Say yes to children, no to the test
On Feb. 17, in anticipation of Ohio’s overdue 2014–15 report cards, the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the CH-UH Council of PTAs sponsored rallies across the school district. “We Are More Than a Score” events gave people who are up close and personal with our schools an opportunity to express what they value and appreciate.
Instead of making unfair judgments based on ill-conceived numbers, the celebrations offered heartfelt praise and applause for students and teachers. Student and parent speakers created a rich picture of each child’s unique qualities and the deep connections that create places for children to thrive. The events reclaimed the humanity of our education system.
The celebrations evoked tears of joy and exasperation among the cheering crowds, because what matters most for those closest to a school is valued least by a policy that judges them.
I participated in the event at Boulevard, my neighborhood elementary school, along with school board member Ron Register and many other community members whose children, like mine, had attended the school. We wanted to share our appreciation for our children's education.
Children were asked to write brief statements about themselves starting with, “I am more than a score, I am . . . ,” and parents were asked to complete the sentence, “I love my school because . . .”
Boulevard parents wrote:
“There is imagination and joy everywhere here.”
“The teachers enrich my children’s lives and make them excited about their education.”
“Every person my children encounter makes them feel loved, respected and comfortable being who they are. My children are seen as individuals.”
“Everyone here is like my second family.”
“My child’s teacher goes above and beyond to be sure my child understands what is being taught.”
“Our teachers are exemplary, our students are kind and our community is strong and dedicated. Boulevard is a safe, loving, amazing place for my kids to grow and learn.”
These qualities really matter, but on the state's report card they don’t count. What people value about their school doesn’t fit the popular narrative driving the test-and-punish policy, which holds that public schools are failing and that teachers are to blame. The rallies made a clear statement: The tests do not define us, and we will not be defined by them.
According to Boulevard Principal Shelley Pulling, who has been the principal of an A-rated school and an F-rated school, the education is richer, the children learn more, and the teachers work harder and are more creative in her F-rated school.
The preoccupation with blame and judgment is counter to everything we know about making a human enterprise excel. It injects fear into a space that needs to be safe and full of trust, and it dampens risk-taking and exploration, the core elements of engaged learning.
The unrelenting focus on reducing education to numbers and equating judgment with support for improvement is lousy policy. It promotes education fundamentalism. It creates more barriers for the most vulnerable, drains precious resources and respect from schools serving the neediest students, lines the pockets of publishers, test-makers and privatizers, and frays the hearts and hopes of the participants in this fragile human project.
The moment the Boulevard students walked into the gym that day to the enthusiastic applause of parents and neighbors, my heart leaped to my throat. There we were, delivering a message of support and love. At that very moment our community was making visible its support for our children, their education and our schools. It was therapeutic and uplifting. Public schools are remarkable places. They do critical work. They are about humanity and human development. They cannot be standardized and must not be privatized.
We changed the narrative that day. It inspired the students and the educators and the community. Our support raised spirits and ignited excitement. We said no to the test by saying yes to the children and their teachers.
I believe this rickety excuse for education policy must end before it brings down a very important system and drives away our most creative and determined professionals. Public schools build good citizens. We still need them.
On Feb. 17 we offered a different narrative and discredited the validity of a system that is far off the mark. We refused to let the tests define us.
Saying no to the test by appreciating our children and their teachers is fun, energizing and valuable. It is a path to change. To get involved, visit chuh.net/coalition.
Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.