With Frank’s permission, we’re sharing the transcript of the powerful speech he gave at our January 18th event at the Oneonta High School, “On the State of Education in NY: Reform & Resistance.” Frank Sutliff is 30 year veteran of public education, the principal of West Canada Valley Junior/ Senior High School and the current president of the School Administrators. Thank you, Frank, for taking the time to speak to our communities.
I appreciate the opportunity I have been given to speak here today. Although I am the President of the School Administrators Association of New York State, better known as SAANYS, I am not here today representing this organization of over 7000 administrators. Instead, I am here as a veteran Principal with 26 years of experience running a junior-senior high school, as well as having been in education over 30 years.
There is one main issue for me with the APPR, the common core, and what I call the corporate takeover of American public education. That issue is the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on something that is of questionable benefit to children in any way, shape, or form. This hysteria over college and career readiness is a manufactured crisis based on data that compares apples to oranges, a crisis designed to enrich the coffers of publishing companies. The illusion that children in the United States are ill prepared and that they will never be competitive in a world market has manifested itself in many ways. I will concentrate on three of these issues today- the corporate takeover of education, high stakes testing, and the questionable data gathering in New York State via InBloom.
Recent announcements out of the Governor’s office state how students are being “put first” in improving and reforming education and that education funding has been increased by $1.8 billion over the last two years.
Let me talk about how students are being “put first” in my district the last two years. I am sure that many of you here in the audience have seen the same thing.
- Is cutting 14 courses so that some students sit in so called “study halls” or the senior lounge for five periods a day “putting students first”? We no longer offer Computer Graphic Design, Construction Systems, World War II, or History and Digital Media just to name a few courses lost to cuts to teaching positions.
- Is the end of all professional development, including curriculum mapping and data analysis “putting students first?”
- Is cutting a guidance counselor as students’ academic and emotional needs increase “putting students first”?
- Is the cutting of numerous sports, clubs, and activities “putting students first”?
In this state and across the country, where we have been sold a bag of goods with Race to the Top, we are supposedly “putting students first”. In my district, we could “put students first” by providing them with needed and desired courses, providing their teachers with professional development, and providing these students with services and activities. Instead, on the Friday before Christmas, I received yet another huge shipment of common core modules where kindergarten students can learn about Mesopotamia, fifth graders can do close reading of passages from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and high school students can close read documents from the Federal Reserve Bank. As I sorted and distributed these boxes of material, I could see my senior lounge where students sit period after period due to the lack of course offerings. However, the millions and millions of dollars for Expeditionary Learning and Common Core Inc. continue to flow unabated.
I am encouraged by the efforts of groups such as yours and I feel that grassroots efforts such as those done by the “Oneonta Area for Public Education” are well worth the effort in trying to effect change.
I would like to share an email that I wrote about these issues and then sent to my teachers a few months ago. I believe my email sums up where we now are in this fight to restore sanity to our schools and how groups such as yours came to be.
“As the wasteful APPR system came into being with hundreds of millions foolishly allocated through Obama’s Race to the Top, there was little public outcry against it. Any objections were mainly from educators and the public could have cared less due to the disdain spewed against teachers and administrators by our governor and others. When the common core came in with it, there was little outcry against it, as no one understood the implications- a few “shifts” here and there and a few billions for testing and publishing companies. Again, no one outside of education really cared as criticisms were viewed as just those of whiny teachers and self serving administrators. During this time, various educational groups formed to fight back against these initiatives, particularly on Long Island and in Western New York. However, these were isolated pockets and the public took little or no interest, nor did the legislators.
However, when students returned to school and began to have hours and hours of homework with the expectation that parents would help with things they did not know and when young elementary students started saying that they hated school, things began to change quickly. The final straw was when the test results were sent home; parents who had previously been told that their children were above average and doing well found out that their children were instead, barely achieving and in need of AIS. This is when the heat got turned up resulting in common core forums where parents (“special interest” groups according to Commissioner King) got involved and heatedly voiced their opinions. As we know, this resulted in the cancellation of these forums by King and a public outcry.
What Commissioner King does not understand and has not dealt with in his limited experience as a school administrator is the vehemence of parents when it comes to defending their children. Any administrator with experience understands this and this is when the top down and forced compliance of the APPR/common core debacle thankfully went off the track. When parents got involved because their children were treated as lab experiments and started to voice their opinions as well as contact their legislators, the “revolt” against this nonsense found its voice.”
This is the voice with which you are all now speaking- speaking out against all of the testing, all of the squandered resources, and the decisions being made by corporate leaders with no experience in public schools. I look at my own district and try to find one positive thing about the APPR and the common core and I find none. However, when I look at the negative impact it has brought us, I see morale at an all time low, teachers reluctant to share their practices with colleagues due to concerns about their “score” and money spent on purchasing tests that could be spent on students. This is my own experience; to be fair, I know colleagues in other districts and within my own professional organization who appear to be quite pleased with the so called reform agenda, particularly the common core. My question to them would be the same- could these hundreds of millions have been better spent by providing services and opportunities to students instead of being spent in a top down experiment?
I would like to take a few minutes to talk about the testing. I have been giving 3-8 assessments (in my case 7-8), as well as Regents exams for years and years. I never had a problem with these tests before, other than a few blips along the way (a 2004 fiasco with Algebra being a prime example). Overall, it was an excellent system with tests of relatively high quality administered from district to district. What we did at my school with the 3-8 assessments in particular was to invite K-12 teachers as a group to scrutinize and study them in the following year. We looked for strengths and weaknesses, not to get better test scores, but to inform instruction. In fact, leading these data groups was one of the highlights of my professional career- to have 3rd grade teachers discussing math standards with the trig teacher is a wonderful use of educators’ time. However, with no money for professional development and the secretive nature of the tests now, this activity no longer occurs.
Now as part of “putting students first” and the mantra of college and career readiness, we give 3-8 tests that are longer than the law boards and include concepts and topics never taught. This is part of the now famous State Ed analogy of “building the plane in the air.” However, as we “build the plane in the air”, we not only fail children, we fail their teachers in the quest to make teaching an activity that can be assigned a number.
Another thing associated with testing that I find truly disingenuous is the notion put out from Albany that all of the additional SLO testing is the fault of districts and the APPR plans they adopted. The fact that we spend money purchasing these tests for the so called non-core courses and then waste students’ time giving them came directly from State Ed as they instituted the APPR. This testing, given for no other reason than to give teachers who do not get a NYS growth score a number, comes right out of Albany’s directives and their inability to answer simple APPR questions with one consistent and correct answer. To suggest otherwise and to blame districts for this is disingenuous.
I am not going to go into specifics about the common core due to time limitations today; I will leave that better said by others. However, as a former librarian, it is hard to see the little regard with which fiction is held as we are given mandated acceptable levels of nonfiction. As a child growing up in Gloversville, my books came from the Gloversville Free Library and so did much of my education. I know that I loved reading due to the worlds that it opened; I also know that our so called close readings of prescribed documents and passages will not open up that same love of literature in today’s students.
Everywhere I turn the common core rears its head. One of the most disappointing recently was on the Kindle Free Time product that Amazon.com offers. My soon to be four year old granddaughter enjoys this feature of the Kindle with all of its games, activities, books, and videos; it really is a wonderful product. Recently Amazon tweeted out “Kindle Free Time launches Learn First and Bedtime Educational Features.” I saw the tweet and thought great, a good product getting even better. I clicked on the link and saw the following- “Now with thousands of educational titles- hundreds of common core aligned level readers and supplemental readers.” Enough is enough- preschool?- can’t kids just have fun?
Finally, I want to discuss one other area of Race to the Top that is very concerning to me and should concern you as parents and educators- InBloom. This is the data system New York State has bought into where students’ confidential information is stored by private companies in the cloud. In fact, this data system is so concerning that some districts are returning Race to the Top funds in an attempt to not have their children’s private data stored in this way. One example is the Pearl River School system; on October 31 they voted to opt out of Race to the Top, due to concerns about privacy. Their Superintendent, Dr. John Morgano, was quoted as saying “However, we learned from the State Education Department that they will be collecting individual student discipline data and sending it to InBloom. There is no need for a private company to possess a child’s disciplinary history so that it is potentially available to prospective colleges and employers. I will not be a party to this infringement of privacy rights.” Kudos to Superintendent Morgano and I second this, as should each of you. I have handled all the student discipline in my school for the past 26 years. I send a form or letter or a certified letter home, depending on the incident, and then put a copy in my desk for future discarding, never in the student’s permanent file.
Although I know my way around data, computers, and student systems, I do not put discipline in digital form in our student system for just that reason. I have no problem reporting out to State Ed that I suspended 20 students out of school last year; however, I can think of no reason why they or a private company needs the name of these students. This assault on privacy, which is all too commonplace in our country today, should concern each of you.
In closing, I received a memo dated October 24, 2013 from our Education Commissioner, as did most of you working in schools. This memo detailed changes in testing, continued the illusion of our failures as educators, and ended with the statement “Teaching is the core.”
Of course, “teaching is the core” but making a difference in the life of a child should be more of the core. Learning and motivating children to develop their full potential is the core art of teaching. I could stand here the rest of the afternoon as could each of you and mention a teacher or adult who has impacted our lives. For me it was Zane Peterson from Gloversville High School, Dr. Wayne Mahood at SUNY Geneseo, and Esther Tasner, Children’s Librarian at the Gloversville Free Library. For you, the names are different but the idea is the same.
An anonymous public school teacher in Delaware wrote the following which appeared in a blog site on Washington.com; it was then quoted in an article by Valarie Strauss and I would like to share it with you. “They assume the best teaching and best learning can be quantified with tests and data. Yet I’ve never once had a student compliment me on my academic knowledge or my data collection skills. I’ve never had a student thank me for writing insightful test questions or staying up late to write a stunning lesson plan. But students HAVE thanked me for being there, for listening to them, for encouraging them, for believing in them even before they could believe in themselves.”
In our field of education, these stories happen every day. Just a few weeks ago, my ninth grade English teacher spent hours of each day helping a young lady who had previously met with very little academic success in her life. This teacher worked with her as she prepared her speech for a local oratorical contest, and this same student placed and went on to the next levels. To see the hugs and the high fives for this girl’s success and to see her beaming with pride is really what it is all about. This young student, years from now, won’t recall her close reads or the scripted lessons that have resulted from the state’s fabricated illusion of our failing students and failing educators. However, she will recall the kindness of this teacher helping her to be successful; this kindness is not quantifiable, data driven, or able to be reported to the state. Really, at the end of the day and at the end of a career, isn’t it all about helping a child to be successful?
Thank you for allowing me to share some thoughts with you this afternoon and I thank you for your efforts on behalf of all of our children.