Meet the Humans of the Keys

Meet the Humans of the Keys

Friday, December 4, 2015

Sue Woltanski - Tavernier

We purchased a place in the Keys in 1999, right before we got married.  We bought the property next door to my in-laws, who had been coming down here since the 50’s.  They had retired and were snowbirds from Michigan.  At first we used the house as sort of a cottage.  Once we had kids, we arranged our schedules to come down one week a month.  I am (was) a pediatrician and my husband is a physician also, so we had the flexibility in our schedules to make it work.  When my kids were young, I went to part time.  No one ever said they wished they had spent less time with their children when they were young, so we made a point of taking time off to be with them.  

When my daughter turned 4, we realized that once she started school we wouldn’t be able to make it down for one week a month.  We couldn’t pull her out of school, so we would be limited to holidays which are hard for physicians.  She was used to spending time with her grandparents and we liked that relationship.  We wanted her to grow up next to her grandmother.  We made the move at that time, so she could start kindergarten down here.  That was in 2008.  

We moved here because we knew there were A-rated schools, and the people in our neighborhood liked the schools.  We are big proponents of the public schools system; my daughter is at Plantation Key School and my son is at Ocean Studies Charter School.  My daughter started kindergarten at PKS, and we could do nothing but brag. She had Spanish, music, art, and computer classes for an hour and a half each a week. They called them “specials” and we thought they were pretty special. When she moved to first grade, she had the most amazing teacher; it was all project based center work, hands on learning.  By 2nd grade she was moved into a half day gifted reading program which was a blessing for her because she loves to read.  It was perfect.

Right around that time, the housing market, property taxes, scandals and whatever led to tremendous difficulties with the schools.  They were underfunded to begin with, in my opinion, but now they were ridiculously underfunded.  So, the special programs were cut.  By the time my daughter was in 4th grade the gifted program was gone.  I wondered how you could have a high quality school system that doesn’t attend the needs of all students.  But, I also realized that the budget was tight.

That was when I got on the school advisory council.  I decided that I was going to fight to get gifted education back.  At the same time I knew I needed to fight at the state level to improve education funding across the board, because I didn’t want to fight for my child’s needs at the expense of another child with a particular need.  So, I started a letter writing campaign.  I got a lot of gifted parents together and we did advocate for the return of gifted programs.  It’s still a work in progress, but there is now more attention given to gifted students so that was a success.  

Then I started looking into what was going on in Tallahassee, and the more I looked into it the more disturbing it was.  We have a governor who says we have the highest education funding ever, but we are still 47th in the nation, and when you compare us with states that score high on national test scores, they are spending a lot more per child to educate.  Then I became aware of how the money was being spent, and the large amounts of money being spent on the standardized tests.  So I started watching education committee meetings and trying to find out how that works.  I actually met a group on Facebook and we watch these committee meetings and discuss them; we’re all trying to learn what’s going on.  I’ve met a lot of people across the state with similar concerns.

For a while I had been concerned with all the stress and all the focus placed on the FCAT.  I wasn’t happy about that because it seems all the state is concerned with is whether a child does well on the math or reading FCAT test.  My children read well above their grade level, so I know those tests aren’t going to tell me anything about my child’s progress because they are testing them at grade level.  So no information is going to come to me from that test.

Then I started learning about all these extra tests.  They are district mandated tests; sometimes the data is required by the state to monitor children’s progress.  But, what is happening is the tests are being used to see if children are prepared to take the state test.  It is a standardized system and it encourages teaching to the test.  I felt that since my child was performing above grade level, there was a potential for her to get short shifted; that a teacher would look at her and think she didn’t need to worry about her, and her needs wouldn’t be attended to.  I’m not saying that happened with any of her teachers, only that it seemed there was potential for it to happen.

I was watching one of those Tallahassee meetings, and a representative named Keith Perry was speaking.  They were talking about how disruptive the testing had become and how narrow the curriculum had become and what a mess everything was. During that debate, he described the current state of education as a period of “Creative Destruction” in which only by destroying our schools will we emerge in the future with something better.  He called it “the American Way.” Yes, he really said that, destroying public schools is the American way.  That was about 2 years ago. According to the school calendar for 2013-14, my daughter was scheduled to take 45 standardized reading tests during her time at PKS.  The amount of time and money spent on these tests could be better spent on creative things.

I spoke in front of the school board about those issues, and then people started finding me.  We put together a group called “Minimize Testing, Maximize Learning.”  It’s a grass roots effort and its goals are to inform parents about the amount of testing in the schools, and to inform tax payers about the amount of money spent on the tests.  We also advocate decreasing the amount of testing in Monroe county schools to the minimum required by law, and using the time and money that would have been spent on testing, and has been spent previously, for creative engaging learning experiences. We’ve made some progress.  

Normally if you want to know how your child is doing, you ask their teacher.  And without standardized testing, the teacher can tell you the child’s progress, because they know.   Standardized tests provide data to make the people farthest away from the classroom feel like they know what is going on in the classroom.  The closer you are to the classroom the less you need it.

The real problem I’ve learned is that the problem is really not the testing itself.  The problem is the way the state uses the tests to punish, or reward, the schools that has distorted the system.  So schools are doing things to avoid the punishment, or gain the reward, instead of just teaching the children and then testing them on what has been taught.  This is not a complaint against the teachers; it’s a complaint against the system.  The second you set the bar, and then punish those who don’t make it over that bar, the more people are going to distort the system to try and get over the bar.

My hope for Monroe County is that we can start to look beyond the test scores and look for what we think a quality education system entails.  Instead of jumping through the state hoops, let’s create our own hoops that actually serve our own children and meet their needs.  There is no reason our little schools can’t be academically stellar institutions where everyone is delighted to send their children. But the estimate last year was that a quarter of the time in classes was spent preparing for testing. That is a lot of money being spent on measuring.

I like to speak to organizations about the impact of high stakes testing because I think what’s happening in the schools is shocking but nobody wants to say anything because everybody loves their teachers.  So I like to give these talks to let people see what’s really happening and I hope people will become sceptics and stop thinking that high test scores equal quality education.  I think parents know that even at the best schools, the homework looks like test prep, and the closer they get to the FCAT the more practice tests there are.

I spoke at a testing forum recently.  Senator Bullard was there and he said that what is happening in education is outrageous and people should be outraged.  There is a suggestion that the move is to privatize the public school system.  One of the ways they will privatize them appears to be by computer based learning.  There is a new move called Competency Based Learning, and the idea is that once they get the standards, they will have the path that all children should move along. So eventually children would be able to sit at a computer and move along the path.  It’s presented as though it’s really great for your child because they will get to move at their speed, but the truth is that every child will move along the exact same path.  There will be no diverging from the path, no following a child’s interest, no engaging them.   I’m not usually a conspiracy theorist, but…

Right now there are teachers supervising the digital learning and that would continue for a while. It’s already happening with on-line testing.  But the worry is that eventually people will wonder why their tax dollars are paying teachers when the computers are doing the teaching.  I don’t want America’s kids to be taught by computers.  I don’t find that inspirational.  I was told that education in America is the 4th largest industry.  So that’s where this is going.  They see the money and it’s at the expense of our school children.

Parents need to be aware of what’s happening and start saying no.  They need to question the number of tests and the purpose for them.  I’m hoping that parents will go to the school board and express concern over these issues.  It is going to take people getting involved and speaking up. The state is not listening.  And if they don’t start listening, parents will rebel.  Last year, across the country, half a million parents had their children refuse the tests. Because what else can you do?  We’re getting tired of writing “Sincerely” at the end of our letters to our legislators.  Really, my kids only get one chance at an education.  This is our kid’s future, and it’s a huge battle. There isn’t a lot of money on “my side” and there are billionaires on the other side.   But, you know what?  You don’t mess with Mama Bears.  

Find out more about “Minimize Testing, Maximum Learning” by finding us on Facebook at and on our website or contact us at

For real conversations about education accountability follow our blog “Accountabaloney”

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