Steal this letter (and make it your own!)

I got a letter from Diane Feinstein today about the latest version of ESEA.  sigh.  I include it at the bottom of this post.  Here is my response.  May it inspire you to write your own.
Dear Senator Feinstein,
All the provisions you sponsored are worthy, but your statement that “No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act has provided educators and lawmakers with critical data demonstrating the strengths and weaknesses of America’s public education system.”  is disheartening.   The data was there long before NCLB, in the form of underfunded and understaffed low income urban and rural schools, and the de-facto segregation of our city school systems.  Poverty was and is the major defining difference in the educational opportunities for young Americans.  The demoralizing pounding of standardized tests gave us no new information.  If anything, it set back the small gains that had been in progress.   It did strengthen the hands of those looking for ways to increase their bottom line on the backs of teachers (non-unionized charters) and poor families (rearranged budgetary priorities: more for test prep, less for the arts, field trips, counseling…)
From what I have read so far, Congress has made some modest progress in addressing the catastrophe public education in America has endured since 2000.  There seems to be less focus on punishment in the legislation being sent to committee.  But by leaving such a large burden of testing in place they have not basically altered the misdirection that NCLB sent us in.  Your glee that the new law will “preserve annual state-designed assessments to ensure teachers and parents have reliable achievement data, and make increased investments in the expansion of high-quality charter schools.”  convinces me you have not taken off the rose colored glasses for-profit organizations have been passing out.
I expected more from you.
Amy Valens
retired California elementary school teacher
film co-producer:  AUGUST TO JUNE, bringing Life to School
Good Morning Mission Hill: the freedom to teach, the freedom to learn

Dear Ms. Valens,

Thank you for writing to share your thoughts on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  I appreciate the time you took to write, and welcome the opportunity to respond.

Since its enactment in 2001, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act has provided educators and lawmakers with critical data demonstrating the strengths and weaknesses of America’s public education system.  Fourteen years later, Congress is considering legislation to build on the provisions of NCLB that are working and amend those policies that have problems.

As you may know, the “Every Child Achieves Act” (S. 1177) is a bipartisan bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (Public Law 107-110).  The bill would give more control to states and local school districts, eliminating the one-size-fits-all requirements created by NCLB.  The legislation would also preserve annual state-designed assessments to ensure teachers and parents have reliable achievement data, and make increased investments in the expansion of high-quality charter schools.

I share your belief that every student deserves a high-quality education, and I am pleased that a number of my provisions were included in the bill.  These include:

  • the preservation of existing exemptions allowing separate schools for homeless children, including the Monarch School in San Diego, to remain open;
  • the provision of additional means of certifying children, youth, parents, and families as homeless so that they may qualify for homeless housing assistance programs;
  • authorization for schools to use federal funds to support English learners by providing interpreters, translators, and materials in a student’s native language; and
  • a provision based on my bill, the “Helping Schools Protect Our Children Act” (S. 1369), to allow schools to use Title II funds to provide training to personnel on preventing and detecting sexual abuse.

Lastly, I also supported a provision to protect funding for large school districts that serve military-connected children; and to provide continued support for existing high-quality charter schools.

Please know that hearing your thoughts on how we can better serve our students is helpful to me.  The “Every Child Achieves Act” passed the Senate by a vote of 81 – 17, and will be conferenced with the House reauthorization bill, the “Student Success Act” (H.R. 5).

Once again, thank you for your letter.  If you have any further questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact my Washington, D.C., office at (202) 224-3841. Best regards.

Sincerely yours,

Dianne Feinstein
United States Senator

Further information about my position on issues of concern to California and the nation are available at my website, And please visit my YouTube, Facebook and Twitter for more ways to communicate with me.

Where are they now?

I am often asked about the children who we followed in August To June.  They were in third and fourth grade in 2005/6.  This past June those third graders graduated high school!  While I am still waiting to hear back from Alani and Lily, I know what all the rest are up to, and it seems like a good moment to report in.  it is easy to see that most of them have chosen to attend college.  That is the short way for me to describe them, but besides what you will see below, at least half of them have been active in programs to be of service to others or to protect our environment. They are off to a good start.  

Amber Rose is attending University of Redlands Johnston Center for Integrative Studies after 2014/15 community service projects in Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Ecuador and Peru.
interned at the Marine Mammal Center during her senior year. She’s now at University of California, Davis.
is attending Chatham University, majoring in biology and intending to go on to vet school.
is attending University of Georgia.
is attending University of Vermont.
was Drake High School’s Valedictorian. She’s attending University of Chicago.
is at California Polytechnic State University.
 is at University of California Santa Cruz.
spent last year at Feather River College, this year she is in Spain working as a nanny.
is at College of Marin.
is at Chapman College.
is creating his own path, with lots of traveling.
is at Oberlin College.
is doing work/study at Sivananda Yoga Retreat in the Bahamas as she pursues interests in yoga, homeopathy, and Ayurvedic and acupuncture healing.
(who we referred to as Kristin) works at the Bay Club Children’s Center.  She is saving up money to move to Santa Monica where she wants to take classes at Santa Monica Community College.
is at Hampshire College, after 2014/15 service projects in India, Ecuador, and Peru.
is at Western Washington University majoring in math and intending to teach high school math.
is at Santa Barbara City College.
is at College of Marin.
is at Sacramento Community College.
is traveling in Israel after attending Santa Rosa Junior College and working as the manager of The GreenGrocer.
is at Sarah Lawrence College.
is participating in a service program in Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia. He’ll start Western Washington University in the 2016 school year.
is at Grinnell College after community service last year in the Dominican Republic.

The film had the added benefit of allowing me to keep closer track of these young people, but I am in contact with many of the students who attended the Open Classroom, either because they are still in our community, or through the wonders of social media. With all the varied directions they have gone, the thread I find most striking is how many exhibit a strong degree of empathy, whether that is via the occupation or avocation they choose.   So often they are in the helping professions or involved in the arts, or are active in a community organization working for a better world.  They are caring parents, loving supportive friends.  I couldn’t ask for a better outcome.





You can help roll back testing overkill by acting today!

Tell your two U.S. Senators to vote for Sen. Jon Tester’s amendment to reduce federally mandated standardized testing from every-kid-every-year to once each in elementary, middle and high schools.

The Senate will vote the week of July 7 on a new federal education law to replace “No Child Left Behind.” The bill ends federally mandated high stakes for schools and teachers. That’s big progress for assessment reformers! But the proposal maintains annual testing in grades 3-8. Sen. Tester’s amendment will end that counter-productive policy.

At Fairtest’s site you can easily just sign your name, or personalize the letter they will send to your Senators.


Loving Learning, the book!

I just finished the recently published book, Loving Learning.  Written by Tom Little with important help from Katherine Ellison, it is a more than a guide to some of the places where progressive education is thriving today.  Taking each of the areas that Little sees as distinctive to progressive education, he traces their roots and looks at how they are expressed in today’s progressive schools.

It is fascinating to see how similar progressive practices are across the country, in public and independent schools, even though until recently communication between progressive educators has been very limited.  Oakland California’s Park Day School was Tom’s base for 37 years, so it figures highly in Loving Learning, but he spent the 2012/13 school year visiting 43 progressive schools.   While he distills what makes certain schools unique, and points out strong individual contributions to progressive practices with telling observations, we also recognize more and more clearly the common threads.

This excerpt about assessment (published in Salon) is particularly timely right now, with public school students enduring the annual high stakes testing that is the legacy of No Child Left Behind.  Students at many independent schools are involved in standardized testing as well.  Even without high stakes consequences the practice is questionable in a progressive context, as Tom is quick to point out.

Tom died shortly after he finished writing this book.  His legacy as the Park Day School head of school would have been great all on its own, but he moved beyond that one wonderful place.  He had a pivotal role in reinventing the Progressive Education Network.  With this book he will reach many who never had the chance to know this thoughtful, empathetic and dedicated teacher in person.


Overhaul ESEA/NCLB: National Day of Action April 8

Less Testing More Learning! If we raise our voices together, we can persuade the Senate Education Committee to reduce testing requirements as it debates renewal of Elementary and Secondary Education Act/No Child Left Behind.

Please take a few minutes on April 8 to phone your U.S. senators in Washington, DC. Ask to speak to the staffer who works on education policy. If no one is available, leave your message with the person who answered the phone. Find the phone numbers here
Below is a model message. Feel free to use it, modify it, or say something entirely different.

Hello. I’m [your name], calling from [your town]. I’m calling to ask Senator [name] to support changes to No Child Left Behind that will promote a saner and less intrusive approach to public school testing. Specifically, I urge [him/her] to support a switch to testing once each in elementary, middle and high school, and to remove high-stakes consequences from federally required standardized tests. Both these measures will help address the current over-emphasis on testing at the expense of learning.

If you have specific stories about problems with over-testing, please relate them. Personal stories are the most effective.

Do you tweet? then join the April 8 Twitterstorm:as well!! Here is an example. If you modify it, be sure to include ‪#‎cutfederaltests‬ and the link to getting your Senators’ numbers:
“Join BATs, FT, SOS, TRRA, & UOO 4/8 ‪#‎CutFedTests‬. Call Senate Cut back tests, end high stakes.”

To tweet your Senators, find their Twitter handles here:
And if your speed is email, to send a letter to your Senator, go here



Let Congress know what you think about high stakes tests!

Now’s the time to contact your U.S. Senators and Representatives to reduce federally mandated testing! Our children deserve less testing and more learning.  Your voice can make a difference!  Go here to add your letter to congress.



Summer 2014 GoodNewsletter

Dear Friends,
When August To June came out in January 2011, few in the general population were aware of the shift in priorities that had taken place in schools.  What a difference three years makes!  Now every week FairTest publishes a list of articles appearing in publications across the nation related to resistance to the testing mentality, and the lockstep approaches it has spawned.  Widespread skepticism surrounding the “new and improved” testing that is meant to accompany Common Core may cut it short before this generation of children suffer through what we call NCLB In Sheep’s Clothing.  But during those same three years we have become more aware of the amount of money and politics involved.  It’s necessary to keep on keeping on!

After an inspiring North Dakota Study Group Annual Meeting in Detroit, and wonderful visits to Ohio’s Wickliffe and Barrington Informal Programs and a return trip to Ann Arbor Open, Amy stopped traveling with August To June in April, to devote full time to finishing Good Morning Mission Hill.  Tom edited and Amy plunged into all the other details involved in finishing the project, and getting it seen.  We were very happy to learn that the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA), the same organization that distributed August To June, wanted to take Good Morning Mission Hill.  Working with our son Jesse, and our public television station relations representative Kristin Fellows, we put in place the major elements of our jacket design just in time to send a modified version on review copies to 160 television programmers and a first group of educators who offered to review it.The film will be available to programmers starting August 23.   We now have two websites, Good Morning Mission Hill and August To June that we hope you will explore, where you will find information on how to bring our work to your community.  We’ll be posting the dates and times of broadcasts on the calendars of both websites as we are notified.  So far we’ve heard from East Lansing MI (see the calendar), and Utah Public TV has told us they intend to promote the program widely–a nice start!  There may be broadcasts we are unaware of, so also check your local listings, or contact the station you watch to get up to date information.

We will very much appreciate you letting folks in your circle know of broadcasts.  Stations like hearing that organizations are being informed of their programming.  If you are doing that, please tell your local station!

Mission Hill principal Ayla Gavins and 7/8 teacher Ann Rugiero brought an unfinished version of the new film to Chicago this spring.  Principals and staff from many Chicago schools were in the audience, gathered there by Francis Parker School and DePaul University School of Education, in partnership with Chicago’s The Teachers’ Inquiry Project.  We recently were sent a rich and thoughtful article based on the reactions of the participants, and are waiting to learn if it will appear in the Fall issue of Schools Journal.

Come September both August To June and Good Morning Mission Hill will be available for community screenings.  Amy will be with Ayla Gavins, Ann Rugiero and Amina Michel Lord in November when Good Morning Mission Hill is shown at the Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum in San Francisco, and with Ayla and teacher Ashleigh L’Heureux in December when it is shown at the Association for Constructivist Teaching conference in North Carolina.   We are aiming to have a DVD that includes both Good Morning Mission Hill (with Spanish subtitles) and A Year At Mission Hill, the series of 10 shorts that first appeared on the internet, available for purchase via the website early this fall.  Contact us directly for the one hour version of August To June or for Spanish, French or German subtitled copies of the original 90 minute film.

It still seems to us that one of the best ways to create positive change in school cultures is to show positive examples, then invite conversation about how that might look in different settings.  We hope our films can help engender those conversations!

Our Facebook page now represents both films.  If you haven’t looked at it yet, it is where we keep track of what others are doing to create change, as well as posting information to support whole child education.

If you know of an opportunity for our new film to be reviewed, or want to organize a community screening, please contact us!




Ann Arbor Open Is Allowed to Abandon the NWEA MAP Test

Ann Arbor Open won’t administer the state’s standardized tests this year! It will be allowed to develop its own form of assessment. Bravo!! This is a huge step past opt-out. Current principal Kit Flynn has tenaciously and effectively presented the case against standardized testing. Yay Kit!! Their founding principal, Joan Goldsmith, made an early connection with the progressive North Dakota Study Group on Evaluation. That is where I first met teachers Bette Diem and Mary Wigton, who were instrumental in bringing August To June and me to their school. May others take heart from their success!  In fact, this is a good moment to share their success with any progressive administrators you know of.  That might lead to more stories like this next testing cycle.


New York Area Groups March in May!

Join these 26 organizations Saturday May 17 2pm in City Hall Park at the Take Back Our Schools March and Rally:

BATS – Change The Stakes – Children Are More Than Test Scores – Class Size Matters – Coalition for Public Education-Connie Hogarth Center for Social Action at Manhattanville College – EDU4 – iCOPE – Lace to the Top – LI Opt Out
MORE – New York Allies for Public Education – NY PRINCIPALS .ORG – NY Student Union – NYCORE – Parent Leadership Project-Parents to Improve School Transportation – Port Jeff Station Teachers Association – Radical Women
Reclaiming the Conversation on Education – Save Our Schools (SOS) – Save Our Schools-NJ – Stop Common Core in New York State-Students Not Scores LI – Students United for Public Education (SUPE) – Teachers United – Time Out from Testing…and more!



Parents in the Equation

This past month I spent time at two programs working hard to keep parents engaged in their children’s education.  Wickliffe and Barrington Informal Programs, part of the Upper Arlington School District near Columbus Ohio, and Ann Arbor Open in Ann Arbor Michigan are well established progressive public schools with traditions of parent involvement.   Both recognize the importance of renewal.

In Ohio the renewal was spurred by attendance at the Progressive Education Network Annual Conference last October in Los Angeles, where we showed the one hour version of AUGUST TO JUNE.  Principal Chris Collaros and several members of his staff signed up there for PEN’s first six day National Institute, and made the focus of their work at the Institute the deepening of their commitment to parents as co-educators.  They saw an opportunity to engage their larger community by showing August to June, and inviting me to visit the school to interact with parents and teachers.  They screened the film several times, with focused discussion after each screening.

When asked what their hopes for their children were, there were over a hundred responses.  These examples will not surprise people who have been following our progress:

* I hope my child will get his hands dirty with lots of opportunity to engage in project based experiential learning.

* He will be able to tap into his passions and live an inspired life.

* I hope she continues to grow and be aware of herself and her interactions with others…and use many available resources both emotional and analytical to solve problems.

* That they never lose their ability to appreciate the wonders that occur every day in their lives.

But how do hopes like those fit with parents’ roles in the classroom?  When I got there we had fascinating conversations about that!  Should there be a requirement for parent participation?  Is there a difference between being a parent volunteer and a co-educator?  Do parents feel comfortable acting as co-educators?  Do teachers feel prepared/ ready to be parent educators?

These questions were taken very seriously.  The conversation is ongoing, with first steps that everyone can agree on in the works.  I just sent them our school’s handbook. Chris and his colleagues would be happy to hear how other schools are addressing the roles families play in creating and supporting whole child education.

I went on to Michigan where I saw a heartwarming example of how parents, teachers and adminstrators can collaborate.  For over 30 years Ann Arbor community members have gone on retreat together to reaffirm and question their practices.  This time Teacher In A Strange Land blogger Nancy Flanagan and I were the guest speakers, but equally important were the people from the school community who guided and participated in discussions.  Nancy wrote ably about that gathering.  What I would add is the tremendous value there is in creating a place where questioning is as welcome as it was here.  Teacher  Bette Diem had put together an excellent group of readings, including one from Alfie Kohn that teacher Rick Hall used as a basis for reviewing Ann Arbor’s practices.  I gave a workshop at the same time as he did, so I didn’t get to hear the conversation his questions provoked, but he had put the questions up on sheets of paper with a place for people to put sticky notes showing their level of agreement as to whether that represented the way Ann Arbor currently functioned.  That graphic representation all by itself was fascinating, and showed room for growth, as well as where things were working well.

While the retreat of around 60 people represented a small percentage of the families involved in the school, it was still an impressive number when you consider the logistics and commitment involved in coming to an overnight gathering without children.  Clearly there would be ripple effects.

Saying there is always room for growth, and making room are two different things.  Ann Arbor and Wickliffe are making that room.