by Jia Lee, Chapter Leader, The Earth School
Contrary to what its proponents claim, the New York bill on state assessments and teacher evaluations (A10475/S8301) does not eliminate using student scores on standardized tests to evaluate teachers. It just makes high-stakes testing for teacher evaluations subject to collective bargaining, while keeping the ranking of schools by test scores in place, a practice that is used to justify public school closures and privatizations as charter schools. The bill has passed the Assembly and is now in committee in the state Senate.
When the first piece of news, announcing the proposal of legislation that would decouple standardized tests from teacher evaluations, appeared, I was skeptical. As a public elementary special education teacher in New York City, the last eight years (but really since No Child Left Behind in 2001) of test-based accountability have been much like living under a gotcha regime. We’ve experienced the systematic underfunding of our schools to the tune of $4.2 billion and the disappearance of: veteran, experienced educators; custodial staff and basic supplies; and state mandated programming for physical education, arts and libraries, special education, and English as a New Language services. We have been left with crumbling infrastructures while administrative and managerial priorities have ramped up in the name of accountability. Many schools abandoned decades of research and training in whole child and developmentally appropriate pedagogy to focus on boosting test score outcomes.
I have been a conscientious objector to high-stakes standardized tests and I’m actively involved in the Opt-Out campaign in our state. The decoupling of standardized tests scores from the teacher evaluation does not get at the root of the issues; it’s a sham—a smoke and mirrors game. The bill does not eliminate the state tests but makes them optional while stipulating that districts must collectively bargain for assessments that also require state approval for use in the evaluations of teachers and administrators. Public school advocates are concerned that this will lead to more testing in the name of accountability. One thing that is glaringly clear is that there is no mention of eliminating tests scores for labeling schools as failing and setting them on a path of closure. Smoke and mirrors.
82% of schools closed are in high poverty communities. 59% are in predominantly Black and Brown communities and only 4% in predominantly white communities. New York does not have just the most segregated school system in the country, the state has now imposed a practice of divide and conquer, segregate and close — closures are based on the test score outcomes. Advocates of test-based accountability argue that this bill will undermine the ability to identify inequity. On the contrary, inequity can already be determined based on the rate of free and reduced lunch qualification in schools. These are the same schools that experience the greatest impact of chronic underfunding by the state as determined by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. Yet, Cuomo, several senators and assembly members, as well as the teachers’ union have touted the fake decoupling bill as a victory. No, it continues to fail our communities because there is very little about it that changes anything.
Our public education system depends upon our collective understanding of its function and purpose. True reform requires an examination of the systems in place that perpetuate inequity in our communities such as access to affordable housing, healthcare, and a livable wage. True reform includes changing the fact that education legislation is drawn up and negotiated before most New Yorkers have a chance to consult with their elected representatives. True reform would start with the understanding that to improve public education and teacher quality we must value and actively seek to improve the quality of life for all working people.
Communities freed from the crippling cost of living in this state will be better able to work together to make the necessary decisions for their public school students. Any approach that does not address the whole community and provide for genuine engagement in decision making is disingenuous.
Jia Lee has been a New York City special education public school teacher for seventeen years and UFT chapter leader for ten years. In the 2016 UFT elections, Jia was the presidential candidate for the Movement of Rank and File Educators caucus (MORE) taking just over 20 percent of the vote. Jia is the 2018 Green Party Candidate for Lieutenant Governor.