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Historic Network for Public Education Conference Issues Call for Congressional Hearings into Test Abuse

I just left Austin, Texas, where I participated in the money-soaked SXSWedu conference for a couple of days. This was quite a contrast to the Network for Public Education conference which concluded on Sunday. Monday night I met Joel Klein, who introduced the latest Amplify tablet and curriculum package, which, it is promised, will deliver Three X the reading, Three X the writing, and Three X the feedback, all Common Core aligned.

But the scene was very different last weekend at the University of Texas campus a few miles away. There, about 400 teachers, parents, students and education activists gathered to discuss, debate and learn together. The Network for Public Education was launched just a year ago, so ths was sort of a coming of age event. (Disclosure -- I am the treasurer and co-founder of the organization.) 

While there were reporters from all over the world at SXSWedu, there were only one or two at the NPE conference. Although the hashtag #NPEconference was the number one trending hashtag all weekend, only a couple of news stories have come out about the event. 

And the scarcity of corporate-stream reporters was more than made up for by the abundance of a new breed of citizen journalists, the education bloggers. Former Connecticut legislator turned investigative blogger Jonathan Pelto led a spirited session where dozens of bloggers shared ideas and experiences. Many of these writers are already sharing their own takes on the conference. 

There were some real highlights to the event. John Kuhn, the superintendent of a small district in Texas, gave another speech that is still resonating in our ears. He was joined onstage by Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, who spoke of the dramatic changes under way there.

Sunday morning began with a panel devoted to discussing the Common Core, which I moderated. Strong Common Core critics were present, including Mercedes Schneider, Paul Horton, and early childhood educator Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin. I am not sure how Jose Vilson would describe himself regarding Common Core, but he was there as well, providing his perspective. And Randi Weingarten was there as well. I am not sure there is any other space where this dialogue could have occurred. Many of us have been frustrated with both the AFT and the NEA for their active support of Common Core, so it provided some satisfaction to have the big problems with the standards thoroughly brought forth and discussed. The video below shows the opening statements by all the panelists. This was followed by a half an hour of audience questions, which is not posted. 

Diane Ravitch brought us hope, as she explained why we will win this fight.  On her blog, she summarized her speech in two short points:

1. We will win because everything these faux reformers are doing is failing or has already failed. You can't succeed if everything you do fails.

2. We will win because the tide is turning as students, teachers, parents, and communities organize to fight high-stakes testing and privatization.

Here is her speech, in two parts.

Cynthia Liu has a podcast interview of several people who participated in the conference, reflecting on their experiences. 

The major news to come out of the event was the Call for Congressional Hearings announced on Sunday afternoon. Diane Ravitch and I held an impromptu press conference where we made an urgent request for Congress to investigate the overuse of standardized tests. Here is the summary:

NPE requests Congress hold formal hearings to investigate the over-emphasis, misapplication, costs, and poor implementation of high-stakes standardized testing in the nation's K-12 public schools.

The emphasis on testing - starting with No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001 and increasing under policies of the Obama administration - now seem to have become the purpose of education, rather than a measure of education.

Although it makes sense to use tests to determine whether all students are achieving at a minimum level of proficiency in English and math, high-stakes testing in public schools has gone way too far and led to multiple unintended consequences that warrant federal scrutiny.

We're calling for Congressional leaders to pursue these eleven inquiries:

1. Do the tests promote skills our children and our economy need?
2. What is the purpose of these tests?
3. How good are the tests?
4. Are tests being given to children who are too young?
5. Are tests culturally biased?
6. Are tests harmful to students with disabilities?
7. How has the frequency and quantity of testing increased?
8. Does testing harm teaching?
9. How much money does it cost?
10. Are there conflicts of interest in testing policies?
11. Was it legal for the U.S. Department of Education to fund two testing consortia for the Common Core State Standards?

We believe that every child in the United States deserves a sound education. We are deeply concerned that the current overemphasis on standardized testing is harming children, public schools, and our nation's economic and civic future. It's our conclusion that the over-emphasis, misapplication, costs, and poor implementation of high-stakes standardized tests may now warrant federal intervention. We urge Congress to pursue the questions we have raised.

This call has been embraced by those attending the conference. I also managed to get the support of Randi Weingarten and, a bit surprisingly, Peter Cunningham, the former head of public relations for Arne Duncan to endorse the call at a panel on Monday at SXSWedu, as reported by Valerie Strauss here. It is now up to us to bring this to every representative who will listen, to see if we can get some action. 

The four hundred activists who shared time and built common ground together in Austin are all back in our home bases, teaching, organizing and doing the hard work of defending our schools from the ravages of phony reform. We got a much-needed boost from one another, and left Austin more determined than ever to keep the vision of quality public schools alive for the next generation. 

Update, Friday, March 7, 8:40 pm EST: The Network for Public Education has created an activist toolkit with tips on how to carry the Call for Congressional Hearings to your representatives. 

What do you think? Were you there in Austin? What do you think of what you have seen from the conference?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter.

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