Education

Imagine children thinking they’re ‘dumb’ because they performed poorly on standardized tests. One teacher said it happened at her school.

Meredith Pinckney, a Wake County middle school teacher, said excessive testing harms students.

“I’m dumb, I’m dumb, I’m dumb.”

That’s how Wake County teacher Meredith Pinckney said some students reacted after learning they’d performed poorly on end-of-grade tests last year.

“I teach at a school that is low-performing, and last year was my first year there, and we got our test scores and we gave them to our students, it was the worst day of my teaching career,” Pinckney said. “We had students standing in the hallway sobbing because they’d gotten 1s and they felt like they were inadequate.”

Pinckney was one of several dozen teachers who attended a “community conversation” Saturday to discuss the impact excessive testing has on students and teachers.

She spoke candidly with N.C. Policy Watch about how some students reacted last year after receiving their scores on state end-of-grade tests.

“They kept saying I’m dumb, I’m dumb, I’m dumb,” Pinckney said. “I told them you’re not dumb because you did bad on a standardized test, you just did bad on a standardized test.”

In North Carolina, scoring Level 1 on end-of-grade tests shows a student has limited command of the subject area, while a Level 2 shows partial command. Levels 3, 4 and 5 show sufficient, solid and superior command of subjects respectively.

Pinckney teaches middle school agriculture and biotechnology, an elective, so students don’t take end-of-grade tests in the subjects she teaches.

But as a test administrator, she sees first-hand how standardized tests impact students and teachers.

“In the weeks leading up to the testing, you feel the tension in the building just rising and rising and rising, then it’s finally test day and we do that and it’s over and you would think we’d feel better, but then we get test scores,” Pinckney said.

Teachers from across the state attended a community conversation to discuss the impact excessive testing has on teachers and students.

Dane West, a middle schools social studies teacher from Lee County also attended the community conversation on excessive testing.

West said testing “weighs” heavily on students.

“It shows up in how the view school,” West said. “They’ve been told since they were very young that testing was important and that in order to succeed they have to pass the test.”

Both Pinckney and West are realist when it comes to testing. They acknowledge that some testing is needed, but agree steps can be taken to streamline it and to reduce student and teacher anxiety.

“We can remove some of the pressure and some of the consequences that go along with it,” West said. “Make it less stressful, not like it’s determining the rest of your life.”

He said students’ mental health is harmed by the pressure of excessive testing.

“I know the mental health of my students is more important than the numbers that they get on those tests, and right now it’s affecting their mental health,” West said.

Pinckney said there is “value” in testing students, but the state’s needs to rethink how it’s done.

“I would like to see our testing cut down to a minimum,” Pinckney said. “It’s just too much. The tests are too long and they’re written in a way that many of my students are having a hard time even comprehending what the questions are even asking.”

The community conversation was hosted by N.C. Families for School Testing Reform (NCFSTR), Save our Schools NC and Jen Mangrum, a candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Noted educational policy analyst Diane Ravitch weighed in via Skype.

Ravitch said federal and state leaders have given too much weight to standardized tests. She said such tests are often flawed and shouldn’t be used to measure student and teacher success.

“The appropriate use of testing is diagnostic,” Ravitch said. “Tests today have no diagnostic value whatsoever, so standardized testing is being totally misused to judge everybody for accountability purposes and it’s not supposed to be used that way.”

Jen Mangrum, (Left) a UNC-Greensboro education professor who is running for State Superintendent, chats with State Sen. Floyd McKissick (Right), a Democrat who represents Durham, during Saturday’s community conversation.

In North Carolina, State Superintendent Mark Johnson has announced new initiatives to reduce the amount of testing currently required of students in North Carolina’s public schools.

Johnson has pledged to reduce the number of questions on tests, reduce the time students must sit for tests, change testing policies to reduce the stress at schools, work with local leaders to reduce the number of locally required tests and push to eliminate tests not required by the federal government.

A survey about testing conducted by Johnson’s office found that 78 percent of the roughly 42,000 parents who responded said their child takes too many tests. Seventy-six percent of teachers who responded said North Carolina’s public school students were being tested too much.

And the State Board of Education is weighing the elimination of the state’s fourth grade exams in science and social studies and the fifth-grade exam in social studies as way to reduce the amount of testing in North Carolina Schools.

Commentary

All Asian-American charter schools? New study shows the troubling reality ushered in by “school choice”

Public schools advocate Diane Ravitch has a new post this morning highlighting a study from Minnesota that evidences the troubling reality that comes with unfettered “school choice.” Here’s Ravitch:

Minnesota: Abundance of Choice Destabilizes Neighborhood Schools and Produces High Levels of Segregation

This story about Minnesota shows the good and the bad effects of school choice.

Betsy DeVos will read it with pleasure. She can now point to Minnesota as an exemplar of school choice, one that fulfills her goals.

Those who care about democratically controlled public schools that have civic obligations, such as diversity, will see it as a nightmare.

The charter schools of Minneapolis are highly segregated and proud of it. The most popular charter school is almost completely Asian. Other charters are almost completely black or overwhelmingly white.

Remember the Brown decision of 1954? Minnesota doesn’t.

The proliferation of charters has forced public schools to cut their budgets, their programs, their staff.

The story Ravitch refers is part of a Minneapolis Star-Tribune series entitled “Students in Flight” and it paints a sobering picture of what seems likely to happen to our public education system when it is transformed from a common good public structure that helps bind our society together into a consumer commodity that people shop for like video games or kitchen gadgets. North Carolinians should be very wary of allowing state leaders to take us further down this road.

News, Trump Administration

Controversial school reformer Michelle Rhee talks teacher raises, pay-for-performance in N.C.

Former D.C. teachers’ union head George Parker and school reformer Michelle Rhee.

Raising pay for teachers and implementing fair, pay-for-performance measures is a path to better student performance, controversial former D.C. public schools chief Michelle Rhee told North Carolina reporters Tuesday afternoon in Raleigh.

Rhee was in town for a private legislative gathering Tuesday night hosted by BEST N.C., a Raleigh-based group of education lobbyists led by prominent North Carolina business leaders, including conservative mega-donor Art Pope.

According to Rhee—whose three-year tenure in the nation’s capitol prompted rising test scores but also fierce criticism over cheating allegations, her push to strip teachers of tenure rights and the termination of hundreds of teachers and administrators—state leaders should not be deterred by educators’ resistance to linking student performance to pay.

“It is absolutely necessary to push through that hard part, that initial push-back,” Rhee said Tuesday. “… Had we abandoned ship after the push-back we got in the first 18 months, nothing would have changed.”

Rhee’s visit with North Carolina legislators Tuesday prompted some consternation from public school advocates who noted neither the media nor the public was invited to attend the polarizing school reformer’s meet with lawmakers. BEST N.C. leaders organized a media session Tuesday afternoon after that criticism late last month.

Her visit comes months after Rhee’s name was floated as a potential candidate for U.S. education secretary under President Donald Trump before she removed herself from consideration in November.

Rhee was joined by George Parker, a former D.C. teachers union head who grew up in North Carolina. Parker clashed with Rhee over teacher firings and contracts during her time in D.C., but the two have since joined forces through Rhee’s StudentsFirst organization, an advocacy group for K-12 reform that’s lobbied for school choice and axing teacher tenure.

While Rhee touched on the controversial confirmation Tuesday of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, most of Parker and Rhee’s comments focused on their work in D.C., in which the two hammered out a new teacher pay and evaluation system that sacked hundreds of educators, but delivered major pay increases for capitol teachers.

According to Rhee, reforms in D.C. were necessary because 92 percent of students were operating below grade level. Yet, at the same time, roughly 99 percent of teachers were rated as “doing a great job,” she said.

“You can’t have a system that is just continually failing kids and yet we’re saying to all the adults, you’re doing just fine,'” she added.

Rhee pointed out teacher pay in D.C. once averaged about $87,000, among the lowest in the nation. Today, it’s about $144,000, and the district’s student achievement has been on the rise, although critics note performance gaps between different socioeconomic groups in D.C. schools persisted under Rhee.

And while the unpopularity of the Rhee-led reforms reportedly pushed her out of a job, Rhee and Parker said their work on pay and evaluation is gaining traction with educators today.

“I don’t get people who say money doesn’t matter,” said Parker. “It does. When you’ve got house loans to pay and children to feed, money does matter.”

Parker added that he believes policymakers and residents must rethink their view of teachers.

“We’ve got to get away from teachers being a volunteer organization,” said Parker. “That if you teach school it’s that second thing you do, that it’s not a real profession, that it’s more about caring and sacrifice and humanity.

“No, the money helps and the money counts and if you’re a professional, you want to be paid as a professional.”

Teacher raises and pay-for-performance have been boiling controversies in North Carolina in recent years as the state’s national teacher pay ranking plummeted and officials reported educators leaving the profession or the state for work elsewhere.

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News

Public education advocates cry foul over legislators’ private meeting with controversial school reformer Michelle Rhee

Controversial public school reformer Michelle Rhee

Some North Carolina public education activists are crying foul over a private legislative meet state lawmakers are scheduled to attend with controversial school reformer Michelle Rhee next month.

Rhee—the former chief of public schools in Washington, D.C., and, at one time, a rumored pick for U.S. education secretary under President Trump—is a “special guest” for an annual legislative gathering hosted by the lobbying group BEST N.C. on Feb. 7.

BEST N.C. (which stands for Business for Educational Success and Transformation) counts powerful North Carolina business leaders among its membership, including retired Wells Fargo banker Walter McDowell, Ann Goodnight of Cary-based software developer SAS and controversial right-wing philanthropist Art Pope.

During her three-year tenure in D.C., Rhee was a highly polarizing figure who stormed into the spotlight in the late aughts, instituting stiff testing-based accountability measures, firing hundreds of teachers and administrators, closing schools and lobbying for an end to teacher tenure rights.

Since leaving D.C., Rhee has also become an outspoken advocate for charter school expansion and private school vouchers, the latter of which is intensely unpopular among public school backers nationwide and in North Carolina.

Next month’s event will also include George Parker, the former president of a D.C. teachers union who once openly clashed with Rhee over her stringent teacher accountability policies but later joined forces with her in Rhee’s StudentsFirst organization, a nonprofit she began after her D.C. posting to lobby for school choice and teacher accountability measures in state legislatures, many of which are particularly popular with GOP lawmakers in North Carolina in recent years.

This week, Policy Watch requested access to next month’s event, but BEST N.C. President & CEO Brenda Berg said no members of the media will be granted access. Berg said such a rule will allow “candid” conversations between participants, which includes an unspecified number of state lawmakers and school stakeholders.

“The legislative gathering is always closed to media, always has and always will be as a promise to members,” said Berg. “Because they want to feel comfortable asking elected officials and experts candid questions off the record.”

That doesn’t sit well with public education leaders who spoke with Policy Watch Friday.

“All organizations have the right to hold meetings,” said Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), an influential teacher lobbying organization based in Raleigh. “But when you’re having a public dialogue on public dollars and—clearly Michelle Rhee has been a supporter of private school vouchers and that’s a very hot topic here—you would think you would want to have a very open dialogue.”

Natalie Beyer, a Durham school board member and outspoken state public school advocate, called Rhee and Parker “controversial figures, to say the least.”

“I just think it’s alarming and certainly not in keeping with best practices for public engagement,” said Beyer. “Any issues that affect North Carolina public school students should be open for parents and teachers and the press to observe, hear and witness.”

Officials with the N.C. Ethics Commission could not be reached for comment Friday, but, given that state lawmakers are exempted from many of the public gathering requirements imposed on local political bodies, legislators talking education reform at the BEST N.C. forum is not likely a violation of any open meetings laws.

And BEST N.C. is not the only policy organization that holds private gatherings with lawmakers. Berg points out the Durham-based Hunt Institute holds an annual legislative retreat on education policy convened away from the public and media.

That said, policy organizations similar to BEST N.C. frequently hold broad public policy discussions that may include elected officials and are open to media coverage. Indeed, this week, the Public School Forum of N.C., an advocacy and research group in Raleigh, convened its annual “Eggs & Issues” gathering, which included an interview with Gov. Roy Cooper covered by many media outlets, including this one.

Still, Berg said there’s nothing secretive or inappropriate about BEST N.C.’s gathering with Rhee and lawmakers, which she described as a reception with a guest speaker, followed by a brief Q&A session. No state policies will be on the table; nor will legislators be holding a discussion of state public policy.

“The beauty of this is we want our members to ask really blunt questions,” said Berg. She acknowledged, however, that she’s not surprised, given the press attention surrounding Rhee’s education reforms, that some would be anxious over her attendance.

“I don’t have concern with people being upset about the national speaker,” Berg said. “She shut down schools. That made some people mad.”

Indeed, a Time Magazine cover in 2008, depicting Rhee with a broom, made her one of the more famous and polarizing school reformers in the nation. Test scores were on the rise in D.C., even as her leadership seemed to grow increasingly unpopular with residents.

(Note: Due to a typo, an earlier version of this story indicated Rhee’s policies as D.C. public schools chancellor grew “increasingly popular” during her tenure. It should have read “increasingly unpopular.”)

Critics denounced her as unresponsive to the public and district leadership, while slamming a punitive form of teacher accountability that some worried would drive desperate educators to “teach to the test” to stave off termination.

Meanwhile, her tenure in the district was marred by allegations of cheating on exams, although subsequent investigations by district and federal officials found no evidence of wrongdoing by Rhee’s office.

When the D.C. mayor who chose her for the role lost his re-election bid in 2010, some say because of Rhee’s unpopular reforms in the district, Rhee resigned from her post. Shortly after, she launched StudentsFirst. Today, she works with a California charter school chain founded by her husband, former NBA basketball player and former Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

Through it all, Rhee has remained a divisive figure among teaching advocates like the NCAE, despite winning the support of former adversaries such as Parker.

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Commentary, News

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