Those Terrifying Teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have time for some activism in the education world.

I have some time to write this blog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Christie’s Common Core Farce

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

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

Google Maps View of Location


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Searching for Academic Benchmarks

No hits.

Academic Benchmarks Search Results: Item Not Found

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

Search for Pearson: Two Results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Common Core’s Scalia-esque “Originalism”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

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

Refuse Early So Teachers Can Teach

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

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

Dear Teachers:

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

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

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

Best regards,

 Sarah Blaine

Let our teachers focus on REAL education
Amazing graphic by Beth O’Donnell-Fisher