Betsy DeVos, Education, Teachers — April 12, 2017 at 2:32 pm

The biggest loss in education is the loss of teachers’ voices


I received the note below from a former student who is now a teacher. For obvious reasons, I won’t identify her or where she teaches, but–shockingly–her story is becoming all too common…

We had a union meeting yesterday where they warned us that the governor is going after the certificates of teachers that opted out their kids (of the state tests). The governor says it breaks our contract agreeing to protect and follow educational laws. Is this legal? Teachers are being targeted and warned to be extremely careful, especially on public media. I was just curious on your thoughts.

This theme of administrators and elected officials threatening teachers if they speak out publicly against tests, the Common Core State Standards, or other education policies seems to be growing stronger and louder recently, with reports of similar stories popping up in New Mexico, Louisiana, New York, Arizona, Missouri, and Michigan.

In Rochester, NY, an email from an administrator to the city’s principals asked them to keep a list of teachers who might have shared information on testing for possible disciplinary action:

An email sent from a high-level Rochester City School District official to principals is causing concern among teachers.

Chief of Schools Beverly Burrell-Moore sent the email Monday afternoon to principals she supervises. The email asks them to share names of teachers who have encouraged parents to refuse to allow their children to take state exams.

“Per your building, please identify teachers who have sent letters or made phone calls to parents encouraging them to opt out their children from the NYS Assessments. Also, identify teachers who you have evidence as utilizing their classrooms as ‘political soap boxes.’ I need this updated information no later than Tuesday morning for follow-up,” the email states.

Audrey Amrein Beardsley, a professor of education at Arizona State University, and the author of one of my favorite education blogs on the web, VAMBOOZLED, reports:

“New Mexico now requires teachers to sign a contractual document that they are not to ‘diminish the significance or importance of the tests” or they could lose their jobs. Teachers are not to speak negatively about the tests or say anything negatively about these tests in their classrooms or in public; if they do they could be found in violation of their contracts.’ Beardsley wonders about the legality, and even the constitutionality of this sort of action: ‘As per a related announcement released by the ASBA, this “could have a chilling effect on the free speech rights of school and district officials’ throughout the state but also (likely) beyond if this continues to catch on. School officials may be held ‘liable for a $5,000 civil fine just for sharing information on the positive or negative impacts of proposed legislation to parents or reporters.’”

More recently, Ohio Governor John Kasich made headlines with his bizarre suggestion that in order for teachers to renew their licenses they must complete an unpaid internship with a local business. Kasich’s harebrained idea was met with a snarky legislative proposal from Democratic officials in the state that would “require the governor to complete an annual 40-hour externship in a public elementary or secondary school ranked A-F.” There’s been no word yet from Mr. Kasich on how he plans to respond to this suggestion.

While there is no doubt that these moves are indeed a disturbing development in the education “reform” movement, I believe that they also reveal a quickly growing sense of fear and confusion among those in the reform community regarding the viability of their agenda. Indeed, the surprising strength of the “Opt Out” movement in New York, where as many as 200,000 students have reportedly refused to sit for the state’s tests, has led to calls demanding the resignation of Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the NYS Board of Regents.

If there is a silver lining to these threats it may be the impending crumbling of the reform agenda under the increased scrutiny from the public, the media, and teachers. For far too long, policy “leaders” like Chancellor Tisch, Governors Cuomo, Kasich and Snyder, and former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, have responded to criticism of their agendas with either deafening silence or dismissive pandering, such as accusations that “painted parents as confused patsies of a labor action.” Now, these feeble rejoinders are being exposed for what they have been all along: weak and arrogant responses to the legitimate demands for accountability from those so negatively impacted by these destructive policies.

These “leaders” are clearly scared, and they have every right to be. Now is the time to step up the pressure, and not let our voices be silenced. We are fighting for our students, our colleagues and our profession.

Let students learn, let teachers teach, and get the politicians out of education.

  • Jeff Gaynor

    Last year I posted links on my class website to two columns; one that advocated for taking the state tests; one arguing against doing so. I was told to remove these, as they “do not represent the values of the district.” More and more teachers have been afraid to speak up, hearing of warnings from administrators to those who have. Teachers are losing their professional and individual voice, and becoming cogs of the institution, which itself is struggling to survive in our current competitive environment.

  • Nancy Flanagan

    While I certainly think the union is correct to warn teachers to be discreet in their social media posts and keep them abreast of a national movement to put the fear of God into low-paid public servants, I am wondering just who is safe, and able to speak clearly about the damaging impact of tests. Wouldn’t that be the union’s job? Who is able to present arguments against excessive testing without worrying about losing their employment? Who speaks for teachers, when their very integrity is assailed?

    I, too wonder about the legality and constitutionality of all the punishments and threats against opting out of tests.

    In NY, where the movement grew rapidly on Long Island, it was parents and principals who began encouraging/allowing/presenting good information about opting out. Note: Principals.

    Imagine a handful of courageous, nothing-to-lose administrators and school leaders acting on their beliefs about what’s really good for kids, rather than just passing on threats from on high. There are some in Michigan, BTW.

    • Anne

      Our AFT union in Illinois is basically useless; all they want is to play “interest-based bargaining” and sing kum-bay-ah with administrators. And the AFT was sleeping with reformers during the entirety of the Obama presidency, which took Bush;s NCLB and fueled it with steroids. Obama was no friend to America’s public schools.

  • BurinMRB

    Sounds like a lot of schools are working hard to make sure we don’t have enough good public school teachers in the future. Or, is that many of these leaders are just ‘control freaks’.
    American public education is a pillar of our society. It is the envy of the whole world. Many, if not most, other countries, send their best college students here to be educated.
    We will NOT have such excellent higher education, if we diminish our K-12 schools.
    May I point out that 90% of our professionals (doctors, lawyers, professors, etc.) are products of our public schools. ‘If its NOT broke; let’s NOT fix it’!

  • A. Nation O’Laws

    Part and parcel of the move to make America more ignorant. Teachers get in the way of that, sometimes. Inconvenient.

    Agnotology is the study of culturally induced ignorance. It’s also the handmaiden to the Joseph Goebbels handbook on propaganda. Robert Proctor knows what he’s talking about.