PAA interim executive director Julie Woestehoff attended a U.S. Department of Education-sponsored “Community Roundtable” on the Every Student Succeeds Act held today in Casper, Wyoming. The comments she intended to present are below.
However, the event was far from the promised “listening session in which the public is invited to share ideas and provide meaningful input.” USDE is required by law to meaningfully involve the public, to listen to public concerns, and to adjust policies based on that input or explain why they did not make adjustments.
The Wyoming event was tightly scripted. Several local officials spoke. A slide presentation was made on the main elements of ESSA. We were given the opportunity to write down questions and drop them in a basket on the registration table ( these questions were never addressed). Then it was time for “ESSA Questions and Listening Session.” Four questions were posed, including “How do you think ESSA will affect your school/district?” and “What are you most proud of in your school/district?” Our “input” was supposed to relate to these questions.
The last question we were asked to respond to was “What one message do you want to share with USDE?” Finally, Julie was able to make a comment. She raised parental concerns about the 95% test participation rule, and the way the ESSA draft accountability guidance is pushing a variety of punishments for schools, districts and states where less than 95% of students are tested (read the comments PAA submitted on the draft guidance here). This is a clear effort to suppress the opt out movement. The USDE representative at the event, Patrick Rooney, Acting Director of the Office of State Support, leaped to the defense of the 95% rule. So much for listening.
Parents Across America
Comments on ESSA
Presented at the Community Roundtable on ESSA held in Casper, WY
on October 26, 2016
Good morning. My name is Julie Woestehoff. I am a resident of Evanston, WY, and the interim executive director of Parents Across America, a national network of parents from all backgrounds across the United States who share ideas and work together to improve our nation’s public schools. PAA is committed to bringing the voice of public school parents – and common sense – to local, state, and national education debates. We currently have forty-five chapters and affiliates in twenty-six states.
U. S. Education Secretary John King recently spoke about “What School Can Be,” at the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts. Secretary King reflected on the school programs and experiences that had the greatest impact on him — had, in fact, saved his life. The programs he talked about as so transformative and critical for him and other students included performing on stage, going to the zoo and museums, playing in an orchestra, dancing, and going out into the community to tackle real and needed projects – what Secretary King calls a well-rounded education.
A couple of years ago, PAA prepared a position paper, “What is a Quality Education?”, which is quite similar in tone and aspiration. Our vision is that quality education is child-centered, requires skilled professionals, and promotes justice, equity and democracy.
We appreciate the fact that the new federal education law proclaims the fundamental importance of family and community vision and values in setting education goals and making key decisions about the best ways to support and strengthen schools. It was right and necessary to move those decisions back to the state and local level.
Unfortunately, the influence of corporate reform and the push for the monetization and privatization of democratic public education, which has been so strongly opposed by families, communities and educators, remains far too prominent in parts of ESSA and the draft regulations and guidance the department has published so far. These documents continue to misrepresent the real interests and concerns of most parents, using these misrepresentations to justify ineffective, harmful, and expensive programs such as expanded funding for charter schools, misuse and overuse of standardized tests, punitive school labeling, and, more recently, heavy promotion of digital instruction without including adequate protections for student health and data privacy, and all at a time when public education budgets are under severe strain.
PAA submitted comments on the draft accountability guidance in July. Briefly, we objected to:
The extensive, punitive regulations surrounding the requirement that 95% of all students take state accountability tests, which undermine parents’ rights to opt our children out of these tests, even in cases where such tests are misused or overused.
Requirements that states set three levels and single accountability labels for schools, and give “much greater weight” to state test scores in this labeling process, falsely claiming that this is what parents want. Public opinion polls consistently show that parents put little stock in standardized test scores. Forcing states to give “much greater weight” to state test scores will only serve to perpetuate the damaging overemphasis on standardized tests that made NCLB/ESEA such a failure.
Requirements that certain students be labeled as “consistently sub-performing” on state tests. We prefer a focus on alternative and teacher-made assessments. For example, the cutting-edge work done by the Consortium on Chicago School Research on students’ “on-track” status focuses on classroom grades, not standardized test scores.
We recommended that the lists of suggested indicators of school progress and school improvement strategies throughout specify the following measures:
Increasing active parent involvement in the school and in their children’s education through such means as providing additional time for parents and teachers to meet, extra resources for increased home-school communication, and a meaningful parent role in school governance.
Lowering class size.
Increasing mental and other health-related services for children.
…all of which research shows are far more powerfully related to improved student learning than the strategies that the regulations do specify – turning schools over to charter schools, closing schools, or increasing the use of technology.
Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants
The relatively new SSAE guidance document describes how funds may be used under this program to strengthen elements of a well-rounded education, enhance student health and safety, and increase the effective use of technology. While PAA generally supports additional funding for such programs, we have serious concerns about the push for so-called “personalized” or “blended” learning, which we have come to believe are code words for a takeover of schooling by online companies seeking to monetize education and access private student data for commercial purposes. Digital learning seems to be several steps away from the type of transformative education that Secretary King described in his vision of “What School Can Be.”
The SSAE guidance does not reference or provide information on the need to protect student data nor does it address any of the many concerns PAA and others have raised regarding real and potential dangers of increased used of digital devices in school, many of which I have referenced in comments I recently submitted to the Wyoming Department of Education in response to their Digital Learning Plan.
I attach and incorporate into these remarks PAA’s position paper on digital learning and our summary brief which references additional reports detailing our specific concerns about EdTech’s:
harmful effects on children’s mental and emotional development,
negative impact on student intellectual and academic growth,
damaging physical effects,
depersonalization and other ways of undermining the educational process,
questionable value and effectiveness,
continuous testing of students, often without obtaining consent from or even informing students or parents,
threats to student data privacy, and
hugely lucrative benefits for private companies.
I also attach and incorporate into these remarks PAA’s recommendations for appropriate, safe use of digital technology in the classroom.
While a guidance document has not yet been drafted regarding ESSA parent and family involvement requirements, I take this opportunity to share some of PAA’s concerns and recommendations in that area, one in which we are perhaps best equipped to comment and offer advice.
As I mentioned at the beginning of these remarks, PAA feels that parents’ real concerns about public education have too often been misrepresented and co-opted to justify as “parental choice” strategies such as school privatization and closure and expanded charter school funding. In fact, according to public opinion polls, most parents’ first choice is to send their children to a high-quality, adequately-resourced neighborhood school. Efforts in the recent past to use parents to close schools and turn them over to charter operators under “parent trigger” laws have also proven unpopular and ineffective.
PAA prefers the strong, successful parent involvement model found in Chicago’s local school councils, which are elected, parent-plurality bodies that govern each school, approving the school’s budget and improvement plan and evaluating and hiring the building principal. LSCs have a proven track record of school improvement and active engagement of parents despite the district’s lack of support for and marginalization of LSCs.
ESSA can do much to strengthen the role of parents and families as true partners in public education by providing adequate funding for effective strategies such as local school council governance, local on-site and at home support for families to be better informed and more active in school efforts, and a closer, more collaborative connection between home and school. We look forward to an opportunity to expand on our comments and recommendations on parent and family involvement in the near future.
Thank you for your attention.