Guest Voices: Maatie Alcindor on NorthStar Academy

Maatie Alcindor is originally from Cambridge, Massachusetts, but has been a New Jersey resident for the past 16 years.  For the past 15 years, she’s been working in the pharmaceutical industry.  She is the single mother of one 20 year old son and of “Bob da Dog.”  I first encountered Maatie in a local issues discussion group on Facebook, as we live in the same town.  The subject of charter schools had come up, and in her posts in that group, Maatie told some of the story she tells here today.  We have never actually met in person, but I was so moved by her story in the discussion group, that I messaged her to ask if she’d be willing to write her story up for wider distribution via my blog and beyond.  She agreed.  Below is Maatie’s story — as she tells it — about her son’s middle school experience at a NorthStar Academy charter school in Newark, New Jersey (part of the Uncommon Schools charter network):  

We were residents of East Orange, NJ the spring before my only child started the 5th grade.   At the time, my son was attending fourth grade at the East Orange Charter School and we loved it. Unfortunately for us East Orange Charter only went up to the 4th grade. Through the NJ State Education web page I found out that the highly touted North Star Academy (NSA) Charter School in Newark was opening a middle school in North Newark not far from my East Orange home!  Soon after, some friends and I attended the prospective parents meeting for the new North Star Academy Middle School.

And that is where the trouble began. From the very first meeting I knew something was not right. I did not like the way we were spoken to but I thought to myself… give them a chance. The successive meetings did not change my initial uneasy feeling toward the administration. We were given application packets and advised that we the parents had to drop off the completed forms. If not, the application would not be accepted. It was explained to us that if we were serious about our children’s education we would make the time to submit the applications ourselves. No other people would be allowed to deliver the packets for us. Even when parents explained that due to their work schedules it would be a problem to bring in the forms, NSA said no accommodations would be made. Imagine my irritation when I arrived at the downtown Newark location to submit my application and was told to just drop it in a bin (no one was there to confirm the submission). There was no reason to force parents to take time from work to simply drop an envelope in a tray; it was just a test of our commitment to follow the schools rules.

We were told to expect 2-3 hours of homework per night and extensive homework packets during weekends and vacations. I expressed concern that the amount of work seemed a lot for an 11 year old child and left no time for other activities or family time.  It was basically inferred that if I cared about my son’s future I would follow their program or find another school and watch him fail. Rules of conduct while in school were even more concerning. Throughout their day the students would get in trouble for such things as talking in the hallway, missing or incomplete homework, uniform pants not being the right shade of beige and the dreaded “not tracking the speaker with your eyes.” Yes, the children would get in trouble for not looking directly at the teacher during their lesson. Even during lunch there were more opportunities to get detention including talking too loud and talking when the principal entered the lunch room. They were expected to stop talking if the principal walked into the lunch room!!!!! Detention was usually an hour meaning that during the winter months the kids that were let out around 4:30 or 5:00 pm which left them to navigate home in the streets of Newark alone by either walking or public transportation after dark.

Though the Vice Principal came across genuine and caring; I found the Principal to be indifferent to parental concerns. The school’s Parents Council was viewed as a “social group” by the school administration and did not influence school policy in any way.  The school secretary habitually did not answer the office phone and was apathetic to parents’ requests to pass information to our children.  Messages for children about changes in pickups or where they were to go after school were routinely responded with “If I see ‘em I’ll tell ‘em” (a lot of times she didn’t “see ‘em”).   We were expected to trust their every action without question. For example, the 5th grade class trip was to Florida Everglades. When I asked which airline they would be flying with I was repeatedly told to just drop my son off at the school and that he would be traveling to the airport with the group. When I went to the Principal directly and asked for the flight information… his reply was that I was having separation anxiety and that I had all the information that I needed to know. I did not allow my son to go on that trip. The following years the Vice Principal and some of the teachers did their best to keep me informed of trip details.

My feelings for charter schools in general are a little more ambiguous. I hated the North Star model but I think if done right there may be a place for charter schools. North Star’s main issue was lack of engagement with the community. It was a school in the community but not of the community. To be honest it felt very racist though I do not think they thought of themselves as racists. The principal took on the air of an overseer, our children were no longer our own but property of NSA to be raised by their rules of behavior. On several occasions I witnessed the surreal scenes of all white “board members” that would come to visit the school smile as the children would beat the African Style drums to call every one to morning circle. The board members seemed very pleased to watch the call and response exercise as the white Principal walked around to check the uniforms of the school’s all black and Hispanic students. Later I asked the Principal why as American citizens the children didn’t just do the Pledge of Allegiance as in any other school? I was told mockingly, that since we were African Americans, the drums represented our history. I advised him that I went to school with predominantly Irish Americans and we never started the day with Celtic music or Toe Dancing.  With only one black teacher on staff at the time I wondered who gave them their ideas.

Parents and students who questioned the school’s methods were seen as discipline problems and were treated accordingly. The work load was assigned as a way to take up their free time. Parents desperate not to have their children end up in the gang infested neighborhood schools were willing to compromise their authority and hand their kids over to NSA with the promise of college dangled continuously in front of them. Those who went on to the NSA Preparatory High School found more of the same heavy handed tactics as before. Most of the male students left for other schools before making it to 12th grade.

The idea of Charter school was appealing to me. We had such a great experience his fourth grade year at East Orange Charter School and we wanted more.  North Star Academy was a nightmare and a decision I will always regret. In 2009, my son was part of the first eighth grade class to graduate from North Star Academy Middle School. That fall we moved to a different town but his four years at North Star had done its damage.  My son’s freshman year in high school was very hard for him. In spite of the hours upon hours of homework that he endured at North Star Academy he did not have any real study or note taking skills. North Star normally gave them their notes and study sheets but did not allow for any independent thinking.  For several years he had trouble engaging in class due to North Star’s passive learning style of teaching. Where North Star allowed for him to repeatedly take the same test over and over in order for them to record the most acceptable score, he was frustrated by the fact this was not the case at his new school. My son is now in his third year of college and he is on track to graduate with his Master’s Degree in Environmental Science in two years. It is a shame that he thinks so poorly of those middle school years and usually uses an expletive to describe his experience. My feeling is mutual. 



Guest Voices: On Sending My Kid to Sleep-Away Camp for the First Time by Jen Freund

This is a piece by a friend of mine, Jen Freund, about the decisions (and sacrifices) we parents might make — if we are fortunate enough to have the resources to do so — to ensure that our children can access the educational experiences outside of a classroom that will shape their lives and their identities.  I’m also a parent who spent 8 weeks of 7 summers of my life attending traditional sleep-away camps, so I can very much relate to the emotions Jen chronicles here, as my husband and I struggle with whether we can — and whether we want to — send our daughters to sleep-away camp.

Jen holds an MSW.  She is a school counselor in an alternative high school, where she works with students who have a wide variety of social, emotional, and behaviorial challenges.  Prior to working in the schools, she worked in the camping industry as a counselor and later as an assistant director of the 92nd Street Y day camps.  As a child, Jen spent 7 summers in sleep-away camp and now spends a great deal of her time trying to convince her husband that sleep-away camp is an incredible learning and growing experience for their daughters. — Sarah 

by Jen Freund

It was February 14, 2005 and my husband was driving the slowest, and most cautiously he ever had.  We were on Pleasant Valley Way headed toward our home in Montclair, NJ. I remember everything about that day: the other cars, the radio being off so my husband could fully concentrate, and me in the back seat, holding the tiny hand of my new favorite person.  We were driving our first child home from the hospital, for the very first time.  We had precious cargo. 


And in a blink of an eye, ten years later, I found myself on a very similar car ride.  This time I was sitting in the front, while in the back was another favorite person, born three years laterAnd this time, which was June 27, a few days ago (3 days, 12 hours and 16 minutes to be exact), my husband was driving extremely slow again.  We were back on Pleasant Valley Way, headed to the parking lot of the Livingston Mall to bring our daughter, that same baby whose hand I held likten minutes ago, to meet a bus that would take her 75 miles another state….for seven weeks.  She was headed to sleep-away camp for the very first time.  


My husband did not want her to go.  I agonized over the good-bye, over not seeing her, not feeling her, not hugging her, not hearing her for so many weeks.  We all agonized over this.  Well maybe not so much our younger daughter who kept replying, “I want to go too, “ to the older one’s “I’m going to miss you.”  


He drove slow….real slow.  


Sleep-away camp is a foreign concept to many. It does sound utterly insane to send your young child away for so long with such limited contact.  But for those who went to camp as a child and experienced the wonder, the spirit, the bonding, the independence, the community, the traditionthe outdoors, the songs, the inside jokes, the customs, the friendships, the creativity, the raw fun, the energy, the love and the culture that is camp, those people have camp in their blood.  And when camp is in your blood, you get it.  You get why sending your precious cargo off to a camp 75 miles away is a good thing.  


I have camp in my blood.  My husband does not.   But just for the record, I did tell him before we were married that our future kids were going to camp.  How could they not?  If they didn’t want to, that’s one thing, but if there was any desire, then how could we deny them such an extraordinary experience?


My husband thinks he went to camp.  And to be clear, he did go to music camp (actually more like a program) for one summer, for one month.  Not the same thing….right, camp people?  It’s just not the same as going to the same camp with the same people, summer after summer.  He still says he’s not on board and if anyone asks him, he’d say he wants his girl home with him.  


So the decision to send my first born to camp was an easy one for me and while he didn’t like the idea, he did not protest (too much).  What’s not easy is being a parent who had to say good-bye to her good natured, sensitive, innocent love of a child, one who cuddles, who chats, who shares on a daily basis the thoughts, feelings, fears, and concerns that live in her amazing brain and enormous heart.  That was slightly heart-wrenching.


Oh please, you must be saying…she is not going to jail.  She is healthy (knock wood), she is there to have fun.  Yes, but just how parents cry and get all nostalgic when their babies go off to college, this, I believe is a little worse on the parenting nostalgia scale.  


All milestones are bittersweet.  Letting go that first day of pre-school, saying goodbye to your kindergartener, end of elementary school, middle school graduation, high school graduation…college goodbyes.  All these milestones are beginnings and endings.  And as parents, while happy, we are also sad that an era has ended, that our babies are that much more independent and more detached from us.  And while college is a good eight years away, I imagine it will be the most intense of milestones, for that is really it.  The end of the era of childhood.  


But this is why I think the sleep-away camp goodbye is more gut wrenchingyou can text, call, or even visit your child whenever you’d (or they’d) like when your child is in college.  You can hear how they don’t like their roommate, hate their classes and got lost on campus.  You can communicate.  And they are self-sufficient.  They have credit cards.  They can drive.  They can vote.


In the world of sleep-away camp, we get two phone calls with our child (once she has been there for a week), one visiting day and old-fashioned letters.  I’ve written six so far and received none.  Tomorrow is day 5 she’s been away.  Where is my freaking letter?


I have no idea what is going on with my 10 year old.  Well I know she’s playing soccer and cooking because I see her in pictures on the camp’s website, but that is secondary to what I really want to know.  I find myself intently staring at her smile, and expression in these pictures to really try and know how she is feeling.  Is she comfortable?  Does she feel connected, included with the girls in her bunk?  Is she happy?  I got a check in” phone call on day one saying she was “all smiles,” but is she still smiling, and is it genuine? Only my husband and I know her that well to know. 


On the night before she leftmy mind raced with things I should have talked to her about or re-talked to her about:  don’t forget to clear your mess from the dining hall, remember to wear a tank top under certain shirts, do you really understand how to put a fitted sheet on a bed, remember to brush your hair, remember to keep your planters wart covered, when you audition for the musical, you should sing one of these songs, remember to put on sunblock, don’t feel bad that you can’t do a cartwheel but embrace the fact that you cannot, if you fart, own it and make a joke, if you feel left out, don’t try too hard to be included, know that you are an amazing, funny, smart, sweet, caring and special kid that always makes great friends, but sometimes it can take time.  Remember you may miss home and that’s normal, remember to make others feel good and always be inclusive, remember to not eat too much dessert, remember to write your sister, and remember to try new things.  And know that you may not love camp at first, or at all and that’s ok. 


Having your kid away like this magnifies every fear, every concern a parent may have.  Is she the tallest in the bunk and is she feeling awkward?  Will her developing athletic skills, (um, not so good) shake her confidence?  Is she brushing her hair or will she come back with dreadlocks?  Is the knee pain she started feeling recently gone or should I have taken her for an x-ray before she left?  Will she be quiet or outgoing?  Will she get to shine?  Will she have one of her right before bed-time existential crises about death and want to discuss her tear inducing fear that the world will one day go on without her in it?  What if she gets hurt or gets a tick bite and no one notices?  Because really, who but a parent sees the small things that need to be checked out? What if she loses a tooth?  We still do the tooth fairy.  Damn.


The scene at the mall parking lot could have been an opening scene to a Judd Apatow film about camp.  There were coach buses everywhere and parents clinging to their children while small talking with other parents.  It was raining and not a ray of sunshine was in the sky, yet 98% of the mothers were wearing sunglasses, myself included because I got strict orders from my sister-in-law to not cry in front of my daughter.  Sunglasses were a must.  


There were kids in tears and older kids boisterously reuniting with camp friends.  Fortunately, my daughter was excited and not feeling nervous or sad.  During my last hug to her, it was hard to speak.  I told her to have the best time and that I loved her so so much and she pulled my sunglasses off to see if I were crying and when she saw my eyes, we just laughed.  She got on the bus and my husband, younger daughter and I stood there waving for twelve minutes to a blackened window where she was presumably sitting until the bus pulled away and then I quietly lost it.  


And just like that she was off.  For seven weeks.   Part of my soul was on that bus.

And here’s the thing that I know as a former camper, and as a past camp counselor, and as a mental health professional, and even as a motherI know that even if she has her feelings hurt, fails her deep water testdoesn’t get a part in the play or feels homesickshe will come through it all stronger and more resilient.  She will have tough days, I know this, and she will learn to navigate them without me by her side and for this she will gain something I could have never given her myself.  As our camp director profoundly told us new parents, “at camp, we can give your children a kind of confidence, autonomy and independence that you, as parents, cannot.”  And for this, I hope she comes home with camp in her blood.

Newark Residents Should Select Their Own Next Superintendent

A group of New Jersey public education supporters crafted this letter to encourage the New Jersey State Board of Education not to rubber stamp Governor-and-Presidential-hopeful Chris Christie’s choice to replace outgoing Newark Superintendent of Schools Cami Anderson. As a believer in the critical importance of local democratic control over our nation’s public schools, I cannot agree more that after 20 years, it is time for the people of Newark to choose their own leaders for their children’s public schools.  Our public schools are intended to prepare our children for the responsibilities and duties of democratic citizenship. How can Newark’s children internalize democratic principles if their parents and community members are told, decade after decade, that the adults of Newark cannot be trusted to democratically govern their children’s schools?

Newark Residents Should Select Their Next Superintendent

We believe that the people of Newark should be able to democratically govern their public schools.  

Fortunately, Mark Biedron, President of NJ’s State Board of Education, seems to agree. Mr. Biedron recently told the Star Ledger that the people of Newark having local control over the school district…is a good thing.” 

On Wednesday, Mr. Biedron will have an opportunity to act on this belief when the State Board votes on whether Chris Cerf should become Newark’s next Superintendent.  

If the State Board approves Mr. Cerf, it will be continuing a 20 year history of disenfranchisement for Newark’s nearly 300,000 residents, who have had no say in this decision.

If the Board rejects Mr. Cerf and instead approves a candidate selected by Newark’s popularly-elected Board of Education, it will be putting Mr. Biedron’s admirable philosophy into practice.

There is plenty of precedent for allowing Newark to select its own superintendent.

Newark, Jersey City, and Paterson are all statecontrolled school districts.  Yet Jersey City’s popularlyelected Board of Education selected its Superintendent, Marcia Lyles.  Paterson’s Superintendent, Dr. Donnie Evans, was selected by a committee that included members of Paterson’s popularly-elected Board of Educationalong with other community leaders.  In contrast, Newark’s popularly-elected Board of Education has had no voice in selecting Mr. Cerf, who was nominated for this position by Governor Christie.

Approving Mr. Cerf is also difficult to justify because Mr. Cerf lacks the qualifications necessary to run New Jersey’s largest school district.  Unlike Jersey City’s and Paterson’s leaders, Mr. Cerf has no prior experience as a superintendent.  

Nor is there a record of success in related public-education positions on which to base Mr. Cerf’s nomination.  In fact, Mr. Cerf’s tenure as New Jersey’s Commissioner of Education was marked by numerous poor decisions regarding Newark, including:

• Appointing and continuing to support Newark’s prior Superintendent, Cami Anderson, whose policies and behaviors generated broad-based rejection and rebellion from Newark residents;
• Improperly giving in to a demand from Ms. Anderson to allow her to retain full control over 28 low-performing schools,” which resulted in New Jersey failing to comply with federal requirements; and 
• Forcibly maintaining State control of Newark’s schools by dramatically lowering the district’s scores on the State’s monitoring system (QSAC) from the scores that Mr. Cerf had given the district less than a year earlier.  

The people of Newark deserve the right to select their next Superintendent.  They also deserve an experienced public education leader with a proven record of success.  Mr. Cerf’s candidacy fails on all these counts.

We encourage Mr. Biedron and the other State Board of Education members to vote no on Mr. Cerf’s nomination and to allow Newark’s popularly-elected Board of Education to nominate the district’s next Superintendent.  

Newark’s residents have been deprived of their right to democratically control their public schools for 20 years.  It is long past time to correct this wrong! 


Rosie Grant, Piscataway, NJ

Parent and nonprofit leader


Michelle Fine, Montclair, NJ

Parent and professor


Judy DeHaven, Red Bank, NJ

Parent and writer


Valerie Trujillo, Jersey City, NJ

Parent and public education advocate


Jacklyn Brown, Manalapan, NJ

Parent and educator


Julia Sass Rubin, Princeton, NJ

Parent and professor


Linda Reid, Paterson, NJ

Parent and nonprofit leader


Melissa Katz, South Brunswick, NJ

Future educator


Bobbie Theivakumaran, Metuchen, NJ

Parent and investment banker


Lisa Winter, Basking Ridge, NJ

Parent, technology manager and former Board of Education member


Marcella Simadiris, Montclair, NJ

Parent and educator


Michelle McFadden-DiNicola, Highland Park, NJ

Parent and public education advocate


Bill Michaelson, Lawrence Township, NJ

Parent and computer scientist


Marie Hughes Corfield, Flemington, NJ

Parent and educator


Rita McClellan, Cherry Hill, NJ

Parent and administrator

Sarah Blaine, Montclair, NJ

Parent, attorney, and blogger


Susan Cauldwell, Spring Lake, NJ

Parent and nonprofit leader


Heidi Maria Brown, Pitman, NJ

Parent and educator


Julie Borst, Allendale, NJ

Parent and special education advocate


Susan Berkey, Howell, NJ

Parent and educator


Darcie Cimarusti, Highland Park, NJ

Parent and Board of Education member


Amnet Ramos, North Plainfield, NJ

Parent and educator


Elana Halberstadt, Montclair, NJ

Parent and writer/artist


Ani McHugh, Delran, NJ

Parent and educator


Jill DeMaio, Monroe, NJ



Tamar Wyschogrod, Morristown, NJ

Parent and journalist


Lauren Freedman, Maplewood, NJ

Parent and public education advocate


Lisa Rodgers, South Brunswick, NJ

Parent and business owner


Laurie Orosz, Montclair, NJ

Parent and public education advocate


Michael Kaminski, Mount Laurel, NJ

Parent and educator


Ronen Kauffman, Union City, NJ

Parent and educator


Frankie Adao, Newark, NJ

Parent and social media specialist


Kathleen Nolan, Princeton, NJ

Parent, researcher and lecturer


Sue Altman, Camden, NJ



Jennifer Cohan, Princeton, NJ

Parent and publicist


Daniel Anderson, Bloomfield, NJ

Parent and Board of Education member


Debbie Baer, Robbinsville, NJ

Parent and educator


Dan Masi, Roxbury Township, NJ

Parent and engineer


Susan Schutt, Ridgewood, NJ

Assistant principal and public education advocate


Karin Szotak, Madison NJ

Parent and business owner


Tiombe Gibson, Deptford, NJ

Parent and educator


Lisa Marcus Levine, Princeton, NJ

Parent and architect


Kristen Carr Jandoli, Haddon, NJ

Parent and public education advocate


Jean Schutt McTavish, Ridgewood, NJ

Parent and high school principal


Virginia Manzari, West Windsor, NJ.

Parent and businesswoman


Stephanie LeGrand, Haddonfield, NJ

Parent and public education advocate


Melanie McDermott, Highland Park, NJ

Parent and sustainability researcher


Nora Hyland, Asbury Park, NJ

Parent and professor


Beth O’Donnell-Fischer, Verona, NJ



Susie Welkovits, Highland Park, NJ

Parent and Borough Council President


Gregory M. Stankiewicz, Princeton, NJ

Parent and nonprofit leader


Margot Embree Fisher, Teaneck, NJ

Parent and former Board of Education member


Stephanie Petriello, Dumont, NJ

Parent, educator and business owner


Laura BeggBernards Township, NJ

Parent and public education advocate


Gary C. Frazier, Camden, NJ

Parent and community activist


Debbie Reyes, Florence Township, NJ



Christine McGoey, Montclair, NJ



Regan Kaiden, Collingswood, NJ

Parent and educator


Moneke Singleton-Ragsdale, Camden, NJ

Parent and administrator


Liz Mulholland, Westfield, NJ 

Parent and former educator


Toby Sanders, Trenton, NJ

Parent, pastor and educator



GUEST VOICES: Opting Out in the Jersey Suburbs, Or, White Like Me by Belinda Edmondson

The latest attacks by the education reformers and standardized testing advocates against the test-refusal movement have focused on the issue of race.  For example, on March 25, 2015, Robert Pondiscio of The Thomas B. Fordham Institute wrote a piece titled “Opting out, race and reform.”  Dependably divisive Laura Waters then jumped on the bandwagon. As a white, suburban mom who is part of the test-refusal movement, I know from personal experience that this latest reformer narrative is deeply flawed, but I recognize that a privileged white woman arguing with other privileged white people about the experiences of people of color is an effective silencing of people of colors’ own voices.  So instead I reached out to friends of color who refused to allow their children to take the PARCC.  Below is a guest voice piece by my friend and neighbor, Belinda Edmondson, who has two children in the Montclair Public Schools.  Her words speak for themselves. Thank you for reading. — Sarah

Opting Out in the Jersey Suburbs: Or, White Like Me

by Belinda Edmondson

I live in Montclair, an affluent town in New Jersey, and I opted my children out of the PARCC.

According to the education reformers, that makes me one of those rich white soccer moms throwing a hissy fit because  “their children aren’t as brilliant as they thought they were, their schools aren’t quite as good as they thought they were.” New Jersey is a flashpoint for the opt-out debate because, they argue, as a state with poor cities full of minorities and wealthy suburbs full of whites, “it puts the state’s affluent white progressives potentially at odds with low-income and heavily Democratic families of color, since there is little evidence that such families are opting out in significant numbers.”

In other words, if the numbers are to be believed, I’m a wealthy white liberal hypocrite. I spout platitudes about racial inequality while opposing reforms that would help children of color. Apparently I and my fellow black-and-brown opt-outers are in denial about how badly these awful Montclair schools are failing our kids. Who knew?

Certainly not me.  I thought Montclair was full of black people. Active, vocal, black people. Brown people too. I thought I was black. So did my children, who had no idea they are white—or rich (yay!). But these are the facts about New Jersey, according to the reformers: only wealthy white liberals are opting out of PARCC.

The reformers should have notified the large multiracial group of opting-out students who crowded into Montclair school auditoriums during PARCC testing that opting-out is a whites-only privilege. They should have informed the protesting black and brown students who took over the Newark schools superintendent’s office that they are the wrong color. They should take aside those outspoken black parents at the Newark Board of Education meetings and minority anti-reform groups like the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice, and let them know: these are not the actions of black people. Stay in your lane, already.

Yes, it’s true that majority-black-and-brown districts in NJ are less likely than well-off districts to have students who oppose PARCC and other reforms. Camden, a high-poverty, majority-black city, is an example. There the state has hijacked the school system and children of color are being forced into charter schools. Groups like Save Camden Schools are fighting back, but it looks like a losing battle. Silly me, I thought that was due to class, and social capital: you know, the fact that educated, well-connected families of any color are more likely to be able to challenge the reform mandates and not be punished for it precisely because of their intimate knowledge of how the system works. The more educated professionals in a town, the better able its residents are to challenge the corporate raiding of their schools. Negative repercussions are far less likely: if their kids don’t take the PARCC, so what? Professionals who know the system know their kids will still graduate from high school, still get into college. Not so with poor families in poor districts. Reforms are presented to them as the gateway to a good education and the social mobility that comes with it. Even if those families don’t buy the reform mantra, what choice do they have? Poor families don’t control their own schools.

The reformers understand this, and care. The compassion they exhibit for poor minority families is touching. From Newark to Trenton, poor children of color are the focus of philanthropic millionaires and billionaires rushing into NJ to help them faster than you can say “Pass Go and collect $200!”  Reformers constantly raise the specter of the achievement gap as justification for pushing more standardized testing. They argue that black and brown kids are the chief beneficiaries of all these reforms. Precisely how our kids benefit is unclear when their school curriculum is narrowed to focus on test prep, their test scores are used to tell them they’re ignorant, and their teachers are under threat of being fired. But the reformers have done their homework and know what’s best. Of course none of this has anything to do with the fact that there’s lots of money to be made in reforming the schools. Or that the pesky teacher’s union is getting in the way of profits.

And, unlike the opt-outers, the reformers are a multiracial bunch. If you have any doubts about that, there are all those ubiquitous reform images featuring black kids or concerned brown parents to remind you. The education reform movement surely represents the face of multicultural America.

Yet, somehow, even with all the black-and-brown faces fronting the movement, I sometimes wonder if it’s just corporate America seeing dollar signs in the education crisis facing poor black-and-brown children. I’m happy to report, however, that any doubts I’ve had on who’s pushing Montclair’s reform agenda were put to rest when I heard about the two corporate lawyers—both African-American—hired by a group of local parents to advocate on behalf of Montclair’s children. These concerned parents (who remain anonymous out of fear of “retribution”) are paying these lawyers to get rid of an African-American town council member on the Montclair Board of School Estimate with links to the teacher’s union. The lawyers are also filing a public records request to check the emails of Montclair’s African-American mayor for evidence of complicity with the anti-reform activists. So I shouldn’t have doubted. It’s a simple equation after all. On the reform side, concerned and fearful parents looking out for the best interests of disadvantaged minority children. On the anti-reform side, limousine liberal hypocrites and sinister union operatives.

But still. I can’t help but wonder. The possibility that wealthy white people hired expensive lawyers to sue local black leaders would be pretty bad press for the reform movement. It might look like rich white folks are having a hissy fit because they haven’t gotten their way with our schools. It might look like—dare I say it?—hypocrisy. It would certainly be bad optics. Of course that isn’t the case here in progressive Montclair. Sometimes the devil gets in me and I’m tempted to suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, there may be a grain of truth in that offensive idea.

But that would be a black lie, now wouldn’t it?


Guest Voices: Dr. Colleen Daly Martinez

The letter below is by Dr. Colleen Daly Martinez. Dr. Martinez holds a Ph.D in Social Work from Rutgers University. I first encountered her as a fellow local education advocate working to support our public schools; in the months since, we have become friends. She wrote this letter to Senator Teresa Ruiz, Chair of the New Jersey Senate’s Education Committee, and copied it to the members of the Senate Education Committee along with other local, state, and federal lawmakers, as noted below.

One Clarification: It is true that a third-grade theater class’s production was originally canceled due to PARCC.  See this excerpt from an email to parents of the affected children regarding this decision:


However, due to the efforts of parents to alert the administration that the decision to cancel was unacceptable, our responsive PTA and administration were able to work together to ensure that the third-grade theater class’s short play was rescheduled.  See below:


Thank you to Georgette Gilmore for pointing out via Twitter that this needed to be clarified.  The original letter as sent by Dr. Martinez to Senator Ruiz, et al. remains below.


March 15, 2015

Dear Senator Ruiz, and Senate Education Committee Members,

I have written to you before to express my concern about education reform and its impact on our NJ public schools, but I feel compelled to reach out again after listening to Education Commissioner Hespe’s testimony to you on Thursday, March 12.

I will start by telling you about who I am, so that you understand my perspective and experience. I’ll then share with you my observations of the impact of education reform, and then close with some recommendations and requests. I am happy to meet with you at any time and venue to further this discussion, and I appreciate your time, service, and representation.

I am a NJ Licensed Clinical Social Worker and I hold a PhD in Social Work which I earned at Rutgers University. I have more than 20 years of clinical social work experience with children and their families. I have worked with upper and middle class families, as well as with very poor urban and rural families in four counties across Northern New Jersey. I teach Master’s Degree students at a Research I University, and I maintain a private practice where I provide consultation and supervision to mental health professionals. I also provide related services to special education students in a poor urban school district.

Working in classrooms on a regular basis, I see very clear signs that education reform is already harming our most vulnerable students. First, the Common Core State Standards set goals and timeframes for when children should achieve certain academic goals, and place responsibility on the classroom teacher for student achievement of these goals. Consider a first grade standard: “CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.1.5 Explain major differences between books that tell stories and books that give information, drawing on a wide reading of a range of text types.” In some first grade classrooms we have children with developmental and medical challenges and communication and learning disabilities. Some special education students in first grade are nonverbal, literally unable to speak their own names. Some are visually impaired and learning to use assistive devices to safely navigate their expanding world. Others have serious emotional and behavioral challenges which require the intervention and support of mental health professionals and behaviorists. However, the Common Core standards and new teacher evaluation requirements demand that teachers, regardless of who their students are and what challenges they bring with them, prioritize the standards. Whether a first grade teacher has a group of 25 well fed, well rested students with no significant learning challenges, or a teacher has a group of 30 students, all poor, some hungry, and some with serious behavioral or learning challenges, they must both be working on this goal for their students: “Explain major differences between books that tell stories and books that give information, drawing on a wide reading of a range of text type.” Not only must both teachers be working toward this goal with their students, but their job performance evaluations will be based upon how well their students demonstrate mastery of this goal on the PARCC test. I hope that you can see why this system of ‘accountability’ is unjust.
To make the assumption that children throughout the country, or even throughout New Jersey or Essex County, have the same educational opportunities, despite who they are and where they live, is absolutely false. What I have witnessed for the past four years is that what is now being referred to as “educational reform” is systematically causing harm to those who are most in need and most vulnerable. Many reformers say that a major problem with our educational system is that we don’t expect enough of poor children, or children with disabilities, and therefore these students underperform. Reformers’ rationale is that if we raise standards, and expect more from underperforming students, they will rise to the challenge. This assertion is missing a vital piece, however. The piece that is missing is WHY these students are underperforming. Researchers consistently find that having learning disabilities and living in poverty places more challenges on these children in their pursuit of academic achievement. What would be beneficial to helping these students achieve would be to provide resources where they are needed such as into specialized training for educators and special educators regarding working with students with disabilities; into school buildings to decrease class size; and into medical and social services to address some of the challenges that our students in poverty face. Raising academic standards when students already have challenges performing is similar to telling a wheelchair user that we are going to take away ramps and elevators, because they will be better off without them. This idea makes no sense. Reformers would have us think that children with very real challenges can somehow do better academically if we only believe that it is possible. This idea also makes no sense, in the absence of resources to help them achieve.

Parents are now seeing that their children’s needs for remediation, review, reteaching, and focusing on foundational skills are being ignored because of the pressure to keep up with the standards. Teachers, whether in middle class districts with a classroom of regular education students, or in special education classrooms in poor districts, are accountable for variables that are out of their control. With the addition of PARCC testing as another measure of accountability for teachers and schools, developmentally delayed children are spending more time on computers than they are on social skills or on fine and gross motor skills. They thereby miss out on important developmental support which would eventually lead to healthier, well-balanced individuals. Reformers would say that the enhanced pressure on teachers is good for academic achievement. People who understand what is happening on the individual, classroom, building, and district level see that genuine, meaningful learning is being replaced by PARCC preparation. But this is true only in the poorest buildings and districts. More diverse, middle class, and upper middle class schools are largely spared because statistically and historically their students tend to do better on standardized tests. Subsequently, the ‘haves’ receive education to improve their lives, while the ‘have nots’ receive training to improve their PARCC scores. Over the long term, if these systems of holding teachers accountable for social inequity and student’s learning disabilities remain in place, I think we should expect a trend of highly-qualified and experienced teachers moving away from working in poor districts and away from special education. This, of course, will only cause more harm to students who are most in need.

Commissioner Hespe would have us believe that PARCC results will be a learning tool. Instruction and remediation will be targeted to address specific areas where students are underperforming so that we can ensure that they are on the course toward being college and career ready. The problem with that justification for PARCC is that educators and administrators can already identify which students are in need of remediation. Class grades and GPA are indicators that are already readily available. Teachers, administrators and parents are excellent reporters of where students are falling behind and even failing. They can also be excellent reporters of where remediation is needed. However, remediation often cannot be provided because there aren’t sufficient resources to do so. Rather than spend huge amounts of money verifying what we already know, why not spend our resources meeting the needs of students and schools? The answer to that question is rather grim. Why do we put all of these tax dollars into an experimental assessment tool? Because there is tremendous opportunity to direct taxpayer dollars into the wallets of education reform companies. As Commissioner Hespe pointed out, it is impossible to compute the actual amount of dollars spent by each district on PARCC preparation, but we do know that NJ’s contract with Pearson alone is worth more than one hundred million dollars. Many informed educators postulate that when PARCC results do come back, Pearson will be ready to sell our districts remedial products.

I want to further illustrate how some students are suffering more than others under these reform efforts. The students I work with in their school setting, some of whom have just turned three years old, are often English language learners. Most are eligible for free lunch. Their parents often are not able to read school notices that are sent home in English, and their parents often work more than one job to support their families. They usually do not have their own cars. Because of their parents’ work schedules, these students are often at school for before school care and after school care. Their school facilities often lack developmentally appropriate, safe recreation equipment. Therefore, some three year old children spend more than 9 hours a day at school, with little to no opportunity to run, tumble and climb. Optimistically assuming that these youngsters get the recommended 12 hours of sleep at night, their schedule might allow for three waking hours with their parents each day. I have no doubt that many of these families find it hard to provide enriching activities for their children’s growth and development during these three hours, and during whatever time they are not working on weekends.

The school experiences of middle class children are often strikingly different. I’ll use my daughter as an example. Because her father and I have the benefit of relatively good jobs, our schedules allow for a parent to be home with her when she is not at school. Each morning I bring her to school at 9, and I pick her up again at 3:30. She has hours of time to do homework, play, and enjoy our company every evening. She has always lived in the same home, and has never had to go hungry, or worry about her own safety. She is lucky, in that her basic needs are met; that we have the time and resources to provide her with additional support at home to help her achieve the academic goals set forth in the Common Core standards; and that we can provide her with enriching activities to help her to be a happy, well-rounded person.

Even with all of the benefits of her relatively comfortable life, her school experience has been stressful. Starting in kindergarten fours year ago, my daughter’s public school career has always been shaped by the Common Core standards. Despite being a typically developing child with no health or behavioral issues, she was flagged in kindergarten because she was not progressing adequately toward reading. For three years — until this school year — she was considered ‘below grade level’ in her reading ability. Thankfully, my husband and I are well-informed about child development and education, as well as about educational systems in other countries. We did not focus on her perceived ‘delay’ because we were aware that in many high-performing countries children are not even expected to begin developing reading skills until they are seven. We were also familiar with the research that points to the potential harm caused by pushing children to develop reading skills before they are developmentally ready. This harm includes feelings of inadequacy and an aversion to reading. I consider our daughter lucky that we have been able to spare her from the potential harm of the Common Core standards.

The issue of resources is a primary reason why I am an advocate for our public schools and against PARCC. During this school year I have seen many schools, classrooms, and children suffer because of flawed use of resources. In a school in an urban district, a bathroom has caution tape up, surrounding a broken sink and loose floor tiles. The principal does not have the funds to have the bathroom fixed, and is dismayed because she was forced to spend $25,000 of her budget on Chrome Books in preparation for PARCC. In another school the teachers bring in their own bottles of hand soap for their students’ use, and there are no balls, jump ropes, chalk or other play materials in the parking lot (where children play because the gymnasium is also the cafeteria). Yet carts of laptops sit under lock and key in preparation for PARCC testing. In my daughter’s school, theater productions are canceled, the library is closed for weeks on end, and substitute teachers are covering classes while teachers are proctoring the PARCC test. Unfunded state mandates have forced our schools to stop spending on what is needed, so they can meet the demands of the state. Our Montclair 2015-2016 budget proposal currently calls for increasing taxes, cutting more than 50 classroom level staff, and adding more spending for technology. This makes no sense!

Commissioner Hespe testified to you that it would not be possible to compute the amount of money that districts have spent in preparing for PARCC. To me, that is quite concerning, but I believe that the worst waste of resources is the time that our students and teachers are spending in school this year NOT learning. My daughter’s class spent nine sessions this school year in the computer lab, learning how to use Pearson’s PARCC tools. They have taken numerous practice tests, not for the students’ benefit, but to check that the school’s internet and computer capacity could handle the actual PARCC administration. They have had countless days of being in class with substitute teachers who do not instruct, but simply supervise the students while their regular teachers have training to administer PARCC. The teachers have not been able to attend enriching and inspiring continuing education workshops because their professional development hours have been spent on PARCC preparation.

Many educators would say, if asked, that the time and money that has been spent thus far on preparation for the PARCC test could absolutely have been put to better use addressing student needs that they were already aware of. Unfortunately, Commissioner Hespe and others that believe in this education reform movement would have you believe that educators have a problem with PARCC testing because they actually have a problem with accountability. Many test advocates say that teachers don’t like the test because it will show that their teaching is ineffective, and that PARCC puts pressure on teachers to perform given that PARCC scores will be tied to teachers’ performance evaluations. Advocates for public education, including educators and others who are familiar with educational research and practice say that it is unfair to hold teachers accountable for the reasons that students perform poorly since many of these include learning disabilities, poverty, and other issues that are beyond individual teachers’ control. If we truly want to improve academic outcomes, we need to put resources and accountability in the right places, and not into tools that will just continue to measure and accentuate the achievement gap.

My biggest concern is about the long term impact on public education for poor children and children with special needs. Education reform executives, politicians, and education policy makers often send their children to private schools, where Common Core standards and high stakes testing are not used. Children who attend such private schools will continue to have the enriching educational experiences that they can afford. Our less privileged and more vulnerable students however, will suffer. Since PARCC’s focus is only on English language arts and math, and resources are scarce, many schools are cutting recreation, sports, science, music, drama, second language, and fine arts offerings. Students who struggle academically often find that these activities are the ones that make school fun, inspiring, and something to look forward to. We should also remember that not everyone is meant to be a business executive or a mathematician. As a society, we need people who are creative, inspired, out-of-the-box thinkers. By degrading the quality of our public schools and not offering equal opportunity for disadvantaged people, we will only enhance the achievement gap.

Commissioner Hespe seemed determined to convince you in his testimony last week that the groundswell of opposition to PARCC is due to parents being uninformed. Please know that we parents are also professionals. We are business owners, corporate managers, teachers, artists, librarians, social workers, medical professionals, researchers, statisticians, and lawyers — as well as parents. We work our full-time jobs, care for our families, and have taken on our part-time roles as well informed social activists because we feel that our voices continue to be ignored and dismissed by those we have elected. Please allow our voices to be just as powerful as those alleging that they speak for us.

As members of the Senate Education Committee, I know that you have our students’ and taxpayers’ best interests in mind. In addition to reading my letter, which I am so grateful that you have done, I am asking for your support. Please make a conscious effort to protect our public schools. Please make efforts to halt and roll back unfunded state mandates, including standards and expectations that set special needs students up to fail as well as the mandates that link test scores to teacher evaluations. Please make efforts to stop holding teachers accountable for variables that are not under their control. Please ensure that we, as parents, maintain our right to refuse participation in standardized testing for our children. Please work toward returning local control of schools to those taxpayers who are most invested in their success. Please do not allow the interests of corporate education reformers to be more important than the needs of our children. Please listen to parents, educators and administrators. Please put our public school students’ needs first.

Again, I am thankful for the time that you have given to hear my concerns. Please do not hesitate to contact me at any time to continue this conversation.


Dr. Colleen Daly Martinez

Administrators, Hillside Elementary School
Members, Montclair Board of Education
Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson
Senator Steve Sweeney
Senator Cory Booker
Senator Robert Menendez
Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan
Congressman Donald Payne
Members, Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in New Jersey
Governor Chris Christie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's where I say: “Evaluate THAT.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



GUEST VOICES: Mom Lynley Jones to Senator Lamar Alexander

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

Dear Senator Alexander,

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

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

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


Lynley Jones

Montclair, New Jersey

cc (via web submission):

Senator Robert Menendez

Senator Cory Booker

Dear PARCC, Can We Talk?

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


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

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

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

“A library has 126 books about trees.

Part A

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

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

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

Part B

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

Enter your answer in the box. [_____]”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question 1:

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

Enter your answer in the box. [_____]


Question 2:

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

Enter your answer in the box. [_____]

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

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

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

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

Thank you for your strong leadership.

Very truly yours,


Justin Escher Alpert
Livingston, New Jersey