Months ago, I hailed Don Sternberg, the principal of Wantagh Elementary School in Long Island, New York, as a hero of public education. He spoke out loud and clear against the misuse of standardized tests to evaluate students, teachers, principals, and schools.
Please read the letter below, in which he educates the parents of his students about the statistical madness that is called “education reform,” but should be recognized instead as education malpractice and child abuse.
We need more like him!
February 26, 2013
I want to thank you for the many good wishes that I have received since announcing my retirement after 32 years as the Wantagh Elementary School’s principal. While time and circumstance have pointed me in the direction of retirement, I feel that I am, in some way, abandoning my students at a time that they might need my voice the most.
The direction that educational reform is heading is a place where non- educators (politicians, statisticians, and big business) are in control. The misinformed public seems to desire change because they are being led to believe that something is wrong with our educational system. The public is being duped into thinking something needs to be done to avert ‘the crisis in education.’ Ironically, the same people purporting that there is a crisis – the politicians, statisticians, and big business – are, in fact, the ones causing the crisis!
While there are pockets within New York State where reform is necessary – places where high school graduation rates are low and students heading into the workforce and post-secondary school need better skill-sets — this is not universally the case, although pseudo-pundits would have you believe otherwise. The solution presented by these politically-based educational ‘experts’ is not to differentiate and treat academic issues where and when they arise, but rather to treat the metaphorical broken leg and hangnail with the same remedy.
Why aren’t school districts that already meet the education reform goals presented by the federal government exempted from the process? I believe the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which gives states responsibility for education is still in effect. However, the federal government has skirted the Amendment (47 states, including New York State, essentially have relinquished their constitutionally guaranteed control over education by accepting Race-to-the-Top funding) because states and local districts desperately need the federal dollars associated with this federal initiative. The result: assessment upon assessment upon assessment! (For your information: Although Wantagh is subject to every assessment associated with Race-to-the-Top, our district received $0.00 of Race-to-the-Top funding.)
The rigors associated with the national Common Core standards are outstanding and will serve all of our children well. Common Core is starting to approach the rigor of an International Baccalaureate (IB) program which I believe should be the basis of all school academic experiences. However, I am seeing and hearing about more and more students who do not want to come to school or who are manifesting the stress of these new requirements in the form of stomachaches and the like. Add the additional pressure from all the mandated assessments associated with the Race-to-the-Top funding and you have a groundswell of emotion-based malaise. I find this deeply troubling.
The issue that most upsets me, and that I see as counterproductive, is the desire to record, in a quantifiable fashion, the educational development of our children. There is clearly a ‘quota system’ being applied to schools, school children, teachers and principals — and it is negatively impacting our children! When I was growing up I was never measured with some insidious number that categorized my ability and progress, and that served to measure the effectiveness of my teachers and my school. We are constantly told that when the students of the United States are compared to other countries from around the world, we do not measure up to them. I ask, measure up to what? All that is being compared is a measurement against other measurements.
Other countries admire American creativity and problem-solving abilities. We haven’t cured cancer yet, but I’ll bet that when a cure is discovered, it will be by an American. We are the only country to put people on the moon (and then bring them back). We developed and perfected the Internet! Apple! McDonald’s! Microsoft! Starbucks! Google! None of these endeavors or companies were started by excellent test-takers! I fear that our present cadre of educational reformers – the non-educators noted above – are creating children who are great little test-takers, who can select A, B, C or D as an answer with the best of them, and whose performance can be placed onto a nice little spreadsheet. But we must ask ourselves, at what price? Is effectively selecting A, B, C or D how we want our children to excel? We are not creating life-long and creative learners; we are creating wonderful test-takers!
I shiver when I see and hear students asking their teachers, “Is this the way you want it?” or, “Did I do this the right way?” We are systematically testing our kids at multiple times every year to a point where they think that the only measurement of success is a state assessment result! Often students cannot think critically or are afraid to be creative and produce something independently. Will you really be satisfied that your child is doing well in school because a test indicates such? Or will you expect more? Testing at the elementary level is replacing a love for learning that we want to instill in every child. The proper use of assessment is to drive instruction, not to be the definitive evaluation of a child or to serve to fill a state or federal statistical data bank.
Past practice clearly has shown that students will succeed if they are given the time to learn — not weeks of test prepping and hours of testing masquerading as learning. We have been forced to narrow the curriculum to only that which will be tested. Please let me be clear, we are spending your tax dollars for months, teaching to the tests because in today’s statistician-based educational reform movement, that is the only thing that counts. This has resulted in very few of the students in our school feeling enthusiastic about learning or even about coming to school. This is something I have never experienced in my decades as an educator.
I entered the field of education to inspire, motivate, challenge and captivate young minds; not to assess ad nauseam and be a data collector.
Why am I sending this letter to you now? I am writing to you because I want you to watch your children. Are they acting differently than in past years? Are they talking differently about school than they have in the past? Are they anxious, even nervous, about coming to school and the forthcoming tests? If they are, ask yourself, “Why?” And, “Is this what I want for my child, year after year after year?” If you are as upset as I am, put this letter down and write your own to the bureaucrats asking them to ‘Stop the Madness!’
If we (Wantagh) are already reaching the goals of Race-to-the-Top, and if we do not get any monetary or intrinsic value from RTTT that supports our kids, then our students are serving as a ‘control group’ in a bureaucratically-induced statistical experiment! Our children’s education is consequently an anomalous exercise to gain data.
My pappy always said to me; “Sonny, always leave a place better than you found it.” Alas, for me, due to our existing educational system and how bureaucrats are presently designing it, that will not be the case.
Don Sternberg, Ed.D. Principal