Thursday, September 28, 2023

Community Forum Sparks Conversation on Standardized Tests, School Curriculum, Perks and Pitfalls of Public Education

More than 80 community members crowded into the Winn Room at the Coronado Library on Saturday, July 9th for a panel discussion on the current state of public education in America. The event, originally reserved for a Coronado Democratic Club meeting but changed to a non-club, non-partisan event open to all, featured panelists Casey Tanaka, longtime CUSD U.S. History teacher, Coronado City Council Member and former Mayor of Coronado; Peter Bolland, Department Chair of Humanities and Philosophy at Southwestern College; Darshana Patel, PhD, Board Member at Poway Unified School District and President of the San Diego County School Board Association; and Jennifer Landry, CUSD faculty and President of the Association of Coronado Teachers.

Brian Trotier, who moderated the discussion, said that the non-partisan event was designed to educate and inform voters about the issues impacting public schools. Four questions were posed to panelists on subjects ranging from the relevance of standardized tests to the biggest problems facing public education today.

“We need to focus on doing what’s in the best interest of our children,” said Trotier. “They are our future and we owe it to them to give them the best opportunities.”

In their opening comments, panelists highlighted the importance of public education and its role in a successful democracy. Tanaka said public education is rooted in the early days of the nation in the Land Ordinance of 1785, which outlined processes by which lands west of the Appalachian Mountains were to be surveyed and sold. The ordinance required one section of every township for public schools; the surrounding lots in the township were to be used to generate resources and funding for these schools.

“They realized in a fledgling democratic country, if you don’t educate your citizens, your democracy is going to fail,” said Tanaka. “We need to support our public schools. Because if our public schools are poor, then our election outcomes will be poor.”

Trotier asked the first question for panel discussion: other than the fact that it’s free, what is the biggest asset of public schools?

Bolland said that not only do public schools attract the best teachers, but they serve as an incubator of civil society, and an environment where students can work through challenges with humility and empathy.

“In a public school setting, students will come together with other people they would not normally bump into, except in a public school classroom,” said Bolland. “They learn how to support each other across differences, and not shout each other down.”

Patel, who shared that she is the daughter of immigrants, said that public education was the gateway for all of her future opportunities and successes. She said the biggest asset of public school education is that it’s fully-inclusive; it does not exclude based on where a child grew up, how they grew up, or what abilities they have.

“It’s open to everyone. That’s the beauty of it. It creates this universal opportunity for a child to develop their own skills, fulfill their dreams and wishes,” said Patel.

Tanaka, who attended Coronado schools from 1983 to 1994, said that the biggest success of the Coronado school system is that, if students have a dream or an aspiration to do something, and they work hard enough, they tend to achieve those dreams. He shared the story of a neighbor who applied to the U.S. Naval Academy, and, despite steep competition, got in.

“Kids can aspire to great things, and they’re not being fools for thinking that’s possible,” said Tanaka. “The Coronado schools have been really good to me. And I think that public schools have been really good to America.”

When it comes to the biggest challenges of public education today, Landry said that State funding and the budget create a logistical nightmare, making it impossible to know what funds will be in place for teachers and programs in coming years. She referenced the March 15th date, whereby teachers are “pink slipped” if the district isn’t sure they’ll have the funds to pay them the following school year. Often, once the state budget is set and the funds are allocated, the district then attempts to rehire the pink-slipped teachers, creating an atmosphere of insecurity and stress.

She also said that a decline in community confidence is currently damaging public schools and teachers. Angry emails, name-calling and ill-informed comments are hurting the CUSD community, according to Landry.

“Most of us have Masters degrees in education. Some have doctoral degrees. That’s who’s in the front of the classroom,” said Landry. “It’s very difficult to keep hearing some of the things that are being said and lobbed from far away.”

She said that local discussions around public education used to be very collegial, with a focus on government and policy and in a spirit of celebration. She said she hopes that the community returns to this.

“I hope we can get back to the community having confidence in us, when we have worked so hard and studied for so long and put so much heart and soul into our classrooms,” said Landry. “We are here because want to be here. Those who don’t want to be here…they left.”

Tanaka said that one of the biggest problems in public education today is hiring practices, which he called “antiquated, outdated and impractical.” He bemoaned the rigorous credential process for aspiring teachers, and the fact that both life and career experience is often overlooked.

“We make it really hard for people to become teachers in this state,” said Tanaka. “I think if we talked to everyone in this room, if you had a retired engineer, or a retired naval officer, or someone who had a meaningful career and has the right educational background, you would want to create a system where it was possible for a principal to take a risk and hire that person.”

He also said public schools would benefit from hiring superintendents with business experience as opposed to a background strictly focused on education. He said districts often put more emphasis on whether a superintendent has a doctorate in education as opposed an MBA, which would indicate skill with finance and business management.

Patel pushed back on teacher credentialing, saying that’s it’s important for teachers to undergo a strict credentialing process because they work with small children. She named regulatory complexity and inconsistent funding as the biggest challenges today in public education.

The third question was asked: How important are standardized tests? Do they really mean anything?

Landry said that standardized tests are just one way to attempt to show what a student knows. No one knows how the student was feeling that day, and some students get anxiety before tests.

“I’ve had students in the past who have been horrible test takers. But if I talked to them about the subject, we would have the most amazing and marvelous conversation about their thoughts and interest in the subject,” said Landry.

She said that tests can be useful, and they can give information, highlighting supposed areas of group or individual deficiency. But she cautioned against using standardized tests as markers to show the success of the school, curriculum, or teacher. After all, there’s one thing standardized tests can’t measure: connections.

“We are dealing with humans, not robots. So, if they are having a bad day, why are we looking at just one test as that measure?” asked Landry.

Patel said that many high school students are dealing with “testing fatigue,” as the average junior might be taking up to ten standardized tests in addition to other class exams. She says that testing does theoretically serve a purpose, as taxpayers want accountability for their investment in public education. But if the data isn’t being put to good use, then the testing is worthless.

“What are we doing with the results from the standardized tests?” asked Patel. “That’s the fundamental question.”

Tanaka echoed the unreliability of test scores, given that many students are opting out because they don’t believe they impact their future. He said the only tests the students ascribe value to are AP tests, because they know that if they pass them, they won’t have to take that class in college.

“A lot of kids aren’t taking the standardized tests; that’s the reality,” said Tanaka. “So, are the tests really going to give you accurate and reliable data?”

Bolland said that the process of standardized testing is akin to showing “how much meat we need to get out of the end of the grinder.”  He said that it’s virtually impossible to eliminate implicit bias, whereby standardized tests favor certain categories of people and background over others. This renders them “minimally useful,” according to Bolland.

“I’m not advocating that we should just sit around and have discussions, and nobody should get grades,” said Bolland. “But not everything that counts can be counted. And not everything that can be counted, counts.”

For the last question, panelists tackled a call to schools to “get back to basics.” Should schools teach more than reading, writing and arithmetic?

For Landry, the answer is yes. She said that in today’s world of modern technology, schools need to teach things like problem solving and troubleshooting, and how to “life.” She said that some students can write an email, but they can’t address an envelope. Others can’t figure out an answer to a problem without asking Siri.

“When we think about what it takes to be a successful adult, it’s more than those fundamentals from years and years ago,” said Landry. “Civilization has changed and we need to change with it. These are things we need to be functional people in society. We need to add to society, and not just take away.”

Patel said that our children and grandchildren will be faced with intersectional problems that will span across multiple disciplines and ways of thinking.

“For example, when we are making a choice between housing and preserving the environment. There’s a lot of complexity there,” said Patel. “Are we developing the land? What are our priorities?  You’re going to need a scientist and a medical professional that understands philosophy and religion. You’re going to need an engineer that understands how to bring societies and build culture, along with building those bridges.”

Bolland said that if democracy is to prevail, public education must teach critical thinking skills. He said that public education has a central role in the creation of a civil society of thoughtful people who can live among diverse communities. Education helps create a society where people have the capacity to listen to others with whom they disagree, and fall back on logic and reason and evidence-based science, according to Bolland.

“Thomas Jefferson was right,” said Bolland. “That’s why he founded the University of Virginia. Because he knew without wide access to higher education, democracy fails.”

Bolland said that the precursor to tyranny is a citizenship that has lost faith in the very concept of expertise, reason-based evidence and free speech.

“No, all opinions are not equal, some are ridiculous, but let’s take a moment to shine a light on why those opinions are self-contradictory, unfounded, unwise and lead to horrible outcomes,” said Bolland. “And that goes beyond learning how to calculate and write your name.”

At the end of the discussion, two community members asked questions of the panel. The first asked why teacher unions, on the state and national level, were so heavily invested in politics in favor of the Democratic Party.

Tanaka said that while teachers unions often get a “bum rap” for improving their salary and benefits, he would like to see them “flex their muscles” more as professionals, providing more advice on education.

“I’d like to see us offer more opinions on teaching, and prove our influence by showing there is more to us than how much we get paid,” said Tanaka.

Another speaker advocated for a focus on citizenship and for mandatory civics classes for all.

According to Trotier, community members have approached CUSD to host another panel discussion. Stay tuned for more information which we will promote on our Events calendar.

On the November 8, 2022 election ballot will be three full term (four years, 2022-2026) seats for the CUSD Board of Trustees (currently occupied by Helen Anderson-Cruz, Lee Pontes, Esther Valdes-Clayton ) as well as one short term (two years, 2022-2024) seat (currently occupied by Bruce Shepherd). The fifth seat is currently held by Whitney Antrim with term ending in 2024.



Christine Van Tuyl
Christine Van Tuyl
Christine was born and raised in Texas, but moved to Coronado with her family as a teen in 1993. Although initially horrified by surfers, flannels and skateboards, she ultimately grew to love all things So-Cal. A graduate of UCSD, Christine got her first writing job on the KUSI ten o’clock news while simultaneously juggling a reporter position at the San Diego Community News Group. She worked as a public relations professional, a book editor, real estate professional, and a freelance writer before eventually succumbing to motherhood in 2008.A decade later, Christine resurfaced to start the Island Girl Blog, a Coronado lifestyle blog. In addition, she writes a monthly page for Crown City Magazine. Christine loves hanging out with her husband, Ian, and their two spirited daughters, Holland and Marley, who attend Village Elementary and Coronado Middle School. When she’s not working, you’ll find her practicing yoga, spilling coffee at school drop off, meeting friends for sushi, or sailing the Bay with her family and English Bulldog, Moshi. Have news to share? Send tips, story ideas or letters to the editor to: [email protected]