Co-authored by Kemala Karmen
Deputy Director, Co-Founder NYCpublic.org
In the sturm und drang leading up to last week's New York State budget vote, countless letters were written, phone calls made, and backroom deals negotiated regarding the new education policies Governor Andrew Cuomo had tied to approval of his financial plans. Much of that talk revolved around a new teacher evaluation law and the role high-stakes standardized testing should play in assessing teacher accountability. Should a full 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation, as the governor proposed, be based on the test-score "growth" of his or her students? Would, as critics countered, such an emphasis lead to a diminution of social studies, science, foreign language, and arts instruction since those subjects are not regularly covered by the tests the state administers?
These questions are certainly worthy of debate; after all, there is no consensus as to the validity of the "value-added measurement" theory that underlies the governor's proposals -- and notable detractors include the American Statistical Association and the National Science Foundation. However, I have to wonder if, by virtue of this narrow focus, Albany has somehow lost track of what really matters for the children who attend our schools.
Certainly, schools must be places where the transmission of academic knowledge occurs, but a good school offers so much more than that; it becomes a home away from home, it is a place where students thrive because they feel safe and seen and valued, and are given opportunities to grow. Likewise, the best teachers do more than simply inform students of the facts and theories of their disciplines. The acquisition of those facts and theories might, imperfectly, be measured by tests. But that is so tiny in the scheme of things. What matters is that the best teachers care. They inspire. They forge relationships that acknowledge that children are complex beings; they see and address students' needs and possibilities.
Recently, I had a tangible and powerful reminder of these truths. I was watching Jamaal Bowman conduct the weekly "community circle" at C.A.S.A. Middle School in the Bronx. I'd "met" Jamaal, C.A.S.A.'s principal, in a very modern way; knowing that I was looking to film public school experiences, he'd tweeted, "Come tell our story" at me and included a link to a wonderful YouTube video called 7 Habits. It wasn't long after, that I grabbed my camera and headed to the Bronx. In the community circle, students gave all kinds of testimony: shout-outs to teachers who helped them or pushed them that week, apologies for mistakes or lack of effort, and affirmations for the joyfulness of the school. Jamaal conducted the meeting with the inspiration of a revival and the musical skill of a hip-hop DJ.
As I stared into the faces of these 12-, 13- and 14-year-old children, I saw immense joy. It was clear to me that these students learn and share in an atmosphere of understanding. It is an environment where their voices count, and their adversities are shared, validated, and communicated. What was truly remarkable was how the students worked with each other. As each child rose to give thanks or share regret, there was great respect and restraint shown. When the situation called for it, they were buoyant, enthusiastic, and boisterous. At other times, they grew quiet and focused intently on every word. These were middle school kids, but they were not posturing or sizing each other up or feigning boredom! They were in the moment, and as inspired as I was by the potential that existed in this world of school.
I recorded many of the student testimonies given on that initial trip to C.A.S.A., but for me the testimony of Sanise Lebron, an 8th grade student, best revealed the depth and power of what is happening at this Bronx middle school. She shared her story with her entire school. They watched her deliver the anguish in her life with such grace and beauty. Jamaal and his staff, and the students themselves, have created a compassionate space for children, fully aware that real learning cannot happen in the absence of empathy.
Sanise's favorite class is Humanities and she hopes to be a lawyer when she grows up, to help transform her community. She is a winning member on the debate team, a huge contributor to the basketball team, and plays softball outside of school. Her best friends are Makala, Angelina, China, and Rebecca, whom Sanise describes as smart, fun, and always there for each other. Although her father isn't around, she has an amazing mother, uncle, and grandmother who provide her with outstanding love and support. She identifies Ms. De Los Santos, Mrs. Doria, and Ms. Walton as her favorite teachers because they continue to push her and nurture her academically and emotionally.
So, Legislators of New York State, can a standardized test put a value on this?