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Schools, teachers demoralized by government’s high stakes

After much thought during these last weeks, I made a difficult decision, especially since Sumter’s teachers feel the pressure more than ever to be “effective” and “increase student achievement” thanks to the SWEET 16 “audit” introduced by our new district leadership. I looked into the eyes of Sumter’s educators, both principals and teachers, people who I greatly admire, and informed them that my children would not take the PASS test this year. I “opted” my children out. When children don’t take the PASS test, schools and teachers are penalized, possibly deemed “low-performing” or “ineffective.” Why did I make this heart-wrenching decision? Simply put, children are not test scores.

What do these high-stakes tests really exemplify in regard to student success and progress anyway? Sadly, I find most South Carolinians don’t realize that since the implementation of the No Child Left Behind legislation, South Carolina is one of the few states along with Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri and Wyoming that maintained high standards that are comparable to federal tests like the National Assessment of Education Progress. Did everyone get that? South Carolina is one of FIVE states in the nation that did not lower its standards in order to try to meet the impossible goals set by NCLB. With higher standards, South Carolina’s PASS is a more rigorous assessment than most other states’ standardized tests. Thus, comparing South Carolina’s test scores to other states is meaningless. No wonder we are consistently ranked toward the end of the testing spectrum; the public needs to realize that the comparison is not “apples to apples.”

The accountability plan of NCLB requires that all students be 100% proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014. Dr. Diane Ravitch points out that the NCLB bill exceeded 1,000 pages and “it is unlikely that many members of Congress read it thoroughly and fully understood all the eventual consequences.” Consequences which our public schools, teachers and students are now suffering! Every child being 100% proficient in reading and math (there are other accountability measures, as well) is an unattainable goal, utterly out of reach. If Congress mandated that pollution must vanish or all American cities must be crime-free by 2014, would police departments or other public officials be sanctioned? Yet our public schools and teachers are being demoralized because of the punitive high stakes that our government and non-educator policy makers have tied to tests like South Carolina’s PASS. Furthermore, NCLB failed to acknowledge that students share the responsibility for their academic performance. They are not just passive bystanders! Test-based accountability removes virtually all responsibility from students and their families when it comes to academic performance. Tests are not infallible instruments; they do not have the precision of a thermometer or a yardstick. Tests vary in quality and are sometimes error-prone. Questions can be poorly worded or wrongly scored. Yet the general public and elected officials do not realize this, and decisions affecting people’s lives are being made on the basis of a single test score!

For years, as a public education advocate, I played the “testing game.” I volunteered my time and monitored the PASS test. I donated snacks and candy for the children to have during the testing days. I made certain that my three children were rested and prepared them a nutritious breakfast before school. I did all that I could to help “prove” what excellent schools and teachers we have in Sumter, just like our teachers have to “prove” that they are “effective” via high test scores. In recent months, while reading about the influences of corporate education reformers and venture philanthropists (Bill Gates and Eli Broad) and their obsession with data-driven decisions, test-based accountability and unproven reforms, I can no longer in good conscience allow my children to participate in these high-stakes tests. While the teachers and schools are being labeled as inferior because of one annual test, companies are raking in billions for tests, test prep materials and the grading of these tests. Companies like Pearson, Data Recognition Corporation and others are paid handsomely while class sizes are increasing, teachers are not receiving pay increases and teaching positions are being eliminated. As South Carolina implements the controversial Common Core Standards and finalizes our No Child Left Behind waiver, we will see more high-stakes testing, more test prep, teacher evaluations linked directly to student test scores and narrowed curriculum. Test-taking skills will take precedence over meaningful learning.

With our current district leadership’s quest for “effective teachers” and increases in “student achievement” (i.e. improved test scores), I have a request: Would our school board members, superintendent, chief teaching and learning officer and any other community leaders who think standardized tests scores are a valid measurement of authentic student learning please take the PASS test and publish their scores? Only then might they realize what they are asking of our teachers and of our children.

To the teachers of Sumter School District, for the last decade, I have watched you dedicate your lives to the children of this community. I, along with many other parents, respect you, appreciate you, care about you, and we will always have your back.

 

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Sumter Residents: Hold Bynum, school board accountable

As a parent of children in Sumter School District, I feel it is important for the people of Sumter to know what is taking place in our school district. Several meetings have transpired over the last couple of months that will directly or indirectly impact all stakeholders in public education. I’m writing this article to share key points of these meetings as well as their outcomes.

On Sept. 12, 2012, I attended the State Board of Education meeting in Columbia. At this meeting, Mr. Bynum, our superintendent, went before the State Board requesting a waiver for the step increase for our teachers in Sumter. We were the only district out of 80 in South Carolina to follow through with requesting such a waiver. Considering the teachers in former Districts 17 and 2 haven’t received their step increase for the past two and three years respectively, this was quite a slap in the face. As members of the state board asked Mr. Bynum questions regarding spending, assets, debts and our budget, it became painfully obvious that he was unprepared to answer even the simplest of questions. As the superintendent over our district, I believe Mr. Bynum should have been able to answer questions regarding the amount of money withholding the step increase would save the district; he could not until pressed for a number. He also initially stated that he did not know how many people made over $100,000 in the district; he later changed his answer to 5-7 people. He could not give an accurate number for our budget, which he stated was $100 million. After one of the board members researched only a brief moment, he discovered that it was closer to $148 million. Mr. Bynum stated that the waiver would save the district approximately $1 million, to which the board asked if he was requesting a waiver for less than 1 percent of his budget. They asked if he could not find that 1 percent somewhere in a $148 million budget. They tried to help him find it. They were quite thorough and knowledgeable regarding district budgets and funding. Much of what they said was over my head, but one thing I was sure of, they believed he could find that amount of money without sending a message to the teachers that they were not valuable. Much more took place during this meeting. I recommend you take a look at the video for yourself athttp://1.usa.gov/R10sKH.

All of this to say, after attending this meeting in Columbia and feeling quite certain that we are not being fairly represented by our board, or our superintendent, I attended another board meeting that was quite different. On Monday, Oct. 1, Sumter School District held a “special” board meeting to go over Mr. Bynum’s evaluation and discuss his contract. Why was it necessary to call a special meeting of the board where there is no public comment when there was a regularly scheduled meeting the following week? The board members went into executive session for quite some time. When they returned, the Rev. Canty made a motion to extend Mr. Bynum’s contract for two more years and Patty Wilson seconded the motion. I sat, astounded at what I just heard. Could this really be happening? Was this board seriously going to extend a contract that still has two more years left? And after what I had witnessed just two short weeks ago? Then the vote, 4-3. McGhaney, Canty, Wilson, Addison for, and Squires, Michalik, Schultz against. Again, I ask, what is the rush to extend this contract, especially considering there is quite a bit of public concern at this current time? Mr. Bynum’s initial contract employed him until June 2014, and with an extension, the contract runs until June 2016.

On Oct. 4, 2012, via email, I requested a copy of this “positive” evaluation from the board, which should be public information. I received a response from Monica Squires, Karen Michalik, and an auto reply from Keith Schultz that he is out of the office; none of which provided me with the evaluation. I have yet to hear from McGhaney, Canty, Wilson or Addison. Doesn’t this board serve the people? Aren’t two of the people who have ignored my request up for re-election? Please hold this administration and board accountable as they are so adamantly holding our teachers accountable. Board members do answer to us, not the other way around.

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