The_Other_PARCC.JPG

The Other PARCC: A Short Film by Michael Elliot

Back in January, I was asked to be one of many interviewees for Michael Elliot’s short film (5 minutes) about New Jersey’s test refusal movement, which kicked into high gear this January as the state began gearing up for the PARCC tests (which begin tomorrow here in Montclair). The film was released today. If I was more technologically savvy, I’d embed it here, but just click on the link — and please watch it — it it definitely worth seeing.

Michael shot over 25 hours of video for the final 5 minute product. He did a great job editing together a wide range of voices united around a common theme. This afternoon, Montclair Cares About Schools hosted a premiere event for the film with Michael. I attended along with my family and many of the other people whose voices contributed to the film. We had a full house despite the snowy weather.

One of the key takeaways for me — both from the film itself and from the event today — is how many people from all walks of life have united together to protest the destruction high-stakes tests are forcing on our schools.

It was great to meet Daryn Martin, the PTO president of Ivy Hill Elementary School, who was arrested last year in connection with his advocacy in opposition to Cami Anderson’s destructive policies in Newark.

I was glad that Okaikor Aryee-Price’s daughter, Saige, and my daughter finally got the chance to meet in person, as they are two of the children who have spoken out publicly against what they’re seeing happening in their schools.

I was honored to be one of the parents from Montclair who made it to the final cut of the film, although Colleen Daly Martinez and my neighbor and friend Belinda Edmonson were both far more eloquent than I could ever hope to be.

It was terrific to reconnect with Tanaisa Brown of the Newark Students Union, who was one of the brave students who spent days camping out in Cami Anderson’s office in an attempt to force her to listen to the voices of students in her district.

Arne Duncan, I can tell you this much: the test refusal movement is far more than a few discontented “white suburban moms.”  People from across the economic, racial, and political spectrum are uniting to speak out against the destructive “reforms” that are decimating our public schools.

Here are a few photos from the event. I highly encourage you to check out the film.

A Full House at The Other PARCC Premiere Event

 

Daryn Martin addresses the crowd.

 

Tanaisa Brown addresses the crowd.

 

Michael Elliot prepping the film to run.

 

Obligatory Selfie with Michael Elliot.

 

wpid-Photo-Feb-19-2015-457-PM.jpg

Millburn Graduate Takes On Millburn Superintendent’s Logic

Dear Superintendent Crisfield:

As a graduate of the Millburn Public Schools (Class of 1991) where you currently serve as Superintendent, I feel compelled to respond to your February 19, 2015 NJ Spotlight Op-Ed regarding the movement to refuse the PARCC tests. But first please indulge me in a brief digression:

My History in the Millburn Public Schools

I began kindergarten at Millburn’s Deerfield School in the fall of 1978. From kindergarten forward, school was a place where I felt valued as a human being, and where learning was something that everyone around me took seriously. Even today, as a mother of two elementary school students myself, I look back on my Millburn education as the gold-standard of what a public education can and should be. I remember each of my elementary school teachers by name, and I can still recall many of the projects I worked on in their classes.

My Millburn education is the foundation that allowed me to graduate from Millburn as a National Merit Semi-Finalist, go on to complete my undergraduate studies at Wesleyan University, and eventually allowed me to earn two graduate degrees: an M.A.T. from the University of Maine, and eventually a J.D. from Rutgers-Newark. My Millburn peers have been extraordinarily successful. Just look at award-winning young adult author and editor David Levithan (he was one of the editors-in-chief of The Miller when I was a staff member), or one of the co-valedictorians of the class of 1991, my close friend Debbie James, who is a terrific Harvard-educated primary care pediatrician up in Cambridge. Our graduates are successful in all walks of life, and it’s insane to think that Millburn students — then or now — leave the high school as anything other than “college and career ready.”

As a mother, my Millburn education means that I know what public education can and should be. I now live in Montclair. After months of inquiry, I joined the PARCC-refusal movement as a protest against what the high-stakes testing culture is doing to prevent my kids’ teachers from engaging them the way that my Millburn teachers engaged me.

Contrary to your mischaracterization of parents’ motivations, I did not join the opt-out movement because I am “looking out for what [I] feel is [my] child’s best interest.” You state:

I know the PARCC opt-out movement is popular, and I know the people who are part of it are only looking out for what they feel is their child’s best interest, so I do not blame them personally. But from the systemic perspective, opting out is a concept that cannot work. Even though it will be unpopular and will attract an aggressive reaction, somebody has to stand up and point out that the opt-out movement has to stop. It is just not a practical or viable approach to public education.

Frankly, my kid (like most of her contemporaries in Millburn) will be fine whether she takes the PARCC test or not. I joined the test-refusal movement because the systemic pressure placed on public schools by high-stakes standardized testing must be stopped for the sakes of all of our children. We can and must do better by our kids, and if educational leaders like yourself are unwilling to step up to the plate, then we parents have no choice but to step in to preserve our vision of what public schools can and should be.

Your Arguments

Your editorial boils down to a slippery slope argument that misses the larger point of what the high-stakes standardized test movement is about. In addition, you conflate a broader category (assessment) with a far narrower subset of that category (high-stakes standardized tests). Indeed, within that logical fallacy, you also conflate the low-stakes standardized tests of the pre-No Child Left Behind days with the high-stakes standardized tests of today. Finally, you throw in a good dose of patronizing adjectives to describe your community’s parents (the loaded word “hysterical” used to describe a largely woman-driven movement is particularly egregious).

First, your slippery slope argument relies on a few inartfully worded refusal letters to take the position that the grassroots movement against high-stakes standardized tests is “leading us down a very dangerous path” (i.e., down a classic slippery slope). You argue:

[O]pting out of things with such broad brush strokes is different, and taken to its extreme, this new version of opting out will destroy public education as we know it today. If we don’t stop facilitating and/or encouraging all this “opting out” or “refusing” (or whatever it’s called), we might as well set up a la carte public schools.

Your concern stems from refusal letters penned by some of your parents that not only refuse the PARCC test itself, but also refuse “anything to do with the Common Core.” I agree: that’s a silly position for a parent to take. But you are your community’s educational leader. To a large degree I’d posit that the blame for those inartful letters lies with you, as their leader, for not leading your community through conversation and consensus-building around community reaction to the PARCC tests and how Millburn could push back against state and federal edicts, especially considering that its reliance on state and federal dollars is relatively minimal. Instead, what I’ve been hearing is that at Millburn High School, your administration has been using Common Core to enforce lock-step curriculum on your highly-skilled and professional teachers. For instance, I’ve gotten confirmation from multiple sources that your high school English department now requires all teachers of the same course to teach the same lesson plans on the same day, which, to be frank, I find anathema to everything I valued about my own Millburn education. That’s leadership by fiat, which is a far cry from leadership through consensus-building in partnership with Millburn’s highly-skilled faculty. My jaw hit the floor when I first heard that story, and despite the multiple confirmations I’ve gathered, I still have a hard time believing it’s true. What it does tell me is how scared and beaten-down even Millburn’s teachers must feel, and that’s a tragedy for everyone involved with Millburn public education — especially the students.

Next, your piece creates a straw-man argument by conflating two things that aren’t synonymous: assessment and high-stakes standardized testing. High-stakes standardized testing is indisputably one form of assessment, but not all assessment takes the form of high-stakes standardized testing. You then imply that parents who refuse PARCC are also refusing to allow their kids to be assessed by their classroom teachers. Your logic is again flawed.

In point of fact, I have yet to meet a parent or teacher involved in the test-refusal movement who thinks that we shouldn’t assess kids. Indeed, I have yet to meet a parent or teacher involved in the test-refusal movement who thinks that teachers should not be allowed to test students. But as I’m sure you recall from your graduate studies (I certainly do from mine), assessment does not require testing, and certainly all tests need not be high-stakes tests used to punish schools, teachers, administrators, and students.

You imply that parents who are refusing PARCC are also refusing to allow teachers to assess their students. Nothing could be further from the truth. During my years in the Millburn Public Schools, my work on each of the projects mentioned above was assessed by my teachers. I am sure that Millburn parents continue to welcome teachers’ feedback — at conferences, on report cards, and via grades on individual assignments — on their children’s growth as students. Your argument is, frankly, sad, and I would have expected more from the leader of the talented faculty who comprise the Millburn Public Schools.

Similarly, you also conflate the low-stakes Iowas and similar norm-referenced standardized tests of yore (in my time, they were actually CTBS, not Iowas, but I digress) with the high-stakes HSPA, NJ ASK, and now PARCC that post-date No Child Left Behind. This argument not only conflates unlike things (the Iowa and CTBS type test scores were not aggregated and published to the community at large to be touted by real estate agents), but it is also disingenuous, as Iowa and CTBS test scores weren’t used as a potential basis to fire teachers and reconstitute or close schools. Unlike the post-No Child Left Behind criterion-referenced state-wide tests, the CTBS tests of my youth were low-stakes standardized tests, and thus were functionally distinct from HSPA, NJ ASK, and now PARCC. At most, the low-stakes standardized tests of my childhood were one factor among many used to place kids into gifted and talented programs.

Finally, you characterize test-refusing parents as “hysterical.” As I am sure you are aware, the root of the word “hysterical” is in the Greek for “uterus.” Feminist scholars have analyzed how accusations of hysteria against women-led movements are a common means of social control exerted by straight, white men against woman-led social movements. I’m sure this was not your intent, and in fact I find real irony in your use of the word “hysterical” to describe the grassroots organizers against the PARCC given the nature of your own arguments, which truly are hysterical given that they rely on propaganda techniques such as the slippery slope and conflating similar terms. Nevertheless, your linguistic choice, although presumably unintentional, is patronizing and acts as an attempt to exert patriarchal control over a largely woman-led movement. As an aside, you can thank Dr. Cullen-Bender, my 7th grade Millburn Junior High School Communication Skills teacher, for my ability to identify, analyze, and reject the types of propaganda and false-logic techniques that form the basis of your editorial.

Proposals for Collaboration and Consensus-Building:

As a Millburn graduate, I have a few suggestions:

1. You mention some of your own concerns with the effects of high-stakes testing (e.g., that they take too long to administer, that they lead to problematic comparisons between district and schools, and, worst of all, that they’re inappropriately used to evaluate teachers). Those are many of the same reasons cited by the parents in your community for refusing the PARCC. I’d guess that along with those concerns, many of your local parents are also concerned that high-stakes testing in general — and PARCC in particular — is leading toward the same narrowing of the curriculum that led me as a Montclair parent to refuse to allow my daughter to be tested.

What if, instead of fighting your parents over their legitimate concerns with the narrowing of world-class curriculum I benefited from in the Millburn Public Schools, you instead helped to lead the test-refusal movement, and in leading it, worked with your local parents to craft a test-refusal form that was limited to the specific issue at hand: high-stakes statewide standardized testing?

Test-refusal letters don’t need to be like the ones you mentioned. In a district like mine (Montclair), in the wake of our Board’s courageous decision to lead by passing a refusal policy, here’s the full-text of my refusal email to my daughter’s principal:

In accordance with the district policy passed by our Board of Education last night, I am writing to notify you that I refuse to allow Elizabeth Blaine to take the PARCC test. Please let me know that you’ve received and recorded this note. In addition, please advise (at your earliest convenience) what alternative arrangements Hillside is making for students who refuse.

As you know, our decisions is in no way a reflection on you or Hillside School. Rather, it is our attempt to stand with you and with Elizabeth’s teachers by refusing to allow student test scores to determine the fates of our teachers and our schools.

Thank you.

You’ll note that there’s no muss, no fuss, and no slippery slope to complain about. But that’s because despite our differences (and we have many over in opinionated Montclair), we were ultimately able to come together as a community to craft a refusal policy that respects our community’s legitimate concerns about the use of the PARCC tests. Millburn parents would have been far better served if you (or Millburn’s Board of Education) had done the same, rather than chastising them for the concerns that even you agree are legitimate.

2. What if, instead of drafting a poison pen op-ed criticizing your students’ parents, you instead led them in effective protest against PARCC and other high-stakes tests, as, for instance, Principal Carol Burris has done over on Long Island?

Then you’d be controlling the message and ensuring that the PARCC refusals were limited to PARCC (and perhaps NJ ASK), rather than seeking to refuse everything under the sun.

3. What if you gave your students hands-on education in the democratic process by allowing them to participate — during school hours and of course on an elective basis — in the democratic processes aimed at reducing the annual high-stakes testing requirements by, for instance, lobbying their state and federal legislators in favor of bills like A-4165, A-4190, and A-3079 and a grade-span testing version of the ESEA reauthorization; attending and commenting at local and state school board meetings; and testifying before the NJ Assembly and NJ Senate’s Education Committees?

Then your students would have the sort of real world authentic educational experience that they’d remember for the rest of their lives, even more than I remember the projects my Deerfield teachers created for me.

4. What if you had led your parents through consensus building and educating them about the issues facing public schools today (e.g., that the proper target of their anger with Common Core is activism at the state and federal levels, rather than local refusals) instead of berating them with your own “hysterical” slippery slope arguments (e.g., your “opting out will destroy public education as we know it today” argument discussed herein) against the straw-man of parents’ inartfully crafted refusal letters that include opting-out of Common Core curriculum as well as PARCC?

Then you’d be able to gather data to show that parents in a town like Millburn want more for their kids than the narrowing of curriculum forced on schools, teachers, and communities by high-stakes standardized tests that diminish instruction in social studies and the arts. Then you’d be able to educate your parents about the real problems with decisions that have ceded educational policy making to the state and federal instead of local levels, and perhaps you’d be leading a grassroots movement to effectuate a return of education decision-making to the local level, where it can be carefully tailored to meet the individual needs of individual communities.

Parting Thoughts

You yourself note that there are precedents for opting-out of limited portions of the public school curriculum. You agree that those precedents have not “destroyed public education as we know it today.” PARCC refusal won’t — and shouldn’t — destroy public education either, as it, especially if narrowly-tailored by proactive education leaders, can and should be just as limited as refusing to dissect fetal pigs. PARCC acceptance, however, along with all of the high-stakes consequences that come along with it, might be the final nail in the coffin for local control of public education. I am not sure why Millburn’s educational leader, of all people, would quietly acquiesce in a scheme to remove the autonomy of Millburn’s overall excellent public school teachers and administrators, when he could instead have the courage of his convictions to speak out against it, like brave educational leaders (such as Carol Burris out on Long Island) have done.

I think your community would have been better served if you’d met your parents halfway by responding to their concerns about, for instance, the Common Core ELA standards’ emphasis on reading texts without considering their broader literary and historical contexts. You could have assuaged parents’ legitimate concerns by assuring them that Millburn wasn’t going to stop providing its students with a broad-based public education that includes analysis of texts that draws on the reader’s response rather than only Common Core analyses that ask students to divine the “author’s intent.”

Similarly, imagine if you’d relied on the historical knowledge I know still exists over there in Millburn to tell parents that back in the early 1980’s, we were solving math problems with number lines and manipulatives too — and that such techniques are not, popular wisdom aside, specific to “Common Core.”

But you won’t build credibility unless you’re also honest about any degradation of the elementary school social studies curriculum, or other district-level choices, such as limiting electives and specials offerings, that you may have felt were no choice at all because of the pressures — especially in a town like Millburn, where test scores are a major component of identity and self-worth — to ensure that your students scored well on the test du jour.

What I as a parent don’t welcome is feedback from a computer-based high-stakes (because it will, as you noted, be used to rank teachers, principals, administrators, districts, and schools) standardized test not tailored to what my child’s teachers have used their professional judgment to teach my child. I further object to forcing our professional teachers to tailor their teaching to such high-stakes tests, rather than allowing classroom teachers to design assessments of all sorts that best measure student achievement.

If my child was offered low-stakes and norm-referenced standardized tests once or twice during her educational career as a check-in (such as the CTBS tests I recall taking in the 4th grade at Deerfield and in the 8th grade, I think, at the Junior High), I’d welcome that feedback as two data points among many. But the “feedback” from the PARCC, which will, as you note, be used inappropriately to rank teachers, schools, and districts, is not worth the price. It’s too bad that you can’t see the distinction, and that you’ve instead chosen to lead your community by going public with a slippery slope argument that fails to draw a distinction between teacher-created in-class assessment and statewide high-stakes standardized tests.

Perhaps Millburn would have been better off if you could have benefited from the critical thinking required by an old-fashioned Millburn education? As a test-refusing parent, that old-fashioned progressive Millburn-style education is all I want for my kids.

 

Gallery_for_Assembly_Education_Committee_Hearing_Feb_12_2015.JPG

Mrs. Blaine Goes to Trenton

Setting the Scene

Today my husband, Mike Blaine, and I prevailed on a neighbor to take our younger daughter to the bus stop, dropped our older daughter off for before-school band practice, and headed to Trenton. We’d both spent some time preparing our testimony in support of two of three bills pending today before the State Assembly’s Education Committee: A-4165, which codifies into law a parent’s right to opt kids out of statewide standardized testing, such as the PARCC tests (and codifies the schools’ responsibilities to provide educationally appropriate alternatives for those kids rather than forcing them to “sit & stare”), and A-4190, which places a three year moratorium on making any placement or graduation decisions based on students’ PARCC scores. You can find our testimony below.

We arrived in the hearing room a few minutes before ten, and waited in the crowded (standing room only) room while the legislative aides photocopied more speaker slips, as there were so many people who wanted to speak that they’d run out. Once the new speaker slips came out, we filled them out. Activist Jacklyn Brown was kind enough to clear her giant box of 14,000+ signatures on a petition favoring PARCC refusal policies off of the last remaining chair in the room, so that I could grab a seat. My poor husband, who’d come along for the ride, had to stand in the back of the room. I logged into the State House’s free wifi (thank you, fellow taxpayers), and live updated the whole thing on a post in the Facebook group Opt Out of State Standardized Tests – New Jersey (I highly recommend this group if you’re not already a member). Thank you again to Jacklyn — if I hadn’t had a seat, I couldn’t have live-updated the 7000+ member NJ Opt-Out/Refusal group in real time.

The Assembly Education Committee first considered and quickly voted in favor of A-3079, which prohibits summative standardized testing in grades K-2. Then the fireworks began. It was clear that the mood in the room was strongly on the anti-PARCC side. Every anti-PARCC speaker was followed by enthusiastic applause from around the room. The many lobbyists in favor of PARCC (almost all seemed to have affiliations that dictated their positions and most seemed to be getting paid in some way or another for their time today) received smatterings of light applause from maybe a half-dozen people or so. A-4165 was listed for discussion only, apparently because the Committee is still researching to determine definitively whether less than 95% PARCC participation could cost the state federal dollars; A-4190 was listed for discussion and a vote.

The good news is that in the end, A-4190 passed the Assembly Education Committee 6-0. I very much appreciate that, and I thank the members of the Committee for passing this bill. I strongly encourage them to pass A-4165 as expeditiously as possible, given that PARCC testing begins 18 days from today.

Some Observations

The Education Committee hearing lasted for three hours, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. There were at least 44 people signed up to speak. At 3 minutes per speaker, that would have been 132 minutes (2 hours and 12 minutes) of testimony. Yet the Chair of the Committee, Asm. Patrick Diegnan, instead chose to allow the paid lobbyists, in particular, to testify for 10-20 minutes at a pop. This caused the predictable result that about half of the speakers signed up to speak (including Mike and me) did not get a chance. Further, it appears from my notes that the Chairman choose roughly equal numbers of speakers to speak for and against the resolutions (the speaker slips required you to indicate whether you were for or against the bill), despite the fact that it seemed clear from the mood of the room that the vast majority of total speakers signed up to speak were in favor of the bills.

Just before the end of the hearing, Asm. Diegnan did read the names of those who wouldn’t get to speak, and apologized to us. However, I’ll note that he did not indicate the pro/con stance of the speakers who did not get to be heard. As I said above, although I do not know this for sure, I suspect that virtually all of the unheard speakers were people who would have spoken in favor of the bills.

After the hearing, I managed to corner Asm. Diegnan for a few minutes, and while I thanked him very much for his work on the bills, I did indicate my frustration at how the hearing had been run. To me, it seems like an affront to democracy to allow paid lobbyists unlimited time to address the committee (and a few of them, especially later in the hearing, appeared to be intentionally filibustering to preclude more anti-PARCC speakers from getting a chance) when so many parents, like me, had taken a day off work specifically to travel to Trenton to speak our minds to the Committee — and due to the deference given to the paid lobbyists, were not given a chance to do so. Asm. Diegnan certainly could have set — and enforced — reasonable time limits for the speakers. In my opinion, that would have been the more democratic thing to do.

The most breathtakingly evil thing I heard said today was said by paid Common Core shill Sandra Alberti. This is the same woman who debated in favor of PARCC on NJ101.5. In the NJ101.5 debate, she expressed her disdain for the democratic process when she referred to public testimony as something she and her colleagues were required to “endure” (rather than listen to, value, or learn from) back when she worked for the Department of Education.

But today she put her prior nastiness to shame, when she spoke against A-4165. She said:

“There are schools where parents can opt out. They’re called private schools.”

The privilege inherent in that comment is simply breathtaking. This woman suggested that Common Core and PARCC are good for the unwashed masses, but that the wealthy alone should have the option of a better education for their kids, as only the wealthy (like Governor Christie, Bill Gates, and President Barack Obama) have the opportunity to send their kids to expensive private schools. I’ll write more another day about the hubris of the education reform camp. For the moment, suffice it to say that it is truly hard for me to fathom that this woman thinks that it’s okay to say — in public — that public school parents should be forced to subject their children to PARCC testing simply because their children’s education is taxpayer rather than tuition funded. According to Alberti’s view of the world, apparently parental control over children’s education is something that should only be available to the wealthiest among us.

But I guess her comments aren’t surprising, as it’s clear from her earlier comments on NJ101.5 that she sees democracy as something to be endured, rather than as a cornerstone of what it means to be American. That is, Alberti believes that government by and for the oligarchs (and their technocratic minions, like her) the natural order of things.

Perhaps Alberti would have benefited from a bit more civics education, rather than a curriculum so heavily focused on the English Language Arts and mathematics?

The Takeaway

Overall, I am thrilled that A-4190 and A-3079 passed the Assembly Education Committee, and I hope that both bills are listed for votes by the full Assembly shortly. And I renew my calls for the Assembly Committee to take up AND VOTE ON A-4165 as soon as possible. Again, time is of the essence, as the PARCC test is a mere 18 days away.



Sarah’s Testimony in Support of A-4165 (opt-out bill):

I am here today to express my support for A4165. I support A4165 because, as a parent, I’m seeing the narrowing of curriculum that annual high-stakes standardized testing is having on our public schools. I define high-stakes standardized testing as testing used to potentially impose sanctions on schools and teachers, as well as for graduation and placement decisions for individual students. As a protest against narrowing of curriculum in response to high-stakes testing pressures, our family is refusing to allow my daughter to be tested this year.

My older daughter is a 4th grader in Montclair. Here are two examples of what I mean when I say that I’ve seen our kids’ curriculum narrow as a result of pressures caused by high-stakes standardized testing in mathematics, science, and the English Language Arts.

First, I’ve seen minimal social studies education. Instead, social studies time is eaten up by language arts instruction, and my fourth grader hasn’t studied the vast majority of the topics all New Jersey students should have — according to New Jersey’s Core Curriculum Content Standards — studied by the end of grade four. Here are some examples:

6.1.4.D.4 “Explain how key events led to the creation of the United States and the state of New Jersey.”

6.1.4.D.5 “Relate key historical documents (i.e., the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights) to present day government and citizenship.”

6.1.4.D.6 “Describe the civic leadership qualities and historical contributions of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin toward the development of the United States government.”

6.1.4.D.7 “Explain the role Governor William Livingston played in the development of New Jersey government.”

6.1.4.D.8 “Determine the significance of New Jersey’s role in the American Revolution”

6.1.4.D.9 “Explain the impact of trans-Atlantic slavery on New Jersey, the nation, and individuals.”

My kid — and her classmates — have studied exactly NONE of these things in the past five years of their public school experience.

Second, in Montclair’s all-magnet school system, my daughter’s magnet school is committed to helping all children to discover their unique gifts and talents through an amazing electives program that includes not only enrichment offerings in the academic subjects, but also a terrific program of arts, music, dance, and theater that really lets kids — all sorts of kids from all walks of life — find ways in which they shine. Yet last year, our school was forced to eliminate 1/3 of its elective offerings in exchange for “Response to Instruction” — that is, two more periods devoted to Language Arts and math drilling.

This is what I’m protesting when I refuse to allow my child to take the PARCC. We parents have had enough of the pressures placed on our districts, schools, and teachers by high-stakes standardized testing.

Social studies, music, the arts, and theater aren’t tested: and therefore, throughout our state, they’re taught less, if at all.

I urge you to pass A4165. I am refusing to allow my child to test because it is the boldest way I can say: ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. Let’s ensure that parents throughout our state can band together to do the same.

Thank you.


Mike’s Testimony in Support of A-4165:

My name is Michael Blaine and I live in Montclair, New Jersey. I have two daughters, ages 6 and 10, in the Montclair school district. I am a practicing attorney, with a previous career in information technology. Assembly bill A4165 should be passed because it provides an important option for parents who feel their children are being subjected to excessive and educationally “unhelpful” standardized testing. Presently, about 100 school districts around the state have policies that at least somewhat conform to the language of this bill, giving parents a right to refuse to have their children participate in the PARCC testing. But these policies are not uniform, and some districts have no policy at all.

Some districts allow for opting out of the testing, and call for educationally appropriate alternatives for those students who do opt out. Yet other districts seem to contemplate having students “sit and stare” in the classroom instead of taking the test. Still other districts remain silent on the issue and don’t yet have a policy at all. Finally, some districts actually have a policy that insists that students must take the PARCC exams or face some kind of negative consequence.

It is time for the Assembly to pass this bill and set a statewide standard for how this issue should be handled by the districts.

Additionally, until the PARCC assessments develop a track record and demonstrate that they are actually useful, and that they actually provide valuable data, parents should have the right to opt their children out and thereby take a wait and see attitude. There are grave concerns from many people over whether the PARCC assessments are developmentally appropriate to the grade levels being tested and there are further concerns over the excessive test preparation time being devoted by teachers and students instead of engaging in regular classroom lessons. These issues may be ironed out over time. But, until they are, parents shouldn’t be forced to have their children used as “guinea pigs” until the PARCC tests can evolve to where the tests get a “passing score” regarding their own usefulness and appropriateness.

 

 

Sarah’s Testimony in Support of A-4190 (no impact on students based on PARCC results):

I am here today to express my support for A4190. Given that the PARCC tests have not been proven reliable or valid on any sort of research-driven, peer-reviewed basis, and given that the PARCC tests are the first statewide tests to be administered on computers to children as young as eight years old, I think it is incumbent on you, our legislators, to ensure that high-stakes decisions are not made based on the results of these tests.

I attended the Montclair, NJ Board of Education meeting this past Monday, February 9th. At that meeting, Montclair Public Schools’ Director of Technology, Barry Haines, presented the results of the late January and early February PARCC grade-level infrastructure testing. Attached to my testimony is Haines’s handout setting out the results of those trials.

Approximately 1,320 of the 1,500 students who participated in the PARCC infrastructure trials were able to complete them. As Haines stated, the remaining 180 students — 12% of the total — could not complete the trials due to technology issues. Our district budgeted one million dollars last year for network, bandwidth, device, and other technology upgrades to prepare for the PARCC. As I understand it, substantially more than that was actually spent. Yet a mere twenty-one days before the first day of PARCC testing, the district reported that twelve percent of our students couldn’t complete a trial test due to technology issues. And trust me, our Superintendent, who is a former NJDOE employee, is one of the biggest PARCC cheerleaders out there — she’s been doing everything in her power to make this test work. Even under her leadership, more than 1 out of 10 students couldn’t get the test done due to technology failures.

The handout states: “Some of the problems that kept students from successfully completing the infrastructure trials appear to have been problems with the Pearson server and Pearson software, rather than with the district’s infrastructure”; “We have reported these problems to Pearson and are aware that other school districts have experienced similar problems when conducting their own trials”; and “For this reason, it is also incumbent upon Pearson to remedy the issues identified by school districts conducting infrastructure trials.”

Given these problems, there is a substantial likelihood that testing environments across the state will be disturbed as district personnel work with individual students to reboot computers, swap out computers, and speak on the phone with Pearson technical support. As test administrators attempt to troubleshoot problems, other students in the same classroom will be trying to complete these tests. Many of these are little kids: 8, 9, and 10 years old. I can tell you that if my daughter’s neighbor was having these problems during a test, my daughter would be distracted and paying attention to the troubleshooting process, and not to her own test.

Under these circumstances, it is impossible for the results of these tests to be valid. I urge you to vote in favor of A4190, so that we can ensure that no high-stakes consequences for our kids, such as graduation and placement decisions, are attached to the results of these tests.

Furthermore, our teachers deserve no less. This Committee should immediately take up similar legislation placing a moratorium on any use of PARCC test results in teacher evaluations for at least the next three years.

Thank you.

 

MPS Infra Trials

Handout from Feb. 9, 2015 Montclair Public Schools Board of Education Meeting re PARCC Infrastructure Trial

 

 

Mike’s Testimony in Favor of A-4190:

My name is Michael Blaine and I live in Montclair, New Jersey. I have two daughters, ages 6 and 10, in the Montclair school district. I am a practicing attorney, with a previous career in information technology. Prior to going to Law School at Rutgers, I was an information Technology Director at AT&T, where one of my responsibilities involved the the implementation and roll out of large scale computer systems. As such, I can speak from experience and tell you that the upcoming adminsitration of the PARCC exams will not be 100% smooth from a technology persepctive, and that’s why the Assembly should pass this bill.

We need a moratorium on using the results of the PARCC exams for anything that might prove detrimental to students or teachers, until we can be sure that the software and hardware work sufficiently well that all students can actually successfully complete the exams. If a student can’t graduate because he or she couldn’t finish the PARCC exam due to a “computer crash” or a technology issue, we all have a big problem.

Think for a minute about large scale computer system implementations you have heard about that “went south” on day one. Remember the Obamacare website at heathcare.gov? Lots of problems on the first day. Or since we are in the political arena, how about Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign that had serious computer system issues on election day? Those are exactly the kind of examples we need to worry about with the PARCC exams. This is the first time we will be trying to have a state wide assessment test that is completely computer based and not a paper and pencil test. That’s a really big technology challenge.

Without a moratorium on using the results of the PARCC tests for advance placement or graduation, our students can’t afford for the PARCC tests not to work 100% perfectly on day one, and trust me, they probably won’t. A moratorium will give time for the very capable IT people in our school districts to fix the bugs in the system, learn from any mistakes that are made, and make sure we don’t have a situation in the future where students can’t complete the exam becuase of technology issues.

Refusal Policy

BOE Passes PARCC Refusal Policy

Here is more or less what I said to the Montclair Board of Education tonight (they actually changed the agenda so I ended up commenting before the policy was voted on, but you get the gist and yes, the policy passed, 6-0).

I just want to take a brief moment to thank you for passing the PARCC
refusal policy. You are volunteers for a difficult job, and I don’t
envy you. So, now that we have a growing refusal movement here in
Montclair, let’s talk about what can be.

I know what you have to do. I’ve read statutes, regulations, and your
ethics code. You’re often stuck, because you’re required to implement
state and federal law. I have no quibbles with that.

But implementing state and federal law doesn’t require you to remain
silent when those laws are counterproductive. You can implement AND
speak out. Just look at Acting Superintendent Jim O’Neill in
Livingston. Look at BOE President Dan Anderson in Bloomfield. Look at
Superintendent Carol Grossi in Hanover Park.

You’ve got options. For instance, instead of a strategic plan that
requires us to test our kids four times a year to see if they’re ready
for a fifth test, you could ensure accountability with a system where
teachers and students to work together to build portfolios demonstrating
kids’ growth toward achieving our community’s high standards. I admit
— portfolios can’t be easily converted to numbers on a bar graph, to
quantitative analyses of our kids’ qualitative successes. But numbers
aren’t everything. And portfolios are proof of whether our schools are
doing their jobs.

We had a portfolio program where I taught, and the New York Performance
Assessment Consortium uses portfolios instead of testing today. There
are other options. Other visions.

Where I taught, our seniors presented capstone projects to panels of
evaluators. One senior presentation I attended was by a young man who’d
never read a whole novel when he entered my junior English class. But
that year he discovered a love of literature. His senior project was a
prizewinning independent study of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. After the
awards ceremony, this kid told me that this was the first time his
father had ever said, “Son, I’m proud of you.”

So I stand here today to ask: can’t we advocate for better laws for you
to implement?

Can’t we encourage broad-based community engagement toward finding
better ways to assess our kids’ growth?

Can’t we publicly build consensus about our vision for our kids, and
reject the views of those who regard public comment as something to be
endured, rather than as a cornerstone of our democracy?

Thank you again for passing the PARCC refusal policy. It’s a step in the
right direction. But let’s make this a first step toward a better
vision. Thank you.

wpid-Photo-Jan-29-2015-1051-PM.jpg

Our Kids Need to Keep Moving, Not Be Stuck in PARCC

With her permission, I'm sharing Tova Felder's testimony from the public hearing before the Governor's Commission on the PARCC. I know Tova because she teaches in the religious school my kids attend, and from all accounts, she is a gifted teacher of children. My 6 year old is in awe of Tova because of her pink hair. I am in awe of how beautifully and effectively she was able to get her points across — I only wish I'd had the opportunity to see her testify in person. Like Tova, I'm in this fight because I don't want our kids stuck in PARCC; I, too, want them to keep moving.

Good evening. My name is Tova Felder. I am a former elementary school teacher in the Westfield Public School District, a current religious school teacher in Bloomfield, and the mommy of one fabulous, twice-gifted ten year old in Clifton. I am speaking to you with all of my hats on, because they all matter.

Commissioner Hespe, you and I share a bit of history. I came up through the Willingboro school system, kindergarten through high school. I was part of the last graduating class of John F. Kennedy High School. I'm still friends with many of my classmates.

I received my Master's Degree in Early Childhood Education from Boston College in 1997, my heart set on working with children and sharing with them the spark of joy for learning that I myself had. For ten years I did just that.

In Boston, our kindergarten science curriculum was very flexible, so when we studied earthworms, I brought in a bunch and we examined them up close (but didn't hurt them) and we watched how they responded to light and dark. The kids took notes in their developmentally appropriate invented spelling, drew pictures, and asked questions that were in their heads, not in a textbook or on a white board prompt.

Despite a fairly INflexible language arts curriculum in Westfield, since there was no such thing as a pacing chart, I still had lots of room to improvise. My third grade class wrote several letters to the company that published our literature series one year. They'd found grammatical errors in the textbook, you see, so I used it as a jumping off point for teaching formal letter writing. Later, they used that new skill to write to a favorite author. We were so excited when he wrote back!

I taught my students the song “Free To Be” and we had many discussions about the importance of being who you are…not who or what others think you should be. We sang that song every week and proudly wore our tie-dyed t-shirts, which were a first day of school project, every Friday. A few of those kids are now young adults in the arts and are friends with me on Facebook. (Hi Emily, Brian, and Julian!)

Here's where I say: “Evaluate THAT.”

I resigned from my tenured public school position when my son was born and I realized the impossibility of being the kind of mommy I wanted to be and the kind of teacher I needed to be. Watching my son move through kindergarten and the lower grades, I have become distraught by what has become of public education, what enthusiastic educators are now up against.

I understand that Commissioner Hespe would like input from us about what we should do to address this societal problem where half of the students are graduating without the skills and knowledge they need. That's easy: fix poverty. The millions going to Pearson and Google would make a nice start, I think. That would mean that all of these special interest groups, like the PTA, would have to stop taking money from Bill Gates…but you really want to address the problem of educational inequality, right?

I read through your Interim Report, dated December 31, 2014. Thank you for making it available to the public.

The one thing that leapt out at me, over and over, was the language used in it. It does not read like a manifesto of Looking Out for Our Children. It reads like a business proposal. And while that surprises me not a bit, it does cause my heart to sink and my skin to crawl. My child is not a cog in the Big Machine. My child is not a product, as Dana Egrecsky called them in her interview on NJ101.5. My child's life is about so much more than preparing to fill a seat in a college classroom or a vacancy in one of your companies. In fact, neither of those eventualities was on our minds at ALL when we decided to have a baby.

The thing that struck me the hardest in that long report was the cold detachment from any real humanity.

Somewhere along the way, you have all lost sight of what childhood is supposed to be; what education is supposed to be.

Children are wonderers. They are dreamers and innovators. It's in the DNA. They're born that way. A good education nurtures and encourages that. It speaks to their innate curiosities and leads them down paths of investigation and inquiry.

The classrooms of today are more like boot camp. The teachers are practically given scripts to follow and rigid pacing schedules to ensure that everyone in the country is on page 43 at the same time. That is the opposite of the personalized education we have been promised. It reminds me unpleasantly of Pink Floyd's Another Brick In the Wall, where the children all look the same, march in place, going nowhere, and are not allowed to think for themselves.

That can't possibly be your idea of an outstanding education. I know it isn't our governor's. His kids go to private school.

We don't need PARCC or a battery of any other standardized tests to tell us if our kids are college and career ready. My son is ten. I can tell you with 100% certainty that he is not ready. Neither are his friends. They are ice cream ready, engaging-literature ready, playing make-believe at recess ready.

Commissioner Hespe, members of the Committee, I don't want my child to PARCC. I want him, and every other child, to keep moving.

 

 

Me_Testifying.PNG

It’s a Matter of Trust – My Testimony to the Governor’s PARCC Study Commission

Today, I joined a group of about 40 amazing parents, teachers, school board members (although all of them gave the caveat that they were testifying in their personal capacities) and even an amazing Superintendent to testify publicly before Governor Christie’s PARCC and Assessment Task Force. Every single person who testified did a terrific job, and I’ll note that at this public hearing, not a single member of the public spoke in favor of the PARCC test. I’ll see if I can do a better write up later about the meeting. But in the meantime, here’s a link to a video of me testifying.

And here is the text of what I said (I’m starting to feel like something of a broken record):

My name is Sarah Blaine. I’m an attorney and the mother of two daughters, ages 6 and 10, both of whom attend public schools in Montclair. I’ve been practicing law for almost a decade now, but before I went to law school, I earned a master of arts in teaching degree and taught high school English for a couple of years in rural Maine. Over the past year, as I saw the changes in my older daughter’s curriculum, I began looking into the Common Core State Standards, and the effects they were having on our kids’ schools. As part of that inquiry, I also began looking at the new tests to measure our kids’ achievement, the PARCC tests created by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career. The more I learned, the more concerned I grew. I began writing about my concerns on a personal blog, parentingthecore.com, and quite a few of my pieces – including one this morning – have been picked up by The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog.

I stand here today to tell you that the PARCC tests are not going to improve education or help our students.

It’s all really a matter of trust. That’s what a lot of our debate about PARCC and Common Core boils down to: trust – and, where opinions and plans for public education diverge, who we, as parents, can trust to have our kids’ best interests at heart. Do we trust our children’s teachers and principals: the people we can hold accountable on a personal level – by looking them in the eyes and raising our concerns – and on a policy level, by publicly bringing any concerns we may have to a democratically constituted school boards who are elected solely to deal with education issues? Or do we trust state and federal bureaucrats and elected officials who are accountable to a broad swath of voters for far more than just education policy, and therefore, as a practical matter, outsource a great deal of their education policy setting to private corporations, such as Pearson, which sells curricula and designs tests, all to benefit its own bottom line?

In an ideal world, we could trust both, but unfortunately, our world is far from ideal. I, for one, start out more skeptical of the for-profit corporation than of our local teachers, principals, and school boards.

I was recently engaged in a discussion about the Common Core and the PARCC with a parent who is a strong proponent of the Common Core and the PARCC. He shared a little bit of his story, which illuminated the trust issue for me. In short, his oldest child began his education at a private school. The parents eventually learned that their child was lagging far behind his peers in the public schools, and moved the child to our public schools. But because those parents’ trust was broken early on by that private school experience, they’ve become huge proponents of testing to ensure that they receive up-to-date information regarding their children’s progress.

I hear and can relate to those concerns, although I find it ironic that it was a private school’s failure that triggered them.

My take, however, is different. As a parent, I start the school year each year trusting my kids’ teachers. Now, that doesn’t mean that such trust can’t be eroded over the course of an academic year. But over the years, in preschool and then in our public schools, of the 15 classroom teachers my kids have had, I’ve come across exactly one teacher who broke that trust. That’s not perfect, but those are still pretty good odds. So I’m willing to trust our schools and our teachers with our kids, and to trust that they have our kids’ best interests at heart. If I find that my trust is misplaced, I’m confident that I can go up our chain of command, and ultimately publicly air my concerns at a Board of Education meeting.

What those parents I told you about, whose trust in schools was broken by a bad private school experience, have effectively done is to substitute trust in their children’s teachers for trust in a test, under the mistaken belief that a test will ensure real accountability. And perhaps in a world where the tests are trustworthy, there’s no harm in trusting tests. But unfortunately, given the amount of time and energy I’ve spent inquiring into the PARCC tests, I think those parents are going to discover that their trust in the PARCC is at least as misplaced as their earlier trust in their child’s private school.

The PARCC consortium recently published its sample “Performance Based Assessments,” which New Jersey’s public school kids will be attempting starting just over a month from now. I have a fourth grader, so I took a quick look at the fourth grade math PBA this morning. Here’s a sample question:

Jian’s family sells honey from beehives. They collected 3,311 ounces of honey from the beehives this season. They will use the honey to completely fill 4-ounce jars or 6-ounce jars.

Jian’s family will sell 4-ounce jars for $5 each or $6-ounce jars for $8 each.

Jian says if they use only 4-ounce jars, they could make $4,140 because 3,311 divided by 4 = 827 R 3. That rounds up to 828, and 828 multiplied by $5 is $4,140.

Part A

Explain the error that Jian made when finding the amount of money his family could make if they use only 4-ounce jars.

Enter your explanation in the space provided.

Take a moment. Can you tell me the error?

Here’s the error: Jian’s math was correct, but his reasoning was mistaken, because he rounded up to 828 instead of down to 827, when the 828th jar won’t be totally full, so he can’t sell it for $5. So since his family can only sell 827 full jars of honey, the answer should have been 827 jars x $5/jar = $4,135.

What is this question really testing? Is it, as the PARCC’s proponents would state, testing whether kids “really understand” remainders and have the “higher-order thinking” skills necessary to pick up on the “trick” in this question? Or is it, as is obvious to any parent, testing whether our 9 and 10 year olds are (a) picking up on the word “completely” and (b) testing whether our kids have the life and business savvy to make the connection – under the pressure of a high-stakes test – that in this one case, they should be ignoring the remainder, instead of rounding to the nearest whole number.

My concern is compounded by the emphasis that the fourth grade Common Core math standards – and the Pearson produced Envisions math curriculum purportedly aligned to those standards – places on estimating, rounding, and reasonableness. This is a copy of one of my daughter’s Envisions math workbooks. The flagged pages are all pages that ask the kids to rely on estimating, rounding, or reasonableness to arrive at their answers. It’s not every page, but as you can see, the emphasis on those skills, which I’m not denigrating, is heavy. Given that emphasis, not only is this a trick question, but the kids themselves are already primed to miss the trick by the emphasis their standards and curricula place on estimating, rounding, and reasonableness.

Trick – and other unfair – questions like this are endemic throughout the PARCC practice tests I’ve reviewed. The English Language Arts questions are even worse. It is unfair by any measure to ask 9 and 10 year olds to type thematic essays about a Maya Angelou poem and a Mathangi Subramanian story. In addition, the essay prompt itself is ambiguously worded: the prompt asks the kids to “Identify a theme in ‘Just Like Home’ and a theme in ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me.’ Write an essay that explains how the theme of the story is shown through the characters and how the theme of the poem is shown through the speaker.”

What’s unclear from the language of the essay prompt is whether the kids should be identifying one theme common to both the story and the poem, or whether the kids should be identifying separate themes for the story and the poem.

One trend I’m sure you’re aware of across the state is that many of our high schools have been eliminating midterms and finals to make room for PARCC. The ambiguity of the essay prompt – and unfair trick of the math question – illustrate why eliminating local, teacher-created tests, midterms, and finals in favor of standardized tests is a bad idea. All teachers make mistakes – both in inadvertently drafting ambiguous questions and incorrectly grading answers, but kids are savvy and can point those mistakes out to the teachers. That’s built-in accountability.

Pearson and PARCC, however, are accountable to no one. Our teachers won’t even be allowed to look at – much less discuss – the PARCC tests. They won’t see the kids’ results, or where they might have been tripped up by a trick. So there will be no one to tell us which questions were unfair, ambiguous, or otherwise problematic. That is, there’s no accountability for Pearson, and as I’ve discovered this year, there is no question that even the Pearson materials – be they PARCC practice tests or Envisions – that the public does have access to have plenty of mistakes.

If the stakes for these tests were low – and the time they sucked away from “real” teaching was minimal – then I doubt the outcry would be so intense. Instead, however, these are the tests that even this year, unproven as they are, will make up 10% of teachers’ evaluations, and they will continue to take on an increasingly central role in evaluating our teachers, schools, and children. Not surprisingly, for those kids who don’t make the cut, Pearson now controls the G.E.D. test.

I urge you to carefully review the PARCC sample tests yourselves, keeping in mind the age level of the students who are intended to take them. Please recommend to the Governor that we join the dozen or more other states, including, most recently, Mississippi, in rejecting the PARCC as a valid means of assessing our kids. New Jersey’s kids deserve better.

Our New Jersey teachers and principals are accountable to our local communities. Where individual districts have ongoing problems with ensuring educational equity, the state can step in through its Quality Review system to address those problems on a case-by-case basis. But the PARCC test is setting up a narrative that all of our schools are failing. After spending significant time reviewing what’s happening in our schools and what’s contained on a for-profit corporation’s PARCC tests, I, for one, am confident that the problem is with the test, and not with our kids, our teachers, or our schools.

Thank you.

wpid-Photo-Jan-27-2015-1252-AM.jpg

You Can’t Force Developmental Milestones: A Parent’s Perspective on the CCSS Kindergarten Foundational Reading Standards

In a recent Facebook discussion about PARCC and the Common Core State Standards, I commented that the Common Core standards are developmentally inappropriate in the younger grades. Another participant in the discussion challenged that assertion, and pointed to the CCSS kindergarten literacy standards. He asked me to identify what was inappropriate in them.

Here’s an edited and expanded version of my response:

I think pointing to the Reading:Literacy Standards (Kindergarten) for an analysis of developmental inappropriateness misses the mark. My concern with the standards for the youngest grades is not with the Reading: Literacy Standards, which are about comprehension and understanding stories, but rather with the Reading: Foundational Standards (Kindergarten), which are about phonics and decoding words. The Reading: Foundational Standards require ALL kindergartners, for instance, to be reading CVC words (i.e., 3 letter short vowel words) by the end of kindergarten, unless those words end with r, x, or l. Requiring such phonics-based reading skills at that level by the end of kindergarten is developmentally inappropriate for many five year olds. I can tell you that from my own experience.

I have two girls. Both have September birthdays. For a whole host of reasons, none of which I’m interested in debating here, we made the decision that we were fortunate enough to have the resources to make — we gave both of them an extra year of private preK. As a result, both started kindergarten just before they turned six, rather than just before they turned five.

Both of my girls are bright, capable, and inquisitive. But they’re also very different kids, with different learning styles, interests, and developmental paths. As an aside, I can’t tell you how glad I am that I have two kids, because seeing how different my younger daughter’s path is from my older daughter’s is a constant reminder of how amazingly different two typically developing small humans from the same gene pool really can be. It’s remarkable to see — and a constant source of wonder for me.

As I hope my regular readers might imagine, my house is full of books. We don’t have a family room, but in addition to our living room, we do have a dedicated library on the first floor of our house, and it was that library with its floor to ceiling built in bookshelves that made me fall in love with this house. But even the library doesn’t come close to holding our book collection. I’m not quite like my old friend Mel, of blessed memory, who, with his wife, had to move out of his four bedroom house to make room for the books it contained (he and his wife went to live in a small apartment nearby instead), but if it wasn’t for the Kindle, that path might have been part of my future.

We’ve read to our kids regularly since they were in utero. Not surprisingly, our collection of children’s books has mushroomed. My oldest has four bookcases in her room, and my youngest can’t contain her books on the 3 bookcases in her room. I belong to a book club, I read regularly for pleasure (and let my kids see me doing so), my kids know that I taught high school English Language Arts, and it’s been clear to my kids for their whole lives that understanding life through literature is central to our family values.

My oldest started asking me to teach her how to read shortly before her fourth birthday. Although my academic training was in teaching middle and high school, I was game to try. So I picked up a few resources, and we gave it a whirl. However, despite the fact that she already knew all of the letters and their sounds, it quickly became clear that she simply wasn’t ready, so we put formal reading instruction aside. I think we made another stab at it about three or four months later, but again, no dice. We tried it once or twice more, but each time the frustration for both of us outweighed any benefit, so we stopped.

Then, in about March of her last year of preK (so she was five and a half at that point), it was like a switch turned on. Within about a week of her renewed request for reading instruction, she was suddenly reading, fluently, anything and everything she could get her hands on. She never looked back. By the time she entered kindergarten six months later, she was reading — with comprehension — a wide variety of texts, including simple chapter books. She’s continued to gobble up books — and to love reading — ever since.

Obviously, meeting the kindergarten foundational standards would have been a no-brainer for my oldest. But remember, she had the gift of that “extra year,” so she started kindergarten weeks before her sixth — not her fifth — birthday. That was before our district’s Common Core implementation, but I’m not sure reading would have been so straightforward for her if she’d been forced to heavily drill phonics-based reading skills during what ended up (because of our choice) being her final year of pre-K. It’s clear to me from trying (at her request) to teach her that she simply wasn’t ready for phonics-based reading instruction at that time, but that’s when many kids — especially those who have fewer financial resources — enter kindergarten.

My youngest is a kindergartener right now. Like her sister, she also has a September birthday, so she turned six shortly after school started in September. Unlike her sister, she didn’t start kindergarten reading — and there is no way she was ready developmentally a year ago, even though she met the kindergarten cut off back then (i.e., she could be in first grade now). Now, she is on track to meet the standard that requires reading CVC words by the end of the year, but that’s only because she was fortunate enough to start kindergarten just before her sixth birthday rather than just before her fifth. Many — probably most — kids in our country don’t have that luxury.

My youngest, even more so than my oldest, is also a kid who gets really frustrated when asked to do a task she’s not yet developmentally ready to manage. Whether it’s academics or something else, when we’ve made the mistake of trying to push her to do something before she was developmentally ready, the result has been that she’s gotten really resistant to the task she’s not ready for, to the point that she ends up mastering it far later than I think she would have if we’d just left her alone.

I am convinced that forcing my youngest to learn phonics to read a year ago — when she could have already been in kindergarten — would have been a nightmare. In fact, I tried briefly, remembering her sister’s experience, but it quickly became clear that forcing reading before she was ready was a terrible idea. To be honest, even the tiny (and quickly abandoned) attempt I made caused some reading resistance, which I think we’ve pretty much managed to undo at this point, but it’s taken a lot of patience to get there.

Until now, my youngest just hadn’t hit the developmental switch required to read successfully. But that developmental switch — i.e., that point at which individual kids are ready for the abstraction necessary to be able to translate symbols on a page into the spoken language they’ve spent the last five years acquiring — it’s not something we can switch on earlier either by wishing or by imposing standards requiring it. Some kids are ready at four, some kids are ready at five, and some kids are ready at six. All of those ages are within the normal range for reading development — and despite taking some time to look, there’s nothing I’ve come across that indicates that an earlier reader’s long term outcomes will be better than those of a kid who learns to read later in the typical developmental range.

This difference among children — as illustrated by my own girls — is precisely why a standard requiring real progress toward phonics-based reading in kindergarten is developmentally inappropriate. As I learned in my educational psychology and reading instruction classes, by sometime between their sixth and seventh birthdays, most kids have reached the developmental milestone that allows them to learn to read. At the moment, although it’s a slower process than with my older daughter, I can see that my six year old is getting there. For instance, she’s finally suggesting, at least once in awhile (to avoid housework, but that’s another story), that she try reading with me. But again, she’s a full year older than many other kindergartners.

My youngest is bright and creative. In fact, I suspect that one of the reasons she’s relatively slow to read is because she can imagine alternate — and entertaining — realities for hours on end. That is, her imagination is so engaging that she doesn’t need authors’ stories to provide entertainment for her. As a result, reading — that is, the process of interacting with an author’s imagination — is less appealing for her, and so she’s less motivated to do it.

My daughters’ different experiences with learning to read are why I believe that the Common Core Reading: Foundational Standards for Kindergarten, at least, are developmentally inappropriate. Forcing phonics-based reading on kindergartners as a standard they must all meet to be on the path toward college and career readiness is counterproductive because it’s developmentally inappropriate for many five year olds. If my younger daughter had started kindergarten a year ago, as she could have, I suspect that she would have been subjected to a cascade of interventions. Those interventions would not have occurred because she had a learning disability or any other problem that needed addressing. Rather, she would have been subjected to such interventions because the Reading: Foundational Standards for Kindergarten are simply inappropriate for many five year olds.

The solution is to change the standards. Yet instead, their advocates often seem to be focused on interventions aimed at making all kids march in lockstep to a rhythm that fails to reflect the normal range of their developmental trajectories. It’s that insistence on lockstep, especially in the youngest grades, that frustrates me. Such insistence appears to mark the difference between endorsing a set of standards and advocating an ideology that allows no deviation from the party line. Our kids — especially our kindergartners — deserve better.

P.S. I think this story also explains why the developmentally inappropriate expectations of the CCSS reading foundational standards are only going to widen, rather than narrow, the achievement gap.  As noted above, the only reason that my little one will be able to meet the CCSS reading foundational standards by the end of kindergarten is going to be because she was privileged enough to have parents who could “red-shirt” her.  It’s the fact that we could afford to choose to keep her in a high-quality play-based preschool for an extra year that’s going to allow her to meet CCSS for kindergarten.  Not all families have that luxury: instead, the younger kindergarteners are going to be more likely to end up in repetitive, phonics and decoding focused response to intevention (“RTI”) or similar programs, which I think would have frustrated my little one further, and probably sent her even further down the path toward reading resistance.  How many children living in poverty are going to end up in that boat, because the standards themselves set developmentally inappropriate expectations?

wpid-Photo-Jan-18-2015-1224-PM.jpg

GUEST VOICES: Mom Lynley Jones to Senator Lamar Alexander

If you are looking for a short, sweet, and to-the-point sample letter to send to fixingNCLB@help.senate.gov, please check out this note from my neighbor and close friend Lynley Jones to Senator Lamar Alexander and the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor & Pension Committee:

Dear Senator Alexander,

I urge you to repeal the annual testing requirements enshrined in the current “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) legislation. Any NCLB reauthorization should, at most, require testing three times during a child’s career. Further, any reauthorization should remove the pressures on States and local school districts to attach high-stakes consequences to test results. Please eliminate the imposition of penalties and sanctions such as teacher evaluations, teacher compensation, firing staff, requiring conversion to charter school status, or school closings, based on test scores.

Our public schools are the cradle of our democracy. A diverse and thriving democracy depends on an educational system that prepares children for thoughtful, creative, constructive, and well-informed debate. The health and well-being of our nation depends on giving children the time to eat a healthy lunch, exercise their bodies, and think freely and creatively during unstructured periods of time such as recess. The success of our economy depends on rewarding and encouraging creativity and novel approaches to problem-solving.

The over-emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing risks all of this. Please stop allowing the over-emphasis on testing to squelch the joy out of school for the next Steve Jobs, E. B. White or Georgia O’Keefe. American children deserve better.

Sincerely,

Lynley Jones

Montclair, New Jersey

cc (via web submission):

Senator Robert Menendez

Senator Cory Booker

wpid-Photo-Jan-18-2015-1224-PM.jpg

No Child Left Behind Reauthorization – ADD YOUR VOICE TODAY

Peter Greene over at Curmudgucation remains my favorite education blogger because of his incisive ability to cut through the crap and point out what’s important. My only concern, however, is that because he writes so much excellent content, sometimes some of his most critical messages get lost in the shuffle. This is an example (not that I’m suggesting he should post less; quite the contrary!).

As Peter Greene pointed out yesterday, any and all of us — parents, teachers, administrators, students, policymakers, think tank denizens, taxpayers, bloggers — should be dropping everything this weekend to take up Senator Lamar Alexander on his invitation to write to the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee regarding its proposed Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“ESEA”) (i.e., No Child Left Behind (“NCLB”)) reauthorization proposal!

The email you need to send your thoughts to is: fixingNCLB@help.senate.gov — once again, that’s fixingNCLB@help.senate.gov — and in case you missed it, mailto:fixingNCLB@help.senate.gov is the email address we should be flooding this weekend.

According to Senator Alexander’s Press Release, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is holding hearings on the extent of testing, with at least the first hearing scheduled for Wednesday, January 21, 2015. Please don’t miss this opportunity to add your voice to the debate regarding annual standardized testing by a means that could actually make a difference.

This is democracy in action and — no matter what your opinion is — shame on you as a citizen of this democracy if you don’t take the time to add your voice to the chorus (and instead let the monied lobbyists substitute their voices for yours).

Below is my contribution.

P.S. Sorry Peter, but brevity is not my forte!


Dear Senator Alexander and the Members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee:

I write to you today to urge you to repeal the annual testing requirements enshrined in the current iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“ESEA”), which is most commonly known as No Child Left Behind (“NCLB”). Any ESEA/NCLB reauthorization should, at most, require testing three times during a child’s career. Further, any ESEA/NCLB reauthorization should remove the pressures on States and local school districts to attach high-stakes consequences to test results including, but not limited to, tying teacher (or teacher preparation program) evaluations to test results and/or imposing closing or other sanctions on neighborhood schools with low test scores (such as firing staff or requiring them to convert to charter school status).

About Me

My name is Sarah Blaine and I am the mother of a 4th grader and a kindergartner, both of whom attend the public schools here in Montclair, New Jersey, which is a socio-economically integrated town with widely respected (but, due to our diversity, never particularly highly “ranked”) public schools that serve a diverse population, yet regularly manage to send top-performing students to the most highly selective colleges and university in the country. I’m a graduate of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. I also earned my J.D. with high honors from Rutgers University’s School of Law (Newark), and I’ve been practicing law for the past nine years. Before I went to law school, I earned my master of arts in teaching degree from the University of Maine, and I taught high school English at a public school in western Maine.

Last winter, as I watched Common Core State Standards-fueled changes unfold in my then-third grader’s classroom, I began to occasionally blog about the experience. To my continued surprise, my second blog post was published in The Washington Post under the headline, “You Think You Know What Teachers Do, Right? Wrong!” where it generated well over a million page views and was the most emailed and shared piece on the Washington Post’s website for a few days. I’ve published a number of additional pieces on The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, including: “Pearson’s Wrong Answer – and Why It Matters in the High-Stakes Testing Era,” “Mom to Common Core Task Force: Take the 4th-Grade PARCC Practice Test. I Dare You to Tell Me It Makes Sense,” and “The Concept Education Secretary Duncan Has Entirely Missed.” I urge you to take a few minutes to read them.

Annual Standardized Testing Narrows Curriculum

My writing began as an inquiry into whether the changes I saw unfolding in my daughter’s classroom were positive or negative. I really didn’t know the answer, and I still think it’s more nuanced than Common Core is good or Common Core is bad. I certainly never imagined that my writing would lead me to become a proponent of the test refusal movement: the reality is that I was a National Merit Semi-Finalist back in the day, and during my own education, I never met a standardized test I didn’t like. In fact, standardized tests often saved my tail, as I was one of those classic students whose report card was littered with “Underachiever” and “Does Not Work Up To Potential.” Standardized tests let me prove that my grades did not always reflect my intellect and that I might be, as I in fact was, a “late bloomer.” So I am not someone who is naturally inclined to oppose standardized testing.

But as I’ve watched the effect that standardized tests — and, in particular, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (“PARCC”) test — are having on my children’s education, I’ve grown increasingly concerned that our nation’s over-emphasis on testing is driving our public schools in the wrong direction. In an effort to bring at times much needed change to low-performing school districts, you as policymakers have imposed a test and punishment regime on all public schools (even those that are high-performing), which has led to unintended yet very real consequences for all public schools and the students they serve.

In particular, the onerous scored-based consequences for teachers, schools, and districts have placed inordinate pressure on teachers, schools, and districts to “teach to the test.” Some proponents of the testing approach to education will say that there is nothing wrong with teaching to a “good” test. Leaving aside, for the moment, the question of whether the new tests, such as PARCC, are “good” tests worth teaching to, the question we need to ask ourselves is: “What are we not teaching?” That is, what units, lessons, materials, and concepts are teachers not teaching to make room for the test-prep required for successful performance on the PARCC and similar tests across the country? Once we’ve identified what’s not being taught, we then have to ask ourselves whether the tradeoff is worthwhile. I can tell you, wholeheartedly and without reservation, that the tradeoffs I’m seeing are not worthwhile.

When annual standardized tests have high-stakes consequences, topics that aren’t covered on the test aren’t taught.

When annual standardized tests have high-stakes consequences, teachers who attempt to tailor education to their students are subversive.

When annual standardized tests have high-stakes consequences, teachers who attempt to provide meaningful social studies, civics, and history instruction are subversive.

When annual standardized tests have high-stakes consequences, teachers who reach students through class discussion and debate are subversive.

When annual standardized tests have high-stakes consequences, subjects such as music, theater, art, and physical education become afterthoughts.

When annual standardized tests have high-stakes consequences, small children are denied the recess time their bodies crave.

When annual standardized tests have high-stakes consequences, our children become important to our local districts for the data they can provide rather than for the human beings that they are.

As frustrating as the myriad other objections to the PARCC in particular are, it’s the above-described narrowing of the curriculum that is the basis for my real objection to annual standardized testing coupled with high-stakes consequences.

PARCC Illustrates What’s Wrong with Teaching to Tests Rather than Teaching for Democracy

PARCC, however, is illustrative.

The PARCC is not like the standardized tests I took in elementary school, junior high school, or high school. The PARCC is not even like the GRE or LSAT. Frankly, it is most reminiscent of the Bar Exam. The fourth grade PARCC English-Language Arts practice test asks nine and ten year olds to identify the themes in a Maya Angelou poem and a Mathangi Subramanian story and then to “explain how the theme of the story is shown through the characters and how the theme of the poem is shown through the speaker.” As a former high school English teacher, I can tell you that thematic essays are often challenging for early high-school students, and that there is no question that they’re developmentally inappropriate for fourth graders.

The multiple choice questions on the fourth grade PARCC English Language Arts test are poorly worded, confusing, and susceptible to arguments that more than one answer choice might be correct. The computer-based format is difficult to navigate, confusing when you switch from one approved device to another, and developmentally inappropriate to the extent that it asks 8, 9, and 10 year olds to type essay responses. Frankly, the PARCC sample tests themselves are the biggest argument against these particular tests, and, if you haven’t already, I urge you to sit down and take some of them. Really, if you’re going to require that our small children take these tests, you should at least do us the courtesy of sitting down and taking them yourselves. I don’t think it’s possible to understand the consequences of your policy decisions without looking at what your policies are requiring of small humans.

But as to PARCC, even its name demonstrates what is wrong with the test-based accountability movement. As noted above, the PARCC acronym stands for “Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career.” Its proponents will tell you that its goal is to measure students’ progress toward “college and career readiness,” whatever that means. But this is where I part ways with PARCC’s proponents. We taxpayers don’t pay for public education to spend our money providing college and career prep for other people’s kids. If we did, as a taxpayer I’d tell you to go pay to educate your kid as you see fit, and let me take care of educating mine. But as a citizen of a democracy, I believe I have a duty to contribute to the public education of all children, because education is fundamental to maintaining a vibrant and meaningful democracy. That is, the purpose of education is not college and career prep: the purpose of public education is preparing citizens for thoughtful participation in the democratic process. PARCC doesn’t measure this, and PARCC test prep doesn’t prepare kids for the duties of democracy.

Social Studies Education Then and Now

I was educated in the public schools of a wealthy New Jersey town (Millburn-Short Hills) long before the days of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, or PARCC. In those days, our teachers believed in educating citizens, and test prep wasn’t on anyone’s radar. In fourth grade, then as now, the social studies topic for the year was New Jersey. But in my fourth grade class, studying New Jersey meant designing and building a model Lenni Lenape village, learning a New Jersey song, writing and presenting research reports on each of New Jersey’s 21 counties, studying colonial life in New Jersey, and a field trip to Allaire State Park’s Allaire Village to learn about the post-colonial iron industry. It was an incredible course of study, which is why I remember it more than 30 years later.

My older daughter is now in fourth grade. Her social studies topic this year is also New Jersey. But we are now halfway through the school year, and the sum total of her social studies education has been reading a chapter of her textbook to prepare for a map skills test, reading a chapter about the states in the Northeast, and bubbling-in questions at the back of Scholastic News’s Common Core aligned “magazines.” The richness of my fourth grade social studies experience is gone. That is the real effect that annualized testing has on schools.

And what is she doing instead? She’s preparing for the PARCC. The Scholastic News assignments with their multiple-choice questions are thinly-veiled test prep. The map skills get taught because reading and interpreting maps are fair game on the PARCC. She’s spent 6 hours — and counting — just learning to navigate the computer interface, including learned how to manipulate the protractor when her math class hasn’t yet studied angles, so none of them know what a protractor is or why they’d need to use it. For language arts, she’s reading test-length friendly passages and drafting formulaic paragraphs reacting to them. And even though strict adherence to writing formulas produces nothing but bad writing, she can’t deviate from them, because Pearson’s test graders will be looking for each element of the formula, and not whether her content is compelling. She’s not building models of villages, going on field trips, or learning to write research reports, because none of those things can be tested on the PARCC.

And where teachers’ evaluations and schools’ annual report cards are dependent on test results, those tests drive curriculum.

The difference between my daughter’s fourth grade public school social studies curriculum and mine is a direct result of our test-focused culture, and the PARCC only exacerbates this divide.

What You Can Do When You Reauthorize ESEA/NCLB

Please stop requiring local districts to substitute test prep for citizenship prep. Please allow local communities to determine how to best reach the students they’re responsible for teaching. We can do better for our kids. I know this, because my fourth grade teacher did better for me. But annualized testing — and the test prep pressures they cause — are making good teaching impossible, which is why I am, as a matter of conscience, refusing to allow my child to take the PARCC. On behalf of all of our nation’s kids, please join me in rejecting any reauthorization of ESEA/NCLB that continues the current requirement of annualized standardized testing or that attaches high-stakes consequences for teachers or schools to the scores that children achieve on those tests.

Sincerely,

Sarah Blaine

Montclair, New Jersey

cc: Senator Robert Menendez (via web submission)

Senator Cory Booker (via email)

Representative Donald Payne, Jr. (via web submission)

 

wpid-Photo-Jan-14-2015-1145-PM.jpg

Montclair Kindergarten Tours Moved To January

Below please find two letters to the Montclair community.

The first letter is to the parents of our incoming kindergartners to welcome them to our public schools and let them know that the school tours are coming in less than two weeks — from January 26-30 (rather than in late March as has been typical in recent years).

The second letter is to our community generally about the concerns I have regarding the district’s failure to adequately publicize this year’s school tours, especially given the major date change. I’m really disappointed at the extent to which Central Services dropped the ball on this one, and I hope that Dr. MacCormack, Matt Frankel, and the entire Central Services team will publicly apologize for their mistake.

Dear Parents of Montclair Pre-Kindergartners Who Are New to Montclair Public Schools,

As you might know, what sets out community — and our school district — apart is the diversity of our public schools. Our strength is that we are a rare suburban community in which our students come from all walks of life, and that students from different backgrounds have the opportunity to know and understand each other by sharing classrooms with each other for thirteen years. That diversity is what I love about Montclair, and it’s the reason I chose to move to this town.

As you might also know, although we are diverse as a whole community, historically some of our individual neighborhoods were not as diverse. As a result, on a historical basis, our neighborhood elementary schools as a whole were not as socioeconomically integrated as they could and should be. Eventually, under a combination of court and community pressure, our all-magnet elementary and middle school system was born to ensure that we have integrated public schools. For more details, please watch the terrific video that the PTA put together a number of years ago, which recounts the history of our magnet system.

I’ve been a public school parent here for 5 years now, and I love our magnet system. I love that each school has its own personality, its own unique strengths, and its own traditions. My kids love having their neighborhood friends and their school friends. And I really appreciate that when I thought the school my older daughter attended for her first three years was no longer the right fit for her, I had the opportunity to switch her to another fully public school. Montclair’s system is a grassroots, organically developed local system that is perfect for us because our community has tailored it to the community’s needs over the past 30+ years

But because our magnet system rests on choice, it all falls apart if the parents of our incoming kindergartners don’t have the opportunity to see and tour each of our elementary schools. Parents need to see how Nishuane and Hillside’s gifted & talented magnet works through its electives (here in Montclair, we call them C-Is and Aesthetics) system. Parents need to see Watchung’s science lab and greenhouse. Parents need to see Edgemont’s Montessori program in action. Parents need to see Northeast’s global studies theme, and Bradford’s university magnet program, and how Bullock’s environmental science theme relates to its beautiful new building.

The vast majority of our parents get one of their top choices for elementary school, but for parents to make informed choices regarding which school to list first, they need the opportunity to see and tour our schools.

For the last four years, school tours have taken place in late March to early April. Day tours occupied a week, and evening tours for working parents who can’t take time during the day took about two weeks to complete.

This year, the tours are taking place January 26-30th. Yes, that’s right, your primary opportunity to tour our schools is taking place 12 days from now. I know that when I was in your shoes, I had enough lead time to rearrange my work schedule to ensure that I could devote all five mornings of tour week to checking out Montclair’s elementary schools. I’m sorry that the district has moved the tours up by two months with almost no notice, and then compounded that issue by failing to effectively publicize them, so you may have to scramble to get them done, but I assure you that taking the time time visit all of our terrific elementary schools — during the day if you possibly can — is absolutely worth your while, and I, for one, welcome you to our community’s public schools.

And for the working parents who can’t get there during the day, to be honest, if I were you, I’d be outraged that they’ve doubled up evening tours so that it’s going to be impossible for you to get to all 7 schools. If you’re upset by this — as you should be — I’d take the time to reach out to our school board members and our central office staff to let them know that and to request a better tour schedule. You should also know that the elimination of some of the morning tours is new this year as well — I know how difficult it was to get the tours done with the old, more expansive schedule, so I don’t envy you trying to get this all done with the abbreviated schedule that’s been provided.

Central Office might have really dropped the ball on this one, but the major take away remains. Remember — our magnet schools are each unique, but they are also each strong public schools that will do a terrific job educating your child. Whether you get your first choice or last choice or somewhere in between, please know that this is a community that cares deeply about education, and that has the ability to offer your child a high-quality elementary school experience.

Please help to get the word out.

Best regards,

Sarah Blaine (4th grade and kindergarten parent)

 

Dear Montclair Taxpayers and Community Members:

For the past seven years that I’ve been in town, as I recall, the kindergarten tours were always well-publicized in advance with articles and notices about tour season in our local news sources (although less so last year than in prior years, so perhaps Dr. MacCormack simply doesn’t see the tours as a priority). But thankfully, Montclair Community Pre-K, at least, regularly advertised them for about two months in advance in its weekly newsletter. This year, however, the administration has not gotten the word out — there’s been nothing on Baristanet, nothing in the Montclair Times, nothing on Montclair Patch, and nothing in The Alternative Press — Montclair. (Although to be fair, there is elementary tour information on the Montclair Public Schools website — I have no idea when the middle school tours are happening, however).

I only realized this was an issue when I received a note from the coordinator for the Hillside tour committee and I started to ask myself why the tours were so early this year. Then I realized that I hadn’t seen any notice of them in any of our local news sources (I read our local news regularly), and I realized that we have a real problem

Tonight I sat through a good chunk of the long but at times quite illuminating Board of Education workshop meeting so that I could raise this issue during public comment. I was the only member of the public there tonight, so my comment itself didn’t reach many people. In particular, I have to admit that the more I thought about this issue, the more annoyed I became. If the school tours are not well-attended at their scheduled times, there is going to be huge pressure on our individual PTAs to offer private tours to those who miss the public ones. That’s an enormous burden to place on our individual school-level PTAs, especially considering that this bureaucratic screwup is not theirs, but rather falls soundly on the shoulders of our Central Office staff. Perhaps this year, given that it was a Central Office screwup, district staff should be responsible for conducting the private tours, rather than our volunteer PTAs

In particular, I’m annoyed because, as I understand it, as of the 2014-2015 academic year we are now, for the first time since at least before the Great Recession, paying a part-time communications/public relations person, Matt Frankel, a significant salary to do our district’s public relations.

Mr. Frankel approached me immediately after my comment, and asked me to further explain what the issue was, since he clearly had no idea what I was talking about, and he stated that he was unaware of the issue until I raised it. Wow. Just wow. I’m honestly shocked, especially given how critical it is to ensure that parents new to the district have the opportunity to tour our schools and learn about our magnet system. That is, of course, if you think that our magnet system is a priority.

After I explained the issue in more detail to him, Mr. Frankel then suggested that he could do an email to current public school parents to publicize the tours. I pointed out that an email to current public school parents, while helpful, wouldn’t really solve the issue given that the point of school tours is outreach to next year’s new-to-the-district kindergarten families, who by definition wouldn’t receive an email to this year’s public school parents, and that the tours need to be publicized in our local media. Mr. Frankel continued asking me for additional ideas, at which point I politely suggested that since he is getting paid to do our district’s communications and I am not, perhaps he is best suited to figure out how best to communicate with the public to get the word out.

Let’s put it this way: my first interaction with Mr. Frankel didn’t give me great confidence that he’s worth the salary that’s coming out of my tax dollars. Hopefully he will redeem himself in the next eleven days.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the question of why the tour dates were changed from the late March/early April time frame of the last four years. (FYI, I reviewed my old emails, and I can see that prior to 2011, the tours were in February — I do recall that the district made this change, because when I wanted to do some limited tours again for my younger daughter I was surprised that the tours were so late — but unlike for this issue, it wasn’t a big deal to go on tours that were later than I expected, because obviously I hadn’t missed them). The reason for the last minute change this year, of course, is poor planning around the PARCC testing. Because the PARCC testing will take up the entire month of March, the district can’t conduct the tours then. And then a combination of Good Friday and spring break makes the rest of April problematic as well, especially given that the kids will be right back doing more PARCC assessments at the end of April and for most of May.

Given the importance of the school tours to Montclair’s community, there is no question that the administration should have been planning how to handle the tour calendar given the logistics challenges created by PARCC. But it seems that Central Office dropped the ball. I’d signed up to be a Hillside tour guide back on the first day of school last September. Here’s the start of the email I got on January 5th from Hillside PTA’s tour coordinator: “Surprise! It’s tour season! We were just informed today that Montclair’s elementary school tours will take place January 26-30 with an evening tour at Hillside yet to be scheduled.”

Our magnet schools mean the world to me, and ensuring that our community’s parents continue to support them is critical. That support doesn’t always come easily, but a big part of what generates it is having the opportunity to see all of the magnet schools in action. By failing to publicize the tours early and effectively, Central Services really dropped the ball on what should be a top communications priority. I hope that the members of the Montclair Board of Education will keep this in mind when they decide whether Central Services staffers should be awarded merit bonuses next fall.

Finally, thank goodness for the opportunity to provide public comment tonight so that I could raise this issue to the Board and Central Services staff — this once again demonstrates that there are good reasons why the public is invited to attend and comment on how we’re running our public schools, which are, of course, spending our precious tax dollars. During the workshop portion of the presentation, I heard some really negative comments from certain board members regarding the public comment tradition here in Montclair, as well as some occasionally frightening suggestions from the District’s consultant about methods for handling public comment. Perhaps our Board needs a reminder that these are the public’s schools with the great majority of their funding coming from local taxpayers, and that as the policy making entity for our town’s public schools, the Board of Education earns — or fails to earn — the public’s trust by listening to and taking action in response to the public’s concerns, be they large or small.

Best regards,

Sarah Blaine