“It always seems impossible until it is done.” ~Nelson Mandela
By Deb Escobar, Lorri Gumanow, Lisa Kollmer, and Lily Alayne Owen.
Refuse the Test Robocall Committee: Katherine Brezler, Deb Escobar, Lorri Gumanow, Lisa Kollmer, and Lily Alayne Owen, along with several other education activists, parents, and grandparents who are committed to our cause.
Ten days ago, several members of the New York Badass Teachers Association had a brainstorm on Facebook, which resulted in a crazy and powerful idea. Could a small group of teachers organize a grassroots robocall to reach ALL the parents in NY State, and ask them to refuse the state ELA and math tests? Could this be done in less than two weeks? What happened next was amazing and empowering, so we thought that our experience might be helpful to those who want to organize grassroots action campaigns of their own.
Common Core has destroyed children’s self-confidence and their zest for learning. Our children are being forced to do test preparation out of workbooks instead of enjoying the thrill of discovering by experimentation and constructive inquiry. There is no time for growth of minds or the joy of invention. Music, art, social studies, and yes, even science is crowded out to make room for language arts and math, the only two subjects that matter on the tests. Teachers are not script readers; we are innovators, honing our craft to give wings to the ideas of our young. But in this world of high-stakes testing, imagination is wilting. Dreams are disappearing. Hope is dying. And our best teachers are leaving the profession or being forced out, while enrollment in teacher preparation programs is down 20-50%!
Here in New York State, Governor Cuomo has openly vowed to “break the monopoly” of public education. Though he signed a moratorium against using test results in decisions about students, he is using those same scores to declare our schools failures. He advocates an evaluation system for teachers that is heavily based on faulty Value Added Modeling (VAM). VAM purports to show the growth of students based on their test scores, and thereby rank the effectiveness of teachers. Cuomo, and the NYS Legislature, chose to ignore the criticisms of VAM that come from such esteemed organizations as the American Statistical Association, the Economic Policy Institute, the National Academy of Education, and the American Educational Research Association. Studies indicate that one-third of teachers move from one effectiveness rating to another from year to year, proving that VAM scores are highly unstable, yet Cuomo’s APPR scheme will fire teachers after receiving “ineffective” two years in a row. For-profit charter schools will take the place of our public education. Nonunion teachers will be hired who will work for less pay, fewer benefits, and longer hours, in order to make more money for the investors. This is what privatization looks like. It is not hard to understand that this is behind Cuomo’s “reforms” for schools. He gathers millions from hedge fund investors and speaks at exclusive $1,500 a plate fundraisers for charter schools.
In the meantime, it is our children who are the pawns in this political game. The tests are impossibly hard, with questions that are written grade levels beyond the student’s age, “equally plausible” answer choices, and an undisclosed formula that establishes cut scores, with a proficiency rate that is calibrated to a 1630 on the SAT. How do our children feel about their ability to learn when they face such an impossibly difficult test? They go home crying and defeated because rigor has made their minds turn to stone.
Students with disabilities are especially hurt by this system. Only 5% of special education students, and 3% of English language learners, score proficient on state exams. Poor test scores correlate to zip codes. And now that the NY State Alternate Assessment for students with severe cognitive disabilities is aligned to the Common Core standards, the tasks required on this revised assessment do not correlate with their cognitive abilities. Children in impoverished communities also experience failure on the tests and give up. Is this the civil rights issue of this generation? Having “full and equal access” to failure on tests does not seem a path to becoming “college or career ready.” It may take years to fully understand the repercussions of the psychological and social effects of this test obsession on children. But teachers and parents stand witness to the tears, the vomiting during tests, the pulling out of hair, and the threats of bodily harm.
Those of us that met in that first BATS discussion shared a common understanding that it is critical to increase the number of test refusals, and believed that a robocall would make a difference. We brought others that we encountered through networking to the project, and also posted invitations on group Facebook pages. We ended up with a core committee of very dedicated people, each with their own talents, contacts, and abilities. Some of those who attended the first meeting did not stay actively involved, but their energy and enthusiasm for the idea helped to propel us forward.
We met frequently (about every other day) in Google hangouts, a video chat app. We divvied up tasks and kept track with group minutes. The group stayed in almost constant communication through Facebook messenger. We posted the link to the crowdsourcing site on about 20 Facebook group pages. We registered the #morethanatestscore hashtag and scheduled a twitter party to help publicize. We tweeted at a number of groups, who were helpful both in donations, as well as retweeting to their followers. A Facebook page was set up titled “NYS More Than A Test Score,” not only for a landing spot for the campaign, but also to share information and posts regarding the process of refusing and the issues behind testing and Common Core. We met in Google Docs to write and edit the press release and script, as well as this guest blog post.
The hardest, and perhaps most discouraging part of the process was finding our celebrity voice for the robocall. The team reached out to dozens of celebrities (film, television, comedy, sports, authors), their managers, and publicists, with no response. We found out after the first few days, that in order to reach a celebrity for pro bono work, one had to have a personal connection or an introduction. Tweeting at the personalities did not work, and emails did not receive a response. We were able to connect to Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Matt Damon’s mother, and she was the only one to respond with an expression of support, but Matt unfortunately was tied up with a film project in China and could not help us. A group member with extensive political experience contacted Zephyr Teachout, and she agreed to be our voice. We decided early on that it was a must to also place a robocall in Spanish, and Aixa Rodriguez volunteered for that role and got us help in translating the script.
We took notice of little victories along the way to keep us moving toward our goal. Although NYSUT declined to come on board with our project, they did their own robocall, encouraging all of their 600,000 members to refuse tests for their children. A few days into our campaign, Citizens Action NY, Working Families Party, and Alliance for Quality Education sent the same message to their email lists. Someone from Maryland contacted us to get information on obtaining phone lists for a robocall in their state, so we knew that other states were following what we were doing. Each and every day, we kept reaching out to individuals for publicity, and also kept posting and “bumping up” posts for donations.
We have, in a little over a week, come very near to achieving what seemed like the impossible. At the time of this writing, we are on the final push to our funding goal. We did a tremendous amount of work, sometimes going without sleep or meals, and hope that our action inspires others. We have raised enough funds to place robocalls to strategic areas throughout New York, and our ultimate goal is to call the entire state, so donations are urgently needed at this time. Our ripple in New York will add to the wave being felt throughout the nation. To donate and help us complete our mission, go to www.crowdrise.org/refusethetestsrobocall.