WESTMINSTER, S.C. – Tracie Happel, a special education teacher in South Carolina, sent a letter to school and district officials today to explain why, exactly, she opposes Common Core national standards and associated standardized testing.
EAGnews spoke with Happel about the letter and outlined her objections – from the millions of dollars wasted on the tests and preparation to the erosive effect the testing has on her learning disabled students’ self-esteem – in blog published today.
Hours after the original story went online, Happel was summoned to the Oconee County School District administration building, where she was suspended with pay and banned from district property. Officials told the West Oak Middle School teacher she allegedly violated the district’s confidentiality policy for discussing her concerns about her middle school students.
“They told me that while I have a right to my opinion about Common Core and testing, what I don’t have a right to do is talk about my students,” Happel said. “I was put on administrative leave. I’m not allowed back on school grounds pending an investigation.”
In Happel’s letter – which was sent to district superintendent Micheal Thorsland, school board chairman Andrew Inabinet, and three administrators at West Oak – the English teacher explained that her special education students struggle with reading and other academics, but are expected to perform at grade level on standardized tests.
Many of Happel’s students also struggle with self-esteem as a result of their learning disabilities, and she believes the pressure from standardized testing only amplifies their issues.
“I object to forcing children to sit through hours of bubble tests when they don’t even understand what they are doing and why they are doing it,” Happel wrote in her letter. “This is inhumane.”
Happel, a mother of two, taught for 25 years in Wisconsin before she moved to South Carolina last fall and joined the West Oak Middle School staff. Unlike Wisconsin, parents cannot opt their children out of standardized tests in South Carolina, and Happel thinks it’s unfair.
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“We need help getting a law in South Carolina to opt out,” she said.
And while Happel’s most immediate concerns center on her students, she’s also troubled by broader issues with what she terms the “federal invasion” of public education through President Obama’s Race to the Top education initiative, which incentivized states to participate in the national Common Core curriculum and associated tests.
“The scores are sent to the state education departments, which sends them to the federal department of education,” Happel said. “The constitution says education is a state’s right, not a federal right.”
The additional federal requirements are also adding substantial costs to schools through time wasted on test scoring and practice tests, as well as staff training to administer the tests. Special study materials and contracts with test prep consultants are other unnecessary expenses tied to the testing, she said.
District leaders addressed in Happel’s letter did not respond to concerns. Instead, they summoned the veteran educator to the director of human resources.
The principal “pulled me literally out of the middle of my eighth-grade class, ‘you need to gather your things and go to the district office,’” Happel said. “I wasn’t allowed to speak to anyone. I wasn’t allowed to take anything.”
“What was interesting is (the human resources director) said, ‘I have not seen the letter or the news article, but I was told what happened,’” she added.
Happel said she’s now consulting with her attorney to determine her next steps.
The claim Happel violated student confidentiality, she believes, is simply a smoke screen to distract from the more important problems with standardized tests.
“This whole confidentiality thing is a cover-up,” she said. “I think it’s because they don’t like my objections to the tests.”