Friday, January 11, 2019

Seven Years Later, a Former OEIB Member Catches Up. Let's hope she's finally catching on.

We at Oregon Save Our Schools were surprised yet pleased to see that former member of the Oregon Education Investment Board (OEIB) Whitney Grubbs has finally taken our advice from 2012 and decided to go take a look at education in Finland. Grubbs was also Deputy Education Policy Advisor to former governor John Kitzhaber, who helped usher in many corporate driven education "reform" policies here in Oregon. One of our OSOS members, Emily Crum, classroom teacher and former President of Reynolds Education Association, who is currently on sabbatical for study as a winner of the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching, has also been to Finland. We asked Emily to write a response after reading Grubbs' recent opinion piece (written jointly with other authors) which appeared on Oregon Live a few weeks back. We thank Emily for taking the time out of her extremely busy schedule to do so. Her response has was submitted to The Oregonian. You can also read it below.

Yes, let’s put children at the center of how we make education policy and reform in Oregon. I am happy to welcome Whitney Grubbs, Kali Thorne Ladd, Matt Morton and Vanessa Wilkins to the Finland party on education. And would like to reiterate the final sentence from their recent opinion piece “Looking to Finland to improve Oregon’s Schools”

“Only with courage, shared responsibility and sacrifice can we transform our state into a place where all can meaningfully contribute and thrive, where disparities are eliminated and where children take their rightful place at the center.”

As an educator in the Reynolds School District for over 10 years, working with students in early childhood at our most underserved schools in the state, I feel like I have had my share, if not more than most, of “courage, responsibility, and sacrifice.” I also went to Finland in 2015 for a summer school course titled “Myths and Realities of the Finnish Educational System.” For three weeks in August I sat in a room with educators from around the world discussing not only the Finnish educational system, but education globally. We visited Finnish schools, read about current Finnish educational issues, and saw the benefits of much that is highlighted in the Oregonian’s recent opinion piece. Students are at the center and children overall are respected in Finland. Teachers are given a lot of autonomy and held in a respected light culturally. Health and well-being are definitely tied to academic success, but not just stopping there, they are considered important for success overall. 

One cannot ignore the fact that Finland is a country that provides universal health care, among many other social supports. I will never forget the moment in my class in Finland when I asked, “So how does Finland support students who are acting out in disruptive ways, like hitting or running away?”

The blank look on the professor’s face as he said, “That doesn’t happen here.” 

At that moment, in my mind I begin to ask, “Well what am I doing here?” Because that is what was and is happening where I work.

I think it is dangerous to try and adapt a model or educational system from one country to another. We are not identical in needs or services. I do think we can still learn from each other, but the take-aways must be student centered, focusing on who are our students and what are their specific needs. That was my biggest gain from Finland. Local needs must be identified, acknowledged and addressed in a problem-solving manner. But above all we must direct resources to serve those needs. 

I just recently returned home from three months of traveling. I visited friends, who I made during my course in Finland, in Egypt and Nepal. I went to their prospective schools and observed their classrooms. I believe and practice being a life-long learner. I set off this next week to New Zealand on a Distinguished Award in Teaching Fulbright Grant to study how New Zealand Schools implement whole-school restorative practices with long-term planning and professional development. An initiative that Portland Public Schools just reduced in their own budget. 

Early childhood art class in Egypt

At my friend’s school in Nepal, he shared with me his biggest take-away from Finland was to add more arts into his students’ day. All children at his school have art, music, and dance classes. They have a full time librarian and a library filled with English and Nepali books. The school is full of joy. Teachers are eager to learn and given the time to do so with co-teachers in every classroom. Leadership at his school allowed for growth and shifted resources to support the arts. Key word here: “resources.” Throughout my time in education in Oregon, from being a student in Portland Public Schools to a Restorative Justice Behavior Specialist in Reynolds Public Schools I have seen a decline in resources, and lack of funding where it truly matters.    

Early childhood dance class in Nepal

IF a child-centered classroom was what we REALLY wanted in Oregon, we would shift what we fund and why. We would have fully stocked classroom and school libraries, with actual librarians. We would fund arts: music, dance, theater and visual arts. We would encourage and provide professional development allowing for play-centered learning in early childhood. We would provide universal preschool. We would have funding for physical education and after school sports. We would fund needed counselors and support staff working with students. We would provide more professional development and support for culturally-relevant teaching practices.

On a side note, my paper for my course in Finland focused on the lack of culturally relevant classroom instruction. They may have a growing diversity of immigrants, but the homogeneity of the country and its population still dominate the classrooms and what is taught. Reynolds School District has 61 languages spoken by the students that walk through our doors. You cannot compare that reality with Finland’s. Our language demands and needs differ, our resources stretch too thin. We simply do not have the funds to provide one-on-one language classes to all our students who need it. We spend our resources instead on high stakes testing, which continues to plague our schools and students. We spend our money on curriculum adoptions that take place every few years and never allow for any constancy. We give tax breaks to our corporations so they don’t have to show “courage, shared responsibility, and sacrifice.” 

I remember the student-centered education of our public schools in Oregon in the eighties and nineties before No Child Left Behind. We know what would help our students. I don’t need to go to Finland or New Zealand to find that out. I spent the last 10 years filling a classroom with books I bought in order to have a culturally relevant library of high interest texts. I sought out my own group of early-childhood educators who support and understand the value of play. I wrote my own professional development centering on restorative practices for the Fulbright Grant in order to go and hopefully to see what long-term planning and professional development support does to change a school culture and community. That was my own teacher autonomy fighting to swim upstream everyday. The same autonomy that makes me a teacher who speaks up constantly for the students I know need various supports and are not receiving them.

Our system has to fit into percentages boxes. I have seen the deterioration of educators working together because of the push for whittling down students, educators, schools, and districts to scores and numbers, breaking away the communities that we used to create and thrive in here in Oregon. I fly to New Zealand next week because at the end of the day I know it is our relationships with our students, fellow educators, and each other in our community that will make any difference in ability to transform our schools. Restorative practices in its truest form is about such relationships. Relationships that I have only witnessed be torn apart in my professional lifetime as a teacher. Relationships I cling to keeping me in this profession. For me at the end of the day, it is always about that small child, whose hand I am holding, who says, “Ms. Emily I am….” “Ms. Emily I need….” “Ms. Emily I want…” and who I look in the eye and say back to them, “I hear you.” 

Emily Crum

*Opinions stated in this piece are mine, not in connection with any organization I am affiliated with.

Former Reynolds Education Association President
Current Distinguished Award in Teaching Fulbright Awardee

Classroom Educator 

Photo credits: Emily Crum

Monday, January 7, 2019

PPS to Principals: Continue the Beatings Until Morale (and Participation) Improve

Today we publish the final in a series of three letters that went out to the Portland Public Schools community. The first letter we published was the letter sent out to parents and the second was the letter sent out to staff. Today's letter was sent out to principals.

Deputy Superintendent Yvonne Curtis made it clear to in her letter to teachers that they are not to speak to parents about opting out. Curtis makes it clear in the letter below that it is the principals' responsibility to "ensure effective administration of all assessments" and states, "I look forward to measuring our improvement in the area of participation in these critical assessments."

In summary: Parents are being misinformed about the value and purpose of the assessments. Teachers are being told to keep quiet if they disagree with Curtis's message about the value and purpose of the assessments. Principals are being told it is their responsibility to make sure that participation is increased.

Curtis's insistence that these assessments are "critical" is laughable. They are a time, money, and energy drain on our school system. Fortunately, parents don't work for Portland Public Schools. Yvonne Curtis cannot fire parents or put a blotch on their employment files.

Parents, YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO OPT YOUR CHILDREN OUT OF THE SBAC ASSESSMENTS! Opt out to send the message that we want an assessment system that is a more effective, authentic way for students to demonstrate what they have learned. Standardization does not equal excellence and your children should not be subjected to a battery of assessments, beginning in third grade, that rivals the Oregon State Bar Exam in length.

Find the state Opt Out form here. And sign on to our Action Network letter, written in cooperation with Oregon BATs,  to the Oregon Department of Education, the Governor's office, and the Attorney General's office to tell these officials that  top down bullying and coercion tactics in our schools are not acceptable. Principals and teachers are professional educators whose opinions about the value of specific curricular and instructional activities, as well as how students are assessed, should be listened to and respected even when they do not agree with those of administration.

One really has to question the motive behind administration attempting to silence and demand complete conformity from professionals who actually spend their days with students.

Read the letter to principals below.

Dear PPS Principals,

I have prepared a letter to staff regarding their questions and our expectations about the MAP assessments. In this letter, I provide some information about our PPS Quality Assessment Framework. Please see the attached letter to make sure you understand what the questions have been and can assist with clarifying the answers to the questions and the district expectations regarding administration of the winter and fall administration of these assessments.

I will be sending the attached letters to staff and families regarding SBAC assessments. Through
all of these messages, my goal is to make expectations clear while providing accurate
information to staff and families regarding the value of assessments. There has been a great
deal of misinformation on this subject and I am asking for your assistance in making sure we are
delivering a consistent and accurate message.

The most important points we can share with families are around the value of data in decision
making and our intentional shift to be a data-driven organization. One of our best tools for
gathering data on student success is through our state assessments and I am stressing the
importance of participation to give our leaders access to critical information that can be used in
educational decisions and resource allocation.

I also have included information about opt-out and exemptions available to families. By state
law, this is a parent's right and we absolutely respect that right. I want our families to be well-informed before they make a decision about opt-out or exemptions and have provided links to
additional information. I also make it clear that I am encouraging participation because of the
value of receiving this kind of data.

I would like you to take this opportunity to inform your staff, families and students about how
you use the results from assessments. Please familiarize yourself with this information and pay
careful attention to the information that will be forthcoming from our assessment department.

I am placing the responsibility for ensuring effective administration of all assessments on
principals. It is my expectation that you will provide leadership as we take another significant
step forward in becoming a data-driven district.

If you have any questions, please contact Dr. Cuellar or me directly. I look forward to measuring
our improvement in the area of participation in these critical assessments. Thank you for your
dedication to our students.

Dr. Yvonne Curtis
Deputy Superintendent, Instruction and School Communities

Attachments: Letter to Families Letter to All Staff

Sunday, January 6, 2019

PPS District Administration Letter to Teachers: Keep Quiet About Opt Out

Yesterday we shared Deputy Superintendent Yvonne Curtis's letter to PPS families. As promised, today we share the letter that was sent out to PPS staff. We at Oregon Save Our Schools find its tone extremely troubling as it appears to be an attempt at intimidation of teachers who hold differing opinions from administrators. We really thought we had moved past that in Portland when it comes to the Big Test but apparently we have not. 

Although PPS Administration does not appear to hold the belief that teachers are valued professionals who have the right to express their professional opinions regarding curriculum, instruction, and assessment, we would like to remind them that teachers continue to be United States Citizens with First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, particularly political speech, which this whole testing system debate most certainly falls under. We hope that the new administration at PPS does not attempt to violate those rights nor to test the solidarity that Portland parents and Portland teachers have shown in the past around issues that affect students. 

And please sign on to our Action Network letter to Oregon officials asking them to make it clear that tactics of bullying and intimidation are not ethical ways to increase participation in statewide assessments. Maybe Oregon officials should try creating an assessment system that people don't hate if they want more people to participate. 

Read Curtis's letter to staff below. Tomorrow, the letter sent to PPS principals. 

Dear PPS Staff,

As we approach our time frame for administering the Oregon State Smarter Balanced
Assessments or SBAC, I wanted to take a moment to share the district's position on the value of
state assessments and provide you with additional information that can be used to answer
questions from parents and families.

The most important points we can share with families is around the value of using data in
decision making and our intentional shift to be a data-driven organization. One of our best tools
for gathering data on student success is through our state assessments and I am stressing the
importance of participation to give our leaders access to critical information that can be used in
educational decisions and resource allocation.

Information about opt-out and exemptions available to families is included in our message to
families. By state law, this is a parent's right and we absolutely respect that right. I want our
families to be well-informed before they make a decision about opt-out or exemptions and have
provided links to additional information. I am encouraging participation because of the value of
receiving this kind of data.

For those of you who will be responsible for assisting with test administration or answering
questions from families, please pay close attention to the information forthcoming from our
assessment department. If you have any questions along the way, please reach out to your
direct supervisor for clarification.

PPS Expectations for Oregon State Assessments

Administrators are expected to provide parents and families with information about how SBAC results will be used to inform decision making and resource allocation in the future. Administrators should share the district's position about the value of state assessments and the importance of gathering data. Administrators are responsible for ensuring successful administration of state assessments in their schools.

Educators are expected to administer state assessments and to provide the best assessment conditions possible for gathering clean and reliable data. While I understand in the past it was considered acceptable for educators to promote opt-out to families or students, this is no longer the case. The state assessments are part of the required curriculum and more importantly, we need to have data that can be used to evaluate the success of instruction from year to year. I want to be very clear that It is not appropriate for staff to discourage participation, or to actively promote opt-out.

It is important for our families and students to be well-informed about student assessments. The role of PPS staff is to provide information and ensure an environment that is conducive to the successful administration of assessments.

Please see the attached letter that will go to parents today. Thank you for your commitment to serving our students.


Dr. Yvonne Curtis
Deputy Superintendent, Instruction and School Communities