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'Racing to the Top' with the Hare and the Pineapple

Unchecked 'school reform' has become a wrecking ball for public education, say principals

New York State Principals

The following is an open letter from a group of New York state principals to the New York State Board of Regents about school reform and the standardized testing regime (h/t Valerie Strauss at the Answer Sheet blog). The letter comes on the heals of controversary after a bizarre fable, "The Hare and the Pineapple", was included on a high-stakes reading comprehension test for eighth-graders last week. More than 1,400 New York State principals have signed a petition asking state education officials to rethink their reform agenda. You can read about that effort on their website:Duh. Pineapples don't have sleeves.

The past week has been a nightmare for New York students in Grades 3 through 8, their teachers and their principals. Not only were the New York State ELA [English Language Arts] exams too long and exhausting for young students, (three exams of 90 minutes each), they contained ambiguous questions that cannot be answered with assurance, problems with test booklet instructions, inadequate space for students to write essays, and reading comprehension passages that defy commonsense. In addition, the press reported a passage that relied on knowledge of sounds and music which hearing-impaired students could not answer and Newsday reported that students were mechanically ‘filling in bubbles’ due to exhaustion. Certainly the most egregious example of problems with the tests is the now infamous passage about the Hare and the Pineapple.

On Friday, Commissioner King offered no apologies in what appeared to be a hastily written press release regarding the Hare and the Pineapple passage. In that release, Commissioner King faults the media for not printing the complete passage (many did), and passes the buck by noting that a committee of teachers reviewed the passage. In short, he distances the State Education Department from its responsibility to get the tests right. Considering the rigor and length of the exams, as well as their use in the evaluation of educators and schools, one might have hoped that the State Education Department and Pearson would have reviewed the tests with more care.

For many of us, however, this is but the latest bungle in the so-called school reform movement in New York State. More than 1,400 New York State principals have repeatedly begged the department to slow down, pilot thoughtful change and avoid using student test scores as high-stakes measures. The recent ELA test debacle was foreseeable to those of us who lead schools and know from experience that you cannot make so many drastic changes to curriculum, assessment and educator evaluation in a short period of time, especially without listening to those who lead schools. The literature on leadership is clear. Effective leadership is about the development of followership. If truth be told, however, there are fewer and fewer followers of this State Education Department every day. The Pineapple, like the ‘plane being built in the air’, is now a symbol of the careless implementation of a reform agenda that will cost billions of dollars, without yielding the promised school improvement.

"It is often said about educational change that it is a pendulum that swings. We are now watching the pendulum of school reform swing dangerously, and we fear that this time it is a wrecking ball aimed at the public schools we so cherish."

There are many who disparage our public schools in New York State. Although we acknowledge that improvements are needed, there is also much of which we are proud. We are proud of our tradition of New York State Regents examinations. We are proud that New York State students are second in the nation in taking Advanced Placement exams. We are proud of our Intel winners and the number of New York high schools on national lists of excellence. We are proud that our schools are second in the nation according to a comprehensive analysis of policy and performance conducted by the research group, Quality Counts.

We also know that too many of our schools are racially and socio-economically isolated with overwhelming numbers of students who receive little opportunity and support in their communities as well as in their schools. We cannot ignore deep-seated social problems while blindly believing that new tests, data warehousing systems and unproven evaluation systems are the answer. That view, in our opinion, is irresponsible and unethical.

This ill-conceived Race to the Top, recently critiqued by the National School Boards Association, is no more sensible than the race of the Hare and the Pineapple. Yet the New York State Education Department continues to enthusiastically push its agenda. Our schools are faced with contradictory and incomplete directives regarding high-stakes testing and evaluation, our teachers are humiliated by the thought of publicized evaluation numbers and our students are stressed by the unnecessary testing that has consumed precious learning time.

We understand that change is important for school revitalization. We have years of collective experience successfully leading educational improvement in our schools, often as partners with the State Education Department. Unfortunately, our voices have been ignored and marginalized during the past year. Nevertheless, we believe that we have an ethical obligation to speak out. It is often said about educational change that it is a pendulum that swings. We are now watching the pendulum of school reform swing dangerously, and we fear that this time it is a wrecking ball aimed at the public schools we so cherish.