TIME Education

What Happens When You Stop Testing and Start Teaching

187480282
Jonathan Kirn—Getty Images

Darlena Cunha is a Florida-based contributor to The Washington Post and TIME among dozens of other publications.

While Florida wasted students' time with computer testing, my kindergarteners weren't learning how to write the alphabet

Last year, as I watched a trial run of an online test my five-year-old was taking, the decades-old earphones slipped down her head. She fumbled at the mouse in front of the computer, then clicked the button and liked the sound it made. So she clicked it again. She skipped a screen by accident. And once you skip a screen, you’re not allowed to go back.

The instructor went over to her and tried to explain that we could not just randomly click our mouse buttons, no matter how fun it was. We had to answer the questions. We had to get through the test.

My kindergartener looked at her blankly. Then came up with an answer she deemed a trump card.

“But it’s so shiny!” she exclaimed. The teacher sighed. She nodded slightly, but was called to help another student before she could re-explain the objective.

The FAIR test (Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading) is given to students grades K-2. It is supposed to take 35 minutes per student, but often takes up to an hour. It is given during class time at the beginning of the year and then twice more throughout the year. Each class has 18 students in it, and this year the teacher is required to sit with each one, devoting that hour to the individual student while another teacher, who has her own class to attend to, wrangles all the other students. This means the total time for test administration is 13 hours for one class plus 13 hours for the other class (as they’ve combined teachers). During that time, little to no actual instruction can take place. The assessment period, therefore, takes the first two weeks of school.

From a parental standpoint, it was a nightmare. Why should my kids miss out on instruction to take a rote test that doesn’t seem to measure anything?

This year, teacher Susan Bowles of Chiles-Lawton Elementary School in Gainesville put her job on the line by refusing to give the test to her students. Parents around the county gave her a metaphorical standing ovation.

“I know I may be in breach of my contract by not administering this test,” she wrote in a Facebook note to parents of her class. “I cannot in good conscience submit to administering this test three times a year, losing six weeks of instruction. There is a good possibility I will be fired.”

Letters of support came pouring in to the Superintendent’s office for Bowles, who had made it clear the issue was not with school officials, but with the government mandates for testing here in Florida.

On Sept. 11 of this year, I received an email from Owen Roberts, Superintendent of Alachua County Schools, in which he stated his support for Bowles, but asked parents to go to their local legislators to enact the change we all wish to see in regard to standardized testing.

“I have met personally with Mrs. Bowles,” he wrote, “and the district has heard from parents praising her as an excellent teacher. I certainly appreciate her concerns regarding FAIR testing. I have said clearly and publicly that I believe there is too much standardized testing here in Florida, and that much of it doesn’t offer a significant educational benefit for children.

“However, Florida law requires that all kindergarten students take the FAIR test during the first 30 days of school. Until the law changes, the district is obligated to administer the test.”

But the problems remain. Bowles stated in her note that the testing requirements have been increasing each year, yet the school budgets have not been given a boost to accommodate the changes. Teachers are expected to give the tests with no support. And things get lost. Important things.

Last weekend, I taught my twins, now in first grade, how to write a “g”. It’s not that they weren’t writing them at all, but because so much teaching time has been lost to testing, the kids are left to their own devices to build the basic blocks of learning, so that the teachers can keep up with the rigorous curriculum. My children, being adaptive and wily, devised their own ways to write the letters of the alphabet without formal instruction (other than what I’d taught them when they were four, the summer before school.) To write a “g”, my kids would draw a straight line down, then draw a little circle on top of the line, then make a tiny curve at the bottom of the line. It seems like no big deal, but when that is multiplied by every letter they have to write for every assignment, it ends up taking at least three times as long. My children were not finishing their work.

My kids work hard. I promise you, Florida, they do. And if we can’t trust our teachers to do their jobs, and to assess our kids given their expertise and experience in the field—if we ask them to give up their vocation to instead administer online tests and teach babies to bubble in the dots so that some machine can spit out a statistic to tell our state if we’re smart enough to get money to get smarter—we are doing a disservice to our children. We are no longer teaching them at all.

The good news is that Bowles’ stand, though a shot in the dark, helped to push an already growing unrest to its boiling point. Instead of losing her job, or having the state push the event under the rug, on Sept. 15 I received this email relaying a message from Florida’s Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart.

“…in light of the technical difficulties schools and teachers here in Alachua County and throughout the state have experienced with the FAIR test, the test will not be required for kindergarten screening within the first 30 days of school for this school year. In fact, FAIR testing will not continue for any students in grades K-2.”

We won. Susan Bowles won. Our students won. If this David-and-Goliath story doesn’t light the hearts of parents and teachers around the nation, and solidify efforts to teach our children, not test them, I don’t know what will. Alachua County has shown that we can make a difference. We just have to try.

Darlena Cunha is a Florida-based contributor to The Washington Post and TIME among dozens of other publications. You can find her on Twitter @parentwin or on her blog at http://parentwin.com.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME U.S.

Why Drug Testing Welfare Recipients Is a Waste of Taxpayer Money

Drug Test
Matej Divizna—Getty Images

States already do a good job of ensuring no one gets a "free ride." We don't need another one--especially one that stimgatizes

The tired image of the welfare queen with six kids, driving around in a Cadillac, watching soap operas on an expensive television and eating junk food on the couch has had its day.

It is 2014, years into the Great Recession, and millions have been helped by hundreds of social services put in place by the government to stabilize families in this time of need. Yet the states insist upon making the lines between the rich and poor ever darker, ever harder to cross. Maine lines up as the latest in a host of states beginning to enforce drug-testing legislation for welfare recipients.

The testing is meant to assure taxpayers their money isn’t being “wasted” on the less desirable, those who would somehow manage to buy drugs with the assistance. But in Tennessee, where drug testing was enacted for welfare recipients last month, only one person in the 800 who applied for help tested positive. In Florida, during the four months the state tested for drug use, only 2.6% of applicants tested positive. Meanwhile, Florida has an illegal drug use rate of 8%, meaning far fewer people on services are using drugs than their better-off counterparts. The drug testing cost taxpayers more money than it saved, and was ruled unconstitutional last year.

People tend to forget that those using the programs are most likely also taxpayers, or were at some point. In 2010, nearly half of poor or near poor mothers on welfare were working at least part time. My husband and I, for instance, worked a combined 45 years, paying taxes, before he lost his job two weeks before I had premature twins, and had to apply for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. During the time we were on aid, I held a fulltime job, meaning I was paying in to the system from which I was simultaneously benefiting.

Our family is not alone. Denise Calder, a middle school teacher in Broward County, Florida, has a Bachelors of Science from Tufts University and has worked steadily since 1994. “Now I’m 42 years old, divorced, a single mother of four,” she told me. She makes $41,300 year. “Every penny goes to food, rent, gas, medical bills,” she says. “Since 2009, I have had to apply for and accept Medicaid & SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] twice to provide for my children when I took maternity leave in 2009 and 2013.”

When I signed up for WIC services in 2008, I was a television producer in Boston, creating a news show seen by millions of people a night. I was making $40,000 a year and my husband had just been laid off. During my three months of maternity leave, my salary was $25,000, but our family qualified for the WIC program on my full income. We used it for 18 months. And we needed it.

WIC is an income-based program. Women must make no more than 185% of the Federal poverty line guidelines, and in some states, they must actually be living at or below the poverty line. Statistics from the Food and Nutrition Service department show that 73% of people on WIC are making less than the federal poverty line. The income cut-off for a family of four is $44,123 a year.

It’s also not just a phone call and done. Women applying must be pregnant or up to six months post-partum. Children can receive services up to their fifth birthday, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services. Once you’ve called, you have to provide proof of income for everyone in the household, proof of identity, proof of residence, proof of participation in any other program—including Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or General Assistance—immunization records for your children, pregnancy confirmation (official note from your doctor), recent height and weight measurements and a blood test for hemoglobin levels, and a WIC Referral Form from your doctor. You also have to provide documentation of any child support payments, unemployment benefits, or short-term disability money received. These requirements vary slightly from state to state, but for the most part they are consistent.

Once you’ve gone through all that, you have to wait to be processed and either accepted or rejected. After the whole process, you may still hear that you aren’t poor enough (for instance, if you are receiving child support or if you can’t provide certain paperwork). Bree Casson, a divorced former army wife who works part-time at McDonald’s, was turned away from the WIC office last week because she didn’t have her family’s Medicaid cards, despite multiple phone and mail requests to the Department of Health and Human Services.

“I dragged my three kids out, with all our paperwork, including our Medicaid numbers,” she said, “and they insisted they needed the physical cards to prove our income eligibility. I’ve been trying to get those cards for two years with no luck. All this for some milk and cheese and vegetables.”

Applying and being accepted for aid is a mentally grueling process that can stretch on for months. Add to that the humiliation of having to pee in a cup just because you can’t afford to eat. There’s already a huge stigma about having to receive services, a spiral of shame and embarrassment that permeates the use of the system. Instead of wasting taxpayer money to weed out a small percent of those in need, demonizing an entire sect of people in favor of misleading stereotypes, maybe it’s time we put our funds into helping them find their way out of the system and onto their own two feet.

Darlena Cunha is a mother of twins and a freelance writer for The Washington Post, Gainesville Sun and Gainesville and Ocala magazines. You can reach her @parentwin on Twitter.

TIME U.S.

What It’s Like to Live in ‘Poor Door’ Housing

An ariel view of the Manhattan skyline in New York on June 20, 2014.
An ariel view of the Manhattan skyline in New York on June 20, 2014. Seth Wenig—AP

The mixed-income residents helped make an old apartment complex feel like a community.

New York City’s Upper West Side will soon see a segregated 33-floor apartment building, with a back-alley door—for the poor residents.

The 55 residential families making at or below 60% of New York City’s median income must live on floors 2 through 6 (below the richer residents), face the street while the other families have waterfront views, and enter and leave the building through the back door. Meanwhile, development company Extell, benefits from tax breaks and is allowed to construct a bigger building than normal zoning would permit, though it reportedly plans to turn around and sell the extra space to another development within a half-mile of their site, a sale that could reap the company a few extra millions.

In 2007, I lived in a mixed-income apartment complex in La Mesa, a town just outside San Diego proper. There were regularly paying tenants like myself, and those on a sliding rent scale.

On my first night in an old but fairly spacious one-bedroom apartment, some guys dropped off a second-hand sofa in my driveway. I dragged it up the cement steps, but its legs wouldn’t fit through the entryway. Knowing no one, I knocked on my neighbor’s door, looking for a screwdriver.

A wiry man in filthy jeans opened the door, his bald head gleaming in the moonlight. He said nothing, just stood there with his arms crossed.

“Hi,” I said, after a few uncomfortable beats. “I’m your new neighbor.” I stuck out my hand.

He relaxed and shook my hand with a grunt. Then he helped me unscrew the legs of my couch and get it into my place while his wife looked on, feeding their baby and making small talk. Afterward, Rusty, Heather and I all relaxed on the stoop with the beer I’d bought.

Eventually, I got to know my other neighbors. The young people directly across from Rusty and Heather were a brother and sister pair of Mexican descent. They worked minimum-wage jobs and, other than a dutiful “How’s it going?” each day at 2 a.m. when I’d leave for work, kept to themselves. Every so often, after my shift, I’d sit on the stoop with Rusty and Heather while we waited for the woman who lived next to me to return home.

“Ooooh, sugars!” she’d shout as she stepped out of whichever random car gave her a lift that afternoon. “Where’s your little baby! I need to give him some loving!”

Angel never talked about what she did to make money. She had a 16-year-old daughter who went to high school and cooked her mother dinner.

There were other apartment buildings packed in, right behind us and to either side. We all shared a parking lot where little kids would play kickball and tag on the weekends. We did laundry in a repurposed garage with two rusty machines.

On a rare day when both machines were working, I met Florence and her son, Hank, who suffers from cerebral palsy. They lived off her social security income and his disability. During the days, they’d beg on the street corners in the nicer section of town to make ends meet.

“We can’t afford the copays for his medicine, otherwise,” she explained with an embarrassed shrug. I left them the rest of my quarters that day.

Affordable housing complexes sometimes house regular renters, like me, with those who receive reduced rental rates due to their income levels. The difference—aside from either the rents being set at a percentage of the family’s income or subsidies being given to developers for taking part in one of the programs—is that I didn’t have to fill out extensive paperwork proving my income level and outlining my assets. I also didn’t get put on a waiting list, nor did I have to go into detail about my medical history, domestic life, whether I’d recently been homeless or in a shelter, or my eviction status. All of those variables come into play when you apply for low-income housing options, depending, of course, on the state in which you apply.

For offering affordable housing units, Extell could profit greatly off the deal. This amounts to the poorer residents of the building subsidizing the construction costs, while a corporation makes millions.

The poor-door section of the building, meanwhile, is essentially another building altogether. Although it shares a wall with the proper site, Extell filed it as off-site housing. A loophole added in 2005, and modified in 2009, allows affordable housing to be built off-site, so long as it’s within a half mile of the original building plan. This is not integrated housing as the spirit of the program intended.

While technically allowed, this realization of the program—which is meant to encourage integration by mingling low- with moderate- or middle-income households either in the same building for on-site housing or in the same neighborhood for off-site housing—further entrenches the notion that being poor is a disease one brings upon oneself, that it is a personal failing and poor people don’t deserve to be seen within regular society.

If anyone thinks the poorer residents of 40 Riverside Boulevard on the Upper West Side are just waltzing into the apartments after signing a lease, they should think again. Those residents have already been put through a lengthy application process, multiple questionnaires and a long wait to be approved.

For my old neighborhood, the affordable housing program helped make an old apartment complex a community. Those who were ill had a roof over their heads, little kids could go to school knowing they had a permanent homestead to come back to, and people from all walks of life, with all different backstories, got a chance to try again.

And unlike 40 Riverside Boulevard, we all felt like we belonged.

Darlena Cunha is a mother of twins and a freelance writer for The Washington Post, Gainesville Sun and Gainesville and Ocalamagazines. You can reach her @parentwin on Twitter.

TIME Parenting

I Left My Kids With a Babysitter to Go to a Job Interview—And Came Home to Find Them Hungry, Naked, and Locked Up

Shadow of child sitting in swing
Getty Images

Unlike the mother who left her daughter in a park, my childcare was legal. But all too often there's no way to win as a low-income mom.

On a beautiful summer’s day last week, a mother was arrested for letting her daughter play at the park, rather than taking her to McDonald’s.

Debra Harrell’s 9-year-old daughter was tired of waiting around the fast-food restaurant in North Augusta, South Carolina, where her mother worked. The laptop Harrell had purchased to keep her daughter occupied during her shifts had recently been stolen from their home. When Harrell’s daughter asked to be dropped off at a well-populated park instead, Harrell agreed, giving her daughter a cell phone for emergencies. This worked fine for two days, but on the third, a woman asked the girl where her mother was. When the answer was “at work,” the woman called the police. Harrell was jailed and her daughter was put in the custody of the Department of Social Services.

Many people were outraged that a mother would allow her child to go unsupervised for so many hours. The authorities deemed it worthy of an “unlawful conduct towards a child” charge. Obviously, this wasn’t an ideal childcare situation, but Harrell made an educated risk assessment based on the information and resources—not many—at hand. The fact of the matter is that child abductions in a public place by a stranger are incredibly rare. Nationally, 76% of abductions are friend or family related.

People forget, but finding safe, trustworthy, affordable childcare is a luxury many don’t have. Even doing things the “right way” can go terribly awry.

In 2010, my family moved from Connecticut to Florida for my husband’s new job. After he had been unemployed for almost two years, living 18 hours away from our friends, family and support system seemed a small price to pay for full-time work, especially since we had two new children to support.

About three months into our stay, I secured a job interview for a television station in Jacksonville, about two hours from where we lived. While our family of four was finally making $55,000 a year, we had lost all our savings in the economic crash and had accrued some debt. Our credit rating was smashed, and we were hemorrhaging funds into a house back in Connecticut that was worth $100,000 less than what we’d paid for it, on top of paying our new rent. We were no longer on public assistance, but the outflow of money was far greater than the inflow. In fact, during our first months in Florida, we were worse off financially than we had been when I had been working (and making far less) in Connecticut. Accepting the job interview seemed like the only option.

Our regular babysitter, a college student who had trained with me and had stayed with my two young daughters alone a few times, couldn’t make it, but suggested a friend of hers who had met my kids briefly. She seemed good with them based on the few minutes of interaction I’d seen. With only one day’s notice and no family or friends nearby, as is the case with so many people facing poverty, I decided to take a chance on her.

Wrong choice.

I’ll never know what really happened that day because the girls were not quite 2 years old and not vocal yet. But when I returned home nearly eight hours later, the door to their room was shut. Their little fingers were sticking out beneath it, as if reaching for something. I opened it, and found my babies in an exhausted sleep on the floor of their bedroom, naked and diaperless. They hadn’t eaten all day. The sitter said they had refused any food and had cried the whole time I was gone. She locked them in their room because she didn’t know what else to do and couldn’t stand the sound of their crying. They had undressed themselves in despair. She had not once called to tell me about this, and when I phoned her to check in, she had said everything was fine.

While in my case “legitimate” childcare in the eyes of the state turned out to be more harmful to my children’s well being than Harrell’s free-range “choice,” the truth of the matter is that childcare is a struggle for anyone with limited means and options. Coming from a huge family in New England, I had never faced that reality before. There had always been some relative available to help. The crash had changed all that, and it opened my eyes to the reality many mothers face, where trying to carve a better life for their family (or even just putting food on the table) leaves them with little choice or time to find adequate, safe care for their children.

After the incident, I cried for a week straight. My kids, now nearly 6, have never again had a sitter who hasn’t trialed with me for a full week. I also turned down the job, and haven’t been away from my children for eight hours at a time again.

That’s because I decided to be a stay-at-home mom. This wasn’t a choice made out of excess or even desire. It was the most financially stable decision we could make at the time. I had been offered a job as a news anchor at the local station when we first arrived. The pay? $9 an hour (the salary for the job in Jacksonville wasn’t much better). I couldn’t believe it. I also couldn’t afford childcare for one baby off that salary, never mind two. I saved thousands of dollars a year by not working.

But I was lucky. I had that option. I have a husband who is employed full time—though we weren’t always so fortunate. Single mothers like Harrell have no money coming in if they don’t work. When they have no friends or family, and can’t afford a sitter, they have to get creative. If they don’t find fulltime work, some people will judge them, call them lazy, and assume they’re looking for handouts. If they work minimum wage jobs to make ends meet, they’re without health insurance or childcare benefits, and they can’t afford childcare off their meager salaries. And if they then can’t find childcare that fits the subjective level of appropriate supervision, the state takes the children away. At 9 years old, Harrell’s daughter was old enough to go to a park filled with other children and dozens of adults for the day. And a mother sending her there clearly felt she had no other option.

What this family needed was help, not punishment. While Harrell has since been released and reunited with her daughter, the Department of Social services is still obligated to investigate the case. McDonald’s has also terminated Harrell, according to her lawyer, leaving her without an income.

When these incidents arise, we need to stand up for the families, the individuals. We need to educate them about the programs there to assist them in times of need because those programs are not well advertised and the application process is murky and time-consuming. Harrell would have most definitely been eligible for childcare assistance. The guidelines vary by state, but in South Carolina, a parent must be working, in school or training, need a minimum of 15 hours or childcare a week, and–for a family of three, for example–make less than $2,200 a month.

Debra Harrell is trying to get out of the hole so many people rant about others lounging in. So why aren’t we letting her dig?

Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly included statistics for a different state. It has been corrected to include those in South Carolina.

Darlena Cunha is a mother of twins and a freelance writer for The Washington Post, Gainesville Sun and Gainesville and Ocala magazines. You can reach her @parentwin on Twitter.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser