That sinister-looking cardboard cutout of the governor lurking behind the stage podium certainly didn't intimidate NYSUT President Karen Magee or education historian Diane Ravitch. They minced no words in fiery speeches urging educators, parents and community activists to keep up the pressure and "forcefully resist" Gov. Andrew Cuomo's dangerous plans for public education.
"Preserving public education is the civil rights issue of our time," Ravitch told about 1,000 Hudson Valley activists at SUNY Purchase Thursday night. She echoed the words of NYSUT President Karen Magee, who said forums across the state are energizing thousands of education supporters.
"Thank you for standing up against an agenda that serves billionaires and privateers, rather than the students," Magee said. "All kids need advocates like those of us in this room."
NYSUT President Karen E. Magee. Photo by Maria R. Bastone.
In sharp contrast to the governor, who rarely visits public schools, Magee told the audience she had spent an uplifting day visiting schools in White Plains, Valhalla, Hastings and Yonkers. She wished the governor could have witnessed what she saw — teachers inspiring students to actively engage in learning, think critically and ask good questions. "But no, I did not run into Governor Cuomo," Magee said. "Gov. Cuomo is a no-show and has continued to not show up," despite thousands of invitations to visit classrooms or attend educational forums.
Ravitch, a nationally known education reform critic, urged the audience to stand strong against the governor's efforts to "terrorize and demoralize" teachers across the state. "The governor's angry NYSUT did not endorse him … In fact, he did not deserve NYSUT's endorsement," she said, to much applause.
With a healthy dose of sarcasm and plenty of facts, Ravitch poked holes in Cuomo's plans to ratchet up the pressure of standardized testing and crack down on teacher evaluations. "The governor thinks that if students fail, they must have bad teachers," Ravitch said. "He thinks you are hiding a bunch of bad teachers!"
Diane Ravitch... and someone else. Photo by Maria R. Bastone.
She offered a telling analogy: "Well, when he became governor in 2010, 53 percent of students were proficient in English language arts, and now only 31 percent are proficient. In math, the numbers (dropped) from 61 percent to 36. See how the scores collapsed … Is it because he's a bad governor?"
A number of people in the audience roared back, "Yes!
Ravitch didn't disagree, but she explained how the test scores collapsed after the State Education Department rushed into "absurdly hard" testing students on Common Core and set cut scores to ensure that 70 percent of the students would fail.
"None of what the governor is proposing is good public policy," Ravitch said. "Instead of providing extra help to schools that need it, (he) wants to impose a harsh and punitive evaluation scheme on all public school teachers, including those in successful schools. Instead of helping low-performing schools, he wants to close them and hand them over to entrepreneurs."
She said New York is not alone and shared some ridiculous examples of testing and measuring of student success, like in Massachusetts, where students need to show improvement in their BMI (Body Mass Index.)
In Ohio, she said there's a165-page physical education evaluation system that is being used across the state. She quoted from a first-grade PE test question: "To throw a ball with your right hand, you should step forward with your left foot, true or false? The audience gasped. "Well first you have to be able to read," she said. "They are out of their minds."
In Florida, teachers are being evaluated based on scores for students they never taught, she said. An art teacher might be evaluated based on reading scores, a PE teacher on math scores. "This is called 'shared attribution' and this is totally loony," Ravitch said. "A judge ruled it might be unfair, but it's not unconstitutional."
Even worse, she said the testing regimen is of no diagnostic value because tests are poorly designed, kept secret and results are long delayed. "There's a good reason they want to keep the test questions secret," she said. "They don't want people to discover how many of the questions are nonsensical and how many were wrong."
At a time when the governor wants to more than double the weight of student test scores, Ravitch urged activists to join the opt-out movement. "In unity, there is strength," Ravitch said. "Refuse the tests! It's the most effective way to express opposition." The crowd responded with a standing ovation and long applause.
She also suggested that rather than spending millions on testing and evaluations, the state could better help struggling schools by investing in pre-kindergarten, reducing class size, expanding arts offerings and providing support services.
"We're in the midst of a vast social experiment on the children of this nation, and it's all tied to standardized testing," Ravitch said. "Life doesn't consist of (finding) right answers. As Karen said, life requires critical thinking. Students need to learn to ask better questions, not just find answers."
Following Ravitch, a panel discussion included (pictured above, left to right) Blind Brook Federation of Teachers President Robin Willig, New Rochelle School Board member Sal Fernandez, Harrison Superintendent Louis Wool, and Hastings PTA President Lisa Litvin. Wool suggested that the current evaluation system should be abandoned and that a panel of "unassailable experts" should recommend how to do it right.
"Do not let the critics narrow the conversation," Wool said. "Let's provide an alternate narrative, an accurate narrative."
A number of elected officials were also in the audience, including Regent Harry Phillips, State Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (pictured above), Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson, Sen. George Latimer and Assemblyman David Buchwald.