My Speech @Community Forum – Feb 24

My Speech @Community Forum – Feb 24

In the last few years, all that we have built to love in our schools and communities has been subjected to one attack after another from our governor and our State Education Department. With each idea they push, they ignore everything we know about what contributes to student success – things we know because we see it in our schools and in our homes every day.

As a parent on Long Island, a graduate of and teacher in Half Hollow Hills and president of the Half Hollow Hills Teachers, I am proud to live, work and raise my children in a place that supports and values education, and which has a long tradition of making the right choices for kids. We empower and entrust our local school boards, administrators, parents and teachers to work together in identifying the needs and wants of our communities, and working collaboratively to benefit our children. We do that well.

But no one in Albany wants to talk about all that we do well here. And no one wants to talk about what’s really happening when you get under the hood of an education system in our communities that is light years beyond “sound and basic.”

Last year, we invited our leaders to participate in conversations about how their reform ideas would lead to positive change. Our Governor avoided those conversations, and conveniently distanced himself from the Common Core when it was time to get re-elected.

But we got our talks, right? Commissioner King and Chancellor Tisch took their act on the road and went from city to city and town to town ignoring thousands of angry parents throughout the state. They had their opportunity to present research, to communicate with openness and empathy and to build consensus around their ideas for change. But they failed to convince people that their ideas were good for our children. They failed in the Hudson Valley, and they failed in the Southern Tier, and they failed in Western New York, and in the Capital Region, and they failed here on Long Island.

So what did they decide to do?

Ignore voters and double down on their terrible ideas while talking about the need for accountability. So we can talk about student accountability, teacher accountability, and district accountability – and we do – but we can’t talk about democratic accountability.

I’ll tell you- as an educator, it’s getting harder and harder to teach our students about character, or diplomacy, or the need to make credible arguments rooted in research when our highest elected officials in the state use blackmail and extortion to force voters to accept what they don’t want.

But for every crack they take at silencing, marginalizing and disenfranchising voters, we need to fight back twice as hard – all of us, together – parents, teachers, students, administrators and community leaders.

Because there is work to be done in public education. And we need to make sure that that work is actually good for kids. So we come together in places like this, and through the hard work of caring parents in our communities, and we talk about the things our leaders need to hear.

Like how can a district with 20% of its students living below the poverty line be considered ‘low needs’? Let’s talk about that. Or how about the 51% of the nation’s students expected to be on free and reduced lunch within the next year or two. Let’s talk about that.

Or we can talk about how a child whose mother doesn’t speak English as a first language can enter kindergarten 3 years behind in language skills. With the growing funding gap between the wealthiest and poorest districts under the governor’s watch, she’ll enter a kindergarten classroom of 30 students, many others of whom are also behind on language acquisition. It will be in a school that has cut its art and music, and that’s been compelled to lock students into rows as they are drilled in rote proficiency activities. Then we’ll wonder why she’s not passionate or innovative.

When she fails to meet some arbitrary standards or cut scores or can’t figure out why a pineapple would wear sleeves, or when after the hard work of her teachers, she goes from three years behind grade level to only two, the teacher and the system will be branded as failures, and risk losing their jobs.

All of these conditions are a direct result of our governor’s efforts at ‘lobbying for students’.

As someone who’s spent almost a decade studying and teaching courses on closing the achievement gap, I can tell you for sure that this is NOT how to do it.

Instead, we will lose a generation of children who are completely turned off by what school has become. And although they may not drop out or fail out until high school, they will check out long before that.

As a father of two young, bright and curious kids in elementary school, I can’t imagine what I’d do to motivate them day after day to try their hardest if their candles are blown out before they even get to middle school (and I’m at least a so-so motivational speaker).

But that’s what’s gonna happen to our kids. That’s what’s gonna happen if we talk about failure without talking about social and economic inequalities. That what’s gonna happen if we continually brand our students with special needs as failures. That’s what’s gonna happen if we can not balance the cultural need for systemic success with the moral privilege of individual success.

Because success for my kid, or for the child whose mother doesn’t speak English or for the child with severe learning disabilities MAY NOT FIT ON A BAR GRAPH TOTED AROUND THE STATE BY SOMEONE WHO DOESN’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT EDUCATION.

We can not achieve balance in the schools our governor is trying to create. They’re not about balance in the same way they’re not about children or people or community. And perhaps what’s most ironic about his attempts to standardize our kids, is that they come at time when the world becomes less standardized every day.

Our parents have been marginalized.

Our students have been made to feel like failures.

Our teachers have been forced to teach in ways that we know are not right for our kids.

And so, in the words of the great Dr. King – the real Dr. King – I believe “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

It is time for a cease-fire on our schools, and if we continue to support each other, I know that the peace that ensues from this great challenge we all face together will let us return to the love of teaching and learning that, more than any statistic, will truly open doors for our children.

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