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Guest Voices: On Sending My Kid to Sleep-Away Camp for the First Time by Jen Freund

This is a piece by a friend of mine, Jen Freund, about the decisions (and sacrifices) we parents might make — if we are fortunate enough to have the resources to do so — to ensure that our children can access the educational experiences outside of a classroom that will shape their lives and their identities.  I’m also a parent who spent 8 weeks of 7 summers of my life attending traditional sleep-away camps, so I can very much relate to the emotions Jen chronicles here, as my husband and I struggle with whether we can — and whether we want to — send our daughters to sleep-away camp.


Jen holds an MSW.  She is a school counselor in an alternative high school, where she works with students who have a wide variety of social, emotional, and behaviorial challenges.  Prior to working in the schools, she worked in the camping industry as a counselor and later as an assistant director of the 92nd Street Y day camps.  As a child, Jen spent 7 summers in sleep-away camp and now spends a great deal of her time trying to convince her husband that sleep-away camp is an incredible learning and growing experience for their daughters. — Sarah 


by Jen Freund


It was February 14, 2005 and my husband was driving the slowest, and most cautiously he ever had.  We were on Pleasant Valley Way headed toward our home in Montclair, NJ. I remember everything about that day: the other cars, the radio being off so my husband could fully concentrate, and me in the back seat, holding the tiny hand of my new favorite person.  We were driving our first child home from the hospital, for the very first time.  We had precious cargo. 

 

And in a blink of an eye, ten years later, I found myself on a very similar car ride.  This time I was sitting in the front, while in the back was another favorite person, born three years laterAnd this time, which was June 27, a few days ago (3 days, 12 hours and 16 minutes to be exact), my husband was driving extremely slow again.  We were back on Pleasant Valley Way, headed to the parking lot of the Livingston Mall to bring our daughter, that same baby whose hand I held likten minutes ago, to meet a bus that would take her 75 miles away.to another state….for seven weeks.  She was headed to sleep-away camp for the very first time.  

 

My husband did not want her to go.  I agonized over the good-bye, over not seeing her, not feeling her, not hugging her, not hearing her for so many weeks.  We all agonized over this.  Well maybe not so much our younger daughter who kept replying, “I want to go too, “ to the older one’s “I’m going to miss you.”  

 

He drove slow….real slow.  

 

Sleep-away camp is a foreign concept to many. It does sound utterly insane to send your young child away for so long with such limited contact.  But for those who went to camp as a child and experienced the wonder, the spirit, the bonding, the independence, the community, the traditionthe outdoors, the songs, the inside jokes, the customs, the friendships, the creativity, the raw fun, the energy, the love and the culture that is camp, those people have camp in their blood.  And when camp is in your blood, you get it.  You get why sending your precious cargo off to a camp 75 miles away is a good thing.  

 

I have camp in my blood.  My husband does not.   But just for the record, I did tell him before we were married that our future kids were going to camp.  How could they not?  If they didn’t want to, that’s one thing, but if there was any desire, then how could we deny them such an extraordinary experience?

 

My husband thinks he went to camp.  And to be clear, he did go to music camp (actually more like a program) for one summer, for one month.  Not the same thing….right, camp people?  It’s just not the same as going to the same camp with the same people, summer after summer.  He still says he’s not on board and if anyone asks him, he’d say he wants his girl home with him.  

 

So the decision to send my first born to camp was an easy one for me and while he didn’t like the idea, he did not protest (too much).  What’s not easy is being a parent who had to say good-bye to her good natured, sensitive, innocent love of a child, one who cuddles, who chats, who shares on a daily basis the thoughts, feelings, fears, and concerns that live in her amazing brain and enormous heart.  That was slightly heart-wrenching.

 

Oh please, you must be saying…she is not going to jail.  She is healthy (knock wood), she is there to have fun.  Yes, but just how parents cry and get all nostalgic when their babies go off to college, this, I believe is a little worse on the parenting nostalgia scale.  

 

All milestones are bittersweet.  Letting go that first day of pre-school, saying goodbye to your kindergartener, end of elementary school, middle school graduation, high school graduation…college goodbyes.  All these milestones are beginnings and endings.  And as parents, while happy, we are also sad that an era has ended, that our babies are that much more independent and more detached from us.  And while college is a good eight years away, I imagine it will be the most intense of milestones, for that is really it.  The end of the era of childhood.  

 

But this is why I think the sleep-away camp goodbye is more gut wrenchingyou can text, call, or even visit your child whenever you’d (or they’d) like when your child is in college.  You can hear how they don’t like their roommate, hate their classes and got lost on campus.  You can communicate.  And they are self-sufficient.  They have credit cards.  They can drive.  They can vote.

 

In the world of sleep-away camp, we get two phone calls with our child (once she has been there for a week), one visiting day and old-fashioned letters.  I’ve written six so far and received none.  Tomorrow is day 5 she’s been away.  Where is my freaking letter?

 

I have no idea what is going on with my 10 year old.  Well I know she’s playing soccer and cooking because I see her in pictures on the camp’s website, but that is secondary to what I really want to know.  I find myself intently staring at her smile, and expression in these pictures to really try and know how she is feeling.  Is she comfortable?  Does she feel connected, included with the girls in her bunk?  Is she happy?  I got a check in” phone call on day one saying she was “all smiles,” but is she still smiling, and is it genuine? Only my husband and I know her that well to know. 

 

On the night before she leftmy mind raced with things I should have talked to her about or re-talked to her about:  don’t forget to clear your mess from the dining hall, remember to wear a tank top under certain shirts, do you really understand how to put a fitted sheet on a bed, remember to brush your hair, remember to keep your planters wart covered, when you audition for the musical, you should sing one of these songs, remember to put on sunblock, don’t feel bad that you can’t do a cartwheel but embrace the fact that you cannot, if you fart, own it and make a joke, if you feel left out, don’t try too hard to be included, know that you are an amazing, funny, smart, sweet, caring and special kid that always makes great friends, but sometimes it can take time.  Remember you may miss home and that’s normal, remember to make others feel good and always be inclusive, remember to not eat too much dessert, remember to write your sister, and remember to try new things.  And know that you may not love camp at first, or at all and that’s ok. 

 

Having your kid away like this magnifies every fear, every concern a parent may have.  Is she the tallest in the bunk and is she feeling awkward?  Will her developing athletic skills, (um, not so good) shake her confidence?  Is she brushing her hair or will she come back with dreadlocks?  Is the knee pain she started feeling recently gone or should I have taken her for an x-ray before she left?  Will she be quiet or outgoing?  Will she get to shine?  Will she have one of her right before bed-time existential crises about death and want to discuss her tear inducing fear that the world will one day go on without her in it?  What if she gets hurt or gets a tick bite and no one notices?  Because really, who but a parent sees the small things that need to be checked out? What if she loses a tooth?  We still do the tooth fairy.  Damn.

 

The scene at the mall parking lot could have been an opening scene to a Judd Apatow film about camp.  There were coach buses everywhere and parents clinging to their children while small talking with other parents.  It was raining and not a ray of sunshine was in the sky, yet 98% of the mothers were wearing sunglasses, myself included because I got strict orders from my sister-in-law to not cry in front of my daughter.  Sunglasses were a must.  

 

There were kids in tears and older kids boisterously reuniting with camp friends.  Fortunately, my daughter was excited and not feeling nervous or sad.  During my last hug to her, it was hard to speak.  I told her to have the best time and that I loved her so so much and she pulled my sunglasses off to see if I were crying and when she saw my eyes, we just laughed.  She got on the bus and my husband, younger daughter and I stood there waving for twelve minutes to a blackened window where she was presumably sitting until the bus pulled away and then I quietly lost it.  

 

And just like that she was off.  For seven weeks.   Part of my soul was on that bus.

And here’s the thing that I know as a former camper, and as a past camp counselor, and as a mental health professional, and even as a motherI know that even if she has her feelings hurt, fails her deep water testdoesn’t get a part in the play or feels homesickshe will come through it all stronger and more resilient.  She will have tough days, I know this, and she will learn to navigate them without me by her side and for this she will gain something I could have never given her myself.  As our camp director profoundly told us new parents, “at camp, we can give your children a kind of confidence, autonomy and independence that you, as parents, cannot.”  And for this, I hope she comes home with camp in her blood.

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Newark Residents Should Select Their Own Next Superintendent

A group of New Jersey public education supporters crafted this letter to encourage the New Jersey State Board of Education not to rubber stamp Governor-and-Presidential-hopeful Chris Christie’s choice to replace outgoing Newark Superintendent of Schools Cami Anderson. As a believer in the critical importance of local democratic control over our nation’s public schools, I cannot agree more that after 20 years, it is time for the people of Newark to choose their own leaders for their children’s public schools.  Our public schools are intended to prepare our children for the responsibilities and duties of democratic citizenship. How can Newark’s children internalize democratic principles if their parents and community members are told, decade after decade, that the adults of Newark cannot be trusted to democratically govern their children’s schools?


Newark Residents Should Select Their Next Superintendent

We believe that the people of Newark should be able to democratically govern their public schools.  

Fortunately, Mark Biedron, President of NJ’s State Board of Education, seems to agree. Mr. Biedron recently told the Star Ledger that the people of Newark having local control over the school district…is a good thing.” 

On Wednesday, Mr. Biedron will have an opportunity to act on this belief when the State Board votes on whether Chris Cerf should become Newark’s next Superintendent.  

If the State Board approves Mr. Cerf, it will be continuing a 20 year history of disenfranchisement for Newark’s nearly 300,000 residents, who have had no say in this decision.

If the Board rejects Mr. Cerf and instead approves a candidate selected by Newark’s popularly-elected Board of Education, it will be putting Mr. Biedron’s admirable philosophy into practice.

There is plenty of precedent for allowing Newark to select its own superintendent.

Newark, Jersey City, and Paterson are all statecontrolled school districts.  Yet Jersey City’s popularlyelected Board of Education selected its Superintendent, Marcia Lyles.  Paterson’s Superintendent, Dr. Donnie Evans, was selected by a committee that included members of Paterson’s popularly-elected Board of Educationalong with other community leaders.  In contrast, Newark’s popularly-elected Board of Education has had no voice in selecting Mr. Cerf, who was nominated for this position by Governor Christie.

Approving Mr. Cerf is also difficult to justify because Mr. Cerf lacks the qualifications necessary to run New Jersey’s largest school district.  Unlike Jersey City’s and Paterson’s leaders, Mr. Cerf has no prior experience as a superintendent.  

Nor is there a record of success in related public-education positions on which to base Mr. Cerf’s nomination.  In fact, Mr. Cerf’s tenure as New Jersey’s Commissioner of Education was marked by numerous poor decisions regarding Newark, including:

• Appointing and continuing to support Newark’s prior Superintendent, Cami Anderson, whose policies and behaviors generated broad-based rejection and rebellion from Newark residents;
• Improperly giving in to a demand from Ms. Anderson to allow her to retain full control over 28 low-performing schools,” which resulted in New Jersey failing to comply with federal requirements; and 
• Forcibly maintaining State control of Newark’s schools by dramatically lowering the district’s scores on the State’s monitoring system (QSAC) from the scores that Mr. Cerf had given the district less than a year earlier.  

The people of Newark deserve the right to select their next Superintendent.  They also deserve an experienced public education leader with a proven record of success.  Mr. Cerf’s candidacy fails on all these counts.

We encourage Mr. Biedron and the other State Board of Education members to vote no on Mr. Cerf’s nomination and to allow Newark’s popularly-elected Board of Education to nominate the district’s next Superintendent.  

Newark’s residents have been deprived of their right to democratically control their public schools for 20 years.  It is long past time to correct this wrong! 

 

Rosie Grant, Piscataway, NJ

Parent and nonprofit leader

 

Michelle Fine, Montclair, NJ

Parent and professor

 

Judy DeHaven, Red Bank, NJ

Parent and writer

 

Valerie Trujillo, Jersey City, NJ

Parent and public education advocate

 

Jacklyn Brown, Manalapan, NJ

Parent and educator

 

Julia Sass Rubin, Princeton, NJ

Parent and professor

 

Linda Reid, Paterson, NJ

Parent and nonprofit leader

 

Melissa Katz, South Brunswick, NJ

Future educator

 

Bobbie Theivakumaran, Metuchen, NJ

Parent and investment banker

 

Lisa Winter, Basking Ridge, NJ

Parent, technology manager and former Board of Education member

 

Marcella Simadiris, Montclair, NJ

Parent and educator

 

Michelle McFadden-DiNicola, Highland Park, NJ

Parent and public education advocate

 

Bill Michaelson, Lawrence Township, NJ

Parent and computer scientist

 

Marie Hughes Corfield, Flemington, NJ

Parent and educator

 

Rita McClellan, Cherry Hill, NJ

Parent and administrator


Sarah Blaine, Montclair, NJ

Parent, attorney, and blogger

 

Susan Cauldwell, Spring Lake, NJ

Parent and nonprofit leader

 

Heidi Maria Brown, Pitman, NJ

Parent and educator

 

Julie Borst, Allendale, NJ

Parent and special education advocate

 

Susan Berkey, Howell, NJ

Parent and educator

 

Darcie Cimarusti, Highland Park, NJ

Parent and Board of Education member

 

Amnet Ramos, North Plainfield, NJ

Parent and educator

 

Elana Halberstadt, Montclair, NJ

Parent and writer/artist

 

Ani McHugh, Delran, NJ

Parent and educator

 

Jill DeMaio, Monroe, NJ

Parent 

 

Tamar Wyschogrod, Morristown, NJ

Parent and journalist

 

Lauren Freedman, Maplewood, NJ

Parent and public education advocate

 

Lisa Rodgers, South Brunswick, NJ

Parent and business owner

 

Laurie Orosz, Montclair, NJ

Parent and public education advocate

 

Michael Kaminski, Mount Laurel, NJ

Parent and educator

 

Ronen Kauffman, Union City, NJ

Parent and educator

 

Frankie Adao, Newark, NJ

Parent and social media specialist

 

Kathleen Nolan, Princeton, NJ

Parent, researcher and lecturer

 

Sue Altman, Camden, NJ

Educator

 

Jennifer Cohan, Princeton, NJ

Parent and publicist

 

Daniel Anderson, Bloomfield, NJ

Parent and Board of Education member

 

Debbie Baer, Robbinsville, NJ

Parent and educator

 

Dan Masi, Roxbury Township, NJ

Parent and engineer

 

Susan Schutt, Ridgewood, NJ

Assistant principal and public education advocate

 

Karin Szotak, Madison NJ

Parent and business owner

 

Tiombe Gibson, Deptford, NJ

Parent and educator

 

Lisa Marcus Levine, Princeton, NJ

Parent and architect

 

Kristen Carr Jandoli, Haddon, NJ

Parent and public education advocate

 

Jean Schutt McTavish, Ridgewood, NJ

Parent and high school principal

 

Virginia Manzari, West Windsor, NJ.

Parent and businesswoman

 

Stephanie LeGrand, Haddonfield, NJ

Parent and public education advocate

 

Melanie McDermott, Highland Park, NJ

Parent and sustainability researcher

 

Nora Hyland, Asbury Park, NJ

Parent and professor

 

Beth O’Donnell-Fischer, Verona, NJ

Parent

 

Susie Welkovits, Highland Park, NJ

Parent and Borough Council President

 

Gregory M. Stankiewicz, Princeton, NJ

Parent and nonprofit leader

 

Margot Embree Fisher, Teaneck, NJ

Parent and former Board of Education member

 

Stephanie Petriello, Dumont, NJ

Parent, educator and business owner

 

Laura BeggBernards Township, NJ

Parent and public education advocate

 

Gary C. Frazier, Camden, NJ

Parent and community activist

 

Debbie Reyes, Florence Township, NJ

Parent

 

Christine McGoey, Montclair, NJ

Parent 

 

Regan Kaiden, Collingswood, NJ

Parent and educator

 

Moneke Singleton-Ragsdale, Camden, NJ

Parent and administrator

 

Liz Mulholland, Westfield, NJ 

Parent and former educator

 

Toby Sanders, Trenton, NJ

Parent, pastor and educator

 

 

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Are Teachers Professionals?

Peter Greene recently published a pair of pieces, here and here, on the quality of teacher education programs.  Reading his pieces — and the Ed Week blog post that inspired them — inspired me to share a few quick thoughts.  

A dozen years ago, as I sat in my Professional Ethics course one day, my ears perked up.  My professor was discussing what it means to be a professional, and was listing the traditional professions: law and medicine.  I spoke up: “What about teachers?  Aren’t teachers professionals?”  His response: “Absolutely not.”

As a former teacher, I was floored.  I think I had to reach down and physically pick my jaw up off the floor.  But in hindsight, as infuriating as I found my professor’s pronouncement at the time, his reasoning actually makes sense.  As my professor explained it, one belongs to a profession if current members of that profession take responsibility for controlling entry to that profession.  That is, lawyers — in law schools — educate future lawyers, and lawyers — through state bar examinations created and scored by lawyers — determine whether law school graduates are fit to enter the legal profession.   As I understand it, the same holds true for doctors, who are educated in medical schools, internship programs, and residency programs by doctors, and who must pass their medical boards — i.e., exams for future doctors created and scored by doctors — in order to practice medicine unsupervised.  

Superficially, traditional routes for entry into the teaching profession sound similar.  Those of us who have been licensed teachers completed a degree — either undergraduate or graduate — in a program taught by some combination of former and current teachers, and then most likely passed some iteration of the Pearson-produced Praxis test or other licensing tests required by our state departments of education.  The difference, however, is in those final words of the prior sentence: “required by our state departments of education.”  Teachers do not regulate entry into the teaching profession: rather, government bureaucrats and for-profit testing companies do.  That distinction makes a world of difference.

These days, we are constantly subjected to assaults on the teachers: by the media, by parents, by politicians, by members of the public, and sometimes by other teachers, who complain about the quality of their coworkers (I heard this from a couple of public school teachers just in the past few weeks).  We hear that teachers are lazy, that they’re lacking in content knowledge, and we parents are known to judge some of them pretty harshly ourselves.  I know that I have a habit of seeing red when teachers send assignments home from school that are riddled with spelling, grammar, and/or syntax errors.  

But take a moment, and imagine an alternate universe in which teachers are responsible for regulating their own profession.  Imagine communities where practicing teachers make the final determination of whether candidates for the teaching profession are ready to be granted professional licenses — with the knowledge that they themselves are responsible for the perceived quality of their profession.  Would a teacher agree to license a new colleague who appeared to lack a grasp of the conventions of written English?  Would a teacher agree to license a new colleague who did not have deep content-area knowledge?  Would a teacher agree to license a new colleague who had not proven himself capable of effective classroom management?  Would a teacher agree to license a new colleague who hadn’t proved himself knowledgable of the latest theories of child development and principles taught in educational psychology courses?   

Imagine teachers observing, mentoring, and evaluating candidates based on metrics they themselves developed for determining who merited a license to teach in a classroom filled with children.   Imagine the entrance exams that teachers — not Pearson — would create to ensure that those who are to follow in their footsteps are adequately prepared for the awesome task — and it truly is awesome — of ensuring that our country’s children are educated to be thoughtful, compassionate, and productive members of a society that embodies democratic values.  I truly believe that we humans tend to rise to a task when we are granted the autonomy necessary to take pride in our work, our colleagues, and our professions. Imagine, if you will, a public policy in which master teachers — like Peter Greene — truly have a say on not only what happens in the classroom, but on who is qualified to be counted among their colleagues.  Imagine teaching as a profession.  

Personally, I’d rather see these guys (included in these pictures from NPE are Jesse Hagopian, Jose Vilson, Anthony Cody, Stan Karp, and Peter Greene along with dozens of other teachers I didn’t get a chance to speak with):

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EduShyster Jennifer Berkshire Interviews Jose Vilson and Peter Greene at NPE 2015


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Jesse Hagopian speaks on Black Students Matter at NPE 2015


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The room, packed with teachers, at Jesse Hagopian’s Black Students Matter presentation at NPE 2015


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Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin and Nancy Carlsson-Paige of Defending the Early Years Present at NPE 2015 

 determining entry into the teaching profession rather than people like these guys:

 

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After all, our kids deserve teachers selected by professionals who know what they’re doing.  I, for one, place my faith in the teachers, not the bureaucrats and politicians.

P.S., Obviously, we lawyers could also do a far better job at self-regulation than we do.  I certainly count myself among those attorneys who have had the experience of wondering how, exactly, my adversary managed to graduate from law school and pass the bar exam.  But at least we only have ourselves to blame.

 

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A Call To Action For East Ramapo, NY

Friends, fellow activists, especially my fellow Jews, this post is to bring your attention to what has been happening in East Ramapo, NY (Rockland County) for the past number of years, as the Haredi community has taken over the local school board, and systematically deprived the public school students of the East Ramapo School District, most of whom are poor and minority, of even a remotely acceptable public education.  
 
For background on the issue, please read this New York Magazine article, or listen to this episode of This American Life.  You can find many resources on the issues, as well as a CALL TO ACTION at http://www.strongeastramapo.org.  Recently, Meryl Tisch (NY Regents) and David Sciarra (Education Law Center) joined the call for the New York Legislature to pass a bill establishing state monitoring of the East Ramapo district to put an end to these abuses with an Op-Ed in The New York Times.
 
The East Ramapo school board has accused its critics of anti-Semitism, which is part of why I think it’s particularly important for the Jewish community to speak out against its abuses of the gentile students who attend its public schools.  Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin made a strong start with his piece and Rabbi Ari Hart with his. 
 
Specifically, at the moment the major issue is the bill that just passed the NY Assembly today to establish long-term state monitoring over the East Ramapo school district.  The NY Senate is being resistant to posting this bill for a vote, and the legislative session comes to an end this coming WEDNESDAY, JUNE 17TH.  
 
Today I spoke with Rabbi Adam Baldachin of Rockland Clergy for Social Justice.  They are in all-hands-on-deck mode looking for all of the media coverage and additional support from civil rights groups, Jewish groups, and any other groups that will sign on in support of this bill.  Please consider lending your support to this bill, and to stand up for American and Jewish values even when it is some of our fellow Jews who are doing the oppressing.  We must make sure that our own house is in order, and as Rabbi Salkin states, what is happening in East Ramapo is a shonda.  
 
Thank you for your time, attention, and help spreading the word and pressuring the New York State Senate to pass this bill.  Below is the list of groups that have already signed on to support the legislation:
 
JUNE 9, 2015
 
IN SUPPORT OF A. 5355 S. 3821 FOR EAST RAMAPO OVERSIGHT LEGISLATION
 
RELIGIOUS AND CIVIL RIGHTS ORGANIZATIONS
 
 
 
Alliance for Quality Education
 
American Jewish Committee
 
Anti-Defamation League (ADL)
 
Bend the Arc, Jewish Social Partnership for Justice
 
Editorial Board Journal News
 
JALSA-the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action
 
Jewish Labor Committee
 
Jews for Racial and Economic Justice
 
New York City Bar Association
 
New York Civil Liberties Union
 
New York State Conference NAACP
 
Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
 
Reform Jewish Voice of New York
 
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
 
Rockland Business Association
 
Rockland Clergy for Social Justice
 
Rockland County Executive
 
Rockland County Legislature
 
Rockland County School Boards Association
 
Rockland Board of Rabbis
 
Uri L’Tzedek Orthodox for Social Justice

Thank you for standing up for this community.  This is why we are a democratic republic.  We need checks and balances to make sure that a local majority — of any race, religion, ethnicity, or creed — does not trample on the rights of the minorities in its midst.  As an education activist, as a Jew, as an American, and as a human being, I thank you for your support.

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Chris Christie Has A Bridge To Sell Us

As you may have heard (my phone’s notifications certainly blew up yesterday when this announcement came out), Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, in a bid to rescue his floudering-before-it-begins presidential run, announced that after five years of shoving the Common Core State Standards down our throats, he is joining the bandwagon of parents across the country, and now proudly shouting:”No More Common Core!” See, e.g., ABC’s coverage of his announcement.

It is a heck of a sound bite, and will bring him some momentum in the 24-hour news cycle.  However, it is a sham.  His announcement changes nothing. Because along with his announcement, as we here in New Jersey have come to expect, he included some fine print:

Meanwhile, Christie said that the state will continue using a new standardized test [i.e., the Partnership for Assessment of   Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) test] that was developed to measure how students were doing with the Common Core.

So Christie is “rejecting” Common Core but still requiring kids to take PARCC, a test developed to measure their achievement of the Common Core. Additionally, teacher and school evaluations throughout the state will still be based (10% this year, and as of now, 20% next year, and 30% in years to follow) on kids’ scores on those Common Core-aligned tests. Placement decisions for children will still be predicated on their “achievement” of the Common Core standards, evaluations for teachers will still be predicated on their students’ “achievement” of the Common Core standards, and schools will still be labeled as “failing” based on their students’ alleged “failure” to achieve those Common Core standards — all as measured by PARCC.

Christie’s announcement changes nothing, and shame on the media for lapping it up so naively. Christie’s so-called rejection of Common Core is simply a sound bite for him to take on the road to Iowa and New Hampshire while our NJ public school kids continue to deal with a language arts curriculum that doesn’t teach them to consider texts and ideas within their broader historical context.  

The irony is that Christie’s faux-announcement proves what so many of us have been saying all along: curriculum and education these days aren’t standards-driven, they’re test driven. The one thing this announcement does provide is a lesson in the convoluted logic of politics. So in that sad, cynical sense, at least Christie is providing our kids with a lesson in practical civics, which many of their schools no longer teach.

However, as long as the Common Core-aligned PARCC test continues to be the barometer to allegedly measure our schools, teachers, and children’s efficacy, Christie’s announcement is worth even less than the paper his speech was written on. If you believe otherwise, then man, I’ve got a bridge to sell you…

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Testing and the Re-Segregation of Public Ed

Today, I was part of a full house at the New Jersey Senate Education Committee as it considered bills and a resolution relating to the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career) tests.  Along with many other grassroots parent activists, I am frustrated by the Senate Committee Chair’s unwillingness to set down all of the much stronger PARCC bills passed by the New Jersey State Assembly for a vote in her committee.  Rather, only one of the four bills, prohibiting PARCC-style testing for grades K-2, was set down for a vote by her Committee.  Senator Ruiz also offered a substantially watered down replacement bill for the Assembly bill to notify parents of standardized testing.  Senator Ruiz’s version of the bill, for example, fails to require that parents be notified of information as basic as what use local districts will make of standardized tests administered to their children (e.g., will the tests factor into student placement into gifted and talent programs or remedial education, etc.).  

So instead, I focused my efforts on the two bills introduced by my terrific local state senator, Senator Nia Gill.  Senator Gill introduced two bills: one to require local districts to publish their PARCC opt-out numbers within 10 days of completing test administration, and the other to explicitly prohibit New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe from withholding state aid from districts with high PARCC refusal rates.  

The text of my full testimony is below.  In it, I address the elephant in the room: the use of standardized test scores as a proxy to encourage resegregation of school districts by class and, to the extent that class and race are unfortunately still correlated in this country, race.

My testimony:

My name is Sarah Blaine.  I am here today to in particular support Senator Nia Gill’s bills, S2884 and S2881.  No one is paying me to be here today: in fact, I took a day off work to attend this hearing.  I have two children, a kindergartener and a fourth grader, in the Montclair Public Schools. Both of them only get one shot at their educations.

When I saw changes in my older daughter’s curriculum as a result of Common Core, I sat down to read the standards.  I’m an attorney now, but before law school I taught high school English.  Given that I would have loved some standards (or, heck, books) as a new teacher in a rural community with few resources, I started out on the assumption that national standards were probably a good idea.

But then I watched what was happening in my daughter’s classroom change.  As PARCC loomed, homework became more test-prep focused, with multiple choice questions and written paragraphs that had to follow strict formulas.  I learned that my older daughter’s school had reduced the number of elective periods.  Social studies education virtually disappeared.  Science became reading the textbook and filling in blanks, instead of labs and hands on experimentation.  My 4th grader has not had a single field trip this year — and as far as I know, none are scheduled.  I realized that I was seeing a predictable result of high-stakes testing in action: my daughter’s school was narrowing the curriculum to increase the time available for test prep. 

In Montclair, as across the country, test scores are closely correlated with the socio-economics of the populations tested. Although Montclair is consistently characterized in the press as “affluent,” according to NJDOE statistics, over 20% of our total school population is economically disadvantaged. Montclair has two NCLB focus schools not because those schools are lousy — they’re not — but because we are one of the few NJ towns with an economically and racially diverse enough school population to demonstrate an achievement gap.  This has driven an increased emphasis on test prep, which benefits no one.

Last December my spunky 4th grader testified directly to our Board about why “PARCC stinks” based on how test-prep was taking over her classroom.  I can tell you this much: after that speech, which went viral and led to her live appearance on national television, I have no doubt, without any need for PARCC results, that when the time comes my child will be college and career ready. Of course, I already knew that: her parents’ advanced degrees, race, and socio-economic status make that a virtual certainty. If you policymakers want more children to succeed, you need to spend your time implementing equitable economic and housing policies to ensure that all citizens have the chance to join a robust and secure middle class.  

The Montclair Public Schools administration worked hard to implement — and, indeed, cheerlead for — PARCC.  However, locally I wasn’t alone in my concerns about the effect that PARCC was having on our schools: more than 42% of Montclair children refused PARCC.  However, we Montclair taxpayers were not even able to obtain that statistic from the school district without a fight.  That is why I support Senator Gill’s bill to ensure that taxpayers are afforded access to the testing numbers.

Recently, Education Commissioner Hespe — and Governor Christie — began explicitly threatening to withhold state funding from school districts with high PARCC refusal rates.  That threat is unacceptable, as the school district has no way to compel me or any other parent to allow our children to sit for these tests.  To be clear, I don’t say no because my child is anxious or scared. 

Rather, I say no to PARCC because I see, as a parent, the destructive effect that annual testing and high-stakes uses of annual results are having on the quality of education offered in our state’s traditionally high-quality public schools.  I see that aggregate test scores are used — be it by real estate agents or home buyers — as proxies for socio-economic status, with the effect of further re-segregating our communities.  I see it, and I get it, because I, too, looked at those test scores and school rankings when we were choosing the New Jersey community in which we wanted to raise our children.  But then I realized that I didn’t want my children growing up in the same narrow bubble that characterized my childhood in Short Hills — and instead of moving to the town with the highest test scores, we moved to Montclair.

If more New Jersey towns were integrated like Montclair, all of our children would learn a little more compassion, a little more wisdom, a little more humility, a little more sense of what’s possible, a little less fear of those not like them, and a little more awareness of how the accidents of birth can and do affect children’s futures.  But politically, that will never fly, so you continue to test children and communities into submission, instead of choosing the tough — and admittedly expensive — policies that might actually work.  Then, when parents like me say no, Commissioner Hespe tries to threaten us into submission.  And so I support Senator Gill’s bill to prevent Commissioner Hespe from withholding funds from districts like Montclair, where the parents have had the courage to say no to the destructive effects of high-stakes annual tests.

I ask you to support these bills because democracy cannot function effectively if it is predicated on failure to inform the citizenry of what is happening in our public schools.  I ask you to support these bills because democracy cannot function effectively if it is predicated on empty threats from state-level bureaucrats meant to intimidate parents and communities.  Our children deserve better.  Thank you.

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David Hespe & The Immersive Logic of Test Prep

Studying for the bar exam requires stepping into a bizarre alternate reality. After three years of law school, my classmates and I celebrated our graduation and pretty much immediately began our bar studies.

I began with the PMBR prep course. The PMBR course is a supplemental bar course that focuses specifically on test taking strategies — and, to a lesser extent, content — for the Multi-state Bar Exam (“MBE”). All states other than Louisiana require aspiring attorneys to take the MBE, in which you have 3 hours in the morning and another 3 hours in the afternoon to answer 200 multiple choice questions. The questions are tricky, confusingly worded, and have multiple right answers: your job is to figure out which answer the test makers think is the “best” right answer. Depending on your state, your MBE score is somewhere around half of your total bar exam grade. The bar exam is high stakes: no one wants to risk failing the bar exam.

To be honest, ten years later I can’t remember whether I took PMBR’s 3 day course or its 7 day course. What I do remember is this: on the first day of the course, they gave us a sample MBE exam. After a lifetime of acing standardized multiple-choice achievement tests, I got maybe — maybe — a third of the sample PMBR MBE questions correct. Now, that might have been slick marketing strategy to convince me that the course was worth my new law firm’s money, but my take is that it was legit: I did poorly because I hadn’t yet immersed myself in the MBE’s bizarre logic.

The test prep worked. After a week of PMBR, I was scoring significantly better. I don’t recall details, but I do recall hours of analyzing individual exam questions, discussions of strategies for identifying and discarding tricky wrong answer choices, and of immersing my brain in the test maker’s logic. After PMBR ended, BAR/BRI (the comprehensive bar preparation course) began. For BAR/BRI, we packed into a large lecture hall to watch videotaped cram lectures in the bar subjects in the mornings (I still recall Seton Hall professor Paula Franzese’s Property songs, and especially her promise that when the bar exam was over, there would be ponies). In the afternoon, I sat in my house or my local library reducing my morning notes into easily memorized flashcards for cramming “black letter law” into my head.

When I couldn’t take it anymore, I picked up my then eight or nine month old from day care and played with her for awhile (yes, my first child was born in the fall semester of my third year of law school; in case you’re wondering, I graduated with high honors). Then I’d spend my evening studying more. About halfway through the BAR/BRI course, BAR/BRI had us spend a day taking a practice MBE. Because of my responsibilities as a mom, I’d been front loading my studies, and unlike many of my peers, I discovered at that point that I’d successfully immersed myself in the test-makers’ multiple-choice logic. As a result, I kicked the practice exam’s butt, and felt that I could focus the rest of my bar prep focused on the essay writing, with only a bit of continued MBE practice to keep my head in the game.

Bar exam essay writing was, again, its own unique genre. We were highly encouraged to write strictly according to the IRAC formula, in which we started with an Issue (e.g., “An Issue raised by this fact pattern is whether Fred is guilty of involuntary manslaughter”), then set out the Rule (“The elements of involuntary manslaughter are…”), then Analyzed the facts presented (“Fred’s actions meet the first element of involuntary manslaughter, because he…; Fred’s actions meet the second element of involuntary manslaughter, because he…”), and then stated our Conclusion (“Because Fred’s actions satisfy each of the four elements of involuntary manslaughter, he will be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter”). Bar exam essay writing makes for some scintillating prose.

When the bar exam arrived, my reaction was “Bring it on!” And four months later, I was gratified to learn that I’d passed. But the bar exam was a bizarrely arbitrary rite of passage. It was strange to realize that after three years of law school, I was unprepared to pass my chosen profession’s licensing exam without two months of intensive commercial test preparation. It was also strange to spend so much time learning “black letter law” (i.e., specific “rules” of law that would lead us to a particular correct answer). Even for the essays, analysis must lead you to a “correct” answer. This has nothing to do with the reality of legal practice, but it makes perfect sense to bar examiners because formulaic essays are far easier to grade. The same is even more true of the bar exam’s multiple-choice questions. Never mind that as a practicing lawyer your job is to see nuance, and to craft the best arguments you can (within the limits of your ethical responsibilities, of course) to support your client’s position. In ten years of practice, I’ve written a lot of briefs, but no judge has given me a multiple-choice test.

Compared to the bar exam, law school exams are a far closer approximation of what practicing attorneys actually do out in the real world. Many are open book, and whether open or closed book, the point of professor-written law school exams is to demonstrate that you’ve learned how to “think like a lawyer,” that is, that you’ve learned to apply legal principles to analyze and dissect the nuances presented by complex fact patterns. A typical law school issue spotter will say something like, “Read the following fact pattern [anywhere from a couple of paragraphs to a page or two]. Identify the legal issues.” And then you’ll discuss the facts, apply the legal principles you’ve learned to those facts, and analyze the interplay of facts and legal principles. The point is to figure out whether you can see the areas of concern, so that when you enter practice someday, you’ll be able to listen to your client and figure out where to start researching whether he has a case. On a law school issue spotter, there generally isn’t a right answer: the professors care more about whether your analysis makes sense than whether you’ve correctly memorized the legal principles, as they know that any lawyer worth her fees (and who values her license) will do research before making recommendations to her client.

The strangest part of the bar, however, was getting my bar results two months into my new job as a baby lawyer at a large law firm. It wasn’t strange because I’d passed: I’d worked hard and I knew I had a decent head on my shoulders. What was strange was getting that score and realizing how little bar exam study had done to prepare me for the actual job of being a baby lawyer.

When I started in private practice, I didn’t know how to do anything:

I didn’t know how to file a motion.

I didn’t know what a motion was.

I didn’t know how to draft a certificate of service.

I didn’t know that you needed to submit a proposed form of order along with your motion.

I didn’t know what a case management conference was.

I didn’t know what a discovery plan looked like.

I hadn’t participated in a large-scale document review.

I didn’t know how to mark exhibits or move them into evidence.

I certainly didn’t know how to write a deposition outline.

I had no experience taking depositions, and didn’t know the first thing about how to manage a witness.

I didn’t know what an in limine motion was.

I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a trial brief.

I knew nothing about recruiting and working with expert witnesses.

In short, like every other baby lawyer, I didn’t know squat about how to actually succeed in my chosen career (other than what I’d learned the prior summer when I’d worked as a summer associate at my new law firm). If I’d started out as a solo practitioner, I would have committed malpractice. Thankfully, however, all that issue-spotting had earned me a position at a law firm with the resources to provide me with intelligent supervision and strong on-the-job training.

Ten years on, I find that I do use the skills tested on those law school issue spotter exams. In particular, I can read the file on a new case, and use the analytical skills I honed in law school to analyze the issues in light of the law, do (or assign) research where needed, determine what additional facts I need to learn, and make recommendations to my colleagues or my clients. When we learn new facts, I can adjust our initial analysis as needed to account for the changes and to craft new strategy. Those are skills evolved from prepping for those convoluted issue spotter law school exams.

However, ten years into private practice, I don’t draw on my two months of intensive bar test prep to advise my clients or manage my work. I don’t rely on essay formulas to craft my briefs, and of course I have never encountered an MBE-style multiple choice question. But the thing is… PMBR and BAR/BRI worked. Test prep works. Test prep taught me to immerse myself in the logic of the test-makers, and how to effectively game the system to achieve my goal: a passing score. In the past ten years, I’ve occasionally encountered some pretty crappy lawyers, but they all have one thing in common: they passed the bar exam.

The fact that test prep works is what scares me as a public school parent, because as a parent I know that my child’s standardized test scores tell me virtually nothing about whether she’s actually mastered the academic skills she needs for a successful future.

My two months of bar test prep taught me that mass-produced bar prep can successfully raise scores: my MBE score skyrocketed when I left my inquisitiveness, curiosity, and thoughtfulness at the door, and instead immersed myself completely in the test-makers’ logic. I was willing to engage in two months of intensive test-prep because the stakes were so high: I could have lost my new job for failing the bar. Test prep was a means to an end, and it was an end I wanted (passing the bar so I could begin my career as a litigator at a large law firm), so I was willing to spend (my firm’s) money and my time on the commercial test prep courses. Thankfully, though, our (generally tenured) law school professors focused on preparing us for the practice of law, and not on preparing us for a soon-to-be-forgotten standardized test.

But what will my child gain from devoting 9 of her 13 years of public education to test prep? She might become a genius at immersing herself in the logic of the test makers, but will she learn to write purposefully and well? Will she learn to creatively attack a problem? Will she learn empathy and art appreciation and history and how to work as a member of a team? I fear that the answer is no, or at least not nearly as much as she would have if testing wasn’t driving curriculum.

Thankfully, my older child attends a school where the bulk of the teachers have tried hard to minimize the encroachment of test prep on the “real” curriculum, but even so, it seems to me that my 4th grader is bringing home fewer challenging projects that engage her as a learner. Tonight she complained that her teacher has been racing through math curriculum so that they’ll have “covered” all of the topics they need for the PARCC End of Year testing. Fortunately, my kindergartener attends a K-2 public school that is relatively insulated from the test-taking pressures. Her class is making daily observations of their tadpoles’ development. Tonight at dinner the little one flummoxed the older one by explaining the functions of the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the pre-frontal cortex.

I am thrilled that our local district’s test-focused superintendent (with her district-wide quarterly assessments to determine whether our kids were on track to succeed on the statewide annual assessments) recently resigned, and her interim replacement is a career educator who seems interested in putting exactly as much focus on standardized test scores as they’re worth. But not all children are in a district where progressive education seems to be making a resurgence.

Test prep — defined as taking concrete steps to get children into the heads of the test-makers — works. It really does, even on a test that’s allegedly of critical thinking, such as the bar exam (and, presumably, the PARCC). So as the stakes continue to grow, teachers will understandably be more and more tempted to engage in intensive test-prep (although bills to change this are in progress, under current New Jersey law, this year’s PARCC scores are worth 10% of teachers’ evaluations, but next year’s scores will be 20% of teachers’ evaluations, and the year after that PARCC scores will be 30% of teachers’ evaluations). Even where the teachers are not tempted, their principals or superintendents or even New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe may put unbearable pressure on them to raise scores — and coerce parents to allow their children to test — by any means necessary. For instance, just today (now, technically, yesterday) in an interview with the Newark Star Ledger, David Hespe threatened

“We are going to do whatever is necessary to make sure that we have a comfort level moving forward that we are going to hit that 95 percent,” Hespe said. “This is not a no harm, no foul situation here.”

Under Hespe’s vision, public schools will become publicly-funded versions of BAR/BRI and PMBR courses, and a child-centered, holistic public education will become rarer and rarer. Parents will be threatened and coerced to let their children test or risk further state intervention and loss of funds for their local districts (which already experienced drastic cuts in state aid under the Christie administration). The privatization movement will rejoice, as public school parents with the means will opt-out completely by sending their children to private school. Fewer parents of privilege will be left to speak out, and public education will instead continue its march to the test-prep driven bottom as it serves a higher and higher percentage of students whose parents can’t offer them other options.

I’ve refused to allow my test-aged child to test, because I believe in public education. My children attend public school in Montclair, New Jersey because I know that all children do better when they attend high-quality, integrated public schools with children whose life experiences differ from their own. It’s that vision of diversity and equitable opportunity that I want for my children, and that I, for one, believe is critical to keeping the American dream alive. Yet state bureaucrat David Hespe threatens local districts — and tries to sow division — in integrated local districts like ours because so many of us Montclair parents from all walks of life have joined together to protest PARCC’s destructive effects.

As I watched our local schools narrow curriculum and move toward a test-prep focus for two years under the reins of our test-driven (now former) superintendent, I toyed with the idea of pulling my kids out of their integrated public schools and sending them to private school (knowing that doing this would have required us to sell our house in our beloved neighborhood), but doing so would be a defeat. Instead, I elected to fight for our public schools by writing, speaking, and ultimately refusing to allow my child to take the PARCC tests. I will continue to do so.

The scary thing is: test prep works. That’s why it’s so tempting to teachers, principals, and school district officials whose careers are on the line. And that’s why we parents are the last line of defense. David Hespe might want to, but no one can fire us. That’s why we parents must stand firm against pressure such as that exerted today by David Hespe. It is up to We The Parents to ensure that our nation’s public schools in all neighborhoods remain — or become — more than test-prep factories. Our kids deserve no less.

The last time David Hespe threatened us public school parents, it backfired on him. In fact, I, for one, give him (through his October 30, 2014 memo threatening sanctions for opting out) credit for single-handedly sparking New Jersey’s until then minuscule PARCC refusal movement. Now, instead of learning from his mistake, David Hespe has doubled-down on his punitive approach to public education. Today, Hespe announced his strategy of trying to ensure public school parent capitulation to PARCC by threatening to further interfere in our local school districts and perhaps even withhold state funding.

One would almost be tempted to think that Hespe has bought into (or been bought by) the immersive logic of the test-makers. Hespe’s reasoning skills might get him a passing score on a standardized test, but reasoning his reasoning will get him nowhere in the court of public opinion. We New Jerseyeans are contrarian by nature. David Hespe, please take note: threats to inflict collective punishment on entire communities because New Jersey parents have refused the PARCC tests as an act of conscience and courage are far more likely to infuriate than subdue us. We New Jersey taxpayers — and our kids — deserve a state education policy maker with real world — and not test prep — reasoning skills. I don’t need to wait five months for his score: Hespe failed the test.

Author Belinda Edmondson at one of our annual block parties (Photo: Sarah Blaine).

GUEST VOICES: Opting Out in the Jersey Suburbs, Or, White Like Me by Belinda Edmondson

The latest attacks by the education reformers and standardized testing advocates against the test-refusal movement have focused on the issue of race.  For example, on March 25, 2015, Robert Pondiscio of The Thomas B. Fordham Institute wrote a piece titled “Opting out, race and reform.”  Dependably divisive Laura Waters then jumped on the bandwagon. As a white, suburban mom who is part of the test-refusal movement, I know from personal experience that this latest reformer narrative is deeply flawed, but I recognize that a privileged white woman arguing with other privileged white people about the experiences of people of color is an effective silencing of people of colors’ own voices.  So instead I reached out to friends of color who refused to allow their children to take the PARCC.  Below is a guest voice piece by my friend and neighbor, Belinda Edmondson, who has two children in the Montclair Public Schools.  Her words speak for themselves. Thank you for reading. — Sarah

Opting Out in the Jersey Suburbs: Or, White Like Me

by Belinda Edmondson

I live in Montclair, an affluent town in New Jersey, and I opted my children out of the PARCC.

According to the education reformers, that makes me one of those rich white soccer moms throwing a hissy fit because  “their children aren’t as brilliant as they thought they were, their schools aren’t quite as good as they thought they were.” New Jersey is a flashpoint for the opt-out debate because, they argue, as a state with poor cities full of minorities and wealthy suburbs full of whites, “it puts the state’s affluent white progressives potentially at odds with low-income and heavily Democratic families of color, since there is little evidence that such families are opting out in significant numbers.”

In other words, if the numbers are to be believed, I’m a wealthy white liberal hypocrite. I spout platitudes about racial inequality while opposing reforms that would help children of color. Apparently I and my fellow black-and-brown opt-outers are in denial about how badly these awful Montclair schools are failing our kids. Who knew?

Certainly not me.  I thought Montclair was full of black people. Active, vocal, black people. Brown people too. I thought I was black. So did my children, who had no idea they are white—or rich (yay!). But these are the facts about New Jersey, according to the reformers: only wealthy white liberals are opting out of PARCC.

The reformers should have notified the large multiracial group of opting-out students who crowded into Montclair school auditoriums during PARCC testing that opting-out is a whites-only privilege. They should have informed the protesting black and brown students who took over the Newark schools superintendent’s office that they are the wrong color. They should take aside those outspoken black parents at the Newark Board of Education meetings and minority anti-reform groups like the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice, and let them know: these are not the actions of black people. Stay in your lane, already.

Yes, it’s true that majority-black-and-brown districts in NJ are less likely than well-off districts to have students who oppose PARCC and other reforms. Camden, a high-poverty, majority-black city, is an example. There the state has hijacked the school system and children of color are being forced into charter schools. Groups like Save Camden Schools are fighting back, but it looks like a losing battle. Silly me, I thought that was due to class, and social capital: you know, the fact that educated, well-connected families of any color are more likely to be able to challenge the reform mandates and not be punished for it precisely because of their intimate knowledge of how the system works. The more educated professionals in a town, the better able its residents are to challenge the corporate raiding of their schools. Negative repercussions are far less likely: if their kids don’t take the PARCC, so what? Professionals who know the system know their kids will still graduate from high school, still get into college. Not so with poor families in poor districts. Reforms are presented to them as the gateway to a good education and the social mobility that comes with it. Even if those families don’t buy the reform mantra, what choice do they have? Poor families don’t control their own schools.

The reformers understand this, and care. The compassion they exhibit for poor minority families is touching. From Newark to Trenton, poor children of color are the focus of philanthropic millionaires and billionaires rushing into NJ to help them faster than you can say “Pass Go and collect $200!”  Reformers constantly raise the specter of the achievement gap as justification for pushing more standardized testing. They argue that black and brown kids are the chief beneficiaries of all these reforms. Precisely how our kids benefit is unclear when their school curriculum is narrowed to focus on test prep, their test scores are used to tell them they’re ignorant, and their teachers are under threat of being fired. But the reformers have done their homework and know what’s best. Of course none of this has anything to do with the fact that there’s lots of money to be made in reforming the schools. Or that the pesky teacher’s union is getting in the way of profits.

And, unlike the opt-outers, the reformers are a multiracial bunch. If you have any doubts about that, there are all those ubiquitous reform images featuring black kids or concerned brown parents to remind you. The education reform movement surely represents the face of multicultural America.

Yet, somehow, even with all the black-and-brown faces fronting the movement, I sometimes wonder if it’s just corporate America seeing dollar signs in the education crisis facing poor black-and-brown children. I’m happy to report, however, that any doubts I’ve had on who’s pushing Montclair’s reform agenda were put to rest when I heard about the two corporate lawyers—both African-American—hired by a group of local parents to advocate on behalf of Montclair’s children. These concerned parents (who remain anonymous out of fear of “retribution”) are paying these lawyers to get rid of an African-American town council member on the Montclair Board of School Estimate with links to the teacher’s union. The lawyers are also filing a public records request to check the emails of Montclair’s African-American mayor for evidence of complicity with the anti-reform activists. So I shouldn’t have doubted. It’s a simple equation after all. On the reform side, concerned and fearful parents looking out for the best interests of disadvantaged minority children. On the anti-reform side, limousine liberal hypocrites and sinister union operatives.

But still. I can’t help but wonder. The possibility that wealthy white people hired expensive lawyers to sue local black leaders would be pretty bad press for the reform movement. It might look like rich white folks are having a hissy fit because they haven’t gotten their way with our schools. It might look like—dare I say it?—hypocrisy. It would certainly be bad optics. Of course that isn’t the case here in progressive Montclair. Sometimes the devil gets in me and I’m tempted to suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, there may be a grain of truth in that offensive idea.

But that would be a black lie, now wouldn’t it?

 

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PARCC’s Fatal Design Flaw

Adam Clark of The Star Ledger wrote an article today setting out some of the details of Pearson’s relationship with its subcontractor, Caveon Test Security, a company based in Utah, which is the entity that is actually monitoring students’ social media to look for so-called test-security violations. He writes:

Searching publicly available websites and social media channels, Caveon “continually patrols the internet looking for inappropriate sharing or discussion” of its clients’ intellectual property, Addicott said. New Jersey will pay $96,574 for the service, according to its PARCC contract.

“We work very closely with our client to gain a sense of the test’s nomenclature so we might get snippets of items, descriptions of the test,” Addicott said. “We work with them to kind of get as much understanding as we can of how people might talk about the tests, and then we use a bunch of different search technology to cast a really broad and deep net, and then our team, our analysts, spend lots of hours culling through the noise to hone in on what really appears to be a threat.”

If a student shares a photo of a test question or recalls a question from memory, it’s a breach of test security, Addicott said. But it’s not always clear whether online discussion about a test is a breach, so Caveon alerts clients to both obvious and possible threats, he said.

Clark’s article raises as many questions as it answers. For instance: who are Caveon’s analysts who “spend lots of hours culling through the noise to hone in on what really appears to be a threat”? How does Caveon ensure that these people — who it, along with the New Jersey Department of Education — is entrusting with the responsibility of sifting through children’s social media presences, are not creepers?

But more critically, Clark’s article points toward what’s really wrong with NJDOE’s decision to, through Pearson, hire Caveon to monitor student social media. Wayne Camera, a senior vice president of research for the ACT college admissions test is quoted as saying:

“It’s not uncommon for folks to do this kind of thing,” Camara said. “But I would say for a state test, and a PARCC test, it is actually more critical that they do it because they are leaving the tests out there for so long.”

And that’s the key point. The real issue is that PARCC/Pearson — and the state education agencies they’ve contracted with — are attempting to remedy the major design flaw in the operational structure of their PARCC tests by chilling our children’s speech. Because districts need to ensure that all students who need to take the tests can get access to the computers they need to do so, the districts were told that they could design their own schedules to administer PARCC within a broad testing window (21 days — i.e., from March 2nd to March 23rd in most districts, but even longer — from late February into April — in others).

As anyone who has ever met a child knows, kids talk. Aside from the concerns raised by our schools and the NJDOE sending a message to children that they should keep materials presented to them in school secret, it was unrealistic and downright idiotic to expect that children wouldn’t talk about these tests for weeks on end. Yet that is precisely what it appears that the PARCC consortium, Pearson, and the NJDOE believed they could do: they could hire Caveon to monitor social media and then to scare children into compliance so that instead of acknowledging the insanity of their own design flaw that assumed that test security could be maintained over a three week period of scattered test taking, they could instead blame, shame, and punish children — some as young as eight years old — for leaking test questions.

The only fault for leaking test questions rests solidly in PARCC, Pearson and the state education departments’ laps: they are the professional assessment designers who were so clueless about children that thought they could keep such basic information as the English Language Arts reading passages secret — despite millions of kids reading them — for weeks on end. Yes, hindsight is 20/20, but many of us saw the leaky test issue coming (although not the Orwellian decision to stalk children’s social media rather than acknowledge the tests’ fatal design flaw). PARCC, Pearson, and the entire NJDOE assessment department — as well as David Hespe — should be summarily fired for requiring a statewide standardized test that included such an obvious operational design flaw.

Instead, however, it looks as if PARCC, Pearson, Caveon, and their patsy, the NJDOE, will continue to peep at and creep through our children’s social media. And, apparently, no one involved will stop to spare a thought about what effect a state-sponsored program of social media surveillance will have on students’ free speech rights. After all, Civics is not on the test.

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Guest Voices: Dr. Colleen Daly Martinez

The letter below is by Dr. Colleen Daly Martinez. Dr. Martinez holds a Ph.D in Social Work from Rutgers University. I first encountered her as a fellow local education advocate working to support our public schools; in the months since, we have become friends. She wrote this letter to Senator Teresa Ruiz, Chair of the New Jersey Senate’s Education Committee, and copied it to the members of the Senate Education Committee along with other local, state, and federal lawmakers, as noted below.

One Clarification: It is true that a third-grade theater class’s production was originally canceled due to PARCC.  See this excerpt from an email to parents of the affected children regarding this decision:

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However, due to the efforts of parents to alert the administration that the decision to cancel was unacceptable, our responsive PTA and administration were able to work together to ensure that the third-grade theater class’s short play was rescheduled.  See below:

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Thank you to Georgette Gilmore for pointing out via Twitter that this needed to be clarified.  The original letter as sent by Dr. Martinez to Senator Ruiz, et al. remains below.

 

March 15, 2015

Dear Senator Ruiz, and Senate Education Committee Members,

I have written to you before to express my concern about education reform and its impact on our NJ public schools, but I feel compelled to reach out again after listening to Education Commissioner Hespe’s testimony to you on Thursday, March 12.

I will start by telling you about who I am, so that you understand my perspective and experience. I’ll then share with you my observations of the impact of education reform, and then close with some recommendations and requests. I am happy to meet with you at any time and venue to further this discussion, and I appreciate your time, service, and representation.

I am a NJ Licensed Clinical Social Worker and I hold a PhD in Social Work which I earned at Rutgers University. I have more than 20 years of clinical social work experience with children and their families. I have worked with upper and middle class families, as well as with very poor urban and rural families in four counties across Northern New Jersey. I teach Master’s Degree students at a Research I University, and I maintain a private practice where I provide consultation and supervision to mental health professionals. I also provide related services to special education students in a poor urban school district.

Working in classrooms on a regular basis, I see very clear signs that education reform is already harming our most vulnerable students. First, the Common Core State Standards set goals and timeframes for when children should achieve certain academic goals, and place responsibility on the classroom teacher for student achievement of these goals. Consider a first grade standard: “CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.1.5 Explain major differences between books that tell stories and books that give information, drawing on a wide reading of a range of text types.” In some first grade classrooms we have children with developmental and medical challenges and communication and learning disabilities. Some special education students in first grade are nonverbal, literally unable to speak their own names. Some are visually impaired and learning to use assistive devices to safely navigate their expanding world. Others have serious emotional and behavioral challenges which require the intervention and support of mental health professionals and behaviorists. However, the Common Core standards and new teacher evaluation requirements demand that teachers, regardless of who their students are and what challenges they bring with them, prioritize the standards. Whether a first grade teacher has a group of 25 well fed, well rested students with no significant learning challenges, or a teacher has a group of 30 students, all poor, some hungry, and some with serious behavioral or learning challenges, they must both be working on this goal for their students: “Explain major differences between books that tell stories and books that give information, drawing on a wide reading of a range of text type.” Not only must both teachers be working toward this goal with their students, but their job performance evaluations will be based upon how well their students demonstrate mastery of this goal on the PARCC test. I hope that you can see why this system of ‘accountability’ is unjust.
To make the assumption that children throughout the country, or even throughout New Jersey or Essex County, have the same educational opportunities, despite who they are and where they live, is absolutely false. What I have witnessed for the past four years is that what is now being referred to as “educational reform” is systematically causing harm to those who are most in need and most vulnerable. Many reformers say that a major problem with our educational system is that we don’t expect enough of poor children, or children with disabilities, and therefore these students underperform. Reformers’ rationale is that if we raise standards, and expect more from underperforming students, they will rise to the challenge. This assertion is missing a vital piece, however. The piece that is missing is WHY these students are underperforming. Researchers consistently find that having learning disabilities and living in poverty places more challenges on these children in their pursuit of academic achievement. What would be beneficial to helping these students achieve would be to provide resources where they are needed such as into specialized training for educators and special educators regarding working with students with disabilities; into school buildings to decrease class size; and into medical and social services to address some of the challenges that our students in poverty face. Raising academic standards when students already have challenges performing is similar to telling a wheelchair user that we are going to take away ramps and elevators, because they will be better off without them. This idea makes no sense. Reformers would have us think that children with very real challenges can somehow do better academically if we only believe that it is possible. This idea also makes no sense, in the absence of resources to help them achieve.

Parents are now seeing that their children’s needs for remediation, review, reteaching, and focusing on foundational skills are being ignored because of the pressure to keep up with the standards. Teachers, whether in middle class districts with a classroom of regular education students, or in special education classrooms in poor districts, are accountable for variables that are out of their control. With the addition of PARCC testing as another measure of accountability for teachers and schools, developmentally delayed children are spending more time on computers than they are on social skills or on fine and gross motor skills. They thereby miss out on important developmental support which would eventually lead to healthier, well-balanced individuals. Reformers would say that the enhanced pressure on teachers is good for academic achievement. People who understand what is happening on the individual, classroom, building, and district level see that genuine, meaningful learning is being replaced by PARCC preparation. But this is true only in the poorest buildings and districts. More diverse, middle class, and upper middle class schools are largely spared because statistically and historically their students tend to do better on standardized tests. Subsequently, the ‘haves’ receive education to improve their lives, while the ‘have nots’ receive training to improve their PARCC scores. Over the long term, if these systems of holding teachers accountable for social inequity and student’s learning disabilities remain in place, I think we should expect a trend of highly-qualified and experienced teachers moving away from working in poor districts and away from special education. This, of course, will only cause more harm to students who are most in need.

Commissioner Hespe would have us believe that PARCC results will be a learning tool. Instruction and remediation will be targeted to address specific areas where students are underperforming so that we can ensure that they are on the course toward being college and career ready. The problem with that justification for PARCC is that educators and administrators can already identify which students are in need of remediation. Class grades and GPA are indicators that are already readily available. Teachers, administrators and parents are excellent reporters of where students are falling behind and even failing. They can also be excellent reporters of where remediation is needed. However, remediation often cannot be provided because there aren’t sufficient resources to do so. Rather than spend huge amounts of money verifying what we already know, why not spend our resources meeting the needs of students and schools? The answer to that question is rather grim. Why do we put all of these tax dollars into an experimental assessment tool? Because there is tremendous opportunity to direct taxpayer dollars into the wallets of education reform companies. As Commissioner Hespe pointed out, it is impossible to compute the actual amount of dollars spent by each district on PARCC preparation, but we do know that NJ’s contract with Pearson alone is worth more than one hundred million dollars. Many informed educators postulate that when PARCC results do come back, Pearson will be ready to sell our districts remedial products.

I want to further illustrate how some students are suffering more than others under these reform efforts. The students I work with in their school setting, some of whom have just turned three years old, are often English language learners. Most are eligible for free lunch. Their parents often are not able to read school notices that are sent home in English, and their parents often work more than one job to support their families. They usually do not have their own cars. Because of their parents’ work schedules, these students are often at school for before school care and after school care. Their school facilities often lack developmentally appropriate, safe recreation equipment. Therefore, some three year old children spend more than 9 hours a day at school, with little to no opportunity to run, tumble and climb. Optimistically assuming that these youngsters get the recommended 12 hours of sleep at night, their schedule might allow for three waking hours with their parents each day. I have no doubt that many of these families find it hard to provide enriching activities for their children’s growth and development during these three hours, and during whatever time they are not working on weekends.

The school experiences of middle class children are often strikingly different. I’ll use my daughter as an example. Because her father and I have the benefit of relatively good jobs, our schedules allow for a parent to be home with her when she is not at school. Each morning I bring her to school at 9, and I pick her up again at 3:30. She has hours of time to do homework, play, and enjoy our company every evening. She has always lived in the same home, and has never had to go hungry, or worry about her own safety. She is lucky, in that her basic needs are met; that we have the time and resources to provide her with additional support at home to help her achieve the academic goals set forth in the Common Core standards; and that we can provide her with enriching activities to help her to be a happy, well-rounded person.

Even with all of the benefits of her relatively comfortable life, her school experience has been stressful. Starting in kindergarten fours year ago, my daughter’s public school career has always been shaped by the Common Core standards. Despite being a typically developing child with no health or behavioral issues, she was flagged in kindergarten because she was not progressing adequately toward reading. For three years — until this school year — she was considered ‘below grade level’ in her reading ability. Thankfully, my husband and I are well-informed about child development and education, as well as about educational systems in other countries. We did not focus on her perceived ‘delay’ because we were aware that in many high-performing countries children are not even expected to begin developing reading skills until they are seven. We were also familiar with the research that points to the potential harm caused by pushing children to develop reading skills before they are developmentally ready. This harm includes feelings of inadequacy and an aversion to reading. I consider our daughter lucky that we have been able to spare her from the potential harm of the Common Core standards.

The issue of resources is a primary reason why I am an advocate for our public schools and against PARCC. During this school year I have seen many schools, classrooms, and children suffer because of flawed use of resources. In a school in an urban district, a bathroom has caution tape up, surrounding a broken sink and loose floor tiles. The principal does not have the funds to have the bathroom fixed, and is dismayed because she was forced to spend $25,000 of her budget on Chrome Books in preparation for PARCC. In another school the teachers bring in their own bottles of hand soap for their students’ use, and there are no balls, jump ropes, chalk or other play materials in the parking lot (where children play because the gymnasium is also the cafeteria). Yet carts of laptops sit under lock and key in preparation for PARCC testing. In my daughter’s school, theater productions are canceled, the library is closed for weeks on end, and substitute teachers are covering classes while teachers are proctoring the PARCC test. Unfunded state mandates have forced our schools to stop spending on what is needed, so they can meet the demands of the state. Our Montclair 2015-2016 budget proposal currently calls for increasing taxes, cutting more than 50 classroom level staff, and adding more spending for technology. This makes no sense!

Commissioner Hespe testified to you that it would not be possible to compute the amount of money that districts have spent in preparing for PARCC. To me, that is quite concerning, but I believe that the worst waste of resources is the time that our students and teachers are spending in school this year NOT learning. My daughter’s class spent nine sessions this school year in the computer lab, learning how to use Pearson’s PARCC tools. They have taken numerous practice tests, not for the students’ benefit, but to check that the school’s internet and computer capacity could handle the actual PARCC administration. They have had countless days of being in class with substitute teachers who do not instruct, but simply supervise the students while their regular teachers have training to administer PARCC. The teachers have not been able to attend enriching and inspiring continuing education workshops because their professional development hours have been spent on PARCC preparation.

Many educators would say, if asked, that the time and money that has been spent thus far on preparation for the PARCC test could absolutely have been put to better use addressing student needs that they were already aware of. Unfortunately, Commissioner Hespe and others that believe in this education reform movement would have you believe that educators have a problem with PARCC testing because they actually have a problem with accountability. Many test advocates say that teachers don’t like the test because it will show that their teaching is ineffective, and that PARCC puts pressure on teachers to perform given that PARCC scores will be tied to teachers’ performance evaluations. Advocates for public education, including educators and others who are familiar with educational research and practice say that it is unfair to hold teachers accountable for the reasons that students perform poorly since many of these include learning disabilities, poverty, and other issues that are beyond individual teachers’ control. If we truly want to improve academic outcomes, we need to put resources and accountability in the right places, and not into tools that will just continue to measure and accentuate the achievement gap.

My biggest concern is about the long term impact on public education for poor children and children with special needs. Education reform executives, politicians, and education policy makers often send their children to private schools, where Common Core standards and high stakes testing are not used. Children who attend such private schools will continue to have the enriching educational experiences that they can afford. Our less privileged and more vulnerable students however, will suffer. Since PARCC’s focus is only on English language arts and math, and resources are scarce, many schools are cutting recreation, sports, science, music, drama, second language, and fine arts offerings. Students who struggle academically often find that these activities are the ones that make school fun, inspiring, and something to look forward to. We should also remember that not everyone is meant to be a business executive or a mathematician. As a society, we need people who are creative, inspired, out-of-the-box thinkers. By degrading the quality of our public schools and not offering equal opportunity for disadvantaged people, we will only enhance the achievement gap.

Commissioner Hespe seemed determined to convince you in his testimony last week that the groundswell of opposition to PARCC is due to parents being uninformed. Please know that we parents are also professionals. We are business owners, corporate managers, teachers, artists, librarians, social workers, medical professionals, researchers, statisticians, and lawyers — as well as parents. We work our full-time jobs, care for our families, and have taken on our part-time roles as well informed social activists because we feel that our voices continue to be ignored and dismissed by those we have elected. Please allow our voices to be just as powerful as those alleging that they speak for us.

As members of the Senate Education Committee, I know that you have our students’ and taxpayers’ best interests in mind. In addition to reading my letter, which I am so grateful that you have done, I am asking for your support. Please make a conscious effort to protect our public schools. Please make efforts to halt and roll back unfunded state mandates, including standards and expectations that set special needs students up to fail as well as the mandates that link test scores to teacher evaluations. Please make efforts to stop holding teachers accountable for variables that are not under their control. Please ensure that we, as parents, maintain our right to refuse participation in standardized testing for our children. Please work toward returning local control of schools to those taxpayers who are most invested in their success. Please do not allow the interests of corporate education reformers to be more important than the needs of our children. Please listen to parents, educators and administrators. Please put our public school students’ needs first.

Again, I am thankful for the time that you have given to hear my concerns. Please do not hesitate to contact me at any time to continue this conversation.

Respectfully,

Dr. Colleen Daly Martinez

Copy:
Administrators, Hillside Elementary School
Members, Montclair Board of Education
Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson
Senator Steve Sweeney
Senator Cory Booker
Senator Robert Menendez
Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan
Congressman Donald Payne
Members, Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in New Jersey
Governor Chris Christie