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For the Good of All Students: Why I'm Marching for Education Justice

We don’t have to eradicate a person’s soul in order to make them a great leader and thinker.

This weekend, I have the honor of speaking and marching with thousands of concerned educators, parents, and students at the Save Our Schools March and Conference. We’ll have local events across the country, but the main event happens in the nation’s capital with folks like Diane Ravitch, Linda Darling-Hammond, Matt Damon, Jon Stewart, and plenty of other concerned citizens making a statement about the state of our country’s public schools.

I’ve taught in the NYC Public School System for six years in a predominantly Latino neighborhood with students of all types. I mainly concentrate on English Language Learners (ELLs) and students with individualized education programs (IEP). Frankly, I couldn’t see myself in any other profession. No matter how frustrated I get, this job called me in ways others didn’t. However, as an educator, a product of public schools, and a math instructional leader, the flaws in our system become more apparent every year I get a set of kids brimming with promise and burnt by this current version of schooling. This is why I march.

This past April, my eighth graders were two months from worrying whether they were graduating. I remember feeling anxious when I shouldn't have. I believed that I prepared them to do well and gave them critical thinking skills—akin to reading them a list of precautions before strapping them into a rollercoaster ride. Yet, much of that security goes away when the rush sets in, when you know you're climbing closer to the edge, about to make the precipitous drop.

That's what testing is like for the kids.

In this era of high stakes testing, my students are constantly told that their scores are a reflection of the content of their character, when in fact the score is merely a reflection of what they may have learned throughout the year.

If you're a "regular" NYC school student, you take an English-language arts (ELA) test and a math test at the end of April and beginning of May, respectively. If you're a fourth or eighth grader, you're also taking a science test in mid-June—an assessment that checks whether they can work in practice, as well as their knowledge. If you're an English Language Learner, you're also taking the New York State English as a Second Language Assessment Test, which tests speaking, listening, reading, and writing, and is often harder to pass than the ELA test.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), they did away with the social studies exam usually taken by eighth graders in June. But that didn't stop NYC from giving select schools a “Field Test” for both ELA and math in order to assess whether the questions are indeed viable for the next year's students. Also, if the students are taking any Regents classes, they'll have a living environment and/or integrated algebra Regents exam soon after the science exam.

If you’re keeping score at home, you’ll notice that for eighth graders, it can feel like there’s a test once per week. That’s one time a week when they’re mandated to sit in single-row, single-column arrangements and asked to keep silent for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours, depending on the modification. Many of my students might have found the math exam easy, but for many others, they confessed how many clumsy mistakes they made throughout their exam. They got questions wrong that they usually got right. They lost confidence in one answer, and they tripped over the others. They got tired of the testing nonsense and just guessed so they could be left alone.

These are my students.

While they may not be meeting any Carnegie units, they’re most certainly learning. They’re learning that school is going to be exactly like this for the rest of their education. They’re learning that teachers will increasingly narrow what’s taught in class the more that they see their students don’t “get it” quickly enough to cover a more comprehensive curriculum. They’re learning that the countdown to the test begins the minute they step onto campus—government officials would prefer to waste as little time as possible on making students better people so long as they can churn out high test scores.

That is also why I march.

I have a laundry list of things I would love to see changed in our public school system, but in the end, it’s really about making students better people, because from what I can tell, we are in dire need of this. When I was in school, the one thing I was granted was the opportunity to become a better student and a better person. We don’t have to give up one to get to the other. We don’t have to eradicate a person’s soul in order to make them a great leader and thinker.

Some call this principle of caring “radical.” So be it. I march for them, too.

Vilson will share his post-SOS reflections with us on Monday. In the meantime, you can follow the SOS March on Twitter here.

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