Dr. Don Sternberg's Speech at More than a Number Forum - April 10, 2013

Over 1000 educators and parents packed Hofstra's Adams Playhouse last evening to hear a variety of presentations from regional respected educators regarding the New York State standardized testing program.  One of the panelists was highly respected elementary school principal, Dr. Donald Sternberg.  His remarks drew strong and sustained applause from the audience.  Many will remember Don's SL 2.0 Letter to Parents which went viral and to date has almost 90,000 views.  Dr. Sternberg was kind enough to give his permission to post his Forum remarks below.


Good evening.

My name is Don Sternberg and I believe in education. I believe that kids love learning.....maybe not homework or spelling tests…..but I truly believe they love learning information that makes them feel smarter; and when education is done right…..it is truly a beautiful and thrilling art… seeing students engaged in the practice of learning and discovery.

I believe in all of you [parents, teachers, administrators] as providers of quality, long-enduring education. I believe each of you hold the key to the thrill of showing children and young adults the path to life-long learning.

All of you hold the keys.

The problem is, as we sit here today, someone has changed the locks. We are being told that our keys no longer work… or, possibly that our keys are not as effective as they once were.

The direction that educational reform is heading is where non-educators (politicians, statisticians, and big-business) are in control. The misinformed public seems to desire change because they are being led to believe that something is wrong with our educational system. 

The public is being duped into thinking something needs to be done to avert today’s ‘crisis in education.’  Ironically, the same people purporting the crisis - the politicians, statisticians, and big-business – are, in fact, the ones causing the crisis! 

While there are pockets within New York State where reform is necessary -- where high school graduation rates are low and students heading into the workforce and post-secondary school need better skill-sets -- that is not universally the case, although pundits would have you believe otherwise. 

The solution presented by these politically-based educational ‘experts’, is not to differentiate and treat academic issues where and when they arise, but rather to treat the metaphorical broken leg and the hangnail with the same remedy!

A one-size-fits-all mentality is better suited for an assembly line; not a school.

      I value, as I do, a strong commitment to education then we need to do more than just accept the changes being forced upon us by the federal government and our own State Education Department.

      Ladies and gentlemen,
I am not concerned about North Korea and their nuclear capability. I am not concerned about other dictators around the world; subversively trying to overthrow our government. I am not concerned that Dancing with the Stars is a shadow of what it once was, or that Pluto is no longer a planet, or that Twinkies will never make it back to store shelves. 

      Ladies and gentleman, I am concerned about Finland. They seem so passive, so calm, so intellectual, oh so snooty! 

I am concerned that Finland will take charge of the education world because statisticians and politicians think Finland’s education system is better than ours. Just look at their assessments scores, people say! 

Now, I don't know enough about Common Core yet to be uncommonly optimistic or concerned to the core. The rigors associated with the national Common Core standards seem well-intended and appear to serve all of our children well. Common Core is starting to approach the rigor of an International Baccalaureate (IB) program which, personally, I believe should be the basis of all school-based academic experiences.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am not a scientist. But I know a frog is a frog. I know every time I tap a frog on the butt, it hops. Frogs have always hopped and they will always hop when tapped on the butt. I do not have to assess my frog hopping theory over and over and over again. So why does Pearson Education need $32 million from NYS’s $700 RTTT funding to develop assessments to tell us something we already know about the academic status of our students?

What do we know? Ladies and gentlemen, I firmly believe our largest educational issue is a question of equal opportunity…..we do not need to assess to death to prove what we already know and have known for years…..that there is a direct and straight line correlation between poverty and poor academic performance, period. Children living in poverty need more from us. Assessments from now until the frogs come home – I am trying to stay on a theme here – will only confirm what we have always known.

Don't raise the bar but simply support the child to raise him or her up to reach it. Already poorly performing children do not need the dam bar raised on them! 

When will the politicians realize that the term ‘raise the bar’ means moving what some children already cannot reach now and putting it further away! Now there is an incentive, if I ever heard one!  You can’t reach this level as it exists today, so I will make it harder and then test you repeatedly on it! And then I will provide you with a number that will indicate your ranking [4, 3, 2 or 1]. How Draconian! 

Let’s note kids as academic failures based upon assessments as early as possible in their academic careers and then labeled them as such –does that make sense to anyone who cares about the academic and emotional well-being of children?

We are testing like crazy in ELA and math [which now of course is really a reading test] but has anyone in Albany heard of science and social studies? 

As an elementary principal I can tell you that I am sending kids to the secondary complex with very little of Science and Social Studies. With test scores serving as the primary, if not sole measure of student performance and, increasingly, teacher evaluation, anything not being tested is given the shortest of shrifts.

I fear that our present cadre of educational reformers – the non-educators previously noted – are creating children who will become great little test-takers; who can select A, B, C or D as an answer with the best of them, and whose performance can be placed onto a nice little spreadsheet. We are creating cookie-cutter students that know how to perform well on state exams. But we must ask ourselves, at what price? Is effectively selecting A, B, C or D how we want our children to excel? We are not creating life-long and creative learners; we are creating wonderful test-takers!

Students are not cattle and schools are not farms. The repercussions of this ill-conceived policy will be to the detriment of our educational system and to the detriment of our children.

I shiver when I see and hear students asking their teachers, “Is this the way you want it?” or, “Did I do this the right way?” We are systematically testing our kids at multiply times every year to a point where they think that the only measurement of success is a state assessment result!  Think about that!

Often students cannot think critically or are afraid to be creative and produce something independently. Will parents really be satisfied that their child is doing well in school because a test indicates such? Or will they expect more? Aren’t we all expecting more?

Testing, particularly at the elementary level, is replacing a love for learning that we want to instill. Proper use of assessment is to drive instruction, not to be the definitive evaluation of a child or to serve to fill a state or federal statistical data bank.

The issue that most upsets me, and that I see as counter-productive, is the desire to record, in a quantifiable fashion, the educational development of our children.


 There is clearly a ‘quota system’ being applied to schools, school children, teachers and principals -- and it is negatively impacting our children! When I was growing up I was never measured with some insidious number that categorized my ability and progress, and that served to measure the effectiveness of my teachers and my school. 

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) went into effect for the 2002-03 academic year, which means that we have been operating under the pressures and constraints imposed by federal mandate for a decade. As you know, according to NCLB, by 2014, -- just 8 months from now --all children are to be performing at college readiness and/or career readiness. How did that mandate work out? 

Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Ladies and gentlemen, the feds gave us NCLB (and it did not work) and now we have Son of NCLB or RTTT --- I gave you 2 exemplars of insanity!

Eventually, students will not be entering college thinking as analytically or as broadly as they should because so much emphasis has been placed on passing standardized assessments.

Past practice clearly has shown that students will succeed if they are given the time to learn -- not weeks of test prepping and hours of testing masquerading as learning. 

We have been forced to narrow the curriculum to only that which will be tested.  We are spending tax-payer dollars for months, teaching to the tests because in today’s statistician-based educational reform movement, that is the only thing that counts. This has resulted in very few of the students – at least in my school -- feeling enthusiastic about learning or even about coming to school. 

This is something I have never experienced in my decades as an educator. I entered the field of education to inspire, motivate, challenge and captivate young minds; not to assess adnauseam and be a data collector.

Here is something you and I know but apparently, the SED does not: Preparing for assessments significantly narrows the academics that take place in the classroom.

Today, you and I have very little to say about what is happening in public education. Even the most distinguished and honored among us -  many of whom are sitting here today – are having trouble getting our voices heard in the discussion about educational policy. 

We are being belittled and disrespected by arrogant and condescending non-educators - politicians and big business – and believe it or not the SED itself – with the SED controlled by politicians whose self-interests guide their policies rather than the best-interests of children.

We are trying to educate parents about the realities of today’s schools and what their children are facing. These policies are having a deleterious impact. 

 The drivers of educational policies that are changing schools -- and not for the better, are the wealthy corporations like Pearson trying to take over the education world. The Gates Foundation will have all kids sitting in front of computers – computers that replace teachers – have you heard about the Flipped Classroom or the Kahn Academy? All of these corporations profit off of our kids.

Ladies and gentleman, if you are as concerned as I am about the academic quality of the students you have the responsibility to step up and speak out. You need to inform those creating the policies about the damage they are doing to our young people.

Please allow me to be blunt; if I haven’t been already; politicians and corporations are feeding off of our children.

The SED and federal government do not plan their initiatives. They start them and then try to figure out how to do them along the way. What if teachers taught this way?  How would the State and school districts view a teacher that did not think ahead and plan accordingly?


We need to stop any educational system being driven by assessments, rewards, and punishments based upon assessment performance….. that is not education.

The people in the SED think they are absolutely right and will not listen to educators (superintendents, principal, and teachers) and I submit to you being absolutely right in one’s own mind is not the best and most effective change strategy. What we, you and I, are witnessing is bordering on educational malpractice.

Assessment is not the Rosetta Stone that unlocks either great teaching or superior student learning.

Good teaching cannot be quantified. Assessing repeatedly is not better assessment.

Test scores are now the most important product; as opposed to quality education.

Will teaching and learning be improved through increased regulation, mandated standards, standardized testing of students, and test-based teacher evaluation? You answer that question for me, please.

If we want our students to excel academically, explore careers, and develop the rigorous knowledge and skills necessary to thrive in today’s global society and beyond, we need to start thinking and talking about education differently than we are being forced to today.

Why am I standing in front of you now? We all need to watch our school children. Are they acting differently than in past years? Are they talking differently about school than they have in the past? Are they anxious, even nervous, about coming to school and the forthcoming tests? If they are, ask yourself, “Why?” And, “Is this what I want for children, year after year after year?” 

There is a dramatically rapid decaying of teacher morale…..morale is not declining it is decaying! I have had teachers in my office crying from nervous frustration and I have had more kids behaving poorly because of their own frustration…they are giving up!

Our previous successful focus on individual talents, the cultivation of creativity, the celebration of diversity and the inspiration of curiosity, are traits other countries, worldwide – even Finland have always tried to emulate. 

These traits of our quality educational systems are being derailed for profit and political gain. There is presently too much emphasis on assessment results and not enough on the process of learning. 

Bottom line……..students across our state are serving as a ‘control group’ in a bureaucratically-induced statistical experiment! Our children’s education is consequently an exercise to gain data.

Alexander Hamilton said, “Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.”  Please stand with us and let’s fight for the proper education for our kids.

Each child’s voice deserves to be heard and not just their assessment score.

Thank you.

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Comment by Jeff Olefson on April 17, 2013 at 6:32am
I agree with Dr. Sternberg's central premise that too much focus has been placed on testing and that the current RTTP initiative was pulled out of the gate without any proof that it works. That said, I do believe that for too long some schools have been hiding behind the averages. Certain kids who, yes are the most needy, have fallen through the cracks. NCLB was a total disaster because it did not take into account progress. Race to the top does that and districts by virtue of the new way they are being measured are taking a more serious look at the achievement gap between rich and poor students. Please don't this to mean I am a fan of this model which has turned teacher and principal evaluations into a crazy point system, I am not. it is a disaster and the chickens from this system will come home to roost. But what gets counted does count. When children with special needs were exempted from the evaluation of districts until the mid 90's we had compassion by an absence of rigor. When district's tails were on the line, educators took a more focused look on academic achievement. Since we re stuck with this flawed system, lets at least acknowledge the one area where it might make some difference.
Comment by Matthew Hanley on April 14, 2013 at 6:28pm
Don, I am proud to call you my "former" Professor. Although after reading this speech, I am certainly still gaining insight from your experience and perspective.
Comment by Betsy Salemson on April 14, 2013 at 10:08am
Thank you for your terrific presentation at More Than A Number at Hofstra last week. We can only hope that more parents will take this bull by the horns and go forward. It is our children and the future at stake. Thanks for helping to spearhead this war.




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