Q. What do Smarties candies (the American kind), Orwellian Doublespeak, Union solidarity, Hamilton, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the New Jersey Turnpike’s Joyce Kilmer Rest Area have in common?
A. They’re all at least referenced in today’s blog post. To learn more and see how they’re connected, read on.
As a parent, there are days and weeks in which I’m left simply shaking my head at the absurdity that comes home from my kids’ schools. This has been one of those weeks.
This week is PARCC testing for the 5th graders in my daughter’s school. According to my daughter, parents of approximately a quarter to a third of the students in her class, including hers, refused to allow our kids to be tested. Back in February of 2015, before the first round of PARCC testing, our local Board of Education passed a test-refusal policy, which reads, in relevant part:
“It is the policy of the Montclair Board of Education that the parental decision to decline testing should be met at the district level with educationally appropriate and non-punitive measures.”
On Monday evening, after the first day of testing, my daughter reported that the kids in her class who took PARCC were given Smarties candies afterward by her teacher, but that the kids whose parents refused were not offered any candies. And according to her, her teachers knew this was a bad idea, because on the first day they made half-hearted efforts to hide this fact. A child stood up to throw out his Smarties wrapper, and the teacher asked him what he was doing. He replied, “Throwing out my wrapper.” The teacher said, “Ahem” and gave him the stink eye. The kid then responded, “Oh, uh, uh, yeah, I was throwing out my tissue.”
Tuesday morning I got to the bus stop, where the mom of another of the 50 or so students served by this two teacher teaching team came up to me excitedly to share the same story: that the kids in these teachers’ “switch” class who took PARCC were given Smarties candy, but the kids who refused did not.
When I had a free moment at work later that morning, I sent a note to the teachers. I wrote:
Dear Ms. B and Ms. E:
As you are aware, yesterday was the first day of PARCC testing for 5th graders at our school. My daughter, along with other students in your classes, was not permitted to take PARCC, which is a political decision my husband and I, as her parents, made after a great deal of thought and research.
Last night and this morning, I heard reports from my daughter and from another child in your classes that yesterday both of you distributed rewards of candy (Smarties) to those children in your classes whose parents allowed them to take the PARCC, but that children whose parents did not allow them to take the PARCC were not given candy.
As a preliminary matter, I am not a fan of candy being distributed to children by their teachers. If, however, you are going to distribute candy to children, it strikes me as problematic that you as their public school teachers would effectively punish the opt-out children for political decisions made by their parents. I look forward to an email from you confirming that if treats are going to be distributed in the future, decisions regarding who will get treats will not be based on something out of the children’s control (i.e., the political decision to opt-out/refuse, which was made by these children’s parents).
I trust your response to this email will resolve this matter and I will not need to pursue this matter further.
I did not copy anyone. No administrators, no principals, no central office staff. I figured that this was a momentary lapse on their part, and that a quick email pointing out the foolishness of their position would suffice to either put a stop to the candy distribution altogether, or to at least ensure that it was distributed to all children in their classes.
Boy was I wrong.
By dinner time on Tuesday, I’d gotten no response from the teachers, and my daughter reported that Smarties were again distributed to the testing kids only, and this time the distribution was more blatant, as if the teachers had gotten bolder after Monday evening had passed with no parental complaints about the inequitable treatment of our kids. So I forwarded my original note to the principal, along with a cover email:
Dear Dr. A:
Please see the email below, which I sent to Ms. B and to Ms. E this morning. I have not received any response as of yet. Time is of the essence, as today, Smarties candies were again distributed only to those children in Ms. B and Ms. E’s classes who took the PARCC test. Because students — especially elementary school students — whose parents refused to allow them to test have no control over that political decision made by their parents, I believe that it is unacceptable for teachers in your building to only provide candy to those children whose parents did not make that political decision. Either no candy should be distributed or candy should be distributed to everyone, at least when the kids have no control over the situation.
I feel confident escalating this situation to you without teacher confirmation given that another child independently reported that this was happening to her parent, so I’m confident that the teachers’ selective distribution of candy is not something my child made up.
Thank you for your anticipated prompt attention to resolving this matter.
By mid-morning this morning, there was still radio silence, from both the teachers and the principal.
Around lunchtime I emerged from a meeting in Trenton (ironically the main topic of this meeting was the State’s proposal to make taking PARCC and passing certain sections of PARCC a graduation requirement), and as I ate my lunch I checked my phone, where I discovered this gem:
Good afternoon Ms. Blaine,
Miss B and I have received your email. Thank you for sharing your concerns. Please be advised that the “Smarties” were NOT a reward for taking the PARCC. They are one of many refocusing strategies we use throughout the school year.
Thank you very much and have a great day.
Yours in learning,
Mrs. E & Miss B
Yes, you read that correctly. Apparently my teachers give their students candies made of pretty much pure sugar (dextrose is the first ingredient on the label) as a “refocusing strategy.” Let me type that again:
R E F O C U S I N G S T R A T E G Y
R E F O C U S I N G S T R A T E G Y
R E F O C U S I N G S T R A T E G Y
R E F O C U S I N G S T R A T E G Y
Funny, no matter how I squint at or format those words, they still seem to be monumentally out of focus. My children’s teachers can’t seriously have defended distributing candy only to testing children as a “refocusing strategy.” But every time I read those words, that’s what I see. CANDY = A REFOCUSING STRATEGY.
Of course, aside from the pedagogically dubious practice of hopping up 5th graders on sugar to refocus them, my daughter’s teachers didn’t address my actual concern, which was why on earth only kids who took PARCC were worthy of being “refocused.”
It’s almost as if they need more practice reading non-fiction.
Or more worksheets aimed at helping them to pick out the main idea of my letter.
Perhaps they’d do better if my email had been written in multiple-choice format, in true Pearson style, with a question full of negatives and full credit awarded only for choosing ALL correct responses:
Which of the following is NOT in compliance with the Montclair Board of Education’s policy of providing educationally appropriate and non-punitive responses to parental decisions to decline to allow their children to test? Choose ALL that apply.
(A)Allowing non-testing kids to sit in the library, where they are supervised while doing school work or reading for pleasure.
(B)Beating them over the head with number 2 pencils.
(C)Forcing them to sit and stare silently in the testing room with no books or other materials to alleviate their boredom while their peers take the tests.
(D)Giving candy to testing kids, but only big fat Bronx cheers to refusal kids.
If you chose B, C, AND D, I’ve got some Smarties for you.
Otherwise, ppppppppppptttttttbbbbbbbbtttttpppppfffffff. How’s that for an onomatopoeic representation of a Bronx cheer? And if you’re a teacher who did not choose B, C, and D, perhaps it’s time to consider a career change?
But wait… there’s more.
As I drove home from Trenton, I found myself fuming about that email.
REFOCUSING STRATEGY?!?!? I couldn’t look at the email again because I was driving, but the words would not leave my head.
And no matter how I turned them over in my mind, all I kept finding was that one of my favorite verses from Hamilton — especially the first line — kept playing over and over in my head:
You must be out of your Goddamn mind if you think
The President is gonna bring the nation to the brink
Of meddling in the middle of a military mess
A game of chess, where France is Queen and Kingless
[The rest of that Hamilton verse is so exquisite that I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t either seen the show or, like me, spent months listening obsessively to the soundtrack.]
These teachers must be out of their goddamned minds if they think
This parent will buy for a second with a wink
That the Smarties candies distribution
As a “refocusing strategy” is a reasonable solution
Ok, my rap skills suck (we share the same alma mater, but Lin-Manuel Miranda I am not), but the teachers’ justification for their behavior sucks even worse.
Indeed, as the winter holiday party was in the works last December, Ms. E wrote the following email to the parents in the class regarding the holiday party:
“Thank you all! It will be a sugary day. We sugar them up–then send them home to you!! XOXO”
My Common Core non-fiction text inference skills tell me that Ms. E does not believe that providing kids with a sugary candy is an effective refocusing strategy. I can, however, infer that she thinks sugary candies are appropriate for celebrations — or, perhaps, for rewards.
Continuing up the Turnpike, I found my annoyance growing rather than abating, so rather than continue fuming, I pulled off the New Jersey Turnpike at the Joyce Kilmer Rest Area, where I wrote to the superintendent, who has explicitly stated at Board of Education meetings that he wants to be made personally aware of any punitive action taken by school district employees against opt-out kids. As a courtesy, I copied the principal, but I decided to leave the teachers off this email, although I forwarded their email responding to my initial email to the superintendent. Please excuse any less than artful phrasing, given that I composed this on my phone at a rest stop.
Dear Mr. B:
Please see the below email exchange between my 5th grader’s teachers and me in which they attempt to defend their practice of feeding Smarties candies (pure sugar) ONLY to students who took PARCC and not to students whose parents refused to allow them to take PARCC, using the pretense that feeding pure sugar to students is a “refocusing strategy” necessary only for those kids who took the test and not for those kids who sat for hours quietly completing work (ironically, ReadWorks-style test-prep) during testing time.
I look forward to you immediately addressing this issue and making it clear to your entire staff that preferential treatment of those students whose parents allowed them to take PARCC is not something this district condones or allows, as per the BOE’s February 2015 resolution to that effect.
I forwarded my original email (below) to Dr. A last night but have not yet received a response.
I am currently in the car home from a meeting with NJ State Board of Education president Mark Biedron regarding the proposed regulations that would implement PARCC as a graduation requirement. I cannot believe that in 2016 in Montclair we are seriously seeing teachers punishing kids (that is, denying elementary school children candy) for their parents’ anti-PARCC stances, especially given the “non-punitive responses” language in the BOE’s February 2015 PARCC parental refusal resolution.
I know that you have expressed your commitment to ensuring that children like my daughter are not punished by their teachers for their parents’ refusal decisions. I look forward to your prompt handling of this matter. I can be reached at XXX-XXX-XXXX and am available to discuss this issue at your convenience this afternoon in hopes that it will be resolved before my child arrives at school tomorrow morning.
That email generated a quick response (it arrived by the time I got home about an hour later), not from the superintendent, but from the principal. Remarkably, she claims to have bought the teachers’ explanation, hook, line, and sinker. (Apparently she wasn’t aware of my superb rap regarding that point.)
Now I presume, of course, that she’s trying not to throw her teachers under the bus (although I will eventually get around to writing up my prior encounter with her, in which she absolutely threw one of these teachers under a bus — and asked me to allow my daughter to read that email), but what educator really could feel comfortable defending teachers’ decisions to distribute candy comprised of pure sugar to their students as a pedagogically sound “refocusing strategy”?
I feel like I’ve wandered into some bizarre alternate universe.
So I couldn’t help it, I wrote back and this time I got a little snarky:
Dear Dr. A:
Thank you for your prompt response to this, my second email to you regarding this issue (my first was sent last night at approximately 6:30 p.m., before today’s testing session).
I would welcome the opportunity to discuss this with you further. My cell phone number is XXX-XXX-XXXX.
As a preliminary matter, since I have a master’s of arts in teaching and yet have never seen any research supporting feeding children candies comprised of pure sugar as a “refocusing strategy,” I would appreciate it if you could point me to some research supporting the use of sugary candy as a “refocusing strategy.”
I would also appreciate some documentation of the teachers in this class using this “refocusing strategy” prior to PARCC testing week, as this is the first I have heard of them employing this particular “refocusing strategy.” I understand that Ms. B occasionally distributes Tootsie Rolls to students who win competitive educational math games in her class, but not that the class as a whole is given Smarties or other candies as a “refocusing strategy.” Can you please document how often my daughter’s teachers are feeding her class candy without my knowledge or consent?
Finally, I appreciate your willingness to ensure that to the extent that the teachers are feeding the children candy, candy is available to all students in the class, especially given our Board of Education’s policy that test refusers will be met with educationally appropriate and non-punitive responses.
In the least surprising development in this saga so far, Dr. A has not yet responded, much less furnished me with any studies supporting the use of sugary candies as a “refocusing strategy.”
And again, surprising no one, as I’ve informally surveyed teachers and professors of education, all of them have laughed and/or cursed at the idea that sugary candies could possibly constitute an effective refocusing strategy.
In an aside, one fellow activist said that she was pretty certain that there is a law in our state that expressly prohibits the distribution of food items in which any iteration of sugar is the first ingredient at school during school hours. She turns out to be correct — at least for schools, like ours, in which more than 5% of the student population qualifies for the federal free or reduced lunch programs.
N.J.S.A. 18A:33-16 reads, in relevant part:
As of September 2007, the following items shall not be served, sold or given away as a free promotion anywhere on school property at any time before the end of the school day, including items served in the reimbursable After School Snack Program:
(1)Foods of minimal nutritional value, as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture;
(2)All food and beverage items listing sugar, in any form, as the first ingredient; and
(3)All forms of candy as defined by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.
There are some exemptions, but none of them are likely to apply here, unless the distribution of candy is a school celebration, such as a class holiday or birthday party, or a curricular activity, such as a lesson on foods from other cultures. The other exceptions are individual in nature (sugar for diabetics, rewards specified in a students’ IEP, etc.), and again, are not applicable here. Further, guidance from the State specifically notes that the although the use of food as an incentive or reward is not prohibited, any such foods must meet the guidelines set forth in N.J.S.A. 18A:33-16, so Smarties candies are not acceptable. That guidance further notes: “[r]esearch has shown that using food items as rewards can negatively affect students’ healthy attitudes toward eating.” [And amazingly, the guidance even cites a publication that they say contains evidence in support of this proposition.] Somehow, I find myself more skeptical than ever that the principal will be able to point me to a study supporting the use of candy as a “refocusing strategy.” If she can find one, I have a funny feeling it will have come out of the Relay Graduate School of Education. Boom!
The first ingredient in Smarties, of course, is dextrose (sugar).
So not only is my daughter’s teachers’ distribution of Smarties candies to PARCC-taking kids not only poor and unsupported pedagogical practice, since 2007 it has also been against the law.
Really. In the literal sense of the word. The unbelievable cluelessness of her teachers truly does inspire awe in me, as does the principal’s decision to double-down on their preposterous pretext of an explanation.
Candy as a Refocusing Strategy.
It is truly awe-inspiring. Or at least, perhaps, a bit Orwellian. Or is it that the euphemism “refocusing strategy” is an Orwellian way of describing the teacher’s actions?
But back to the topic at hand: I find myself wondering if the choice of “Smarties” candies was a deliberate choice to inspire students to greater “smartness” on the PARCC test.
This afternoon, as you can see from the photo, I bought my daughter a big bag of Smarties, because:
(A) she is fortunate to be able to eat candy with relative impunity at this age;
(B) it is within my prerogative as her parent to allow her to eat candy;
(C) I really appreciate her good natured willingness to allow me to share this story with all of you;
(D) I like Smarties too (although my waistline doesn’t need them).
If you guessed (E) All of the Above, you win… SMARTIES. (Ok, not really, as I think they all got eaten by neighborhood kids — and a few parents.)
Here she is, with a friend, all sugared up on Smarties. As you can see, focused (much less “refocused”) is not an appropriate description of their mental state:
This story, of course, while entertaining (although not nearly as entertaining as another story involving her ELA teacher, which I will share in another post, because I’m running out of steam tonight, and this blog post is already way too long), has more serious ramifications.
What does it mean when a public school teacher, as a state actor, takes it upon herself to punish students whose parents have made a political decision to protest the negative effects of high-stakes testing by declining to allow the child to test?
When the issue first came up Monday night, my daughter was initially hesitant regarding whether I should call the teachers out on this. But I posed this hypothetical to her:
What if your teachers had only given Smarties to Christian kids? Would anyone think it was okay to exclude Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or agnostic/atheist children in your class from receiving Smarties?
Of course, she agreed that everyone would say such a decision was horrible and unacceptable, and that teachers in public schools cannot do this.
But, I pointed out to her, it isn’t the kids’ decision what religion (if any) they’re being raised in, is it?
She agreed that this was not something kids can control at their ages.
Yet, I said, surely all of the non-Christian kids’ parents could convert their children to Christianity and therefore assure their children’s access to Smarties, right?
She agreed that this could, hypothetically, happen.
Here, of course, I pointed out to her that the PARCC refusal decision was also a parental decision, and that if her father and I hadn’t made this decision, she would not be allowed at her age to unilaterally refuse PARCC. So just as in the hypothetical it would be unfair to punish the non-Christian kids for their parents’ beliefs, here it would be — and is — unfair to punish the test-refusing kids for their parents’ beliefs (which is entirely the rationale for the district’s opt-out policy in the first place, and is why even the most pro-testing and pro-education reform members of our local Board of Education voted in favor of it).
One of my ongoing frustrations as a parent who actively opposes the use of annual, high-stakes testing in our public schools is the accusation that we opt-out parents are mere tools of teachers and their unions. See, for example, here, here, here, here, and most recently and obnoxiously, here. I think this story demonstrates that this is not the case, as we are certainly not tools of these particular teachers, and my greatest frustration with teachers’ unions is their unwillingness to help prune teachers who are embarrassments to their profession as a result of their consistently shoddy pedagogy, poor judgment, and casual cruelty toward students.
As is clear from this story (as well as the story of my last run-in with my daughter’s teachers over the opt-out movement, which was the time when the principal threw the teachers under the bus), there are still teachers out there, like my daughter’s, who, for whatever reason, support PARCC and other forms of high-stakes standardized testing, so we opt-out parents are certainly not the tools of all teachers.
More to the point, though, as their leaders made manifestly clear at the 2015 Network for Public Education conferences, the national teachers unions’ leaders are most certainly only supportive of the reduction or elimination of high-stakes testing in public schools to the extent that they believe such support furthers their own ends.
In 2015, as the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“ESEA,” then also known as “No Child Left Behind” or “NCLB,” and now in its reauthorized form known as the “Every Student Succeeds Act” or “ESSA”) was on the table, Randi Weingarten of the AFT in particular (although as a practical matter NEA has been no better on this point) explained her refusal to support the Tester Amendment to ESEA, which would have eliminated No Child Left Behind’s annual testing requirement in favor of only a grade-span testing requirement: i.e., under the Tester amendment state testing in ELA and math would have been required only once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school. Randi explained that this was a sacrifice she could make to ensure that the union had a seat at the table for issues that mattered more to it. In other words, Randi was ready and willing to sell out children and their parents on the over testing issue to maintain her own access to power.
Here is some of what I was tweeting back then as I listened to her speak:
This year at NPE, the AFT’s vice president used a similar line of argument to justify their union’s shockingly early endorsement of Hillary Clinton. Personally, I’m not sure what good a seat at the table does either of the teachers’ union when their input is ignored every step of the way, just as I’m not sure why they’d support the continuation of annual testing, which is the key ingredient in state plans to evaluate teachers based on their students’ year-over-year change in standardized test scores (a policy that hurts students and teachers).
The vast majority of teachers work desperately, often under frightful pressure to the contrary, to provide pedagogically sound, developmentally appropriate, humane education to their students, and as a former teacher myself, I appreciate their work immensely. But as a parent, I have no particular love for the union’s long history of refusing to self-police, as a semi-professional association, their own members. We lawyers are far from perfect at this, but like doctors, we do try, and lawyers are disbarred, suspended, and/or admonished every year. Teachers’ failures to self-police their ranks are, in my opinion, a major contributor to the false but widespread myth that our nation’s public schools, as a whole, are failing. People remember their outlier bad teachers, and judge the system by them.
I often wonder whether many of the absurd policy prescriptions advocated by so-called education reformers could be avoided or eliminated by sending reformers to psychologists for counseling to resolve residual trauma leftover from one or more bad relationships they had with their teachers during their own childhoods. Instead, however, reformers seek to do what I, too, would like to see done: to advocate a policy that would result in getting rid of teachers who are embarrassment to the profession. It is not that their goal is wrongheaded: it is merely that their methods are nonsensical and at best only tangentially related to their goals.
Reformers seek to identify and fire teachers based on student performance on standardized tests. Their theory goes that if a child can’t demonstrate gains on these tests, regardless of how poorly designed, invalid, unreliable, culturally biased, and flawed they may be, then that is proof positive that the child’s teacher hasn’t done his or her job. That, of course, is silly, as a million other factors may have affected that child’s results. Indeed, to some degree as a parent I’m more concerned by a teacher with an excellent record of standardized test results, as there is a good chance that indicates a teacher who is crassly willing to sell out his or her principles to do the worst forms of test-prep. It’s the cheerleaders for testing and those whose ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance is so well-developed that they honestly believe that the crappy nightly reading passages with related multiple-choice questions aren’t test prep that I, as a parent, fear. The teachers who are testing cheerleaders are, in my experience, the most likely to also be guilty of shoddy pedagogy, poor judgment, and/or casual or thoughtless cruelty to students.
For me, the metric isn’t student performance on standardized tests. For me, the metrics that merit firing a teacher are — after having met with the teacher over time to identify the issues and offer suggestions and opportunities for improvement — continuing shoddy pedagogical practices, consistently poor judgment, and a serious track-record of casual cruelty to students. None of those can be measured effectively by a teacher’s student’s standardized test results, but all of those can be documented and substantiated over time by an administrator willing to do the work. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think all teachers should be entitled to due process given the enormous pressure and competing points of view forced on them by parents, students, and administrators — of course I do — but administrators need to stand up and do their jobs so that teachers’ due process rights do not somehow prohibit the eventual firing of subpar teachers who refuse to show improvement.
And in point of fact, there are relatively few teachers whose practice is so continually bad that they should be fired. Indeed, I think my daughter’s teachers should be counseled and supported (and provided with some professional development that includes basic civics instruction on what public school teachers cannot do), but frustrated as I am with their judgment regarding the candy, I don’t think this alone is anywhere near a firing offense.
So as a parent, at best I’m in constant tension with teachers unions’ even lukewarm support of the opt-out movement, as teachers’ union support of opting-out naturally puts teachers’ — and not students’ — best interests at heart. Specifically, here in New Jersey, while I’m appreciative of the support that the NJEA gave to the opt-out movement in 2015 and to a lesser degree through its New Jersey Kids and Families initiative in 2016, I am nevertheless under no illusion that as soon as the NJEA sees the opt-out movement and its proponents as enemies rather than allies, the NJEA will sell us out as quickly as you can say Chapter 78 contributions.
I think the unions’ — especially the national unions’ — willingness to sell out students and parents is simply a fact of life, but as a parent advocate it’s why I feel that the parent movement against high-stakes testing is in an uneasy truce, at best, with teachers’ unions. Yes, I have a New Jersey Kids and Family bought “Our Family Refuses PARCC” sign on my lawn and it makes me happy to see lots of those signs around my town, but although yay — it was free to me — the provenance of that particular sign makes me uncomfortable. I’d just as leave have bought my own sign, as I did back in 2015.
I would love it if the leadership of our local union would issue guidance to teachers around refusing students, so that kids like mine are never again placed in the uncomfortable position of feeling like they need to tattle on their teachers to their parents. But as a parent, I understand that the union’s job is to look out for its membership, and my job is to look out for my children. Supportive as I might be of teachers and, generally speaking, of their unions, when push comes to shove, I, like any parent, will choose my kids every time. Those simple facts: that for parents, our children, all children, and public education in general are our priorities, not knee-jerk support of teachers union, drives home the fact that the opt-out movement is a parent-led movement, and neither a union-led movement nor the opportunistic manipulation of parents by teachers’ unions. Indeed, one of my concerns about the more extreme reaches of the parent-led opt-out movement is that even after reason returns to the use of testing, educators are not going to be able to put the opt-out movement genie back in the bottle. I hope that someday when we win this fight, I, as a parent-leader, will be able to be effective at helping to convince parents to “opt-in.”
P.S. A silver lining to this debacle with my kid’s teachers is that in the course of our discussion of the use of candy as a so-called “refocusing strategy,” my kid learned what the term Orwellian means. We discussed the premises of Orwell’s Animal Farm as well as 1984, while sitting out on our neighbor’s stoop. This then led to an enlightening discussion with a Cuban immigrant who was part of the conversation. She told us, partially with the help of our other neighbor as interpreter, about the restrictions on free speech and lack of food, money, and resources she experienced under Castro in Cuba.
P.P.S. I’m sure that some teachers are going to be upset with me for “teacher bashing.” To them, I say two things: (1) we can’t even begin to learn to talk to each other if that talking means we can’t identify and call out problems when we see them and (2) if these teachers don’t want to be held accountable for their poor judgment, perhaps they shouldn’t display such poor judgment.