Dear Governor Cuomo,
My name is Tony Sinanis and I am a Lead Learner at Cantiague Elementary School in Jericho, New York, which is a suburb of New York City. Over 400 students attend our school each day (our highest enrollment in the last seven years) and the one common trait most of our children share during their days at Cantiague is a smile. That's right sir, our children, for the most part, are happy to be at school because they are in a space where they feel safe, respected and valued (their words). Not valued like a test score because that would be completely demoralizing and dehumanizing; no, we value our students for the WHOLE child who attends our school each day. The mathematician, the musician, the only child, the author, the tech enthusiast, the Minecraft expert, the soccer star, the child who splits her time between two homes, the nurse helper, the professional developer (yes, our students have led a PD session for our staff), the reader, the child of immigrants, the student leader, and the list can go on and on. You see, we devote much of our time at Cantiague to getting to know our children and learning about their passions, interests and readiness levels. Do we address the Common Core State Standards? Yes. Do we prepare them for the high stakes testing each year? Yes. But we do not define our children by standards or test scores.... we define our children by what makes them an individual; by what excites and interests them; and by what inspires them. You see, we have made a collective decision as a staff to focus on these priorities because that is what we believe will make a child college, career and most importantly, LIFE ready!
I have been an educator in public schools for almost twenty years - I spent eight years as a classroom teacher in the NYC public school system and in Hewlett; then I spent one year as an assistant principal in Valley Stream; and finally I have been an elementary principal for almost nine years in Valley Stream and now in Jericho. During my time in each one of those schools along my journey I have come to realize that we can train almost every child to pass a multiple choice test - trust me, I have seen it happen. We can turn around almost any school and address the achievement gap if we integrate scripted curriculum, "research based" programs and rely primarily on test preparation and benchmark testing - trust me, I have seen it happen. We can even push staff members with threats of accountability and consequences - trust me, I have seen it happen. In all of these instances though, what I haven't seen is sustainable change; I haven't seen a staff that stays in tact for years to see change "stick" for the long term; and I haven't seen children who are happy to come to school. In every one of these situations I have seen people (students, staff and administration) come to feel like widgets; interchangeable pieces in a "game" controlled by people outside of the schools.
For the life of me, I cannot understand how we could let this happen - why do we want our children to be subjected to these types of situations? Is that what you want for your daughters? I highly doubt it because I know for sure that is not what I want for my son. Unfortunately, with your recent proposal to see state test scores account for 50 percent of an educator's evaluation I think more and more schools will look like the above. It will not be about what is best for children - in no way, shape or form! It will not be about what is best for a community - it might actually be the opposite! And it will not be about encouraging our educators to take risks with their own teaching and learning. Nope... the opposite will happen governor. We will stifle schools. We will stifle creativity. We will stifle passion. We will stifle risk taking. We will stifle innovation. We will stifle our children. And for what? Higher test scores? For more teachers being rated ineffective? Or are you just trying to annihilate public schools? Please, explain to me your rationale because I do not understand how your plan will help us promote college, career and LIFE ready kids.
With that in mind, please share with us how much time you have spent in public schools across the state of NY? Months? Weeks? Days? Or is it just hours? And based on these experiences do you know there is a "crisis" in our schools? Have you spoken to students about this crisis? Have you spoken to educators about this crisis? Have you spoken to families about this crisis? Or are you basing your call for action on recent test scores? If that is your sole data point for suggesting that high stakes tests carry even more weight then I think we are in big trouble. How about if we used a similar system to rate you? Let's say your popularity numbers dipped one month? Could we rate you as developing? Let's say that drop in score continued over the course of a year? Should you be removed from office because you were clearly ineffective based on that one data point? Does that seem fair or logical to you? Hmmmm... that doesn't sound like the best way to judge you on your performance and thus the suggestion that educators be judged in a similar fashion makes no sense to me. What research do you have that shows evaluating teachers based on how children perform on high stakes testing is an effective way to improve schools? Have we seen this work elsewhere? What research speaks to the positive impact of high stakes testing on children, their learning and their academic performance? Please share this with me because I have done some research and I don't see anything that says this model will be effective at improving schools and weeding out the "bad" teachers that you think are plaguing all our schools.
From my perspective, as someone who only has twenty years experience as an educator, I have to believe there is a better way to assess us and to hold us accountable. Trust me, I am all for accountability because I can stand behind everything I do in our school because I believe it is in the best interest of children. Can you say the same? Can you stand behind 50 percent of an educator's evaluation coming from a single test taken by a child (in some cases children who are only 7 years old and have yet to master tying their own shoelaces)? Do you think placing more value on high stakes testing is in the best interest of our children? If so, please explain how because I don't see it. I watch our kids, staff members and families become increasingly anxious as we get closer to the state tests... and why? Because they are nervous about how they are going to perform and no matter how much I try and keep the temperature down in the building, the pressure mounts and becomes almost stifling. Is that what you want for your daughters? I can tell you that it is definitely not what I want for my son.
The more I think about it, the more I have to believe you are being misguided in your attempts to reform schools. Someone, or some group of people, is giving you misinformation and leading you to believe that educators are the enemy. We are NOT the enemies! In fact, most of the educators I know try and help children develop and amplify their own voices; we try and be the advocates for our children; and we try and create a space where children feel safe, respected and valued. I think maybe you need to spend more time in schools before you try reforming them. Come to Cantiague - our doors will always be open for you because I want you to see the smiles for yourself. I want you to see the children who love coming to school because of outdoor recess; I want you to talk to the children who love coming to school because of our library and the independent reading time they get during the day; I want you to watch the children who get to explore their passions and interests during Genius Hour; I want you to interact with the children who see themselves as authors and have recently mastered Google Docs as a way to publish their work digitally and thus gain access to an audience that goes beyond the walls of the school; I want you to come to a school where we put kids first and we know that kids are much more than a number and test score. If you can't make it all the way down to Long Island then I am guessing you will pass dozens of schools along the way that have created similar environments for their children where it is understood that being able to answer a multiple choice question is not an indicator of college, career and LIFE readiness; no way! Go visit a school where children are given voice; where staff members take risks with their teaching and learning! Go visit a school where critical thinking, collaboration and questioning are at the center - not test prep or benchmark assessments. Go visit a school where children are smiling and use that as the model for reforming schools - not the value added model that has not been proven to work! Please Governor Cuomo, make our kids and their well-being the priority - don't let them fall victim to the business of high stakes testing!
Dad to an AWESOME 5th Grader
2014 New York State Elementary Principal of the Year
Lead Learner at Cantiague Elementary School (2012 Blue Ribbon School)