Just Vote No

Tomorrow, the NJ State Assembly is scheduled to vote on Assembly Bill No. 4957. Its synopsis says that it “Revises provisions of law concerning graduation proficiency test and eliminates requirement that graduation proficiency test be administered in eleventh grade.”

In point of fact, however, the bill does far more than that.

In Section 1(a), it allows New Jersey’s current requirement for a single high school proficiency test — singular, not plural — to be replaced by “a Statewide assessment or assessments” — note that final “s” in assessments. What that little letter means is that to graduate, all students can be required to take as many assessments — i.e., testS — as any particular governor’s State Board of Education feels like throwing at them. In theory, there is nothing in this bill that could stop a State Board of Education from requiring 180 assessmentS per year. So on Monday your kid could need to “prove” that he can correctly use a semicolon; on Wednesday your kid could need to “prove” that she can solve simple quadratic equations; on Friday your kid could need to “prove” that they can pass a multi-choice test on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Under Senator Ruiz and Assemblywoman Lampitt’s bill, the sky’s the limit.

The bill also gets rid of the prior requirement that this test be given in 11th grade. Now the test or tests can be given in as many grades as our legislators care to designate. Heck, let’s start high school exit exams for kindergarteners! I mean, after all, this bill is so vague that it literally appears to give our State Board of Education the power to do that. In all seriousness, this could require an unlimited number of tests in 9th grade, in 10th grade, in 11th grade…. the sky’s the limit (see below for a discussion of what this is likely to mean in practice).

But wait! There’s more… In Section 6, this bill allows the current requirement that the high school exit exam test “measure those basic skills all students must possess to function politically, economically and socially in a democratic society” (see N.J.S.A. Section 18:7C-6.1) to be morphed into a requirement that the assessment or assessments be “designed to test high school proficiency.” Yes, in one fell swoop this bill would also move us from a basic skills test intended to ensure that all high school students have minimum basic skills in “reading, writing and computational skills” (see N.J.S.A. 18:7C-1) — historically, this was implemented to put an end to horrible stories about young people graduating from high school without knowing how to read — to some unspecified and arbitrary level of high school “proficiency” that would require our engineers to be equally proficient as our poets to be equally as proficient as our cabinetmakers or glass blowers.

What seems clear here is that someone — likely someone with a large investment in education technology/software companies who is also whispering in Senator Ruiz’s ear — wants this legislation to pass, and to pass NOW.

These days so-called “personalized learning,” generally means, in practice, students passing computerized test after computerized test to “prove” that they’ve achieved a whole bunch of arbitrary “skills” as measured by those computer-based tests. See, for example, Peter Greene’s excellent discussion, here, in which he explains that personalized learning is really just personalized pacing, and that this is not a new concept, especially for those of us of a certain age who remember those rainbow-colored SRA boxes full of reading passages that we worked more or less diligently in our elementary school classrooms. Further, Maine recently piloted just such an approach, which was an epic disaster that went down in flames. See this article about the mess. Or this one. Or this one. Or maybe this one. In effect, what software companies are trying to make happen through their political stooges like Senator Ruiz is to make reality out of Isaac Asimov’s cautionary 1951 science fiction story, The Fun They Had. (Seriously, click the link and read the story — it’s amazing how prescient he was 68 years ago.)

What is terrifying about Senator Ruiz’s bill is that it creates the legislative scaffolding that could be used to set up a scheme where students have to pass five, ten, or even fifty or a hundred separate “mini-assessments” of “high school proficiency” skills to obtain a New Jersey high school diploma.

Education Law Center and the New Jersey Department of Education have already ensured that the classes of 2019 and 2020 are set to graduate under the current high school exit exam law (remember, only 12 states have a law of this sort of all, so perhaps we should take a pause to consider the consequences of keeping such a law in place). What’s more is that they’ve given us two years of breathing room to ensure that we can come up with sensible and well thought through options for subsequent class years. Senator Ruiz, however, is trying to do an end-run around that compromise by pushing Assembly Speaker Coughlin to list this poorly-thought through and poorly-vetted bill for a vote tomorrow.

If you live in New Jersey, call, email, instagram, Facebook message, and Tweet your Assembly Members now. Leave voicemails. Urge them to vote no. Remind them that they’re up for election this November and that you will remember in November.

Look up your legislators HERE.

Technology has its place in public education (I’m sure glad I can use a calculator rather than a slide rule, and some software is great for things like memorizing math facts). But folks like Senator Ruiz are rushing through this legislation out of a misguided belief that technology trumps teachers, that standardized tests are magic tools of learning, and that human relationships are irrelevant to student success.

If this bill by some miracle does not pass tomorrow, then I urge you to buy your legislators Harvard professor Daniel Koretz’s book The Testing Charade. (If the bill fails I will go ahead and spring to send a copy to Senator Ruiz although I will wait for the paperback to be released on March 8th.) Koretz conclusively demonstrates that our kids deserve so much better than yet another testing mess, which is all that this bill, if passed, would bring us.

Do yourself — and your kids — a favor. Urge your legislators to vote no.

Education Haiku

It’s been a bit since my last post. One of the things (other than, ahem, returning to school for a third graduate degree because I truly am a glutton for punishment love learning) that keeps me busy is helping out around the periphery with the amazing folks who are involved with a local political engagement/transparency group, NJ 11th for Change. For those who don’t know, the fabulous folks at NJ 11th for Change are amazing grassroots advocates who are now focused for 2019 on mobilizing to bring some sunlight to New Jersey politics, which is a tall order indeed (they did it in December, when they were part of a coalition that put the kibosh on the NJ Democratic machine’s ridiculous plan to enshrine gerrymandering for all time through an incredibly partisan legislative redistricting proposal).

I’m not sure how long she’s been doing it for, but a few weeks ago in the NJ 11th for Change Members’ Facebook group, I first encountered one of member Gail Lalk’s brilliant posts in which she asks folks to distill down their thoughts about political topics by posting in Haiku form. These posts change the conversation in remarkable ways.

As Gail said when I asked whether I could credit her here:

I like being queen!

I’m now the Haiku lady

It’s pretty funny.

Anyway, I couldn’t resist this morning’s Gail-created Haiku challenge. She wrote:

Haiku challenge topic (your response doesn’t have to be a haiku unless you enjoy that):

Education talk

What can we do to improve

What is taught to kids?

There were quite a few thought-provoking responses, but I found myself on a bit of a roll…

Students and teachers

Building trust, caring, and love

Are key to learning

* * *

Computers and tests

Cannot smile, crack a joke

Build community

* * *

Shared knowledge and skills

Respect and honor for all

Reduce class sizes

* * *

Fund equitably

Fight segregation and hate

Build democracy

* * *

Give each kid a chance

Fund wrap-around services

Community Schools

* * *

Not one size fits all

Kids are individuals

Recognize talents

* * *

I encourage you to let Gail inspire you (as she inspired me) and to add your own education aspirational Haiku in the comments…

Appellate Division Kills Zombie PARCC

Please note that nothing in the opinions expressed below is meant to or actually does provide specific legal advice for any particular individuals or entities. Boards of Education, parents, educators, students, and others should consult attorneys to discuss how this ruling applies to their particular circumstances. (I apologize for any formatting errors — Wordpress clearly hates me.)

Today, the New Jersey Superior Court’s Appellate Division (for you non-New Jersey attorneys out there, this is New Jersey’s intermediate appellate court) held that New Jersey’s current graduation exit exam regulations are invalid as they are because they directly conflict with the state’s graduation exit exam law. (Link to Opinion)

The Appellate Division then stayed its ruling for 30 days to give the State the opportunity to seek to appeal the decision to New Jersey’s Supreme Court. If the State does not appeal the decision or if New Jersey’s Supreme Court refuses to take the case, then 30 days from now the current graduation testing regulations (but not the graduation exit exam law) will be thrown out in New Jersey.

The questions before us, then, as activists, parents, and educators, are (a) where did this opinion come from; (b) what did the Court decide; (c) what does the decision mean; (d) where do we go from here?

Where Did This Opinion Come From?

As the opinion summarizes, back in 1979, the New Jersey legislature first passed a law requiring that a graduation exit exam be administered to all New Jersey public high school students. That law has been updated a number of times. In 1988, the graduation exit exam law was updated to move the test from 9th grade to 11th grade (I recall this fairly clearly, because as a 1991 New Jersey high school graduate, I took versions of the exit test in both 9th and 11th grades). The state legislature has not changed the grade-level requirement of the graduation test since 1988.

Practically speaking, the way that our government actually works, however, is that a legislature passes a law that is fairly broad. The executive branch (the governor and the state agencies) are then tasked with enforcing the law passed by the legislature. What those state agencies and board do, as a practical matter, is to enact rules (we call them regulations) that nail down the specifics of how the law is going to function in practice. Those regulations cannot contradict the law they’re enacting, but beyond that, the state agencies have broad authority to pass regulations to enact the law as they see fit. In this case, in 2016, the New Jersey State Board of Education enacted regulations that replaced the 11th grade HSPA (High School Proficiency Assessment) with the 10th grade PARCC ELA test and the PARCC Algebra I test (which can be administered anywhere between about 7th and and 12th grades here in NJ).

As many of us — myself included — argued at the time, the 2016 regulations setting PARCC ELA 10 and PARCC Algebra I did, however, expressly contradict the state law, which specifically requires an 11th grade test. New Jersey has two mechanisms for invalidating regulations that contradict statute: (1) the state legislature can pass resolutions that invalidate the regulations as contradictory to the statute they seek to enact or (2) the courts can declare regulations invalid as contradictory to the statute they seek to enact. My local State Senator, Senator Nia Gill (D-34th legislative district and, incidentally, a true hero of public education as well as of democracy and the democratic process more generally) introduced precisely such a resolution, SCR-132, in the State Senate (and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey introduced a companion resolution, ACR-215, in the State Assembly). The Assembly resolution passed, but the State Senate’s twin cartoon villains of public education, Senate President Steve “I Hate Teachers” Sweeney and Senate Education Committee Chair Teresa “Temper Tantrum” Ruiz, refused to list the Senate resolution for a vote. Instead, they issued a rhetorically pleasant but legally meaningless letter agreeing that the regulations violated the statute.

Only one option remained — we needed the Courts to invalidate the regulations. Thankfully, more heroes of public education emerged. The Latino Action Network, Latino Coalition for New Jersey, Paterson Education Fund, Education Law Center, and NAACP New Jersey State Conference (together, the “Appellants”) filed suit against the state seeking to invalidate the 2016 graduation regulations.

That case wound its way through our court system. Unfortunately, the wheels of justice grind slowly, so it wasn’t until October 29, 2018 that the Appellate Division heard oral argument on the court case. And then today, on New Years’ Eve 2018, close to three years after the regulations contradicting the state statute were first presented to the public, the New Jersey Appellate Division issued an opinion invalidating the regulations as contradictory to the state statute because— in short— they require non-11th grade testing to serve as the 11th grade graduation exit exam. It is an excellent and well-reasoned opinion, although I will admit to personally feeling a high degree of frustration with how slowly the wheels of democracy and justice have turned in this case.

What Did the Court Decide?

The Appellants argued that the regulations are contrary to the plain language of the law, which (a) required a single comprehensive assessment examination and (b) required that the single comprehensive assessment examination be administered to students in 11th grade. (FN: The also made some state constitutional arguments and Law Against Discrimination arguments that I’m going to ignore for the sake of simplicity since the Court didn’t decide the case on those arguments.)

First, it’s worth nothing exactly how egregious the Appellate Division said the regulations were. In New Jersey, as in most of the country, because of separation of powers concerns, the courts give great deference to regulations enacted by executive branch agencies. A court will only step in to invalidate agency regulations if it literally has no other choice because the discrepancy between the regulation and the statute is so egregious that there is no way that the court can find that the regulation is not “plainly at odds with the statute.” To be clear, that is what happened here.

Specifically, the Appellate Division decided that there was absolutely no way that it could read the words “11th grade test” to mean Algebra I test given sometime between 7th and 12th grade and 10th grade English test.” (An editorial aside from me: one of the many ironies here is that the State Board of Education’s insane reading of the statute would clearly be marked as a wrong answer on any PARCC test!) In the opinion, the Court sets out the State’s attempts to twist itself into a pretzel to square the regulations with the law but rejects them, writing, with typical judicial understatement: “The argument is unpersuasive.” Id. at 15. Instead, the Court is unequivocal in its judgment: “We hold, therefore, that to the extent the regulations required testing of non-eleventh-grade students, they are contrary to the Act and are invalid.” Id.

The Appellate Division further holds that “the regulations violate the Act to the extent they specifically authorize multiple tests administered in grades other than eleventh grade.” Id. at 16-17.The Appellate Division reasons that the statute’s language specifying a “test” rather than “tests” means that a statutorily-compliant graduation exit exam must mean one high school graduation proficiency exam rather than PARCC’s multiple end-of-course exams. Id. at 16.

It is also important to note that the Appellate Division says that the regulatory provisions offering substitute competency tests instead of re-testing with an appropriate 11th grade test is a violation of the statute, which further calls into question whether there is any hope that the revised graduation regulations currently wending their way through the enactment process could be construed to be facially valid (SPOILER ALERT: they cannot).

But perhaps most exciting for test refusers, is the Appellate Division’s conclusion that any 12th grader who has not passed PARCC must be offered an option to prove graduation proficiency “‘utilizing techniques and instruments’ adopted by DOE ‘other than standardized tests. . .’” That is, the Appellate Division also held that the graduation exit test statute “compels DOE to provide for alternative methods of assessing proficiency other than through PARCC testing or any other standardized testing process.” Id. at 19.

What Does The Opinion Mean?

In short, the Appellate Division has invalidated the 2016 regulations in their entirety. What this means is that if the opinion stands, the graduation exit exam law itself remains valid and on the books — but that as soon as this opinion goes into effect, New Jersey will not actually have a designated graduation exit exam. This is obviously a problem for students who hope to graduate in June of 2019 and beyond, as the current statute lists meeting the graduation exit exam requirement as a necessary condition to be granted a state-endorsed high school diploma.

It also appears to mean that when and if an appropriate 11th grade test is chosen, the State cannot compel students to take it, and instead must offer any and all students who refuse the test the opportunity to demonstrate that they have met the state’s proficiency standards through a non-testing process.

Complicating matters further, the State Board of Education in conjunction with the State Department of Education is currently in the process of enacting new graduation exit exam requirements, but the opinion makes it clear that proposed regulations are also invalid because the proposed regulations (a) continue to specify a 10th grade ELA test and the Algebra I test as the graduation tests; (b) continue to offer the menu of secondary options that the Appellate Division has decided are contradictory to the plain language of the statute; and (c) do not provide access to a non-standardized testing means of proving proficiency for those students who do not first take one of the gateway standardized tests.

What Are New Jersey’s Options?

The Appellate Division stayed its order for 30 days to allow the State the opportunity to seek certiorari from the New Jersey Supreme Court. As a preliminary matter, Governor Murphy should refuse to allow the State to file a petition for certiorari. If the State refuses to appeal the decision, then the Appellate Division opinion will stand and 30 days from today parents, educators, and voters will have some certainty to allow us to determine next steps. Not only would this be Governor Murphy taking concrete decision to keep his campaign promise to “scrap the PARCC,” it would also let policy makers move forward on legislation and rule-making without concern that the courts could pull the rug out from under any potential agreement.

It seems to me that the most immediate need is to give everyone some breathing room to let the litigation process play out and then to assess where we should go from here. Fortunately, some of our state senators and members of the state assembly have already introduced legislation that would do precisely that. A672/S558 are proposed bills currently pending in the legislature that would remove the graduation exit testing requirements for the classes of 2019 and 2020 to give stakeholders time to come up with a solution.

Whether the PARCC cheerleaders in the assembly and senate, led by Senate Education Committee Chair Teresa “Temper Tantrum” Ruiz and State Senate President Steve “I Hate Teachers and Their Union” Sweeney would be willing to move these bills for the sake of New Jersey’s kids, however, is an open question. Sadly, even though enacting A672/S558 would be a no-brainer, it seems to me that given her antics this fall regarding the State Board of Education’s consideration of even the modest loosening of the graduation regulations currently pending, Senator Ruiz is unlikely to do this or anything else that makes sense when it comes to the education of New Jersey’s children.

Assuming we cannot get some breathing room through the legislative process, the State Board of Education is going to have to kick their rule-making process into overdrive. It seems to me that the possible rule-making approaches to fixing the mess that they themselves have made are, in no particular order, the following:

  1. If possible, revive HSPA starting this spring while working on a plan for the future. The downsides to this are (a) it is unclear whether this is possible or whether any form of HSPA currently exists; (b) HSPA does not purport to test the current state education standards; (c) the state recently gave a contract for this spring’s testing to a testing entity that is not HSPA; and (d) this year’s 12th graders were not afforded an opportunity to take HSPA in 11th grade, so it is unclear whether such an approach would meet the standard set forth by the Appellate Division.
  2. Designate PARCC ELA 11 (or NJSLA ELA 11 or Zombie PARCC or whatever we might be calling it now) as the ELA portion of the high school proficiency test. The downsides to this are that (a) it doesn’t solve the math issue; (b) this would still require multiple tests, which it seems won’t pass muster under the Appellate Division’s approach; (c) the proposed regulations just eliminated this test; and (d) it continues to stick New Jersey’s students with PARCC/Zombie PARCC.
  3. Designate the SAT General Test (or the ACT) as the graduation exit test. The downsides to this are (a) the State or Districts will have to last-minute find the money to pay to have all 11th graders take this test (as well as make retakes available to 12th graders); (b) we will still have to attempt to administer the PARCC/Zombie PARCC tests to high school students meet federal ESSA testing requirements; (c) by all accounts the new SAT is not a particularly good test; and (d) this year’s 12th graders were not necessarily afforded the opportunity to take the SAT for free in 11th grade.

What Can We Education Activists, Parents, and Educators Do Now to Help Resolve This Mess?

Refuse to allow your children to test. The Appellate Division has made it clear that students can refuse to test without jeopardizing their high school graduation. Use your rights. Refuse to allow your children to sit for these tests. Educate your local Boards of Education, superintendents, and testing coordinators about the impact of this opinion, and urge everyone you know to refuse high-stakes standardized testing this year, and help us to put PARCC/Zombie PARCC out of its misery once and for all.

Behind Closed Doors

In her opening remarks this morning at a hastily convened Joint Senate & Assembly Education Committee hearing, New Jersey State Senator M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29) announced her position that the decision regarding how to handle the state’s move away from the bungled PARCC assessment should be made “behind closed doors.”

She. Really. Said. That.

Behind closed doors.

She wants to throw our kids under the bus behind closed doors.

In secret.

Privately.

So that there will be nothing you or I can do until it’s too late.

Apparently Senator Ruiz, a George Norcross-Steve Sweeney aligned Democrat-in-Name-Only, is no longer going to hide her Trump-like inclination to govern secretly. By fiat. This is Democracy, 2018-style: policy that affects your kids and mine should be made behind closed doors.

It seems clear that Senator Ruiz wants deals to be made behind closed doors so that the parents, teachers, and community members with whom she disagrees can be shut out of the process. She literally wants to slam the door in our faces, just as her allies in the Christie administration did for eight years. Little wonder, I suppose…given that she seems to be the last cheerleader standing for the PARCC assessments.

So, let’s rewind.

Who is Senator Ruiz hiding from?

  • Is she hiding from the approximately 100 parents, students, teachers, school board members, and other New Jersey citizens who testified on January 7, 2015 regarding the mess PARCC created in our schools?
  • Is she hiding from the hundreds of parents, educators, students, and community leaders who spoke before the Governor’s PARCC study commission in the winter of 2015? With the lone exception of the NJPTA, which coincidentally accepted a large grant from the pro-PARCC Gates Foundation, the hundreds of testimonies before that commission universally opposed PARCC. (Nevertheless, the Commission’s final report completely ignored their perspective.)
  • Is she hiding from the standing room only crowd that testified in February 2015 at the Assembly Education Committee in support of two PARCC opt-out bills that she later refused to allow to be heard before her Senate Education Committee?
  • Is she hiding from the full-house crowd that attended a May 18, 2015 Senate Education Committee hearing that she finally scheduled to consider some watered-down PARCC bills?
  • Is she hiding from the parents and educators who took the time in the fall of 2015 to attend the bogus “Listening Tour” sessions organized around Chris Christie’s cynical presidential-run inspired renaming of the Common Core standards?
  • Is she hiding from the parents and educators who took the time — in May 2016, in June 2016, and again in the fall of 2016 — to travel to the State Board of Education to oppose the asinine regulations that will — if left unchanged — make PARCC ELA-10 and PARCC Algebra I the only paths to graduation for hundreds of thousands of New Jersey students starting with this year’s high school sophomores?
  • Is she hiding from the parents and educators who turned out — again and again — at every step along the way to oppose expanding New Jersey’s standardized testing mandates as well as the graduation requirements built (as even she agrees) in violation of the clear language of the state statute around those expanded testing schemes?
  • Is she hiding from the parents, students, and educators who finally showed up in April 2017 at Senate President Sweeney’s office to demand that he direct Senator Ruiz to do her job and post SCR132 for a vote? (If Senator Ruiz had ever been willing to allow her committee to consider it, this resolution would have declared the PARCC graduation requirement regulations inconsistent with the authorizing legislation as PARCC calls for use of Algebra I and ELA 10 tests, but the graduation requirement statute requires an 11th grade test. Even Senator Ruiz, in an April 2017 letter, agreed that the regulations should be amended to make them comply with the graduation statute.)
  • Is she hiding from the over 2,000 New Jersey parents, teachers, students, and concerned citizens mobilized by a Save Our Schools New Jersey action alert who sent emails to the New Jersey Board of Education supporting the new regulations last week before the vote on the regulations was tabled?
  • Is she hiding from the annoyed, angry, frustrated, and sad parents, educators, and students who have become cynical as can be about government precisely because of her obstructionism and the obstructionism and lack of open communication of those like her?

Why, exactly, does Senator Ruiz think she needs to hide behind closed doors? Is it because she can no longer hide behind Chris Christie?

All Commissioner Repollet’s revised PARCC graduation regulations really do is to effectively maintain the status quo for graduation exit exams — i.e., they provide our young people in the class of 2021 and beyond with the option to rely on the current smorgasbord of standardized test options (SAT, ACT, ASVAB, Accuplacer, etc.) to satisfy the state graduation testing requirement available to the class of 2019. The only other real change they make is that they seek to eliminate the wasteful additional high school PARCC exams (those for ELA 9 and 11 as well as those for Geometry and Algebra II) given that much of that material is assessed on the current smorgasbord of optional tests.

Senator Ruiz objects to this approach for two reasons. First, she argues that some high school kids don’t take APs and college entrance exams, and she thinks those high school kids should be tested a lot too (PARCC Algebra I and PARCC ELA 10 apparently aren’t enough for her). What is missing from the Senator’s analysis, however, is how more time prepping for additional tests is going to help those kids become better readers, writers, thinkers, and speakers. What I am left to wonder is whether Senator Ruiz wants to keep high school kids so busy preparing for and taking successive PARCC tests that they won’t have time to question why legislators like her think that governing should take place behind closed doors.

Second, Senator Ruiz and her even more clueless sidekick Assemblywoman Lampitt argue that changing the current regulations would create additional chaos in New Jersey’s public schools. But what Senator Ruiz and Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt fail to consider is that it is the current regulations — with their upcoming PARCC or bust trigger for the class of 2021 and beyond — are what are poised to create chaos of epic proportions among New Jersey’s public school students. As of now, only 29% of New Jersey students are positioned to graduate using only PARCC (as opposed to using PARCC plus the smorgasbord of additional options). If these regulations are indefinitely tabled as Senator Ruiz and Assemblywoman Lampitt demand, I look forward to watching them face hordes of angry new 18 year old voters who are not going to be granted high school diplomas in 2021… right when both of them will be seeking reelection.

Unlike Senator Ruiz and Assemblywoman Lampitt, who spent today’s hearing grandstanding, Governor Phil Murphy’s appointee, Commissioner Repollet, actually has New Jersey’s students’ best interests at heart. Commissioner Repollet’s interim regulations are meant to give us some breathing space while the Department of Education — and not career politicians — engages in thoughtful vetting of new assessment options. The Commissioner’s make-haste-slowly approach (as exasperating as it is to parents like me, who want to throw tantrums and demand that PARCC be eliminated NOW) will allow New Jersey’s current sophomores and below to step away from the precipice on which the current regulations have placed them, and puts New Jersey’s students before loyalty to the testing companies. New Jersey’s students would be far better served if Senator Ruiz backed off from her fact-devoid, Trump-style hissy fit and actually demonstrated some of the critical thinking skills she claims PARCC can assess. But sadly, that is far too much to ask of machine-controlled politicians like Senator Ruiz.

World School

Dear Readers,

I apologize for my long silence this year. I’ve been trying to keep a lot of balls in the air, and education blogging has somewhat fallen by the wayside. Also, I’ve been fortunate that both of my kids are having really positive school years this year, which is great for them, but makes it easy for me to get complacent about blogging. On my to-do list is to write a post for this blog about how wonderful it is to have a year in which our local public schools are fulfilling their promise of what a democratically-governed public education can and should be. That all said, I continue to follow education news closely, and a week ago Monday I did publish this Op Ed about the latest PARCC politics here in New Jersey:

http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/17/03/19/op-ed-the-legislative-importance-of-pushing-back-against-parcc/

One of my major projects this year, however, has been preparing for a different sort of adventure. Feeding into a dream I’ve had at some at least subconscious level ever since reading John Holt’s Instead of Education back in college, our family is preparing for a year-long journey around the world, which has been in the works for about four years now. For more details about what we plan to do, where we plan to go, how we’re planning to educate our kids, and why we’re doing this, please check out this Q&A I did with Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/03/27/parents-to-world-school-their-two-daughters-for-a-year-with-a-flexible-travel-schedule-and-a-broad-curriculum/?utm_term=.139757d53ac3

If you would like to follow our adventures, please follow our new family blog, Blaine Voyage (like “Bon Voyage,” because we’re dorky nerds that way), which is linked here

I will certainly stay up to date on education politics and policy while I’m traveling (and hopefully even have more time to write about it where I think I have useful insight to share), and I’m hopeful that all of you fellow pro-public education activists will help me find opportunities to visit schools across the country once their summer breaks end, and ideally around the world.  To the extent that our adventures deal with specifically education focused topics, I will cross-post here, but I don’t want to burden you with what is essentially a family/travel blog, so if you want all the details, please follow Blaine Voyage. Thank you all for reading my posts over the past three years. This blog isn’t going away, and hopefully I will even update it a bit more regularly.

Best regards,

Sarah

An Open Letter to Senator Susan Collins (R-ME)

Dear Senator Collins:

Almost nineteen years ago, on my twenty-fifth birthday, I sat in a conference room on the University of Maine and had dinner with the cohort of pre-service teachers I’d be together with for the next 13 months as we studied to obtain our entry-level Maine public school teaching certificates in the University of Maine’s M.A.T. program. I spent the following academic year interning and then student teaching in some of Maine’s public schools, including Old Town High Schooland Hampden Academy. I learned the craft of teaching from excellent, highly-trained, and deeply experienced mentor teachers, and studied with some top-notch University of Maine professors. That spring, I accepted a job teaching high school English at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School.

I am originally from New Jersey, and after two years of teaching at OHCHS, I moved back to New Jersey, where my mother was battling cancer. But Maine – and particularly Maine’s education system and Maine’s students – remain dear to my heart.

One of the two most important courses I took during my master’s program at the University of Maine was my course in inclusion of students with disabilities in general education classrooms. In that course, I learned about the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §1400, et seq. (“IDEA”), and what my responsibilities were going to be as a general education teacher tasked with educating students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment, as required by IDEA.

As I am sure you know as a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, what the least restrictive environment means is that children with special needs are required by law to be placed in a general education classroom or a setting as close to the general education setting as much as possible consistent with that child’s right to receive a free and appropriate public education. That is, the least restrictive environment provision is IDEA’s anti-segregation provision: it precludes public schools from simply shunting students with disabilities off to the side, separate and unequal, with little or no meaningful access to peer interaction with typically developing students.

During the two years in which I taught at OHCHS, I attended countless IEP meetings, and worked diligently to effectively implement IEPs in my classroom. I served students with all sorts of special needs in my general education classroom, and I believe all students – both typically developing and those with special needs – benefited from learning together. When appropriate, I also supported decisions to move children in my classroom out of my classroom to resource rooms or other environments that could better meet their needs, as the least restrictive environment must be determined on a case-by-case basis, and sometimes is not the general education classroom. I always thought carefully about those decisions, and worked to make sure that my general education classroom was as inclusive as possible for students with special needs.

When I returned to New Jersey, I left teaching and eventually enrolled in law school. In private practice, my proudest work to date has been my work as a pro bono attorney on impact litigation filed by disability and education advocates to try to force New Jersey’s Department of Education to faithfully implement the least restrictive environment provisions of IDEA, as New Jersey, unlike Maine, had – and sadly continues to have – one of the worst records in the country on including students with special needs in general education settings. Unlike my requirement in Maine almost twenty years ago, to this day, New Jersey does not require its pre-service general education teachers to take even one credit of coursework specifically aimed at learning to teach students with special needs in general education classrooms, which I believe at least partly explains New Jersey’s problematic record on implementing the least restrictive environment provisions of IDEA.

At this point, it is apparent that the only thing that might help New Jersey enter the 21st Century on this issue would be meaningful enforcement of IDEA’s least restrictive environment provisions by some combination of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs and Office of Civil Rights. As a result, it is imperative that the Secretary of Education – of either party – have considerable expertise in the language, provisions, implementation, and enforcement of IDEA (and Section 504).

I watched Betsy DeVos’s HELP committee hearing, and I’m watching the vote (well, actually, this far into the letter, the procedural wrangling following the vote) live right now. What boggles my mind is what one of your colleagues – I can’t recall which one right now – just said about the U.S. Department of Education having essentially two jobs when it comes to K-12 education: (1) to carry out the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“ESEA”) and (2) to carry out IDEA. What was clear as day at Ms. DeVos’s HELP committee hearing was that Ms. DeVos was dangerously unfamiliar with at least one half of her job: that half of her job in which she’s tasked with ensuring implementation of IDEA.

As a cabinet level position, Secretary of Education cannot be an entry-level job. Yet there is no question that even I have significantly more familiarity and experience with IDEA than Ms. DeVos. When you were my Senator, I had great respect for you and your primary concern with effectively representing the people of Maine. You are no longer my Senator, but I continue to believe that you have integrity and that the people of Maine will support you so long as you vote your conscience.

As a fellow American, I urge you to vote no on Betsy DeVos when her nomination comes before the full Senate. Every child, parent, teacher, child study team member, and other educator or related services professional deserves an education leader in Washington who has significant expertise in his or her job. Half of Ms. DeVos’s job when it comes to K-12 education is implementing IDEA. Ms. DeVos demonstrated her lack of expertise in this area, and, even more concerning, has not expressed outrage at the fact that students with disabilities are being asked to waive their rights under IDEA if they want to access school voucher programs.

Our children, our parents, our teachers, and our country deserves better. Please put the people of Maine and the United States ahead of party loyalty. Please vote no on Betsy DeVos’s nomination when her nomination comes before the full Senate.

Very truly yours,

Sarah Blaine

State Board Testimony 9-7-16

STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION TESTIMONY – SEPTEMBER 7, 2016

I am here today to tell you a little bit about Montclair’s unique all-magnet public school system, how and why it came to exist, and to explain why the proposed Montclair Charter School would undermine the shared values that drew virtually every Montclair resident to our town. As you may know, Montclair is rare among New Jersey communities in that it is both economically and racially diverse and its public school population – unlike, for example, that of neighboring West Orange – mirrors the community’s demographics.[i]

Back in the 1960s, more than a decade after Brown v. Board of Education became the law of the land, housing in Montclair was largely segregated, and Montclair’s public schools were still largely segregated as well.  Parents from the Black community sued, and the community tried forced busing and other ideas to integrate the schools. Forced busing did not go over well, and the community was trying to balance the need to integrate the schools with avoiding “white flight.”  A group of parents were looking for alternatives, and traveled to Trenton to sit down with NJDOE officials to try to come up with a compromise. Out of that meeting, our all-magnet school system was born.[ii]

In the 40 years since, Montclair has implemented an all-magnet school system that eliminated neighborhood schools completely.  That is, where I live in town has no direct correlation to where my kids attend school.  Instead, the year before my oldest started kindergarten, I traipsed through all of our elementary schools to tour the buildings, learn about the magnet themes, which range from Science & Technology to our public Montessori elementary school, and to see the schools and faculty in action. At kindergarten registration, I not only provided vaccination forms and proof of residency: I also ranked, in order of preference, the six elementary school options available for my daughter.

The magnet system provides all Montclair parents with school choice – that is, we all get to prioritize our preferences for which elementary and middle schools our children will attend.  More importantly, it keeps our public schools integrated.  In 2010, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Louisville and Seattle school integration cases,[iii] our district engaged the Kirwan Institute out of The Ohio State University to design a plan to keep our magnet system functioning within the parameters of the new, more restrictive law.[iv]  Kirwan’s report included a startling statistic: even in 2010, if Montclair were to revert to neighborhood schools, one of our elementary schools would be 92% white, and another would be 77% Black.[v] Instead, by supporting our magnet system, we have been able to ensure that all of our elementary schools are integrated.  My younger daughter attends the school that would be 77% Black, and instead it is far more reflective of our community as a whole, in that it is 35% Black, 45% white, and the remainder mixed race, Latino, and Asian.[vi]

To make our magnet system work, however, for four decades our community has made two expensive commitments: (1) to provide the resources in support of our magnet themes that will draw families to schools across town from their homes and (2) to provide the courtesy busing that makes the magnet system function.  First, each magnet school must have unique offerings to draw parents to list schools further from home as their top choices.  Our Science & Technology magnets have stand-alone greenhouses, and dedicated science and technology teachers.  Our arts magnets offer dedicated drama and dance teachers.  It is those “extras” that draw families to schools across town from their homes.  Second, because Montclair is 6 miles from north to south, with the historically white neighborhood at one end of town and the historically black neighborhood at the other end, we rely on busing to ensure that all kids have a real choice of which school to attend.

If this charter school were to be approved, we’d be forced to cut at least $3.1 million and upwards of $5 million or more from our public school budget.  Because of the governor’s property tax cap and Montclair’s already high property taxes, there is no question that we’d be forced to dramatically cut the district’s budget.  As we saw following the cuts to state aid in 2010, the go-to answers for decreasing Montclair’s budget are to (1) slash the magnet programs by closing schools and/or eliminating magnet theme resources and (2) reduce or eliminate courtesy busing.[vii]  Either would spell the end of our magnet system as we know it. Even if we give the charter the benefit of the doubt on its efficacy at recruiting equitably from all parts of our community, the budget-driven evisceration of our magnet system would effectively force the re-segregation of our public schools.  That is anathema to the values that drew us to Montclair.

Montclair is a unique community that is dedicated to its diverse, all-magnet public school system. Our schools aren’t perfect and there is room for improvement, but approving a charter school for Montclair would be like attempting to clip a hangnail with a chainsaw. As we’ve seen through the deluge of letters, emails, letters to the editor, and community outrage, virtually no one in our community – from students to seniors – wants or thinks we need this charter school.[viii]

Ninety-three percent of our school budget is directly funded by our local property taxes.  Since we have no local control over whether this charter opens, I am left to come here to beg you to use any and all influence you might have with the Commissioner to deny this charter application. Please do not force an unwanted, unneeded, destructive charter school on a public school system that is excellent although not perfect, but that is, nevertheless, the pride of our community.

Thank you.

ENDNOTES

[i] According to NJDOE statistics, Montclair High School is 48% white and 34% Black.  Montclair’s total population is 59% white and 32% Black.  West Orange High School is 19% white and 48% Black.  West Orange’s total population is 60% white and 26% Black.  See NJ School Performance Reports; U.S. Census Data.

[ii] See, e.g., S.S., a minor, by her guardians ad litem, J.A. & T.S. v. Montclair Bd. of Ed., 1997 WL 1038785 at *2 (EFPS Dec. 16, 1997), which recounts some of the history of Montclair’s desegregation litigation. The ALJ explained, “The circumstances which led to the instant litigation arose out of the decades-old efforts by the Montclair Board to deal as comprehensively as possible with de facto racial segregation in its public school system. See, Morean v. Bd. of Ed. of Montclair, 42 N.J. 237 (1964). Thus, 30 years ago, in Rice, et al v. Board of Education of the Township of Montclair, 1967 S.L.D., decided by the Commissioner November 8, 1967, Montclair officially was ordered to take action to correct a racial imbalance in its public school system. Thereafter, various steps were taken to accomplish that result, not only to achieve a constitutionally acceptable pupil racial balance but, in addition and as part of that process, to introduce novel and creative concepts in learning.”

For a comprehensive discussion of the history of the Montclair magnet system and the meeting that led to the so-called “Mothers’ Plan,” see the 25-minute video, “Our Schools, Our Town” available on the Montclair PTA Council website at this link: http://montclairpta.org/dynamic/htmlos.cgi/pta/pages13/index.html?siteid=COUNCIL.

[iii] See Parents Involved in Cmty. Sch. v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007).

[iv] The Kirwan Institute report is available at http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/montclair_focus_group_report_2010_0310.pdf.

[v] See id. at 20.

[vi] See New Jersey School Performance Report for Nishuane School, Montclair, 2014-2015.

[vii] See http://baristanet.com/2010/03/montclair_boe_school_budget_meeting/.

[viii] Below please find links to the 25 Letters to the Editor that have run in The Montclair Times opposing this charter application.  Not one letter has been printed supporting it, and my understanding is that no such letter has been submitted.

  • 5/26  Cary Chevat  “Charter off course”

http://www.northjersey.com/opinion/opinion-letters-to-the-editor/montclair-times-letter-cary-chevat-charter-off-course-1.1605382

http://www.northjersey.com/opinion/opinion-letters-to-the-editor/montclair-times-letter-colleen-martinez-would-charter-serve-special-needs-students-1.1636052

http://www.northjersey.com/opinion/opinion-letters-to-the-editor/montclair-times-letter-sara-lewis-montclair-charter-school-special-education-students-need-not-apply-1.1650094

  • 8/25 by Jill Wodnick  “Programs best address gap, not charters”

http://www.northjersey.com/opinion/opinion-letters-to-the-editor/montclair-times-letter-jill-wodnick-programs-best-address-gap-not-charters-1.1650058

  • 8/25 David Herron: “It’s about the process”

http://www.northjersey.com/opinion/opinion-letters-to-the-editor/montclair-times-letter-david-herron-it-s-about-the-process-1.1649968

  • 8/25 Hilary Fandel: “‘There is only one MCS’”

http://www.northjersey.com/opinion/opinion-letters-to-the-editor/montclair-times-letter-hilary-fandel-there-is-only-one-mcs-1.1649986

  • 8/25 by Julia Francis “;et’s include everyone”

http://www.northjersey.com/opinion/opinion-letters-to-the-editor/montclair-times-letter-julia-frances-let-s-include-everyone-1.1649989

  • 9/1 by Kate Newmark “Many complaints against the proposed MCS”

http://www.northjersey.com/opinion/opinion-letters-to-the-editor/montclair-times-letter-kate-newmark-many-complaints-against-the-proposed-mcs-1.1652978

  • 9/1 by Sarah Blaine “FIAF’s coy answers are insufficient”

http://www.northjersey.com/opinion/opinion-letters-to-the-editor/montclair-times-letter-sarah-blaine-fiaf-s-coy-answers-are-insufficient-1.1652820

No Charter School in Montclair, NJ

 

So I know I’ve been even quieter than usual this summer.  I want to take a few minutes to tell you why.  As per the below testimony, which I will be sharing at the New Jersey State Board of Education meeting in Trenton, NJ this afternoon, last March a couple of Montclair, NJ residents filed an application to open a French immersion charter school in my town.  Despite opposition from stakeholders, to the community’s shock, the charter application received Phase 1 approval from the Education Commissioner.  In NJ, one and only one person, the state Education Commissioner, is exclusively tasked with deciding whether a charter application should be granted — there is zero local control over whether a charter is granted for a particular community.  The only option for communities opposed to the granting of a charter is to try to put as much political pressure on the Education Commissioner as possible to demonstrate the widespread opposition.  And then, of course, we hope and pray.  Welcome to democracy — Jersey style.

There had been some community opposition prior to the Phase 1 decision, driven primarily through an online letter created by a local education advocacy group, Montclair Cares About Schools.  But at the time of the Phase 1 approval, fewer than 400 people had signed the online letter, and opposition had been restricted to that, a couple of letters to the editor, a resolution by the Town Council, and an opposition letter by the Superintendent of our public schools.

I am not a member of Montclair Cares About Schools, although I appreciate and agree with the vast majority of their pro-public education policy objectives.  I was concerned, however, that the online letter hadn’t gotten much traction.  Around the same time, two moms in my younger daughter’s first grade class, who were active in PTA, etc., but not in education policy issues in the district more generally, knew of my education writing and advocacy.  They approached me to ask if I’d be willing to join with them to organize more united and forceful opposition to the charter application.  

We met in a park so our kids could play on the playground along with another local friend and fellow education advocate.  It seemed to me that for this issue, the better approach strategically and tactically speaking was to build coalition by building opposition that was as narrowly focused as possible — i.e., we oppose this charter school for Montclair — rather than “we oppose charter schools because charter schools are terrible no matter what.”  Our community includes a lot of people who sit on charter school boards, work in the charter school industry, but I knew that even a lot of people who are pro-charter in general were anti this particular charter, and I wanted to ensure that we could build a coalition that was as wide as possible.  All four of us were in agreement — this was going to be opposition to this particular charter school for Montclair, and despite most of our personal politics and feelings about charters more generally, for this purpose we were going to focus our opposition on the Montclair-specific reasons that a charter/this charter would be bad for Montclair, although of course part of our strategy would be to drive traffic to the Montclair Cares About Schools letter, as it was an easy online avenue for people to use to express opposition to the charter.  

As an FYI, I’ve found this narrow focus to be very successful, and we’ve managed to get even a lot of generally pro-charter folks to sign our letter.  One interaction I had was particularly telling — I was talking to a couple at our Farmers’ Market in August.  The woman laughed and immediately agreed to sign our letter, but said to me, “Don’t bother with him, he’s a big pro-charter schools guy, we fight about it all the time at the dinner table.”  I made my pitch about why one can be pro-charter in general, but still take a principled stand against this charter.  To my surprise and the woman’s glee, my appeal worked and the “big pro-charter schools guy” signed a letter too!  (I keep wondering if he’s managed to live that one down with his partner/wife yet.)  More generally, I think we in the pro-public education movement would be well-served to see where we can find common ground with advocates of so-called “education reform,” as I’ve found it a useful approach.

It’s been an eye-opening few months.  Since late June, we’ve drafted press releases and led a letter to the editor campaign that has generated 25 letters to the editor of our local paper opposing the charter school.  The Montclair Times also published a second editorial opposing the charter school.  The Town Council held a forum on the logistics issues with the proposed location for the charter school.  And we’ve been tabling and getting the word out everywhere — on the hottest and most humid days we’ve run tables at our local Farmers’ Market, at the All-Class Reunion, at the National Night Out, etc.  We’ve circulated at the public pools to explain the issues and gather signatures.  We’ve created a physical letter to be signed, and a Fact Sheet to educate the community.  And we’ve had meetings upon meetings upon meetings — with members of the Board of Education, with the Education Committee of the Montclair chapter of the NAACP (which is absolutely on our side in this), with our local Civil Rights Commission, with the mayor, with members of our Town Council, with members of our County Board of Chosen Freeholders, and other elected officials.  

To his credit, the President of the State Board of Education, Mark Biedron, came to Montclair to meet with us.  But even he has no control over whether this charter is approved.  At that meeting he promised to get us a meeting with staff of the New Jersey Department of Education’s Office of Charter and Renaissance Schools so we could at least make our case, but unfortunately he then retracted and we were told by both him and the head of the charter school office that it was not their ‘custom’ to meet with members of the local community (other than their interview/meeting with the charter applicants, of course) — once again, welcome to democracy, Jersey-style.  To date, despite our efforts and those of our elected officials, we have not yet been able to sway the Department of Education to establish a new custom — you know, a custom of actually sitting down and listening to stakeholders before making a decision.

We have gathered over 1,000 (1,094 as of yesterday’s count, to be exact) physical letters.  I PDF the originals at my office and then email the PDFs to various elected and appointed officials and snail mail the originals down to Trenton.  And the online letter has gathered another 1,858 signatures as of this writing.  We’ve seen how the sausage gets made, and learned a lot about local politics and our local community.  Overall, I’m really proud of our community and what we’ve accomplished.  We learned that a local hardware store had taken it upon itself to make copies and gather signatures on our physical letter and that it sent an additional hundreds of letters to Trenton in opposition.  (Go Saunders and South End Hardware Stores — shop local, people!)  I’ve been incredibly impressed with the letter to the editor campaign, which is my baby.  The most amazing part of that campaign is that 25 different writers all included 25 different sets of arguments for why this charter school is bad for our community.  We’ve also printed t-shirts, magnets, and spent more of our own dollars than I like to think about on everything from copying to postage.  

Through all of this, the charter applicants have been absolutely silent at the local level.  They did give one media interview — but that was to a friendly reporter at the Wall Street Journal, who refused to ask them any of the tough questions.  I’m highly disappointed in WSJ Reporter Leslie Brody, and you should be too.  Comments to that article say that this opposition is all union-led, but nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, to be honest, one of my biggest frustrations personally has been the union’s lack of public advocacy on this issue (some individual members of our union have been excellent in their personal capacities, but we’ve not heard much from the union leadership, although perhaps the Montclair Cares About Schools folks have — I get the problems with the optics of them getting out in front, but maybe just because we had to do all of this while school was out of session this summer, we’ve had no luck with them).  

Since we cannot get a meeting with the Department of Education, our best hope is to show up at the State Board of Education meeting in Trenton to testify during Open Public Comment about why this charter school is bad for our community.  Today — the first or second day of school for most school districts in NJ — at 2 P.M. is Open Public Comment in Trenton, more than an hour from our homes.  But many of us are going anyway.  We’ve organized carpools and babysitting, and we’re making it happen.  

Follow this link to find the testimony I plan to give in Trenton today, which focuses on why this charter school is likely to lead to the re-segregation of the public schools in our unique little town of Montclair.  On a more general note, what I’d like to know is this: why, given the successes of our all-magnet school system over 40 years, aren’t “reform” advocates suggesting this model, rather than a proliferation of charters, to communities across the country?  Personally, I continue to believe that the real culprit is economic and racial segregation, and that it’s our failure to complete the work of Brown v. Board of Education that has led to our national school system’s failure to meet the needs of all kids.  

And please read through the endnotes to my testimony — they’re really amazing, especially those 25 letters to the editor from members of the community.

 

GUEST POST: Anonymous Writes “To My Daughter on the Night Before You Grow Up”

The person who wrote this asked if I’d be willing to run this anonymously.  Of course, I said yes.  The details vary, but much in this post encapsulates my thoughts on this day before my oldest also starts middle school.  

To My Daughter On The Night Before You Grow Up….

My darling child,

Yes, I realize you will not actually be a grown up tomorrow. 

But what you will be, is on the road to becoming one. The pre-school and elementary school years, although fast, took place in the right lane, and at eleven years long, are the longest part of this growing up thing. But the changes that are about to occur are…well, a little bit staggering.  

You were a smiley and cuddly baby, an adorable and curious toddler, and these last 6 years of elementary school, you were a bright, sensitive, caring, talented, funny and beautiful child. 

But you are now changing lanes.  This is Middle School.  

While I realize these years are going to go fast, what gets me is that you are now getting on the road to truly becoming an adult.  You are about to look at the world through different eyes and the world is going to see you in a different light.  

I see it as a highway of youth with each lane representing a stage–this middle lane being the remainder of your years living under my roof. When you change lanes again, it will be for college, and that lane lasts just four years and moves at lightning speed. But the changes that occur from eighteen to twenty-two will not be as extreme as the changes that are going to occur between now and high school graduation.  So this is it, you are about to grow up.  And you are about to do it fast.

I will never forget the lump in my throat on your first day of Kindergarten.  You were never a child who had difficulty separating or starting something new.  You were thrilled to be in a new classroom, in a new school, and with new faces.  I, on the other hand felt like I was leaving my sweet innocent child alone in the wild.   As I kissed you good-bye and walked out of your classroom and into the school hallway and then out the front door, I was flooded with the reality that in a blink of an eye the year would be over and in a few more blinks you would be graduating the fifth grade.   And what really got me was the knowledge of what would happen in those blinks…the social development, the intellectual advances, the emotional growth, and all beginning in Kindergarten.

Elementary school was an incredible six years and the change from being just out of toddlerhood to being a tween is pretty astounding.  

You may not be aware of this now, but you are changing lanes. And this one is going to be a little bit faster. 

All these massive transformations are going to happen…your brain, your body, your want for friends over family, your sense of self, your interests, your crushes will stop being innocent and you will become less innocent, or at least less naïve to the perils of the world.

As this road lies ahead of you, and of me, I keep hearing the same sage advice from so many parents….BUCKLE UP. 

So, my darling daughter, I thought I’d give you some of my own advice on the night before you start growing up:

  1.  Stay kind. I can go on and on about how you have re-defined to me what it means to be a good person. You are really one of a kind.  Not a bad bone in that that body of yours. You are all heart and soul. And it makes me cringe to think of you entering a building where the meanest of mean can live.  I worry you will get eaten up in there.  But I also worry that middle school will harden you.  So, please stay kind. Continue to stand up for people and things you believe in.  It always make me proud how aware you are of the feelings of people around you.  Whether someone may not feel comfortable or included or someone needs an upstander, you have been there.  This is tough to do, especially in middle school.  Stay kind but also stay aware. 
  1.  See those “popular” girls over there. The ones that are really pretty and always look like they are sharing the most interesting, classified information with each other. And their laughter and fun seem to be everywhere. Yes, them. Look away.  Walk away.  While some of these girls will be great people, some are not. And many will likely have a strong need to be included and recognized by the “it girls.”  This is so normal and natural but please don’t be that girl.  What can happen to nice girls is they can do not nice things or unintentionally put friends on the backburner when a queen bee comes a buzzing. This can happen in small ways that are subtle or big ones that are cruel and obvious.   And the process, whether big or small, can be excruciating for all involved. So my advice…find kids whose only agenda in being your friend is….being your friend. Stay real and be with people that you can be yourself with.  Know that having silly, crazy fun with your friends is not a show for others, or a ladder to get somewhere else.  
  1. Write neater. You are going to have to step up your game here. School has always come easy for you and you have pretty much coasted through the elementary years. Not so anymore. You are going to have to study. And go that extra mile.  And write neater.
  1. Put down your phone. I truly feel badly for anyone born after 1996 who didn’t get to have a phone-free, insta-free, snap-free, group text-free, selfie-free adolescence.  And I totally get why your phone is in your hand.  I like my phone too, looking at Facebook and texting my friends. But I also know when to leave my phone off and away, and cease my virtual connection to the world outside. And I also know how to navigate and process this cyber-life, not only with little energy but also with thick skin.  You’ll get there someday, but for now please just know when it’s time to put down your phone.
  1.  Don’t follow every single rule.  Be safe, ethical and moral, but, seriously, break a rule or two.  Find a rule and a time it’s ok to break it and begin to let your wild side breathe.
  1. Know yourself and be yourself.  Next to being kind-hearted and compassionate, the most important thing to me, as your mom, is that you are comfortable in your own skin. Have confidence, and know and feel your beauty.  You are like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, one that fits into other peoples’ pieces at different times.  Each side or groove of everyone’s piece is a different personality trait and whether you are eating lunch with someone, doing a science project with a classmate, or having a sleepover with your best friend, you are fitting into their piece.  And when fitting into another person’s piece, depending on the side or quality of that piece, it can bring out that same quality in you. This happens with adults too. That’s why different friends can elicit different parts of our personality. This can be great.  But it can also stifle your character.  Make sure you don’t cover up your personality.  If, for example, you are hanging out with someone who is making fun of someone else, don’t laugh, and let your compassionate side show.  Be yourself.  Always.  Be caring.  Be funny.  Be smart.  Be special.  Be thoughtful.  Be kooky.  Be beautiful.  Be lovable.  And walk toward your talents and strengths. Actually, run.  You are not yet aware of what you are capable of and you have no idea what an extraordinary person you already are at eleven years old.  My respect for you is huge and my love for you is so enormous, it hurts.

I promise you that the energy you would expend to fit into a different mold to be recognized or accepted is much more damaging then the feeling of simply not being seen.

And this I promise you, my darling daughter, that even though you may not become an “it” girl or feel “cool” during the next three years or even the following four of High School, I promise you, you will feel every bit of “cool” the next time you switch lanes.

So, my sweet and darling daughter, good luck tomorrow growing up.

Administrative Law 101: Administrators Must Implement the Law as Written

The New Jersey State Board of Education is currently considering regulations that would make passing PARCC ELA 10 and PARCC Algebra I high school graduation requirements for all New Jersey public school students starting with the Class of 2021. A portfolio option under supervision of the Commissioner of Education would only be available after students attempted and failed PARCC.  Below is my planned May 4, 2016 testimony to the State Board of Education on the proposed regulations, explaining why, in my opinion, the regulations promulgated by the New Jersey Department of Education for approval by the State Board of Education exceed the State Board’s authority. Although my analysis is technical, I tried to write it so that it would be accessible to the general public.  For your convenience, the text of the proposals and the relevant statutes are linked in the text so that you can follow the analysis yourself.  

 

I am here today as a parent of two current New Jersey public school students – one in the class of 2023 and the other in the class of 2027, both of whom will be directly affected if you adopt the PARCC graduation regulations proposed by the Department of Education.  Careerwise, I am a former teacher turned attorney.  My professional life as an attorney in private practice includes ten years litigating commercial issues, including significant experience in Securities Fraud and Securities & Exchange Act Section 16(b) litigation, along with insurance coverage litigation, and litigation of breach of contract and other commercial disputes.  In that capacity, I have spent a great deal of time over the past decade parsing statutes and regulations.


After carefully reviewing the proposed regulations (see p. 42 of the PDF), the statutes those regulations purport to implement (linked below), the enabling statute setting forth the New Jersey State Board of Education’s powers, and the PARCC website, it is my opinion that the proposed regulations conflict with the statutes they purport to enable, and that there is reasonable doubt as to whether the power to implement these regulations resides in the State Board of Education.  


Given this conclusion, as a taxpayer, a parent, and an attorney, I implore you to vote against the proposed PARCC graduation requirement regulations.  I do not want to see our state wasting taxpayer dollars in yet another lawsuit challenging the legality of the proposed regulations.  For the sake of brevity, I have limited my analysis to the proposal for the Class of 2021 forward, as those are the new permanent regulations that would affect both of my children.


I reviewed New Jersey Statutes Annotated 18A:7C-1 through 7C-6.1, which set out the State’s involvement in developing and approving the Statewide assessment test; specify to whom that test must be administered; set out the conditions under which a comprehensive alternative assessment program, such as portfolio reviews, may be used to meet the testing graduation requirement; and most critically set out the Statewide levels of proficiency required as minimum standards to earn a high school diploma.  Copies of the relevant statutes are attached to your copies of my remarks.  


Any regulations enacted by this Board setting out the details of the proficiency tests must not, of course, conflict with any of the statutes noted above.  


So what do the statutes the Board’s regulations seek to implement require?  N.J.S.A. 18A:7C-1 et seq. require that the Commissioner develop a graduation exit test to be approved by this Board in order to obtain a State-endorsed high school diploma. Id. at 7C-1, 7C-2, 7C-4. The Statewide assessment test must be administered to all 11th grade students. Id. at 7C-6 and 7C-6.1.  It must measure those minimum basic skills all students must possess to function politically, economically and socially in a democratic society: specifically, the test must measure the reading, writing, and computational skills students must demonstrate as minimum requirements for high school graduation.  Id. at 7C-1, 7C-6.1.  Further, if a student uses a comprehensive assessment option instead – i.e., the portfolio option – the student’s use of the portfolio option must be approved by the Commissioner of Education.  Id. at 7C-4.


The problem is that the graduation requirements enshrined in the proposal for the Class of 2021 forward do not meet the requirements set forth in the statute.


First, the Statewide assessment test must be administered to all 11th graders.  See N.J.S.A. 18A:7C-6; 7C-6.1.  Under the Class of 2021 forward regulations, however, the tests that students will be required to obtain passing scores on to earn their high school diplomas, however, are the 10th grade ELA test and the Algebra I test.  By definition, the 10th grade ELA test will not be administered to all 11th graders statewide.  


The Algebra I test is even more problematic, as many students across the state take Algebra I (and therefore the Algebra I PARCC End-of-Course test) as early as 7th or 8th grade.  It also, of course, makes no sense to tell children as young as 12 that their high school graduation depends on their performance on a test they’re taking now.  Further, making obtaining a Proficient score on the End-Of-Course test for a course often taught in 7th or 8th grade a high school graduation requirement might well have the unintended consequence of discouraging districts from offering accelerated math programs to qualified students.  


Second, I’ve scoured the PARCC consortium website in detail, and nowhere does it say that the PARCC ELA 10 and PARCC Algebra I tests were designed to measure whether students have achieved those minimum basic skills all students must possess to function politically, economically, and socially in a democratic society.  Instead, PARCC is focused on assessing college and career readiness – a laudable goal, but a much higher standard than the minimal basic skills standard the Board is authorized to employ in approving a test to determine which public school students in the state will be denied high school diplomas.  Specifically, PARCC explains on its page regarding test design that:


Key milestones included developing college-and career-ready determination policies and performance-level descriptors in ELA/literacy and math to describe: 1. What it takes for students to succeed in entry-level, college courses and relevant technical courses, and 2. The knowledge, skills, and practices students performing at a given level are able to demonstrate at any grade.


While I would tend to agree that if – and that’s a big if – PARCC really can measure a student’s college and career readiness, and that if proficient – i.e., Level 4 score — on the PARCC test actually reflects whether a student is college and career ready, achieving a “4” on high school level PARCC tests would necessarily imply that a student also has the minimum basic skills in reading, writing, and computational skills necessary to function politically, economically, and socially in a democratic society. I do not, however, agree that the converse is true.  That is, one could have the minimum basic skills in reading, writing, and computational skills necessary to function in a democratic society without also being ready to succeed in entry-level, college and technical courses:  

College and Career Ready vs Basic Skills

However, the school laws you’re tasked with enacting and enabling only allow you to deny high school diplomas to students who don’t demonstrate the minimum basic skills in reading, writing, and computational skills necessary to function politically, socially, and economically in a democratic society.  What the statutes expressly do not allow you to do is to unilaterally raise that minimum and instead require students to meet a much higher threshold – college and career readiness – in order to obtain a high school diploma.  


Further, the statute is clear: as far as math goes, you are tasked with only one thing: to measure computational basic skills – i.e., students’ ability to do arithmetic. See N.J.S.A. 18A:7C-1(a).  The Performance Level Descriptors for Level 4 performance on the PARCC Algebra I End-of-Year test, however, require students achieving Level 4 to, for example: 

  • Determine equivalent forms of quadratic expressions and functions; 
  • Graph linear, quadratic and cubic (in which linear and quadratic factors are available) functions, showing key features; and 
  • Graph the solution sets of equations, linear inequalities and systems of linear equations and linear equalities.”  

While those may well be appropriate expectations for an Algebra I End-of-Year course assessment, it strains credulity to state that a student who meets these requirements has done nothing more than demonstrate the basic computational skills necessary to function in a democratic society.  I can tell you that in my 10 years practicing law, while I’ve used my basic computational skills many times to do preliminary damages calculations, determine amounts of prejudgment and post judgment interest, and heck, even track whether my billable hours were on target to meet my firm’s expectations, I have never – not once – needed to apply my high school algebra quadratic function graphing skills to function – pun not intended – socially, politically, or economically in our democratic society.  


Finally, there is nothing in the statutes that unilaterally authorizes the Board to demand that high school students take not one, but up to 6 tests as a condition of graduation.  Yet, the Class of 2021 proposal, while only requiring students to pass ELA 10 and Algebra 1, also requires students to take ELA 9, ELA 10, ELA 11, and any appropriate math PARCC tests, which could include Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II, before he or she may demonstrate competency via portfolio.  


Given the serious conflicts between the school statutes pertaining to graduation enacted by our legislature and the proposed regulations promulgated by the Department, I think it is clear that your duty requires you to vote against enacting the proposed graduation requirement regulations.  As a taxpayer, public school parent, and attorney, I urge you to do so, and to instead direct the Department to develop standards that harmonize with the statutes you are tasked with enforcing.  If you and/or the Department think that the standard for obtaining a State-endorsed high school diploma should be raised to be a college and career readiness standard, then it is up to you and the Department to lobby our legislature to make that change.  


Thank you.