Fighting For The Future Of Education In NYS

Dr. Sean Feeney takes the stand at the March 9 A Call to Action gathering.  (Photo by Chris Boyle)
Dr. Sean Feeney takes the stand at the March 9 A Call to Action gathering.
(Photo by Chris Boyle)

The furor over the state of education in New York has reached a fever pitch; with the sweeping changes permeating nearly every aspect of our schools—from the adoption of the rigorous Common Core learning standards to strict teacher evaluation tied directly to constant student testing—parents and students alike are ready to stand up and declare that they’re not willing to take it lying down anymore.

Presented on March 9 by the New York State Allies for Public Education and hosted at Long Island University Post’s Tilles Center for the Performing Arts in Brookville, Standing Together to Save Public Education: A Call to Action was a gathering of an esteemed panel of educators from throughout Long Island. They discussed the issues they have with the current educational climate in NYS and how it’s affecting teachers, parents, and—most importantly—the students directly caught in its wake.

The event host was Dr. Sean Feeney, principal of The Wheatley School and president of the Nassau County High School Principals Association. Feeney welcomed attendees jampacked into the Tilles Center’s massive auditorium and thanked them for standing up for the educational rights of their kids by refusing to have them take part in mandatory state assessment testing.

“Long Island has been declared the epicenter of the ‘opt out’ movement here in New York. Thousands of people have taken the time and energy to speak out against the education agenda that is misguided at best and destructive at worst,” he said. “Personally, I’m not opposed to testing, but what I am opposed to [are] the tests that are being used now. Assessment testing is not an accurate measure of teacher performance and does it really take six days of testing to tell if a child is appropriately literate?”

Diane Ravitch  (Photo by Chris Boyle)
Diane Ravitch
(Photo by Chris Boyle)

The main speaker of the evening before the panel discussion was Diane Ravitch, an educational historian from New York University, considered by many a leader in the fight against what is being called the “corporate takeover of education” by those who feel that the educational reforms being pushed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo are, in fact, politically motivated.

“Long Island has some of the best schools in New York State…we have a graduation rate of 89 percent, which is much higher than the state’s average of 73 percent. We also have higher graduation rates among low-income families, minorities and those with disabilities,” she said. “However, Governor Cuomo thinks that you’re hiding a lot of failing teachers…since Long Island is the epicenter of resistance to his flawed evaluation policy, he has ordered an investigation of Long Island teacher ratings. You must be doing something terribly wrong to have those high graduation rates.”

Ravitch criticized many aspects of Cuomo’s educational reform policies, including what she noted was the needlessly rigorous Common Core learning standards recently adopted by the state that emphasize conformity over independent thought; excessive assessment testing that robs students of valuable classroom time; and the governor’s recent action of threatening to withhold state aid to schools unless additional proposals of his that govern education in New York are passed by the Legislature.

“When we place so much emphasis on always getting the right answer we penalize children that think differently and we question individuality and creativity,” Ravitch said. “I think New York wants public schools to fail so they can replace them with private-managed charter schools. When it comes to assessment testing and those that impose harmful policies upon us and our children…opt out!”

Table panelists from left: Dr. Carol Burris, Dr. Joseph Rella, Jeanette Deutermann and Beth Dimino (Photo by Chris Boyle)
Table panelists from left: Dr. Carol Burris, Dr. Joseph Rella, Jeanette Deutermann and Beth Dimino (Photo by Chris Boyle)

During the panel discussion that followed, a number of topics relating to state education reform were discussed. Among the panel guests was Dr. Carol Burris, principal of Southside High School, who is a frequent blogger for The Washington Post against the evaluation of teachers by test scores and the Common Core.

“I don’t believe that Governor Cuomo’s reforms will make our students college and career ready,” she said. “These are very awful, political judgments at worst, and…I don’t even know what they are at best.”

Dr. Joseph Rella, superintendent of schools of the Comsewogue School District, questioned what he called a sense of urgency in regard to the governor’s state education reforms.

“Cuomo is saying that New York State schools are failing, but in fact, they are the story of success,” he said. “Every day, 2.7 million students are educated in our schools…the governor reported that 4 percent of students are in schools designated as failing. That’s a painful fact, but it also means that 96 percent of students in New York State are not failing. And that number is even higher on Long Island.”

Rella went on to support Ravitch’s assertion that the alleged “corporate assault on education” occurring in New York was designed to achieve one primary goal: the privatization of all public education within the state.
Another panelist, Jeanette Deutermann of North Bellmore, is a parent and founder of the Facebook Long Island Opt Out, a group that advocates withholding their children from participating in state assessment testing; they can currently boast of thousands of members across both Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Attendance was robust for the March 9 Call to Action symposium.  (Photo by Chris Boyle)
Attendance was robust for the March 9 Call to Action symposium.
(Photo by Chris Boyle)

“The easiest way to solve a problem is to stop participating in the problem,” she said. “In my home, we have two sayings…an ‘upstander’ and a ‘bystander.’ An upstander recognizes when something isn’t right…that our teachers are being attacked and our children are hurting and decides to do something about it. So we should all be upstanders and opt out of state testing.”

Beth Dimino is a teacher and president of the Port Jefferson Station Teacher’s Association; she is notable for putting her job on the line by taking a personal stand and refusing to administer Common Core testing to her students.

“I could not have my students take these tests,” she said. “I was asked if I was afraid for my job taking this stance, but I don’t have a choice. I am afraid—I’m not stupid—but I have to go forward because there are many parents who ask me what to do about the testing. I am a teacher, and I’m telling you: refuse to allow your children to take the test.”

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