On Wednesday, December 19th, many educators from around Philadelphia gave testimony to City Council in opposition to the overwhelming number of standardized tests that are administered in Philadelphia. Here is the spoken and written testimony of one such teacher.
Dear Honorable Councilwoman Blackwell:
I am one of the most privileged teachers in the School District of Philadelphia, because I am an ESOL teacher at Furness High School. I work with intelligent, creative, and enthusiastic students whose native language is not English in a neighborhood school whose student population includes a great deal of political refugees, unaccompanied and undocumented minors, immigrants from over 20 countries, students with IEPs and some students who arrived only after they were ejected from Catholic, private, charter, or special admit schools, but for whom our doors are always open. English language learners account for 57% of Furness High School’s current student population of 682 students. Even our Principal is a former Furness ESOL student and refugee from Cambodia, and his ESOL teacher at the time is still teaching at our school.
Do you know the percentage of English Language Learners at Central? 1% of their 2300+ student population. Masterman 0%, CAPA – 1%, Engineering & Science – 3%, Science Leadership – 3%. Why do you think ELL students are virtually absent from the city’s academically selective high schools and charters? Because English language proficiency has a profound impact on standardized testing. The elite public schools and charters do everything possible to keep or improve their test scores, unfortunately the major indicator of a school’s success. This means ESOL students are excluded from their esteemed populations to ensure high test scores.
The widely researched and accepted facts show that it takes a minimum of 5-7 years for a student to gain academic English, IF they are literate in their first language, AND they have content knowledge from their native education, which is far from the case with many of our ELLs in Philadelphia. Yet, these same students are expected to become “native-level” proficient in English after one, two or three years of ESOL and content area coursework in Philadelphia schools. It is utterly inappropriate academically, and is a practice that repeatedly makes our students feel deficient and defeated, despite obvious gains on the ACCESS test which IS designed for their assessment.
Put yourself in their positions for just a moment, a Philadelphia legislator for one school year in a country vastly different from anything you’ve ever known. You have no family with you, or maybe one sibling, like many of my students. The food and water don’t agree with you and you have skin problems, and an upset stomach, and the lunch you’re served every day, you have to force down. The environment is hostile, especially when you’re coming from one extreme climate and going to another, maybe from a village to a crime-ridden city. Your whole support network of friends and neighbors that you relied on before, now consists of strangers who shout at you when you don’t understand them or respond as they expect you to. You spend 7 hours a day in classes in a foreign tongue, with a different form of writing and you don’t know how to write a single word. Imagine, every time anyone in your household has to communicate in this
new language it is your responsibility, for the bills, at the doctors, shopping, when school calls for a younger sibling. Then, midway through your school year, you will be given standardized tests in language proficiency, math and science. Do you think that you, an educated professional, literate in your first language, could pass any of the assessments at a high school level in your “new” language? Now, imagine each of those advantages you have as an American professional disappearing, and you are one of my students.
Common sense tells you that second language students don’t have a fighting chance to score “proficient” on standardized tests developed and “normed” on native English-speaking test populations. Even their English-speaking educated peers struggle to perform at a proficient level, in a district devoid of support for the learning needs of our students, many of whom live below the poverty level.
English language proficiency has a profound effect on assessment and its outcomes. These tests are not appropriate for our English language learners. They do not adequately assess their progress in learning—not only the English language, but in grade-level content. These assessments are not an accurate measure of their true achievement.
My students remain in school and continue their education despite the many academic, cultural and economic challenges they face on a daily basis. And what do we do to them? We force them to take test after test that they are not ready or able to succeed at. We make them cry in frustration to comply with mandates. We ask them to reach a proficient level on standardized tests even though they have not acquired the English language proficiency needed to meaningfully interact with the tests’ content. Then these test scores are used to label our school “low performing” even though they are attending one of the best schools for English language learners in the state.
If you were able to visit our school, and I personally invite you to do so, you would see students of all nationalities, religions, and political persuasions with rich and varied histories collaborating as they navigate a new world together. You will see them volunteering thousands of service hours with BuildOn. You will see them apply to, get accepted by and receive scholarships at quality universities all over the state. You will see ESOL students working with Americans in AP classes after only a few years here. You will see students sharing their culture, their lives, their academic endeavors with each other and their teachers. You will see the true meaning of proficiency, success, academic achievement and social responsibility. You will see a high performing school. The Keystone test will never show you any of this.
No, the Keystone will show you how our school failed. Our students are below basic. The teachers are unsatisfactory. A test which robs our students of weeks of instructional time as we complete 12 days of testing, without factoring in Benchmarks that we will also administer this year. All at the cost of millions of dollars, fully knowing that the students will not be proficient by this irrelevant test. The state of Pennsylvania will spend $58.3 million this school year alone on PSSAs and Keystone exams. Just think what that money could do to truly educate these young people.
So, who wants to go to Fuzhou, China next fall for a reality check about standardized testing? Any volunteers? I am sure the Inquirer and Notebook would love to publish your scores. I wonder how many Chinese characters you could learn by March.
Tiffany Bhavnani, ESOL Teacher
Horace Howard Furness High School
School District of Philadelphia
On Wednesday, November 19th, several caucus members will be participating in the Opt-Out hearing at City Council. Below is the testimony from a few of them.
Please show your support for their work by attending the event at City Hall at 3PM -- Room 400 Council Chambers. Teachers are encouraged to come after work, as the testimony is expected to go until 5PM. You can RSVP on their Facebook Event Page.
Parent Alison McDowell:
I resent the significant quantities of time and money that are being spent on standardized testing. These tests are impeding our teachers’ ability to instruct our students. Our children are not standardized, and heaven knows the resources we put into public schools do not meet any standard of equity across districts. I trust my child’s teachers. I do not trust Pearson, nor do I trust billionaires like Bill Gates seeking to implement Common Core and its associated testing regimen. Education should be joyful. It should celebrate the talents of our children and lift them up. We should not try to force children into the same mold. It hurts them, and in the long run it hurts our society.
Even though my child tests well, I can see that this system is broken. Her father and I will not have her scores used as a weapon against children who are more vulnerable than she-those who do not have her advantages. We are refusing the PSSAs for her this year and by doing so we will give her several weeks of time to pursue an independent research project of her choosing. By refusing, we are making a statement that we recognize this corrupt system pits child against child; school against school; and teacher against teacher. Put simply, toxic testing is not a productive use of our limited educational resources.
District Teacher Amy Roat:
Every winter, ESOL students across the country are subjected to taking the ACCESS Test, created by the WIDA Consortium. This company does not release data about the tests reliability or validity. WIDA does not permit outside psychometricians, from a university, for example, to examine the test questions or the actual student results. Yet, WIDA hails itself as the gold standard for measuring what English Language Learners know and can produce.
For over 100 years, it has been a scientific standard that for a theory to be proven accurate or true, it must be able to be replicated by other scientists. Private companies, under the guise of corporate proprietary knowledge, refuse to release the data or let experts analyze their data. It is defies logic that we would judge students, teachers, schools and districts based on dubious tests.
Parent and District Teacher Beth Menasion:
The PSSA’s in high school have been replaced with the Keystone exams, which are now a graduation requirement starting with the class of 2017. Last Spring, I watched a student on the autistic spectrum sit and struggle with one module of his Biology Keystone for (I kid you not!) 8 hours straight. He wanted so badly to do well. While he agonized over every answer, he would not admit defeat. The rules of the assessment forbid me from taking the test from a student in situations like these. He sat through his lunch, struggling with this test because he knew that if he didn’t pass, he would have to take it again.
I also have a student with a math based learning disability who works extremely hard in math, but did not pass the Algebra Keystone last year. Disappointed in herself, she wanted to see the test and find out which problems she got wrong so that she knows what she must work on for next time. Sadly, students and teachers are prohibited from seeing the exact results of each item on these tests. The rules also say that in the testing rooms and hallways, walls must be devoid of all words and pictures, meaning that teachers must either take down or cover up any student work that is displayed as well as any artwork or even inspirational quotes. Due to the frequency of standardized testing, many teachers on our testing floor no longer see the point of displaying anything anymore. Blank walls.
By Jesse Gottschalk and Dan Symonds
As first-year teachers in Philadelphia public schools, it can be extremely difficult to find the time or the energy to assume any sort of responsibility outside our own classrooms. Lesson planning, grading, and parent phone calls often stand in the way of social lives, laundry, and basic attempts at nutrition and exercise.
And yet, on October 16th, we were blocking North Broad Street, along with thousands of other teachers, students, school staff, and allies, to protest the School District’s latest attack on democracy and public education – this time, its dubiously legal decision to cancel the teachers’ contract. Along with dozens of others (including many other members of the Caucus of Working Educators), we gave testimony before the School Reform Commission – the five member body, appointed by the Governor and Mayor, which exercises complete control over Philadelphia schools.
One of us (Dan) presented a citizen’s plea for courage from a body of politicians who have shown anything but. Dan spoke of the powers of the SRC, demanding to know why the SRC would scapegoat teachers and spending issues rather than attacking the real roots of Philadelphia’s educational crisis – the political decisions made to starve our schools and steer resources away from public education. When Mr. Green spoke up to tepidly reply, “This body does not have the taxing power...” Dan replied, “Yes, but you do have the speaking power.” Green’s reaction? Crickets.
The other one of us (Jesse) testified to the tremendous level of commitment and sacrifice that has become both a routine and necessary part of being a Philadelphia educator. Jesse declared it “shameful” that the caretakers of such a challenged system would make a calculated attack on teachers, and accuse us of not “sharing in the sacrifice,” rather than standing beside those of us on the frontlines committing our lives to providing our students a worthwhile education.
Two weeks later, we each received the same email from the SRC’s Chief of Staff. Chairman Green was interested in meeting with us, individually, to discuss our “concerns and [our] experiences as a teacher.”
It is not often that you are given the opportunity to meet individually with the person who essentially is our boss’s boss’s boss.
We turned the meeting down.
To be clear – we love the idea of having a School District leader who genuinely listens to teachers. Just like teachers should listen to students and families, it is essential for the leadership of an urban school system to be responsive to the people who actually work within the individual classrooms.
We think it is extremely important for the School District to take teacher perspectives into account when it comes to school conditions, employment policies, and other ways in which the School District influences the circumstances in which teachers work.
We are also aware that all of these things – school conditions, employment policies, and the circumstances in which teachers work – are part of the teachers’ contract. The same contract which the District has refused to negotiate, and recently threw in the dumpster.
And Chairman Green expects us to go behind our union’s back, to discuss the same issues he has refused to engage with our leadership about? We will not.
We don’t know Chairman Green’s motivations in calling a meeting with us. We can’t, since he declined to respond to our questions asking what he wanted to discuss. However, we refuse to take part in any action which might seek to divide or undermine our union, especially as we are calling on the District to negotiate with our union leadership.
Since Chairman Green refused to let us know his intentions in meeting with us, allow us to set forward one possibility. The two of us have something in common: we are new teachers. This distinguishes us from the other WE members who testified on October 16th – none of whom received the same invitation.
So why would Chairman Green want to meet with us? We fear that he might have in mind the day when he could say the following: “I recently met with some teachers – good, hard-working teachers, the kind we need more of in this District. But if we keep the old teacher tenure laws of the teachers’ contract, then these teachers are in danger of losing their jobs.”
So in case that is indeed Mr. Green’s message, allow us to say that, while we do care deeply about our jobs, we care even more about the job – restoring teaching as a viable, supported, and respected career option.
As new teachers, we believe wholeheartedly that experience matters to educators. Research as well as anecdotal evidence overwhelmingly bears this out. We want to work in a system that cultivates the profession of teaching – protecting and supporting teachers in order to make all teachers as effective as possible, rather than scapegoating them for problems and undermining their job security and working conditions.
Meanwhile, those oft-demonized protections like tenure amount to a requirement of due process – a necessary protection for teachers like us, who wish to remain politically active in advocating for stronger schools, against vindictive leaders. Further, in a school system where rampant teacher turnover is dwarfed by catastrophic levels of principal turnover, these policies protect teachers from attacks by inexperienced principals with little understanding of classroom instruction or effective practices. We unequivocally stand in support of these protections for our colleagues.
We stand ready to engage in public dialogue with Chairman Green as soon as he concludes his negotiations with our union leadership. In the meantime, if Chairman Green truly believes in being responsive and democratic, we encourage him to vote to dissolve the SRC and replace it with a democratically elected school board which will have no choice but to listen to the will of our city.
[In refusing our meeting with Chairman Green, we were joined by the other WE members who testified on October 16th, and released an open letter with support from the Caucus.]
Ghandi famously said "be the change you wish to see in the world". At this weekend's Working Educators First Annual Convention, we'll be sharing our visions for vibrant public schools and communities- and figuring out together how we can 'be the change' in our schools and communities to get there.
Please join us to share your ideas and energy to defend public education and save our schools from the ground up!
***Newly added!: Lunchtime Tabletop Conversations. Topics will include our pre-service teacher campaign, opt-out, charter school teachers, and more.
Ready to make change in your school? To defend and transform public education in Philly and beyond?
This convention is NOT your typical education or organizing event -- it will bring together stakeholders from across the city to help transform our public education system.
We will be discussing issues relating to all educators and allies fighting for our communities and schools- parent and student involvement, charter schools, and organizing skills for everyone, just to name a few (see full program below).
Featuring organizers from Labor Notes, special guests from NYC's MORE Caucus, and Keynote Speaker Dr. Yohuru Williams.
Join us to build educator power in Philly through practical organizing skills, strengthening our community, and planning for the future:
Philadelphia, PA 19106
***Full Convention Program***
10:15-11:00: Opening Plenary: Creating the Schools our Children Deserve
Featuring Yohuru Williams
11:00-12:15: Discussion Sessions:
~More than just Health Care!
The Corporate Takeover of Public Education
~Lessons from Chicago
How to Reinvigorate Our Union from Below
~Taking Back Our City
Communities Standing Up for Democracy and Accountability
12:15-1:00: Lunch & Tabletop Discussions
-Pre-Service Teacher Campaign
-Charter School Teacher Allies
-Stories from MORE
-Start your own!
1:00-2:15: Training Sessions:
~Are You a Social Justice Unionist?
Changing the Culture in Your School
Parents and Teachers Working Together
Secrets of a Successful Organizer
2:15-3:00: Closing Plenary: What's Next? Building the Movement
If you have been reading or watching any news over the past few years, you have probably heard the name ALEC. Who or what is ALEC and why are they so interested in education “reform” in Pennsylvania and across the country?
ALEC stands for the American Legislative Exchange Council. This organization has an 8 million dollar annual budget that they use to write a “library” of sample bills that they want passed in as many states as they can influence. Outlets like the Center for Media and Democracy rightly call them a “corporate bill mill”.
Even if you are not quite sure what ALEC is, you have likely heard of some of their most popular legislation: “Stand Your Ground” laws, “Parent Trigger” bills, and voter ID requirements are some of ALEC’s most wide-spread and anti-democratic offerings.
These bills have been made law in many states, and some are currently rearing their ugly heads in Pennsylvania.
Education advocates believe that ALEC is now interested in the “reforming” of public education because there is much money to be made for private businesses as more schools are turned over to management companies and for-profit businesses receive tax breaks for funding private schools (through vouchers and tax credits).
The parent trigger bills, for example, allow a small part of a community to vote to turn-over its public school to a for-profit operator—most of these bills allow 180 days to undo a public institution that has served a community for many years.
Philadelphia’s own State Senator (and possible Philadelphia mayoral candidate) Anthony Hardy Williams—a charter school proponent, and also a failed charter-school operator--has sponsored just such a bill in Pennsylvania.
Another way to make sure public schools are turned over to private companies is to ease the charter school authorizing rules and regulations. In these ALEC-sponsored bills, authority to approve new charters is removed from local agencies such as school boards and school districts and given to the state itself, or other institutions such as universities. This forces districts to pay for schools they did not authorize and cannot afford and steals much-needed funding from true public schools.
Unfortunately, many Pennsylvania politicians have been taken in by ALEC’s anti-democratic agenda. Some are receiving campaign contributions from ALEC-sponsored PACs in order to bring ALEC’s agenda to our state, and some are members of ALEC or are simply sponsoring ALEC’s bills. What follows is a short list of ALEC-influenced politicians and their organizational allies in Pennsylvania. Some of these politicians have accepted tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars from ALEC-affiliated groups.
- Sen. John Eichelberger (R-30)
- Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R-13)
- Rep. Warren Kampf (R-157)
- Sen. Anthony Williams (D-8)
- Rep. Fred Keller (R-85)
- Rep. Garth Everett (R-84)
- Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-12)
- Re. Matt Baker (R-68)
- Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-34)
- Rep. Scott Perry (R-4)
Additionally, here's a list of ALEC-influenced power players in Pennsylvania:
- Charter school guru and big Corbett contributor Vahan Gureghian
- Cyber Schools (especially K-12, Inc.)
- American Federation of Children and Students First PACs
- The Commonwealth Foundation
- Susquehanna International Group
Thanks to the Center for Media and Democracy for its extensive and interesting report. We suggest you read the whole report for a comprehensive understanding of ALEC's reach in Pennsylvania.
By Anissa Weinraub
For the past couple weeks, my school has been buzzing with buildup to Halloween. It is a tradition at the Academy @ Palumbo to host a "Parade of Horrors" -- where students get a chance to strut in front of their peers (i.e. the ENTIRE student body) in their costumes and compete for prizes. And they got into it today -- in terms of the creativity and playfulness of the costumed contestants, as well as the extreme positivity and support pouring from the audience of their peers. In what may seem like an anomaly from the usual depiction of Philly teenagers, this morning our auditorium was filled with hundreds of screaming youth, all focused on celebrating one another.
In advance of our first annual convention on Saturday, November 8th, we're previewing some of the day's sessions on our blog. This preview comes from Amy Roat, who works at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences and will be leading the session on Social Justice Unionism.
Many teachers consider themselves committed to social justice in their classrooms, but don't connect that to their union. Why do these two things go together?
You've been quoted by practically every news publication in Philadelphia, and the New York Times, too. Many people are in awe of your work, but might feel intimidated by all that you do. Can you describe what the first steps are to becoming a more outspoken union member?
A year ago in August, PFT Communications Director George Jackson called me a few days before school. Our local Fox News was looking for a regular teacher to speak about the tragic cuts we were facing in 2014. I was recommended by my staffer who had to listen to a lot of my views at the monthly Building Rep Meetings. I was terrified of sounding dumb and nearly balked. George had a PR guy call to prep me and talk me into it. after we talked for a bit he said, "Hey, you're the expert, you know what you're saying and you sound knowledgeable and sincere. You can do it."
Based on your experience, what's one change that you think people should make to improve how their union operates in their building?
The teachers in my school are friends - We go to happy hour. We eat cake when someone has a birthday. We have a shower if someone gets married or has a baby. If someone is sick, we ask after them. If someone needs a ride, we drive them. This is how we build our relationships and our school-based union. We actively include new members. They become family.
When there is discord, peace-makers step up. It is a labor, but it is a labor of love.
Change the way you think about THE union. The union is not just the people who work on Chestnut Street. We are the union. The teachers in this school. We meet monthly, including, secretaries, counselors, paras and the nurse. We talk to the principal as a Building Committee about our mutual concerns and possible solutions. We develop our own game plan for pickets or actions. Together. No one on Chestnut Street needs to tell us what, when, why or how we do it. We are professional, we do it all together because we are THE union!
Amy is just one of many Caucus members who will be sharing her wisdom and skills at the convention. Register now and learn more from her on November 8th!
- Early in the week, talk with your colleagues about how your school can GOTV in your community! Discuss quick points of interest to tell families about what resources have been missing from your school, what is needed, and how voting can help public education and democracy in our city.
- Make plans for a neighborhood canvass around your building any day before election day.
- On Wednesday, 10/29, help PCAPS complete their "voter pledge card" campaign by helping them stamp and mail postcards to Philadelphia voters at the Fight for Philly office (846 N. Broad Street)
- On Thursday, 10/30, participate in a phone bank with PFT members.
- On Friday, 10/31, hold a special edition of Full Funding Friday urging parents, families, and passersby to GOTV!
- Take a moment to do a teach-in with your kids on the importance of voting. Send a letter home encouraging parents to continue the lesson by taking their kids with them to vote on the big day!
- If you want to do some direct work on your own time, contact Wolf for PA's Regional Director in Philadelphia, Stephen Ekema-Agbaw at email@example.com or call at 570-854-0499 to coordinate plans with the Wolf Campaign.
NE Philly8566 Bustleton AveNW Philly (Germantown)5537 Germantown Aveand 5730 Greene St.
South PhillySheet Metal Workers Local 191301 Columbus BlvdWest Philly4153 Lancaster Ave
- VOTE! Do everything you can to make sure everyone else votes too! Organize and take action!
- Post pictures in your WE & PFT shirts! Use the hashtags #WeVoteAskUs and #PFTGOTV
- If you are not taking a personal day to work the polls, you can still get out during your lunch hour or after school and encourage people to vote.
This post will be continually updated with more opportunities and staging areas. Check back soon! Once again, it is vitally important that people get out there and KNOCK ON DOORS!
Check out this amazing commentary from African-American male educators in Philly -- including Caucus members Brendon Jobs and Sam Reed -- and remember that Philadelphia educators remain caring, thoughtful, and innovative despite the attacks on our work and our livelihood.
I am speaking today to Stand Up For The Truth! This Commission took an unprecedented action in a deceitful manner and with the support of this whole body. It was most disturbing that the newest member, Mrs. Neff, was in full cahoots with this plan since a lot of people viewed her appointment with hope. That hope was dashed on Monday when Mrs. Neff joined Mrs. Simms as silenced speakers of truth. Ms. Simms' audacious comment “We have to stop playing games with children” would have been laughable except for the harm it causes. The largest players of a game are sitting right here in front of us and in Harrisburg, Mrs. Simms.
I am picking one truth to talk about today. The truth that what the SRC did on Monday is only a piece of a bigger plan that has been in place for 13 years and is succeeding amazingly well. That truth is close down public education and hand it over to private, corporate interests. Accomplish that mission by asserting that public education is failing.
Doc. Hite was a graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy. This Academy is funded by billionaire Eli Broad, who is a member of the 1%. Eli Broad is one of an influential group of billionaires who believe they can control the landscape of education for their own profit, benefit and ideology. The method they use is simple. Control the dialogue!! Put out the sound bites of what sounds reasonable and wrap those sound bites, slogans and messages in myths and lies. Get mainstream media to print it, politicians to support it (because they bankroll the politicians)…then implement policy.
Dr. Hite, this commission and a large number of our politicians are implementing the policies that support the ideology of the Broad Academy.
*Slash and burn public schools and open charters in the name of choice
*Attack and attempt to weaken unions
*Strangle budgets to help the illusion of schools failing and make it easier to promote your slash and burn policy
*Implement the business model of chaos and disruption
*Introduce high stakes testing and tie it to school and teacher evaluation and high school graduation
*Force Common Core Standards onto schools, standards that are mired in controversy and debate
*Enlist TFA recruits who enter the classroom with 5 weeks of training and who rarely stay in the profession for more than a few years in place of fully accredited, qualified, dedicated teachers
Here’s the thing about all of these policies - they are built on the premise that public schools are failing....our public schools are not failing!! Zip codes are failing. This commission does not use evidence or research…here are just a few respected authors that refute your policies with evidence and research. But, hey, that is not the dialogue that will allow you to pillage and plunder our schools and neighborhoods. Our urban schools are a reflection of the larger problems in our society and deserve unfailing support in every sense of the word and honest dialogue about ways to improve that are carried on with educators and community members AT THE TABLE.