Press-Republican

April 23, 2013

Parent-Faculty Alliance eyes education reform

By KIM SMITH DEDAM
Press-Republican

---- — SARANAC LAKE — Parents here gathered to charter a plan for education reform.

During last week’s standardized testing, some 54 students refused or were removed from the high-stakes testing process at Saranac Lake Central School.

But the strike against standardized tests is not the end goal for reform.

A grassroots effort fostered by the Saranac Lake Parent Faculty Education Alliance seeks long-term solutions to top-down standards they feel put undue pressure on students and school budgets, while reducing the value of their teachers’ skills.

FILM VIEWED

Don Carlisto, who teaches seventh grade at Petrova Middle School, is also co-president of the Saranac Lake Teachers Association.

He helped organize a showing of the film “Race to Nowhere,” a documentary that chronicles the effects of “canned” education. Cited as issues in the film are stress-related illness, an impetus toward cheating and even suicide among teens.

The growing movement toward widespread education reform is supported by New York State United Teachers, Carlisto said.

And lawmakers are closing in on legislation to support it.

“Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan (D-Ridgewood) introduced a bill (recently) to force the state to audit the costs of standardized testing on schools,” he said.

“She introduced another bill that would prevent standardized testing in schools for other than diagnostic testing of students in grades K through 2.”

EDUCATION REFORM

Pulling students from test sessions here sent a message, one the School Board accepted and responded to with a resolution calling for federal and state reform of testing rules.

But the message in “Race to Nowhere,” produced three years ago in California, left parents nearly speechless.

Nancy Bernstein was one of several parents who obtained rights to show the film.

“We’re interested not only in de-emphasis in standardized testing but also in education reform,” she told the group of about 50 gathered at Petrova Elementary School’s auditorium for the recent screening.

The documentary systematically explores the impact school pressure has on kids, their health, their parents and family time, covering the overload from homework, testing and a demand to achieve a pre-ordained standard.

Comments from kids in the movie summed up their experience.

“How do you expect us to learn if we have to achieve?” one student asked.

After giving up on education altogether, another student talked about why “if you don’t try, you can’t fail.”

Another student named the education process a “race to nowhere.”

QUESTIONS FUNDING

Educators and doctors interviewed for the film challenge the way schools are funded, with large amounts of cash provided to the richest districts.

“We don’t invest upfront (in education),” one expert said in the film. “But we’re willing to pay the cost in prisons and for welfare.”

Another point challenged how education takes over the lives of young people.

“At what point did it become OK for schools to dictate what kids do with their private time?” the feature-length documentary asks.

Many of the observations drew nods of agreement from the Saranac Lake educators and parents who were watching.

DEFINING GOALS

The Parent Faculty Alliance is working toward steps to define goals for education reform in its own community.

With two young children, Sunita Halasz raised an example of peer-to-peer review that works for a consortium of small organic farms in the region.

Her suggestion, which drew loud applause, was that teachers gain credentials from their peers rather than in a top-down government approach.

One poignant comment came from SUNY Plattsburgh professor emeritus Robert L. Arnold, who grew up in Saranac Lake.

“If you get organized, would there be a receptive audience?” he asked the group.

“The message (from the film) is very clear.”

Arnold authored a recent opinion piece in the Press-Republican challenging the pitfalls of top-down education, which he claims leave schools helpless in outlining the future of education for their children.

CORPORATE AGENDA?

Arnold believes mass-produced testing harbors a corporate agenda driven for capital gain.

He taught history.

“I found later on, I knew practically nothing about history.”

As he proceeded to teach, he said, he proceeded to learn.

“I didn’t pay any attention to the (standardized) test,” he said of working with students.

Instead, he worked from historic materials.

Describing the lesson plan to those at the meeting, he drew loud applause.

“We took it (the test) anyway. We did so well we were accused of cheating,” he said.

“Take on that task,” Arnold urged the parents.

Email Kim Smith Dedam: kdedam@pressrepublican.com

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TO LEARN MORE

Read SUNY Plattsburgh Prof. Emeritus Robert L. Arnold's opinion piece on standardized testing at http://tinyurl.com/dxdb5mf.

For upcoming dates and information about alliance meetings, visit the Saranac Lake Parent Faculty Education Alliance Facebook page.