Leslie Gates

Leslie Gates

Earlier this school year, a group of teachers from Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences in Philadelphia held informational sessions, picketed and handed out information to parents notifying them of their right to opt their children out of standardized tests. One in five Feltonville parents has opted their children out of the tests this year.

According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, those teachers are now facing “possible disciplinary action.” The Inquirer quotes a district spokesman as saying, “We don’t know if the district will take action, but we want to make sure we have all the facts.”

One fact is that Title 22 Chapter 4, Section 4.4 (d)(5) of the Pennsylvania Code states parents are allowed to opt their children out of state-mandated standardized tests. Teachers who share the law with parents are not breaking the law by doing so.

Teachers inform parents about laws that govern their children’s education all the time (e.g., students with special needs’ rights to accommodations, or attendance regulations).

Districts or teachers unions that threaten teachers with “possible disciplinary action” for sharing the law with parents are fear-mongering.

Speaking of fear, I want educators living with less of it.

As a group, teachers are some of the most committed and caring people I have ever met, and their job is more difficult than most people outside of education will ever know.

Educators at all levels have expressed concerns about current educational reforms that ignore decades of research, and that stand in conflict with what their own education and years of experience have led them to believe is in the best interest of children. There is collective despair at the lack of time students are able to play, despite knowing the essential role of play in learning (at any age). Teachers are upset that in order for their students to “be better prepared” for state-mandated tests, many have lost instructional time in the arts, humanities and applied subjects.

From what I hear, educators have seen the negative consequences of our current testing-obsessed system but feel relatively powerless to challenge the system for fear of losing their jobs.

A teacher friend of mine said this week, “I feel like what standardized tests are doing to these children is a form of abuse!” but she was not sure what actions she could take without some sort of administrative retaliation. Another friend who is an administrator in charge of assessment at his high school admitted, “I feel like I’m organizing the devil.”

Both fear the consequences of doing something beyond keeping quiet and doing what they’re told. The story of Feltonville teachers under investigation feeds this fear and perpetuates the idea that professionalism is achieved through compliance.

However, teachers who see the ways in which pervasive state-mandated tests interfere with student learning are right to want to act. Section 235.4.(b)(10) of Pennsylvania’s Code of Professional Practice and Conduct for Educators gives teachers this very responsibility: “Professional educators shall exert reasonable effort to protect the student from conditions which interfere with learning or are harmful to the student’s health and safety.”

If a teacher views the pervasiveness of state-mandated tests as interfering with student learning, or as harmful to the student, what “reasonable effort” can teachers take without worrying it will cost them their jobs? They are up against a multibillion dollar testing industry, uninformed educational policy and district administrations fearful of losing state funding if students underperform.

Shame on us, Pennsylvania, for putting teachers in this position.

I proudly applaud the teachers at Feltonville for living out their professional code of conduct despite the risks. I support our local teachers who inform parents of their right to opt out as one (very legal) way of challenging the system. I look forward to a growing number of teachers who will act radically by refusing to administer the tests or who take other actions that protect our children from anything that interferes with their learning.

I am part of a groundswell of parents and taxpayers who are working on the system from the outside. We have a better chance of changing the system if teachers are willing to work from the inside. I encourage you, local teachers, toward collective, courageous action in the best educational interests of our children. Who knows better than you?

Leslie Gates, Ph.D., a former public school teacher, is an art education professor at Millersville University and co-founder of Lancaster County Opt-Out.