Kathleen M. Cashin and Bruce S. Cooper are on the faculty of Fordham University. Dr. Cashin, an experienced educator, is also a member of the New York State Board of Regents. She is regularly in the minority on votes that increase the pressure for high-stakes testing. Dr. Cooper is a scholar who has written about school finance for many years. In this essay, they criticize the state’s pressure to raise test scores while sacrificing the social and emotional supports that students need to succeed in school. Schools across the state, restricted by Governor Cuomo’s 2% tax limit, must cut somewhere, and they are forced to cut such necessary services to students as social workers, psychologists, counselors, as well as the arts and athletics. These demands and the sacrifices they require will prove harmful to students, in the short run and the long run. A cardinal rule of medicine, derived from the Hippocratic Oath, is: “First, do no harm.” If it were the rule in education, the Regents and the State Commissioner would be judged to have done significant harm to the students in their care, whose well-being they willfully ignore in pursuit of ever higher scores on standardized tests.
Sacrificing Psychologists, Counselors,
& Social Workers—and Athletics & the Arts—to Test Preparation
Kathleen M. Cashin Bruce S. Cooper
To increase funds for the preparation of students for state tests, sadly, New York public schools and their districts have reduced the number of professionals for critical student services; these include guidance counselors, psychologists, and social workers, while removing often athletic coaches, arts and music staff. But how can we expect our children to flourish in schools socially, psychologically, and inter-personally if these students have fewer trained school professionals to turn to, should they need help, comfort, or support?
Thus, we are cutting the most important services for children, those that help them to develop as healthy, happy human beings, all because we are obsessed with spending more funds, hoping to raise test score results through test prep. As one school principal recently commented, “Just forget it if you are seeking a job as a school guidance counselor, as these jobs are few and far between!”
For example, New York State recorded a decline from 7,126 guidance counselors in local public schools in 2009, to 6,622 in school year 2011-12, a drop of 7%, even though the enrollments (and needs) had risen. Likewise, social workers in the state employed in public schools dropped by 6%, from 3,270 to 3,050 during the same time period. And nurses working in public schools in New York declined by 3%, from 3,662 to 3,544 during this time.
As another administrator recalls, when he was a student at a major N.Y.C. public high school, his guidance counselor frequently called him into her office and asked:
“How are you adjusting to school?” She would regularly check on my grades, attendance, and my adjustment to various subjects and classes. This attention and private time meant so much to me, and I remember her fondly to this day, as she helped me to become the person and professional that I became.
Even teachers of art, music, drama, and physical education – and other areas that often go “untested” by the state — are disappearing, again reducing children’s engagement, joy, expression, physical fitness, creativity, and affirmation. What have we as a society accomplished by turning schools into “test mills” where fewer kids are happy; and schools are now spending eight months each year prepping for state tests?
Funding for the music and art in schools in New York City, for example, has plummeted by 81 percent since 2006, from about $10 million for supplies, dipping down to just $2 million in 2012. Cultural partnership funding — to build bridges between N.Y.C. public schools and it important cultural institutions — likewise, has been reduced by 50 percent, from $26 million to only $13 million.
Now, attention and time devoted to the “whole child” are now much less likely because teachers working alone in their classrooms are assuming more and more responsibility. And we see less staff who are trained and hired to help students — socially and emotionally — with a reduction in social workers, guidance counselors, athletic coaches, and school psychologists.
As a consequence, what are the effects of this drop in guidance counselors, now fewer in number in many schools, on children’s growth, stability, school attendance, as well the impact on levels of bad behaviors, such as physical bullying, and cyber-bullying? Those staff, specifically trained to address these students’ needs and problems, have diminished and thus are no longer around — or have so many students to serve, that they are not able to counsel students fully for college and career readiness.
We have data on the reduction in nonteaching staff, and on the rise of bad, anti-social behavior and depression among school kids; thus, we are believe that the drop in counselors and athletic-arts-music staff relates to the rising despair of students, who may have no one to whom to turn: fewer coaches, counselors, and psychologists in their schools.
Hence, we are making demands that students now become college and career prepared, while reducing (or overburdening) the very staff members who are trained to help these students. These critical questions must be answered at the federal, state, and local levels:
1. What is the level of relationship between loss of staff and the rise in student bullying and cyber-bullying?
2. What are the effects of reductions in available psychological and guidance personnel upon the levels of: (a) student suicide, (b) self-mutilation, and (c) truancy and dropout?
3. And how has the increase in gang membership — and combat among gangs –affected students’ feelings of school safety, school climate, and productivity?
Thus, overall, why are we letting our schools become less humane, supportive, and communal. And how are some students taking steps to join or create more gangs for fellowship and a sense of safety in numbers—or trying in other ways to create their own “safety nets”? Unsafe schools may then become breeding grounds, where frightened children look for protection in neighborhood gangs.
In effect, students are creating their own victimhood by these actions:
• Looking to gangs for protection from other gangs;
• Missing coping mechanisms developed through counseling, guidance, and teacher relationships;
• Losing chances to learn life and life-coping skills in schools, along with other students and professional staff;
• Reducing available parental involvement and support in helping their own children learn to cope, practice, and succeed in school – and life; and,
• Losing real opportunities to practice social and personal skills at school and home.
We must recognize that caring for and supporting the socio-emotional needs of children are as important in the long-run as simply test-prepping our children’s way to a higher score on English, math, science, and social studies examinations.
Research and experience together show that children can learn, retain, and focus better when they are feeling and functioning as safe, happy, well-adjusted young people. Society has a real responsibility once again to make schools safe-havens for all children, physically and socially. For are we not truly our brothers and sisters’ keepers?
Kathleen M. Cashin, Ed.D., is a member of the N.Y. State Board Regents and a clinical professor at Fordham University.
Bruce S. Cooper, Ph.D., is professor at Fordham University, Graduate School of Education, N.Y.C.
Dr. Bruce S. Cooper
175 Riverside Dr. Apt. #2F
New York, NY 10024
Tel: 917 843-2281