The Teachers College community is divided about the institution’s decision to honor Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the New York Board of Regents. Tisch has made her mark as a champion of high-stakes testing and charter schools.

Professor Celia Oyler wrote the following message to her graduate students:

“An Open Letter to Graduating Master’s Students in the Elementary and Secondary Inclusive Education Programs

I will not be attending convocation this year as I am on parental leave. I know if I were attending I would not be able to remain silent while Merryl Tisch is given a TC Medal of Honor. Her actions while Chair of the New York State Board of Regents have wrought incredible damage upon our noble profession.

Merryl Tisch has ushered through the Board of Regents many policies with which I vehemently disagree; these include: decoupling teacher certification and master’s degrees from university-based teacher education (approving Relay Graduate School of Education); allowing InBloom to collect and sell private data on each K-12 student in New York State schools; and requiring all school districts to tie teacher evaluation to Value Added Measures based on student test scores. There are numerous problems with using student test scores to evaluate teachers (Value Added Measures). See here, here and here to start.

Despite these well-documented concerns, Teachers College’s initial press release indicated that TC was awarding Merryl Tisch this honorary degree because of her efforts to establish this system of teacher evaluation. To be honest with you all, when I first read the press release, I sobbed. My chagrin is shared by many. For instance, read New York State Principal of the Year (2013) and TC grad Carol Burris’s comment about Merryl Tisch on Diane Ravitch’s blog posting about the Tisch award.

If I were at the graduation convocation, I would wear a sign on the back of my robe. It would probably say, “USING STUDENT TEST SCORES TO RATE TEACHERS DISHONORS US”. Some people are suggesting that students and faculty could turn their backs when Tisch is talking; other people have the idea to hold up signs. In any case, I know that I couldn’t be silent. I would feel complicit; my silence would be condoning the award. I would make sure to sit next to a colleague or two or three who would also agree to take an action with me.

I cannot sit silently while teachers across this country are being viciously attacked and demeaned by the junk science of VAM. For instance: A district in Florida fired A Teacher of the Year based on her VAM. In Los Angeles, a well-loved community-minded teacher committed suicide after his VAM scores were published in the newspaper and he was ranked as one of the lowest teachers in the district; he specialized in welcoming children who spoke little English.

When I was a child, I voraciously read all the books I could find about the Underground Railroad, the Abolitionist Movement, the anti-Nazi movement (including the White Rose Society), the Civil Rights Movement. As a teacher I often included a focus on the South African anti-apartheid movement. For as long as I can remember, I have asked myself, “Would I have stood up?” “Would I have had the courage to defend the side of freedom and justice?”

There are activists in the educational community and TC alumni who are debating whether to call for a protest of the Merryl Tisch award at your graduation. While there are different opinions on this topic, they are all asking if there will be a protest from the graduating students. They realize that you are entering teaching at a very difficult time and they admire your courage. They are hoping that as beginning teachers you can find small ways to protect both the children and our profession by protesting the horrible anti-child and anti-teacher policies pushed through with Race to the Top funding. They hope you are entering the field of education knowing we need to fight courageously for an education that is based on children’s individual needs and does not try to reduce them to test scores; that you want to teach subjects even if they are not on the tests, such as the arts, music, drama, science investigations, and social studies inquiries. I have assured them you are visionary and courageous and that you see urban communities of color as full of multicultural resources and assets to be cultivated rather than as sinkholes of deficits that need to be corrected into middle class mainstream discourses as measured by the tests.

My heart is beating as I type these words, as I know that public education is under an organized assault by corporate reformers who seek to script your curricula and make you teach to their tests. These corporate reformers—The New Schools Venture Fund, the Gates Foundation; the Broad Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and so on—seem to have nearly unlimited funds.

What we have on our side is our vision for a different kind of education: one that supports children to dance and sing and debate and play and create and dream and make art and design projects that show their ideas about how to make the world a better place. What we have on our side is our belief in humanity, relationships, solidarity, diversity, democracy, freedom, justice, and equality. I know that none of you entered our teacher education program with the mere goal of helping children score well on a standardized test. You entered teaching to touch the hearts and minds of children, and to listen to and value their stories. And to tell them through your words and your actions, “I see you, I expect huge successes from you, and I love you.”

Please walk with dignity into St John the Divine, no matter what you choose to do or not do about Merryl Tisch. And always remember that no Value Added Score can EVER measure how much value you have added to a child’s life.”

With love,
Celia Oyler