Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer sent the letter below to the Indiana Select Commission on Education, established by the state legislature to review Indiana’s new A-to-F school grading system, teacher evaluation and licensing rules and other policies established by the state Department of Education. The commission, made up of members of the House and Senate education committees, had its first meeting last week. Fuentes-Rohwer is a Monroe County parent and chair of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education of Monroe County and South Central Indiana.
It’s an example of how much of the opposition to reforms pushed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and others is coming not from teachers’ unions but from ordinary citizens. See also retired Monroe County principal Mike Walsh’s op-ed column on vouchers in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette (also published Sunday by the Indianapolis Star but apparently not posted online there), recent posts at the Northeast Indiana Friends of Education blog, and the national resolution against high-stakes testing spearheaded by Parents Across America.
Dear Committee Members,
I am the mother of four children in our Indiana public schools. I am also a concerned citizen worried about the state of our democracy and the special interests which seek to undermine it.
I understand that your commission is reviewing the recent educational issues at the center of Superintendent Bennett’s reforms. I am so glad that you are pausing to look things over. We as a state have been racing at a breakneck pace in our efforts to reform public education and it would be a full time job in and of itself to keep track of the measures and legislative changes that have taken place. I am thankful to you and all of the committee members for your attention to these matters.
Take for example, the IREAD-3 and its implementation. No one could argue with the state’s desire to have all children read competently by third grade (although any parent knows that children learn different things at different times, on a continuum of growth). But there is virtually no research or data which shows that retention will help in that effort. It is common sense to know that a test reflects a child’s test-taking abilities and a test score is likely a better reflection of a child’s socioeconomic status than his or her ability. I am not against all assessment. I think there is a place for evaluation. But to punish children and label them for life as failures at age 8 or 9 is irresponsible and unfair.
What does the research and data show that WORKS for having children competently reading by 3rd grade? Early intervention. Preschool. Addressing the effects of poverty for children. How can a child read competently when she is hungry or distracted by stressful home environments? The one study IREAD-3 supporters keep pointing to as evidence for the third-grade retention law was carried out by Manhattan Institute, which is affiliated with ALEC. I want to see genuine research from highly respected education sources.
I am also very concerned about the new grading system for schools. The idea that we would grade children on a curve, ensuring that nearly a third of them will be low-growth, is setting them up to fail. I went with a friend to the public hearing at the DOE on this A-F system to testify. I listened for nearly three hours to people speaking up against this system. There were principals and superintendents who were near tears in their pleas to stop this from harming their students. I have spoken at my PTO meetings to other parents who were shocked to hear that this was based on a normative curve, and that even their children who are high achieving, could become low growth if they fail to improve (on an ISTEP score in the 90-something percentile!) in relation to their statewide peers. “That’s not fair!” they cried.
I have questioned why we would put in place so many systems of punishment which serve to reflect negatively on the public schools and the teachers and children within them. Why would we go against decades of research on what truly works in education to put in place systems of punishment and means by which the state can turn local control of schools over to private charter school management companies? Why would we place more and more emphasis on tests — which research shows narrows the curriculum and forces teaching to those tests — instead of deep, meaningful experiences for our kids? When the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) came into the news due to the shooting of Trayvon Martin, it became clear.
The A-F grading system is not something that teachers and community members have put together to assess quality of schools. It is legislation put together by ALEC. And ALEC’s intent is to privatize our public schools. I see that our governor has written the prologue to the ALEC report card for public education. They call vouchers “choice scholarships,” but those private schools accepting vouchers are the ones that get to “choose” who they will educate. Who benefits from all of the above? Just look at the major contributors to Tony Bennett’s campaign. Maybe some of the donors are your own.
Is this what the American dream has boiled down to? A plutocracy? A corporatocracy? Certainly there are teachers and schools everywhere which need improvement. But we formed public education to enable the child of the coal miner the same shot at a piece of the pie as the child of the business owner. The fact that this system has not been able to function fully in this vein speaks to our inability to follow through on attacking the effects of poverty in a thorough way. In fact, I have read that the United States fares better than any other educational system in the world IF you factor out poverty.
Public education is the cornerstone of our democracy. I urge you as representatives and therefore key participants in this democracy to stop the private takeover of public education and the sacrificing of generations of children — our future — in the process.