Portland as a National Leader?

12:54 pm

I’m relatively new to Portland. I moved here from St. Louis, MO last year. One of the many reasons my wife and I chose to move to Portland was its status as a progressive landmark in a sea of conservative mediocrity. But, after living here for almost a year, I’ve seen that things are not quite what I expected them to be. I’m disappointed, but I still believe in Portland and I still believe in Portland Public Schools. Maybe I’m a naive romantic idealist, but I still believe that great things can happen in this city because so many incredible people live here and are passionate about this city’s future and, in particular, its schools.

There’s a lot we can learn from other states and from other school districts who have managed to stand up against No Child Left Behind, who have spoken up for high-quality education that is not slave to test prep. Lots of folks claim there’s nothing that a single school district can do in relation to a federal law. But there are plenty of examples that show this simply is not true:

A DuPage County Illinois school district — Carol Stream Elementary District 93 — is considering not administering mandatory state exams to students who haven’t yet mastered English. District 93 officials say they’re willing to break the law this spring to shield students from the frustration and humiliation of taking an exam not designed for them. “The board believes it’s appropriate to do that,” District 93 Superintendent Henry Gmitro said. “While there may be consequences for the adults in the organization, we shouldn’t ask kids to be tested on things they haven’t been taught.”

What can the PPS Board do? The board can learn from its peer organization and take a similar stand for children.

Several school districts around the country joined with the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teacher’s union, and filed a lawsuit against the federal government. The suit rightly contents that, amongst many problems with NCLB, one of the most egregious aspects of this horrible law is that it asks states to pay for all the extra testing out of their own budgets. This was an important act of defiance. The law suit was initially thrown out. But in January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed with the NEA and the other plaintiffs that states and local districts simply can’t be required to spend their own money to comply with the federal law.

What can the PPS Board do? The board can issue a statement of support, outlining why they believe the NEA suit is an important step in supporting high-quality public education for all children.

The PPS board can also learn from what state governments are doing and urge legislators in Salem to take similar actions.
Connecticut is bucking NCLB via a lawsuit similar to the NEA suit. According to the state web site, “If Connecticut follows the federal government’s suggestion and cheapens its testing model – eliminating writing assessments altogether, using only multiple choice in the added testing grades – the state will spend about $9.9 million. Even under this cheaper testing model, Connecticut is left with a $4 million unfunded mandate.”

What can the PPS Board do? The board can issue a statement of support, outlining why the Connecticut suit is an important step in supporting high-quality public education for all children. The board can also lobby state legislators and ask them to consider a similar lawsuit.

The Virginia State Legislature just voted to withdraw from participation from NCLB – the legislation now awaits consideration by Gov. Timothy Kaine.

What can the PPS Board do? The board can issue a statement of support, outlining why Virginia’s action is an important step in supporting high-quality public education for all children. The board can also lobby state legislators and ask them to consider a similar withdrawal.

Apart from simply following the lead of other districts and other states, PPS can also take the lead on policies that support high-quality education for all children. What might some of those policies be? Here are a few to get started:

  • end the transfer policy and make every school a “choice” school
  • revise, slow down, or end the mandated common curriculum and empower teachers through high-quality, site-based professional development
  • expand art, music, foreign languages, and PE and make these so-called “enrichments” available to every child, not just those who attend schools with wealthy parents
  • end the test prep that starts in pre-K and adopt a developmentally appropriate curriculum for our youngest learners

You can do it, PPS! I believe in you!

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Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.

filed under: Equity, No Child Left Behind, Transfer Policy

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3 Responses

  1. Comment from Terry Olson:

    I wholeheartedly agree, Peter, with ending the transfer policy, empowering teachers, and adopting a more developmentally appropriate curriculum.

    But to “expand” all the so-called enrichment areas will require lots more money. Since Measure 5, meager funding has decimated public school programs. Federal and state accountability measures –mainly testing and school report cards– and district school choice and transfer policies have only exacerbated the disastrous effects of underfunding the schools.

    I assume that what you mean by making all schools “choice schools”, you mean making sure that all have the same attributes that make magnet or focus option schools attractive to so many upscale families.

    I’ve been arguing that for years. There’s no reason that neighborhood schools shouldn’t be able to emphasize environmental education along with the arts and math and science.

  2. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    I just read this piece from a Texas Superintendent:

    Amarillo Globe News — March 10, 2008
    by Michael Stevens

    Hereford, TX — In conjunction with the TAKS testing, the State of Texas
    needs a morale-improvement program for its 4.3 million students and
    350,000 or so professional educators.

    After due consideration and deliberation there can be only one title for
    the program -“The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves.”

    I am exceptionally saddened and disappointed. Wednesday marked the
    beginning of “TAKS Season.”

    I have observed visibly shaken children and adults enter into the annual
    testing season with what can only be described as raw fear. Eight- and
    10-year-old children are taking a test that will inexorably impact their

    The testing started at 8:30 a.m. Some of the students finished at 6:30
    p.m. A child works as hard as possible to pass a test that truly
    measures nothing of consequence. Yet, if she or he fails, the test has
    to be taken again. If, after three attempts, a passing score has not
    been attained the child is supposed to repeat the grade. This is true
    even though we know that if a child is retained in a grade level there
    is little likelihood that she/he will complete high school. The child is
    labeled a “failure,” a label that will last a lifetime.

    What do we know about children, schools and/or school districts that do
    not meet the testing and accountability standards established by the
    state and federal government? First, and foremost, we know that
    virtually every child that fails the test comes from families that are
    not blessed economically. Every child can learn well what is being
    taught – time is the variable.

    As I approach the final few months of my career in public education I
    can only look back and ask the question: How did we get here? What
    started out in the 1980s as a tool to measure student progress has
    evolved into an incredible monster that is causing far more harm than
    good. Through some misguided notion that tests actually are indicators
    of quality we now use testing to measure the quality of a student and a
    school. It’s insane!

    Our public education system should be allowed to educate children, not
    merely test them. We spend about 50 to 60 school days each year either
    testing or preparing to test our children. Could we not reallocate the
    billions of dollars spent each year spent on testing and allow our
    wonderful educators to make learning fun, exciting and relevant.
    Children might actually learn!

    Testing schools into quality, much the same as beating people until
    morale improves, hasn’t worked. The time has come to change. To the
    policymakers in this state – I implore you to sit with an elementary
    principal when the scores are received as she has to tell a child that
    he failed.

    You cannot possibly imagine the anguish!

    Michael Stevens is superintendent of the Hereford Independent School
    District. Stevens recently announced his intentions to leave his office
    this summer.


  3. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    There can be no doubt that all this testing causes anxiety. It also significantly reduces instruction time, and reduces the quality of the instruction time that remains.

    I would love it if the PPS school board had the guts to take a stand like some of the other districts you cite.

    I would also love it if the state or Oregon would fully invest in our schools, giving us some leeway to thumb our noses at the feds.