Gutting teacher tenure hurts the children

NEW YORK – Public education is under attack. Our children are labeled failures and teachers are criticized as lazy, ineffective, and overpaid, to name a few. This war on education took a horrific turn on March 31 with the passage of heavy-handed, punitive teacher evaluation measures, tucked away in the New York State budget.

The “reforms” effectively gut teacher tenure and make it nearly impossible for teachers to build long, meaningful careers. Governor Cuomo proposed tying 50 percent of a teacher’s rating to student test scores, reducing the weight of principals’ observations, and hiring outside evaluators to rate teachers based on a single brief classroom evaluation.

Democrats who supported this plan acknowledged that they voted for it with “heavy hearts” and that they have serious concerns about it.” And well they should.

Effective teaching can’t be assessed through a single metric any more than a basketball team can be ranked based on the number of points they score in a single period of play.

As the parent of a fourth grader and kindergartener, in a family full of veteran teachers, I’ve watched effective teaching my entire life. My kids attend Central Park East 1 (CPE 1) Elementary School, a small progressive school in East Harlem.

At CPE 1 children are encouraged to explore the world and question it. Their teachers allow them to ask questions and then guide them to find answers to their questions, rather than to assign questions with pre-determined answers.

At CPE 1, kids find answers through experiments and investigation rather than textbooks. They learn history and social studies through songs and field trips rather than pop quizzes. At CPE 1, each child brings value to the curriculum. Cultures, traditions, ethnicities, hobbies, and families are shared and celebrated.

In CPE 1 classrooms, teachers don’t need tally marks or gold stars to tell them which students are the smartest because they believe that all students are smart. Every student has a voice, not just the ones who raise their hands first. At CPE 1, teachers don’t use punishments and rewards as motivation to learn; they instill a love of learning.

This is effective teaching. This is learning. This is education. I had this education and I will choose it for my children at every opportunity. It is because of this education that I am unwavering in my decision to opt-out of the state tests.  It is because of this education that I know each of us has power to take a stand in the face of injustice.

Judging teachers based on students’ test scores and pitting public schools against charter schools is injustice. Selling education and commodifying our children is injustice. Teaching doesn’t happen under the threat of failure or punishment, nor does learning. Education isn’t quantified in terms of right and wrong, pass and fail, good and bad, and certainly not by test scores.

There is a place for standardized tests in helping teachers to support students. Not in determining school funding allocation or teacher effectiveness.

I’ve taken standardized tests. Those test answers have long escaped my memory but I still know how to explore, discover, investigate and question. You can’t put a price tag on that. Not even a $32 million Pearson contract.

I appreciate that deciding whether or not to opt out of the upcoming tests is difficult and I feel strongly that, unless you fundamentally agree with this new plan, everyone should opt out.

Taking the tests may be a safer decision to bolster my daughter’s middle school applications next year but it is a far more dangerous decision for her education in 2 years, 4 years, and for the education of children who follow her. 

This new plan will lead to the push out of great teachers, closure of public schools, expansion of charter schools, and other unwanted consequences.

My daughter asked why, on a cold, damp Saturday, we had to rally. I told her that we must rally because, while we don’t have millions of dollars to shape the education system, we have our voices and our bodies, and that can be just as powerful. And, like me, long after she forgets what happened when a pineapple challenged a hare to a race, she’ll remember how to change the world.

Toni Smith-Thompson is a parent and an activist in the fight for education in New York.

Photo: Students hold a sign during the teachers rally in Albany.  |  Shannon DeCelle/AP