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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Commissioner Stewart confuses testing with teaching and decency.

Commissioner Stewart confuses testing with teaching and decency.

I have been writing about education issues for going on 7 years. I have been published around 70 times in the Times Union, Folio and other venues and I have learned two things. First Nazi/Hitler comparisons don’t work. As bad as things have been and occasionally still are Holocaust references are out of bounds. The second is never attack the mother of a dead child. Florida’s Education Commissioner Pam Stewart obviously has not learned that lesson.

Ethan Rediske was a profoundly disabled student. He was born both with brain damage and cerebral palsy and while literally on his death bed his school district following state regulations asked for his Florida Alternate Assessment (the FCAT for disabled kids) waiver paper work.

After his death, his mother a teacher herself appeared before the state board of education and asked them to rethink the policy of high stakes testing profoundly disabled children.

First a little background. Kids that after years can’t recognize their names, don’t know their colors and in some cases can’t move are required to take the test which is administered individually and can take hours or even days.

Ethan’s mom spoke to the state board of education:

My name is Andrea Rediske, and I am Ethan Rediske’s mother. Before you peg me as merely an angry and grieving mother, let me tell you a little bit about myself: I am an educator. I have a master’s degree in microbiology and have been an adjunct professor of microbiology for 11 years. I have a passion for education and I know how to write an exam that accurately assesses the abilities of my students.

Not only was the Florida Adapted Assessment inappropriate for the level of my son’s abilities, it endangered his health – the long, stressful testing sessions requiring him to sit in his wheelchair caused pressure sores, fluid to pool in his lungs, and increased seizures and spasticity that contributed to his deteriorating health.

Only after climbing a mountain of paperwork and garnering media attention was Ethan granted a medical waiver for the FAA. Despite assurances at his IEP meeting that the waiver would be granted again for this school year, the school district demanded paperwork proving his continued medical fragility. The insult to this injury was that he was on his deathbed – the school district and the state of Florida required a letter from hospice care stating he was unable to take the FAA.

This incident caused anguish to my family and his teacher, and shows a stunning lack of compassion and even common sense on the part of the Department of Education. His exceptionally talented teacher faced threats and sanctions because she continued to work with him even though he wasn’t preparing for the FAA. I wonder if these administrators are more concerned with policy, paperwork, and their bottom line than the children they have been elected to serve.

Even if you disagree with her why not just let her talk, nod your head and then move on. Pam Stewart however could not let it go and she penned a letter to every teacher in the state. Here is the letter with commentary.

Dear Teachers:

First, I want to say thank you to all the teachers and parents who devote so much time of their time to helping all children including those with special needs. Teaching is among the noblest of professions and all of you will have the respect and support of everyone at the department.

First it was nice of her to thank teachers, when the state showed gains in A.P. classes she didn’t mention teachers and instead thanked Florida’s policies, but was their some doubt that about teachers and parents of special needs kids being dedicated, because if not why separate the groups. Furthermore Respect and support from the FLDOE is definitely debatable and if she thinks we are so noble can she please ask the Florida legislature to stop dumping on teachers and kneecapping the profession.

You may have read about the political efforts to attack assessments by using the tragic situations of children with special needs. I have the deepest sympathy for any family and child who is suffering due to a disability or traumatic event and even the utmost respect for the strength required of the family. I wanted to take a few minutes to share my thoughts directly with you on this topic.

There can be no doubt that she is talking about the Rediske family who despite the tragic circumstances was just echoing the sentiment that many teachers and parents of disabled children have had for years. What Mrs. Rediske said was not new. Mrs. Stewart obviously disagrees but why not just let it go? What in Mrs. Stewart makes her think it is alright to attack the grieving mother of a dead child?

We take the confidentiality of each child very seriously at the department and for that reason, we cannot speak about the individual students and situations.

We all know that the only way to guarantee success in any endeavor is to set goals and measure our progress, measuring progress is key to successful learning. I firmly believe that every child enrolled in a public school in Florida deserves the opportunity to have access to the best education possible. Our citizens expect that we provide all children an education that supports each child reaching the highest possible goals and experiencing success on the way.

Sure lets set goals and measure them. Nobody is arguing with that. They thing is our tests aren’t used to set goals and measure them. They are used at gotcha moments against schools, students and teachers. The FCAT and FAA are not supports along the way as they have become the end all be all of education. Any noble purpose they may have had, and I emphasize may, has been perverted.  

Many of us and many who have devoted their lives to ensuring equal rights with children with disabilities, can remember the days when a ‘public education” meant very little to some as children with special needs were ignored and treated as less than equal.

It would be a moral outrage to deny that opportunity to any child based on any reason including special needs. For all students, it is important that we measure progress so that we can educate all children regardless of education.

And there is the rub, teaching and learning, is not testing. Nobody is saying don’t give kids opportunities, nobody is saying shuffle profoundly disabled kids into a room and turn on the TV either. But a high stakes inappropriate test is not teaching, it is not giving opportunities and I don’t know if Stewart has been out of the classroom so long, or she sold her morality for thirty pieces of silver but she doesn’t get it and instead of treating children like individuals she has chosen to defend the high stakes complex that Florida has created and which has sucked the joy out of education for some many students and teachers whether they be special needs or not. The moral outrage is Stewart attacking the mother of a dead child and standing up for an indefensible system.   

We cannot and should not return to the days where we tacitly ignore children with special needs by failing to ensure they are learning and growing as the result of teachers’ excellent work. We have worked very closely with families, teachers and districts to ensure that the alternate assessment for children with special needs appropriately measures their disabilities and their progress.  

Where returning to times where special needs kids were shuffled into large waiting rooms would be unacceptable so should the alt assessment which I have personally administered and feel has very little to do with most of  the learning that is occurring. I am sorry if I spent to much of  my time teaching kids to brush their teeth and skimped on the graphs and sentence structure. Also why can’t we use portfolios assembled over the course of the year or anecdotal logs generated by teachers rather than a snap shot created by people who aren’t in the classroom?

For some additional context: Last year nearly 1.7 million Florida students took a statewide assessment, and the department has received a total of 30 requests for exemptions from this year’s assessments; 16 have been approved under the allowances of Florida law.

Here is some more context for you, the state doesn’t give a lot of room to opt out of tests without grave consequences. Furthermore I bet most parents don’t even know it is an option.

As a lifelong educator and as Commissioner of Education I will continue to do everything I can to ensure that all students have the best opportunity for the highest quality education in our state.

As long as it can all be summed up in a high stakes test.

Thank you for all you do every day to ensure every child in Florida has the best chance to succeed.

As long as I can see that success on a spread sheet.

Pam Stewart

Now why should you care? Let’s overlook her heavy handed response to a grieving mother. Let’s set aside the fact many parents and teachers agree with the grieving mother too. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of students here in Jacksonville in the same boat as the Rediske’s and we should all be outraged about what they endured and want to fix the system so it doesn’t happen again.

But even bigger than that is the letter gives us a glimpse into the inner workings of Stewart and the department of education. It reveals their obsession with high stakes testing, her identity is so wrapped around it that even a grieving mother who questions the validity and decency of the tests will become the brunt of their outrage.

This is a sad state of affairs all around and not how it should be.

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