Aggressive Action and Leadership Necessary to Keep Kids from Falling Behind

An Essay by Keri Rodrigues, Co-founder of the National Parents Union

Once an advisor to the late Senator Edward Kennedy on education issues, Keri Rodrigues remains passionate about stopping systemic injustice from being passed from one generation to another.

With Edward Kennedy (D-MA), John Boehner (R-OH), George Miller (R-CA), and Secretary of Education Rod Paige at his side, President George W. Bush signs into law the No Child Left Behind Act at Hamilton High School in Hamilton, Ohio, January 1, 2002. (Paul Morse / NARA)

Most of my adult life, I’ve worked as a parent advocate and an organizer in labor and Democratic politics. From my own experiences, I know the value of collaboration and unlikely allyships to achieve great things, especially when it comes to making sure our children have equal access to quality education. 

United States Senator Ted Kennedy from Massachusetts was my hero. Even though we came from incredibly different demographics and economic backgrounds, I identified so much with his steadfast determination to overcome challenging circumstances and persevere.

I remember sitting in a diner in Fall River, Massachusetts, when I was 25 years old, watching as he flipped over the placemat on the table and began taking notes about what I thought about education and environmental justice. Even at the end of his life, his mind was still open to new ideas and engaging in conversations with those of us directly impacted by the causes he would champion and the votes he would take.

After 50 years, he knew the value of compromise and collaboration  and he knew that it would take bold leadership to guide our country in the right direction. That’s why it made sense that he would collaborate with a very unlikely partner at the time, President George W. Bush, to create the No Child Left Behind Act.

Unfortunately, these values of bipartisan collaboration have seemingly fallen by the wayside in our deeply divided nation  and no more obvious an example than that which exists within our education system.

Unfortunately, these values of bipartisan collaboration have seemingly fallen by the wayside in our deeply divided nation — and no more obvious an example than that which exists within our education system.

Nearly 20 years later, we cannot even agree about the importance of utilizing data and information to help correct the generationally racist educational systems that have failed our children, proving over and over that they are incapable of producing equitable outcomes on their own, even in the best of times. We have lost sight of the fact that transparency and information are the only ways to hold this system accountable for making the changes needed to actually provide equity for our children.

There could not be a worse time for us to abandon our ability to use standardized testing to assess how our children are doing academically — especially our children of color. It is a matter of justice and equity. We cannot solve the problems of our society by turning our back on the data that helps to inform us where problems lie. We cannot simply ignore the devastating inequities that exist within our education system and wish them away. These things take real action, real leadership  which starts with first understanding where the problems exist. And COVID-19 only exacerbates the issue.

Just this spring, the city of Boston failed to reach more than 10,000 students and could not dependably and accurately report where its students were when schools shut down  let alone provide adequate services to them. In Oakland, only 18% of Black children are reading at grade level. Nationally, only 21% of Latino children in fourth grade are reading at a proficient level.

There could not be a worse time for us to abandon our ability to use standardized testing to assess how our children are doing academically — especially our children of color. It is a matter of justice and equity.

We know these things because of standardized tests. Removing the test will not remove the problem of undeserving our children. These problems existed well before the existence of standardized testing and continue to persist after their creation.

To argue that we should simply trust districts, long mired by institutional racism, to give us an accurate picture of how they are serving children is insanity. Unfortunately, in the highly politicized world of education politics, standardized testing has become weaponized. 

I can remember when my own son came home in third grade the night before his first MCAS exam in Massachusetts and asking him if he felt like he was ready. Immediately, a look of panic came over his face, as his teachers had made the idea of taking a simple test very stressful. That night, we had a long conversation about how the test was simply a tool to help Mommy see if he needed some help, if his teacher needed some help, or if his school needed some help in order to make sure he was learning.

Keri Rodrigues speaks at the National Charter School Conference in July 2019. (via Instagram @massparents)

As a parent, I remain concerned about what our children are being told in the classroom that would lead to this level of anxiety.

Removing the test will not remove the problem of undeserving our children. These problems existed well before the existence of standardized testing and continue to persist after their creation.

During standardized testing, suddenly schools become concerned about making sure what is happening in the classroom is rigorous and engaging enough to prepare our children’s minds to learn. Suddenly, carts full of healthy snacks are available in the hallways to ensure our children aren’t distracted away from focusing in the classroom by hunger. And, schools ramp up their communication with parents to ensure they are part of the team preparing our children to be successful. All things that should be done on a daily basis, with or without the test.

Teachers who are successfully teaching the content needed as a foundation of education, for all children to have equitable access to opportunity, have nothing to fear from a standardized test. And, those who are not should be seeking feedback about how they can improve their skills so that they reach our children — instead of letting personal ego and fear of “criticism” keep them from using data to inform their own development.

A year where an educator fails to teach the content my child needs to master a subject area can end up putting children like mine in danger of not reading at grade level and making them prime candidates for the school-to-prison pipeline. The consequences for a teacher receiving feedback about inadequate practice can be hurt feelings and professional development. The consequences of turning a blind eye to their inadequate practice and leaving my children unprepared can be poverty, incarceration, or even death. 

As Senator Kennedy put it: “This is the greatest lesson a child can learn. It is the greatest lesson anyone can learn. It has been the greatest lesson I have learned: if you persevere, stick with it, work at it, you have a real opportunity to achieve something. Sure, there will be storms along the way. And you might not reach your goal right away. But if you do your best and keep a true compass, you'll get there.”

We must work together and hold tight to our true compass: achieving equitable access to opportunity for all of our children and ending the generational institutional racism that keeps them from attaining it comes through assessment, acknowledgement, and aggressive action to reform a system that was built to leave too many of them behind.

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