Community forum at SUNY New Paltz offers suggestions for “reclaiming public education”

Last week, SUNY New Paltz sponsored a forum on the current state of public education entitled “Resist and Rebuild: Reclaiming Public Education Now”. Left to right are panel moderator and SUNY education professor Nancy Schniedewind, Michael Hynes superintendent Patchogue-Medford School District, Bianca Tanis of NYS Rallies for Public Education, Barbara Madeloni president of the Massachusetts Teacher’s Association and Jia Lee, New York City special education teacher and member of Movement of Rank and File Teachers. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

“Resist and Rebuild: Reclaiming Public Education Now!” was the focus of a community forum held at SUNY New Paltz last Thursday, March 9. Seventy or so attendees who identified themselves as educators, parents (or both) listened to presentations by four featured speakers, followed by a Q&A.

Panelists included Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, who offered suggestions on conducting a successful social justice movement. Michael Hynes, superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford school district on Long Island, spoke about the successful implementation there of a potential-based learning system incorporating yoga and mindfulness to educate the “whole child.” Bianca Tanis, New Paltz special education teacher and a founder of NYS Allies for Public Education, encouraged educators in the audience to stay strong and build a bridge from the current system to a more equitable one. And Jia Lee, New York City special education teacher and member of Movement of Rank and File Teachers, spoke about the hidden agenda behind the so-called “personalized” digital learning and corporate data-mining going on in public schools today. Speakers were introduced by educator Nancy Schniedewind.


Underlying each presenter’s remarks was the message that while efforts to undermine and privatize public education have hurt students, educators, schools and communities, there are actions people can take to create the system they want.


Corporate influence and the downside of digital

Jia Lee’s remarks addressed the corporate influence on public education. She advocated taking a long, hard look at who is behind the push for computer-based testing and digital “personalized” learning platforms produced by for-profit corporations, which allow ed-tech investors to mine student data, putting privacy at risk in exchange for profits.

“Schools are being digitally colonized by the one-percent, white male corporate leaders who have a vested interest in privatizing education,” she said. “Technology is a useful tool, but when something is called ‘personalized learning,’ and it’s not coming from the student, but rather something prescribed for the student, you know that’s a red flag.”

In addition, these platforms minimize opportunities for students to receive guidance from an experienced teacher close at hand. “Our teaching conditions are becoming more and more constrained and regimented. Online curriculum and assessments are being prioritized in classrooms instead of students learning to develop relationships with actual human beings.”


Building a bridge from the current system to “the system we want”

Bianca Tanis said she believes that reclaiming public education is possible “with a clear vision of what we want.” It can be a discouraging process to fight the systematic dismantling of public schools, Tanis noted, asking attendees how many of those present felt like they were “burnt out” by the battle. She urged them to “stay hopeful,” advocating a concentration on things at the state level at this time, focusing on who has the power and identifying where change can be effected.

The mandated state tests in math and English language arts for grades 3-8 should continue to be rejected, Tanis said. “The new, untimed test policy increases the length of testing time, asking young children to sit for a longer period of time — five hours, in some cases — than they are capable of, actually violating the state law that limits the time spent on state tests to one percent of class time.”

In addition, she added, test results are manipulated and misused. The current moratorium on the use of student test scores for promotion and placement will end in 2018, and career-and-college-ready benchmarks aligned with test scores will mean thousands of students misidentified as failing or in need of academic intervention services.

Governor Cuomo wants to wipe the debt-slate clean of the $4.3 billion the state owes public education, Tanis said. “The Assembly is not in favor of this,” she noted, suggesting constituents call their representatives to ask them to fully fund Foundation Aid.

“We need to change the conversation about equity and children. As long as we stay focused on that, to evaluate everything that comes down the pike through that lens, it’s a pretty good litmus test. And once you hear Dr. Hynes talk, I think you will feel hopeful.”


Educating the whole child: a vision for public education

Michael Hynes was indeed an engaging speaker. It wasn’t hard to see how he was able to garner community support in Patchogue to lead his district to a place where they implemented a five-year plan in 2016 that focuses on “the whole child” and potential-based learning rather than test scores.

Increased time for restorative recess is built into the plan, and playrooms with old-school board games and blocks are available along with mindfulness rooms for when a student needs to center themselves. Yoga techniques are even taught as part of the curriculum. (The complete plan is available on the district’s website.)

Patchogue-Medford is not unique in being able to implement such a system, Hynes said. The area, he maintained, is a true microcosm of New York State in every way, from a diverse racial and religious makeup to socio-economically.

The formula for the district’s five-year plan, explained Hynes, is PEAS. That is, “physical growth plus emotional growth plus academic growth plus social growth; not one component is more important than the other. Phys Ed is just as important as AP Biology. Being outside for recess is just as important as ELA.”

Key to the success of such a system is changing the structure of how a school operates, Hynes said. Every person who works in the district and has contact with a child, from teachers and administrators to bus drivers and cafeteria workers, is versed in the underlying psychological principles of child development. The plan is based on theories that include Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences. Workshops on the defining principles are even held for parents.

“For this to succeed, they all have to understand developmentally where kids are, so we can meet them where they are. It’s an investment in time, but I truly believe it’s important,” said Hynes. “And I cannot tell you what a shift has taken place with our kids since we did this. Discipline referrals are down, attendance is up.”


The bell curve system in education that predetermines a set percentage of people as exceptional or failing, with the majority in the middle average, doesn’t sit well with Hynes. “I don’t believe in it. This is the big problem with our educational system, this fixed mindset. The bell curve says 68 percent of you are average,” he told the assembled group. “But I don’t believe that we are average. I believe all of us have a ceiling, and we have to work to that ceiling to get to where we need to be. If we rank and sort kids and say, here are the Fs, here are the As, in very small amounts, and the rest of you are somewhere in the middle, we are eliminating someone’s potential and we’re squashing their talents.”

Until school districts embrace potential-based learning, Hynes said, “and fight against these policies that state ed is throwing our way, we’re going to be stuck in the same place. It’s not hard to do, if you define what your core values are. If you define what the vision and mission is for your school district, everything revolves around that. Decisions become quite easy, because you hang your hat on those things.”


Organizing for social justice 

Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, closed out the session by offering advice to educators about taking social justice action. “Social justice unionism is the way to get to where the Patchogue-Medford district is, if you don’t have a Michael to get you there,” she said.

“The reason we need to fight for public education, and the reason it’s under attack, is because it’s the place we come to understand what it means to be human, how we know ourselves in the world and as part of a community. And the capitalists and corporatists understand that as well as we educators. So all these policies, the personalized learning networks, the high stakes testing and vouchers and the language of choice; they’re all designed to change how we know ourselves and each other, and how we can imagine what is possible for ourselves and others.”

For this reason, she continued, movement-building is the way to fight back. “Because as we come together to organize and share our experiences, the very act of doing that changes how we know what is possible, how we understand humans in solidarity and strength, rather than constrained and constricted views of ourselves.”

Madeloni said real grassroots efforts are necessary to change things, knocking on doors and making the phone calls. When her group was told that people didn’t care about public education or educators, she said, they learned otherwise through building a community coalition, and getting out there to talk to people.

It’s also important for educators to build a bargaining platform based on determining the elements that are most important to them first, she added, where everybody understands the choices that have been made. “We asked every teacher three things: What gives you joy in the classroom? What sucks the joy out? and What would you change to bring the joy back?” After establishing their goals, she added, the next step was to bring the parents in on it, joining forces as a united front at the bargaining table, said Madeloni, sticking to the most important goals.

The education forum was sponsored by The Humanistic/Multicultural Education Program, Departments of Educational Studies and Leadership, Teaching and Learning, Sociology, Progressive Academic Network and Campus Auxiliary Services, Inc. at SUNY New Paltz; Rethinking Testing Mid-Hudson; and New York State Allies for Public Education.