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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's where I say: “Evaluate THAT.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part A

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

Enter your explanation in the space provided.

Take a moment. Can you tell me the error?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GUEST VOICES: Mom Lynley Jones to Senator Lamar Alexander

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

Dear Senator Alexander,

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

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

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


Lynley Jones

Montclair, New Jersey

cc (via web submission):

Senator Robert Menendez

Senator Cory Booker

No Child Left Behind Reauthorization – ADD YOUR VOICE TODAY

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

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

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

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

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

Below is my contribution.

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

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

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

About Me

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

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

Annual Standardized Testing Narrows Curriculum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PARCC, however, is illustrative.

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

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

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

Social Studies Education Then and Now

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

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

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

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

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

What You Can Do When You Reauthorize ESEA/NCLB

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


Sarah Blaine

Montclair, New Jersey

cc: Senator Robert Menendez (via web submission)

Senator Cory Booker (via email)

Representative Donald Payne, Jr. (via web submission)


Montclair Kindergarten Tours Moved To January

Below please find two letters to the Montclair community.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please help to get the word out.

Best regards,

Sarah Blaine (4th grade and kindergarten parent)


Dear Montclair Taxpayers and Community Members:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best regards,

Sarah Blaine


Dear PARCC, Can We Talk?

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of regular contributions by guest bloggers on this site. This was written by Justin Escher Alpert, an attorney from Livingston, New Jersey. I’ve met Justin briefly a couple of times now, and I came across this piece in a Facebook group. I am sharing it here with his permission.


Dear Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC):

The reason that you failed… the reason that parents across the country are rising up and organizing against your standardized test… it is not a matter of a bad roll-out… it is not a matter of bad PR. The reason that you failed is philosophical… Your standards did not account for real-world innovation.

Let’s together take a look at an actual PARCC Sample Question from the Grade Three Mathematics Practice Test:

“A library has 126 books about trees.

Part A

The library has 48 fewer books about rivers than about trees.

Select from the drop-down menus to correctly complete the statement.

The number of books the library has about rivers is [Choose…\/] and the total number of books the
library has about trees and rivers is [Choose…\/].

Part B

Two students borrow books about trees. Each student borrows 8 books. How many books about trees remain in
the library?

Enter your answer in the box. [_____]”

Now, let’s leave aside the fact that the poorly-worded second question does not necessarily give the test-taker enough information to answer. We know that standardized test scores correlate to the wealth and education of the parents of the test-taker. The children of wealthy, educated parents are more likely to have actually set foot in a local public library with adequate resources. For an urban child whose family may not know the value of an education, this standardized test question might merely be a hypothetical. I actually went down to the Newark Public Library and looked around and started asking some questions. They have signs up apologizing to their patrons that they have not had a budget to purchase new books for the past several years. Perhaps we should set new standards for libraries and assist them to have robust and current book collections that serve the intellectual needs of their communities so that we do not reduce the concept of public libraries to be mere hypothetical questions… but I digress.

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers has very narrowly defined excellence in a manner that corresponds to the wealth and education of the parents of the test-taker while we have missed our moral and constitutional obligations to adequately fund our urban public schools (and, apparently, our urban public libraries). With respect to the schools, private charter companies have stepped in and arbitraged the cost difference based on fulfilling this very narrow definition of excellence. PARCC has created a new set of “standards,” but there is little regard for real-world innovation.

To gain a better understanding of what happens when innovation is only recognized from the top down, one need look no further than the students in Newark who are setting new standards for active, civic engagement by traipsing up and down the Mid-Atlantic to draw attention to real world problems with schedules, courses, teachers, desks, and edible lunches. The answers to your hypothetical PARCC questions have seemingly become more important than creatively solving the real-world problems as they present themselves (whether in the public library system or in the public school system or otherwise).

When a child grows up in an educated and diverse community such as Livingston, New Jersey (with a warm, welcoming, and well-staffed modern library (with 51 non-fiction books about trees)), that child goes through a public school system that is accountable directly to the active and engaged parents in the community. The goal of the public school system is not to make our children “ready for college and careers.” We do not need a system to find the faults and shortcomings of our children. The goal of a public education is to create active and engaged members of the community. The goal is to create and empower citizens (like those brave kids in Newark) who can look at faults within systems and readily organize to correct them. The entire existence of PARCC Testing seemingly misses The Point.

When a graduate receives a diploma from the Board of Education of a town like Livingston, New Jersey, that young adult will know her strengths and interests having been broadly exposed to this world, and will have the backing and respect of the community to make her voice heard. Your PARCC addition and subtraction problems about hypothetical library books is important, in your judgment. What if we felt that third-grade calculus were more important and we taught it during a model rocketry class? Or what if an impassioned and empowered physical education teacher felt that third-grade statistics were important and taught it through a rigorous spring Sabermetrics program where kids kept close track of their kickball stats? Or what if we felt that third-grade geometry were more important and we taught the Fibonacci sequence through a rigorous design and history program? By the way, it doesn’t take wealth to do any of this creative instruction. You can teach the mathematics of sound waves with two tin cans and a piece of string and really get kids excited about the process. Where does innovation come from? If the parents of the children who meet and exceed the PARCC standards wanted to change the PARCC test questions, could we? What if we wanted to switch from a testing-based model of education standards to an experience-based model? To whom would we need to speak? Is there a form we could fill out? The options are limitless, but impassioned and empowered professional educators are distracted because they have to return focus to YOUR standards, as limited by YOUR OWN imagination, on an absolutely brain-numbing computerized test that misses everything that was important about the student-teacher relationship.

You had a valiant effort, PARCC. We don’t fault you for trying (there was a lot of money to be made). You know… you don’t have to disband. We could redirect your efforts. We could take your standardized questions, perhaps, and turn them into a series of suggested lesson plans. Maybe if we focused our efforts on a third-grade class in Newark and a third-grade class in Livingston together taking a field trip to a modern regional public library and learning first-hand how to find out how many books there are about trees and rivers, we could then incorporate the relevant math lesson with regard to borrowing books about trees, and there would be a greater likelihood of what we were testing for actually having been learned due to the real-world context. And then we could disregard the standardized test. To demonstrate that innovation can come from any person at any point, perhaps if we actually help those kids in Newark with their real-world problems with schedules, courses, desks, edible lunches… and if we gave them impassioned and empowered teachers backed by a strong system of social services… and yes, maybe even stocked their local public libraries with 126 real books about trees… we might free them to help us determine the answers to new, more robust real-world questions, like, say:

Question 1:

What should be the ratio of (i) the number of in-state higher education freshman seats to (ii) the number of in-state high school graduating seniors?

Enter your answer in the box. [_____]


Question 2:

If a state is interested in investing in itself, what should be its financial commitment to higher education tuition support?

Enter your answer in the box. [_____]

Perhaps, rather than PARCC assessing whether OUR children are “ready for college and careers,” you might help us set new standards for “colleges and careers” so that “colleges and careers” are actually ready for our (if I do say so myself) brilliant (but flawed… every last one of them… each in their own unique but lovable way) children when they graduate. Perhaps every job working for a major corporation or an institution of higher education should be available as a full-time position that pays a real living wage, because that would be important. Maybe, because we want our children to grow up to be responsible and engaged participants of their communities, we could limit those jobs to 40-hour work weeks so that those job holders are actually free at the end of the day to be responsible and engaged participants in their communities. Could you help us set new standards like that?

When a child grows up in an educated and diverse community such as Livingston, New Jersey, that child is given the safe, judgment-free space to find his or her own place in society while learning through diverse experiences… with diverse teachers… across disciplines where there are no standardized questions, much less answers. Those opportunities need to be provided (and properly funded) for every child, regardless of the wealth and education of the parents.

We might find that what is important is not that we can regurgitate standardized answers, but that we can push the very limits of our understanding as we learn and grow by proposing new questions and being empowered to collaboratively develop real-world working answers to those questions.

Let’s definitively end standardized testing-based education. Let’s talk about moving in a new, experience-based direction that actually addresses and solves real-world problems.

Thank you for your strong leadership.

Very truly yours,


Justin Escher Alpert
Livingston, New Jersey

Cowardly David Hespe Hid From The Parents Who Overwhelmed The NJBOE Today To Say No To PARCC

Today, somewhere in the neighborhood of one hundred parents, students, teachers, school board members, and other New Jersey professionals gathered at the River View Executive Building Complex in Trenton, New Jersey to prove just how out of touch New Jersey Comissioner of Education David Hespe is with New Jersey parents, students, teachers, and community members. In particular, as you may recall, David Hespe claimed that there was no opt-out or test refusal movement in New Jersey. Today, we proved him wrong

For those who don’t recall, on October 30, 2014, then Acting Commissioner Hespe issued guidance to school districts and charter school leaders in which he suggested (but did not require) that they institute punitive measures in an attempt to squelch New Jersey’s opt-out/test refusal movement before it got started. Hespe’s guidance backfired. Instead, he just pissed me — and countless other New Jersey parents — off. Today was our first chance to publicly speak out to Hespe’s sort-of bosses, the New Jersey State Board of Education (Hespe’s real boss is Governor Chris Christie, and there is no doubt in my mind that regardless of what the NJBOE does next, Hespe will continue to dance to PARCC’s tune until Governor Christie tells him to change course).

I arrived at around 10:40 this morning. The presentations to the Board were already in full swing, and the room was so full that I couldn’t even get standing room, so a friend and I waited out in the hall. The crowd continued to grow. I believe that 96 people were signed up to speak, but although a few speakers didn’t show, there were plenty of other non-speaking parents, teachers, community activists, and local school board members who had come to listen and/or show their support.

Unfortunately, NJBOE’s protocol is to divide public comment speakers among four different rooms, and to assign 1-2 NJBOE members to listen to comment in each room. Although this is far more efficient in terms of time (even then, there’s a 5 minute time limit, but enforcement was much less draconian than enforcement of the 3 minute time limit at our local Montclair Board of Education meetings), it’s unfortunate that the press, fellow attendees, and Board Members themselves do not get to hear more than a small sample of the total comments presented. Intentional or not, this diminishes the power of a large turnout of parents almost universally united around a common issue (here, opposition to PARCC and similar high-stakes standardized testing).

Here are both halves of Room A (with filming by the Asbury Park Press, as I understand it):

And here are both halves of Room B:























Here is Room C, where I testified:








And here is Room D:
As you can see, among the four rooms, there were a LOT of citizens, most of whom, like me, took a day off from work because we think it is important that the NJ State Board of Education hear from parents and students about the mess the PARCC is creating in our schools. I don’t have accurate numbers, because many people came to be supportive without speaking, but I’d guess that the turnout easily exceeded 100 people.
Perhaps the most gratifying part of the event for me personally was to hear from the half-dozen or so children who’d come to testify. Almost all of them told me that they’d been inspired to come testify by my daughter Elizabeth Blaine’s public comment to the Montclair Board of Education a couple of weeks ago, which I haven’t mentioned also led to us getting interviewed (to my enduring political chagrin, but it’s nice that we have common ground on something) on Fox News’s Fox & Friends morning show. Just in Room C, we heard from a 10 year old girl, a 7th grade girl, and a 9th grade boy. All three were opposed to PARCC and the related test prep.
It was also terrific to get to meet — in person — many of the fellow New Jerseyeans I’d only connected with virtually through our shared opposition to these tests. I’m only sad that because of the four-room set up, I didn’t get to meet a number of other terrific leaders that I know were there.
But the major takeaway from today is that there is a strong — and rapidly growing — PARCC refusal movement in New Jersey. And it was great to see members of the press, from the pieces that already appeared on the Star Ledger and the Asbury Park Press website to the appearance of reporters from NJ101.5 to The Alternative Press – Edison (and there may well have been other reporters I wasn’t aware of). Go readd the Star Ledger and Asbury Park Press articles: their reporters didn’t pull any punches today. The bloggers were out in full force too. Here’s a piece from Marie Corfield that contains some stunning news: following the comments he listened to today, the President of the NJBOE apparently stated publicly that they know that they can’t force kids to take this test. I’ll add more blog links as I come across them.
Take note, Commissioner Hespe. You declared war on the parents and students of New Jersey back in October, but we are organizing, we are rallying, and we are fighting back. I did note, however, that you were too cowardly to sit in any of those rooms to hear for yourself what the parents and students of New Jersey are saying. I heard from more seasoned activists that this was par for the course from you — you apparently don’t deign to bother with public comment. That’s all part and parcel with the CCSS/PARCC playbook, of course, which generally fails to prioritize democratic values. I don’t think your disappearing act gives you cover to continue claiming that New Jersey doesn’t have a growing opt-out/test refusal movement.
Watch out, Commissioner Hespe: this is one war we’re going to win.
Finally, Governor Christie, with your PARCC study commission that has not yet publicly released the preliminary report that was due on December 31, 2014, don’t think your teflon governor act is going to allow you to escape blame for imposing PARCC and Common Core on the people of New Jersey. Trust me, from the brief foray I made into the world of Fox News, your national base isn’t impressed with your Common Core and PARCC cheerleading. Your national ambitious may well hang on this issue.
We lefties won’t rally behind you on this either.
Ironically, Governor Christie, through your minion David Hespe, you are a uniter: you are uniting the left and the right, the rich and the poor, the white and the black, the native English speakers and the English Language Learners, in shared opposition to your market driven education reform policies — including, but not limited to, your imposition of PARCC onto the people of New Jersey. It was a powerful thing to watch as the wealthy and privileged parents from Basking Ridge made common cause with parents from Newark. We don’t resemble each other in race, socioeconomic status, or political affiliation. But one thing was clear: no matter what our backgrounds, none of us want you to dismantle our public schools.
And we all agree on one thing: education is a necessary ingredient for democracy. A policy aimed at dismantling public schools is a policy aimed at devolving democracy into demagoguery.
We won’t forget. And we won’t — we can’t — let you win.

Speaking Truth and Democracy to New Jersey State Board of Education

Below is my testimony to the NJ State Board of Education—

Here’s the link to the video on YouTube. I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet.

I am here today to urge New Jersey to join the other states that have pulled out of the PARCC consortium. Because my older daughter is a 4th grader, I have reviewed the 4th grade PARCC practice materials. I urge you to do the same. Based on my review and the detrimental test prep I’m seeing, I stand here today to tell you that the PARCC does not support the goals of taxpayer-funded public education.

Why do we pay for public education? We pay for education because democracy cannot function effectively unless citizens are sufficiently educated to conduct the business of democracy. Educated citizens evaluate issues within their broader historical and political contexts when they enter the election booth or the jury box.

Now, a happy by-product of educating citizens is that educated citizens are also prepared for college and career. But we taxpayers don’t pay to educate other people’s children because we want to educate the next Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett: rather, we pay for the education of all kids because when we are elderly and today’s kids are voting, we want them to vote thoughtfully.

The PARCC evaluates future employees; it does not educate citizens. Why?

Beyond appearing from its sample questions to be a terrible test, the PARCC only purports to test a narrow subset of what our children should be learning: their reading, writing, and math skills. In addition, New Jersey has attached high-stakes consequences — including teachers’ evaluations — to kids’ scores. This combination pressures teachers and schools to teach to the PARCC.

But when school time is spent on test prep, school time is not devoted to other, more worthy endeavors. When tests are high-stakes, if a topic won’t be tested, it isn’t taught. That is why the PARCC harms citizenship education.

So what don’t our kids do in school because of high-stakes testing such as the PARCC?

Well, I’m a New Jersey native who was educated in the Millburn Public Schools. When I was a 4th grader, our social studies theme was New Jersey. We were each assigned a county, and we spent weeks researching and writing about our counties. I had Cumberland County, which is why I know about New Jersey’s cranberry bogs. We studied Lenni Lenape society and built a model Lenni Lenape village. We learned a then-candidate for New Jersey state song — don’t worry, I won’t sing. We studied New Jersey colonial history and took a field trip to Allaire Village, where we learned about smelting iron. We even created a giant latchhook rug of a map of New Jersey’s 21 counties. Miss Shades’ fourth grade helped me on the road toward thoughtful citizenship.

I now have a fourth grader in the Montclair Public Schools. Her teachers are dedicated and caring. And their fourth grade social studies theme is also New Jersey. However, we’re now about halfway through the school year. My daughter hasn’t studied the Lenni Lenape or memorized New Jersey’s 21 counties. She hasn’t learned about cranberry bogs or iron ore. She hasn’t written a research report on a New Jersey county or latchhooked a map of New Jersey or learned a New Jersey song. She hasn’t taken a field trip to Allaire State Park or learned about colonial settlement of New Jersey.

Instead, she had a generic unit on map skills because reading a map might be tested on the PARCC. She gets to bubble in answers on “Common Core aligned” Scholastic News pamphlets. And she’s learned the states that comprise the Northeast. In half a school year, that’s been it for social studies.

But she’s had hours of PARCC preparation. She and her class have given up 6 class periods — with more scheduled — to learn how to drag and drop and use the PARCC protractor, even though they haven’t gotten to the study of angles in math class yet, so the kids don’t know what a protractor is. She’s brought home formulas for essay writing, which she’s required to follow, regardless of how bad the resulting writing is. She isn’t allowed to use the essay formulas as guides rather than rules, because Pearson’s essay graders will be looking for formulaic essays rather than compelling content.

PARCC test prep is not preparing her to be a thoughtful citizen. PARCC test prep is not using my tax dollars to ensure that she will be prepared to vote thoughtfully. PARCC test prep is not teaching her the American history she needs to know who FDR was, and why he said:

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

Please stop requiring local districts to substitute test prep for citizenship prep. Urge Commissioner Hespe to join the states that have pulled out of the PARCC consortium.

Say no to testing small children on computers.

Say no to narrowing curriculum so that it excludes meaningful social studies education.

Say no to spending our tax dollars on test prep, rather than field trips and libraries.

We can do better for our kids. I know this, because my fourth grade teacher did better for me. But PARCC prep is making good teaching impossible, which is why I am — as a matter of conscience — refusing to allow my child to take the PARCC.

Please join me in refusing the PARCC. Thank you.

In Favor of Refusal

These are my comments to the Montclair, NJ Board of Education on December 15, 2014 in support of its proposed policy requiring the school district to provide educationally appropriate and non-punitive alternatives for students whose parents refuse to allow them to take the PARCC this spring: 

Thank you for putting the PARCC refusal policy on tonight’s agenda. I urge you to adopt it.

I could urge you to adopt it for dozens of different reasons. I could urge you to adopt it because it would be cruel to force our kids to “sit & stare.” I could urge you to adopt it because the test developer, Pearson, is notorious for its errors in textbooks and testing. I could urge you to adopt it because the questions are developmentally inappropriate and designed to confuse our kids and make them look like failures. I could urge you to adopt it for all of those kids with anxiety or other issues that are exacerbated by a high-stakes testing environment. I could urge you to adopt it because these tests are forcing our best teachers to narrow curriculum, to scale-down or drop project-based learning initiatives, and to suck the joy out of classrooms.

But tonight I stand here to urge you to adopt this policy so that we can join together as a community to push back against test-driven schools. Let’s join together to push back on the state DOE — which itself is beholden to the USDOE — and whose demands are wresting control of our children’s education from you — our local school board.

It is time for us as a community to join educators across the nation in saying no to high-stakes tests’ stranglehold over local districts’ educations of local kids. I taught high school English in western Maine. I can tell you that our needs in Maine were and are very different from our needs in Montclair. One size fits all works in factories, not communities. One size fits all works for widgets, not for people. We should not insist on standardizing our kids or their educations. Our kids are human beings. They are not widgets.

It is time for us to push back on a narrative that lumps our district in with others across the country and then states that “our nation’s schools” are failing. They aren’t. Can Montclair improve? Absolutely. But is Montclair failing the vast majority of its kids? Absolutely not.

Montclair kids have experience dealing with the compromises, cultural differences, and sometimes tricky consensus-building required to thrive in our diverse community. Our schools teach our kids to value kindness, compassion, and their friends’ unique perspectives. These are successes. These are achievements. These intangibles are why I live here. None of them can be measured by standardized tests.

Parents are talking, and parents are ready to push back. The most concrete way we can protest high-stakes standardized testing’s impact on our schools is to vote with our feet by refusing to let our kids participate in the PARCC tests. Please support the refusal policy. Together, we can do better for our kids.

Thank you.

The policy will be put to a vote on January 26, 2015.  I will  keep you updated on the outcome.