By Cindy Hamilton – 5/27/2014
Last Friday, I witnessed one of the saddest examples of teacher oppression I have ever seen. You may recall that I have been helping a family, since January, to get a teacher-developed portfolio for their son in the third grade. The student’s mother had legitimate concerns because of her own difficulties with passing FCAT and I have been advocating, with her, since the beginning of this year.
In spite of the A’s and B’s that her son has earned all year long, a letter was sent to his parents informing them of possible retention due to “below grade level” reading test scores. This student was at risk of failing the FCAT, so the parents chose to use a portfolio as an alternative assessment (provided for in Florida statutes) and he refused the test in April.
After much research and many conversations with FLDOE and Just Read Florida, we clarified and understood the difference between a teacher-developed portfolio and the state-provided CD, which contains secret test questions, similar to the FCAT. Each portfolio must contain forty-two reading passages with questions and answers, that meet the state criteria for proficiency.
When we (the student’s mother and I) initially asked the teacher for her to begin a portfolio, in January, she explained that she was not able to do that because all work had been sent home. Mom shared that she has kept all classroom work that had been sent home and could make copies and return it. The teacher said we would need to meet with the principal, which we did in February. The principal said she would need to clarify with the district the difference between the two types of portfolio. This process took four months. At this late date, of course, there is not sufficient time to gather a true teacher-developed portfolio, which should consist of work completed in the classroom. The school wants him to complete what is missing, twenty-seven reading passages, with this CD of regurgitated and secret FCAT passages.
This past Friday, we attended another parent/teacher conference (at our request) to hear the teacher’s plan. When we arrived to meet with the teacher, we were directed to a conference room. In attendance were the ESE teacher, staffing specialist, principal and the teacher. At first I did not recognize this teacher. She was no longer the bubbly, enthusiastic woman I had met in January. Her shoulders hung low, she would not make eye contact when we sat down. The principal positioned herself so she was sitting close enough to touch arms with the teacher.
The meeting began with the principal asking us to start because we had called the meeting. We asked the teacher to explain her plan for completing the portfolio. The teacher looked at the principal and the principal began to explain how they were going to fit three CD reading passages a day into each day of the remaining school year. As we asked questions about this plan, we continued to direct them to the teacher who always looked at the principal to answer. After several minutes of this, I asked that we stop the meeting.
I asked the teacher to please look me in eye and told her that we were there to meet with her because she is the authority on this student’s academic progress and that she would be the one to complete this portfolio for him. I acknowledged that she was clearly uncomfortable and clarified that that was not our intent, but that we really wanted to hear from her. She said she wanted to defer to the principal. At this point, she was looking at the table with tears in her eyes. Mom also expressed her concern for the teacher and that she wanted the teacher to be present and active in this meeting. More conversation about the logistics of accomplishing this portfolio, as the principal continued with the choice of another test over portfolio as a means to promotion. Here, we reminded them that if a portfolio had been started in January we would not be in this meeting at the eleventh hour. We reminded the principal that at the second meeting in February, she had refused to allow the teacher to start the process without asking the district for guidance on a teacher-developed portfolio.
At this point, the principal became extremely defensive, stating she had never refused to do a portfolio. We asked the teacher to speak up here and she was by now in no condition to speak at all and just looked at the principal. We again expressed our concern for her. I stated that I understood the environment of fear within her profession and that we supported her and valued her role most of all. The principal said she took great offense at the insinuations we were making that she was responsible for any intimidation of this teacher. I pointed out that I was not accusing her but was recognizing the culture of fear in teachers across the state. The principal offered to leave the room if we wanted to have a conversation with the teacher alone, but would have to leave the staffing specialist who was taking notes. Seeing the panic in the eyes of the teacher, we declined.
We don’t know for sure what happened to that teacher, but during this meeting she was only able to hand over documents to the principal to support our conversation. She was not able to speak and it was clearly fear that prevented her from participating in a discussion about one of her students. One could visibly see the defeat all over her. She was crying and unable to look at the parent. The principal was sitting so closely and stiffly next to her, that without saying so, she was communicating loudly to everyone in the room, her intent to control this meeting.
The principal called an end to the meeting when she felt “accused”. We pointed out that this was not the first time she had refused to complete a portfolio and reminded her of the students, whom she had refused last year. As we were all standing to go, I spoke again to the teacher and expressed how sorry I was that she felt she could not support her student. I stated that I did not understand what had happened to prevent her participation, but that we do understand what has happened to her profession, and that we fight for her every day, and against the oppression that keeps her from being able to be open and honest in a meeting such as this. I tried to assure her by explaining that families all over the country were supporting teachers by refusing to allow students to supply the data that impacts them thru VAM and other evaluation systems based on high stakes tests.
Over the past few days, I have had the time to reflect on this fiasco. We have options for this student and he will be fine. I cannot say the same for this teacher. She has broken my heart, as I am sure hers has also been broken. She was, in every way, a different person from the awesome, confident teacher we had met with in January. She was afraid of her principal, she was afraid of us.
Update June 3, 2014
Today, I will be going to school with this mom so that she can withdraw her son from OCPS. This will allow him to complete the teacher-developed portfolio as a home-schooled student, over the summer. After consulting the director of school choice, Dr Chris Bernier and Toney Shoemaker at the Homeschool Department, this was the best option for this student. The parents will then re-enroll him as a 4th grader in August.
This could all have been avoided had the “system” not stood in the way of a true portfolio and if it had not taken months to come up with a plan to provide a portfolio. The CD provided by the state does not represent a portfolio. A portfolio should come from work produced in the classroom that fits the criteria, not from a “secret” CD. Teachers, who are the MOST qualified to complete this task, should be given autonomy to complete this process. OCPS must be prepared to provide a teacher-developed portfolio as provided by statute and Just Read Florida.
Thank you to Susan DuFresne for her input.