Corbett’s PA: Finding more ways to punish kids

(Signe Wilkinson for the Philadelphia Daily News, 3/14/2012)
(Signe Wilkinson for the Philadelphia Daily News, 3/14/2012)

10septOn Thursday, the IRRC voted 3-2 to implement mandatory Keystone graduation exams beginning with this year’s ninth grade class. The exams are end of course state-level tests which will determine 1) whether you pass the class; and 2) count toward graduation. A failure to pass the exams could result in our children not receiving their diplomas and failing schools at early stages of their high school career. The exams are an unfunded mandate – costing at least $600 per child for a total ranging anywhere from $65-300 million! – and were opposed by a majority of Pennsylvania superintendents. But this was not a decision governed by educational expertise. Instead it’s a perfect example of the extremist and cold-hearted ideology of the worst of the Corbett administration, including State Board of Education member Kirk Hallett, who shrugged off criticism of the exams by saying “That kid is damned anyway.” Parents United is researching ways for students to opt out of the Keystone exams. With failure rates of 50% and above for Philadelphia 11th graders, the implementation of these exams with zero supports is designed to punish our children and set them up to fail. This was the testimony I turned into the board before their vote.

Dear Commissioners

I am a Philadelphia public school mother of three children writing to you today following an opening of schools in Philadelphia that most of us would find unimaginable. Writing to you about the Keystone exams is simultaneously emotional, frustrating and necessary. According to our own superintendent, Philadelphia managed to open “functional types of schools” lacking in the resources that “we typically expect in schools.” Can you imagine what it means as a parent to hear that about the schools you are sending your children to? Then imagine what it feels like when the state which took over and managed our schools for more than a decade now wants to invest tens of millions of dollars testing my children for the consequences of resources the state has refused to give.

On the first day of my son’s high school career, he had 60 students in his ninth grade biology class, 40-plus in his algebra class. Classes throughout his school ranged from the upper-30s to well into the 40s after the layoffs of thousands of teachers and staff. There are 2,400 students in the school, and there’s two counselors to serve them all. For the first few months of school, my son’s state of the art library and technology center was closed since the District could not afford to purchase librarians. It took a deep-pocketed donor to give over $100,000 to “buy” a librarian for a year. There are no promises for next year.

In fact, this year all schools across the District opened without sufficient staff and administration. Libraries and technology centers were shuttered. Split grades were reinstituted in primary grade classrooms. Kindergarteners are not served at their neighborhood schools. The lack of school nurses has meant extremely risky situations for our children’s health and safety; a 12 year old child died of asthma following an asthma attack that appeared to start at her school when no nurse was available. Children in desperate need of emotional support went without seeing a guidance counselor for days, if not weeks. Parents at at least two different school were asked to give $600+ per child to buy – not floodlights for a sports field or new windows – but rather a secretary to answer phones in the office and a guidance counselor. This is not parental involvement or boosterism as it should be defined; this is an example of parents making up for a total abdication of state responsibility in the adequate funding and care of our schools.

So far this year, 900 parents from 82 different schools in the School District of Philadelphia have filed formal complaints with the state department of education about serious deficiencies within our education system due to a lack of funding. The complaints detail a lack of adequate desks and chairs and materials for students in overcrowded classrooms; they reference a lack of staff in the main office, in hallways and lunchrooms and schoolyards; about schools lacking classes in the arts, a high school struggling to get its students to graduate on time after losing a half dozen teachers. The complaints focus on an utter lack of basic materials from papers to working copy machines, about the absence of speech therapists, appropriate wrap-around care, and attendance to special needs issues.

And yet, what’s astonishing is that amidst this level of severe deprivation and neglect is the fact that the person the state chooses to hold accountable is my son. As a ninth grader, he will be the first cohort of students statewide to take mandatory Keystone exams even though the District doesn’t have the funding to provide sufficient administrative and teaching staff. It’s remarkable how much we love to talk about standards while sidestepping the central issue of why the state insists on denying children the resources they need to meet those standards. What exactly is the point of holding students to “college and career standards” if you can’t even guarantee them a full-time guidance counselor?

The refusal to fund our schools to basic sufficiency has not only failed to address the problems within struggling schools; it has dragged down every school in the city – and I would assert in almost all places within the Commonwealth – from the highest performing to the most needy and every place in between.

As a parent, I have to confess it is a little hard for me to address this body which has been responsible for the care and keeping of Philadelphia public schools for the last 12 years. What has happened in Philadelphia is not an unfortunate consequence. It has not been inevitable or unpredictable. This is the result of deliberate policies of disinvestment which have not only brought Philadelphia to the breaking point but has also devastated districts all across the Commonwealth.

For the state now to trot out Keystone exams on which it intends to spend tens of millions of dollars and demand that districts to pay for the costs of another unfunded mandate is a perfect example of the misguided priorities and purposeful funding choices which have outraged families across Philadelphia and the state. Equally outrageous are the statements of State Board of Education members like Kirk Hallett who was cited in a Hechinger Report news story dismissing concerns about the Keystone exams as: “That student is damned anyway.”[1] Is this really the mentality behind the Keystone exams – damning students?

Mandatory graduation exams are neither new nor novel. The record on them is fairly clear. Drop out rates increase particularly in high poverty districts, more money gets spent on testing rather than teaching, and students pay the price.

As someone who works within a number of immigrant communities, the Keystone exams’ inflexibility for non or limited English speakers is also deeply troubling. Language access in Philadelphia has been reduced to levels that are near impossible for basic service, much less to accommodate for such high stakes testing needs. For example at one training in Philadelphia, immigration advocates were told that any immigrant student must take the math and biology Keystones no matter how long they have been in the U.S. It was not made clear to us whether that even meant the student was entitled to take the class.

It is remarkable to me that we can spend so much on testing and accountability for 14 year olds and so little on the legislators and elected officials who have made Pennsylvania’s public education system one of the poorest state investments in the nation. Since Gov. Corbett took office, we have seen a loss of 28 percent of our school staff, over 3,000 layoffs in a city struggling with both poverty and unemployment, and we have seen the closure of 30 schools with the movement of children into schools which perform no better and are even worse equipped and staffed than the ones they previously attended. Under Gov. Corbett’s leadership, there’s been zero conversation about investment in our district schools, whether it’s about updating, renovating or building new school facilities in a system where the average age of a school building is over 60 years old. There’s been zero conversation about addressing stability and sustainability for a teaching profession, or investing in student learning supports as we institute ever more rigorous standards. As I said in a recent New York Times article on the Philadelphia schools: “Nobody is talking about what it takes to get a child educated. It’s just about the lowest number needed to get the bare minimum. That’s what we’re talking about here: the deliberate starvation of one of the nation’s biggest school districts.”

As a parent I feel that before you institute a single additional test in our school district, you owe it to us to immediately launch an investigation into whether Philadelphia’s current level of resources violates the state’s commitment to a “thorough and efficient” education.

We parents have done our part. We are not only paying more taxes and donations than ever, we have been more vigilant in being watchdogs around our schools. We have lobbied our city and state officials for greater local oversight and not only more funding but also responsible use of that funding so it goes towards classrooms and children and toward reforms with track records of success.

We have done our part. We expect you to do yours.

  1. Postpone the Keystone exams until the state has thoroughly and responsibly investigated Philadelphia’s funding and resource situation and the appropriate and equitable funding needs of school districts across the Commonwealth.
  2. Eliminate high stakes testing and reduce state-level testing to the most prioritized assessments. It’s unconscionable for the state to mandate so many tests that interfere with local school district teaching. Stop using tests to punish and use tests to assess, reflect, and drive resources and investments.
  3. Stop the parent, teacher and student bashing rhetoric around education achievement. Your comments about our children and our schools are insulting and unhelpful. They seek to locate blame and punishment rather than seek understanding, solutions, and investments.
  4. Institute real accountability by providing in-depth, broad and comprehensive data on performance disaggregated within populations so we can best serve students’ needs.
  5. Focus on teaching and learning and instructional time investments rather than obsess over the number of tests our children take. Pennsylvania’s education system is not declining for a lack of tests. It’s declining for a lack of investment in the real factors which impact education – teaching and learning.

[1] “Set Up For Failure?” Hechinger Report reprinted in the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, Oct. 16, 2013.

Read more:

Senator Andy Dinniman: 8 reasons to oppose Keystones:

Via Senator Dinniman: more details and background info on opposing the Keystone exams:

Philadelphia Inquirer, “Split panel votes to require tests to graduate,” 11/22/2013: