To Governor Cuomo, The New York State Legislature, The Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York, Mayor De Blasio, Chancellor Carmen Farina, The New York City Council, and All New Yorkers:
This letter will not tackle how the current educational paradigm adversely affects teacher practice; it will not discuss how certain policies outlined are aimed against teachers; it will not defend my peers or myself. This letter will explain that the agenda we are faced with adversely effects our children; how certain policies make unconscionable collateral damage of our children; it will to make a plea for my students—for our kids.
My name is Brandon Melendez I’m a teacher and I’m a parent. My personal and professional lives are both dedicated in different capacities to ensuring that children grow up with a strong sense of themselves, with pride, with integrity, intelligence, and unending curiosity . Children are the source of the best and most honest questions. As adults we still have questions, we still have imaginations, but for children the intersection of these indispensible academic qualities brings learning to life. It’s the reason we walk into our classrooms every morning.
The students, for their part, come into our classrooms every morning looking for the world presented to them piece by piece, they come looking for exciting forays into worlds of knowledge, mounting the armor of wisdom as they grow older and gaining the information they will need in the world to be successful, well-rounded individuals. Instead we are drilling them with test prep skills, removing the life from learning, and sterilizing a dynamic age-old tradition of following the questions to questions more; we are cauterizing their imaginations—indeed, their very passion for learning.
We do this every morning as we prepare them for very expensive tests that do very little for them. The tests, yes, cost the state millions of dollars annually, but worse yet are costing millions of children their childhoods, annually, with the interest on their adult lives piling up while we fail them with bad policy.
Instead of coming in the morning during their childhoods to our classrooms, our students are mourning their childhoods in our classrooms. Instead of yearning to read, they are yearning to leave. They are not being inspired by great books, expressing themselves with the written word, being empowered by math, enlightened with science, or understanding themselves in history. They are being drilled in skills that only teach them to take tests. They are not being prepared for life. They aren’t even being exposed to it in our classrooms. Their education has been downgraded to training drills. The ultimate outcome is data for the sake of data rather than learning for the sake of students preparation for lives outside of the classroom.
In my first year in the New York City Department of Education, I had a classroom full of English language learners. All year long I was tasked with preparing these students, not to speak, read, and write in the English language but to pass a battery of tests. These tests, for my third graders, were Math, English Language Arts, and the NYSESLAT English Language Learner test. These tests all come back to back to back and not only severely disrupt all learning in the Spring, they dictate all learning throughout the year. Third grade is the first testing year, and my students received the message loud and clear: you are a failure if you don’t do well on this test.
The stakes were set so high, that my eight-year-old students were subject to academic pressures that many don’t feel until they take LSATs or GREs. The kids come in rattled and on the day of the tests are always jittery. One student—many in fact, but one in particular—who by any other measure was affable, good humored, and progressing, broke down in tears in the face of the first page of his English Language Arts exam.
For all his hard work throughout the year, jumping from level to level in a steady march to literacy, he was not deemed good enough. This boy cracked; his spirit broken like the point the Dixon Ticonderoga number 2 pencil he was issued. He didn’t return to class that day. He was consoled by Guidance Councilors and sent home…but his day of the test was made up a week later.
We are treating all of our children as if they are one size fits all, pre-determined in their skills, and that the sum total of their hard work can only be measured by a test that many are developmentally unprepared for. Their personal development, their histories, their own contexts don’t matter. Their names don’t even matter—they are a reading level. Our kids sit at desks that display “I’m a level J, a level J can do the following things”. Their records don’t show their growth, they show a 1 a 2 a 3 or a 4.
We are sending our English language learners the message that no matter how hard they work they need to be drilled more. They are inadequate, their efforts and individual growth is meaningless; that their hard work doesn’t mean anything until they can pass a test that was not written for them, that gives them no quarter, no nurture. They are in 3rd grade, in the face of a test, in the face of stakes that are so high that they know it is the difference between their advancement or being left behind. We have 8 year olds breaking down in tears, their spirits broken by a test.
The State pays millions of dollars a year on these tests that make my 3rd graders cry, that put fear in the hearts of my 4th graders, and that keep my 5th graders from looking forward to school. The State pays millions of dollars to make schools into holding cells for students, waiting for a weekend pass.
At my school, where our 4th and 5th grades are more populous than many Long Island Elementary Schools, our English Language Learner population grows daily and our Special Education classrooms swell with the roster size, and they don’t receive the same per student funding as their well-to-do counterparts. We may be among the best-funded systems, as the Governor likes to point out, but we are not by any means equitable in how those funds are distributed.
The Governor’s policy calls for more Charter Schools, but this won’t unburden the system. It will drain it. More Charter Schools won’t help many of the neediest students because they’ll be creamed out of the rosters—a problem Mr. Cuomo himself admits needs addressing. They will only take resources from the schools that are mandated by municipality, morality, and mission to address them.
Public schools won’t be dismissing students with IEPs, or English Language Learners, we’ll be less capable in resources to help them. We’ll have less space, less funding, and larger class sizes to deal with students who are legally required to have more individual attention, more specifically tailored education plans, and specific and explicit small group instruction. The same kinds of practices that Charters often claim to provide for students who would likely excel in any number of contexts and settings.
In schools like mine, where students freeze waiting outside their portable classrooms, they get small group instruction in the lunchroom, who receive their occupational therapy next to a staircase, who learn to read on the stage, we are waiting for years for new facilities to properly teach them in. Meanwhile the State mandates that the Department of Education has to pay the rent or house private charter schools, whose CEOs make annually what some of my students may get in funding in thirteen years of public education. New York City is left without billions of dollars in operational funding, but the tests that make our kids hate learning? Fully funded and destined to get more.
I’m not writing to address the Governor’s plans on tenure, due process, or union breaking. I’m not writing to discuss how his policies undercut teachers. This isn’t about teachers. I’m writing about how New York’s policies, especially under Mr. Cuomo, have time and again overlooked the needs of our most at risk students by seeking to privatize public education. I’m writing to discuss how millions of dollars are being funneled into tests in the name of data, while data suggests it is income inequality, class size, and access to technology and resources–not test prep–that widens the achievement gap year after year.
This letter aims to speak truth to power, and make a plea on behalf of my students. They are not data points or reading levels; they are people, human beings who are falling far beyond getting a fair shot. They are getting decades old temporary buildings to learn in, they are getting the wonder drained from their childhoods, and they are being used for gains by private interests and as pawns in political games.
So I’m asking you to reject the policies the Governor is putting forth. Reject them for any or all of the injustices you’ll read here. If you are truly dedicated to children, to education, and to making the next generation of New Yorkers stronger, smarter, and more competitive, reject the Governors plan. These policies will force failure by failed, flawed ideology.
He isn’t in our classrooms and he certainly doesn’t know our children. He doesn’t see them break down in tears in the face of unnecessary tests or learn in classrooms that can be pulled away on a truck, or learning spatial awareness near open staircases.
Reject these policies. Then find some qualified people to develop a plan for success, another thing the Governor has not done.
Brandon M. Melendez, M.A.
Brandon Melendez is a New York City Educator who advocates for strong Public Education systems, local community control of schools, and a renewed approach to the definition of education in America. He is a contributor to Polite on Society as well as the Editor-in-Chief at Maglomaniac where his column Irate Educator addresses education issues in the classroom and in politics.