Pearson’s Yellow Brick Road

I have never been happier that we refused to allow my fourth grader to take the PARCC. Yesterday, I asked her what she’s heard at school about the PARCC tests her peers have been taking. Although she has never sat for a PARCC test herself, she was able to tell me that some of the 4th grade PARCC reading passages were from the Wizard of Oz (apparently one passage was about the Emerald City, and another told the story of the Tin Man). So in theory, if your child has not yet sat for the 4th grade PARCC, you could embark on a Frank Baum marathon this weekend to give your child a leg up on his or her upcoming PARCC test.

This is one of the many logistics issues that has never made sense to me about the PARCC test security protocol: especially in the age of social media, how could the state departments of education and Pearson possibly have expected their testing materials to remain secret when one 4th grader might take the test as early as March 2nd, but that child’s cousin in another district might not be scheduled to take the same test until March 20th?

Well, now we know. As you have probably heard, yesterday afternoon blogger (and former Star Ledger education reporter) Bob Braun reported that Pearson is monitoring children’s social media accounts to look for Tweets and other social media posts that allegedly compromise the security of its PARCC tests. Here in New Jersey, at least, when Pearson finds what it believes to be test-security infractions, it then tracks down those students’ personal data to figure out what schools they attend. Then Pearson reports the alleged infractions to the New Jersey Department of Education (“NJDOE”). As of yet, we parents have no idea if the NJDOE stores the report of this alleged infraction in its NJSMART database. What we do know is that the NJDOE has been notifying individual districts’ test coordinators of their students’ alleged infractions. Furthermore, we know that NJDOE has requested that the individual districts punish students for writing about test questions on social media.

Today, Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post (yes, the same Valerie Strauss who graciously publishes many of the pieces I’ve written for this blog) confirmed the story, and obtained additional information from both the Watchung Hills Regional High School superintendent who expressed her concerns about the practice in the email published on Braun’s blog and from a Pearson spokesperson.

So what does it all mean? Pearson thinks its monitoring (like Peter Greene, I think that Braun’s term, “spying,” misses the mark, as there is no expectation of privacy when you post a Tweet, at least) is hunky-dory:

The security of a test is critical to ensure fairness for all students and teachers and to ensure that the results of any assessment are trustworthy and valid.

We welcome debate and a variety of opinions. But when test questions or elements are posted publicly to the Internet, we are obligated to alert PARCC states. Any contact with students or decisions about student discipline are handled at the local level.

We believe that a secure test maintains fairness for every student and the validity, integrity of the test results.

I think that Pearson, however, has missed the mark. First of all, what, exactly, is an “element” of a test question? Are the Pearson Police going to be at my doorstep tomorrow because I mentioned that I heard from my kid (who herself has not and will not sit for the test) that the 4th grade PARCC includes excerpts from Frank Baum’s work? And if I can’t — as I can’t — be held accountable for posting the tip above, why is it okay for Pearson, through its patsy, the NJDOE, to seek to impose disciplinary action against students who allegedly shared “test elements” (although not, according to the student’s superintendent, a tweet containing a photograph of the test itself)?

Second, what does it mean for a test to be “secure”? Does Pearson really think that kids are not talking about these tests among themselves? Does Pearson really think it can bind our kids to secrecy? The last time I checked, our kids were minors — and therefore they, unlike their teachers, cannot be bound to a non-disclosure agreement even if it could be argued that our kids receive consideration in connection with these tests (and, my lawyer friends, even if there was consideration and such a contract could bind a minor, it sounds awfully like a contract of adhesion, anyway…). Along those lines: are our kids being instructed to keep the test materials secret? As a practical matter, it strikes me as pathologically naive to think that such instructions to kids could actually work.

But more importantly, as a parent, I vehemently object to adults in our schools instructing children to keep secrets from their parents. In this day and age, we parents work hard to make sure that our kids know that they can talk to us about anything — and that openness is how we parents try to thwart possible predators and bullies, because we know that predators and bullies use children’s shame and fear to hide their abuse of children. Indeed, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends:

Teach children early and often that there are no secrets between children and their parents, and that they should feel comfortable talking with their parent about anything — good or bad, fun or sad, easy or difficult.

So if you think I’m mad about these tests now, Education Commissioner Hespe and Pearson’s Brandon Pinette, I better not hear that our schools are sending our children mixed messages by telling kids to be open with parents  and trusted adults — except when it comes to testing.

Third, what sort of people has Pearson hired to track children’s social media presences, and what steps has Pearson taken to ensure that its employees are properly vetted before it directs them to obtain personally identifiable information about our kids? Have Pearson’s employees been required to submit to background checks? It seems an odd person who would choose to make his or her living by delving into individual children’s social media use to the extent that the person can figure out the school the child attends. How are those people vetted? What steps has Pearson taken to safeguard our children? And should a private company, which is not subject to public oversight through OPRA, really be tasked with obtaining this sort of information regarding our children?

Finally, what does it mean that the NJDOE (and also, apparently, other state education departments, such as the Maryland equivalent) has so cavalierly agreed to a scheme that encourages a for-profit corporation to hire adults to monitor children’s social media for supposed test security breaches? The twitter hashtags that have sprung up in response to this scandal seem largely on point:


Yes, it doesn’t shock me that Pearson, a for-profit corporation, is scanning our children’s social media, but it’s  disturbing that Pearson is reporting the results of its social media monitoring of children to government agencies (presumably in return for the $108 million that NJDOE is paying Pearson to administer these tests). In particular, Pearson is reporting kids’ alleged test-security infractions to a government agency — the NJDOE — that maintains a database with a personal identification number for each and every public school student in New Jersey. Assuming for the sake of argument that our children are somehow precluded from freely sharing — either in conversation or via social media — the reading passages and questions asked of them on the PARCC, are we parents really okay with the NJDOE possibly noting our children’s poor judgment on their records of our children’s academic careers? I have no idea if NJDOE is tracking this information or not, of course — but then again, until yesterday I didn’t know that NJDOE was regularly receiving reports from Pearson about New Jersey children’s social media use either.

It’s been a long time since I read Orwell’s 1984, but it really does feel like Pearson and the NJDOE expect parents to be okay with such corporate and government intrusion into their children’s lives. Maybe my opposition to this level of Orwellian intrusion is naive, but I, for one, find this level of intrusion into our children’s lives downright creepy. And I think that the New Jersey Department of Education officials who condoned this without full advance disclosure to the public should be summarily fired. David Hespe, that means you.

Parents, if, until now, you’ve let your kids take these tests, remember: you can still choose to refuse.

The Other PARCC: A Short Film by Michael Elliot

Back in January, I was asked to be one of many interviewees for Michael Elliot’s short film (5 minutes) about New Jersey’s test refusal movement, which kicked into high gear this January as the state began gearing up for the PARCC tests (which begin tomorrow here in Montclair). The film was released today. If I was more technologically savvy, I’d embed it here, but just click on the link — and please watch it — it it definitely worth seeing.

Michael shot over 25 hours of video for the final 5 minute product. He did a great job editing together a wide range of voices united around a common theme. This afternoon, Montclair Cares About Schools hosted a premiere event for the film with Michael. I attended along with my family and many of the other people whose voices contributed to the film. We had a full house despite the snowy weather.

One of the key takeaways for me — both from the film itself and from the event today — is how many people from all walks of life have united together to protest the destruction high-stakes tests are forcing on our schools.

It was great to meet Daryn Martin, the PTO president of Ivy Hill Elementary School, who was arrested last year in connection with his advocacy in opposition to Cami Anderson’s destructive policies in Newark.

I was glad that Okaikor Aryee-Price’s daughter, Saige, and my daughter finally got the chance to meet in person, as they are two of the children who have spoken out publicly against what they’re seeing happening in their schools.

I was honored to be one of the parents from Montclair who made it to the final cut of the film, although Colleen Daly Martinez and my neighbor and friend Belinda Edmonson were both far more eloquent than I could ever hope to be.

It was terrific to reconnect with Tanaisa Brown of the Newark Students Union, who was one of the brave students who spent days camping out in Cami Anderson’s office in an attempt to force her to listen to the voices of students in her district.

Arne Duncan, I can tell you this much: the test refusal movement is far more than a few discontented “white suburban moms.”  People from across the economic, racial, and political spectrum are uniting to speak out against the destructive “reforms” that are decimating our public schools.

Here are a few photos from the event. I highly encourage you to check out the film.

A Full House at The Other PARCC Premiere Event


Daryn Martin addresses the crowd.


Tanaisa Brown addresses the crowd.


Michael Elliot prepping the film to run.


Obligatory Selfie with Michael Elliot.


Mrs. Blaine Goes to Trenton

Setting the Scene

Today my husband, Mike Blaine, and I prevailed on a neighbor to take our younger daughter to the bus stop, dropped our older daughter off for before-school band practice, and headed to Trenton. We’d both spent some time preparing our testimony in support of two of three bills pending today before the State Assembly’s Education Committee: A-4165, which codifies into law a parent’s right to opt kids out of statewide standardized testing, such as the PARCC tests (and codifies the schools’ responsibilities to provide educationally appropriate alternatives for those kids rather than forcing them to “sit & stare”), and A-4190, which places a three year moratorium on making any placement or graduation decisions based on students’ PARCC scores. You can find our testimony below.

We arrived in the hearing room a few minutes before ten, and waited in the crowded (standing room only) room while the legislative aides photocopied more speaker slips, as there were so many people who wanted to speak that they’d run out. Once the new speaker slips came out, we filled them out. Activist Jacklyn Brown was kind enough to clear her giant box of 14,000+ signatures on a petition favoring PARCC refusal policies off of the last remaining chair in the room, so that I could grab a seat. My poor husband, who’d come along for the ride, had to stand in the back of the room. I logged into the State House’s free wifi (thank you, fellow taxpayers), and live updated the whole thing on a post in the Facebook group Opt Out of State Standardized Tests – New Jersey (I highly recommend this group if you’re not already a member). Thank you again to Jacklyn — if I hadn’t had a seat, I couldn’t have live-updated the 7000+ member NJ Opt-Out/Refusal group in real time.

The Assembly Education Committee first considered and quickly voted in favor of A-3079, which prohibits summative standardized testing in grades K-2. Then the fireworks began. It was clear that the mood in the room was strongly on the anti-PARCC side. Every anti-PARCC speaker was followed by enthusiastic applause from around the room. The many lobbyists in favor of PARCC (almost all seemed to have affiliations that dictated their positions and most seemed to be getting paid in some way or another for their time today) received smatterings of light applause from maybe a half-dozen people or so. A-4165 was listed for discussion only, apparently because the Committee is still researching to determine definitively whether less than 95% PARCC participation could cost the state federal dollars; A-4190 was listed for discussion and a vote.

The good news is that in the end, A-4190 passed the Assembly Education Committee 6-0. I very much appreciate that, and I thank the members of the Committee for passing this bill. I strongly encourage them to pass A-4165 as expeditiously as possible, given that PARCC testing begins 18 days from today.

Some Observations

The Education Committee hearing lasted for three hours, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. There were at least 44 people signed up to speak. At 3 minutes per speaker, that would have been 132 minutes (2 hours and 12 minutes) of testimony. Yet the Chair of the Committee, Asm. Patrick Diegnan, instead chose to allow the paid lobbyists, in particular, to testify for 10-20 minutes at a pop. This caused the predictable result that about half of the speakers signed up to speak (including Mike and me) did not get a chance. Further, it appears from my notes that the Chairman choose roughly equal numbers of speakers to speak for and against the resolutions (the speaker slips required you to indicate whether you were for or against the bill), despite the fact that it seemed clear from the mood of the room that the vast majority of total speakers signed up to speak were in favor of the bills.

Just before the end of the hearing, Asm. Diegnan did read the names of those who wouldn’t get to speak, and apologized to us. However, I’ll note that he did not indicate the pro/con stance of the speakers who did not get to be heard. As I said above, although I do not know this for sure, I suspect that virtually all of the unheard speakers were people who would have spoken in favor of the bills.

After the hearing, I managed to corner Asm. Diegnan for a few minutes, and while I thanked him very much for his work on the bills, I did indicate my frustration at how the hearing had been run. To me, it seems like an affront to democracy to allow paid lobbyists unlimited time to address the committee (and a few of them, especially later in the hearing, appeared to be intentionally filibustering to preclude more anti-PARCC speakers from getting a chance) when so many parents, like me, had taken a day off work specifically to travel to Trenton to speak our minds to the Committee — and due to the deference given to the paid lobbyists, were not given a chance to do so. Asm. Diegnan certainly could have set — and enforced — reasonable time limits for the speakers. In my opinion, that would have been the more democratic thing to do.

The most breathtakingly evil thing I heard said today was said by paid Common Core shill Sandra Alberti. This is the same woman who debated in favor of PARCC on NJ101.5. In the NJ101.5 debate, she expressed her disdain for the democratic process when she referred to public testimony as something she and her colleagues were required to “endure” (rather than listen to, value, or learn from) back when she worked for the Department of Education.

But today she put her prior nastiness to shame, when she spoke against A-4165. She said:

“There are schools where parents can opt out. They’re called private schools.”

The privilege inherent in that comment is simply breathtaking. This woman suggested that Common Core and PARCC are good for the unwashed masses, but that the wealthy alone should have the option of a better education for their kids, as only the wealthy (like Governor Christie, Bill Gates, and President Barack Obama) have the opportunity to send their kids to expensive private schools. I’ll write more another day about the hubris of the education reform camp. For the moment, suffice it to say that it is truly hard for me to fathom that this woman thinks that it’s okay to say — in public — that public school parents should be forced to subject their children to PARCC testing simply because their children’s education is taxpayer rather than tuition funded. According to Alberti’s view of the world, apparently parental control over children’s education is something that should only be available to the wealthiest among us.

But I guess her comments aren’t surprising, as it’s clear from her earlier comments on NJ101.5 that she sees democracy as something to be endured, rather than as a cornerstone of what it means to be American. That is, Alberti believes that government by and for the oligarchs (and their technocratic minions, like her) the natural order of things.

Perhaps Alberti would have benefited from a bit more civics education, rather than a curriculum so heavily focused on the English Language Arts and mathematics?

The Takeaway

Overall, I am thrilled that A-4190 and A-3079 passed the Assembly Education Committee, and I hope that both bills are listed for votes by the full Assembly shortly. And I renew my calls for the Assembly Committee to take up AND VOTE ON A-4165 as soon as possible. Again, time is of the essence, as the PARCC test is a mere 18 days away.

Sarah’s Testimony in Support of A-4165 (opt-out bill):

I am here today to express my support for A4165. I support A4165 because, as a parent, I’m seeing the narrowing of curriculum that annual high-stakes standardized testing is having on our public schools. I define high-stakes standardized testing as testing used to potentially impose sanctions on schools and teachers, as well as for graduation and placement decisions for individual students. As a protest against narrowing of curriculum in response to high-stakes testing pressures, our family is refusing to allow my daughter to be tested this year.

My older daughter is a 4th grader in Montclair. Here are two examples of what I mean when I say that I’ve seen our kids’ curriculum narrow as a result of pressures caused by high-stakes standardized testing in mathematics, science, and the English Language Arts.

First, I’ve seen minimal social studies education. Instead, social studies time is eaten up by language arts instruction, and my fourth grader hasn’t studied the vast majority of the topics all New Jersey students should have — according to New Jersey’s Core Curriculum Content Standards — studied by the end of grade four. Here are some examples:

6.1.4.D.4 “Explain how key events led to the creation of the United States and the state of New Jersey.”

6.1.4.D.5 “Relate key historical documents (i.e., the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights) to present day government and citizenship.”

6.1.4.D.6 “Describe the civic leadership qualities and historical contributions of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin toward the development of the United States government.”

6.1.4.D.7 “Explain the role Governor William Livingston played in the development of New Jersey government.”

6.1.4.D.8 “Determine the significance of New Jersey’s role in the American Revolution”

6.1.4.D.9 “Explain the impact of trans-Atlantic slavery on New Jersey, the nation, and individuals.”

My kid — and her classmates — have studied exactly NONE of these things in the past five years of their public school experience.

Second, in Montclair’s all-magnet school system, my daughter’s magnet school is committed to helping all children to discover their unique gifts and talents through an amazing electives program that includes not only enrichment offerings in the academic subjects, but also a terrific program of arts, music, dance, and theater that really lets kids — all sorts of kids from all walks of life — find ways in which they shine. Yet last year, our school was forced to eliminate 1/3 of its elective offerings in exchange for “Response to Instruction” — that is, two more periods devoted to Language Arts and math drilling.

This is what I’m protesting when I refuse to allow my child to take the PARCC. We parents have had enough of the pressures placed on our districts, schools, and teachers by high-stakes standardized testing.

Social studies, music, the arts, and theater aren’t tested: and therefore, throughout our state, they’re taught less, if at all.

I urge you to pass A4165. I am refusing to allow my child to test because it is the boldest way I can say: ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. Let’s ensure that parents throughout our state can band together to do the same.

Thank you.

Mike’s Testimony in Support of A-4165:

My name is Michael Blaine and I live in Montclair, New Jersey. I have two daughters, ages 6 and 10, in the Montclair school district. I am a practicing attorney, with a previous career in information technology. Assembly bill A4165 should be passed because it provides an important option for parents who feel their children are being subjected to excessive and educationally “unhelpful” standardized testing. Presently, about 100 school districts around the state have policies that at least somewhat conform to the language of this bill, giving parents a right to refuse to have their children participate in the PARCC testing. But these policies are not uniform, and some districts have no policy at all.

Some districts allow for opting out of the testing, and call for educationally appropriate alternatives for those students who do opt out. Yet other districts seem to contemplate having students “sit and stare” in the classroom instead of taking the test. Still other districts remain silent on the issue and don’t yet have a policy at all. Finally, some districts actually have a policy that insists that students must take the PARCC exams or face some kind of negative consequence.

It is time for the Assembly to pass this bill and set a statewide standard for how this issue should be handled by the districts.

Additionally, until the PARCC assessments develop a track record and demonstrate that they are actually useful, and that they actually provide valuable data, parents should have the right to opt their children out and thereby take a wait and see attitude. There are grave concerns from many people over whether the PARCC assessments are developmentally appropriate to the grade levels being tested and there are further concerns over the excessive test preparation time being devoted by teachers and students instead of engaging in regular classroom lessons. These issues may be ironed out over time. But, until they are, parents shouldn’t be forced to have their children used as “guinea pigs” until the PARCC tests can evolve to where the tests get a “passing score” regarding their own usefulness and appropriateness.



Sarah’s Testimony in Support of A-4190 (no impact on students based on PARCC results):

I am here today to express my support for A4190. Given that the PARCC tests have not been proven reliable or valid on any sort of research-driven, peer-reviewed basis, and given that the PARCC tests are the first statewide tests to be administered on computers to children as young as eight years old, I think it is incumbent on you, our legislators, to ensure that high-stakes decisions are not made based on the results of these tests.

I attended the Montclair, NJ Board of Education meeting this past Monday, February 9th. At that meeting, Montclair Public Schools’ Director of Technology, Barry Haines, presented the results of the late January and early February PARCC grade-level infrastructure testing. Attached to my testimony is Haines’s handout setting out the results of those trials.

Approximately 1,320 of the 1,500 students who participated in the PARCC infrastructure trials were able to complete them. As Haines stated, the remaining 180 students — 12% of the total — could not complete the trials due to technology issues. Our district budgeted one million dollars last year for network, bandwidth, device, and other technology upgrades to prepare for the PARCC. As I understand it, substantially more than that was actually spent. Yet a mere twenty-one days before the first day of PARCC testing, the district reported that twelve percent of our students couldn’t complete a trial test due to technology issues. And trust me, our Superintendent, who is a former NJDOE employee, is one of the biggest PARCC cheerleaders out there — she’s been doing everything in her power to make this test work. Even under her leadership, more than 1 out of 10 students couldn’t get the test done due to technology failures.

The handout states: “Some of the problems that kept students from successfully completing the infrastructure trials appear to have been problems with the Pearson server and Pearson software, rather than with the district’s infrastructure”; “We have reported these problems to Pearson and are aware that other school districts have experienced similar problems when conducting their own trials”; and “For this reason, it is also incumbent upon Pearson to remedy the issues identified by school districts conducting infrastructure trials.”

Given these problems, there is a substantial likelihood that testing environments across the state will be disturbed as district personnel work with individual students to reboot computers, swap out computers, and speak on the phone with Pearson technical support. As test administrators attempt to troubleshoot problems, other students in the same classroom will be trying to complete these tests. Many of these are little kids: 8, 9, and 10 years old. I can tell you that if my daughter’s neighbor was having these problems during a test, my daughter would be distracted and paying attention to the troubleshooting process, and not to her own test.

Under these circumstances, it is impossible for the results of these tests to be valid. I urge you to vote in favor of A4190, so that we can ensure that no high-stakes consequences for our kids, such as graduation and placement decisions, are attached to the results of these tests.

Furthermore, our teachers deserve no less. This Committee should immediately take up similar legislation placing a moratorium on any use of PARCC test results in teacher evaluations for at least the next three years.

Thank you.


MPS Infra Trials
Handout from Feb. 9, 2015 Montclair Public Schools Board of Education Meeting re PARCC Infrastructure Trial



Mike’s Testimony in Favor of A-4190:

My name is Michael Blaine and I live in Montclair, New Jersey. I have two daughters, ages 6 and 10, in the Montclair school district. I am a practicing attorney, with a previous career in information technology. Prior to going to Law School at Rutgers, I was an information Technology Director at AT&T, where one of my responsibilities involved the the implementation and roll out of large scale computer systems. As such, I can speak from experience and tell you that the upcoming adminsitration of the PARCC exams will not be 100% smooth from a technology persepctive, and that’s why the Assembly should pass this bill.

We need a moratorium on using the results of the PARCC exams for anything that might prove detrimental to students or teachers, until we can be sure that the software and hardware work sufficiently well that all students can actually successfully complete the exams. If a student can’t graduate because he or she couldn’t finish the PARCC exam due to a “computer crash” or a technology issue, we all have a big problem.

Think for a minute about large scale computer system implementations you have heard about that “went south” on day one. Remember the Obamacare website at Lots of problems on the first day. Or since we are in the political arena, how about Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign that had serious computer system issues on election day? Those are exactly the kind of examples we need to worry about with the PARCC exams. This is the first time we will be trying to have a state wide assessment test that is completely computer based and not a paper and pencil test. That’s a really big technology challenge.

Without a moratorium on using the results of the PARCC tests for advance placement or graduation, our students can’t afford for the PARCC tests not to work 100% perfectly on day one, and trust me, they probably won’t. A moratorium will give time for the very capable IT people in our school districts to fix the bugs in the system, learn from any mistakes that are made, and make sure we don’t have a situation in the future where students can’t complete the exam becuase of technology issues.

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

Montclair Kindergarten Tours Moved To January

Below please find two letters to the Montclair community.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please help to get the word out.

Best regards,

Sarah Blaine (4th grade and kindergarten parent)


Dear Montclair Taxpayers and Community Members:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best regards,

Sarah Blaine


Dear PARCC, Can We Talk?

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


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

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

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

“A library has 126 books about trees.

Part A

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

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

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

Part B

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

Enter your answer in the box. [_____]”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question 1:

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

Enter your answer in the box. [_____]


Question 2:

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

Enter your answer in the box. [_____]

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

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

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

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

Thank you for your strong leadership.

Very truly yours,


Justin Escher Alpert
Livingston, New Jersey

Speaking Truth and Democracy to New Jersey State Board of Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Say no to testing small children on computers.

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

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

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

Please join me in refusing the PARCC. Thank you.

In Favor of Refusal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

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

Writing Off “Those Kids”

Just curious… does anyone else find this New York Times “Room For Debate” piece by Michael Petrilli, president of The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which ran under the headline “Charters Can Do What’s Best For Students Who Care,” as breathtakingly offensive as I do? What boggles my mind is that this man is a leading voice among the so-called education reformers. His honesty is, at least, honest, I suppose. Unlike the DFERs, at least he’s not out there shouting that access to charter schools is the new civil rights movement of our time. He’s not out there suggesting that charter schools don’t cherry-pick and weed out students. So there’s that. I guess.

Instead, Petrilli’s saying that the fact that tax-dollar-funded charter schools kick out large numbers of students is “a feature, not a bug.” And that when it comes to discipline, “[t]raditional public schools that serve all comers have to find a middle ground, as best they can, which often pleases no one.”

And this guy is a thought-leader for the education reform movement.  His institute’s tagline is “Advancing Educational Excellence.”  I guess a more accurate version would read, “Advancing Education Excellent For Some.”

Judge for yourself.  Here are the money paragraphs from Petrilli:

Because [charter schools] are schools of choice, they have many advantages, including that everyone is there voluntarily. Thus they can make their discipline codes clear to incoming families (and teachers); those who find the approach too strict can go elsewhere.

This is a good compromise to a difficult problem: Not all parents (or educators) agree on how strict is too strict. Traditional public schools that serve all comers have to find a middle ground, as best they can, which often pleases no one. Schools of choice, including charters, need not make such compromises. That’s a feature, not a bug.

It’s not too strong to say that disruption is classroom cancer. It depresses achievement and makes schools unpleasant, unsafe and unconducive to learning. We need to think long and hard about taking tools away from schools — especially schools of choice — that allow their students to flourish.

In other words, we should divide students into those who care and those who don’t. We should provide resources to those who care, and warehouse the rest.  And when our public schools actually attempt to meet kids where they are and to reach all kids, they’re engaged in compromises that “please[] no one.”

Of course Petrilli eliminated two key words from his last sentence.  It should read: “We need to think long and hard about taking tools away from schools — especially schools of choice — that allow [some of] their students to flourish.”

I’m flabbergasted.

Is it really okay to openly advocate for charter school discipline policies that weed out a significant portion of the student body (without, in most cases, replacing those expelled or “counseled out” students, of course)?

Is it really okay to say that our public schools are places of compromises that please no one?

Is it really okay to imply that public schools truly are the schools of last resort, that their highest and best purpose is to serve as dumping grounds for those students who are not good enough (or malleable enough, or terrified enough, or controllable enough) to succeed in charters?

On Twitter, Petrilli argued that he’s saying that public schools should be able to kick kids out with impunity as well, as if that somehow makes his proposal okay. I asked him what he suggests doing with all of the kids he suggests kicking out. His response was that we can send those kids to “alternative schools.” In other words, we’re supposed to warehouse “those kids” in faux-schools until they drop out or end up in prison, but there’s no point in trying to motivate them, reach them, or educate them. We should just separate them from the rest of us.  We should just face facts and write them off. Because they don’t care. They are ungovernable. Unteachable.  And so we owe “those children” nothing.  Despite the fact that they are children.

According to Petrilli, apparently the fundamental problem with traditional public schools is that they don’t kick out more kids.  If only the public schools expelled more children, then they’d be “advancing educational excellence.”  The real problem with American education is that we just don’t have enough high school drop-outs, I guess.  It’s not inequitable allocation of resources.  It’s not failing to combat poverty and inequality.  It’s really just the low school expulsion rate that’s to blame.

Presumably in an all-charter system this will mean dumping the unwanted students into low-performing charters until those charters either kick them out or are closed and a new batch of substandard charters arise to take them on. In a mixed public/charter district, this will mean dumping those kids back into the traditional public schools, further damaged by the alienation, sense of failure, and disruption that go along with getting kicked or counseled out of a charter school. But according to Petrilli, there is no need to worry about that, since bringing stability to the lives of students with anger or behavior issues is apparently not a priority. And stratification of students in publicly funded schools is apparently “a feature, not a bug.”

I am just amazed that someone who is, for better or for worse, a leading voice in education policy setting will openly come out and state that some kids just suck, and the best thing we can do is to just weed them out and get rid of them.

“Those kids” are apparently not worth educating.

“Those kids” are apparently not worth reaching.

“Those kids” apparently don’t belong in classrooms with the rest of our kids.

So, here’s my question: at what age do we write kids off?

When is a child old enough to be thrown away?

When does a child go from being a cute little boy or girl to becoming one of “those kids”?

And how do we distinguish kids worth educating from kids who should be warehoused in alternative environments?  Are we weeding out the rebels?  The creative thinkers?  Those who question authority?  Are we rewarding malleability, conformity, and keeping your head down?

This isn’t even code for active advocacy of re-segregation of schools. It’s a blatant statement that we should re-segregate schools. With impunity. As we cloak ourselves in righteousness. Because you know, there are kids who matter, and kids who don’t. And if socio-economic factors happen to determine who belongs in which category for the vast majority of those kids, who cares? Because why care about a kid who doesn’t care, regardless of why that kid appears to “not care”?

I’m still trying to figure out why my tax dollars are supporting quasi-“public” charter schools that their own proponents encourage to refuse to serve certain kids. Their own proponents agree that the charter schools do — and agree that they should — weed out “those kids” with impunity. Can someone please explain to me how that is preparing kids for citizenship in a democratic society? Unless, of course, the goal is to create a permanent underclass of citizens who are uneducated, easily manipulated, and disenfranchised.

Why don’t we just kill two birds with one stone? We can expel students who have problems with authority from school and just send them directly to prison. After all, justice and equity are irrelevant to Petrilli’s vision. And why bother with trials if we’re not going to be judged by jurors with access to basic education?

In Petrilli’s world, order is apparently the order of the day. Children don’t deserve second chances. Late bloomers have no opportunities to turn themselves around. Troublemakers should be warehoused. And public education with public funds owes nothing to the public.

Perhaps I’m just naive, but I, for one, am outraged. You should be too.  Even — and perhaps especially — if you support charter schools.

NJ Governor’s Task Force: Take the PARCC, I Did


Dear Members of Governor Christie’s PARCC Task Force:

I was one of those kids who always performed well on standardized tests. As a result of my scores, I was placed in gifted and talented programs, tracked into the honors and AP tracks (with their added boosts of inflated GPAs), and ultimately accepted to a highly selective liberal arts college. I wasn’t a particularly conscientious student, and I brought all sorts of hangups to my classwork (Carol Dweck is my hero, as I was definitely one of those kids who often didn’t complete assignments at all out of what I now believe was fear that I wouldn’t measure up to my “smart” reputation). But standardized tests saved me, and gave me a chance to “prove” my worth. You’d think I’d be the biggest cheerleader out there for our new, next-generation standardized tests. After all, standardized tests enabled me to skate through school until I finally matured enough to become a conscientious student while studying for my first graduate degree. Standardized tests served me well, so isn’t it time for me to return the favor?

Given that standardized tests have served me so well, I approached the Partnership for Assessment of College and Career Readiness (“PARCC”) sample problems and sample tests with an open mind. I first sat down to try some of the third through fifth grade sample math problems about a year ago. After that review, my major objection was to the technology, which makes solving math problems and justifying answers harder rather than easier. That is still true (although admittedly, the technology seems better than it was in January of 2014 when I first looked at these). But more recently, I first really sat with and reviewed the 4th grade English Language Arts practice test. My real concern now is with the English Language Arts tests.

I have a fourth grade daughter. She was first identified for our district’s gifted and talented program for English Language Arts in kindergarten, as she came into kindergarten reading chapter books. Her vocabulary and analysis skills remain quite advanced for a child of her age. And I can tell you that she retains the ability to imagine. Do you remember that, the ability to imagine with ease? Do you remember your childhood, when you could create imaginary worlds and people them with imaginary characters just by wishing them into existence? Do you remember building forts and castles that were as real to you as could be? For a moment, for just a moment, I ask you to call upon what is likely your long-stagnated power of imagination. Imagine yourself at nine or ten years old. Imagine your room, imagine your friends, and imagine your school work.

Then sit down. Keep yourself in your nine or ten year old mindset. Boot up your desktop, or power up your laptop, or unlock your iPad. Navigate to the PARCC website, at Navigate to the 4th grade English Language Arts PARCC practice test. Open it in front of you, right now, as you read this comment. If you refuse to sit down to take the sample tests yourself, then with all due respect I submit that farcical as this task force — with its 6 week window to issue recommendations — might be, you are not meeting you obligation as member of this task force. Remember as you work through the 4th grade PARCC practice test that you are not your current self — you are still your nine or ten year old self.

As you take the 4th grade English Language Arts PARCC test, stay in the head of nine or ten year old you. Imagine your nine or ten year old self reading the first story and the first poem. Imagine your nine or ten year old self trying to answer the questions regarding what evidence supports the meaning of certain words. I bet your nine or ten year old self can probably figure out the first answer. Your nine or ten year old self might even be about to figure out what evidence from the text supports that first answer.

What about the kid who already knows the definition of the word drift?

Now move on to the setting question. Imagine your nine or ten year old self attempting to distinguish which choices describe the setting. Remember that this is a “gotcha” question, as all five possibilities are described in the story, but the answer key states that the “correct” answers are only those that pertain to the settings in Priya’s present, and not to those settings that form the background for her memories. Did your nine or ten year old self know that without me first revealing the answer? Does your nine or ten year old self think it’s fair or appropriate to expect our nine and ten year olds to intuit that distinction? If your nine or ten year old self thinks this is unfair, do you think your nine or ten year old self is going to keep devoting his or her best efforts to completing this test?

Apparently 4th graders are supposed to magically know that this question only refers to the present-day setting, not to the settings described in Priya’s memories.

But keep imagining. Imagine, as you progress through the multiple choice questions, your nine or ten year old self constantly having to try to scroll up and down to get to the proper portion of the story that relates to the question. As you imagine, remember, as my ten year old daughter reported to me from one of her class’s PARCC practice sessions, that if you accidentally click outside the testing box as you scroll, you will be locked out of the remainder of the test. Imagine the anxiety you feel that you might accidentally mis-click.

I could make a reasonable argument for either B or C. What about you?

Now imagine your nine or ten year old self attempting to distinguish the structural elements that delineate the poem versus those that delineate the short story. Imagine your nine or ten year old self trying to relate to and analyze Maya Angelou’s poetry. Imagine your nine or ten year old self trying to figure out if “descriptions” applies to both.

I could argue that rhythm applies to both. What about you?

Finally, you’re up to the first essay. Now imagine your nine or ten year old self, hunting and pecking for each letter on the keyboard, trying to draft an essay in which you identify the theme of the poem and the theme of the story, and then to show how the characters in the story and the speaker in the poem “show” the theme. What themes did your nine or ten year old self pick? What does your nine or ten year old self think it means for the themes to be “shown through the characters”? Did your nine or ten year old self truly sit down and try to type out a well-written and intelligent answer to this essay? Did your nine or ten year old self remember to do this one finger at a time, laboriously hunting and pecking around the keyboard, now looking for a “c,” and later looking for an “f”? Did your nine or ten year old self write to the best of his or her ability, or did your nine or ten year old self just push to put something — anything — down on the screen as his or her frustration grew with the infernally slow progress of his or her typewritten thoughts? Does your adult self remember the frustration of trying to get your thoughts out on paper before your fingers could keep up with your brain?

What themes did you pick? Does the question require you to pick one common theme, or should you pick two separate themes? And how is a 9 or 10 year old going to explain “how the theme of the story is shown through the characters and how the theme of the poem is shown through the speaker,” anyway? Finally, if the PARCC consortium/Pearson actually believe that this question is appropriate for 9 and 10 year olds, why don’t they show us exemplars of actual student-written responses created under test-taking conditions?

Now, can you truly look me in the eye and tell me with a straight face that this is an appropriate task for our children?

Now, can you truly look me in the eye and tell me in all honesty that a child who cannot succeed on this task is not on track for college or a career?

Now, can you truly look me in the eye and tell me as if you mean it that preparing our children for this work is what their teachers should be spending the year doing?

Now, can you truly look me in the eye and tell me that your child self would believe that this test was fair, and would not give up before the end?

Now, can you truly look me in the eye and tell me with sincerity that years spent preparing for tests like these aren’t going to suck the joy, imagination, love of learning, and creativity out of children — and their teachers?

Can you truly?

My large extended family gathered this Thanksgiving for turkey and togetherness. At our gathering, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I spoke with my retired elementary school librarian aunt, with my aunt who works for a private tutoring center, with my college freshman cousin, and with my cousins whose kids are in third and fifth grade. They like my writing and they’re impressed by my activism, but none of them had really made the leap to think that my education activism is something that is really about them and their kids or their grandkids. They thought that their kids — like mine — are privileged enough to be good students in good public schools, and that these tests were really about the other kids, the kids without privileges and advantages, and that this fight had nothing to do with them.

But then I opened up my iPad. And I navigated to the PARCC fourth grade ELA sample test. And I made them try to take it. Each of them was appalled. Outraged. Infuriated.

So this is my request to this task force. Don’t issue a report or make recommendations until you sit down — publicly so that we know that you did it — and actually try taking these sample tests.  That is, to maintain any credibility at all, the task force must host — and participate in — Take the PARCC events across the state.

After that, you can move on to the other issues. After that, you can make recommendations.

After that, you can look at how often Pearson makes mistakes in its textbooks, and whether it’s reasonable to trust a company that makes such mistakes to design high-stakes tests that will eventually determine our students’ class placement and/or college graduation.

After that, you can look why it is categorically unfair — not to mention demoralizing — to have teachers’ performance reviews dependent on the outcomes of these tests.

After that, you can look at whether these tests improve children’s educational outcomes.

After that, you can look at whether the high-stakes nature of these tests encourages widespread cheating.

After that, you can look at whether failures on these tests contributes to destabilizing schools and communities that serve our most challenged children.

After that, you can look at whether the high-stakes testing culture discourages highly qualified teachers from entering (or, as I can tell you in my case, from returning to) the teaching profession.

After that, you can look at what portions of our high local property taxes and precious school budgets are now paid to the for-profit industry that has sprung up around these tests.

After that, you can look at whether these tests are doing more harm than good.

After that, you can look at whether these tests are forcing schools to narrow the curriculum, as the requirement to devote school hours and resources to teaching to these tests means that those school hours and resources are not being used for other, more precious, lessons.

After that, you can look at whether these tests are stamping out our children’s imaginations even earlier than we lost the abilities to easily access our own imaginations.

After that, you can look at whether Acting Commissioner David Hespe of the New Jersey Department of Education should be instructed to revise his PARCC “opt-out” guidance to ensure that the child of any parent who conscientiously objects to his or her child serving as a guinea pig for these tests will be provided with an alternate education experience during testing.

After that, you can look at whether — assuming we agree that this is the purpose of public school, which we don’t — student performance on these tests will tell teachers, parents, and members of the community anything whatsoever about whether these 9 and 10 year olds are on-track for college and careers.

But first — first — you need to take the tests.


Sarah Blaine, B.A. in English (Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT), M.A.T. in Secondary English (University of Maine, Orono, ME), J.D. (Rutgers University School of Law–Newark, Newark, NJ)