By Jill Keppeler
Niagara Gazette — Kathy Brown has made children cry ... and she doesn't like the feeling.
Brown, an elementary special-education teacher in Grand Island, said that she's comforted children who sobbed after she had to give them pre-tests at the beginning of the school year — before they'd ever been taught any of the material on those tests.
"It was a terrible start to the year," said Brown, who is in her 32nd year of teaching. "I vowed that I was going to do something about that."
It's that sort of story that's behind the Partnership for Smarter Schools and its message.
The grassroots organization, along with the School Administrators Association of New York State, Phi Delta Kappa and the Niagara Region PTA, is sponsoring a showing of the documentary "Race to Nowhere" at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda, followed by a panel discussion, "From Nowhere to Rethinking Reform."
The documentary, which premiered in 2009 and has since been screened in 44 states, three countries and more than 50 theaters, is a critical look at increasingly test-oriented education standards in the United States and the effects of "achievement culture" on students. Filmmaker Vicki Abeles started the film after seeing the effects of such stress in her own family and community.
The panel discussion after the documentary screening will feature Mark Garrison, an expert on school reform; MaryBeth Carroll, director of the Niagara Region PTA, and Walter Polka, professor of education at Niagara University and former superintendent of the Lewiston-Porter school district.
Polka, a member of the PSS Steering Committee and one of the groups's founding members, said the organization started when a group of educators met and saw the documentary, which he called a look "at the whole testing craze through children's eyes."
"I'm a firm believer in standards, but it's standardization that bothers me," he said, pointing out that while each person in New York state takes the same driving test, all 16-year-olds are not forced to take the test on their 16th birthday.
"We keep testing children over and over again, and to what purpose? It's a political issue, it's a business-driven issue," Polka said. "I talk to so many teachers who believe the joy of learning has been sapped in classrooms today because people are teaching to the test. What we want to do is make sure people rethink what we're doing, especially in New York state, where there's so much of an emphasis on testing."
Carroll, director of the Niagara Region PTA, which represents 33 PTA units and two PTA councils in the region, said she saw the film about 18 months ago, and called it "heart-wrenching."
"We thought it would be a good avenue to get out and get people to start thinking, to try to educate parents, and legislators that we need to rethink this," she said. "We need to rethink what we're doing."
After members watched the film, Carroll said, the Niagara Region PTA put together a statement of concern regarding high-stakes testing that was presented at the State PTA Convention.
"We're just trying to educate," she said. "There should be testing, there should be accountability, but they need to involve all the stakeholders."
Brown said that not only is the constant testing wearing on students, it's taking resources away from programs that actually help them.
"It winds up hurting kids, because they're the ones who have to go through this testing," she said. "There's a lot of time and resources needed to implement these kinds of programs, and this is a time when there are state cutbacks. ... We have limited resources, but we still have to pay to implement these programs.
"We're just not happy with where education is heading right now."IF YOU GO • WHAT: "Race to Nowhere" documentary followed by panel discussion, "From Nowhere to Rethinking Reform" • WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Thursday • WHERE: Riviera Theatre, 67 Webster St., North Tonawanda