Please note that nothing in the opinions expressed below is meant to or actually does provide specific legal advice for any particular individuals or entities. Boards of Education, parents, educators, students, and others should consult attorneys to discuss how this ruling applies to their particular circumstances. (I apologize for any formatting errors — Wordpress clearly hates me.)
Today, the New Jersey Superior Court’s Appellate Division (for you non-New Jersey attorneys out there, this is New Jersey’s intermediate appellate court) held that New Jersey’s current graduation exit exam regulations are invalid as they are because they directly conflict with the state’s graduation exit exam law. (Link to Opinion)
The Appellate Division then stayed its ruling for 30 days to give the State the opportunity to seek to appeal the decision to New Jersey’s Supreme Court. If the State does not appeal the decision or if New Jersey’s Supreme Court refuses to take the case, then 30 days from now the current graduation testing regulations (but not the graduation exit exam law) will be thrown out in New Jersey.
The questions before us, then, as activists, parents, and educators, are (a) where did this opinion come from; (b) what did the Court decide; (c) what does the decision mean; (d) where do we go from here?
Where Did This Opinion Come From?
As the opinion summarizes, back in 1979, the New Jersey legislature first passed a law requiring that a graduation exit exam be administered to all New Jersey public high school students. That law has been updated a number of times. In 1988, the graduation exit exam law was updated to move the test from 9th grade to 11th grade (I recall this fairly clearly, because as a 1991 New Jersey high school graduate, I took versions of the exit test in both 9th and 11th grades). The state legislature has not changed the grade-level requirement of the graduation test since 1988.
Practically speaking, the way that our government actually works, however, is that a legislature passes a law that is fairly broad. The executive branch (the governor and the state agencies) are then tasked with enforcing the law passed by the legislature. What those state agencies and board do, as a practical matter, is to enact rules (we call them regulations) that nail down the specifics of how the law is going to function in practice. Those regulations cannot contradict the law they’re enacting, but beyond that, the state agencies have broad authority to pass regulations to enact the law as they see fit. In this case, in 2016, the New Jersey State Board of Education enacted regulations that replaced the 11th grade HSPA (High School Proficiency Assessment) with the 10th grade PARCC ELA test and the PARCC Algebra I test (which can be administered anywhere between about 7th and and 12th grades here in NJ).
As many of us — myself included — argued at the time, the 2016 regulations setting PARCC ELA 10 and PARCC Algebra I did, however, expressly contradict the state law, which specifically requires an 11th grade test. New Jersey has two mechanisms for invalidating regulations that contradict statute: (1) the state legislature can pass resolutions that invalidate the regulations as contradictory to the statute they seek to enact or (2) the courts can declare regulations invalid as contradictory to the statute they seek to enact. My local State Senator, Senator Nia Gill (D-34th legislative district and, incidentally, a true hero of public education as well as of democracy and the democratic process more generally) introduced precisely such a resolution, SCR-132, in the State Senate (and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey introduced a companion resolution, ACR-215, in the State Assembly). The Assembly resolution passed, but the State Senate’s twin cartoon villains of public education, Senate President Steve “I Hate Teachers” Sweeney and Senate Education Committee Chair Teresa “Temper Tantrum” Ruiz, refused to list the Senate resolution for a vote. Instead, they issued a rhetorically pleasant but legally meaninglessletter agreeing that the regulations violated the statute.
Only one option remained — we needed the Courts to invalidate the regulations. Thankfully, more heroes of public education emerged. The Latino Action Network, Latino Coalition for New Jersey, Paterson Education Fund, Education Law Center, and NAACP New Jersey State Conference (together, the “Appellants”) filed suit against the state seeking to invalidate the 2016 graduation regulations.
That case wound its way through our court system. Unfortunately, the wheels of justice grind slowly, so it wasn’t until October 29, 2018 that the Appellate Division heard oral argument on the court case. And then today, on New Years’ Eve 2018, close to three years after the regulations contradicting the state statute were first presented to the public, the New Jersey Appellate Division issued an opinion invalidating the regulations as contradictory to the state statute because— in short— they require non-11th grade testing to serve as the 11th grade graduation exit exam. It is an excellent and well-reasoned opinion, although I will admit to personally feeling a high degree of frustration with how slowly the wheels of democracy and justice have turned in this case.
What Did the Court Decide?
The Appellants argued that the regulations are contrary to the plain language of the law, which (a) required a single comprehensive assessment examination and (b) required that the single comprehensive assessment examination be administered to students in 11th grade. (FN: The also made some state constitutional arguments and Law Against Discrimination arguments that I’m going to ignore for the sake of simplicity since the Court didn’t decide the case on those arguments.)
First, it’s worth nothing exactly how egregious the Appellate Division said the regulations were. In New Jersey, as in most of the country, because of separation of powers concerns, the courts give great deference to regulations enacted by executive branch agencies. A court will only step in to invalidate agency regulations if it literally has no other choice because the discrepancy between the regulation and the statute is so egregious that there is no way that the court can find that the regulation is not “plainly at odds with the statute.” To be clear, that is what happened here.
Specifically, the Appellate Division decided that there was absolutely no way that it could read the words “11th grade test” to mean Algebra I test given sometime between 7th and 12th grade and 10th grade English test.” (An editorial aside from me: one of the many ironies here is that the State Board of Education’s insane reading of the statute would clearly be marked as a wrong answer on any PARCC test!) In the opinion, the Court sets out the State’s attempts to twist itself into a pretzel to square the regulations with the law but rejects them, writing, with typical judicial understatement: “The argument is unpersuasive.” Id. at 15. Instead, the Court is unequivocal in its judgment: “We hold, therefore, that to the extent the regulations required testing of non-eleventh-grade students, they are contrary to the Act and are invalid.” Id.
The Appellate Division further holds that “the regulations violate the Act to the extent they specifically authorize multiple tests administered in grades other than eleventh grade.” Id. at 16-17.The Appellate Division reasons that the statute’s language specifying a “test” rather than “tests” means that a statutorily-compliant graduation exit exam must mean one high school graduation proficiency exam rather than PARCC’s multiple end-of-course exams. Id. at 16.
It is also important to note that the Appellate Division says that the regulatory provisions offering substitute competency tests instead of re-testing with an appropriate 11th grade test is a violation of the statute, which further calls into question whether there is any hope that the revised graduation regulations currently wending their way through the enactment process could be construed to be facially valid (SPOILER ALERT: they cannot).
But perhaps most exciting for test refusers, is the Appellate Division’s conclusion that any 12th grader who has not passed PARCC must be offered an option to prove graduation proficiency “‘utilizing techniques and instruments’ adopted by DOE ‘other than standardized tests. . .’” That is, the Appellate Division also held that the graduation exit test statute “compels DOE to provide for alternative methods of assessing proficiency other than through PARCC testing or any other standardized testing process.” Id. at 19.
What Does The Opinion Mean?
In short, the Appellate Division has invalidated the 2016 regulations in their entirety. What this means is that if the opinion stands, the graduation exit exam law itself remains valid and on the books — but that as soon as this opinion goes into effect, New Jersey will not actually have a designated graduation exit exam. This is obviously a problem for students who hope to graduate in June of 2019 and beyond, as the current statute lists meeting the graduation exit exam requirement as a necessary condition to be granted a state-endorsed high school diploma.
It also appears to mean that when and if an appropriate 11th grade test is chosen, the State cannot compel students to take it, and instead must offer any and all students who refuse the test the opportunity to demonstrate that they have met the state’s proficiency standards through a non-testing process.
Complicating matters further, the State Board of Education in conjunction with the State Department of Education is currently in the process of enacting new graduation exit exam requirements, but the opinion makes it clear that proposed regulations are also invalid because the proposed regulations (a) continue to specify a 10th grade ELA test and the Algebra I test as the graduation tests; (b) continue to offer the menu of secondary options that the Appellate Division has decided are contradictory to the plain language of the statute; and (c) do not provide access to a non-standardized testing means of proving proficiency for those students who do not first take one of the gateway standardized tests.
What Are New Jersey’s Options?
The Appellate Division stayed its order for 30 days to allow the State the opportunity to seek certiorari from the New Jersey Supreme Court. As a preliminary matter, Governor Murphy should refuse to allow the State to file a petition for certiorari. If the State refuses to appeal the decision, then the Appellate Division opinion will stand and 30 days from today parents, educators, and voters will have some certainty to allow us to determine next steps. Not only would this be Governor Murphy taking concrete decision to keep his campaign promise to “scrap the PARCC,” it would also let policy makers move forward on legislation and rule-making without concern that the courts could pull the rug out from under any potential agreement.
It seems to me that the most immediate need is to give everyone some breathing room to let the litigation process play out and then to assess where we should go from here. Fortunately, some of our state senators and members of the state assembly have already introduced legislation that would do precisely that. A672/S558 are proposed bills currently pending in the legislature that would remove the graduation exit testing requirements for the classes of 2019 and 2020 to give stakeholders time to come up with a solution.
Whether the PARCC cheerleaders in the assembly and senate, led by Senate Education Committee Chair Teresa “Temper Tantrum” Ruiz and State Senate President Steve “I Hate Teachers and Their Union” Sweeney would be willing to move these bills for the sake of New Jersey’s kids, however, is an open question. Sadly, even though enacting A672/S558 would be a no-brainer, it seems to me that given her antics this fall regarding the State Board of Education’s consideration of even the modest loosening of the graduation regulations currently pending, Senator Ruiz is unlikely to do this or anything else that makes sense when it comes to the education of New Jersey’s children.
Assuming we cannot get some breathing room through the legislative process, the State Board of Education is going to have to kick their rule-making process into overdrive. It seems to me that the possible rule-making approaches to fixing the mess that they themselves have made are, in no particular order, the following:
If possible, revive HSPA starting this spring while working on a plan for the future. The downsides to this are (a) it is unclear whether this is possible or whether any form of HSPA currently exists; (b) HSPA does not purport to test the current state education standards; (c) the state recently gave a contract for this spring’s testing to a testing entity that is not HSPA; and (d) this year’s 12th graders were not afforded an opportunity to take HSPA in 11th grade, so it is unclear whether such an approach would meet the standard set forth by the Appellate Division.
Designate PARCC ELA 11 (or NJSLA ELA 11 or Zombie PARCC or whatever we might be calling it now) as the ELA portion of the high school proficiency test. The downsides to this are that (a) it doesn’t solve the math issue; (b) this would still require multiple tests, which it seems won’t pass muster under the Appellate Division’s approach; (c) the proposed regulations just eliminated this test; and (d) it continues to stick New Jersey’s students with PARCC/Zombie PARCC.
Designate the SAT General Test (or the ACT) as the graduation exit test. The downsides to this are (a) the State or Districts will have to last-minute find the money to pay to have all 11th graders take this test (as well as make retakes available to 12th graders); (b) we will still have to attempt to administer the PARCC/Zombie PARCC tests to high school students meet federal ESSA testing requirements; (c) by all accounts the new SAT is not a particularly good test; and (d) this year’s 12th graders were not necessarily afforded the opportunity to take the SAT for free in 11th grade.
What Can We Education Activists, Parents, and Educators Do Now to Help Resolve This Mess?
Refuse to allow your children to test. The Appellate Division has made it clear that students can refuse to test without jeopardizing their high school graduation. Use your rights. Refuse to allow your children to sit for these tests. Educate your local Boards of Education, superintendents, and testing coordinators about the impact of this opinion, and urge everyone you know to refuse high-stakes standardized testing this year, and help us to put PARCC/Zombie PARCC out of its misery once and for all.
In her opening remarks this morning at a hastily convened Joint Senate & Assembly Education Committee hearing, New Jersey State Senator M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29) announced her position that the decision regarding how to handle the state’s move away from the bungled PARCC assessment should be made “behind closed doors.”
She. Really. Said. That.
Behind closed doors.
She wants to throw our kids under the bus behind closed doors.
So that there will be nothing you or I can do until it’s too late.
Apparently Senator Ruiz, a George Norcross-Steve Sweeney aligned Democrat-in-Name-Only, is no longer going to hide her Trump-like inclination to govern secretly. By fiat. This is Democracy, 2018-style: policy that affects your kids and mine should be made behind closed doors.
It seems clear that Senator Ruiz wants deals to be made behind closed doors so that the parents, teachers, and community members with whom she disagrees can be shut out of the process. She literally wants to slam the door in our faces, just as her allies in the Christie administration did for eight years. Little wonder, I suppose…given that she seems to be the last cheerleader standing for the PARCC assessments.
So, let’s rewind.
Who is Senator Ruiz hiding from?
Is she hiding from the approximately 100 parents, students, teachers, school board members, and other New Jersey citizens who testified on January 7, 2015 regarding the mess PARCC created in our schools?
Is she hiding from the hundreds of parents, educators, students, and community leaders who spoke before the Governor’s PARCC study commission in the winter of 2015? With the lone exception of the NJPTA, which coincidentally accepted a large grant from the pro-PARCC Gates Foundation, the hundreds of testimonies before that commission universally opposed PARCC. (Nevertheless, the Commission’s final report completely ignored their perspective.)
Is she hiding from the standing room only crowd that testified in February 2015 at the Assembly Education Committee in support of two PARCC opt-out bills that she later refused to allow to be heard before her Senate Education Committee?
Is she hiding from the full-house crowd that attended a May 18, 2015 Senate Education Committee hearing that she finally scheduled to consider some watered-down PARCC bills?
Is she hiding from the parents and educators who took the time in the fall of 2015 to attend the bogus “Listening Tour” sessions organized around Chris Christie’s cynical presidential-run inspired renaming of the Common Core standards?
Is she hiding from the parents and educators who took the time — in May 2016, in June 2016, and again in the fall of 2016 — to travel to the State Board of Education to oppose the asinine regulations that will — if left unchanged — make PARCC ELA-10 and PARCC Algebra I the only paths to graduation for hundreds of thousands of New Jersey students starting with this year’s high school sophomores?
Is she hiding from the parents and educators who turned out — again and again — at every step along the way to oppose expanding New Jersey’s standardized testing mandates as well as the graduation requirements built (as even she agrees) in violation of the clear language of the state statute around those expanded testing schemes?
Is she hiding from the parents, students, and educators who finally showed up in April 2017 at Senate President Sweeney’s office to demand that he direct Senator Ruiz to do her job and post SCR132 for a vote? (If Senator Ruiz had ever been willing to allow her committee to consider it, this resolution would have declared the PARCC graduation requirement regulations inconsistent with the authorizing legislation as PARCC calls for use of Algebra I and ELA 10 tests, but the graduation requirement statute requires an 11th grade test. Even Senator Ruiz, in an April 2017 letter, agreed that the regulations should be amended to make them comply with the graduation statute.)
Is she hiding from the over 2,000 New Jersey parents, teachers, students, and concerned citizens mobilized by a Save Our Schools New Jersey action alert who sent emails to the New Jersey Board of Education supporting the new regulations last week before the vote on the regulations was tabled?
Is she hiding from the annoyed, angry, frustrated, and sad parents, educators, and students who have become cynical as can be about government precisely because of her obstructionism and the obstructionism and lack of open communication of those like her?
Why, exactly, does Senator Ruiz think she needs to hide behind closed doors? Is it because she can no longer hide behind Chris Christie?
All Commissioner Repollet’s revised PARCC graduation regulations really do is to effectively maintain the status quo for graduation exit exams — i.e., they provide our young people in the class of 2021 and beyond with the option to rely on the current smorgasbord of standardized test options (SAT, ACT, ASVAB, Accuplacer, etc.) to satisfy the state graduation testing requirement available to the class of 2019. The only other real change they make is that they seek to eliminate the wasteful additional high school PARCC exams (those for ELA 9 and 11 as well as those for Geometry and Algebra II) given that much of that material is assessed on the current smorgasbord of optional tests.
Senator Ruiz objects to this approach for two reasons. First, she argues that some high school kids don’t take APs and college entrance exams, and she thinks those high school kids should be tested a lot too (PARCC Algebra I and PARCC ELA 10 apparently aren’t enough for her). What is missing from the Senator’s analysis, however, is how more time prepping for additional tests is going to help those kids become better readers, writers, thinkers, and speakers. What I am left to wonder is whether Senator Ruiz wants to keep high school kids so busy preparing for and taking successive PARCC tests that they won’t have time to question why legislators like her think that governing should take place behind closed doors.
Second, Senator Ruiz and her even more clueless sidekick Assemblywoman Lampitt argue that changing the current regulations would create additional chaos in New Jersey’s public schools. But what Senator Ruiz and Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt fail to consider is that it is the current regulations — with their upcoming PARCC or bust trigger for the class of 2021 and beyond — are what are poised to create chaos of epic proportions among New Jersey’s public school students. As of now, only 29% of New Jersey students are positioned to graduate using only PARCC (as opposed to using PARCC plus the smorgasbord of additional options). If these regulations are indefinitely tabled as Senator Ruiz and Assemblywoman Lampitt demand, I look forward to watching them face hordes of angry new 18 year old voters who are not going to be granted high school diplomas in 2021… right when both of them will be seeking reelection.
Unlike Senator Ruiz and Assemblywoman Lampitt, who spent today’s hearing grandstanding, Governor Phil Murphy’s appointee, Commissioner Repollet, actually has New Jersey’s students’ best interests at heart. Commissioner Repollet’s interim regulations are meant to give us some breathing space while the Department of Education — and not career politicians — engages in thoughtful vetting of new assessment options. The Commissioner’s make-haste-slowly approach (as exasperating as it is to parents like me, who want to throw tantrums and demand that PARCC be eliminated NOW) will allow New Jersey’s current sophomores and below to step away from the precipice on which the current regulations have placed them, and puts New Jersey’s students before loyalty to the testing companies. New Jersey’s students would be far better served if Senator Ruiz backed off from her fact-devoid, Trump-style hissy fit and actually demonstrated some of the critical thinking skills she claims PARCC can assess. But sadly, that is far too much to ask of machine-controlled politicians like Senator Ruiz.
I apologize for my long silence this year. I’ve been trying to keep a lot of balls in the air, and education blogging has somewhat fallen by the wayside. Also, I’ve been fortunate that both of my kids are having really positive school years this year, which is great for them, but makes it easy for me to get complacent about blogging. On my to-do list is to write a post for this blog about how wonderful it is to have a year in which our local public schools are fulfilling their promise of what a democratically-governed public education can and should be. That all said, I continue to follow education news closely, and a week ago Monday I did publish this Op Ed about the latest PARCC politics here in New Jersey:
One of my major projects this year, however, has been preparing for a different sort of adventure. Feeding into a dream I’ve had at some at least subconscious level ever since reading John Holt’s Instead of Education back in college, our family is preparing for a year-long journey around the world, which has been in the works for about four years now. For more details about what we plan to do, where we plan to go, how we’re planning to educate our kids, and why we’re doing this, please check out this Q&A I did with Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog:
If you would like to follow our adventures, please follow our new family blog, Blaine Voyage (like “Bon Voyage,” because we’re dorky nerds that way), which is linked here.
I will certainly stay up to date on education politics and policy while I’m traveling (and hopefully even have more time to write about it where I think I have useful insight to share), and I’m hopeful that all of you fellow pro-public education activists will help me find opportunities to visit schools across the country once their summer breaks end, and ideally around the world. To the extent that our adventures deal with specifically education focused topics, I will cross-post here, but I don’t want to burden you with what is essentially a family/travel blog, so if you want all the details, please follow Blaine Voyage. Thank you all for reading my posts over the past three years. This blog isn’t going away, and hopefully I will even update it a bit more regularly.
Almost nineteen years ago, on my twenty-fifth birthday, I sat in a conference room on the University of Maine and had dinner with the cohort of pre-service teachers I’d be together with for the next 13 months as we studied to obtain our entry-level Maine public school teaching certificates in the University of Maine’s M.A.T. program. I spent the following academic year interning and then student teaching in some of Maine’s public schools, including Old Town High Schooland Hampden Academy. I learned the craft of teaching from excellent, highly-trained, and deeply experienced mentor teachers, and studied with some top-notch University of Maine professors. That spring, I accepted a job teaching high school English at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School.
I am originally from New Jersey, and after two years of teaching at OHCHS, I moved back to New Jersey, where my mother was battling cancer. But Maine – and particularly Maine’s education system and Maine’s students – remain dear to my heart.
One of the two most important courses I took during my master’s program at the University of Maine was my course in inclusion of students with disabilities in general education classrooms. In that course, I learned about the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §1400, et seq. (“IDEA”), and what my responsibilities were going to be as a general education teacher tasked with educating students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment, as required by IDEA.
As I am sure you know as a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, what the least restrictive environment means is that children with special needs are required by law to be placed in a general education classroom or a setting as close to the general education setting as much as possible consistent with that child’s right to receive a free and appropriate public education. That is, the least restrictive environment provision is IDEA’s anti-segregation provision: it precludes public schools from simply shunting students with disabilities off to the side, separate and unequal, with little or no meaningful access to peer interaction with typically developing students.
During the two years in which I taught at OHCHS, I attended countless IEP meetings, and worked diligently to effectively implement IEPs in my classroom. I served students with all sorts of special needs in my general education classroom, and I believe all students – both typically developing and those with special needs – benefited from learning together. When appropriate, I also supported decisions to move children in my classroom out of my classroom to resource rooms or other environments that could better meet their needs, as the least restrictive environment must be determined on a case-by-case basis, and sometimes is not the general education classroom. I always thought carefully about those decisions, and worked to make sure that my general education classroom was as inclusive as possible for students with special needs.
At this point, it is apparent that the only thing that might help New Jersey enter the 21st Century on this issue would be meaningful enforcement of IDEA’s least restrictive environment provisions by some combination of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs and Office of Civil Rights. As a result, it is imperative that the Secretary of Education – of either party – have considerable expertise in the language, provisions, implementation, and enforcement of IDEA (and Section 504).
I watched Betsy DeVos’s HELP committee hearing, and I’m watching the vote (well, actually, this far into the letter, the procedural wrangling following the vote) live right now. What boggles my mind is what one of your colleagues – I can’t recall which one right now – just said about the U.S. Department of Education having essentially two jobs when it comes to K-12 education: (1) to carry out the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“ESEA”) and (2) to carry out IDEA. What was clear as day at Ms. DeVos’s HELP committee hearing was that Ms. DeVos was dangerously unfamiliar with at least one half of her job: that half of her job in which she’s tasked with ensuring implementation of IDEA.
As a cabinet level position, Secretary of Education cannot be an entry-level job. Yet there is no question that even I have significantly more familiarity and experience with IDEA than Ms. DeVos. When you were my Senator, I had great respect for you and your primary concern with effectively representing the people of Maine. You are no longer my Senator, but I continue to believe that you have integrity and that the people of Maine will support you so long as you vote your conscience.
As a fellow American, I urge you to vote no on Betsy DeVos when her nomination comes before the full Senate. Every child, parent, teacher, child study team member, and other educator or related services professional deserves an education leader in Washington who has significant expertise in his or her job. Half of Ms. DeVos’s job when it comes to K-12 education is implementing IDEA. Ms. DeVos demonstrated her lack of expertise in this area, and, even more concerning, has not expressed outrage at the fact that students with disabilities are being asked to waive their rights under IDEA if they want to access school voucher programs.
Our children, our parents, our teachers, and our country deserves better. Please put the people of Maine and the United States ahead of party loyalty. Please vote no on Betsy DeVos’s nomination when her nomination comes before the full Senate.
STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION TESTIMONY – SEPTEMBER 7, 2016
I am here today to tell you a little bit about Montclair’s unique all-magnet public school system, how and why it came to exist, and to explain why the proposed Montclair Charter School would undermine the shared values that drew virtually every Montclair resident to our town. As you may know, Montclair is rare among New Jersey communities in that it is both economically and racially diverse and its public school population – unlike, for example, that of neighboring West Orange – mirrors the community’s demographics.[i]
Back in the 1960s, more than a decade after Brown v. Board of Education became the law of the land, housing in Montclair was largely segregated, and Montclair’s public schools were still largely segregated as well. Parents from the Black community sued, and the community tried forced busing and other ideas to integrate the schools. Forced busing did not go over well, and the community was trying to balance the need to integrate the schools with avoiding “white flight.” A group of parents were looking for alternatives, and traveled to Trenton to sit down with NJDOE officials to try to come up with a compromise. Out of that meeting, our all-magnet school system was born.[ii]
In the 40 years since, Montclair has implemented an all-magnet school system that eliminated neighborhood schools completely. That is, where I live in town has no direct correlation to where my kids attend school. Instead, the year before my oldest started kindergarten, I traipsed through all of our elementary schools to tour the buildings, learn about the magnet themes, which range from Science & Technology to our public Montessori elementary school, and to see the schools and faculty in action. At kindergarten registration, I not only provided vaccination forms and proof of residency: I also ranked, in order of preference, the six elementary school options available for my daughter.
The magnet system provides all Montclair parents with school choice – that is, we all get to prioritize our preferences for which elementary and middle schools our children will attend. More importantly, it keeps our public schools integrated. In 2010, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Louisville and Seattle school integration cases,[iii] our district engaged the Kirwan Institute out of The Ohio State University to design a plan to keep our magnet system functioning within the parameters of the new, more restrictive law.[iv] Kirwan’s report included a startling statistic: even in 2010, if Montclair were to revert to neighborhood schools, one of our elementary schools would be 92% white, and another would be 77% Black.[v] Instead, by supporting our magnet system, we have been able to ensure that all of our elementary schools are integrated. My younger daughter attends the school that would be 77% Black, and instead it is far more reflective of our community as a whole, in that it is 35% Black, 45% white, and the remainder mixed race, Latino, and Asian.[vi]
To make our magnet system work, however, for four decades our community has made two expensive commitments: (1) to provide the resources in support of our magnet themes that will draw families to schools across town from their homes and (2) to provide the courtesy busing that makes the magnet system function. First, each magnet school must have unique offerings to draw parents to list schools further from home as their top choices. Our Science & Technology magnets have stand-alone greenhouses, and dedicated science and technology teachers. Our arts magnets offer dedicated drama and dance teachers. It is those “extras” that draw families to schools across town from their homes. Second, because Montclair is 6 miles from north to south, with the historically white neighborhood at one end of town and the historically black neighborhood at the other end, we rely on busing to ensure that all kids have a real choice of which school to attend.
If this charter school were to be approved, we’d be forced to cut at least $3.1 million and upwards of $5 million or more from our public school budget. Because of the governor’s property tax cap and Montclair’s already high property taxes, there is no question that we’d be forced to dramatically cut the district’s budget. As we saw following the cuts to state aid in 2010, the go-to answers for decreasing Montclair’s budget are to (1) slash the magnet programs by closing schools and/or eliminating magnet theme resources and (2) reduce or eliminate courtesy busing.[vii] Either would spell the end of our magnet system as we know it. Even if we give the charter the benefit of the doubt on its efficacy at recruiting equitably from all parts of our community, the budget-driven evisceration of our magnet system would effectively force the re-segregation of our public schools. That is anathema to the values that drew us to Montclair.
Montclair is a unique community that is dedicated to its diverse, all-magnet public school system. Our schools aren’t perfect and there is room for improvement, but approving a charter school for Montclair would be like attempting to clip a hangnail with a chainsaw. As we’ve seen through the deluge of letters, emails, letters to the editor, and community outrage, virtually no one in our community – from students to seniors – wants or thinks we need this charter school.[viii]
Ninety-three percent of our school budget is directly funded by our local property taxes. Since we have no local control over whether this charter opens, I am left to come here to beg you to use any and all influence you might have with the Commissioner to deny this charter application. Please do not force an unwanted, unneeded, destructive charter school on a public school system that is excellent although not perfect, but that is, nevertheless, the pride of our community.
[i] According to NJDOE statistics, Montclair High School is 48% white and 34% Black. Montclair’s total population is 59% white and 32% Black. West Orange High School is 19% white and 48% Black. West Orange’s total population is 60% white and 26% Black. See NJ School Performance Reports; U.S. Census Data.
[ii] See, e.g., S.S., a minor, by her guardians ad litem, J.A. & T.S. v. Montclair Bd. of Ed., 1997 WL 1038785 at *2 (EFPS Dec. 16, 1997), which recounts some of the history of Montclair’s desegregation litigation. The ALJ explained, “The circumstances which led to the instant litigation arose out of the decades-old efforts by the Montclair Board to deal as comprehensively as possible with de facto racial segregation in its public school system. See, Morean v. Bd. of Ed. of Montclair, 42 N.J. 237 (1964). Thus, 30 years ago, in Rice, et al v. Board of Education of the Township of Montclair, 1967 S.L.D., decided by the Commissioner November 8, 1967, Montclair officially was ordered to take action to correct a racial imbalance in its public school system. Thereafter, various steps were taken to accomplish that result, not only to achieve a constitutionally acceptable pupil racial balance but, in addition and as part of that process, to introduce novel and creative concepts in learning.”
[viii] Below please find links to the 25 Letters to the Editor that have run in The Montclair Times opposing this charter application. Not one letter has been printed supporting it, and my understanding is that no such letter has been submitted.
So I know I’ve been even quieter than usual this summer. I want to take a few minutes to tell you why. As per the below testimony, which I will be sharing at the New Jersey State Board of Education meeting in Trenton, NJ this afternoon, last March a couple of Montclair, NJ residents filed an application to open a French immersion charter school in my town. Despite opposition from stakeholders, to the community’s shock, the charter application received Phase 1 approval from the Education Commissioner. In NJ, one and only one person, the state Education Commissioner, is exclusively tasked with deciding whether a charter application should be granted — there is zero local control over whether a charter is granted for a particular community. The only option for communities opposed to the granting of a charter is to try to put as much political pressure on the Education Commissioner as possible to demonstrate the widespread opposition. And then, of course, we hope and pray. Welcome to democracy — Jersey style.
There had been some community opposition prior to the Phase 1 decision, driven primarily through an online letter created by a local education advocacy group, Montclair Cares About Schools. But at the time of the Phase 1 approval, fewer than 400 people had signed the online letter, and opposition had been restricted to that, a couple of letters to the editor, a resolution by the Town Council, and an opposition letter by the Superintendent of our public schools.
I am not a member of Montclair Cares About Schools, although I appreciate and agree with the vast majority of their pro-public education policy objectives. I was concerned, however, that the online letter hadn’t gotten much traction. Around the same time, two moms in my younger daughter’s first grade class, who were active in PTA, etc., but not in education policy issues in the district more generally, knew of my education writing and advocacy. They approached me to ask if I’d be willing to join with them to organize more united and forceful opposition to the charter application.
We met in a park so our kids could play on the playground along with another local friend and fellow education advocate. It seemed to me that for this issue, the better approach strategically and tactically speaking was to build coalition by building opposition that was as narrowly focused as possible — i.e., we oppose this charter school for Montclair — rather than “we oppose charter schools because charter schools are terrible no matter what.” Our community includes a lot of people who sit on charter school boards, work in the charter school industry, but I knew that even a lot of people who are pro-charter in general were anti this particular charter, and I wanted to ensure that we could build a coalition that was as wide as possible. All four of us were in agreement — this was going to be opposition to this particular charter school for Montclair, and despite most of our personal politics and feelings about charters more generally, for this purpose we were going to focus our opposition on the Montclair-specific reasons that a charter/this charter would be bad for Montclair, although of course part of our strategy would be to drive traffic to the Montclair Cares About Schools letter, as it was an easy online avenue for people to use to express opposition to the charter.
As an FYI, I’ve found this narrow focus to be very successful, and we’ve managed to get even a lot of generally pro-charter folks to sign our letter. One interaction I had was particularly telling — I was talking to a couple at our Farmers’ Market in August. The woman laughed and immediately agreed to sign our letter, but said to me, “Don’t bother with him, he’s a big pro-charter schools guy, we fight about it all the time at the dinner table.” I made my pitch about why one can be pro-charter in general, but still take a principled stand against this charter. To my surprise and the woman’s glee, my appeal worked and the “big pro-charter schools guy” signed a letter too! (I keep wondering if he’s managed to live that one down with his partner/wife yet.) More generally, I think we in the pro-public education movement would be well-served to see where we can find common ground with advocates of so-called “education reform,” as I’ve found it a useful approach.
It’s been an eye-opening few months. Since late June, we’ve drafted press releases and led a letter to the editor campaign that has generated 25 letters to the editor of our local paper opposing the charter school. The Montclair Times also published a second editorial opposing the charter school. The Town Council held a forum on the logistics issues with the proposed location for the charter school. And we’ve been tabling and getting the word out everywhere — on the hottest and most humid days we’ve run tables at our local Farmers’ Market, at the All-Class Reunion, at the National Night Out, etc. We’ve circulated at the public pools to explain the issues and gather signatures. We’ve created a physical letter to be signed, and a Fact Sheet to educate the community. And we’ve had meetings upon meetings upon meetings — with members of the Board of Education, with the Education Committee of the Montclair chapter of the NAACP (which is absolutely on our side in this), with our local Civil Rights Commission, with the mayor, with members of our Town Council, with members of our County Board of Chosen Freeholders, and other elected officials.
To his credit, the President of the State Board of Education, Mark Biedron, came to Montclair to meet with us. But even he has no control over whether this charter is approved. At that meeting he promised to get us a meeting with staff of the New Jersey Department of Education’s Office of Charter and Renaissance Schools so we could at least make our case, but unfortunately he then retracted and we were told by both him and the head of the charter school office that it was not their ‘custom’ to meet with members of the local community (other than their interview/meeting with the charter applicants, of course) — once again, welcome to democracy, Jersey-style. To date, despite our efforts and those of our elected officials, we have not yet been able to sway the Department of Education to establish a new custom — you know, a custom of actually sitting down and listening to stakeholders before making a decision.
We have gathered over 1,000 (1,094 as of yesterday’s count, to be exact) physical letters. I PDF the originals at my office and then email the PDFs to various elected and appointed officials and snail mail the originals down to Trenton. And the online letter has gathered another 1,858 signatures as of this writing. We’ve seen how the sausage gets made, and learned a lot about local politics and our local community. Overall, I’m really proud of our community and what we’ve accomplished. We learned that a local hardware store had taken it upon itself to make copies and gather signatures on our physical letter and that it sent an additional hundreds of letters to Trenton in opposition. (Go Saunders and South End Hardware Stores — shop local, people!) I’ve been incredibly impressed with the letter to the editor campaign, which is my baby. The most amazing part of that campaign is that 25 different writers all included 25 different sets of arguments for why this charter school is bad for our community. We’ve also printed t-shirts, magnets, and spent more of our own dollars than I like to think about on everything from copying to postage.
Through all of this, the charter applicants have been absolutely silent at the local level. They did give one media interview — but that was to a friendly reporter at the Wall Street Journal, who refused to ask them any of the tough questions. I’m highly disappointed in WSJ Reporter Leslie Brody, and you should be too. Comments to that article say that this opposition is all union-led, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, to be honest, one of my biggest frustrations personally has been the union’s lack of public advocacy on this issue (some individual members of our union have been excellent in their personal capacities, but we’ve not heard much from the union leadership, although perhaps the Montclair Cares About Schools folks have — I get the problems with the optics of them getting out in front, but maybe just because we had to do all of this while school was out of session this summer, we’ve had no luck with them).
Since we cannot get a meeting with the Department of Education, our best hope is to show up at the State Board of Education meeting in Trenton to testify during Open Public Comment about why this charter school is bad for our community. Today — the first or second day of school for most school districts in NJ — at 2 P.M. is Open Public Comment in Trenton, more than an hour from our homes. But many of us are going anyway. We’ve organized carpools and babysitting, and we’re making it happen.
Follow this link to find the testimony I plan to give in Trenton today, which focuses on why this charter school is likely to lead to the re-segregation of the public schools in our unique little town of Montclair. On a more general note, what I’d like to know is this: why, given the successes of our all-magnet school system over 40 years, aren’t “reform” advocates suggesting this model, rather than a proliferation of charters, to communities across the country? Personally, I continue to believe that the real culprit is economic and racial segregation, and that it’s our failure to complete the work of Brown v. Board of Education that has led to our national school system’s failure to meet the needs of all kids.
And please read through the endnotes to my testimony — they’re really amazing, especially those 25 letters to the editor from members of the community.
The person who wrote this asked if I’d be willing to run this anonymously. Of course, I said yes. The details vary, but much in this post encapsulates my thoughts on this day before my oldest also starts middle school.
To My Daughter On The Night Before You Grow Up….
My darling child,
Yes, I realize you will not actually be a grown up tomorrow.
But what you will be, is on the road to becoming one. The pre-school and elementary school years, although fast, took place in the right lane, and at eleven years long, are the longest part of this growing up thing. But the changes that are about to occur are…well, a little bit staggering.
You were a smiley and cuddly baby, an adorable and curious toddler, and these last 6 years of elementary school, you were a bright, sensitive, caring, talented, funny and beautiful child.
But you are now changing lanes. This is Middle School.
While I realize these years are going to go fast, what gets me is that you are now getting on the road to truly becoming an adult. You are about to look at the world through different eyes and the world is going to see you in a different light.
I see it as a highway of youth with each lane representing a stage–this middle lane being the remainder of your years living under my roof. When you change lanes again, it will be for college, and that lane lasts just four years and moves at lightning speed. But the changes that occur from eighteen to twenty-two will not be as extreme as the changes that are going to occur between now and high school graduation. So this is it, you are about to grow up. And you are about to do it fast.
I will never forget the lump in my throat on your first day of Kindergarten. You were never a child who had difficulty separating or starting something new. You were thrilled to be in a new classroom, in a new school, and with new faces. I, on the other hand felt like I was leaving my sweet innocent child alone in the wild. As I kissed you good-bye and walked out of your classroom and into the school hallway and then out the front door, I was flooded with the reality that in a blink of an eye the year would be over and in a few more blinks you would be graduating the fifth grade. And what really got me was the knowledge of what would happen in those blinks…the social development, the intellectual advances, the emotional growth, and all beginning in Kindergarten.
Elementary school was an incredible six years and the change from being just out of toddlerhood to being a tween is pretty astounding.
You may not be aware of this now, but you are changing lanes. And this one is going to be a little bit faster.
All these massive transformations are going to happen…your brain, your body, your want for friends over family, your sense of self, your interests, your crushes will stop being innocent and you will become less innocent, or at least less naïve to the perils of the world.
As this road lies ahead of you, and of me, I keep hearing the same sage advice from so many parents….BUCKLE UP.
So, my darling daughter, I thought I’d give you some of my own advice on the night before you start growing up:
Stay kind. I can go on and on about how you have re-defined to me what it means to be a good person. You are really one of a kind. Not a bad bone in that that body of yours. You are all heart and soul. And it makes me cringe to think of you entering a building where the meanest of mean can live. I worry you will get eaten up in there. But I also worry that middle school will harden you. So, please stay kind. Continue to stand up for people and things you believe in. It always make me proud how aware you are of the feelings of people around you. Whether someone may not feel comfortable or included or someone needs an upstander, you have been there. This is tough to do, especially in middle school. Stay kind but also stay aware.
See those “popular”girls over there. The ones that are really pretty and always look like they are sharing the most interesting, classified information with each other. And their laughter and fun seem to be everywhere. Yes, them. Look away. Walk away. While some of these girls will be great people, some are not. And many will likely have a strong need to be included and recognized by the “it girls.” This is so normal and natural but please don’t be that girl. What can happen to nice girls is they can do not nice things or unintentionally put friends on the backburner when a queen bee comes a buzzing. This can happen in small ways that are subtle or big ones that are cruel and obvious. And the process, whether big or small, can be excruciating for all involved. So my advice…find kids whose only agenda in being your friend is….being your friend. Stay real and be with people that you can be yourself with. Know that having silly, crazy fun with your friends is not a show for others, or a ladder to get somewhere else.
Write neater. You are going to have to step up your game here. School has always come easy for you and you have pretty much coasted through the elementary years. Not so anymore. You are going to have to study. And go that extra mile. And write neater.
Put down your phone. I truly feel badly for anyone born after 1996 who didn’t get to have a phone-free, insta-free, snap-free, group text-free, selfie-free adolescence. And I totally get why your phone is in your hand. I like my phone too, looking at Facebook and texting my friends. But I also know when to leave my phone off and away, and cease my virtual connection to the world outside. And I also know how to navigate and process this cyber-life, not only with little energy but also with thick skin. You’ll get there someday, but for now please just know when it’s time to put down your phone.
Don’t follow every single rule. Be safe, ethical and moral, but, seriously, break a rule or two. Find a rule and a time it’s ok to break it and begin to let your wild side breathe.
Know yourself and be yourself. Next to being kind-hearted and compassionate, the most important thing to me, as your mom, is that you arecomfortable in your own skin. Have confidence, and know and feel your beauty. You are like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, one that fits into other peoples’ pieces at different times. Each side or groove of everyone’s pieceis a different personality trait and whether you are eating lunch with someone, doing a science project with a classmate, or having a sleepover with your best friend, you are fitting into their piece. And when fitting into another person’s piece, depending on the side or quality of that piece, it can bring out that same quality in you. This happens with adults too. That’s why different friends can elicit different parts of our personality. This can be great. But it can also stifle your character. Make sure you don’t cover up your personality. If, for example, you are hanging out with someone who is making fun of someone else, don’t laugh, and let your compassionate side show.Be yourself. Always. Be caring. Be funny. Be smart. Be special. Be thoughtful. Be kooky. Be beautiful. Be lovable.And walk toward your talents and strengths. Actually, run. You are not yet aware of what you are capable of and you have no idea what an extraordinary person you already are at eleven years old. My respect for you is huge and my love for you is so enormous, it hurts.
I promise you that the energy you would expend to fit into a different mold to be recognized or accepted is much more damaging then the feeling of simply not being seen.
And this I promise you, my darling daughter, that even though you may not become an “it” girl or feel “cool” during the next three years or even the following four of High School, I promise you, you will feel every bit of “cool” the next time you switch lanes.
So, my sweet and darling daughter, good luck tomorrow growing up.
The New Jersey State Board of Education is currently considering regulations that would make passing PARCC ELA 10 and PARCC Algebra I high school graduation requirements for all New Jersey public school students starting with the Class of 2021. A portfolio option under supervision of the Commissioner of Education would only be available after students attempted and failed PARCC. Below is my planned May 4, 2016 testimony to the State Board of Education on the proposed regulations, explaining why, in my opinion, the regulations promulgated by the New Jersey Department of Education for approval by the State Board of Education exceed the State Board’s authority. Although my analysis is technical, I tried to write it so that it would be accessible to the general public. For your convenience, the text of the proposals and the relevant statutes are linked in the text so that you can follow the analysis yourself.
I am here today as a parent of two current New Jersey public school students – one in the class of 2023 and the other in the class of 2027, both of whom will be directly affected if you adopt the PARCC graduation regulations proposed by the Department of Education. Careerwise, I am a former teacher turned attorney. My professional life as an attorney in private practice includes ten years litigating commercial issues, including significant experience in Securities Fraud and Securities & Exchange Act Section 16(b) litigation, along with insurance coverage litigation, and litigation of breach of contract and other commercial disputes. In that capacity, I have spent a great deal of time over the past decade parsing statutes and regulations.
Given this conclusion, as a taxpayer, a parent, and an attorney, I implore you to vote against the proposed PARCC graduation requirement regulations. I do not want to see our state wasting taxpayer dollars in yet another lawsuit challenging the legality of the proposed regulations. For the sake of brevity, I have limited my analysis to the proposal for the Class of 2021 forward, as those are the new permanent regulations that would affect both of my children.
I reviewed New Jersey Statutes Annotated 18A:7C-1 through 7C-6.1, which set out the State’s involvement in developing and approving the Statewide assessment test; specify to whom that test must be administered;set out the conditions under which a comprehensive alternative assessment program, such as portfolio reviews, may be used to meet the testing graduation requirement; and most critically set out the Statewide levels of proficiency required as minimum standards to earn a high school diploma. Copies of the relevant statutes are attached to your copies of my remarks.
Any regulations enacted by this Board setting out the details of the proficiency tests must not, of course, conflict with any of the statutes noted above.
So what do the statutes the Board’s regulations seek to implement require? N.J.S.A. 18A:7C-1et seq.require that the Commissioner develop a graduation exit test to be approved by this Board in order to obtain a State-endorsed high school diploma.Id. at 7C-1, 7C-2, 7C-4. The Statewide assessment test must be administered to all 11th grade students.Id. at 7C-6 and 7C-6.1.It must measure those minimumbasic skills all students must possess to function politically, economically and socially in a democratic society: specifically, the test must measure the reading, writing, and computational skills students must demonstrate as minimum requirements for high school graduation.Id. at 7C-1, 7C-6.1. Further, if a student uses a comprehensive assessment option instead – i.e., the portfolio option – the student’s use of the portfolio option must be approved by the Commissioner of Education. Id. at 7C-4.
First, the Statewide assessment test must be administered to all 11th graders. See N.J.S.A. 18A:7C-6; 7C-6.1. Under the Class of 2021 forward regulations, however, the tests that students will be required to obtain passing scores on to earn their high school diplomas, however, are the 10th grade ELA test and the Algebra I test. By definition, the 10th grade ELA test will not be administered to all 11th graders statewide.
The Algebra I test is even more problematic, as many students across the state take Algebra I (and therefore the Algebra I PARCC End-of-Course test) as early as 7th or 8th grade. It also, of course, makes no sense to tell children as young as 12 that their high school graduation depends on their performance on a test they’re taking now. Further, making obtaining a Proficient score on the End-Of-Course test for a course often taught in 7th or 8th grade a high school graduation requirement might well have the unintended consequence of discouraging districts from offering accelerated math programs to qualified students.
Second, I’ve scoured the PARCC consortium website in detail, and nowhere does it say that the PARCC ELA 10 and PARCC Algebra I tests were designed to measure whether students have achieved those minimum basic skills all students must possess to function politically, economically, and socially in a democratic society. Instead, PARCC is focused on assessing college and career readiness – a laudable goal, but a much higher standard than the minimal basic skills standard the Board is authorized to employ in approving a test to determine which public school students in the state will be denied high school diplomas. Specifically, PARCC explains on its page regarding test design that:
Key milestones included developing college-and career-ready determination policies and performance-level descriptors in ELA/literacy and math to describe: 1. What it takes for students to succeed in entry-level, college courses and relevant technical courses, and 2. The knowledge, skills, and practices students performing at a given level are able to demonstrate at any grade.
While I would tend to agree that if – and that’s a big if – PARCC really can measure a student’s college and career readiness, and that ifa proficient – i.e., Level 4 score — on the PARCC test actually reflects whether a student is college and career ready, achieving a “4” on high school level PARCC tests would necessarily imply that a student also has the minimum basic skills in reading, writing, and computational skills necessary to function politically, economically, and socially in a democratic society. I do not, however, agree that the converse is true. That is, one could have the minimum basic skills in reading, writing, and computational skills necessary to function in a democratic society without also being ready to succeed in entry-level, college and technical courses:
However, the school laws you’re tasked with enacting and enabling only allow you to deny high school diplomas to students who don’t demonstrate the minimum basic skills in reading, writing, and computational skills necessary to function politically, socially, and economically in a democratic society. What the statutes expressly do not allow you to do is to unilaterally raise that minimum and instead require students to meet a much higher threshold – college and career readiness – in order to obtain a high school diploma.
Further, the statute is clear: as far as math goes, you are tasked with only one thing: to measure computational basic skills – i.e., students’ ability to do arithmetic. See N.J.S.A. 18A:7C-1(a). The Performance Level Descriptors for Level 4 performance on the PARCC Algebra I End-of-Year test, however, require students achieving Level 4 to, for example:
Determine equivalent forms of quadratic expressions and functions;
Graph linear, quadratic and cubic (in which linear and quadratic factors are available) functions, showing key features; and
Graph the solution sets of equations, linear inequalities and systems of linear equations and linear equalities.”
While those may well be appropriate expectations for an Algebra I End-of-Year course assessment, it strains credulity to state that a student who meets these requirements has done nothing more than demonstrate the basic computational skills necessary to function in a democratic society. I can tell you that in my 10 years practicing law, while I’ve used my basic computational skills many times to do preliminary damages calculations, determine amounts of prejudgment and post judgment interest, and heck, even track whether my billable hours were on target to meet my firm’s expectations, I have never – not once – needed to apply my high school algebra quadratic function graphing skills to function – pun not intended – socially, politically, or economically in our democratic society.
Finally, there is nothing in the statutes that unilaterally authorizes the Board to demand that high school students take not one, but up to 6 tests as a condition of graduation. Yet, the Class of 2021 proposal, while only requiring students to pass ELA 10 and Algebra 1, also requires students to take ELA 9, ELA 10, ELA 11, and any appropriate math PARCC tests, which could include Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II, before he or she may demonstrate competency via portfolio.
Given the serious conflicts between the school statutes pertaining to graduation enacted by our legislature and the proposed regulations promulgated by the Department, I think it is clear that your duty requires you to vote against enacting the proposed graduation requirement regulations. As a taxpayer, public school parent, and attorney, I urge you to do so, and to instead direct the Department to develop standards that harmonize with the statutes you are tasked with enforcing. If you and/or the Department think that the standard for obtaining a State-endorsed high school diploma should be raised to be a college and career readiness standard, then it is up to you and the Department to lobby our legislature to make that change.
Q. What do Smarties candies (the American kind), Orwellian Doublespeak, Union solidarity, Hamilton, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the New Jersey Turnpike’s Joyce Kilmer Rest Area have in common?
A. They’re all at least referenced in today’s blog post. To learn more and see how they’re connected, read on.
As a parent, there are days and weeks in which I’m left simply shaking my head at the absurdity that comes home from my kids’ schools. This has been one of those weeks.
This week is PARCC testing for the 5th graders in my daughter’s school. According to my daughter, parents of approximately a quarter to a third of the students in her class, including hers, refused to allow our kids to be tested. Back in February of 2015, before the first round of PARCC testing, our local Board of Education passed a test-refusal policy, which reads, in relevant part:
“It is the policy of the Montclair Board of Education that the parental decision to decline testing should be met at the district level with educationally appropriate and non-punitive measures.”
On Monday evening, after the first day of testing, my daughter reported that the kids in her class who took PARCC were given Smarties candies afterward by her teacher, but that the kids whose parents refused were not offered any candies. And according to her, her teachers knew this was a bad idea, because on the first day they made half-hearted efforts to hide this fact. A child stood up to throw out his Smarties wrapper, and the teacher asked him what he was doing. He replied, “Throwing out my wrapper.” The teacher said, “Ahem” and gave him the stink eye. The kid then responded, “Oh, uh, uh, yeah, I was throwing out my tissue.”
Tuesday morning I got to the bus stop, where the mom of another of the 50 or so students served by this two teacher teaching team came up to me excitedly to share the same story: that the kids in these teachers’ “switch” class who took PARCC were given Smarties candy, but the kids who refused did not.
When I had a free moment at work later that morning, I sent a note to the teachers. I wrote:
Dear Ms. B and Ms. E:
As you are aware, yesterday was the first day of PARCC testing for 5th graders at our school. My daughter, along with other students in your classes, was not permitted to take PARCC, which is a political decision my husband and I, as her parents, made after a great deal of thought and research.
Last night and this morning, I heard reports from my daughter and from another child in your classes that yesterday both of you distributed rewards of candy (Smarties) to those children in your classes whose parents allowed them to take the PARCC, but that children whose parents did not allow them to take the PARCC were not given candy.
As a preliminary matter, I am not a fan of candy being distributed to children by their teachers. If, however, you are going to distribute candy to children, it strikes me as problematic that you as their public school teachers would effectively punish the opt-out children for political decisions made by their parents. I look forward to an email from you confirming that if treats are going to be distributed in the future, decisions regarding who will get treats will not be based on something out of the children’s control (i.e., the political decision to opt-out/refuse, which was made by these children’s parents).
I trust your response to this email will resolve this matter and I will not need to pursue this matter further.
I did not copy anyone. No administrators, no principals, no central office staff. I figured that this was a momentary lapse on their part, and that a quick email pointing out the foolishness of their position would suffice to either put a stop to the candy distribution altogether, or to at least ensure that it was distributed to all children in their classes.
Boy was I wrong.
By dinner time on Tuesday, I’d gotten no response from the teachers, and my daughter reported that Smarties were again distributed to the testing kids only, and this time the distribution was more blatant, as if the teachers had gotten bolder after Monday evening had passed with no parental complaints about the inequitable treatment of our kids. So I forwarded my original note to the principal, along with a cover email:
Dear Dr. A:
Please see the email below, which I sent to Ms. B and to Ms. E this morning. I have not received any response as of yet. Time is of the essence, as today, Smarties candies were again distributed only to those children in Ms. B and Ms. E’s classes who took the PARCC test. Because students — especially elementary school students — whose parents refused to allow them to test have no control over that political decision made by their parents, I believe that it is unacceptable for teachers in your building to only provide candy to those children whose parents did not make that political decision. Either no candy should be distributed or candy should be distributed to everyone, at least when the kids have no control over the situation.
I feel confident escalating this situation to you without teacher confirmation given that another child independently reported that this was happening to her parent, so I’m confident that the teachers’ selective distribution of candy is not something my child made up.
Thank you for your anticipated prompt attention to resolving this matter.
By mid-morning this morning, there was still radio silence, from both the teachers and the principal.
Around lunchtime I emerged from a meeting in Trenton (ironically the main topic of this meeting was the State’s proposal to make taking PARCC and passing certain sections of PARCC a graduation requirement), and as I ate my lunch I checked my phone, where I discovered this gem:
Good afternoon Ms. Blaine,
Miss B and I have received your email. Thank you for sharing your concerns. Please be advised that the “Smarties” were NOT a reward for taking the PARCC. They are one of many refocusing strategies we use throughout the school year.
Thank you very much and have a great day.
Yours in learning,
Mrs. E & Miss B
Yes, you read that correctly. Apparently my teachers give their students candies made of pretty much pure sugar (dextrose is the first ingredient on the label) as a “refocusing strategy.” Let me type that again:
R E F O C U S I N G S T R A T E G Y
R E F O C U S I N G S T R A T E G Y
R E F O C U S I N G S T R A T E G Y
R E F O C U S I N G S T R A T E G Y
Funny, no matter how I squint at or format those words, they still seem to be monumentally out of focus. My children’s teachers can’t seriously have defended distributing candy only to testing children as a “refocusing strategy.” But every time I read those words, that’s what I see. CANDY = A REFOCUSING STRATEGY.
Of course, aside from the pedagogically dubious practice of hopping up 5th graders on sugar to refocus them, my daughter’s teachers didn’t address my actual concern, which was why on earth only kids who took PARCC were worthy of being “refocused.”
It’s almost as if they need more practice reading non-fiction.
Or more worksheets aimed at helping them to pick out the main idea of my letter.
Perhaps they’d do better if my email had been written in multiple-choice format, in true Pearson style, with a question full of negatives and full credit awarded only for choosing ALL correct responses:
Which of the following is NOT in compliance with the Montclair Board of Education’s policy of providing educationally appropriate and non-punitive responses to parental decisions to decline to allow their children to test? Choose ALL that apply.
(A)Allowing non-testing kids to sit in the library, where they are supervised while doing school work or reading for pleasure.
(B)Beating them over the head with number 2 pencils.
(C)Forcing them to sit and stare silently in the testing room with no books or other materials to alleviate their boredom while their peers take the tests.
(D)Giving candy to testing kids, but only big fat Bronx cheers to refusal kids.
If you chose B, C, AND D, I’ve got some Smarties for you.
Otherwise, ppppppppppptttttttbbbbbbbbtttttpppppfffffff. How’s that for an onomatopoeic representation of a Bronx cheer? And if you’re a teacher who did not choose B, C, and D, perhaps it’s time to consider a career change?
But wait… there’s more.
As I drove home from Trenton, I found myself fuming about that email.
REFOCUSING STRATEGY?!?!? I couldn’t look at the email again because I was driving, but the words would not leave my head.
And no matter how I turned them over in my mind, all I kept finding was that one of my favorite verses from Hamilton — especially the first line — kept playing over and over in my head:
You must be out of your Goddamn mind if you think
The President is gonna bring the nation to the brink
Of meddling in the middle of a military mess
A game of chess, where France is Queen and Kingless
[The rest of that Hamilton verse is so exquisite that I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t either seen the show or, like me, spent months listening obsessively to the soundtrack.]
These teachers must be out of their goddamned minds if they think
This parent will buy for a second with a wink
That the Smarties candies distribution
As a “refocusing strategy” is a reasonable solution
Ok, my rap skills suck (we share the same alma mater, but Lin-Manuel Miranda I am not), but the teachers’ justification for their behavior sucks even worse.
Indeed, as the winter holiday party was in the works last December, Ms. E wrote the following email to the parents in the class regarding the holiday party:
“Thank you all! It will be a sugary day. We sugar them up–then send them home to you!! XOXO”
My Common Core non-fiction text inference skills tell me that Ms. E does not believe that providing kids with a sugary candy is an effective refocusing strategy. I can, however, infer that she thinks sugary candies are appropriate for celebrations — or, perhaps, for rewards.
Continuing up the Turnpike, I found my annoyance growing rather than abating, so rather than continue fuming, I pulled off the New Jersey Turnpike at the Joyce Kilmer Rest Area, where I wrote to the superintendent, who has explicitly stated at Board of Education meetings that he wants to be made personally aware of any punitive action taken by school district employees against opt-out kids. As a courtesy, I copied the principal, but I decided to leave the teachers off this email, although I forwarded their email responding to my initial email to the superintendent. Please excuse any less than artful phrasing, given that I composed this on my phone at a rest stop.
Dear Mr. B:
Please see the below email exchange between my 5th grader’s teachers and me in which they attempt to defend their practice of feeding Smarties candies (pure sugar) ONLY to students who took PARCC and not to students whose parents refused to allow them to take PARCC, using the pretense that feeding pure sugar to students is a “refocusing strategy” necessary only for those kids who took the test and not for those kids who sat for hours quietly completing work (ironically, ReadWorks-style test-prep) during testing time.
I look forward to you immediately addressing this issue and making it clear to your entire staff that preferential treatment of those students whose parents allowed them to take PARCC is not something this district condones or allows, as per the BOE’s February 2015 resolution to that effect.
I forwarded my original email (below) to Dr. A last night but have not yet received a response.
I am currently in the car home from a meeting with NJ State Board of Education president Mark Biedron regarding the proposed regulations that would implement PARCC as a graduation requirement. I cannot believe that in 2016 in Montclair we are seriously seeing teachers punishing kids (that is, denying elementary school children candy) for their parents’ anti-PARCC stances, especially given the “non-punitive responses” language in the BOE’s February 2015 PARCC parental refusal resolution.
I know that you have expressed your commitment to ensuring that children like my daughter are not punished by their teachers for their parents’ refusal decisions. I look forward to your prompt handling of this matter. I can be reached at XXX-XXX-XXXX and am available to discuss this issue at your convenience this afternoon in hopes that it will be resolved before my child arrives at school tomorrow morning.
That email generated a quick response (it arrived by the time I got home about an hour later), not from the superintendent, but from the principal. Remarkably, she claims to have bought the teachers’ explanation, hook, line, and sinker. (Apparently she wasn’t aware of my superb rap regarding that point.)
Now I presume, of course, that she’s trying not to throw her teachers under the bus (although I will eventually get around to writing up my prior encounter with her, in which she absolutely threw one of these teachers under a bus — and asked me to allow my daughter to read that email), but what educator really could feel comfortable defending teachers’ decisions to distribute candy comprised of pure sugar to their students as a pedagogically sound “refocusing strategy”?
I feel like I’ve wandered into some bizarre alternate universe.
So I couldn’t help it, I wrote back and this time I got a little snarky:
Dear Dr. A:
Thank you for your prompt response to this, my second email to you regarding this issue (my first was sent last night at approximately 6:30 p.m., before today’s testing session).
I would welcome the opportunity to discuss this with you further. My cell phone number is XXX-XXX-XXXX.
As a preliminary matter, since I have a master’s of arts in teaching and yet have never seen any research supporting feeding children candies comprised of pure sugar as a “refocusing strategy,” I would appreciate it if you could point me to some research supporting the use of sugary candy as a “refocusing strategy.”
I would also appreciate some documentation of the teachers in this class using this “refocusing strategy” prior to PARCC testing week, as this is the first I have heard of them employing this particular “refocusing strategy.” I understand that Ms. B occasionally distributes Tootsie Rolls to students who win competitive educational math games in her class, but not that the class as a whole is given Smarties or other candies as a “refocusing strategy.” Can you please document how often my daughter’s teachers are feeding her class candy without my knowledge or consent?
Finally, I appreciate your willingness to ensure that to the extent that the teachers are feeding the children candy, candy is available to all students in the class, especially given our Board of Education’s policy that test refusers will be met with educationally appropriate and non-punitive responses.
In the least surprising development in this saga so far, Dr. A has not yet responded, much less furnished me with any studies supporting the use of sugary candies as a “refocusing strategy.”
And again, surprising no one, as I’ve informally surveyed teachers and professors of education, all of them have laughed and/or cursed at the idea that sugary candies could possibly constitute an effective refocusing strategy.
In an aside, one fellow activist said that she was pretty certain that there is a law in our state that expressly prohibits the distribution of food items in which any iteration of sugar is the first ingredient at school during school hours. She turns out to be correct — at least for schools, like ours, in which more than 5% of the student population qualifies for the federal free or reduced lunch programs.
N.J.S.A. 18A:33-16 reads, in relevant part:
As of September 2007, the following items shall not be served, sold or given away as a free promotion anywhere on school property at any time before the end of the school day, including items served in the reimbursable After School Snack Program:
(1)Foods of minimal nutritional value, as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture;
(2)All food and beverage items listing sugar, in any form, as the first ingredient; and
(3)All forms of candy as defined by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.
There are some exemptions, but none of them are likely to apply here, unless the distribution of candy is a school celebration, such as a class holiday or birthday party, or a curricular activity, such as a lesson on foods from other cultures. The other exceptions are individual in nature (sugar for diabetics, rewards specified in a students’ IEP, etc.), and again, are not applicable here. Further, guidance from the State specifically notes that the although the use of food as an incentive or reward is not prohibited, any such foods must meet the guidelines set forth in N.J.S.A. 18A:33-16, so Smarties candies are not acceptable. That guidance further notes: “[r]esearch has shown that using food items as rewards can negatively affect students’ healthy attitudes toward eating.” [And amazingly, the guidance even cites a publication that they say contains evidence in support of this proposition.] Somehow, I find myself more skeptical than ever that the principal will be able to point me to a study supporting the use of candy as a “refocusing strategy.” If she can find one, I have a funny feeling it will have come out of the Relay Graduate School of Education. Boom!
The first ingredient in Smarties, of course, is dextrose (sugar).
So not only is my daughter’s teachers’ distribution of Smarties candies to PARCC-taking kids not only poor and unsupported pedagogical practice, since 2007 it has also been against the law.
Really. In the literal sense of the word. The unbelievable cluelessness of her teachers truly does inspire awe in me, as does the principal’s decision to double-down on their preposterous pretext of an explanation.
Candy as a Refocusing Strategy.
It is truly awe-inspiring. Or at least, perhaps, a bit Orwellian. Or is it that the euphemism “refocusing strategy” is an Orwellian way of describing the teacher’s actions?
But back to the topic at hand: I find myself wondering if the choice of “Smarties” candies was a deliberate choice to inspire students to greater “smartness” on the PARCC test.
This afternoon, as you can see from the photo, I bought my daughter a big bag of Smarties, because:
(A) she is fortunate to be able to eat candy with relative impunity at this age;
(B) it is within my prerogative as her parent to allow her to eat candy;
(C) I really appreciate her good natured willingness to allow me to share this story with all of you;
(D) I like Smarties too (although my waistline doesn’t need them).
If you guessed (E) All of the Above, you win… SMARTIES. (Ok, not really, as I think they all got eaten by neighborhood kids — and a few parents.)
Here she is, with a friend, all sugared up on Smarties. As you can see, focused (much less “refocused”) is not an appropriate description of their mental state:
This story, of course, while entertaining (although not nearly as entertaining as another story involving her ELA teacher, which I will share in another post, because I’m running out of steam tonight, and this blog post is already way too long), has more serious ramifications.
What does it mean when a public school teacher, as a state actor, takes it upon herself to punish students whose parents have made a political decision to protest the negative effects of high-stakes testing by declining to allow the child to test?
When the issue first came up Monday night, my daughter was initially hesitant regarding whether I should call the teachers out on this. But I posed this hypothetical to her:
What if your teachers had only given Smarties to Christian kids? Would anyone think it was okay to exclude Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or agnostic/atheist children in your class from receiving Smarties?
Of course, she agreed that everyone would say such a decision was horrible and unacceptable, and that teachers in public schools cannot do this.
But, I pointed out to her, it isn’t the kids’ decision what religion (if any) they’re being raised in, is it?
She agreed that this was not something kids can control at their ages.
Yet, I said, surely all of the non-Christian kids’ parents could convert their children to Christianity and therefore assure their children’s access to Smarties, right?
She agreed that this could, hypothetically, happen.
Here, of course, I pointed out to her that the PARCC refusal decision was also a parental decision, and that if her father and I hadn’t made this decision, she would not be allowed at her age to unilaterally refuse PARCC. So just as in the hypothetical it would be unfair to punish the non-Christian kids for their parents’ beliefs, here it would be — and is — unfair to punish the test-refusing kids for their parents’ beliefs (which is entirely the rationale for the district’s opt-out policy in the first place, and is why even the most pro-testing and pro-education reform members of our local Board of Education voted in favor of it).
One of my ongoing frustrations as a parent who actively opposes the use of annual, high-stakes testing in our public schools is the accusation that we opt-out parents are mere tools of teachers and their unions. See, for example, here, here, here, here, and most recently and obnoxiously, here. I think this story demonstrates that this is not the case, as we are certainly not tools of these particular teachers, and my greatest frustration with teachers’ unions is their unwillingness to help prune teachers who are embarrassments to their profession as a result of their consistently shoddy pedagogy, poor judgment, and casual cruelty toward students.
As is clear from this story (as well as the story of my last run-in with my daughter’s teachers over the opt-out movement, which was the time when the principal threw the teachers under the bus), there are still teachers out there, like my daughter’s, who, for whatever reason, support PARCC and other forms of high-stakes standardized testing, so we opt-out parents are certainly not the tools of all teachers.
More to the point, though, as their leaders made manifestly clear at the 2015 Network for Public Education conferences, the national teachers unions’ leaders are most certainly only supportive of the reduction or elimination of high-stakes testing in public schools to the extent that they believe such support furthers their own ends.
In 2015, as the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“ESEA,” then also known as “No Child Left Behind” or “NCLB,” and now in its reauthorized form known as the “Every Student Succeeds Act” or “ESSA”) was on the table, Randi Weingarten of the AFT in particular (although as a practical matter NEA has been no better on this point) explained her refusal to support the Tester Amendment to ESEA, which would have eliminated No Child Left Behind’s annual testing requirement in favor of only a grade-span testing requirement: i.e., under the Tester amendment state testing in ELA and math would have been required only once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school. Randi explained that this was a sacrifice she could make to ensure that the union had a seat at the table for issues that mattered more to it. In other words, Randi was ready and willing to sell out children and their parents on the over testing issue to maintain her own access to power.
Here is some of what I was tweeting back then as I listened to her speak:
This year at NPE, the AFT’s vice president used a similar line of argument to justify their union’s shockingly early endorsement of Hillary Clinton. Personally, I’m not sure what good a seat at the table does either of the teachers’ union when their input is ignored every step of the way, just as I’m not sure why they’d support the continuation of annual testing, which is the key ingredient in state plans to evaluate teachers based on their students’ year-over-year change in standardized test scores (a policy that hurts students and teachers).
The vast majority of teachers work desperately, often under frightful pressure to the contrary, to provide pedagogically sound, developmentally appropriate, humane education to their students, and as a former teacher myself, I appreciate their work immensely. But as a parent, I have no particular love for the union’s long history of refusing to self-police, as a semi-professional association, their own members. We lawyers are far from perfect at this, but like doctors, we do try, and lawyers are disbarred, suspended, and/or admonished every year. Teachers’ failures to self-police their ranks are, in my opinion, a major contributor to the false but widespread myth that our nation’s public schools, as a whole, are failing. People remember their outlier bad teachers, and judge the system by them.
I often wonder whether many of the absurd policy prescriptions advocated by so-called education reformers could be avoided or eliminated by sending reformers to psychologists for counseling to resolve residual trauma leftover from one or more bad relationships they had with their teachers during their own childhoods. Instead, however, reformers seek to do what I, too, would like to see done: to advocate a policy that would result in getting rid of teachers who are embarrassment to the profession. It is not that their goal is wrongheaded: it is merely that their methods are nonsensical and at best only tangentially related to their goals.
Reformers seek to identify and fire teachers based on student performance on standardized tests. Their theory goes that if a child can’t demonstrate gains on these tests, regardless of how poorly designed, invalid, unreliable, culturally biased, and flawed they may be, then that is proof positive that the child’s teacher hasn’t done his or her job. That, of course, is silly, as a million other factors may have affected that child’s results. Indeed, to some degree as a parent I’m more concerned by a teacher with an excellent record of standardized test results, as there is a good chance that indicates a teacher who is crassly willing to sell out his or her principles to do the worst forms of test-prep. It’s the cheerleaders for testing and those whose ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance is so well-developed that they honestly believe that the crappy nightly reading passages with related multiple-choice questions aren’t test prep that I, as a parent, fear. The teachers who are testing cheerleaders are, in my experience, the most likely to also be guilty of shoddy pedagogy, poor judgment, and/or casual or thoughtless cruelty to students.
For me, the metric isn’t student performance on standardized tests. For me, the metrics that merit firing a teacher are — after having met with the teacher over time to identify the issues and offer suggestions and opportunities for improvement — continuing shoddy pedagogical practices, consistently poor judgment, and a serious track-record of casual cruelty to students. None of those can be measured effectively by a teacher’s student’s standardized test results, but all of those can be documented and substantiated over time by an administrator willing to do the work. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think all teachers should be entitled to due process given the enormous pressure and competing points of view forced on them by parents, students, and administrators — of course I do — but administrators need to stand up and do their jobs so that teachers’ due process rights do not somehow prohibit the eventual firing of subpar teachers who refuse to show improvement.
And in point of fact, there are relatively few teachers whose practice is so continually bad that they should be fired. Indeed, I think my daughter’s teachers should be counseled and supported (and provided with some professional development that includes basic civics instruction on what public school teachers cannot do), but frustrated as I am with their judgment regarding the candy, I don’t think this alone is anywhere near a firing offense.
So as a parent, at best I’m in constant tension with teachers unions’ even lukewarm support of the opt-out movement, as teachers’ union support of opting-out naturally puts teachers’ — and not students’ — best interests at heart. Specifically, here in New Jersey, while I’m appreciative of the support that the NJEA gave to the opt-out movement in 2015 and to a lesser degree through its New Jersey Kids and Families initiative in 2016, I am nevertheless under no illusion that as soon as the NJEA sees the opt-out movement and its proponents as enemies rather than allies, the NJEA will sell us out as quickly as you can say Chapter 78 contributions.
I think the unions’ — especially the national unions’ — willingness to sell out students and parents is simply a fact of life, but as a parent advocate it’s why I feel that the parent movement against high-stakes testing is in an uneasy truce, at best, with teachers’ unions. Yes, I have a New Jersey Kids and Family bought “Our Family Refuses PARCC” sign on my lawn and it makes me happy to see lots of those signs around my town, but although yay — it was free to me — the provenance of that particular sign makes me uncomfortable. I’d just as leave have bought my own sign, as I did back in 2015.
I would love it if the leadership of our local union would issue guidance to teachers around refusing students, so that kids like mine are never again placed in the uncomfortable position of feeling like they need to tattle on their teachers to their parents. But as a parent, I understand that the union’s job is to look out for its membership, and my job is to look out for my children. Supportive as I might be of teachers and, generally speaking, of their unions, when push comes to shove, I, like any parent, will choose my kids every time. Those simple facts: that for parents, our children, all children, and public education in general are our priorities, not knee-jerk support of teachers union, drives home the fact that the opt-out movement is a parent-led movement, and neither a union-led movement nor the opportunistic manipulation of parents by teachers’ unions. Indeed, one of my concerns about the more extreme reaches of the parent-led opt-out movement is that even after reason returns to the use of testing, educators are not going to be able to put the opt-out movement genie back in the bottle. I hope that someday when we win this fight, I, as a parent-leader, will be able to be effective at helping to convince parents to “opt-in.”
P.S. A silver lining to this debacle with my kid’s teachers is that in the course of our discussion of the use of candy as a so-called “refocusing strategy,” my kid learned what the term Orwellian means. We discussed the premises of Orwell’s Animal Farm as well as 1984, while sitting out on our neighbor’s stoop. This then led to an enlightening discussion with a Cuban immigrant who was part of the conversation. She told us, partially with the help of our other neighbor as interpreter, about the restrictions on free speech and lack of food, money, and resources she experienced under Castro in Cuba.
P.P.S. I’m sure that some teachers are going to be upset with me for “teacher bashing.” To them, I say two things: (1) we can’t even begin to learn to talk to each other if that talking means we can’t identify and call out problems when we see them and (2) if these teachers don’t want to be held accountable for their poor judgment, perhaps they shouldn’t display such poor judgment.
Maatie Alcindor is originally from Cambridge, Massachusetts, but has been a New Jersey resident for the past 16 years. For the past 15 years, she’s been working in the pharmaceutical industry. She is the single mother of one 20 year old son and of “Bob da Dog.” I first encountered Maatie in a local issues discussion group on Facebook, as we live in the same town. The subject of charter schools had come up, and in her posts in that group, Maatie told some of the story she tells here today. We have never actually met in person, but I was so moved by her story in the discussion group, that I messaged her to ask if she’d be willing to write her story up for wider distribution via my blog and beyond. She agreed. Below is Maatie’s story — as she tells it — about her son’s middle school experience at a NorthStar Academy charter school in Newark, New Jersey (part of the Uncommon Schools charter network):
We were residents of East Orange, NJ the spring before my only child started the 5th grade. At the time, my son was attending fourth grade at the East Orange Charter School and we loved it. Unfortunately for us East Orange Charter only went up to the 4th grade. Through the NJ State Education web page I found out that the highly touted North Star Academy (NSA) Charter School in Newark was opening a middle school in North Newark not far from my East Orange home! Soon after, some friends and I attended the prospective parents meeting for the new North Star Academy Middle School.
And that is where the trouble began. From the very first meeting I knew something was not right. I did not like the way we were spoken to but I thought to myself… give them a chance. The successive meetings did not change my initial uneasy feeling toward the administration. We were given application packets and advised that we the parents had to drop off the completed forms. If not, the application would not be accepted. It was explained to us that if we were serious about our children’s education we would make the time to submit the applications ourselves. No other people would be allowed to deliver the packets for us. Even when parents explained that due to their work schedules it would be a problem to bring in the forms, NSA said no accommodations would be made. Imagine my irritation when I arrived at the downtown Newark location to submit my application and was told to just drop it in a bin (no one was there to confirm the submission). There was no reason to force parents to take time from work to simply drop an envelope in a tray; it was just a test of our commitment to follow the schools rules.
We were told to expect 2-3 hours of homework per night and extensive homework packets during weekends and vacations. I expressed concern that the amount of work seemed a lot for an 11 year old child and left no time for other activities or family time. It was basically inferred that if I cared about my son’s future I would follow their program or find another school and watch him fail. Rules of conduct while in school were even more concerning. Throughout their day the students would get in trouble for such things as talking in the hallway, missing or incomplete homework, uniform pants not being the right shade of beige and the dreaded “not tracking the speaker with your eyes.” Yes, the children would get in trouble for not looking directly at the teacher during their lesson. Even during lunch there were more opportunities to get detention including talking too loud and talking when the principal entered the lunch room. They were expected to stop talking if the principal walked into the lunch room!!!!! Detention was usually an hour meaning that during the winter months the kids that were let out around 4:30 or 5:00 pm which left them to navigate home in the streets of Newark alone by either walking or public transportation after dark.
Though the Vice Principal came across genuine and caring; I found the Principal to be indifferent to parental concerns. The school’s Parents Council was viewed as a “social group” by the school administration and did not influence school policy in any way. The school secretary habitually did not answer the office phone and was apathetic to parents’ requests to pass information to our children. Messages for children about changes in pickups or where they were to go after school were routinely responded with “If I see ‘em I’ll tell ‘em” (a lot of times she didn’t “see ‘em”). We were expected to trust their every action without question. For example, the 5th grade class trip was to Florida Everglades. When I asked which airline they would be flying with I was repeatedly told to just drop my son off at the school and that he would be traveling to the airport with the group. When I went to the Principal directly and asked for the flight information… his reply was that I was having separation anxiety and that I had all the information that I needed to know. I did not allow my son to go on that trip. The following years the Vice Principal and some of the teachers did their best to keep me informed of trip details.
My feelings for charter schools in general are a little more ambiguous. I hated the North Star model but I think if done right there may be a place for charter schools. North Star’s main issue was lack of engagement with the community. It was a school in the community but not of the community. To be honest it felt very racist though I do not think they thought of themselves as racists. The principal took on the air of an overseer, our children were no longer our own but property of NSA to be raised by their rules of behavior. On several occasions I witnessed the surreal scenes of all white “board members” that would come to visit the school smile as the children would beat the African Style drums to call every one to morning circle. The board members seemed very pleased to watch the call and response exercise as the white Principal walked around to check the uniforms of the school’s all black and Hispanic students. Later I asked the Principal why as American citizens the children didn’t just do the Pledge of Allegiance as in any other school? I was told mockingly, that since we were African Americans, the drums represented our history. I advised him that I went to school with predominantly Irish Americans and we never started the day with Celtic music or Toe Dancing. With only one black teacher on staff at the time I wondered who gave them their ideas.
Parents and students who questioned the school’s methods were seen as discipline problems and were treated accordingly. The work load was assigned as a way to take up their free time. Parents desperate not to have their children end up in the gang infested neighborhood schools were willing to compromise their authority and hand their kids over to NSA with the promise of college dangled continuously in front of them. Those who went on to the NSA Preparatory High School found more of the same heavy handed tactics as before. Most of the male students left for other schools before making it to 12th grade.
The idea of Charter school was appealing to me. We had such a great experience his fourth grade year at East Orange Charter School and we wanted more. North Star Academy was a nightmare and a decision I will always regret. In 2009, my son was part of the first eighth grade class to graduate from North Star Academy Middle School. That fall we moved to a different town but his four years at North Star had done its damage. My son’s freshman year in high school was very hard for him. In spite of the hours upon hours of homework that he endured at North Star Academy he did not have any real study or note taking skills. North Star normally gave them their notes and study sheets but did not allow for any independent thinking. For several years he had trouble engaging in class due to North Star’s passive learning style of teaching. Where North Star allowed for him to repeatedly take the same test over and over in order for them to record the most acceptable score, he was frustrated by the fact this was not the case at his new school. My son is now in his third year of college and he is on track to graduate with his Master’s Degree in Environmental Science in two years. It is a shame that he thinks so poorly of those middle school years and usually uses an expletive to describe his experience. My feeling is mutual.