Parents in Pennsylvania Unite Against Testing

I created the film, “Race to Nowhere,” in part to galvanize wide-spread change; I wanted parents and others who care about young people to feel empowered to come together not just at a film screening but also in the real world, in a real way. That’s why hearing from Michele Gray, the mother of two children at Park Forest Elementary School, makes my day.

In an email, Michele writes, “Inspired by your film, a parents’ group in central PA have organized a movement to opt our children out of the PSSA testing (NCLB) which starts next week.”  Her Op-Ed in the local paper explaining what they are doing can be found here http://www.centredaily.com/2011/03/11/2575400/pssas-put-burden-on-schools-students.html. The point is, as parents we have more power than we realize, and while one voice is powerful, many voices are formidable. 

Michele continues: “The pressure here is extreme. Schools are holding pep rallies because they are terrified of not making AYP. One of my kids has been so stressed that he has started scratching his legs and arms in his sleep so they are covered in bloody scabs. He's nine years old. In a neighboring school district, even science has been cut to a single period a week as everything else has been nothing but test prep.”

Naysayers may wonder what kind of message we are sending to our children if we allow them to opt-out of standardized test-taking in this way. I believe we are demonstrating our belief in freedom of choice. Healthy non-conformity. And a true commitment to learning over the federal and state-mandated testing.

Diane Ravitch, the noted education historian and NYU professor, recently brought her campaign against the corporate education reform movement to the conference for the National Association of Secondary School Principals in San Francisco. In the midst of a mass firing of school teachers in Providence, Rhode Island, and an ongoing attempt by government authorities in Wisconsin and Ohio to revoke the collective bargaining rights of teachers in their respective states, Ravitch quipped: “With each passing day, I ask myself: has this country gone mad?”

Clearly, public education today is under siege, and the movement for reform is based on a failed model. Pointing to Finland as a widely acclaimed example of a successful educational system, Ravitch says that the Scandanavian country did not become the highest performing nation in the world by handing its schools over to private management, nor by hiring non-educators or by closing schools. There, students play a key role in determining which courses they will take and what their overall academic path will be; the Finnish school system doesn’t even administer standardized tests until students are ready for college.

Ravitch recalled once asking a Finnish educator how his country holds schools and teachers accountable. “There is no word in the Finnish language for “accountable; the closest to that word would be “responsibility.”  Finland carefully cultivates its educators and trusts them to be responsible. They treat them as professionals, pay them well and offer ongoing training and professional development. They make sure their teachers are well-educated and well-supported and that their principals are expert teachers. In Finland, as in most other high performing schools that don’t focus on testing, they have a balanced curriculum including geography, literature, civics, history, foreign languages, physical education, health and the arts – all the things that in many cases our schools are forcing aside. In Finland, they wouldn’t think of getting rid of the arts as some of our districts have been forced to do.  The result is an educational success story second to none.

I had the opportunity to share lunch with Diane Ravitch while she was in San Francisco, and we discussed the importance of parents, teachers and administrators organizing to take on current education policies and effect change that benefits the students.  It’s great to see Michele Gray taking the lead in organizing and mobilizing parents in Pennsylvania.  To learn more, listen to this morning at 11 am ET to the radio show Boycotting the PSSA (NCLB)-Really!