The Tipping Point

The following is a speech delivered by LFT President Mike Lillis to the teachers, administrators, and board members of the Lakeland Central School District on August 31, 2015.

Good morning and welcome to the 2015-2016 school year. Will all of the new teachers and teacher assistants please stand and be recognized? Thank you. We welcome you and look forward to growing the character of our profession with you as we nurture and educate the children of the Lakeland Central School District.

In my opening remarks last year, I painted a picture of education reform on the run, with evidence such as Inbloom shuttering its doors, 65,000 students refusing the state tests, and polls showing increased opposition from parents as well as educators to the Common Core standards and high-stakes tests.

Well…a lot has happened since then.  To borrow from Charles Dickens, who would have a great deal to say about our treatment of children today, in many ways what we are seeing now is the tale of two education systems; it is the best of times and the worst of times.

Since I like to rip band aids off quickly, let’s talk about the worst of times first.  Despite the fact that high-stakes tests took a beating last year, their use in teacher evaluation being discredited by the American Statistical Association, American Education Research Association, National Academy of Education, as well as parents and educators, this April the Legislature and Governor doubled-down by rewriting the law on teacher evaluation and dramatically increasing the role that tests will take on.

Here is why I believe it is also the best of times.  Within a couple of weeks of our legislative rout, the parents of over 220,000 students said, “enough is enough” and refused to have their children take the state tests.  This level of direct parent participation is unlike anything we have seen before in New York and no, it is not because the “union told them to.”

This is a grassroots movement of parents that have tried every other means they have to protect the integrity of their child’s education.  

There are not 220,000 parents in New York that wake up daily and try to figure out which act of civil disobedience is best for them that day.  This is a movement that will grow until sanity is restored to our classrooms.  They have built a lever, and it will continue to grow until it is successful.

As you can imagine, not everyone sees this grassroots action by parents to protect their children and their teachers as a good thing.  Our new Commissioner of Education, MaryEllen Elia, recently said, “If any educator supported and encouraged opt outs, I think it’s unethical.” I am not sure how she defines support or encourage, but I would like to flesh out her use of the word unethical.

To quote Inigo Montoya, from The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

There is nothing unethical about having an honest discussion with parents about the tests and their impact on our classrooms and subsequently on the quality of education their child will receive.  The decision to refuse a test is done on a case-by-case basis for parents, and in my experience, they seek out the highest quality information they can find. Different parents use different variables, but they always have the best interests of their child in mind. In fact, some parents will refuse the test for one child but not another based on what they think is best for each. So I do not believe that Commissioner Elia will find a case where a child refused a test because of coercion from a teacher. I agree that would be unethical as well as implausible.

Since the Commissioner would like to discuss ethics, I would like to contribute some of my own thoughts about State Education Department policies and hopefully begin a debate about whether or not they are ethical or even moral.

I do not believe that it is ethical to correlate proficiency on grade 3-8 math and ELA assessments to a score of 1630 on the SAT, a score that only 34% of college bound students achieve nationally.

I do not believe it is ethical to label students. More importantly, I do not believe it is ethical for the state of New York to label students “College and Career Ready” based on a single annual test.

I do not believe it is ethical to take students that remain on target to getting a 1500 on the SAT and labeling them not ready for college or a career, in third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade, and on and on through high school.  I believe this is state-sponsored abuse.

I do not believe it is ethical to use a formula to evaluate the state’s 3-8th grade teachers that guarantees 7% of them will be ineffective before a single student takes the tests.

I do not believe it is ethical to put a test ( a test I remind you that statistically is designed to have only the top 34% college bound students nationally pass it) and have students know that their performance will have a very real impact on the career of someone they love—their teacher.

I believe that these are starting points for a debate about ethical professional behavior and I would love to have all educators, parents, and legislators weigh in.

As a result of this debate, I believe, we will begin returning sanity to the state’s education policy and we can end the opt out wars by having a shared understanding of the value of public education.

So I welcome you to this year, even though it may be in an unconventional manner. I believe this year may be one of the most important in any of our careers.

We are at the tipping point.

The only question is, which way will we tip?  

The Tipping Point

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