Today, I get to meet the next class of students who have entered my university seeking to become high school teachers. This is always an exciting time in no small respect because being a part of their journey from student to student of teaching to teacher is some of the most rewarding work of my life, and I am consistently grateful for how their energy and optimism help revive my own year after year.
In recent years, that energy and optimism have been even more impressive because the in public battles over education and active disruption of today’s education “reform” have impacted these young people more than their counterparts in previous times. The morale of their teachers has been dropping during their time in the classroom, and the inherently busy and often confusing world of the classroom has been increasingly stressful to those with whom we entrust our children. If we accept what I believe is the very valid premise that the choice to become a teacher actually begins during one’s time as a student in teachers’ classrooms, then the students I meet today are among a remarkable group of young people who remain energized by education’s possibilities rather than discouraged by current circumstances. Nationwide, it is getting harder to find such young people to enter the teacher preparation pipeline.
And I have good news for them – there are excellent reasons to expect growing and vocal support from the parents whose children they will eventually teach, and those reasons should both encourage and inspire them.
The annual PDK/Gallup poll on the public’s beliefs about education was published recently, and while the results should be the subject of much debate and no small amount of disagreement, two messages ring out clearly: First, the public does not buy high stakes standardized testing as the best measurement of what teachers do, and second, the people who know our schools the best are the most positive about those schools.
Every demographic surveyed said that there is too much emphasis on standardized testing by very wide margins. 64% of the national sample and 67% of public school parents believe so as well as 57% of African Americans, 60% of Hispanics, and 65% of whites in the national sample. Support for opting out of standardized examinations showed more variation, but considering how test refusal was barely an issue a few years ago, the numbers in the survey may very well be surprising. Nationally, 41% of those surveyed agreed opting out should be allowed, and 47% of public school parents agreed it should be allowed. Whites agreed with allowing parents to opt out by 44% while 35% of Hispanics thought it should be allowed and 28% of African Americans thought it should be allowed. This poses a challenge to opt out advocates, certainly, who have made only modest inroads in urban communities so far.
Parents who say they themselves would opt out was as high as 31% of public school parents with similar differences among different ethnic groups. However, readers should remember that New York State, a national leader in the parental opt out movement, posted a test refusal rate of 20% for the 2015 examinations (which nearly matches the 21% of African American parents who would personally opt their children out), so there is room, given just this year’s support, to grow test refusal by significant numbers in the next year, complicating plans to evaluate teachers using test scores.
Survey respondents might not mind that, however, as they clearly find standardized tests a poor source of information on how teachers teach and how schools perform. All demographic groups said that student engagement, students’ hopes for the future, and the percentage of students who graduate and go on to further education are vastly more important measures of school effectiveness than standardized test scores. Similarly, all groups believed that samples of student work, teachers’ written evaluations, and teacher given grades were vastly more important indications of student progress, and all groups believed that teacher quality, expectations, principal leadership, and increased funding were more important tools for school improvement than measurement via standardized testing. African American parents were most interested in using standardized test scores to compare students with students in other communities, states, and countries, but that support was only 34% saying it was “very important” and overall support at that level was only 22% of all public school parents.
Parents and others similarly disagreed with using student test scores to evaluate teachers. Nationally, 43% of all those surveyed agreed with using student test scores that way, down from the slight majority who supported it in 2012 and up 5 points from last year’s survey. Public school parents were most vocal in opposition with only 37% in support and 63% opposed.
The PDK/Gallup poll reaffirms a long term trend in the survey over the years: people tend to think their local schools and the schools their children attend are better than schools nationwide. Local support for public schools remains robust in this year’s poll with 51% of the national sample giving their local schools a grade of A or B, and with 57% of public school parents saying the same. Worryingly, only 23% of African Americans and 31% of Hispanics felt similarly, highlighting known discrepancies in our highly segregated schools. Nationally, when public school parents were asked what grades they would give to the school attended by their oldest child, 70% said an A or a B. All respondents noted funding as a key issue for schools and quality as well with all demographics citing it as the most important problem facing schools and citing it as very or somewhat important for school improvement.
With trends like these emerging from the polling data, it is not surprising that direct action movements from parents and students to highlight dilemmas facing their schools and to challenge unpopular policies have emerged. The Opt Out movement is a large, growing, example of parental activism in communities across the country aimed at relieving schools of over testing.
In other communities, activists have come out to support their public schools via direct action as they’ve come under attack. In Newark, NJ, students of the Newark Student Union have been leading a movement to demand attention for how school “reforms” have harmed them and their community. Even more inspiring is the story in Chicago, where a dozen parent activists, having tried every possible means to save the last open enrollment high school in their community of Bronzeville, are beginning the third week of a hunger strike to save Dyett High School. While the press has been slow to notice the story in Bronzeville, it has caught the interest and support of public school advocates across the country.
So as I welcome my new class of future teachers to their first college education classes today, I also have a message for them: It is tempting, even easy, to spin a story of public education under attack and of those attacks winning, but you must also remember that you have the confidence and trust of parents in communities across the country, parents who understand the value of the work you have committed yourself to learning and doing. Year after year in polls, their faith and belief in you is clear. In the growth of Opt Out, their understanding of why the test and punish era of school accountability needs to be rolled back is evident.
And in communities like Newark and Bronzeville, students and parents are putting their very bodies on the line to support the importance of a fully public education. You owe them nothing less than full reciprocation and your every effort to justify their trust. Let’s get to work.