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Google Docs Opt Out!

Oh what a difference a year makes!  We’ve got a new superintendent and a majority of our school board members have finally now been appointed by our pro-public education mayor.  

Today, emails and snail mails were sent to parents of all affected students in the district containing PARCC opt out procedures.  

The best part?  

OPT OUT VIA GOOGLE DOCS!

But also be sure to check out the letter to parents of students who refused testing last year.  It confirms that PARCC scores won’t be used for placement into any academic programs.  

Today is a happy day.

Opt Out: COMPLETE!

I love the reassurance that PARCC scores won’t be used in any way.

 

 

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Civics Lessons

The Study Commission Recommended That Our Kids Be Stuck Testing Into Eternity: Now What?

Yesterday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in New Jersey issued its long-awaited final report.  To the surprise of no one, the Governor’s minions Commission concluded that the PARCC test is wonderful, and that not only should New Jersey keep using it, we should require all high school students to take it to qualify to graduate starting with the Class of 2020, and require them to earn passing scores on the 10th grade English and Algebra I tests starting with the Class of 2021.  My older daughter is in the Class of 2023 (and my younger daughter is in the Class of 2027), so this has a direct impact on my family and me.  For the record, this year 36% of NJ students who took the 10th grade English Language Arts test receiving scores demonstrating that they met or exceeded expectations, and again, 36% of Algebra I test takers received scores reflecting that they’d met or exceeded expectations.

Here are the initial thoughts I shared on Facebook about the result:

Over a hundred people came out to the 3 public comment sessions. All but maybe ONE of them spoke against PARCC testing in NJ. Parents and educators everywhere — from teachers to my daughter’s recently retired building principal to our town’s superintendent — are opposed to this sham of a test. But the pre-determined outcome is in fact the actual outcome. Public comment had no impact whatsoever. 

The game is rigged, and it’s our children who are losing. But this outcome can be laid solidly at Chris Christie’s door, and the national media should hold him accountable for it. After all: he appointed the “independent” study commission; he appointed New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe; and he appoints all of the members of the New Jersey State Board of Education. So the buck stops with Christie. 

But on a structural level, the fact that ALL public education policy makers are ultimately accountable to one person demonstrates how broken and easily manipulated our state education policy truly is. 

We the Parents, We the Taxpayers, and We the People need to step in. It is time to demand change — an amendment to the NJ state constitution, if necessary, to get elected representation on the State Board of Education.  Rule making bodies like NJSBOE and NJDOE have tremendous power to interpret state education statutes however they see fit. They must be accountable to the people and not just to a governor dreaming of the White House. 

In NJ, our local school boards have abdicated policy making responsibility saying that they’re hamstrung by state mandates. And those state mandates come from entities that are all accountable only to our governor. Structural change is necessary if we want to preserve public education for our children and the future.

And here are my expanded thoughts (very expanded, I’m sorry, I’m a lawyer, I’m nerdy, and since I was reading through the enabling legislation myself for my own edification, I figured that at least a few of you policy nerds might want to follow along at home as well.  For the rest of you, don’t say I didn’t warn you…) about where we go from here.  I think I will do a separate post looking at the actual report itself to see if it measures up to the Common Core standards PARCC claims to measure.  Look for that tonight or tomorrow.  In the meantime, here goes…

A Brief Digression on the Death of Local Control

Wednesday night I plan to attend my local district’s Board of Education meeting.  For me, at least, the hot topic will be school tours, which are a big deal for parents of incoming kindergarteners and incoming middle schoolers in our all-magnet suburban school system.

Last weekend, a local micro-news blog created a brouhaha when it reported a scuffle between the district PTA council president and the superintendent over whether the district had decided to replace school tours with online videos. For a whole lot of reasons, I think school tours are important, so Wednesday night I plan to attend our local Board of Education’s next meeting to express my opinion during public comment.

Why does this matter? What is unusual about this vignette is how rare it is for our local Board of Education to actually have the authority to set policy about a school-related issue, so for once my comment might actually make a difference.  The only reason our local board has sole authority over this issue is that this is such a unique local issue that Trenton has not bothered to dictate tour procedures to our town.  But on virtually every other topic these days, most New Jersey education policy decisions emanate from Trenton, where the New Jersey Department of Education and the New Jersey State Board of Education issue implementing regulations for state education statutes, and issue policy guidance and bulletins to New Jersey school districts.

New Jersey’s Code of Ethics for School Board Members Demonstrates State Usurpation of Local Control 

New Jersey’s Code of Ethics for School Board Members, N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(a), requires local school board members to make this pledge even before they pledge to look out for the educational welfare of children:

“I will uphold and enforce all laws, rules and regulations of the State Board of Education, and court orders pertaining to schools.  Desired changes shall be brought about only through legal and ethical procedures.”

Although the local tide has turned and our local BOE seems slightly more independent now, for the past few years, our local school board interpreted this pledge as requiring it to slavishly follow Trenton’s mandates, regardless of whether the local board of education thought that such mandates might be harming our children.  Whether deliberately or not, they seemed to ignore the second sentence of that pledge, and nobody but nobody was willing to utter a peep against Trenton. Especially given that the Christie administration decided to ignore the legislatively enacted state aid funding formula (“SFRA”), I think they were all terrified to open their mouths and bring the wrath of Trenton down upon them in dollars of aid magically not allotted to our district.

So for the first couple of years in which I attended local Board of Education meetings, when the public spoke out – and speak out it did – about the harm that many of these state mandates were doing to children, our local BOE copped out by saying that these were decisions made in Trenton, and its hands were tied.  I urged it to take action to influence and change state policy, but was largely ignored, presumably as a naive gadfly, which I undoubtedly am.

From my talks with friends, colleagues, and fellow activists throughout the state, my understanding is that Montclair’s school board was far from alone in taking this position. This 2001 Code of Ethics for School Board Members seems to have served to hamstring many local school boards, depriving them of local control on any and all topics on which the State Board of Education and/or the New Jersey Department of Education have decided to opine.  The ethics rule, which sounds reasonable on the surface, has functioned to make our school boards little more than powerless rubber stamps for whatever state policies the NJDOE and the NJ State Board of Education decide to impose on New Jersey’s public school children.

NJ’s State-Level Policy Makers

So the real questions are – who are the members of the State Board of Education, and how does our Commissioner of Education get appointed?  Those are the true power brokers of education policy in the state, so let’s figure out how they get into office.  Here’s the answer:

The members of the NJ State Board of Education are appointed by the governor – currently, Governor Chris Christie, of course.  This is mandated by the New Jersey State Constitution of 1947 at Article 5, Section 4, Paragraph 4, which reads:

“Whenever a board, commission or other body shall be the head of a principal department, the members thereof shall be nominated and appointed by the Governor with the advice and consent of the Senate, and may be removed in the manner provided by law.  [irrelevant for our purposes section about the Lieutenant Governor’s appointment process]  Such a board, commission or other body may appoint a principal executive officer when authorized by law, but the appointment shall be subject to the approval of the Governor.  Any principal executive officer so appointed shall be removable by the Governor, upon notice and an opportunity to be heard.”

N.J.S.A. 18A:4-4 implements this constitutional requirement in the statute setting out how the New Jersey State Board of Education is chosen.  It reads, in relevant part:

“The members of the state board shall be appointed by the governor, by and with the advice and consent of the senate, for terms of six years commencing on July 1.”

What this tells us is that by now, given that we are in the seventh year of Governor Christie’s tenure, all of the New Jersey State Board of Education members were appointed, re-appointed or allowed to continue in office by Gov. Christie, and are beholden to him – and only to him – for their positions.

N.J.S.A. 18A:4-1 confirms that Art. 5, Sec. 4, Para. 4 of the Constitution applies to the state department of education, and that therefore the provisions about the appointment of a principal executive officer apply.  It reads:

“The state department of education is hereby continued as a principal department in the executive branch of the state government, and it shall consist of a state board of education, which shall be head of the department, a commissioner of education, and such divisions, bureaus, branches, committees, officers and employees as are specifically referred to in this title and as may be constituted or employed by virtue of the authority conferred by this title and by any other law.”

So again – who is responsible for appointing not just the members of the State Board of Education, but also the Commissioner of the Board of Education?  Chris Christie’s State Board of Education, subject to the governor’s approval, of course.  In fact, Dave Hespe can be removed by Chris Christie whenever Christie feels like it, so long as he gives his buddy Dave notice of his removal and an opportunity to plead his case first.

The long and the short of it is – New Jersey’s governor has a LOT of power over state education policy, especially since the 2001 local school board code of ethics hamstrung any local Board of Ed members who wanted to push back hard against asinine state mandates.  I have no idea of the backstory that led to the 2001 ethics law, but I do find it curious that the timing coincides with the federal government centralizing some control over education policy through the 2001 No Child Left Behind law.

Now, the legislature can, of course, override the State Board of Education by passing legislation abrogating Department guidance and/or Board-issued regulations.  However, to do so, it must pass such legislation through both houses of the legislature and, of course, get those bills signed by… you guessed it… the Governor.  And, of course, the implementing regulations for any such legislation passed by the legislature will be created and approved by… you guessed it… the State Board of Education.  So any way you parse it, the NJ governor has enormous control over what happens in our public schools, and among other negatives to this lack of checks and balances is the fact that governors with different policy prescriptions can wildly swing education policy from one election to the next.

The Study Commission 

Yesterday, as I mentioned at the top, the Governor’s “independent” Study Commission released its report on state testing in New Jersey, which concluded, unsurprisingly, despite around 200 in person or emailed public comments in opposition and virtually none in support, that the PARCC is super awesome.  But, of course, it’s absurd on its face to think that a Study Commission appointed by the same governor who is responsible for appointing the State Board of Education and the State Commissioner of Education would reach a different conclusion than whatever the governor’s office (or his presidential campaign) wanted it to reach.  All three of these entities are answerable only to Chris Christie, and as newspapers have reported throughout Governor Christie’s tenure, he is not hesitant to bully those who disagree with him into submission.  And when those who disagree with him are people he thinks should be loyal to him, the gloves truly come off.

So the Study Commission’s conclusion:

“However, one point must be abundantly clear: the Study Commission firmly believes all students in New Jersey’s public schools who are eligible should be required to take the State standardized assessment (i.e., PARCC).  Doing so will ensure all students are progressing well in their educational endeavors and all public schools are effective for all students.  High-quality assessments such as PARCC will hold schools accountable for serving all of their students, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds.  The Study Commission believes it will be impossible to effectively close achievement gaps between and among students without accurate and actionable information”

was pre-ordained.  Ironically, the Study Commission’s entire report would earn a big fat F under the Common Core Standards if it were graded according to PARCC scoring rubrics.  The reason for this, of course, is that paragraphs like the one I just quoted cite to absolutely no evidence to support their conclusions.

Where Do We Go From Here?

One of my takeaways from this sham of a process (and don’t even get me started on the Common Core Review Commission, which also issued recommendations yesterday, and which was, perhaps, even worse in terms of process, if that’s even possible) is that there is way too much power over education policy consolidated in the hands of one person in this state: our Governor.

There is no question that Governor Christie’s minions appointees on the State Board of Education and at NJDOE will gleefully embrace the Study Commission recommendations, and that so long as this governor or a successor who shares his education policy prescriptions remains in office, the people will have little to no ability to shape more student-friendly education policy.

It seems to me that from an education policymaking process standpoint, there are two takeaways to move New Jersey education policy in a productive direction:

(1) We need to amend the New Jersey State Constitution so that at least some of the members of the State Board of Education are elected officials, accountable directly to voters rather than to the Governor.  The governor’s control over the rule making process is way too all-encompassing, and at least some elected State Board of Education members would provide needed checks and balances for educational policy making in New Jersey.  Especially now, when the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (“ESEA reauthorization”; i.e., No Child Left Behind’s replacement) has moved a great deal of education policy making authority from the federal government back to the states, we need to ensure that state level education policy cannot be so easily held captive by special interest groups who’ve courted the governor, but no one else.

(2) We need to introduce and pass legislation that makes it explicitly ethical for local Board of Education members to push back against state mandates that harm students.  It seems to me Paragraph (b) of the Code Ethics should be strengthened and replace Paragraph (a) as the first duty of local school board members. Paragraph (b) currently reads:

“I will make decisions in terms of the educational welfare of children and will seek to develop and maintain public schools that meet the individual needs of all children regardless of their ability, race, creed, sex, or social standing.”

Our kids deserve local leaders with the authority to actually put the children’s best interests first.  As the Study Commision report hammers home, this administration can never be trusted to do that.

Who’s with me?

Updated to Add (1/13/2016): Apparently New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe agrees with me.  Here he is, quoted in yesterday’s Star Ledger:

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New Jersey, let’s take our cue from New Jersey Education Commissioner and make a really good change to the New Jersey State Constitution.  It is time for We the People to reclaim our power over our children’s futures, instead of leaving that power consolidated in the hands of the New Jersey governor, currently Chris Christie; the unelected New Jersey State Board of Education, each of whom owes his current tenure in the job to Chris Christie; and Christie appointee, New Jersey Education Commission David Hespe.

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Homework Rant

My family is fortunate to live on one of those old fashioned blocks that is truly a neighborhood.  There are about a dozen families on our street with elementary school aged children, and during their free time, the children run in a pack around the block with the big ones looking out for the little ones.  Their games are incredibly creative: I’ve seen these kids write a script to film a movie, engage in elaborate games of “family” and sword-fighting, climb trees to fantastic heights, and design amazing obstacle courses.  They have their arguments and spats, but overall the culture we’ve watched them create is one in which everyone — from the child with autism to the nerdiest of the nerdy — is accepted.  My girls are glad to have a street full of brothers they know will have their backs.

What I cherish more than anything about this neighborhood is that the kids are able to run around independently.  There are adults around in the afternoon — a combination of parents and babysitters — but once their homework is done, the kids are pretty much on their own until dinner time.  This year, however, my older daughter has not been able to join the gang much at all after school.  That’s not because I over-schedule her: after school she has a half-hour trumpet lesson once a week and religious school on Wednesdays, but rather because homework has become a monster, devouring childhood.

My kids’ schools have a late start (late bell is at 9:20 a.m.) and a late finish (they don’t get off the bus home until about 4 p.m.).  We are an all-choice school district, so many kids on the street have significantly earlier schedules, which admittedly compounds the problem.

E leaves for school at 8:15 three mornings a week because the school band practices before school starting at 8:30 a.m.  By the time she gets home, she’s already had a seven and a half hour day, and she’s understandably tired and worn out.  But there’s that pile of homework, staring her in the face.

Last night she got off the bus and did not finish her homework (plus 15 minutes of trumpet practice) until 9 p.m.  The only concerted break she took was a half hour for family dinner.  She did, of course, take lots of small breaks that she created herself as mini-rebellions I’m not sure she’s even really aware of — she wanted to direct her little sister on how to clean up their toys, or discuss the distinction between hermits and homeless people with me, or go to the bathroom — but again, looking at the totality of the circumstances, those breaks, as frustrating as they felt at the time, were the only rebellion she could muster against homework demands that are simply too much for her child’s body and child’s brain. All in, this kid put in a 12 hour day yesterday.

As a practicing lawyer, I know how fried I feel after a 12 hour day, and indeed, one of the great perks of the job I have now is that I rarely have to put in such days anymore.  Why are we demanding this of our children?  Is it to teach them Grit?  Resilience?  Is this what Rigor looks like?  It seems to me that it’s going to backfire: demanding too much of our littlest children is ultimately going to inspire them to cheat or rebel.  As Peter Greene says, Grit is nothing more than a big old Poop Sandwich.

I can almost hear the teachers reading this now.  They’re fuming at me, asking why I haven’t reached out to my daughter’s teachers to address the issue.  Trust me, I did.  The full text of my email is below — the only changes I’ve made are to take out names and other personal information.  The entirety of their response appears below my email to them.

Dear Mrs. _______ and Mrs. ________:

E is having a very good year this year, and I’m glad to see that she’s working hard.  I especially appreciated the cell project.  She is a conscientious student, and I think she particularly appreciates that classroom management seems to be less of an issue this year than in years past.  Plus, you’ve got a really sweet group of kids in that class.

That said, it seems like the homework load (tonight in particular) is a lot to ask of 10 and 11 year olds.  E is a hard-working and conscientious student, and I’m sure she takes more time on her assignments than is strictly necessary, but she tells me that today she got off the bus, had a snack while she worked, and then worked straight through until I got home at about 6:15.  It was only her and her sitter (also a student with homework to do) in the house for that time, so I don’t doubt that she was probably working pretty steadily during that two hour block, and when I got home the ELA work was pretty much done.

She continued working (admittedly with more distractions) until we ate dinner around 7 p.m.  She was back at work at 7:30 to start her math homework, and I found myself getting frustrated with her because she was getting ridiculously easily distracted, but that doesn’t seem unreasonable when she’d already put in an 11 hour day at that point (band practice starts at 8:30 a.m.).  She only finished when I started this email to you, around 8:50 p.m., and she still needed to practice trumpet for another 15-20 minutes after that.  Her bedtime is 9:30 p.m.

As I understand it, the homework tonight was TWO ReadWorks assignments, the ELA worksheet with the terms to be associated with each word, the worksheet to determine the places at the table, and 2 pages of long-division math problems.  As a working parent, my time with my kids is pretty limited, and so I ask that you please be aware of the homework load that you’re giving these kids, both from a developmental perspective (E had no time to run and play at all today because of homework) and from an awareness of how such a heavy homework load impinges on family time.  Frankly, tonight’s load was unacceptable, especially because I had been counting on E’s help to get the house ready for Thanksgiving.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.  I am happy to discuss further.  Please feel free to reach me at XXX-XXX-XXXX.

Best regards,

Sarah Blaine

And here’s the response I got, in its entirety:

Good afternoon Mrs. Blaine,

Thank you very much for voicing your concerns.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

-_________ and _________

I know that we have a problem in this country: parents vilify teachers, and teachers vilify parents.  I do not want to jump on the teacher-bashing bandwagon.  I by no means think my kid is perfect, and like I said, I think that the four hours the homework actually took easily could have been compressed to two hours if E had been fresh when she sat down to begin her work.  But a feature of nightly homework is that our kids aren’t fresh when they begin it: they begin their homework after a 6 or 7 hour school day (plus commuting time).

Teachers, we parents want to be on your side.  We really do, and in large part the reason I started writing this blog was to help parents and teachers find ways to speak to each other, and to reasonably voice our concerns.  But when your responses to our legitimate concerns amount to nothing more than what appear to be, when We the Parents read between the lines, perfunctory and polite f– yous, we get upset.  And we get angry.  And we feel like we’ve had enough.  And the divide between parents and teachers grows rather than shrinks.

How can parents and teachers find ways to have meaningful conversations and dialogues with each other?  How can we find ways to listen and really hear what we are saying?  How can we find ways to work collaboratively with each other, rather than alienating each other?  I know that email gets in the way, but it’s also almost impossible for me to address these issues by telephone, as you’re busy teaching our children.  I am all for high standards and a demanding education.  But when I watch demands for more rigor and increased grit undermine my children’s childhoods, I get angry.  There is no excuse for assigning hours of homework to 10 year olds.

I’m a former teacher.  I know that, at best, the jury is still out on the efficacy of homework — especially at the elementary school level (see here, here, and here).  As a parent, I’m not opposed to all homework.  I think it’s important for our kids to have routines, to have parental oversight of some school work to ensure that they’re holding themselves to high standards, and I think that well-designed and thoughtful homework helps to improve the school-home relationship.  But that’s not what I’m seeing this year.  Rather, the bulk of what my kid is bringing home is hours of worksheets.  Test prep.  It is work for work’s sake.  And it impedes my ability to parent my child as I see fit.

I’ve worked hard to make sure that E is a conscientious and careful student.  But I worry that she’s become conscientious and careful at the expense of a childhood she won’t be able to live twice.  After 42 years, I’ve realized how precious childhood is, and I’m a firm believer in the idea that no one on his deathbed wishes that he’d worked more.

It’s really hard to parent a child in our achievement-driven culture.  On the one hand, I’ve got an excellent student on my hands, and I don’t want to stand between her and a highly-selective college or university someday.  She wants to please her parents and her teachers, she wants to succeed and do well, and she is an ambitious kid.  But on the other hand, I want her to live her childhood as a child.  I want her to run around the neighborhood playing with her friends, even those who are younger and/or get out of school an hour or two earlier than she does.

Teachers, I want you to partner with me in helping to educate and raise my kids.  This is a team effort, and I’m willing to pull my weight.  However, teachers, you can’t begin to help me if you won’t hear me, honor me, respond to me in a substantive way, and respect my concerns about what today’s version of public education is doing to our children.  My kids deserve no less.

I have no interest in playing gotcha or getting you in trouble or running this up the chain of command or even second guessing  your teaching in the court of public opinion.  But if you won’t engage, you leave me no choice.  As I tell my kids, there are battles I expect them to fight themselves, and I won’t rescue them from their own mistakes.  But this is a policy issue that is far beyond 10 and 11 year olds.  And when it comes to bad policy in our public schools, I will fight you until my kids graduate and beyond, especially if you refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of my concerns. Welcome to democracy in action.  Oh, and by the way: Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.

P.S. My daughter arrived home from school.  She said that her English-Language Arts teacher pulled her aside to tell her to “make sure to tell her mother” that the reason they had two ReadWorks assignments last night was that “they” were talking in class and so the class couldn’t finish the one they were doing as classwork.  E, an honest kid, admitted to me that she was one of the talkers, but again, if you’re consistently pushing kids beyond their limits and expecting them to behave like automotons, they are going to rebel in the little ways available to them.  And don’t even get me started on the propriety of using my kid as your messenger rather than addressing my concerns yourself.  Finally, I thought the purpose of homework was to support pedagogy, not to serve as a punishment. I’m not sure how children are supposed to learn to love school if schoolwork is equated with punishment.

Addendum (1/5/16): One of her team of teachers — and, incidentally, the more flagrant assigner of work for work’s sake — did call me about a week after this incident.  We spoke for awhile, and it was a decent talk.  I expressed my concerns, and she did give me the option of pulling the plug on the homework, but not with a reassurance that doing so wouldn’t affect my kid’s grades (i.e., as I understand it, my kid could still “lose points” for not completing assignments even if I write a note explaining the issue).  I do think she understood, however, my anger and frustration at her decision to use my kid as a go-between when she had no way to know whether my kid was even aware that I’d emailed about the issue, and I am hopeful that she won’t repeat that mistake.

The homework load was lighter between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but it was unclear to me how much of that was because of the natural ebb and flow of the school year (the marking period ended during that time, and we were all busy with winter parties and concerts and whatnot).  Last night, however, the homework load was back — and just as extreme.  I’ve instituted a new policy of not allowing my kids to start their homework until I get home from work: that way they have about 2 hours in the afternoon to run and play and be kids — and when they do sit down to work, they’re fresher and more focused from having that time off.  But my big one worked from 6 p.m. until I pulled the plug a little before 9 p.m. last night, with only a break for family supper.  And even my first grader spent about 90 minutes on a combination of homework and reading.

Please, teachers, especially elementary school teachers, please be thoughtful about the work you’re assigning, and don’t assign work unless you truly believe that its worth is more than the worth of the precious family time we working parents cherish with our children.  Teachers, I will bend over backward to support you and your role in raising my children, but please also remember that respect and support are — or at least should be — a two-way street.  Thank you.

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Color Me Apathetic

For those who haven’t heard, New Jersey finally announced its average PARCC scores today.   

This is my obligatory post-PARCC score announcement blog post.

Because I should write one.

I guess.

The PARCC scores are just as anti-climatic as I expected.

Boring.

Lame.

It is hard to muster outrage.

I’m tired today.

And annoyed.

I just don’t have it in me to react strongly.

And, frankly, these test scores don’t deserve much of a reaction.

Aggregate New Jersey test scores don’t tell us much at all.  

Frankly, the broken-out scores won’t tell us much either.  As Chris Tienken noted, we already know the results. They’re predicted by socio-economics and zip code.

Nevertheless, I’m sure the spin-game will begin.  Has begun. *SIGH*

I will laugh about one thing. Our high school students didn’t do nearly as badly in math as the high school students in Illinois. After all, 2%-3% of NJ students taking high school math courses (Algebra I, Algebra II, or Geometry) exceeded expectations, but 0% of Illinois high school math students exceeded expectations.  So IN YOUR FACE, Cubs fans. Go Mets!  

Ok, I don’t really care (about either the Mets/Cubs game or the Illinois/New Jersey high school math comparisons).  Sorry, Hubby. For your sake, I hope the Mets win.  For my Chicago cousins, I hope the Cubs win.

My energy is low tonight.

I looked at the sample tests.  I read about the sample tests.  I saw how these tests set out to trick students by intentionally making all of the distractor answers plausible or even correct, but varying in supposed degrees of correctness.  

The only way to ace these tests will be to prep, prep, prep for them all year long.

The tests will tell us nothing about real student achievement.

The tests will tell us nothing about which teachers are successful.

The tests will tell us nothing about which students were inspired to read a novel for the first time.

The tests will tell us nothing about which students were inspired to structure their persuasive writing more effectively after learning to master the logic necessary to write formal geometry proofs.

The tests will tell us nothing about which high school juniors sat up watching the presidential debates, out of the sense of responsibility that comes from knowing that they’d be voting for the first time.

The tests will tell us nothing about which students were inspired by a science project, or want to be astronauts because of Andy Weir’s book, The Martian.

So what is the point of getting worked up?

We all know what these tests measure.

They measure exactly what the politicians want them to measure.

They’ll be spun exactly how the media and the politicians feel like spinning them. And that spin will likely bear little to no relation to what is actually happening in our children’s classrooms and minds.

The only ways to know what is actually happening in our classrooms and our children’s minds is to ask our children, visit their classrooms, talk to their teachers, and review their homework.

The only way to hold our teachers and schools accountable is to involve ourselves in what is happening in our schools, and in the democratic process.  We need to ask questions, not review aggregate answers.  We need to visit classrooms, not sift through bureaucrats’ PowerPoint presentations.

And when there are problems we need to speak up, mobilize, and demand more of our schools.  That’s what I did today — in a case of unfortunate coincidence on top of mishap on top of unfortunate coincidence, today my first grader had a sub for a sub for a sub.  I kid you not.  But the schools that succeed are the schools in which the parents can mobilize parent pressure to address those issues, at least with a demand for explicit and coherent communication from the administration, and proposals for reasonable solutions to address the underlying personnel issues that got us to this place. Our kids will be okay, because in one form or another, I’ve heard from half the parents in the class today on how we are going to address this issue (and I’m not even the class parent).

If we want to know how our schools are doing, we can start by looking at how parents are able to react to issues like the one my daughter’s class is currently facing.  In communities where parents have resources and the democractic process is relatively intact, these issues will be addressed and the children will succeed.  

Of course, all of our children deserve communities where parents have the bandwidth and social capital to put pressure on school administrations. Test scores will never make that happen.  Instead, we should spend our energy on improving housing policy, inspiring diversity, and ensuring that all students have parents who are economically secure enough to be able to address what’s going on in their children’s classrooms. Those are the real fights. In a fair system, we wouldn’t have highly segregated public schools. We need to get rid of these tests so we can fight the real battles, like the battles against segregation and increasing inequality.

But just as our children’s educations are derailed each spring by testing, we parents and citizens and teachers and community members are also distracted by the testing, and the pernicious effects high-stakes tests have on our public schools.

Our children, our communities, our schools, and our teachers deserve more than an obsessive focus on these tests, tests, tests.  

Our children, our communities, our schools, and our teachers deserve parents whose attention and commitment to their schools isn’t undermined by concerns that test scores indicate that their schools are failing.

But the only way to stop that obsessive focus on testing is to refuse to test.

The only way to stop test-prep curriculum is to make it unnecessary.

So I will continue to refuse these tests.  

They tell us nothing about children, and nothing about teachers. 

But in the meantime, there is no point in getting worked up about the results, when the results are meaningless.

Opt out.   

And one day parent energy can be directed where it belongs, and not distracted by the testing sideshow created by our asinine national requirement that our children take annual high stakes standardized tests (and that teachers be fired and schools closed based on the outcomes of such tests).

Refuse.

Our kids deserve more than us spending our time on this nonsense.

We have better things to do. We have children to raise. We have a country to steer back onto the right track.

* * *

Lukewarm off the presses (sorry, it’s been a busy day, and really, who cares) check out the  NJ PARCC scores yourself:  

New Jersey’s Unsurprising PARCC Math Results, Grades 3-11

 

New Jersey’s Unsurprising PARCC English-Language Arts Results, Grades 3-11

 

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Empty Buckets

Last night I was putting my seven year old to bed. 

She said, “Mommy, I behaved really well at school today with the substitute, but I didn’t get ANY bucket filling tickets.”  

I said, “But you got the pleasure of behaving well.”  

She said, “But if I get bucket filling tickets then I have a chance to be the class bucket filler, and even the SCHOOL bucket filler.  And I found out that there’s a bucket filler for kindergarten and another different one for first grade, so even if a kindergartener gets picked, I still have a chance to be the first grade bucket filler and next year I could be the second grade bucket filler.”  

I said yes, but do we try our best and follow rules in school to get bucket filling tickets, or do we do it because it’s the right thing to do, and because behaving is fair to all of our classmates?  

She said, “But Mommy, the bucket filling tickets.”  

And I wanted to cry.

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Those Terrifying Teachers

  1. Those who control education policy in this country these days are obsessed with getting our kids college and career ready. They want our kids to succeed. But their narrow definition of success is bankrupt of humanity. The implicit assumption in a goal of “college and career readiness” is that it is the job of schools to prepare our kids for getting into the most highly-selective colleges so that they can go on to have the most financially lucrative white-collar careers. The college and career readiness mantra leaves no room for the satisfaction of a master craftsman, a choice to pursue service over money, or even the stereotype of the starving artist. The college and career readiness trope is about measuring success by measuring bank accounts.

As a child, I grew up in a wealthy community in which the overwhelming value transmitted to children by that community was that success meant the acquisition of material wealth. In particular, the message that was drilled into me, over and over again, was that success meant achieving top grades and participating in activities that would make me attractive to highly-competitive colleges and universities. Attend one of those highly selective colleges or universities, the message went, and I would never have to worry about material wealth, or achieving success as my community defined it.

I always had a hard time explicitly swallowing this message, but I nevertheless internalized it. I attended a highly-selective college, although I had to fight with my parents about my choice, because attending one of the small, liberal arts colleges that comprise “The Little Three” wasn’t as instantly impressive to strangers as it would have been if I’d attended a name recognition giant like Harvard or even Cornell. My small-scale rebellion was to choose to apply Early Decision to the small liberal arts college I thought would be the best fit for me instead of waiting to hear from the better known colleges my parents would have preferred.

My micro-rebellions continued, even as the internalized values of my childhood predominated. For instance, I felt drawn to the kibbutz movement, although once I spent a few months volunteering on a kibbutz after college, I quickly realized that theory was swell, but practically speaking, the kibbutz movement — and commune life more generally — was not all it was cracked up to be.

After college and my return from a post-college year of volunteering in Israel, I took some time to get my bearings waiting tables before I ended up at a master of arts in teaching program and eventually in a rural Maine classroom. As I’ve written before, I was young and naive and I’m sure I was not nearly the teacher then that I think I could be now. But I contributed something positive to the world, and overall I think that my classroom time in Maine was a net-positive for my students and their community before I returned to New Jersey to be closer to my mother, who was, by then, six years into a cancer diagnosis. Some day, I’d like to return back to a high school classroom.

Back in New Jersey, I applied to law school. And again, I got sucked into the definition of success that had been drilled into me as a child, as this definition was once again reinforced in law school. The message about success in law school was that success was about achieving the highest grades and getting job offers from the most prestigious law firms. Again, I sort of bucked the system, but not really: I went to a large New Jersey law firm with high salaries and a good reputation, but because I was married and gave birth to my first child before I graduated from law school, I turned down offers from more prestigious New York law firms. I knew that I couldn’t be the kind of parent — and daughter to my still cancer-fighting mother — that I wanted to be if I needed to bill large law firm hours and manage a Manhattan commute.

I spent seven years at that large New Jersey law firm, although the last year or two were spent in a crisis of conscience as I tried, among other things, to square my internalized notions of success with the idea that I didn’t want to — and wasn’t — doing what it would have taken to try to “succeed” there: i.e., make partner. And to be honest, I can’t even begin to imagine how miserable I’d be now if I had done those things. As it is, I regret that I spent much less time with my mother than I wish I had during the last year of her life, because I was so worried about making a good impression during my first year at that law firm.

If I had overcome my conscience and values enough to stay, I would have grown more and more miserable as my kids advanced through our good but far from perfect local public school system, which has been rocked by education reformers’ attempts to make it an exemplar district for suburban education reform. That law firm was a home base for so-called education reformers: many of its clients were hedge funds and private equity funds, and so we were subjected to propaganda from the high-performing charter schools, and indeed, Democrats for Education Reformer’s new president, Shavar Jeffries, became a partner there shortly after I left. I would have not just worn golden handcuffs; I would have been wearing a golden gag.

So for the past three years I’ve been on a new path, a path in which the partners at the small, woman-owned law firm where I work now know, because I’ve told them directly, that I have no interest in killing myself to convince them that they should make me a partner. Rather, I cut my hours back to three-quarters time so that I have more time for my family, friends, and the causes I care about.

I am fortunate indeed to be able to work only three-quarters time without great financial stress. While I appreciate that I am privileged to live a comfortable life, I’ve stopped coveting the multi-million dollar mansions up on the hill. Let the Stephen Colberts and the Audible.com CEOs and the private equity fund managers live in those: frankly, I’m much happier in my house on a lot measured in square feet rather than acres. Here I have the good fortune of living on a close-knit street with neighbors who have become dear friends. Our children develop independence by running in a pack from noon to nightfall, a rare phenomenon these days.

For me, success is realizing that I have enough, and that time is a far more precious commodity than money. I’m successful because while my time still seems limited, I know that I’m able to be a better mother to my children because work doesn’t keep me family dinner and reading to my children. I’m successful because I’m able to cultivate friendships, and be flexible, and take my kids for a five day camping trip on an island in the middle of a lake. I’m successful because I have a spouse who supports me in these things, and doesn’t insist that I continue working at a job that was killing me, just so that we acquire more stuff.

I don’t live in one of our town’s fancy mansions. My furniture has been torn to pieces by our cats and kids. I can’t justify joining the country club at the end of my block, with its lovely pool and golf-course that my husband would enjoy. I don’t get to donate thousands of dollars at charity galas, or jet set off to Europe or a tropical island any time I’d like. My wardrobe is a far cry from being fashion forward.

But I look at my life, and I’m pretty content.

I have time for some activism in the education world.

I have some time to write this blog.

I have a husband, family, and children who mean the world to me.

I have the opportunity to offer my cousin a place to live while she attends a local college that would otherwise be out of reach for her.

I have the best neighbors I could possibly imagine, and I know the close-knit community of our street is only possible because our properties are small enough that there’s the density needed to ensure that our kids have a pack of built-in friends.

I have strong friendships, many of which have lasted for twenty or thirty years or more, and I have time to nurture those friendships through phone calls, email, and yes, even Facebook, as well as in-person visits.

I have a best friend whose joy in his daughter brings me delight every time I see them together.

I have the satisfaction of knowing that I’m able to make a small but nevertheless meaningful contribution toward moving the education conversation in this country in the direction in which I think it should go.

I have the opportunity to send my children to good schools, with diverse peers who will teach them more about the world than I could ever hope to do on my own.

I’d call each of those things a hallmark of success.

Given all of that, what do I teach my children about success in this dog-eat-dog world?  It would be easy to fall back on what I was taught as a child: that success is attending the highest ranked school and then getting the job or starting the career that will earn the most money. But I don’t believe that anymore. These days, I believe that success is not so easily measured. Success is not the biggest bank account or the most prestigious job. Success is building a life filled with meaningful relationships, opportunities for service, outlets for creativity, and the self-awareness to find contentment in enough.

The college and career readiness trope lacks humanity. It misses the point that many of us don’t want our children’s schools to set our kids on a path toward internalizing the idea that success is defined as having the most stuff.

So these days, I try to teach my kids a broader definition of success than the one I internalized as a child. I try to teach my kids that success is living a life that values kindness, service to others, and creativity. Don’t get me wrong: I have talented children, and I want them to have the opportunity to attend amazing colleges, and to pursue rewarding careers. But I also don’t want them to sacrifice their happiness and satisfaction in the pursuit of material gain. What frustrates me as a parent is that current education policy forces our schools to shove the narrow definition of success that characterized my childhood down my children’s throats.

And do you know what? I don’t think the best teachers want our children to give up kindness, service to others, compassion, or creativity either. I don’t think the best teachers define success as narrowly as education policy says they should.

These days, we live in a world in which the ultra-wealthy — through their minions — set education policy despite having little or no experience in public school classrooms.  The ultra-wealthy toil away in their Greenwich, CT hedge funds or Manhattan equity funds or Silicon Valley venture funds or their hugely-endowed philanthropic trusts, and try to bring some meaning into their lives by devoting some free time and excess cash to tinkering with our education system. But their measures of success are barren: they inundate the policy environment with claims that college and career readiness can be measured through test scores, but I notice that they don’t even attempt to measure what it means to provide an education that identifies and nurtures each child’s unique gifts and talents.

Career teachers scare the crap out of the ultra-wealthy. Career teachers scare the crap out of them because comparing the life of a career teacher to the life of an ultra-wealthy hedge fund manager demonstrates how empty a life spent in pursuit of money and power truly is. Career teachers scare the crap out of the wealthy tinkerers, because career teachers are adults who have eschewed the temptation of the private sector in exchange for the opportunity to be of service.

The ultra-wealthy attack teachers because a choice to teach is a choice to say that there are things more important than money and material success.

The ultra-wealthy are terrified by those who make the choice to teach, because a choice to teach is a choice to value service over greed. Career teachers, merely by their existence, are living critiques of the lives the ultra-wealthy have built.

The ultra-wealthy try to motivate teachers with merit pay and career ladders. But career teachers ignore the lame financial incentives and bogus career ladders, because career teachers are about measuring success by the humanity they’re able to infuse into their classrooms, not by the size of their paychecks.

So the ultra-wealthy respond by attempting to de-professionalize teaching.

The ultra-wealthy try to strip away teachers’ benefits.  The ultra-wealthy try to transform teaching into a glorified temp job by devaluing teacher training and teacher experience. But the career teachers aren’t going to stop doing what’s best for children without a fight, because the career teachers are there to serve children and communities.

The ultra-wealthy — and their minions — attack those who choose teaching as a career. They do it because teachers are the people who have implicitly voted with their feet against living lives devoted to the unregulated pursuit of greed, money, and power. And somewhere, deep down, the ultra-wealthy know that the career teachers are right to reject these things. You know those teachers: they’re terrifying indeed.

Chris Christie’s Common Core Farce

As I noted in the companion piece to this one, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s Common Core Review Farce Commission has now begun its “Listening Tour” to hear what the people of New Jersey think of the Common Core State Standards (in increments of 3 minutes, max). The “Listening Tour” has a whopping 3 stops in New Jersey. At each stop, the participating members of the public are limited to 3 minutes each to provide comments on what the Commission should consider as it reviews the Common Core State Standards for New Jersey. Someone really likes the number 3.

I signed up for the first “Listening Tour” session.  The location given was: Public Safety Training Academy, 500 West Hanover Ave, Parsippany, NJ 07054.  As a preliminary matter, I work in Parsippany.  I plugged the address into Google Maps, and it turned out that the address was actually in Morristown, not Parsippany (indeed, I had to travel through the town of Morris Plains to get there).  

Google Maps View of Location

 

A small thing, maybe, in this world of GPSs, but it certainly didn’t increase accessibility.  Further, in a state as small as New Jersey, when fellow participants had to travel more than an hour south to attend the event, it was a misnomer at best to call this a “north” Jersey session. 

Perhaps this was one reason why, out of the 24 members of the Standards Review Committee, 2 members actually bothered to show up to the Listening Tour. Not 1 of the 75 additional members of the 3 subcommittees showed his or her face. Perhaps this was why I counted a grand total of 16 members of the public in attendance.  

Further, there was no public transportation option available for this event, which was located (for New Jersey), as you can see in the map, out in the middle of nowhere. Not surprisingly, as access to a car was needed to attend, in our intensely segregated state, in which economic inequality runs rampant but is often sadly correlated with race, there was not a single participant of color present as far as I could tell. 

Indeed, the event venue itself was a police academy, which was not, perhaps, the most welcoming venue imaginable for participants of color in these days of the #BlackLivesMatter movement as a response to incident after incident of policy brutality against communities of color. Wouldn’t it make sense to host an event like this in a more central location, and in a location that doesn’t carry the potential for alienating a large swathe of the public? Rutgers-Newark, for example, strikes me as a location that would have made much more sense. 

In addition to the 3 stop “Listening Tour,” the Commission’s public survey regarding the Common Core standards is also live until October 9th. I encourage everyone to go register your comments regarding the standards, but as you’ll see if you start it, it is the most user-unfriendly survey on the planet. 

The survey expects respondents to, point by point, plow through each and every standard for each and every grade (as well as the anchor standards) and to respond specifically to each discrete standard. Specifically, respondents have the following options:

In your evaluation of each standard, you will have the following options:

  1. I agree with the Standard as written. 
  2. The Standard should be discarded. Comments required
  3. The Standard should be in a different grade level. Grade selection is required
  4. The Standard should be broken up into several, more specific Standards. Suggested rewrite is required
  5. The Standard should be rewritten. Suggested rewrite is required

In addition to the frustration level that comes along with this, the survey also fails to provide respondents with an opportunity to note what is missing entirely from the Common Core. And really, how many parents out there are going to feel equipped to suggest rewrites for the standards in order to evaluate them or even express their frustration with them? 

Intriguingly, the survey website notes that it is “powered by” an outfit called “Academic Benchmarks.” Academic Benchmarks’ webpage lists zero information about its leadership or history that I can find, but I did note that it’s located in Cincinnati, Ohio. As a New Jersey resident participating in New Jersey’s alleged review of the Common Core State Standards, I found myself wondering how this Ohio company got involved, and what portion of my tax dollars is paying them.  

So I went to the State of New Jersey’s Term Contract Database and entered “Academic Benchmarks” into the vendor search window. 

Searching for Academic Benchmarks

No hits.

Academic Benchmarks Search Results: Item Not Found

For comparison, to make sure it wasn’t my clueless search skills or NJDOE not participating in the database causing the problem, I searched for “Pearson.” Two hits. 

Search for Pearson: Two Results

So I very much find myself wondering, as a citizen and a taxpayer, who Academic Benchmarks is, how they were vetted, whether this contract was put out for bid, and how much We The People are paying for this farce of a survey.

Additionally, the survey — like the “Listening Tour” sessions — has not been publicized in any meaningful way. If Governor Christie, Academic Benchmarks, the NJDOE through this Commission, or any other decision-maker involved with these standards truly was interested in hearing from the public, the survey would have been disseminated to each and every school, teacher, and public school parent in the State. Instead, virtually no one outside the direct orbit of the Commission and a few of us local education policy hobbyists is even aware that the survey exists. As much attention as I pay to education policy in New Jersey (among other things, I receive the NJBOE’s emails along with maybe a hundred other state residents), I only learned of the survey because a friend told me about it. Shortly before the first Listening Session, NJ.com did publish an article about it. But that is pretty much IT in terms of publicity.  

So, as a mother of a first grader and a fifth grader, a former high school English teacher with a bachelors in English literature and a master of arts in teaching degree, a practicing lawyer of ten years and counting, and a blogger who has previously published some critiques of aspects of the standards, I logged in to provide my comments about the Common Core ELA standards. In particular, I hoped to provide feedback about the developmental inappropriateness of the kindergarten standards, with their insistence that kindergarteners’ work is to learn to sound out C-V-C words and to write sentences that include conventions of standard written English such as capitalized first letters and ending punctuation such as periods.  

While I could — and did — comment on the developmental inappropriateness of the kindergarten ELA standards, what I could not and therefore did not do was to comment about what is missing — entirely — from the ELA standards. How can I propose alternate language or a different grade level for a standard that does not — but should — exist? How do I comment that there are no standards at all addressing incorporation of reader response theory into literature curricula?  How do I comment that there is no standard ensuring that students are learning to vary their analyses of texts depending on the social context in which the text is read — as well as when it was written? I can’t, and the reason I can’t is because this isn’t intended to be a thoughtful review of the standards, but rather a public relations cover for Gov. Christie to claim that the newly rebranded standards he will announce are infused with input from the people of New Jersey.  

After the developmental inappropriateness of the early education ELA standards, my objection to the ELA standards is not so much an objection to what they do include, but rather frustration with the critical analytical lenses that are missing.  The standards include close reading and analysis of the author’s intent, which are two useful paradigms for analyzing texts.  But my objection to the standards is that they stop there. That is, the standards inappropriately privilege close reading and analysis of the author’s intent as the only lenses through which students should be reading, interpreting, and analyzing literature.  As I said in my comments to the Listening Tour, that is the problem, and the framing of the Commission’s survey shuts out the opportunity for voices like mine to offer such a criticism.

This Common Core Review Commission process is not my first rodeo when it comes to testifying about and objecting to what our state level misguided education policies have done to diminish the quality of public education in New Jersey.  I’ve testified to the Governor’s Commission on testing, the State Board of Education, as well as before the Assembly and Senate’s education committees.  But never before has an intent to shut out meaningful public comment and meaningful public concerns been so transparent as in my interaction with a survey structure that provides the public with no opportunity to comment on what’s missing from the standards (compounded by the 3 minute limit on free-form comments at the 3 public forums). Governor Christie’s Commission, unsurprisingly, is a farce, and We the Public deserve a more meaningful opportunity to provide feedback.  

There is no question that this Commission is intended as nothing more than an effort to provide some political cover to Governor Christie’s flip-flop on the Common Core issue. I presume that the Commission will add cursive to the standards, give them a new name, and pretty much call it a day. 

But We The People of New Jersey are paying not just NJDOE personnel to put together these bogus “Listening Tours” (I wonder how much time — and therefore taxpayer money — it took an NJDOE employee to emblazon its logo on cut-up index cards). We The People of New Jersey are also paying an Ohio company, Academic Benchmarks, who knows how much money to host a bogus “survey” of the standards. It’s enough to turn this dyed in the wool progressive into a small government conservative. Ok, not really, but the waste and lack of transparency are incredibly frustrating.

The Commission members should and must know that our children deserve more.  Our children deserve standards constructed based on real input from all stakeholders: parents, teachers, employers, educational researchers, citizens, community members, and yes, even members of the state educational bureaucracy. I know this is a long shot, but I implore the Commission members to please take their jobs seriously, and to please urge the governor not to force the Commission to adhere to a timeline dictated by his presidential aspirations. Instead, the Commission should take the time to solicit meaningful input (in more than 3 minute soundbites) from the community, to solicit feedback as to what’s missing from the standards, and to construct standards that will actually benefit the children of New Jersey.  

But in the meantime, this is why I live-tweeted the first “Listening Tour” session under the hashtag #ChristieCCSSReviewFarce. Here’s a Storify version.  We the People deserve more.

However, despite the farcical nature of this review, We The People need to show up, complete the survey, and otherwise offically record our frustration with both the process and the problematic components of the standards themselves. If we don’t, our silence will be spun as acquiescence. So please mess around a bit with the survey, and register to provide your two cents (in 3 minutes or less). Here are the dates, times, and locations of the final 2 “Listening Tour” sessions:

Central
Location:  Mercer County Special Services School District, 1020 Old Trenton Road, Hamilton, NJ 08690
Date: September 29, 2015
Time: 6:00pm-9:00pm
Registration link
Please note that registration will close at 5:00pm on September 28, 2015

South
Location:  Stockton College Conference Room 101 Vera King Farris Drive
Galloway, NJ 08205-9441 
Date: September 28, 2015
Time: 6:00pm-9:00pm
Registration link
Please note that registration will close at 5:00pm on September 27, 2015

Don’t let anyone say that We The People acquiesced in the re-branding of this tripe. 

P.S. For another perspective on this farce, definitely check out Julie Larrea Borst’s blog post with her take on the process issues.  

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The Common Core’s Scalia-esque “Originalism”

As you are no doubt aware if you are an education policy geek like me and/or even a mild political junkie, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, in his efforts to pander to the Republican base that will never nominate him for President anyway, announced a few months back that he was instituting a “review” of the Common Core State Standards here in New Jersey.  I’ve shared my thoughts about the process issues associated with that review in the companion piece to this one. The short version is that this past Thursday night, September 17, 2015, Governor Christie’s Common Core Review Farce Commission held the first of three public meetings to solicit feedback from the public about the standards.  Please note that each speaker was allotted a whopping 3 — count ’em, yes, 1, 2, 3 — minutes to provide feedback about the whole of the Common Core standards.

So, for what it’s worth, here is my 3 minute critique of the Common Core ELA standards:

I am here to discuss two major flaws in the ELA standards: (1) their insistence on privileging “close reading” and use of “textual evidence” over reading texts as products of their broader historical, social, and political contexts, and (2) their insistence on ignoring the reader’s experience as a participant in making meaning of texts.

First, as a lawyer, I had to learn multiple approaches to analyzing the Constitution.  There is originalism a la Justice Scalia, in which judges purport to divine the original intent of the framers of the Constitution and then apply that intent to analyses of statutes and fact patterns.  This is akin to the Common Core’s approach: for example, a high school ELA standard reads: “Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.” See CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5. This is one approach to literary analysis.

The problem, however, is that like Justice Scalia, the ELA standards rely on only this one party trick, this one way of analyzing, interpreting, and making meaning of texts. The ELA standards end their analysis at the author’s choices and author’s intent.  The standards ignore the idea that it is possible — and, indeed, sometimes critical, to analyze how understanding of a text has changed as society has changed.

For instance, between 1898 and 1954, the text of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution did not change.  However, the Plessy v. Ferguson court interpreted that text to condone “separate but equal” while 56 years later the Brown vs. Board of Education court interpreted that very same text as prohibiting “separate but equal.”  The words did not change: society did. No ELA standard requires students to grapple with the impact of social conditions on understanding texts.

Second, the ELA standards suffer from not capitalizing on teenage self-absorption.  Reader response theory is the theory that a text’s meaning arises in the transactions between readers and texts. For instance, the students I taught in western Maine made sense of The Great Gatsby very differently than did my wealthy, suburban peers back at my high school in Short Hills, NJ.  Both offered valuable perspectives that deepened my understanding of the text.

In discussing the ELA standards, David Coleman famously said: “…as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think.” It is heartbreaking that his philosophy permeates the standards.  In truth, each human being makes meaning out of the texts she encounters.  Our standards should reflect this truth, and indeed, literature classes built around this truth help our teens to move from self-absorption to empathy, a net gain for our democracy.

As you review the ELA standards, I implore you to fundamentally re-imagine the standards so that context and reader response theory are once again offered as meaningful analytical frameworks. Justice Scalia’s originalism adds an important layer of insight to Constitutional analysis, but his approach is not — nor should it be — the only one available to lawyers and judges.  Similarly, English teachers across New Jersey need standards that allow them the freedom to offer their students multiple analytical lenses. Our children deserve no less.

Thank you.

P.S. For more insight on this topic, please read Seton Hall education professor Daniel Katz’s essay titled “Dear Common Core English Standards: Can We Talk?

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Refuse Early So Teachers Can Teach

I know this is shocking elsewhere in the country, but here in New Jersey, we just finished our second week of school.  As the school year begins, I’m reflecting on what this year’s goals for my pro-public education advocacy should be.  I know this much: my first goal is to engage, encourage, and support parents to not just refuse standardized tests like PARCC, but to refuse early and supportively (rather than confrontationally).  In particular, I think we can best support our teachers, our children, and our schools by refusing early enough in the year to empower our children’s teachers to build curriculum and lesson plans around children’s needs rather than around the dictates of the testing industry.  

To that end, I encourage you to submit your refusal letters early, as this strategy will only work if there are mass refusals.  I sent mine yesterday, as one concrete action I could take to support the #ParentStrike movement across the country.  Here is my letter, which you should feel free to copy and modify to fit your needs:

Dear Teachers:

I am Sarah Blaine, the mother of _________ in Mrs. ________’s homeroom.  I write to let you know that in accordance with Montclair Board of Education policy regarding test refusals, _________ will not be taking the PARCC test in 2016.  I write now, at the beginning of the academic year, with the hope that enough of my fellow parents will do the same so that you, my child’s teachers, will hopefully not feel constrained to teach to the PARCC or any other standardized test.  Instead, my hope is that a high number of early refusals will allow you to feel free to use your professional judgment to provide our children with the most developmentally appropriate and engaging lessons you have the power to create, instead of wasting time preparing for educationally irrelevant state-mandated tests.  

__________ is thrilled so far with both of you, and I look forward to a constructive, engaging, and challenging school year for her.  Please know that I am always open to conversation and suggestions as to how to best support __________’s learning both inside and outside of the classroom. Our family has not made this decision to refuse testing lightly, but rather as an attempt to express our support for a public education system in which teachers will once again be treated as the knowledgeable professionals we know that they are (I am a former public school teacher myself, and earned my M.A.T. before I began teaching in a rural community).

I am, of course, happy to speak with you further about this issue, but I trust that my wishes for ____________ will be respected, and that she will of course be, in accordance with district policy, provided with non-punitive alternatives.

Best regards,

 Sarah Blaine

Let our teachers focus on REAL education

Amazing graphic by Beth O’Donnell-Fisher


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The Reality Television Paradigm of All-Charter School Systems

Today, the New York Times  Sunday Review published an Op-Ed about the farce that is the so-called “New Orleans” charter school miracle.  You should go read it.  A quote:

“There is also growing evidence that the reforms have come at the expense of the city’s most disadvantaged children, who often disappear from school entirely and, thus, are no longer included in the data.”

The quote is absolutely on target.  Further, let’s talk about the logical results of how even a properly functioning (according to the charter cheerleaders) all-charter school district would work.  By definition, a charter school is one that is intended to trade results for regulation: that is, We the Public eschew traditional regulation over watching how our public dollars are spent by the charter (which is governed by a private board, usually impervious to OPRA/FOIA requests and the like) in exchange for producing “results” — i.e., high scores on standardized tests from its students.  If a particular charter school isn’t producing results by the end of its initial charter period, in theory the state and/or the chartering entity should be shutting that school down.

But the logical conclusion of that paradigm is a two-tiered system of charter schools.  The so-called “high-performing charter schools” (e.g., the KIPPs, the Uncommon Schools, the Success Academies, the Green Dots, etc.) will figure out the formula for magically skimming-off as many of the high-performing kids as possible, and so their test scores will reflect the “results” the charter authorizers demand.  But the rest of the charter schools, the B-squad charter schools of virtual charters, for-profits, mom and pop charters, less savvy charters, etc. — they are far less likely to have figured out, or, if they’re ethically run, to have wanted to figure out, the secret-sauce for creaming off those most likely to perform well on the standardized tests and quickly counseling out the rest.  And so, instead, if the all-charter system functions as it is supposed to, after 3 years or 5 years or whatever, the B-squad charters schools will be shut down.

But what happens to the children who attended those B-squad now-shut-down charter schools, and/or those who are pushed out of the high-performing charters?  Well, their educations are disrupted, over and over again, as they are shuffled from low-performing school to low-performing school. Their former schools shut their doors, over and over again.  But new low-performing charter schools will continue to open in the wake of those that keeping closing: after all, until they drop out, the students of the low-performing charter schools need to be housed somewhere.  For those relegated to the low-performing charter network, their chances to build communities around their schools are low, as even their schools are transient: heck, even if they do manage to graduate, many of their alumni won’t even have a school in which to hold a reunion ten or twenty years from now, because the iterations of the schools they attended will no longer exist.  And that disruption, that lack of community, that being shunted around from low-performing school to low-performing school, that will make them less likely to graduate, less likely to be able to overcome the already-substantial long odds that accidents of demographics, the dark side of poverty, have placed in their way.

As evidenced by this article, an all-charter school system is a way to write-off our most challenging children, the ones that each and every one of us should look at and say that as citizens of this country, it is truly our moral responsibility to make sure that these children have every opportunity we can give them to break the cycle of poverty, because the American Dream is truly dead if a significant subset of our community has no way to succeed.  But the way to keep the American Dream alive is to ensure that We the People provide our most vulnerable children with opportunities to attend well-resourced, integrated, stable schools that won’t disappear on them, sometimes mid-school year.  It is not to keep pulling the educational rug out from under these children, every two, three, or five years.

But the charter cheerleaders, they say that closing down the low-performing charters, that’s evidence of success, because closing down low-performing charters is how the charter system is supposed to work: that’s how you hold the poorly performing schools accountable, by shutting their doors when they don’t perform.  The charter cheerleaders, however, don’t realize, if they’re naive, and don’t care, if they’re cynical, that closing down one low-performing charter means opening another one in its place.  After all, the low-performing students of the low-performing charters are those who aren’t savvy enough to game and navigate the incredibly complicated systems privatization brings.  Instead, intentionally or not, they are shunted around from one substandard education experience to another until they simply give up and drop out, or, if they do graduate, graduate with substandard skills and substandard opportunities.  The narrative that shutting down low-performing schools works is a narrative that is either incredibly naive or incredibly cynical.  What that narrative isn’t, however, is a narrative that serves kids — all of our kids — well.

That narrative is, however, as Michael Petrilli over at The Thomas B. Fordham Institute implicitly admitted last winter, a narrative that distinguishes between our country’s deserving students, the deserving poor, and the un-deserving poor, who, at best, deserve, according to Petrilli and his allies, to be housed in a substandard world of alternative schools until they are eventually released from the system, likely into also-privatized prisons.  Petrilli’s vision is one that reflects the worst values of the Industrial Age we thought we had left behind, the “Hard Times” of a Dickensian dystopia in which some children are stuffed full of “facts, facts, facts, nothing but facts, ma’am,” and slated for success, and the others, well, the others simply aren’t our concern.

All of our children deserve better than this.  All of our children deserve access to stable, caring, well-resourced, community schools that aren’t going to disappear on them at the whim of some bureaucrat, whether or not they “perform” on the asinine boondoggles that are today’s high-stakes standardized tests.

I, for one, say no thank you to the logical consequences of an all-charter school system, as any moral citizen of this country should agree.  That isn’t to say that our truly public school systems can’t do better.  Certainly, in many of our communities they can and should (especially if We the People actually provide them with the resources they need in an equitable fashion). But the answers to the real problems of poverty and deprivation are not privatization and prison.  Or, to put it another way, publicly-funded education shouldn’t be a real-life version of reality tv in which those who are savvier win the immunity challenges, and the less-savvy are voted off the island.