Samantha Reilly: Melissa Katz – Reviving Education by Tearing it Down

Written by Samantha Reilly, South Brunswick High School Class of 2014
Originally published in The Viking Vibe 

The name “Melissa Katz” rings a few bells around South Brunswick as a 2013 graduate of SBHS, but as the district approaches the implementation of PARCC testing, Katz approaches a new status as a household name in terms of education reform movements.

Katz recently spoke at a local Board of Education meeting to express her less-than-subtle views on what the board is doing versus what the board should be doing. To say she is not a fan of PARCC is a grotesque understatement, one which cannot compete with the volume at which she speaks to the community on a daily basis.

Katz, an 18-year old who recently finished her freshman year as an Urban Elementary Education major at TCNJ, looks and acts like any other college student. But then comes her eloquent, wise-beyond-her-years speech to accompany a perfectly tabbed, highlighted, and labeled binder of educational statistics and testimonies against PARCC testing. Said binder is “one of six”, she explained.

Having graduated from high school and not yet begun a professional career in teaching, Katz is stuck in a disconnected limbo of sorts, one may say. She chooses to see it differently.

“I love [that] I’m in a really unique position that allows me to speak out and say what I want without really having any consequences because I’m in that in-between stage,” Katz said. “I’m trying to take advantage of it.”

So the question arises: what causes this non-student, non-teacher, former Viking to hold such adamant, fervently-expressed beliefs about education here?

“I may not be teaching yet, but the day I step into a classroom,” said Katz, “ ‘effective’ is going to decide whether I keep my job or not.”

She refers to “effective” as a “buzzword reformers like to use” to determine a teacher’s worth to the system as a whole, and so begins her long list of issues with reformers in the educational world, South Brunswick’s board included.

“I am trying to get our board to be more vocal and take a stance on the many issues in education,” said Katz.

She then began to explain the many, many, many issues with education, most of which slip right under the noses of those with the most power to resolve them, she said.

“What you see a lot across the country is boards of education are not the most educated people on education. They’re usually business people,” said Katz, “Not just our board [but] boards everywhere, need to start educating themselves on what’s going on because they’re making decisions that impact every single child in this [district] and around the state and around the country.”

The concept of reform in education is evident nationwide. The rise of PARCC as the latest educational standard has provoked an abundance of criticism and controversy throughout the United States.

“The whole reform movement is coming from all sides,” said Katz, “It’s coming from Republicans and it’s coming from Democrats and conservatives and liberals… It’s parents and students and teachers, and in some cases principals, and in some cases superintendents and districts standing up and saying, ‘This is not what we want for our kids. This is not what real education is.’”

To understand PARCC and Melissa’s opposition to it, it is important to understand the motives under which reformers operate. According to a global report conducted by the education firm Pearson in 2012, the United States ranks 17th in the developed world for education as a whole: 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading, as reported by The Huffington Post on November 27, 2012.

The United States, under the pressure of upholding its prestigious global reputation, has broken into a hysteria, she said, incapacitated by the idea that the US is not the best and the brightest.

A commonly overlooked factor, though, is the child poverty levels in each respective country. Finland, for example, leads in education according to the 2012 study, but also ranks as the country with the lowest relative child poverty rate. Merely 5% of children aged 0-17 in Finland are living in households with incomes below 50% of the national median, according to a UNICEF study alluded to by The Washington Post. The United States has a whopping statistic of nearly 25% of children suffering in that respect.

“In urban districts you see lower test scores and it’s not because they’re not smart. Kids in urban districts are dealing with poverty,” said Katz.

Educators and boards are tangled in a web of statistics and confounding variables that prove that education is as affected in the world as it is effective in shaping the future. Nevertheless, these global comparisons relentlessly rely on Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) scores, and PISA scores alone, to determine who takes the lead in this academic race.

PISA, sponsored by The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), is a test conducted every three years which assesses 15 year olds’ capabilities in the areas of reading, mathematics, or science. Over 28 million students from 65 countries were assessed in 2012. The next PISA testing will test students on science in 2015, according to http://www.oecd.org/pisa/aboutpisa/.

According to a letter written against PISA as reported by Deseret News, “PISA has ‘assumed the power to shape education policy around the world,’ using ‘tests widely known to be imperfect.’”

Now this reliance on testing and scores approaches South Brunswick in the form of PARCC, stripping students of the safety and comfort of their hometown. Because, apparently, it no longer takes a village, but rather standardized tests and scantron sheets to raise a child, and South Brunswick’s participation in pilot PARCC testing only propels this idea, according to Katz.

Recently, she left her audience with a strong message after her speech at the Board of Education meeting on May 19, saying, “The kids in this community are not guinea pigs for the state, corporations, big businesses, and venture philanthropists to experiment on.”

The students of SBHS agree. South Brunswick senior Chelsea Richardson said, “Pilot testing is funded by corporations that are not made up of teachers or educators, but of people who are trying to make a profit off of the education system. Their intention is not to create a valid measure of intelligence.”

As Katz said, “Our test scores basically define our education, nowadays. If you break it down by poverty levels, the United States generally outperforms every nation in the world, but no one wants to say that. Because if the schools aren’t failing, they can’t implement their reforms. You have to sell the tale of failure.”

Katz persistently works to unmask supposedly helpful programs in place in public schools. Organizations such as Teach for America claim themselves to be vigilantes avenging educational decline, but Katz sees the situation differently.

“It is a fundamentally flawed program,” she said.

Katz is currently enrolled in a five-year undergraduate program to prepare her for teaching in urban districts. A Teach for America alter ego would receive merely five weeks of training before entering an urban district.

Her passionate attitude holds a strong social presence, both physically and electronically. Katz frequently utilizes Facebook as “an activism tool”, as she describes it. She posts on her personal page and is an active member of the Facebook group, “SB Cares About Schools” which recently reached 500 members.

“I post about 50 articles a day,” said Katz, “I’m surprised everyone hasn’t unfriended me.”

But her efforts are sensibly and passionately rooted. She spoke fervently about the lack of education about education. Even education majors seem uninformed or misinformed about the policies in place.

“Many of them have never heard of Common Core or PARCC and in a lot of places it’s already in the schools,” said Katz. “It’s here, and there’s a lot of people who don’t know about it.”

Katz maintains a strong presence in the anti-educational reform movement, and it is clear that her efforts have and will continue to extend beyond South Brunswick. Her name no longer refers to just another graduate. She is on her way to becoming a hero to education, by tearing down what education has come to stand for.

“There is an attempt to completely overhaul public education,” said Katz, “and it’s time to fight back.”

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