Asinine Arne’s Idiotic Idea

Update (12/6/14): The proposed rules have been published in the Federal Register.  There is a 60 day comment period.  Please go and comment (I submitted a slightly edited version of this post, of course). Here is the link: Thanks for your attention to and care regarding education and the preparation of new teachers.  Oh, and be forewarned that there is a 5,000 character limit in the online comment box, so if your comments exceed that (as mine obviously did), you will need to add them as a PDF or other document.

Update (12/2/14):  A slightly less “salty” version of this piece appeared on Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post blog, The Answer Sheet, today.  Here’s the link:   To be honest, I actually like the WaPo piece better.  I think that toning down the raw edges of this piece increases its impact.  So please feel free to read in either place and let me know what you think.

The pre-Washington Post piece appears below:

When it comes to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his asinine ideas, it’s hard to figure out which idea is the worst of the worst. But I think we have a winner. On November 25th, the New York Times published an article titled, “U.S. Wants Teacher Training Programs to Track How Graduates’ Students Perform.” Yes, you read that correctly. When an aspiring teacher graduates from her teacher education program, that program will be ranked based on how the aspiring teacher’s students perform (on standardized tests). And, even worse, programs that fail to generate higher student performance (never mind whether some are sending teachers to suburban classrooms full of privileged children while others are sending new teachers to the rural or urban trenches) will lose some federal funding if their alumni’s students fail to perform. Now, please bear with me. Out here in lawyer-land, there’s a slippery concept that every first year law student must wrap her head around: it’s the idea of distinguishing between actual (or “but for”) causation and proximate (or “legal”) causation. Actual causation is any one of a vast link in the chain of events from the world was created to Harold injured me by hitting me, that, at some level, whether direct or attenuated, “caused” my injury. For instance, Harold couldn’t have hit me if the world hadn’t been created, because if the world hadn’t been created, Harold wouldn’t exist (nor would I), and therefore I never would have been hit by Harold. So, if actual or “but for” causation was legally sufficient to hold someone responsible for an injury, I could try suing “the Creator,” as if the Creator is somehow at fault for Harold’s decision to hit me. Well, that’s preposterous, even by lawyer standards, right? The law agrees with you: the Creator is too far removed from the injury, and therefore cannot be held legally responsible for it. So to commit a tort (legal wrong) against someone else, it isn’t sufficient that the wrong allegedly committed actually — at some attenuated level — caused the injured’s injury (i.e., that the injury would not have happened “but for” some cause). Instead, the wrong must also be proximally related to that injury: that is, there must be a close enough tie between the allegedly negligent or otherwise wrongful act and the injury that results. So while it would be silly to hold “the Creator” legally responsible for Harold hitting me, it would not be similarly silly to hold Harold responsible for hitting me. Harold’s act was not only an actual or “but for” cause of my injury, it was also an act closely enough related to my injury to confer legally liability onto Harold. This is what we lawyers call proximate (or legal) causation: that is, proximate causation is an act that is a close enough cause of the injury that it’s fair — at a basic, fundamental level — to hold the person who committed that injurious act legally responsible (i.e., liable to pay damages or otherwise make reparations) for his act. [As an aside to my aside, if this sort of reasoning makes your head explode, law school probably isn’t a great option for you.] Well, it appears that Arne Duncan would have failed his torts class. You see, Arne didn’t get the memo regarding the distinction between actual causation and proximate causation. Instead, what Arne proposes is to hold teacher prep programs responsible for the performance of their alumni’s K-12 students (and to punish them if their alumni’s students don’t measure up). Never mind the myriad chains in the causation link between the program’s coursework and the performance of its graduates’ students (presumably on standardized tests). Arne Duncan somehow thinks that he can proximally — fairly — link these kids’ performance not just to their teachers (a dicey proposition on its own), but to their teachers’ prep programs. Apparently Arne can magically tease out all other factors, such as where an alumna teaches, what her students’ home lives are like, how her students’ socio-economic status affects their academic performance, the level of her students’ intrinsic motivation, as well as any issues in the new alumna’s personal life that might affect her performance in the classroom, and, of course, the level of support provided to the new alumna as a new teacher by her department and administration, and so forth. As any first year law student can tell you, Arne’s proposal is asinine, as the alumna’s student’s test results will be so far removed from her teaching program’s performance that ascribing proximate causation from the program to the children’s performance offends a reasonable person’s sense of justice. [Not to mention the perverse incentives this would create for teaching programs’ career advising centers — what teaching program would ever encourage a new teacher to take on a challenging teaching assignment?] So what’s the rationale for Asinine Arne’s Idiotic Idea?

“The last thing they want or need is an easy A,” Mr. Duncan said. “This is nothing short of a moral issue. All educators want to do a great job for their students, but too often they struggle at the beginning of their careers and have to figure out too much on the job by themselves.”

I graduated from a teacher prep program. I earned an M.A.T. (Master of Arts in Teaching) from the University of Maine, where my concentration was in teaching secondary school English. And Arne both is and isn’t wrong. There is no question that my M.A.T. program could have been a year of easy A’s for me. There was a lot of work, but it’s true, I didn’t really find the intellectual work of the classes themselves particularly challenging. However, I made a decision — and I don’t think I was alone among teachers in making this decision — that if I was going to have the moral authority as a teacher to ask my students to work to the best of their ability, then I had to have had the experience of working to the best of my academic ability. So, I really worked my tail off in that program because I felt it was important for me to do so, not because the courses themselves really demanded that level of work. And yes, for whatever it’s worth, I graduated with a perfect GPA. But as I understand it, perfect GPAs common in many graduate programs, not just education. That being said, I had a few terrific professors in my M.A.T. program (Ted Coladarci for Educational Psychology comes to mind) and I had my share of ho-hum to pretty awful professors there as well (I won’t name names, but my personal “favorite” was the all-but-dissertation grad student who taught us nothing but then required us to write an end-of-course reflection paper about the transformative experiences we’d had in her course — a lot of alcohol enabled me to draft 57 lies in 4 pages). But good, awful, and in-between, that 13 month teacher prep program also provided me with a strong grounding in the theoretical — and practical — components of running my own classroom. Our program started in mid-June (on my birthday, in fact), and after a summer of intense theory, from the first day public schools were in session that fall, we were in actual classrooms with actual students. At first we observed, met regularly with our mentor teachers, and began designing lessons to meet our students’ needs. As the fall semester progressed, we taught some lessons in our practicum classes. Then, in the spring semester, we student taught full time (we each had two 8 week placements) for the entire semester (our academic courses met in the late afternoons and evenings). That spring, I was responsible for teaching — under the guidance of and with the help of my mentor teachers — full rosters of students. After the spring semester ended, we returned to straight classroom work for the summer to round out our education coursework. When I began my first teaching job the following fall, I was as well-prepared as I think I could be, but I was also unprepared, because there is a huge gap between a student teacher, who benefits from the gravitas and classroom management accountability instilled by her mentor teachers, and a brand new teacher who must, for the first time, create the gravitas and accountability necessary to effective classroom management on her own. It isn’t that my academic preparation was bad — it really wasn’t — it’s simply that there is a fundamental divide (even with the year of practicum and student teaching experience our program afforded us) between studying how to do something and actually doing that thing yourself. After teaching for a couple of years, for a whole variety of reasons, I left the classroom, moved back near my family in New Jersey, and decided to apply to law school. I am here to tell you that my law degree provided me with far, far less practical experience than my M.A.T. degree. For those of you who aren’t familiar with how law school works, at a typical law school you take a standardized curriculum the first year. Pretty much every first year law student in this country studies Contracts, Torts, Property, Criminal Law, Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law, and Legal Research & Writing in her first year of law school. During the following two years, law students take a variety of electives, although most law students make sure to take a few other basic classes during those years: i.e., Corporations, Evidence, and maybe Criminal Procedure. In Legal Research & Writing a law student writes a few legal memoranda and a couple of legal briefs. In the entire year long course, I think we finished four major pieces of writing (two memos, a summary judgment brief, and an appellate brief). What we don’t learn in law school is anything practical. We don’t learn how to draft the supporting papers for our motions, we don’t learn how to talk to adversaries on the phone, we don’t learn about scheduling orders and negotiating confidentially agreements, and we don’t learn how to interview clients. We certainly don’t learn how to review documents, create deposition outlines, or draft contracts. Anything practical we learn during our law school years we learn from our summer internships: I learned a fair amount interning for a Third Circuit Court of Appeals judge after my first year of law school, and even more as a second year summer associate at the large firm I joined upon graduation. And for the record, as with my teaching program, I had some terrific law school professors (Claire Dickerson and Diana Sklar come to mind), and I had some pretty awful law school professors. Frankly, that was my experience from elementary school through the end of law school — some teachers were awesome for me, others, not so much. When I left my M.A.T. program to begin my first year as a teacher running my own classroom, it took me a bit of time to get my sea legs as far as classroom management went, but my professional program had provided me with the tools to get there. When I graduated from law school (and FYI, I graduated with high honors, so the issue isn’t one of not being able to hack law school), finished studying for and taking the bar exam, and actually started my first job, I knew nothing. More experienced attorneys had to walk me — step by step — through how to do everything from how to put together a motion to how to take a deposition. The point of this Very Long BlogPost is that Asinine Arne has, to my mind, entirely missed the point. No professional academic program can 100% prepare you to hit the ground running in your career. Rather, professional expertise is something you develop over years of actually practicing your profession — and the further you progress in your career, the more you appreciate the theoretic base you learned in your academic preparation. I’m a far better lawyer in my tenth year of practice than I was in my first, and I imagine that if instead I was a 15th year teacher this year, I’d be a heck of a lot better at teaching than I was when I left the classroom after two years of teaching experience. That being said, compared to law school, there is no question that my M.A.T. program gave me the skills I needed to develop professional expertise, and frankly, it did a far better job of teaching practical skills I’d need in my classroom than law school did at teaching practical skills I’d need in the courtroom. Arne says:

“All educators want to do a great job for their students, but too often they struggle at the beginning of their careers and have to figure out too much on the job by themselves.”

Figuring out how to do the job by yourself is the key to developing from a student into a professional, whether you’re a teacher or a lawyer. At some point, every professional must make this transition, and all of the training in the world can’t substitute for the on-the-job experience that transforms a recent professional program graduate into a seasoned veteran. Actual professionals know this. It’s too bad Asinine Arne didn’t get the memo. P.S.: Arne Duncan has been secretary of education for six years, and in that role he is ultimately responsible for the educational progress of all U.S. students. According to the most recent PISA results, U.S. students’ scores haven’t improved on Duncan’s watch. Therefore, by Duncan’s own logic, I propose that we deprive his alma mater — Harvard University — of some federal funding for its current students because Duncan’s failure to improve U.S. PISA scores demonstrates that Harvard (which educated Duncan) is responsible for U.S. students’ flat scores on the PISA exam. If Duncan and Harvard don’t like the logic of my modest proposal, then Duncan should withdraw his proposed scheme for rating teacher preparation programs based on the educational outcomes of their alumni’s students, as my logic simply tracks his own.

Montclair Times Letter to the Editor

Good Morning and Happy Thanksgiving!  At the moment, in addition to all of the usual things I’m thankful for (family, including a house full of people and a huge 51 person family Thanksgiving feast this afternoon; snow; friends; and the good fortunes of good health, a decent job, and the good fortune to be able to live a pretty decent life), I’m thankful for my fellow citizens here in town who are speaking up against the takeover of our schools by high-stakes standardized testing (specifically, PARCC).  There were three letters to the editor in yesterday’s local paper, The Montclair Timesquestioning or opposing PARCC in our schools, including mine, which I have reposted below. The momentum is building locally to just say no to these high-stakes tests.  Especially in a town like Montclair, where our school board is appointed, not elected, the Opt-Out movement (and mass opt-out at the local level) is how we parents can, at a grassroots, local level, vote to say no to the test-focused realignment of our public schools.  Happy Thanksgiving, Acting Commissioner David Hespe.

To the Editor:

The name says it all: the new Partnership for Assessment of College and Career Readiness (“PARCC”) standardized test our district must offer to our 3rd-11th graders this spring reflects what its developers believe is the purpose of public school: to prepare children for college and careers.

They are wrong. The purpose of public education is — and should be — far more lofty: to educate inquisitive, analytical, and thoughtful citizens prepared to cast educated votes and participate in thoughtful analysis and debate should they be chosen as jurors. Readiness for college and careers is a by-product of that goal, but the goal is preparation for effective citizenship, not vocational training for employment.

I’ve been a Montclair schools parent for five years now, and while I applaud many of our public schools’ offerings, my older daughter’s school experience has been shockingly bereft of social studies education. Discussions with teachers and administrators reveal the reason: where the PARCC reigns supreme, the curriculum narrows. There is no time for social studies beyond map skills, an occasional out-of-context project, and the ubiquitous pre-digested and uncontroversial Scholastic News.

What happened to classic elementary school fodder such as current events, studies of world cultures, inquiries into genealogy and family history, research into Native American cultures, immersive units studying Ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, China, or Mesopotamia, and even the most basic American history? The often-whispered answer is that these units were casualties of the PARCC assessment: PARCC doesn’t test social studies, so our schools don’t teach it.

Montclair is one of the rare New Jersey suburbs with a rich history of refusing to standardize itself. Say no to off-the-shelf standardized education. Start demanding citizenship-focused public schools by refusing the PARCC.


Sarah Blaine

Montclair (and Beyond), It’s Time For Action

Almost eight years ago, my family was trying to figure out where — in New Jersey — to buy a house and put down roots. I’m a Jersey girl, born and bred. I grew up in Short Hills, and attended the Millburn Public Schools for 13 years. As my local readers know, the Millburn Public Schools are consistently considered some of the highest performing schools in the state. However, in March of my senior year of high school, our family moved to Montclair. I commuted back to Millburn for the last few months until I graduated, but the following fall my brother began his sophomore year as a student at Montclair High School. At the end of that year, my family moved back to Short Hills, so that my brother graduated from Millburn High School.

When it came time for us to decide where to raise our kids, school quality was a primary factor as we tried to decide where to put down roots. We considered towns all over northern New Jersey. When talk turned to Montclair, I called my brother. I asked him to comment on the quality of his education in Millburn versus in Montclair’s far more diverse (and less highly ranked) public high school. He said:

“Do I think it’s possible I got into a slightly better college because we moved back to Short Hills? I don’t know, I guess that’s possible. But I learned more about life and people and how to get along in the world in my one year in the Montclair Public Schools than I learned in my twelve years in the Millburn Public Schools — and those are lessons I still carry with me every day.”

I was sold.

Almost eight years after that conversation, I now have two children enrolled in the Montclair Public Schools. Almost universally, I have been thrilled with my daughters’ teachers, who have been thoughtful, dedicated, experienced professionals.

But things are changing. Our test-taking focused national, state, and now local culture threaten the values that make Montclair unique: by insisting that all children must learn all things in lockstep, we deviate from education best practices. And by accepting — without question — a test-taking culture that imposes hours and hours of standardized testing on our 8, 9, and 10 year old children, without carefully reviewing these tests and pushing back as a community where we believe the tests are poorly designed, developmentally inappropriate, and leading to intense pressure to narrow curriculum to meet the tests’ demands, we are stepping away from the community values that make Montclair special. Our schools should be — and historically, through our all-magnet public school system, have been — tailored to meet our children’s needs, but now we seem to be under pressure to tailor our children to meet state and federal politicians’ and bureaucrats’ unrealistic expectations — and if we don’t, our schools will be declared failures.

So what can we — as parents — do?

First, we must educate ourselves. If you’re reading this, you know how to read and write. So take an hour. Sit down and work through the 3rd or 4th or 5th grade English Language Arts sample exam, which is available at test . Think of yourself at 8, 9, or 10 years old. Ask yourself whether these questions strike you as fair, whether you could make arguments in favor of more than one of the responses, and whether you think that we as a community should allow our schools to be judged based on our students’ performances on these exams. Here is a sample essay question from the 4th Grade English Language Arts test to get you started:

Identify a theme in “Just Like Home” and a theme in “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me.” Write an essay that explains how the theme of the story is shown through the characters and how the theme of the poem is shown through the speaker. Include specific details from the story and the poem to support your essay.

[As an aside, yes, we are asking 9 year olds to identify themes in two different stories (whether they are supposed to be the same theme or unrelated themes is unclear from the prompt), and then to explain “how the theme of the story is shown through the characters” and “how the theme of the poem is shown through the speaker.” I have a masters in teaching high school English, and I’m not really sure what that means. Are they asking for examples of how the character’s/speaker’s actions demonstrate the theme(s)?]

Second, if, after reviewing the tests yourself, you find that you have concerns about these tests, think seriously about refusing these tests on behalf of your children. There are all sorts of Facebook groups for parents who are thinking of opting-out (for e.g., there’s one called Opt Out of Standardized Tests – New Jersey).  Talk with your children about this. You will start to hear that your kids will not be alone if they refuse these tests. There is strength — and power — in numbers. And I’ve found that the front-line educators in our schools will at least quietly applaud your efforts. The school culture may be such that they are not comfortable speaking up publicly, but they know right from wrong when it comes to educational practice. Mention that you’re thinking of joining the opt-out movement, and you will see eyes light up.

Third, speak up. Attend Board of Education meetings to make your voice heard. Talk with other parents. Write letters to the editor and op-eds. Call and write to your legislators. Contact the Board of Education — at both the state and local levels. Demand that our local Board of Education immediately issue its position regarding the opt-out/refusal movement, and demand that they make alternate learning opportunities available to our kids.

Fourth, suggestion alternates to a testing-focused culture. We can evaluate our kids’ learning in different — but more effective — ways. For instance, we can demand that our district evaluate kids’ progress toward achieving standards by asking schools to work with students and parents to compile portfolios of student work or require students to complete capstone-type projects at critical junctures. I taught high school in rural Maine at the turn of the millennium and we were able to make the portfolio and senior project approach work there. There is no reason we can’t manage the same here in Montclair. Standards-based assessment does not require standardized testing.

Fifth, demand detailed local coverage of Board of Education meetings. Many people (including me, but I was far from alone) spoke at the BOE meeting on Monday, November 17, 2014, but it is now more than a week later and the only coverage I saw in our local media (print and online) was a small Montclair Times article regarding a tiny subset of what was discussed (it discussed only the process by which the BOE can respond to questions posed at meetings). But The Montclair Times failed to do a comprehensive article regarding the meeting, and Baristanet, Patch, and The Alternative Press were completely silent.  [UPDATE: At 7:42 on Tuesday, November 25, 8 days after the meeting was held, Baristanet ran this story, which does attempt to summarize the public comment portion of the meeting, but still does not summarize the three reports to the BOE, nor the illuminating BOE discussion after public comment ended.]  We don’t know what’s happening unless we have journalists covering these issues.

And yes, Montclair Cares About Schools did a terrific email summarizing the last BOE meeting, but as much as I tend to agree with them on many issues, I recognize that this is an email from citizens summarizing their point of view, and that while I think it was a quite accurate summary, I’m not sure this was always true of all of their characterizations of BOE materials in the past, and more generally speaking, the MCAS email doesn’t have the same authority as an unbiased news source that our local news outlets at least theoretically have.  I can’t find a link to the email on their blog, but the Montclair Cares About Schools blog, Montclair Voices, does contain a bunch of the public comments made at last week’s meeting.  Similarly, our Montclair teachers’ points of view (and a bunch of their public comments to the BOE last week) are reflected on our teachers’ new blog, Montclair Education Matters.

High quality — and diverse — schools are what brought many of us to Montclair, and they are what keep us here. We need to unite as a community to reject externally-imposed policies (whether imposed by NJDOE or the USDOE) that stand between our children and the well-rounded educations our children deserve — and that our teachers know best how to provide.  And that includes educating and supporting our local school board members so that they have the knowledge, community support, and tools to stand with us at the front lines of saying no to so-called “education reform” that is bad for our children, bad for our schools, and bad for our community.

BOE: Provide the District’s PARCC Opt Out Policy

Update:  The local access channel was able to post the BOE meeting on its website today.  I am not computer savvy enough to figure out how to take a clip of my 3 minutes, but I can tell you that I start at the 2 hour and 30 minute mark on this link:

If someone knows how to grab my snippet and put it on YouTube, I’ll link it that way instead.

Original Post:

Here is the text of my prepared remarks for tonight’s local Board of Education meeting.  I think I deviated a litte bit — but not very much — from what’s written here.  If I can figure out how to get a snippet of the video, I will add that to this post (embarrassing as that might be).  Please note that my comments were limited to 3 minutes.

I am here today to ask the District to formally state — in writing to all parents — its policy regarding how children who are refusing the PARCC exams will be accommodated.

I attended the District’s October 23rd PARCC Family Presentation, where Gail Clarke was asked to comment regarding the district’s opt-out or refusal policy for the PARCC exams. She stated that no policy was in place because the State DOE had not yet issued its guidance regarding opt-out decisions.

A week later, on October 30th, the New Jersey Department of Education issued “guidance” to school districts stating that districts were under no obligation to provide educational alternatives, and suggested — but did not require — that districts update their attendance and discipline policies to address PARCC opt-out issues.

NJDOE’s guidance is at odds with Montclair’s prior policy.

So, given the conflict between Montclair’s NJASK opt-out policy and the State’s recent guidance, I am here to ask what Montclair’s policy will be for handling PARCC refusals. And, as a parent, I am here to urge you to adopt an accommodating and humane policy.

I’ve reviewed the 3rd and 4th practice exams and sample questions on the PARCC website. I found many questions confusing and developmentally inappropriate — frankly, the “gotcha” feel of these questions reminded me of the New Jersey Bar Exam.

I am also concerned that we are asking students as young as 8 to compose essay responses on computers when the district hasn’t provided comprehensive typing instruction.

But I am most concerned about the narrowing of the curriculum in response to testing pressures: in particular, I worry about how little social studies education my 4th grader has seen compared to what I’d studied — in a NJ public school — by her age. Where are the units studying mythology, genealogy, Native American culture, American history, and the ancient world? Our district’s lack of social studies education is a sad disappointment — and a direct result of our testing-focused culture: Social Studies gets short shrift because it is not on the test. Elementary school social studies should be more than “map skills.”

I try to avoid making decisions without access to all of the facts, which is why I’ve reviewed the PARCC sample materials in depth. So before I make a final decision regarding the PARCC exams, I would like to review the District’s PARCC opt-out policy.

This is an urgent matter, given that my daughter reports that her class has already lost at least 6 periods of instructional time to PARCC preparation, including last week when her class was asked to attempt an End of Year math practice test before the children had been presented with many of the topics tested.

Thank you.

Hespe’s Flawed Analogy

In an article in today’s New Jersey Spotlight, Acting Commissioner Hespe confirmed that my initial analysis of his guidance was spot-on. He said:

“A good parallel is compulsory attendance. Parents don’t have the option, students are supposed to go to school. The same with [opting out], they don’t have that option.”

But it is the Acting Commissioner’s analogy that is flawed. Parents — who have the right to direct their children’s educations — may opt-out of school (and related testing) by homeschooling their children without fear of negative consequences for the children or themselves. See N.J.S.A. 18A:38-25. It’s been more than a decade since I took Constitutional Law and I haven’t done detailed research on this (see my prior disclaimer), but as I recall, Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925), was pretty unequivocal in holding that parents’ rights trump states’ rights when it comes to the education of their children. It’s not unreasonable to believe that courts would be willing to hold that parents’ rights to direct their children’s educations, as enshrined, inter alia, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters and N.J.S.A. 18A:38-25, might well extend to refusing PARCC without giving up our right to a public school education for our children.

I believe, at a fundamental and basic level, that strong public schools are necessary for democracy. NJDOE, through Acting Commissioner Hespe, perhaps unintentionally, or perhaps by design, is attempting to force opt-out parents into choosing between abandoning public schools (as students at private school and homeschooled students are exempt from PARCC testing requirements) or allowing their children to sit for developmentally inappropriate tests. This isn’t a choice parents should be forced to make — and as the Supreme Court held way back in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, when it comes to directing children’s education, parents’ rights trump the state’s rights.