimination against minority students, impoverished students, second language students, and special need students. Also, parents, students, educators, and disgruntled tax payers who are waking up to the fact those who set policy are taking our good money and throwing it to bad as a select few are obtaining more and more wealth - more than any of us could ever imagine
Tim Slekar: We have heard from parents, teachers, administrators, and other concerned citizens that they all plan on participating. Also we are finally starting to see some support by faculty in institutions of higher education. This is exciting considering that the next phase of accountability is being directed at colleges and universities.
What do you hope to accomplish with these actions?
Tim Slekar: Our ultimate goal is the end of punitive high stakes testing in our public schools (The research clearly supports this goal). However, since those of us all have backgrounds in education, we plan on making sure that anybody attending any of the day's events will leave with a deep understanding of how punitive high stakes testing is harming our public schools (children, teachers, and communities). This is not an easy task considering almost all mainstream media outlets refuse to give the real experts a forum to address the citizens of America. We hope that anyone attending leaves with a determination to "tell the story" of how this DOE and its secretary are actively participating in the dismantling of our public schools and the demonization of the teaching profession.
Ceresta Smith: An end to the attacks on public education, its educators, support staff, all its students, and the tax payers who support it. I also want to see an end to this horrific racial segregation and resulting inequities in public education.
What can people do to get involved or support your efforts?
Tim Slekar: Get in a plane, train or automobile and join us at the Department of Education on March 30th and help us Occupy. If you are unable to attend spread the word of the event. Also, plan an Occupy of your state level DOE. And most importantly commit to learning more about the attack on public education and demand that politicians stop the insanity. Also, demand local media coverage of the destructive policies of punitive high stakes testing in your local schools.
Ceresta Smith: First and foremost, people must educate themselves as to what is going on in regards to the damage that is being done to public education. Then, they must speak out and engaging in activist stances by donating time and money to organizations such as Save Our Schools and Parents Across America. It is also important that they petition their legislators to draft and support public school, teacher and student friendly bills. Last, they must work hard to elect political candidates that support quality public education and work equally hard to get rid of those that don't.
Readers: What do you think of the plan to occupy the Department of Education?
Ceresta Smith is a 23-year veteran teacher who earned her National Board Certification in Adult/Young Adult English/language arts in 2002. As a 2009 - 2010 recipient of a $20,000 Jordan Fundamental Grant, she was able to implement Text Titans, a literacy building initiative designed by her and funded by Brand Jordan, into language arts classrooms . Ms. Smith currently works as a language arts teacher and teacher leader in Miami-Dade County Public Schools and the University of Miami. A committed education activist, she is a co-founder and administrator for United Opt Out National and serves on Save Our Schools Steering Committee.
Timothy D. Slekar is a founding member of United Opt Out National and an associate professor of teacher education. Dr. Slekar began his career in education as a 2nd grade teacher in Williamsburg, VA. He also taught 5th grade in York, PA. Tim attended the University of Maryland at College Park where he earned his Ph. D. in social studies education. He is also the co-host of the new radio show @ the chalkface.
Photographs provided by Ceresta Smith and Tim Slekar, used with permission.