What’s the Role of School Superintendents in Opt-Out Fever?

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Last week I looked at the how differences in  state-level leadership, teacher unions, and parent advocacy may have affected New York and New Jersey’s “opt-out fever.” Based on preliminary numbers, test refusals are holding steady in N.Y.’s white suburban areas but receding in N.J.  even in strongholds like Princeton.

But there’s one variable that I neglected to consider, and that’s the role of the school superintendent, a district’s chief educational officer.

Superintendents are really important. Ideally they embody the values of the board which, in turn, embodies the values of the community. The best chief education officers speak softly, carry a big stick, and embrace their accountabality to parents, teachers, administrators, school board members, and state officials.There are great and not-so-great superintendents in both states but a striking difference is that N.Y. district leaders seem far more prone to undermining state standards and assessment systems than N.J. superintendents.

A few examples:
Steven R. Cohen, superintendent for Shoreham-Wading River School :

Make no mistake about it, “College and Career Ready” is code for education apartheid. Do not let your children breathe the stale air of low expectations, reduced exposure to the arts and music, limited engagement with sophisticated science and little, if any, prolonged, deep and thoughtful contact with great literature.

“College and Career Ready” is a trap. Don’t fall for it. Your kids deserve better. 

Dr. Cohen and David Gamberg, superintendent of the Greenport and Southold School Districts:

Underlying the “opt-out” movement is recognition of the reality that helping poor children cannot be done by testing them. Underlying the “opt-out” movement is the belief that teachers by and large have contributed greatly to the high-level achievements of countless public school students. Underlying the “opt-out” movement is the belief that a simplistic and suffocating approach to improving education is bad for children — all of them. People who reject these “reform” ideas wonder why the reformers themselves send their children to private schools that work more or less the way hundreds of successful public schools work.

James Kettrick, Superintendent, Indian River Central School District

Anxiety about grades 3-8 tests among parents, activists, and teacher unions has created New York’s growing opt-out movement.  Opt-outs in grades 3-8 tests jumped from five percent to twenty percent (200,000 statewide) this past school year.  Parental and teacher dissatisfaction reflected in this movement center on the hasty implementation of the standards, lack of transparency in testing, and the link between student tests and teacher performance evaluation.  

Dr. Michael Hynes, Superintendent of Patchogue-Medford School District:

There is absolutely no reason for any student to take the assessments until we have some true fundamental changes. I don’t believe making the tests a few questions shorter or allowing students to have an unlimited amount of time is the answer. This is not in the best interest of our students, especially our special education and ELL students.

In contrast, even in  parts of N.J. where opt-out sentiment is strong, superintendents have not issued blogs or letters or youtube videos urging parents to refuse state testing for their children.

Concurrently, N.J. school boards are similarly circumspect in entangling themselves in parental decisions. According to NJEA’s count, only six out of almost 600 N.J. school boards have passed the much-lobbied-for resolutions against PARCC assessments. If I wasn’t fighting the clock on Passover preparation I’d count all the anti-testing school board resolutions issued in New York. (Here’s the list for those of you not elbow-deep in chicken soup.)

Are school boards or superintendents setting the tone? Chicken or egg? You choose. I’m agnostic.

Meanwhile, N.Y.’s opt-out participants appear unappeased, despite the election of a new Regents Chancellor who was hand-picked by the teachers’ union, Gov. Cuomo’s reversal on standards and testing, and a four-year moratorium on tying student outcomes to teacher evaluations?

Maybe it’s exactly that.

New York State’s educational leadership has taken every opportunity to prove itself weak. flash-in-the-pan, as malleable as matzoh balls. It’s the old give’em an inch and they’ll take a mile. As someone said, N.Y. anti-testers just won’t take “yes” for an answer.

In contrast, N.J. Commissioner David Hespe, even with yesterday’s Pearson screw-up,has remained even and strong. The State D.O.E. hasn’t backed down on the necessity of 95% participation in PARCC. I don’t often get a chance to say this, but it appears steady as a rock in Trenton.

Maybe state leadership matters more than we think it does.

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