John King’s Gift to Parents

John King just gave New York parents the perfect spark to fuel the boycott fire.


By Sue Altman

John King cancelled a town hall style meeting in Garden City, NY this week where he was scheduled to discuss policy around testing and education reform. Following a raucous meeting in Poughkeepsie, King accused “special interests” of “manipulating parents” and called off the show.

Gasp! My goodness, will someone please tell us, who are these “special interests” that lurk so menacingly this October? Are they swashbuckling pirates wheeling and dealing crooked deals in yachts off South Hampton? Or thuggish crowbar-swinging hit men sent by mobsters from Merrick?  Who are these henchmen so prevalent and powerful that King John feels he must hop on his headless horse and flee to Albany?

I was confused myself, since I know that everyone you meet in college is from Long Island—so who better to know what it takes to be *college and career ready*? It turns out there is a little something brewing on Long Island, and it’s not iced tea or a late summer hurricane.

The testing opt-out movement, a boycott of standardized tests, is 10,000 strong on Long Island. Ten thousand!!! You think that has something to do with King’s avoidance of the place? Maybe he knows he might have trouble explaining himself to a crowd of well-informed, well-organized, angry Long Islanders.

Garden City might well have become an epicenter of controversy for thousands of angry, frustrated parents demanding answers from King. And, if that town hall had taken place, we would have heard stories from the students themselves (very eloquent and well-educated, despite what the make-believe scores say) about the countless hours of new testing, the anxiety starting in third grade, the stressed-out teachers and the crying in the bathroom. Maybe we would have heard about double sessions in reading and math. About lost time for arts and music. About how private school kids get those things in abundance, but students attending New York public schools don’t. The meeting, and King’s appearance, would have given thousands more confused moms and dads who have heard about the testing boycott, a chance to hear both sides before deciding what to do this fall.

The opt-out movement is well organized. It is headed by parents, whose members include lawyers, stay-at-home moms, academics, secretaries, small-business owners. No, they are not sent by the unions. No, they are not influenced by mobsters, henchmen or, ahem, billionaires. They. Are. PARENTS. Opt-out members cut across districts, race, socioeconomic status, and, most importantly, political party lines. They have one thing in common: they are parents. And they are highly suspect of anything that makes their child hate school. The right hates the governmental influence in education; the left hates the testing part. And everyone hates seeing unhappy children.

These people want to make sure that their children, who have one shot, right now—receive an education that is well-resourced, well-balanced, and inspiring. They are parents whose special interest is…their children.

These New Yorkers refuse to believe that test scores, created by the Department of Education, scored by the Department of Education and calibrated by the Department of Education mean anything at all. They refuse to believe that these numbers measure the value of their child, the value of their child’s teacher, or the value of their school. The mantra “Our children are more than test scores” nails it. These parents are boycotting because they love their children, but also because they believe that something terrible, something big-picture, is happening in education. And, as history shows, boycotts are a means to empowerment when democracy has been suspended.

These citizens are sick of being treated as “consumers” and their children as “products” for whom education is “delivered.” When you treat people like consumers, you get a consumerist response. Angry consumers who want to make a point about something engage in boycotts. The testing boycott is about something larger than tests; it’s an expression of frustration at being excluded from a vital democratic process. The boycotts are last resort of people who feel the state and national departments of education are ignoring them and their children; it is the last weapon they have against this wave of corporate-inspired accountability reforms.

John King’s cowardly decision to skip Tuesday’s town hall in Garden City and cancel the rest of the meetings in New York State is an example of an awful trend of anti-democracy in education. But for boycotters, these moments are a call for others to join the cause.

John King has given New York parents the perfect spark to fuel the boycott fire. This might be King’s greatest legacy.

Sue Altman recently completed a dual Master’s degree in International and Comparative Education and Business Administration at the University of Oxford, UK. Her thesis focused on parent motivations for the boycott of standardized tests in New York, 2012-13. Prior to her time at Oxford, she taught history for four years in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter at @suealtman.

5 Comments

  1. Bravo! From the far flung reaches of rural Queensland in Australia (and late at night), all I can say is well done and may your cause prosper!

    1. Ian,

      For the fundamentals of why educational standards and standardized testing is completely bogus, please read your fellow countryman’s-Noel Wilson’s “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error” found at: http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/577/700
      Join on to the Quixotic Quest Bandwagon and help rid the world of these educational malpractices by spreading the word and encouraging many others to opt out.
      Brief outline of Wilson’s “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error” and some comments of mine. (updated 6/24/13 per Wilson email)

      1. A quality cannot be quantified. Quantity is a sub-category of quality. It is illogical to judge/assess a whole category by only a part (sub-category) of the whole. The assessment is, by definition, lacking in the sense that “assessments are always of multidimensional qualities. To quantify them as one dimensional quantities (numbers or grades) is to perpetuate a fundamental logical error” (per Wilson). The teaching and learning process falls in the logical realm of aesthetics/qualities of human interactions. In attempting to quantify educational standards and standardized testing we are lacking much information about said interactions.

      2. A major epistemological mistake is that we attach, with great importance, the “score” of the student, not only onto the student but also, by extension, the teacher, school and district. Any description of a testing event is only a description of an interaction, that of the student and the testing device at a given time and place. The only correct logical thing that we can attempt to do is to describe that interaction (how accurately or not is a whole other story). That description cannot, by logical thought, be “assigned/attached” to the student as it cannot be a description of the student but the interaction. And this error is probably one of the most egregious “errors” that occur with standardized testing (and even the “grading” of students by a teacher).

      3. Wilson identifies four “frames of reference” each with distinct assumptions (epistemological basis) about the assessment process from which the “assessor” views the interactions of the teaching and learning process: the Judge (think college professor who “knows” the students capabilities and grades them accordingly), the General Frame-think standardized testing that claims to have a “scientific” basis, the Specific Frame-think of learning by objective like computer based learning, getting a correct answer before moving on to the next screen, and the Responsive Frame-think of an apprenticeship in a trade or a medical residency program where the learner interacts with the “teacher” with constant feedback. Each category has its own sources of error and more error in the process is caused when the assessor confuses and conflates the categories.

      4. Wilson elucidates the notion of “error”: “Error is predicated on a notion of perfection; to allocate error is to imply what is without error; to know error it is necessary to determine what is true. And what is true is determined by what we define as true, theoretically by the assumptions of our epistemology, practically by the events and non-events, the discourses and silences, the world of surfaces and their interactions and interpretations; in short, the practices that permeate the field. . . Error is the uncertainty dimension of the statement; error is the band within which chaos reigns, in which anything can happen. Error comprises all of those eventful circumstances which make the assessment statement less than perfectly precise, the measure less than perfectly accurate, the rank order less than perfectly stable, the standard and its measurement less than absolute, and the communication of its truth less than impeccable.”

      In other word all the logical errors involved in the process render any conclusions invalid.

      5. The test makers/psychometricians, through all sorts of mathematical machinations attempt to “prove” that these tests (based on standards) are valid-errorless or supposedly at least with minimal error [they aren’t]. Wilson turns the concept of validity on its head and focuses on just how invalid the machinations and the test and results are. He is an advocate for the test taker not the test maker. In doing so he identifies thirteen sources of “error”, any one of which renders the test making/giving/disseminating of results invalid. As a basic logical premise is that once something is shown to be invalid it is just that, invalid, and no amount of “fudging” by the psychometricians/test makers can alleviate that invalidity.
      6. Having shown the invalidity, and therefore the unreliability, of the whole process Wilson concludes, rightly so, that any result/information gleaned from the process is “vain and illusory”. In other words start with an invalidity, end with an invalidity (except by sheer chance every once in a while, like a blind and anosmic squirrel who finds the occasional acorn, a result may be “true”) or to put in more mundane terms crap in-crap out.

      7. And so what does this all mean? I’ll let Wilson have the second to last word: “So what does a test measure in our world? It measures what the person with the power to pay for the test says it measures. And the person who sets the test will name the test what the person who pays for the test wants the test to be named.”

      In other words it measures “’something’ and we can specify some of the ‘errors’ in that ‘something’ but still don’t know [precisely] what the ‘something’ is.” The whole process harms many students as the social rewards for some are not available to others who “don’t make the grade (sic)” Should American public education have the function of sorting and separating students so that some may receive greater benefits than others, especially considering that the sorting and separating devices, educational standards and standardized testing, are so flawed not only in concept but in execution?

      My answer is NO!!!!!

      One final note with Wilson channeling Foucault and his concept of subjectivization:

      “So the mark [grade/test score] becomes part of the story about yourself and with sufficient repetitions becomes true: true because those who know, those in authority, say it is true; true because the society in which you live legitimates this authority; true because your cultural habitus makes it difficult for you to perceive, conceive and integrate those aspects of your experience that contradict the story; true because in acting out your story, which now includes the mark and its meaning, the social truth that created it is confirmed; true because if your mark is high you are consistently rewarded, so that your voice becomes a voice of authority in the power-knowledge discourses that reproduce the structure that helped to produce you; true because if your mark is low your voice becomes muted and confirms your lower position in the social hierarchy; true finally because that success or failure confirms that mark that implicitly predicted the now self evident consequences. And so the circle is complete.”

      In other words students “internalize” what those “marks” (grades/test scores) mean, and since the vast majority of the students have not developed the mental skills to counteract what the “authorities” say, they accept as “natural and normal” that “story/description” of them. Although paradoxical in a sense, the “I’m an “A” student” is almost as harmful as “I’m an ‘F’ student” in hindering students becoming independent, critical and free thinkers. And having independent, critical and free thinkers is a threat to the current socio-economic structure of society.

  2. Kudos! I was at that meeting in Poughkeepsie on 10/10/13! The “special interest groups” that spoke were only 5 people. Of those 5, I know for a fact, two of them were parents and one was an amazing teacher. They are from NO SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP other than that supporting the children!

  3. My children in private school get everything–no testing, delicious food, meaningful field trips, demanding courses, hours of homework that they actually enjoy because it’s so interesting, top-notch facilities–in short, what every child could have in America if the billions of tax dollars that pour into schools were spent at the campus level.

    John King and his ilk are depriving children of what they need and should have. What a horrible, despicable person he must be.

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