Is the "public" being taken out of public schools?
That was the topic of a public talk given Tuesday in Sumter, sponsored by the South Carolina Education Association and the Sumter Education Task Force.
Ceresta Smith, a longtime educator now in Charleston and activist from Florida's Miami-Dade County School District, told an audience of about 50 at the North HOPE Center that moves across the nation to require more standardized testing in schools limit the curriculum and hurt students, and ultimately will result in schools in poorer, largely minority neighborhoods being shut down and replaced with privately run, profit-seeking charter schools with no accountability to the community. It's up to parents, students and teachers, Smith said, to resist test-based curricula.
"Our children are being robbed, slowly, of a free, quality public education," Smith said.
Somebody say Amen.
ESC has been ringing this bell for more than a year now, and the clapper is worn and bent. What a joy to see what's blooming in Sumter, with parents and classroom educators collaborating to create progress.
To watch the video of Smith's presentation, click here.
Smith's talk was co-sponsored by the Sumter Education Task Force, a community-based group that supports public education in Sumter County.
"We're a vast, diverse district that is awash with different talents," said Task Force member Nickie Williams. "Some of us have kids in schools, some of us do not. Some of us are educators, and some are retired from education. But what we all have in common is that we feel we should support public education."
"It's not just about my three children in the school district," said Parrish Rabon, the Task Force's vice president. "There's no profession I have more respect for than a public school teacher."
When someone accuses Smith of being a troublemaker, even her bosses in the school district, she responds, "I'm a parent, and I pay taxes."
"What makes a democracy a democracy is that everybody has a voice," Smith said.
Democracy is inconvenient that way. Sure, it would be much simpler if the evolving aristocracy had total control and told us all what we would do, and where, and for whom, and why, and for how long. Thankfully, however, that's not America.
And thankfully, Sumter is illustrating what can happen when parents join forces with classroom educators.
Smith's background is in Miami-Dade County, Florida, and she shared with Sumter parents and educators news of what occurred during her time there.
Smith told of teaching at a high-performing Florida school in a high-income area where "students applied themselves, and we had the educators and facilities to work with the students who didn't." When she was moved to a low-performing school to help turn it around, she said she was "shocked at the inequity."
Teachers were required to follow a tightly scripted curriculum, usually with outdated and below grade-level materials. The curriculum, she said, gave students little choice in their courses and no chance to exercise critical thinking, problem-solving skills or collaboration, because "these are the courses being tested."
At the time, Florida schools were operating under the A+ Plan introduced by Gov. Jeb Bush, with similar requirements to those later introduced nationally by No Child Left Behind. The plan, Smith said, introduced constant testing - a baseline test at the beginning of the year, an interim test, a winter test, a spring test, even a post-test assessment. Teachers spent weeks of class time just preparing students for the next test.
"These kids were going to college ill-prepared,because they'd never done any writing or challenging reading," Smith said. "They were taught test-taking, and that's about it."
Smith thinks the push for standardized testing and test-based assessments is being pushed by the publishers of testing materials and others who want to undermine public education.
Absolutely so. Billions of dollars are spent now on "supplemental educational services," the term of art invented by the Bush administration in the so-called "No Child Left Behind," which means that those corporate giants who produce these "services" and products are reaping billions of dollars in profit -- on the backs of children enrolled in public schools.
Tests are not only used to evaluate students, but also their teachers and entire schools.
Hear that, South Carolina educators? That's what's coming. Our state superintendent just filed an application for a waiver from NCLB last month, and this very principle is the bedrock of his waiver application: Using test scores to give letter grades to teachers and schools.
At one point, Florida legislators wanted to increase the rigor of testing by requiring 25 percent of students, including special-needs and English-as-a-second-language students, to achieve a top grade. Otherwise, the school would be graded as "failing" and face sanctions, including the possibility of parents voting to shut the school down and replace it with a privately managed charter.
This little scheme is called, cleverly, "parent trigger." Watch for it -- it's coming to South Carolina, too. And you'll get to see a big Hollywood film about it this fall, too, presently titled "Won't Back Down."
Powerful stuff, isn't it?
Billions of dollars are diverted from public schools, weakening their foundation. Budget cuts leave thousands of teachers out of work, and classrooms packed, raising parents' doubts and fears about the quality of education available there. Emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing leaves creativity and critical thinking by the wayside. Thanks to these cuts and diversions, school quality is eroded, and the hardline new grading system labels schools "failing" year after year after year, until finally, parents can pull the "parent trigger" and turn that "failing" school into a charter school, directly dependent on the same profit-making, corporate supplemental service providers who pad lawmakers' re-election chances.
And, before you can say Oscar, there's a big Hollywood production about the failure of America's public schools.
The plan was all the more galling, Smith said, because, even though high-performing schools also struggled to meet standards, the worst performing schools are located in low-income minority communities.
"We've been told that poverty doesn't matter when it comes to education, that a compromised ability to eat well doesn't matter," she said. "But it turns out the schools with the most low-income students are always the ones with the worst teachers."
Ceresta Smith and Sumter Education Task Force, meet Steve Morrison and Abbeville v. South Carolina. I think y'all are already well-acquainted and may not have known it.
This time, communities protested the proposed changes. Parents, teachers and administrators traveled to the state capital in Tallahassee to lobby against the measure. Activists managed to get the "parents empowerment" provision dropped and changed underperforming schools from an automatic F to a one letter-grade drop.
Now Smith wants to see more community activism to reverse the course of the country's schools. She's co-founded the United Opt Out National, a movement that encourages parents to opt their children out of punitive testing, as Smith has done with her own daughter. From March 30 to April 2, she will participate in an education march on Washington that will seek to occupy the headquarters of the federal Department of Education.
Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna.
Thank you to Ceresta Smith, to Nicole Williams and Parrish Rabon, to the Sumter Education Task Force and the South Carolina Education Association. When what you've accomplished in several months is replicated in the counties surrounding Sumter, and the next ring of counties, and the next, we'll see change finally come to South Carolina.
I'm proud to see it.