Jeanette Deutermann Leads an All-Star Team for the Whole Child

Earlier this year, as New York entered the testing season, Jeanette Deutermann  posted some advice on the Facebook page of the Long Island Opt-Out group.  A mother of two, at the epicenter of the state’s resistance movement, she addressed this question: what do we say to individuals who think it’s important for kids to take the test so that they learn not to back down from a challenge?

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The steering committee of New York State Allies for Public Education, upon which Deutermann sits, had to get it right. This was no academic exercise: it went straight to the heart of parental anxiety. Her answer was sensible, and reassuring.  “Our children will take hundreds of age-appropriate tests throughout their lifetime,” she wrote.  They would be fully prepared.  Deutermann argued that the assessments went beyond challenge, representing a narrative of failure:

Our children will be and are challenged on a daily basis.  These assessments go beyond a challenge and represent a narrative of failure. There are appropriate challenges, in which children prepare for, work towards, and have the ability to master once they have successfully worked long enough. This is not THAT. Many children will fail these assessments over and over each and every year with no hope of ever achieving “mastery” because they were not designed that way. A cut score and percentage of failure is designated before the administration.

Deutermann then sang the praises of the joy of learning:

Learning, especially for children as young as 8, should not be something that introduces unyielding struggle, unattainable goals, and repeated and chronic failure. To be a life-long learner, a child must have the stage set early to see the joy of discovery, the joy of success, and learning without the crushing fear of failing.

Her final  words: “They still want a challenge? Buy the kid some stilts.”

Nice.  I’d only add that we need to apply all of the above to kids younger than 8.  Children are  driven toward mastery in the earliest months, their zest for learning innate.  Failure is, by the way, an integral part of the process, but not a priori.

Now, Deutermann might easily be mistaken for one of Arne Duncan’s white suburban moms, whom he dissed several years ago, as the opt-out movement was beginning to pick up steam.    “All of a sudden, their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were,” he said, referring to the drop in test scores as a growing number of states had begun adopting the Common Core Standards.

But this gifted speaker and organizer defies the stereotype Duncan conveniently constructed to serve his toxic agenda.  She, along with her equally inspired, hard-working partners at NYSAPE,  has nurtured a vital coalition that sees beyond the greenest lawns, pastures, and towns.  Their work has the potential to embrace the state’s most vulnerable children—those living in cities with some of the highest rates of child poverty in the nation. Leading the way are Syracuse and Rochester, hovering at 51 percent, followed by Utica, at 48.5 percent; Binghamton, edging toward 48 percent; and Buffalo, at 46.5 percent.

In the group’s latest position statement, “A New Framework for Public Education in NYS: Building a Vision that Serves All Students,” lie the building blocks for an equitable system.

Below, their vision, at a glance—one that “prioritizes child-centered and developmentally appropriate learning standards and assessments,” and calls upon “all aspects of public education to be rooted in ethical practices and democratic decisionmaking.”  Do read the rest of the document, for NYSAPE’s list of recommendations for what all schools must do to meet the criteria.

Until New York State begins to embrace a vision of public education that prioritizes child-centered and developmentally appropriate learning standards and assessments, research and evidence based practices and policies, equitable resources and opportunities, and an accountability system that supports rather than punishes, the opt out movement will continue.

 While by no means exhaustive, the following is a list of what NYS Allies for Public Education believes all schools must have in order to foster creative, critically thinking, confident, well-rounded, independent, self-motivated, culturally competent, and well-prepared students who can work cooperatively and excel post-high school, whether they choose to attend college or pursue a vocation. We call on all aspects of public education to be rooted in ethical practices and democratic decision making.

Until the majority of these criteria are met and until students are provided with equitable learning environments and opportunities, any and all discussions of closing the opportunity gap, preparing students for a competitive global economy, and “career and college readiness” are disingenuous. We know that an accountability system based on test scores and “rigorous” learning standards have not led to increased student achievement, especially in schools starved of resources. Furthermore, a misguided focus on test scores distracts from critical conversations about what all students need to be successful and about the goals of public education

NYSAPE offers an alternative to the status quo, reconceptualizing accountability and education policy in New York State:

It is our contention that we must reframe the concept of accountability in New York State to assess our student’s learning conditions, the resources made available to them, and a school’s ability to educate and meet the needs of the whole child – something that cannot be reduced to a data point. In the face of grossly disparate learning conditions, the use of test scores to assess the efficacy of teachers, schools, and administrators lacks validity, and most importantly, hurts students.

A very good start.

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