By Helen Rosenthal
I’m trying to wrap my head around Students First, the latest phenom in education reform. Reading through their website, I can’t help but see code words. Their mission statement says, “Real change … puts students’ needs before those of special interests or wasteful bureaucracies.” I’m pretty sure that is code for attacking unions and government. They go on to talk about the need for “great teachers” “great schools” and “effective use of public dollars.”
Nice rhetoric, but empty words. Everyone wants great teachers, schools and effective use of our tax dollars. I’m surprised Students First didn’t also come out in support of Mom, apple pie and cute puppies.
Here’s the reality: One of the reasons “No Child Left Behind” was unsuccessful was because of its over-reliance on standardized tests as a basis for student and teacher evaluations. Everyone talked about the failure of “teaching to the test.” Students First is based on this same failed NCLB ideology that measures the success of students, teachers and principals on student test results.
The Students First website demonstrates that they are, first and foremost, a political campaign: There’s even a “donate” button which when clicked reminds the donor that contributions are not tax-deductible because they are not a charitable institution. There are three innocuous-sounding planks to their platform: “Elevate teaching,” “Empower parents” and “Spend wisely.”
The “Elevate teaching” plank would “elevate” teachers by removing job protections so they are at the mercy of administrators and standardized test results.
The “Empower parents” plank would “empower” parents by giving them a false assessment of their kids’ teachers by focusing on the same flawed standardized test methodology, and by shifting more kids to high-turnover, non-unionized charter schools.
The “Spend wisely” plank is based on the belief that student test scores must reflect good teachers and programs, and thus could cut funding for teachers and programs that don’t achieve high test scores. They would also incentivize teachers to “teach to the test” by basing pension and benefits on student test scores.
Red herring, anyone? Students First is really “Standardized Testing First, Critical Thinking Second,” and there’s one thing I do know: Truly successful students are critical thinkers.
In elementary school, children need a warm and nurturing environment to develop intellectual curiosity and a love of learning. They need to survive the emotional roller-coaster and social development of middle school. And, there have to be high schools to meet the needs of the wide variety of students, from those who are interested in academic achievement (like Bronx Science) to those who are interested in a trade (like the Food and Finance High School) and everything in between.
If we look at student success through this lens, test scores and teacher tenure can’t measure success. Individual students, like individual teachers and principals, need to be nurtured and given the tools for success, and judged through individual assessment, peer review, and other means that take the broad variables of teaching in New York City into account.
I believe in great teachers, schools and effective public tax-dollar spending. Testing and tenure may play a bit part in achieving those goals, but they shouldn’t take center stage if we truly want to put “students first.”
Helen Rosenthal is a former chair of Community Board 7 and current candidate for City Council, District 6.
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