An Open Letter to Arkansas Lawmakers

March 12, 2015

Members of the Arkansas House of Representatives Education Committee, members of the Arkansas Senate Legislative Committee, and Governor Asa Hutchinson:

During the current legislative session, there have been many proposed laws that have alarmed those of us who work in education around the state. I am writing to you not only because I am a teacher in Arkansas (I teach English Language Arts at the middle school in Greenland, AR) but also because as a resident of Arkansas I care about the future of our state.

The trend in this legislative session seems to be toward over-regulating, devaluing, and privatizing locally controlled public schools yet at the same time giving private charter schools a free pass to do whatever they like and receive whatever funds they want. I am referring specifically to House Bill 1733, Senate Bill 847, Senate Bill 789, House Bill 1552, House Bill 1593, and others. As a product myself of Arkansas’ public school system, I can tell you that what public schools need is more support, funding, and local control, not less.

I could share countless stories that illustrate how more support is needed at locally controlled public schools like mine. For example, we are currently struggling to find funding so we can continue early morning tutoring for students through end of the school year. Our history textbooks are already outdated, and despite changes to the statewide social studies curriculum next year, it seems doubtful we will be able to afford new ones. I could go on, but I don’t want it to seem like I am bellyaching and complaining about our problems. In fact, a lot of great teaching and learning is happening at my school – but this is in spite of increased regulation, testing, and “accountability”, not because of it.

Some lawmakers seem to see charter schools as the holy grail of school reform – they believe that charter schools will solve every problem in education and that the free market of school choice will magically make everything else work out. Unfortunately, this simply isn’t true. Not only is the research to support charter schools incomplete and unsubstantial, but even those charter schools that do show success are more the exception than the rule. The truth is that charter schools, just like public schools, all have different administrators, different teachers, and different ideas of what a school should look like. This isn’t to say that everything should be standardized (because everything cannot and should not be standardized), but it means that just like public schools, there will be charter schools that succeed and charter schools that fail.  The problem is that public schools have the support, oversight, and involvement of the local community and the state to help ensure they succeed in educating students. Charter schools, on the other hand, are often given the freedom to fail or succeed without much oversight at all. Allowing charter schools the freedom to experiment seems like a great concept, until you realize that they are experimenting with our students’ futures, and their experimentation has little oversight and few checks and balances.

Often, charter schools are cast as a way to help low income students who may be “stuck” in low performing public schools. In fact, more charter schools and increased school choice usually only serves to help those students who need the least help. Let me use as an example the proposal for school vouchers that would allow students to transfer from a public to private school and take their funding with them. This all sounds great – students would be able to choose which school they would like to attend, and theoretically this would make private schools more accessible to low income students. In fact, exactly the opposite would happen. Here’s something you may not have thought of – many students from low income families have parents who work all hours of the day and night and would not be able to provide or pay for transportation to and from a private school – this is why public schools are required to provide transportation to allow everyone equal access to attend school.

But let’s assume for a moment that a low income family could find a way for their children to be transported to a private school to use their vouchers. How would that family pay for all of the other related expenses that are typically expected at many private schools, such as food (normally provided through free and reduced lunches and breakfasts at public schools), uniforms, a computer, home internet access, etc.? The fact is that most private schools, through no fault of their own, are simply not set up to provide the same services and support to low income students that public schools do. Therefore, with a voucher system, many middle and high income families would be able to provide transportation, money, and support for their children to attend private schools, and almost all low income students would remain at their local public school. Those public schools would lose funding and become even more strapped for resources than they already are. The test scores of those public schools would go down, because research has shown that a school’s test scores strongly correlates to that school’s average family income. Those schools would be taken over by the state and possibly turned into charter schools (as per other legislation currently being considered) and local schools that have been the foundation and centerpiece of communities across the state (especially small, rural communities) would fall apart.

This may seem like an exaggerated doomsday prediction of what could happen, but I do not believe it is far-fetched. Public education is one of the foundations of our democracy in the United States. Thomas Jefferson warned us to “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” In order for our country to survive, we must continue to offer free, equitable education to all students. When that equal opportunity to education for all is watered down by privatization, devaluation of public schools, and degradation of public school teachers and administrators, then the system begins to fall apart. No, our public schools are not perfect, but, on the whole, they are not failing either. I would like to point out that those who are sounding the loudest cry of “failing schools” and “accountability” are also those who have the most to gain by school privatization and school choice.

Please, for the good of our schools and our democracy, I urge you to oppose any legislation that attempts to devalue or degrade our locally controlled public education system. Thank you for your time spent reading this letter and I hope and pray that you will make the best choices for our state’s future.

Sincerely,

Tyler McBride
7th and 8th Grade ELA Teacher
Greenland Middle School
Greenland, Arkansas

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What My Students Think of the PARCC Test

IMG_20140422_130626_240In Arkansas next Monday, the PARCC testing window opens. On that day, schools like mine can begin giving the PARCC Performance Based Assessments to their students. To “take the temperature” of my classroom this week, I asked my students to write about what they thought of standardized tests. Below are a few of their answers. I have tried to include samples from a wide range of students – you will hear from my best students and my students who struggle the most. You will also hear from students who love testing and those who hate it (there are many more of the latter). Some answers have been edited for spelling and punctuation errors, but no words or meanings have been changed.

I will not give much commentary, but instead I will let the quotes speak mostly for themselves. I will say this: the only discussion about testing we had in class up to this point was my explaining what the PARCC test is and what students will be expected to do. I did not share my views on standardized testing with students, but more than 90% of my students still said they dislike or hate standardized tests. To those who would say that these are just bratty students complaining because they won’t do well on the test, this is my question: If many students resent being forced to take a certain test, how can that test be a valid measurement of student achievement? How can you assume that all students will do their best on a test they hate?

Thus ends my commentary. Now, listen to what the kids have to say.

“I don’t like standardized tests because they take us out of class and they keep us from doing work in class.” – I.

“I wouldn’t mind them that much if you didn’t have to take so much of them all the time.” – M.

“I don’t really like them because I don’t think there is really any point in taking them. We already have to take quizzes in class. Why can’t we go off that?” – B.

“I think that standardized tests are needed. They’re needed so teachers or staff can see where the students are or where the teachers need to teach more about. But personally I don’t like them, especially the PARCC test.” – L.

“I think we should just learn stuff and not have to take a test.” – C.

“I like it because it takes up time faster and you get snacks and [get to go] outside and it’s easy. It’s kinda fun because you get rewards at breaks.” – C.

“Standardized tests are to evaluate how well the schools have taught children. The only problem is that children hate taking the test, myself included.” – J.

“I think they’re dumb and useless. They take up time that could be used for actual learning, set obscure goals for how much you must learn, and don’t even count toward your grade in most cases. They emotionally damage children, and can cause problems for students suffering from some mental illnesses. They make students anxious and sometimes they are so nervous that they are physically ill. The time they take up could be used for actual learning.” – S.

“I think the standardized tests are dumb. They’re pretty much just like finals, so there’s no real point in taking them. I think it’d be better to just take finals instead of standardized tests and finals.” – K.

“I don’t like the test because the teachers try to get us ready and when they come I black out on them.” – K.

“I don’t like the standardized tests because you have to sit still for hours and not talk at all.” – C.

“I do not like the test at all. They are boring and some of the questions don’t even make sense. In my opinion there is nothing good about them. I honestly don’t see why we have to take these tests!” – K.

“The reason I really like the Benchmark is because it’s really quiet and you actually get your work done and I get relaxed because it’s all quiet.” – M.

“I dislike them because I hate taking tests or quizzes. I like them because we get out of classes and don’t have to learn more on the days we take them.” – H.

“I think they are too much pressure on kids because kids know you have to pass these big tests but kids are so worried about passing the test and getting a good grade that they cannot actually use everything they know […] Personally, I’m scared to take the PARCC test this year. I’m mainly scared about the math part because I’m so horrible at math.” – N.

“Teachers should have their own freedom on what they wish for their class to learn. They should also be able to design tests that they know are more fitting for their students instead of statewide results from students everywhere. These tests lack interest, design, and they often take days from a teacher that he/she could use to teach their students more. Teachers should not have to be told what to teach but should get to decide for themselves.” – H.

“The standardized tests are a big waste of time. We spend a lot of time taking the test and getting ready for the test.” – C.

“What is the difference between the normal tests given by teachers and the PARCC, TLI, and Benchmark tests? The difference is one thing: the standardized tests make you inhuman – you are a number and that is all the state will see. When tests are given by teachers it shows where they need to focus; otherwise you are a number and the teachers can’t help you at all.” – C.

“I think that the tests are useless! They take up time we could be learning in class.” – K.

“I mean, come on. The teachers know that we don’t do our work or pay attention in class. So what’s the point in having a test to see what you learned?” – A.