Civics Lessons

The Study Commission Recommended That Our Kids Be Stuck Testing Into Eternity: Now What?

Yesterday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in New Jersey issued its long-awaited final report.  To the surprise of no one, the Governor’s minions Commission concluded that the PARCC test is wonderful, and that not only should New Jersey keep using it, we should require all high school students to take it to qualify to graduate starting with the Class of 2020, and require them to earn passing scores on the 10th grade English and Algebra I tests starting with the Class of 2021.  My older daughter is in the Class of 2023 (and my younger daughter is in the Class of 2027), so this has a direct impact on my family and me.  For the record, this year 36% of NJ students who took the 10th grade English Language Arts test receiving scores demonstrating that they met or exceeded expectations, and again, 36% of Algebra I test takers received scores reflecting that they’d met or exceeded expectations.

Here are the initial thoughts I shared on Facebook about the result:

Over a hundred people came out to the 3 public comment sessions. All but maybe ONE of them spoke against PARCC testing in NJ. Parents and educators everywhere — from teachers to my daughter’s recently retired building principal to our town’s superintendent — are opposed to this sham of a test. But the pre-determined outcome is in fact the actual outcome. Public comment had no impact whatsoever. 

The game is rigged, and it’s our children who are losing. But this outcome can be laid solidly at Chris Christie’s door, and the national media should hold him accountable for it. After all: he appointed the “independent” study commission; he appointed New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe; and he appoints all of the members of the New Jersey State Board of Education. So the buck stops with Christie. 

But on a structural level, the fact that ALL public education policy makers are ultimately accountable to one person demonstrates how broken and easily manipulated our state education policy truly is. 

We the Parents, We the Taxpayers, and We the People need to step in. It is time to demand change — an amendment to the NJ state constitution, if necessary, to get elected representation on the State Board of Education.  Rule making bodies like NJSBOE and NJDOE have tremendous power to interpret state education statutes however they see fit. They must be accountable to the people and not just to a governor dreaming of the White House. 

In NJ, our local school boards have abdicated policy making responsibility saying that they’re hamstrung by state mandates. And those state mandates come from entities that are all accountable only to our governor. Structural change is necessary if we want to preserve public education for our children and the future.

And here are my expanded thoughts (very expanded, I’m sorry, I’m a lawyer, I’m nerdy, and since I was reading through the enabling legislation myself for my own edification, I figured that at least a few of you policy nerds might want to follow along at home as well.  For the rest of you, don’t say I didn’t warn you…) about where we go from here.  I think I will do a separate post looking at the actual report itself to see if it measures up to the Common Core standards PARCC claims to measure.  Look for that tonight or tomorrow.  In the meantime, here goes…

A Brief Digression on the Death of Local Control

Wednesday night I plan to attend my local district’s Board of Education meeting.  For me, at least, the hot topic will be school tours, which are a big deal for parents of incoming kindergarteners and incoming middle schoolers in our all-magnet suburban school system.

Last weekend, a local micro-news blog created a brouhaha when it reported a scuffle between the district PTA council president and the superintendent over whether the district had decided to replace school tours with online videos. For a whole lot of reasons, I think school tours are important, so Wednesday night I plan to attend our local Board of Education’s next meeting to express my opinion during public comment.

Why does this matter? What is unusual about this vignette is how rare it is for our local Board of Education to actually have the authority to set policy about a school-related issue, so for once my comment might actually make a difference.  The only reason our local board has sole authority over this issue is that this is such a unique local issue that Trenton has not bothered to dictate tour procedures to our town.  But on virtually every other topic these days, most New Jersey education policy decisions emanate from Trenton, where the New Jersey Department of Education and the New Jersey State Board of Education issue implementing regulations for state education statutes, and issue policy guidance and bulletins to New Jersey school districts.

New Jersey’s Code of Ethics for School Board Members Demonstrates State Usurpation of Local Control 

New Jersey’s Code of Ethics for School Board Members, N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(a), requires local school board members to make this pledge even before they pledge to look out for the educational welfare of children:

“I will uphold and enforce all laws, rules and regulations of the State Board of Education, and court orders pertaining to schools.  Desired changes shall be brought about only through legal and ethical procedures.”

Although the local tide has turned and our local BOE seems slightly more independent now, for the past few years, our local school board interpreted this pledge as requiring it to slavishly follow Trenton’s mandates, regardless of whether the local board of education thought that such mandates might be harming our children.  Whether deliberately or not, they seemed to ignore the second sentence of that pledge, and nobody but nobody was willing to utter a peep against Trenton. Especially given that the Christie administration decided to ignore the legislatively enacted state aid funding formula (“SFRA”), I think they were all terrified to open their mouths and bring the wrath of Trenton down upon them in dollars of aid magically not allotted to our district.

So for the first couple of years in which I attended local Board of Education meetings, when the public spoke out – and speak out it did – about the harm that many of these state mandates were doing to children, our local BOE copped out by saying that these were decisions made in Trenton, and its hands were tied.  I urged it to take action to influence and change state policy, but was largely ignored, presumably as a naive gadfly, which I undoubtedly am.

From my talks with friends, colleagues, and fellow activists throughout the state, my understanding is that Montclair’s school board was far from alone in taking this position. This 2001 Code of Ethics for School Board Members seems to have served to hamstring many local school boards, depriving them of local control on any and all topics on which the State Board of Education and/or the New Jersey Department of Education have decided to opine.  The ethics rule, which sounds reasonable on the surface, has functioned to make our school boards little more than powerless rubber stamps for whatever state policies the NJDOE and the NJ State Board of Education decide to impose on New Jersey’s public school children.

NJ’s State-Level Policy Makers

So the real questions are – who are the members of the State Board of Education, and how does our Commissioner of Education get appointed?  Those are the true power brokers of education policy in the state, so let’s figure out how they get into office.  Here’s the answer:

The members of the NJ State Board of Education are appointed by the governor – currently, Governor Chris Christie, of course.  This is mandated by the New Jersey State Constitution of 1947 at Article 5, Section 4, Paragraph 4, which reads:

“Whenever a board, commission or other body shall be the head of a principal department, the members thereof shall be nominated and appointed by the Governor with the advice and consent of the Senate, and may be removed in the manner provided by law.  [irrelevant for our purposes section about the Lieutenant Governor’s appointment process]  Such a board, commission or other body may appoint a principal executive officer when authorized by law, but the appointment shall be subject to the approval of the Governor.  Any principal executive officer so appointed shall be removable by the Governor, upon notice and an opportunity to be heard.”

N.J.S.A. 18A:4-4 implements this constitutional requirement in the statute setting out how the New Jersey State Board of Education is chosen.  It reads, in relevant part:

“The members of the state board shall be appointed by the governor, by and with the advice and consent of the senate, for terms of six years commencing on July 1.”

What this tells us is that by now, given that we are in the seventh year of Governor Christie’s tenure, all of the New Jersey State Board of Education members were appointed, re-appointed or allowed to continue in office by Gov. Christie, and are beholden to him – and only to him – for their positions.

N.J.S.A. 18A:4-1 confirms that Art. 5, Sec. 4, Para. 4 of the Constitution applies to the state department of education, and that therefore the provisions about the appointment of a principal executive officer apply.  It reads:

“The state department of education is hereby continued as a principal department in the executive branch of the state government, and it shall consist of a state board of education, which shall be head of the department, a commissioner of education, and such divisions, bureaus, branches, committees, officers and employees as are specifically referred to in this title and as may be constituted or employed by virtue of the authority conferred by this title and by any other law.”

So again – who is responsible for appointing not just the members of the State Board of Education, but also the Commissioner of the Board of Education?  Chris Christie’s State Board of Education, subject to the governor’s approval, of course.  In fact, Dave Hespe can be removed by Chris Christie whenever Christie feels like it, so long as he gives his buddy Dave notice of his removal and an opportunity to plead his case first.

The long and the short of it is – New Jersey’s governor has a LOT of power over state education policy, especially since the 2001 local school board code of ethics hamstrung any local Board of Ed members who wanted to push back hard against asinine state mandates.  I have no idea of the backstory that led to the 2001 ethics law, but I do find it curious that the timing coincides with the federal government centralizing some control over education policy through the 2001 No Child Left Behind law.

Now, the legislature can, of course, override the State Board of Education by passing legislation abrogating Department guidance and/or Board-issued regulations.  However, to do so, it must pass such legislation through both houses of the legislature and, of course, get those bills signed by… you guessed it… the Governor.  And, of course, the implementing regulations for any such legislation passed by the legislature will be created and approved by… you guessed it… the State Board of Education.  So any way you parse it, the NJ governor has enormous control over what happens in our public schools, and among other negatives to this lack of checks and balances is the fact that governors with different policy prescriptions can wildly swing education policy from one election to the next.

The Study Commission 

Yesterday, as I mentioned at the top, the Governor’s “independent” Study Commission released its report on state testing in New Jersey, which concluded, unsurprisingly, despite around 200 in person or emailed public comments in opposition and virtually none in support, that the PARCC is super awesome.  But, of course, it’s absurd on its face to think that a Study Commission appointed by the same governor who is responsible for appointing the State Board of Education and the State Commissioner of Education would reach a different conclusion than whatever the governor’s office (or his presidential campaign) wanted it to reach.  All three of these entities are answerable only to Chris Christie, and as newspapers have reported throughout Governor Christie’s tenure, he is not hesitant to bully those who disagree with him into submission.  And when those who disagree with him are people he thinks should be loyal to him, the gloves truly come off.

So the Study Commission’s conclusion:

“However, one point must be abundantly clear: the Study Commission firmly believes all students in New Jersey’s public schools who are eligible should be required to take the State standardized assessment (i.e., PARCC).  Doing so will ensure all students are progressing well in their educational endeavors and all public schools are effective for all students.  High-quality assessments such as PARCC will hold schools accountable for serving all of their students, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds.  The Study Commission believes it will be impossible to effectively close achievement gaps between and among students without accurate and actionable information”

was pre-ordained.  Ironically, the Study Commission’s entire report would earn a big fat F under the Common Core Standards if it were graded according to PARCC scoring rubrics.  The reason for this, of course, is that paragraphs like the one I just quoted cite to absolutely no evidence to support their conclusions.

Where Do We Go From Here?

One of my takeaways from this sham of a process (and don’t even get me started on the Common Core Review Commission, which also issued recommendations yesterday, and which was, perhaps, even worse in terms of process, if that’s even possible) is that there is way too much power over education policy consolidated in the hands of one person in this state: our Governor.

There is no question that Governor Christie’s minions appointees on the State Board of Education and at NJDOE will gleefully embrace the Study Commission recommendations, and that so long as this governor or a successor who shares his education policy prescriptions remains in office, the people will have little to no ability to shape more student-friendly education policy.

It seems to me that from an education policymaking process standpoint, there are two takeaways to move New Jersey education policy in a productive direction:

(1) We need to amend the New Jersey State Constitution so that at least some of the members of the State Board of Education are elected officials, accountable directly to voters rather than to the Governor.  The governor’s control over the rule making process is way too all-encompassing, and at least some elected State Board of Education members would provide needed checks and balances for educational policy making in New Jersey.  Especially now, when the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (“ESEA reauthorization”; i.e., No Child Left Behind’s replacement) has moved a great deal of education policy making authority from the federal government back to the states, we need to ensure that state level education policy cannot be so easily held captive by special interest groups who’ve courted the governor, but no one else.

(2) We need to introduce and pass legislation that makes it explicitly ethical for local Board of Education members to push back against state mandates that harm students.  It seems to me Paragraph (b) of the Code Ethics should be strengthened and replace Paragraph (a) as the first duty of local school board members. Paragraph (b) currently reads:

“I will make decisions in terms of the educational welfare of children and will seek to develop and maintain public schools that meet the individual needs of all children regardless of their ability, race, creed, sex, or social standing.”

Our kids deserve local leaders with the authority to actually put the children’s best interests first.  As the Study Commision report hammers home, this administration can never be trusted to do that.

Who’s with me?

Updated to Add (1/13/2016): Apparently New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe agrees with me.  Here he is, quoted in yesterday’s Star Ledger:

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New Jersey, let’s take our cue from New Jersey Education Commissioner and make a really good change to the New Jersey State Constitution.  It is time for We the People to reclaim our power over our children’s futures, instead of leaving that power consolidated in the hands of the New Jersey governor, currently Chris Christie; the unelected New Jersey State Board of Education, each of whom owes his current tenure in the job to Chris Christie; and Christie appointee, New Jersey Education Commission David Hespe.

The Common Core’s Scalia-esque “Originalism”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

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

Chris Christie Has A Bridge To Sell Us

As you may have heard (my phone’s notifications certainly blew up yesterday when this announcement came out), Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, in a bid to rescue his floudering-before-it-begins presidential run, announced that after five years of shoving the Common Core State Standards down our throats, he is joining the bandwagon of parents across the country, and now proudly shouting:”No More Common Core!” See, e.g., ABC’s coverage of his announcement.

It is a heck of a sound bite, and will bring him some momentum in the 24-hour news cycle.  However, it is a sham.  His announcement changes nothing. Because along with his announcement, as we here in New Jersey have come to expect, he included some fine print:

Meanwhile, Christie said that the state will continue using a new standardized test [i.e., the Partnership for Assessment of   Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) test] that was developed to measure how students were doing with the Common Core.

So Christie is “rejecting” Common Core but still requiring kids to take PARCC, a test developed to measure their achievement of the Common Core. Additionally, teacher and school evaluations throughout the state will still be based (10% this year, and as of now, 20% next year, and 30% in years to follow) on kids’ scores on those Common Core-aligned tests. Placement decisions for children will still be predicated on their “achievement” of the Common Core standards, evaluations for teachers will still be predicated on their students’ “achievement” of the Common Core standards, and schools will still be labeled as “failing” based on their students’ alleged “failure” to achieve those Common Core standards — all as measured by PARCC.

Christie’s announcement changes nothing, and shame on the media for lapping it up so naively. Christie’s so-called rejection of Common Core is simply a sound bite for him to take on the road to Iowa and New Hampshire while our NJ public school kids continue to deal with a language arts curriculum that doesn’t teach them to consider texts and ideas within their broader historical context.  

The irony is that Christie’s faux-announcement proves what so many of us have been saying all along: curriculum and education these days aren’t standards-driven, they’re test driven. The one thing this announcement does provide is a lesson in the convoluted logic of politics. So in that sad, cynical sense, at least Christie is providing our kids with a lesson in practical civics, which many of their schools no longer teach.

However, as long as the Common Core-aligned PARCC test continues to be the barometer to allegedly measure our schools, teachers, and children’s efficacy, Christie’s announcement is worth even less than the paper his speech was written on. If you believe otherwise, then man, I’ve got a bridge to sell you…

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:

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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:

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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.

Respectfully,

Dr. Colleen Daly Martinez

Copy:
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

Millburn Graduate Takes On Millburn Superintendent’s Logic

Dear Superintendent Crisfield:

As a graduate of the Millburn Public Schools (Class of 1991) where you currently serve as Superintendent, I feel compelled to respond to your February 19, 2015 NJ Spotlight Op-Ed regarding the movement to refuse the PARCC tests. But first please indulge me in a brief digression:

My History in the Millburn Public Schools

I began kindergarten at Millburn’s Deerfield School in the fall of 1978. From kindergarten forward, school was a place where I felt valued as a human being, and where learning was something that everyone around me took seriously. Even today, as a mother of two elementary school students myself, I look back on my Millburn education as the gold-standard of what a public education can and should be. I remember each of my elementary school teachers by name, and I can still recall many of the projects I worked on in their classes.

My Millburn education is the foundation that allowed me to graduate from Millburn as a National Merit Semi-Finalist, go on to complete my undergraduate studies at Wesleyan University, and eventually allowed me to earn two graduate degrees: an M.A.T. from the University of Maine, and eventually a J.D. from Rutgers-Newark. My Millburn peers have been extraordinarily successful. Just look at award-winning young adult author and editor David Levithan (he was one of the editors-in-chief of The Miller when I was a staff member), or one of the co-valedictorians of the class of 1991, my close friend Debbie James, who is a terrific Harvard-educated primary care pediatrician up in Cambridge. Our graduates are successful in all walks of life, and it’s insane to think that Millburn students — then or now — leave the high school as anything other than “college and career ready.”

As a mother, my Millburn education means that I know what public education can and should be. I now live in Montclair. After months of inquiry, I joined the PARCC-refusal movement as a protest against what the high-stakes testing culture is doing to prevent my kids’ teachers from engaging them the way that my Millburn teachers engaged me.

Contrary to your mischaracterization of parents’ motivations, I did not join the opt-out movement because I am “looking out for what [I] feel is [my] child’s best interest.” You state:

I know the PARCC opt-out movement is popular, and I know the people who are part of it are only looking out for what they feel is their child’s best interest, so I do not blame them personally. But from the systemic perspective, opting out is a concept that cannot work. Even though it will be unpopular and will attract an aggressive reaction, somebody has to stand up and point out that the opt-out movement has to stop. It is just not a practical or viable approach to public education.

Frankly, my kid (like most of her contemporaries in Millburn) will be fine whether she takes the PARCC test or not. I joined the test-refusal movement because the systemic pressure placed on public schools by high-stakes standardized testing must be stopped for the sakes of all of our children. We can and must do better by our kids, and if educational leaders like yourself are unwilling to step up to the plate, then we parents have no choice but to step in to preserve our vision of what public schools can and should be.

Your Arguments

Your editorial boils down to a slippery slope argument that misses the larger point of what the high-stakes standardized test movement is about. In addition, you conflate a broader category (assessment) with a far narrower subset of that category (high-stakes standardized tests). Indeed, within that logical fallacy, you also conflate the low-stakes standardized tests of the pre-No Child Left Behind days with the high-stakes standardized tests of today. Finally, you throw in a good dose of patronizing adjectives to describe your community’s parents (the loaded word “hysterical” used to describe a largely woman-driven movement is particularly egregious).

First, your slippery slope argument relies on a few inartfully worded refusal letters to take the position that the grassroots movement against high-stakes standardized tests is “leading us down a very dangerous path” (i.e., down a classic slippery slope). You argue:

[O]pting out of things with such broad brush strokes is different, and taken to its extreme, this new version of opting out will destroy public education as we know it today. If we don’t stop facilitating and/or encouraging all this “opting out” or “refusing” (or whatever it’s called), we might as well set up a la carte public schools.

Your concern stems from refusal letters penned by some of your parents that not only refuse the PARCC test itself, but also refuse “anything to do with the Common Core.” I agree: that’s a silly position for a parent to take. But you are your community’s educational leader. To a large degree I’d posit that the blame for those inartful letters lies with you, as their leader, for not leading your community through conversation and consensus-building around community reaction to the PARCC tests and how Millburn could push back against state and federal edicts, especially considering that its reliance on state and federal dollars is relatively minimal. Instead, what I’ve been hearing is that at Millburn High School, your administration has been using Common Core to enforce lock-step curriculum on your highly-skilled and professional teachers. For instance, I’ve gotten confirmation from multiple sources that your high school English department now requires all teachers of the same course to teach the same lesson plans on the same day, which, to be frank, I find anathema to everything I valued about my own Millburn education. That’s leadership by fiat, which is a far cry from leadership through consensus-building in partnership with Millburn’s highly-skilled faculty. My jaw hit the floor when I first heard that story, and despite the multiple confirmations I’ve gathered, I still have a hard time believing it’s true. What it does tell me is how scared and beaten-down even Millburn’s teachers must feel, and that’s a tragedy for everyone involved with Millburn public education — especially the students.

Next, your piece creates a straw-man argument by conflating two things that aren’t synonymous: assessment and high-stakes standardized testing. High-stakes standardized testing is indisputably one form of assessment, but not all assessment takes the form of high-stakes standardized testing. You then imply that parents who refuse PARCC are also refusing to allow their kids to be assessed by their classroom teachers. Your logic is again flawed.

In point of fact, I have yet to meet a parent or teacher involved in the test-refusal movement who thinks that we shouldn’t assess kids. Indeed, I have yet to meet a parent or teacher involved in the test-refusal movement who thinks that teachers should not be allowed to test students. But as I’m sure you recall from your graduate studies (I certainly do from mine), assessment does not require testing, and certainly all tests need not be high-stakes tests used to punish schools, teachers, administrators, and students.

You imply that parents who are refusing PARCC are also refusing to allow teachers to assess their students. Nothing could be further from the truth. During my years in the Millburn Public Schools, my work on each of the projects mentioned above was assessed by my teachers. I am sure that Millburn parents continue to welcome teachers’ feedback — at conferences, on report cards, and via grades on individual assignments — on their children’s growth as students. Your argument is, frankly, sad, and I would have expected more from the leader of the talented faculty who comprise the Millburn Public Schools.

Similarly, you also conflate the low-stakes Iowas and similar norm-referenced standardized tests of yore (in my time, they were actually CTBS, not Iowas, but I digress) with the high-stakes HSPA, NJ ASK, and now PARCC that post-date No Child Left Behind. This argument not only conflates unlike things (the Iowa and CTBS type test scores were not aggregated and published to the community at large to be touted by real estate agents), but it is also disingenuous, as Iowa and CTBS test scores weren’t used as a potential basis to fire teachers and reconstitute or close schools. Unlike the post-No Child Left Behind criterion-referenced state-wide tests, the CTBS tests of my youth were low-stakes standardized tests, and thus were functionally distinct from HSPA, NJ ASK, and now PARCC. At most, the low-stakes standardized tests of my childhood were one factor among many used to place kids into gifted and talented programs.

Finally, you characterize test-refusing parents as “hysterical.” As I am sure you are aware, the root of the word “hysterical” is in the Greek for “uterus.” Feminist scholars have analyzed how accusations of hysteria against women-led movements are a common means of social control exerted by straight, white men against woman-led social movements. I’m sure this was not your intent, and in fact I find real irony in your use of the word “hysterical” to describe the grassroots organizers against the PARCC given the nature of your own arguments, which truly are hysterical given that they rely on propaganda techniques such as the slippery slope and conflating similar terms. Nevertheless, your linguistic choice, although presumably unintentional, is patronizing and acts as an attempt to exert patriarchal control over a largely woman-led movement. As an aside, you can thank Dr. Cullen-Bender, my 7th grade Millburn Junior High School Communication Skills teacher, for my ability to identify, analyze, and reject the types of propaganda and false-logic techniques that form the basis of your editorial.

Proposals for Collaboration and Consensus-Building:

As a Millburn graduate, I have a few suggestions:

1. You mention some of your own concerns with the effects of high-stakes testing (e.g., that they take too long to administer, that they lead to problematic comparisons between district and schools, and, worst of all, that they’re inappropriately used to evaluate teachers). Those are many of the same reasons cited by the parents in your community for refusing the PARCC. I’d guess that along with those concerns, many of your local parents are also concerned that high-stakes testing in general — and PARCC in particular — is leading toward the same narrowing of the curriculum that led me as a Montclair parent to refuse to allow my daughter to be tested.

What if, instead of fighting your parents over their legitimate concerns with the narrowing of world-class curriculum I benefited from in the Millburn Public Schools, you instead helped to lead the test-refusal movement, and in leading it, worked with your local parents to craft a test-refusal form that was limited to the specific issue at hand: high-stakes statewide standardized testing?

Test-refusal letters don’t need to be like the ones you mentioned. In a district like mine (Montclair), in the wake of our Board’s courageous decision to lead by passing a refusal policy, here’s the full-text of my refusal email to my daughter’s principal:

In accordance with the district policy passed by our Board of Education last night, I am writing to notify you that I refuse to allow Elizabeth Blaine to take the PARCC test. Please let me know that you’ve received and recorded this note. In addition, please advise (at your earliest convenience) what alternative arrangements Hillside is making for students who refuse.

As you know, our decisions is in no way a reflection on you or Hillside School. Rather, it is our attempt to stand with you and with Elizabeth’s teachers by refusing to allow student test scores to determine the fates of our teachers and our schools.

Thank you.

You’ll note that there’s no muss, no fuss, and no slippery slope to complain about. But that’s because despite our differences (and we have many over in opinionated Montclair), we were ultimately able to come together as a community to craft a refusal policy that respects our community’s legitimate concerns about the use of the PARCC tests. Millburn parents would have been far better served if you (or Millburn’s Board of Education) had done the same, rather than chastising them for the concerns that even you agree are legitimate.

2. What if, instead of drafting a poison pen op-ed criticizing your students’ parents, you instead led them in effective protest against PARCC and other high-stakes tests, as, for instance, Principal Carol Burris has done over on Long Island?

Then you’d be controlling the message and ensuring that the PARCC refusals were limited to PARCC (and perhaps NJ ASK), rather than seeking to refuse everything under the sun.

3. What if you gave your students hands-on education in the democratic process by allowing them to participate — during school hours and of course on an elective basis — in the democratic processes aimed at reducing the annual high-stakes testing requirements by, for instance, lobbying their state and federal legislators in favor of bills like A-4165, A-4190, and A-3079 and a grade-span testing version of the ESEA reauthorization; attending and commenting at local and state school board meetings; and testifying before the NJ Assembly and NJ Senate’s Education Committees?

Then your students would have the sort of real world authentic educational experience that they’d remember for the rest of their lives, even more than I remember the projects my Deerfield teachers created for me.

4. What if you had led your parents through consensus building and educating them about the issues facing public schools today (e.g., that the proper target of their anger with Common Core is activism at the state and federal levels, rather than local refusals) instead of berating them with your own “hysterical” slippery slope arguments (e.g., your “opting out will destroy public education as we know it today” argument discussed herein) against the straw-man of parents’ inartfully crafted refusal letters that include opting-out of Common Core curriculum as well as PARCC?

Then you’d be able to gather data to show that parents in a town like Millburn want more for their kids than the narrowing of curriculum forced on schools, teachers, and communities by high-stakes standardized tests that diminish instruction in social studies and the arts. Then you’d be able to educate your parents about the real problems with decisions that have ceded educational policy making to the state and federal instead of local levels, and perhaps you’d be leading a grassroots movement to effectuate a return of education decision-making to the local level, where it can be carefully tailored to meet the individual needs of individual communities.

Parting Thoughts

You yourself note that there are precedents for opting-out of limited portions of the public school curriculum. You agree that those precedents have not “destroyed public education as we know it today.” PARCC refusal won’t — and shouldn’t — destroy public education either, as it, especially if narrowly-tailored by proactive education leaders, can and should be just as limited as refusing to dissect fetal pigs. PARCC acceptance, however, along with all of the high-stakes consequences that come along with it, might be the final nail in the coffin for local control of public education. I am not sure why Millburn’s educational leader, of all people, would quietly acquiesce in a scheme to remove the autonomy of Millburn’s overall excellent public school teachers and administrators, when he could instead have the courage of his convictions to speak out against it, like brave educational leaders (such as Carol Burris out on Long Island) have done.

I think your community would have been better served if you’d met your parents halfway by responding to their concerns about, for instance, the Common Core ELA standards’ emphasis on reading texts without considering their broader literary and historical contexts. You could have assuaged parents’ legitimate concerns by assuring them that Millburn wasn’t going to stop providing its students with a broad-based public education that includes analysis of texts that draws on the reader’s response rather than only Common Core analyses that ask students to divine the “author’s intent.”

Similarly, imagine if you’d relied on the historical knowledge I know still exists over there in Millburn to tell parents that back in the early 1980’s, we were solving math problems with number lines and manipulatives too — and that such techniques are not, popular wisdom aside, specific to “Common Core.”

But you won’t build credibility unless you’re also honest about any degradation of the elementary school social studies curriculum, or other district-level choices, such as limiting electives and specials offerings, that you may have felt were no choice at all because of the pressures — especially in a town like Millburn, where test scores are a major component of identity and self-worth — to ensure that your students scored well on the test du jour.

What I as a parent don’t welcome is feedback from a computer-based high-stakes (because it will, as you noted, be used to rank teachers, principals, administrators, districts, and schools) standardized test not tailored to what my child’s teachers have used their professional judgment to teach my child. I further object to forcing our professional teachers to tailor their teaching to such high-stakes tests, rather than allowing classroom teachers to design assessments of all sorts that best measure student achievement.

If my child was offered low-stakes and norm-referenced standardized tests once or twice during her educational career as a check-in (such as the CTBS tests I recall taking in the 4th grade at Deerfield and in the 8th grade, I think, at the Junior High), I’d welcome that feedback as two data points among many. But the “feedback” from the PARCC, which will, as you note, be used inappropriately to rank teachers, schools, and districts, is not worth the price. It’s too bad that you can’t see the distinction, and that you’ve instead chosen to lead your community by going public with a slippery slope argument that fails to draw a distinction between teacher-created in-class assessment and statewide high-stakes standardized tests.

Perhaps Millburn would have been better off if you could have benefited from the critical thinking required by an old-fashioned Millburn education? As a test-refusing parent, that old-fashioned progressive Millburn-style education is all I want for my kids.

 

You Can’t Force Developmental Milestones: A Parent’s Perspective on the CCSS Kindergarten Foundational Reading Standards

In a recent Facebook discussion about PARCC and the Common Core State Standards, I commented that the Common Core standards are developmentally inappropriate in the younger grades. Another participant in the discussion challenged that assertion, and pointed to the CCSS kindergarten literacy standards. He asked me to identify what was inappropriate in them.

Here’s an edited and expanded version of my response:

I think pointing to the Reading:Literacy Standards (Kindergarten) for an analysis of developmental inappropriateness misses the mark. My concern with the standards for the youngest grades is not with the Reading: Literacy Standards, which are about comprehension and understanding stories, but rather with the Reading: Foundational Standards (Kindergarten), which are about phonics and decoding words. The Reading: Foundational Standards require ALL kindergartners, for instance, to be reading CVC words (i.e., 3 letter short vowel words) by the end of kindergarten, unless those words end with r, x, or l. Requiring such phonics-based reading skills at that level by the end of kindergarten is developmentally inappropriate for many five year olds. I can tell you that from my own experience.

I have two girls. Both have September birthdays. For a whole host of reasons, none of which I’m interested in debating here, we made the decision that we were fortunate enough to have the resources to make — we gave both of them an extra year of private preK. As a result, both started kindergarten just before they turned six, rather than just before they turned five.

Both of my girls are bright, capable, and inquisitive. But they’re also very different kids, with different learning styles, interests, and developmental paths. As an aside, I can’t tell you how glad I am that I have two kids, because seeing how different my younger daughter’s path is from my older daughter’s is a constant reminder of how amazingly different two typically developing small humans from the same gene pool really can be. It’s remarkable to see — and a constant source of wonder for me.

As I hope my regular readers might imagine, my house is full of books. We don’t have a family room, but in addition to our living room, we do have a dedicated library on the first floor of our house, and it was that library with its floor to ceiling built in bookshelves that made me fall in love with this house. But even the library doesn’t come close to holding our book collection. I’m not quite like my old friend Mel, of blessed memory, who, with his wife, had to move out of his four bedroom house to make room for the books it contained (he and his wife went to live in a small apartment nearby instead), but if it wasn’t for the Kindle, that path might have been part of my future.

We’ve read to our kids regularly since they were in utero. Not surprisingly, our collection of children’s books has mushroomed. My oldest has four bookcases in her room, and my youngest can’t contain her books on the 3 bookcases in her room. I belong to a book club, I read regularly for pleasure (and let my kids see me doing so), my kids know that I taught high school English Language Arts, and it’s been clear to my kids for their whole lives that understanding life through literature is central to our family values.

My oldest started asking me to teach her how to read shortly before her fourth birthday. Although my academic training was in teaching middle and high school, I was game to try. So I picked up a few resources, and we gave it a whirl. However, despite the fact that she already knew all of the letters and their sounds, it quickly became clear that she simply wasn’t ready, so we put formal reading instruction aside. I think we made another stab at it about three or four months later, but again, no dice. We tried it once or twice more, but each time the frustration for both of us outweighed any benefit, so we stopped.

Then, in about March of her last year of preK (so she was five and a half at that point), it was like a switch turned on. Within about a week of her renewed request for reading instruction, she was suddenly reading, fluently, anything and everything she could get her hands on. She never looked back. By the time she entered kindergarten six months later, she was reading — with comprehension — a wide variety of texts, including simple chapter books. She’s continued to gobble up books — and to love reading — ever since.

Obviously, meeting the kindergarten foundational standards would have been a no-brainer for my oldest. But remember, she had the gift of that “extra year,” so she started kindergarten weeks before her sixth — not her fifth — birthday. That was before our district’s Common Core implementation, but I’m not sure reading would have been so straightforward for her if she’d been forced to heavily drill phonics-based reading skills during what ended up (because of our choice) being her final year of pre-K. It’s clear to me from trying (at her request) to teach her that she simply wasn’t ready for phonics-based reading instruction at that time, but that’s when many kids — especially those who have fewer financial resources — enter kindergarten.

My youngest is a kindergartener right now. Like her sister, she also has a September birthday, so she turned six shortly after school started in September. Unlike her sister, she didn’t start kindergarten reading — and there is no way she was ready developmentally a year ago, even though she met the kindergarten cut off back then (i.e., she could be in first grade now). Now, she is on track to meet the standard that requires reading CVC words by the end of the year, but that’s only because she was fortunate enough to start kindergarten just before her sixth birthday rather than just before her fifth. Many — probably most — kids in our country don’t have that luxury.

My youngest, even more so than my oldest, is also a kid who gets really frustrated when asked to do a task she’s not yet developmentally ready to manage. Whether it’s academics or something else, when we’ve made the mistake of trying to push her to do something before she was developmentally ready, the result has been that she’s gotten really resistant to the task she’s not ready for, to the point that she ends up mastering it far later than I think she would have if we’d just left her alone.

I am convinced that forcing my youngest to learn phonics to read a year ago — when she could have already been in kindergarten — would have been a nightmare. In fact, I tried briefly, remembering her sister’s experience, but it quickly became clear that forcing reading before she was ready was a terrible idea. To be honest, even the tiny (and quickly abandoned) attempt I made caused some reading resistance, which I think we’ve pretty much managed to undo at this point, but it’s taken a lot of patience to get there.

Until now, my youngest just hadn’t hit the developmental switch required to read successfully. But that developmental switch — i.e., that point at which individual kids are ready for the abstraction necessary to be able to translate symbols on a page into the spoken language they’ve spent the last five years acquiring — it’s not something we can switch on earlier either by wishing or by imposing standards requiring it. Some kids are ready at four, some kids are ready at five, and some kids are ready at six. All of those ages are within the normal range for reading development — and despite taking some time to look, there’s nothing I’ve come across that indicates that an earlier reader’s long term outcomes will be better than those of a kid who learns to read later in the typical developmental range.

This difference among children — as illustrated by my own girls — is precisely why a standard requiring real progress toward phonics-based reading in kindergarten is developmentally inappropriate. As I learned in my educational psychology and reading instruction classes, by sometime between their sixth and seventh birthdays, most kids have reached the developmental milestone that allows them to learn to read. At the moment, although it’s a slower process than with my older daughter, I can see that my six year old is getting there. For instance, she’s finally suggesting, at least once in awhile (to avoid housework, but that’s another story), that she try reading with me. But again, she’s a full year older than many other kindergartners.

My youngest is bright and creative. In fact, I suspect that one of the reasons she’s relatively slow to read is because she can imagine alternate — and entertaining — realities for hours on end. That is, her imagination is so engaging that she doesn’t need authors’ stories to provide entertainment for her. As a result, reading — that is, the process of interacting with an author’s imagination — is less appealing for her, and so she’s less motivated to do it.

My daughters’ different experiences with learning to read are why I believe that the Common Core Reading: Foundational Standards for Kindergarten, at least, are developmentally inappropriate. Forcing phonics-based reading on kindergartners as a standard they must all meet to be on the path toward college and career readiness is counterproductive because it’s developmentally inappropriate for many five year olds. If my younger daughter had started kindergarten a year ago, as she could have, I suspect that she would have been subjected to a cascade of interventions. Those interventions would not have occurred because she had a learning disability or any other problem that needed addressing. Rather, she would have been subjected to such interventions because the Reading: Foundational Standards for Kindergarten are simply inappropriate for many five year olds.

The solution is to change the standards. Yet instead, their advocates often seem to be focused on interventions aimed at making all kids march in lockstep to a rhythm that fails to reflect the normal range of their developmental trajectories. It’s that insistence on lockstep, especially in the youngest grades, that frustrates me. Such insistence appears to mark the difference between endorsing a set of standards and advocating an ideology that allows no deviation from the party line. Our kids — especially our kindergartners — deserve better.

P.S. I think this story also explains why the developmentally inappropriate expectations of the CCSS reading foundational standards are only going to widen, rather than narrow, the achievement gap.  As noted above, the only reason that my little one will be able to meet the CCSS reading foundational standards by the end of kindergarten is going to be because she was privileged enough to have parents who could “red-shirt” her.  It’s the fact that we could afford to choose to keep her in a high-quality play-based preschool for an extra year that’s going to allow her to meet CCSS for kindergarten.  Not all families have that luxury: instead, the younger kindergarteners are going to be more likely to end up in repetitive, phonics and decoding focused response to intevention (“RTI”) or similar programs, which I think would have frustrated my little one further, and probably sent her even further down the path toward reading resistance.  How many children living in poverty are going to end up in that boat, because the standards themselves set developmentally inappropriate expectations?

Squelching Out the Meaning

Peter Greene’s recent blog post “Meaning and Standardized Writing” is spot on. As Greene writes, the problem with a great deal of student writing is that it’s motivated by the need to complete the assignment and be graded, rather than by addressing the problem that all good writing seeks to solve, which Greene conceptualizes as: “How can I communicate what I want to communicate in a meaningful way?”

Greene then juxtaposes good writing with standardized-test writing:

The standardized testing approach to writing, both in “writing” assessments and in the open-ended response format now creeping into other tests, gets virtually nothing right at all. Nothing. The goal is itself a meager one– let’s just measure student technical skill– and even that is not measured particularly well. Test writing is the opposite of good writing. The problem the student is trying to solve is not “How do I create a meaningful expression” but “How do I provide what the test scorer wants to see” or “What words can I use to fill up this space.”

Tonight, my 4th grader brought me her ELA (English Language Arts) homework to review. Here’s the prompt (or, as Greene rightly notes, the “stimulus”):

And they say there’s no “test prep” in our schools this year…

First of all, I’m not sure why it’s the “SEEC” method rather than the SEEEEECC method, but hey, what do I know?  Now I am a lawyer, and the SEEC (“SEEEEECC”) method reminds me very much of the law school writing formula, IRAC (Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion).  I don’t think that rules of thumb for structuring writing are terrible for writers embarking on their first efforts at a new kind of analytical or expository task, but writing teachers must ensure that their students understand that writing rules are made to be broken, and that slavish adherence to writing rules will lead to kludgy, painful-to-read prose.

The problems with standardized writing assessments, however, are two-fold. First, many writers never make that leap away from the SEEC or IRAC rules, so that their writing is so rule-oriented that it’s boring, inflexible, and painful to read (trust me, I’ve read my share of painful legal briefs, although I’ve also read some really outstanding — and engaging — legal prose). Second, the rubrics (or scoring matrices) reward strict adherence to the rule, which again reinforces the problematic idea that good writing is writing that adheres to rules.  

Here’s my fourth grader’s response to the SEEC-based writing prompt (used with her permission):

I love my kid, but I can’t figure out who was more bored: her when she wrote this, or me when I read it.

It’s fine and it’s technically correct, but Greene’s point shines through: there is no question that this paragraph is not a paragraph in which my 10 year old is communicating what she wants to communicate in a meaningful way. Rather, she is — as Greene predicts — writing to answer the wrong questions. Her writing is dull and lifeless because she is asking herself “what can I write to satisfy this assignment” or “how can I fill up this piece of paper” or “what can I use to fill in five paragraph-sized blanks,” and, as Greene notes, “these are all the wrong question to start with.”

On the other hand, there has been a lot of “authentic” writing — i.e., writing that answers the “correct” question of how can I communicate what I want to communicate — going on in my house recently (and I don’t mean my blogging, although of course that’s exactly what my blogging is — my attempt to communicate to the world my point of view regarding the “reforms” to our education system).

The weekend before Thanksgiving, my daughters started playing “The Letter Game.” My oldest daughter started writing letters to my younger daughter. My younger daughter kept bringing them to me to help her read them, but what I didn’t realize at the time (I might have been busy blogging) was that my kindergartener was writing decipherable notes (full of invented spellings, of course) back in response to her sister. For about two hours, the two of them were communicating through the written word. As they were wrapping up their game, I realized what had been going on, and was amazed by the little one’s notes. (Unfortunately, the big one managed to throw them away while she was on a cleanup frenzy the following day, so I can’t show them to you here.)

To me, that was an extraordinary breakthrough. It was my little one’s first authentic experience with using written language to express what she wanted to communicate. Over the long weekend, a lot more authentic writing happened in my house. The girls (my daughters and their close friend) began writing “newspapers” documenting happenings in the imaginary world they’d conjured up. Here are a few examples:

FYI, Jake Blaine is a figment of their imagination. I’ve never met a Jake Blaine in my life.


Apparently the Newspaper is in the process of being rebranded…

And my little one decided to start “blogging.” Here are some of her “Blog Posts”:

“Julianna’s blogs.”


(“My friends are sad.”)


(“A cat sat on a mat.”)


(“Flower grow very tall. And pink. Sun Post.”) The big one incorporated this into their newspaper, above.

The newspapers and the “blog posts” are writing that these kids generated for themselves, to communicate what they want to say in a meaningful way.

Do you see the difference between writing that is authentic, or, as Greene says, between writing that communicates what the author wants to communicate in a meaningful way and writing that attempts to do nothing more than fill the page, follow a formula, or give the exam-reader what the exam-reader is looking to find? A writing teacher who knows his students (like Greene), is best situated to design writing assignments that will facilitate an environment in which students learn to effectively communicate what they want to communicate in a meaningful way. But when the stimuli-drafters are far removed from the classroom, the students, and their teachers, and when the stimuli ask students to react formulaically to the prompt, we suck the joy out of writing, out of school, and out of teaching.

I don’t blame my daughter’s ELA teacher. I’ve spoken with her in detail, and I know how much she tries to slip authentic and joyful assignments between the inevitable test prep. I know how much more she wants for the kids, but how hamstrung she is by the district’s (and PARCC’s) demands. But to me, the juxtaposition of the joyful, authentic writing happening without adult intervention in my house against the dry and lifeless writing my daughter did for school tonight illustrate better than anything I can write exactly what’s wrong with our high-stakes test driven culture, and the all-business ELA Common Core State Standards that accompany that test-driven, automaton-producing educational ideal.

I know detractors might argue that these are two different types of writing: analytical writing versus creative writing. But that’s exactly my — and I believe Greene’s — point. When writing is authentic and meaningful, expository and analytical writing is both intellectually meaningful and creative (check out your average New Yorker article). But when formulas and mnemonics rule, writing becomes about spitting words out onto paper, and not about contributing meaning to our human endeavor on this lonely little planet. Why on earth are we allowing test-driven school culture (especially one that attempts to standardize and test writing, of all things) to squelch the meaning out of our kids’ words?

To Love Me, To Civilize Me, and To Keep Me Safe

by Sarah Blaine

I think we all, whether explicitly articulated or not, indeed, whether we are parents or not, have a parenting mantra.

As my neighbors will attest, I regularly ask my daughters: “What’s my job?” Their canned response, developed as a family over time, is: “To love me, to civilize me, and to keep me safe.”

I truly believe that about sums it up.

My job is to love my children: wholly, unconditionally, and deeply.

My job is to keep my children safe: and by safe I don’t mean wrapped in a bubble, free from injuries, but rather safe to explore, safe to take risks, and safe to push the boundaries of their worlds as they grow and change.

And finally, my job is to civilize my children. That is, it is my job to ensure that they learn to value kindness, to be considerate of others, and to learn to effectively navigate the shoals of growing up in the contradictory and confusing culture we call — sometimes without noticing the irony — western civilization. Civilizing them also includes teaching them not to fart in public and that locking the cat into a “cat haven” under the bed is a recipe for laundry, not entertainment.

Civilizing children is transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next. Teachers and parents need to be partners in this endeavor: neither can cede responsibility to the other.

My family developed our mantra over time, and I imagine it’s not done evolving. When my oldest was still an only, only the civilizing part of the mantra had evolved, and we used it as a party trick. I’d ask, “What’s my job?” and my daughter would pipe back in her two-year old lisp: “To civilize me.” My friends would chuckle. Love and safety didn’t need to be explicitly stated. For her, they went without saying.

But the concept of civilization became a powerful force: discipline (both positive and negative) became about encouraging civilized behavior, and discouraging uncivilized habits. It started as a joke, but the tool worked. Discipline stopped being as much of a power struggle and instead became an attempt to guide my daughter into channeling her self-centered, selfish, animal impulses into a more nuanced, adult, and, yes, civilized view of the world, one where everything wasn’t ME ME ME NOW NOW NOW. One where she was a willing participant in civilizing herself.

But then my little one, my younger daughter, my pixie as my neighbor calls her, came along. And eventually, she learned to talk. The waters run deep in that one, and it’s a magical experience to discover the corridors of thought her mind explores. They could not be more different than my own.

It’s easy for me to figure out what the big one is thinking: it’s usually similar to what I’m thinking.

But the little one is contemplative, and full of little quirks and notions, and sometimes dark thoughts, and always full of questions. She cannot be hurried. She has fears. She is also anxious to a fault, and I work hard to help her examine and keep her anxiety in check.

My little one was the one who evolved our party trick into a mantra: the words were not these, but the intent was clear: all discipline wasn’t just about civilizing her, she pointed out; sometimes it was about teaching her how to keep her body and her soul safe. So we evolved our saying into mommy’s (and daddy’s) job being “to civilize her and to keep her safe.” It went along with a parallel mantra: “What do mommies always do?” I’d ask. She’d answer, “Come back.”

My little one is the most affectionate, generous child I have ever encountered: she is full of “hug alerts” and “I just wanted to give you a kiss” and constant snuggles. Her gift is for giving. She made it clear that parenting wasn’t just about civilizing her and keeping her safe: it was also about loving her enough to recognize and adapt to her unique spirit, which I love and cherish, even though it is so very different from my own. And she needed me to state my love. Explicitly. My job is to love her.

So our mantra evolved — again — into its current form: our job as parents is to love our children, to civilize our children, and to keep them safe.

Parenting children and especially, for me, parenting two very different children, has stretched my soul and, I hope, given me a little insight and humility concerning my character and experience. One thing parenting has certainly taught me is that parenting is an expansive and evolving endeavor: it isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor.

I can be as judge-y as the next person, but I try harder these days to refrain from indulging in that cathartic exercise in superiority: the decisions I make for the youngest are sometimes so different than the decisions I make for the oldest that I’m sure an outsider would judge me out of my mind. But my children are so different, and one-size-fits-all does not meet their needs, nor would it help them develop into their wisest, kindest, and most civilized selves.

My oldest thrived on learning to sound out words at age 3. At pick up on her first day of kindergarten, her experienced and gifted teacher looked me in the eye and said, “I see we have a real reader here.” And we did: she came into kindergarten reading Magic Tree House and other chapter books, and during “book buddies” with the second graders, she discovered that she was a more fluent and accomplished reader than her second grade buddy.

My little one will be 6 this fall. She hasn’t started kindergarten yet, but I know that her sister’s entering-kindergarten reading fluency is far-off. However, from the time she could talk, she has wanted to know about skeletons and bodies. We google images of animal skeletons together, and my iPad is full of apps about biology and the human body because of her. She once spent about forty-five minutes detailing — for my somewhat stunned cousin — how to dissect a rat, which, I hasten to add, she learned from an iPad app aimed at high schoolers, with the eponymous name “Rat Dissection.

As parents rather than full-time educators, it is hard to feel that we can have a meaningful voice in the education policy world. I think that many parents sit out these debates not because they don’t have thoughts and concerns and ideas, but because they worry that they are non-expert participants in an education world that teems with experts, both actual and self-anointed.

Who are we? We are just parents. We defer to those in the know.

But we parents do have insight, and we need to have a voice, because we do have some wisdom, wisdom that is worth sharing, wisdom that can add richness and perspective to a debate that is often sadly lacking in both.

That is why Louis C.K.’s comments about his daughters’ math homework, standardized testing, and Common Core were so powerful. We have heard so few parents weigh in on this debate.

And that vacuum is why I read this Success Academy teacher’s response to Louis C.K. as so tone-deaf:

So instead of throwing in the towel, what we must teach alongside these more difficult—yet completely achievable—standards is grit. Parents and teachers have to work together to model and reinforce perseverance both at school and at home. A few tears shed over homework or a test is simply not reason enough for us to balk at meaningful, thoughtful math that will better prepare all kids for a changing and more dynamic workforce. When we as adults complain that the bar is too high, we send students the message that we don’t believe they’re capable of greatness.

Of course, I empathize with Louis C.K.’s frustrations to a certain extent. This math looks very different. The worksheets his daughter brought home might not have been the best quality—indeed, teachers are still figuring out the new standards, too. And nobody wants to see his child upset. But a Twitter tirade doesn’t help anybody, least of all students.

For my older daughter, this teacher’s comments are spot on. For her, occasional tears shed over math homework are character-building exercises in resiliency: academics come so easily to her that it’s a powerful lesson for her to learn to persevere when she does hit a stumbling block.

But for my younger daughter, the same tears might be a devastating watershed that could undermine her future academic success. And what is most upsetting about this slippery critique of Louis C.K.’s parenting by a teacher is that it’s a call from a teacher to shut out parents’ voices, to shut down the conversation: well, that’s not the kind of teacher I seek out for my children. Plus, she’s wrong. I bet Louis C.K.’s tirade did help two small people: his daughters, who experienced a powerful lesson from their dad’s empathy.

One thing that parenting has taught me, viscerally, in a way that classroom learning and book learning and even my experience as a teacher could not, is how different children truly can be, and that one-size-fits-all assembly-line education does not — and cannot — fit all of our children.

My youngest will enter kindergarten this fall. I have no doubt that my youngest is full of insights and connections and intelligence and deep thoughts and wisdom and imagination. In my experience, Common Core and its related standardized test preparation have not been significant stumbling blocks for my oldest. But I fear that squeezing my youngest into the standardized, common mold is not going to be effective. It’s not going to contribute toward civilizing her.

I hope and pray that my youngest will thrive, and I will do my best to differentiate and provide support at home, but my primary fear about where we are headed as a country is that we’re attempting to impose one-size-fits-all education on infinite-unique-needs-they-each-have individual children. And we have a movement that attempts, as the Success Academy teacher did, to drown out parents’ voices when those voices are raised in protest.

I am all for high standards; I am not for standardization.

My little one says that she’s a witch, she’s a wizard, she’s a secret agent, she’s a fairy, she’s a kitty, she’s a cat. But there’s one thing she never identifies herself as: a widget.

 

Dinner Table Depositions (or Whatever Happened to Horace Mann?)

by Sarah Blaine

“A republican form of government, without intelligence in the people, must be, on a vast scale, what a mad-house, without superintendent or keepers, would be on a small one.” — Horace Mann (educator & attorney)

Living in a house with a former teacher turned attorney can’t always be easy. It probably doesn’t help that my husband is also an attorney. As we share stories about our days around the family dinner table each night, our dinner table conversation almost invariably includes some legal discussion.

Then the questions start. My favorite first came about three years ago:

“What’s a deposition?”

How do you explain a deposition to a six year old?

Well…

All of my lawyer friends…

How do you do it?

You don’t.

You act it out.

Ok. Well, first we need to assign roles. E, you are going to be the witness.

— Okay.

E, do you want Mommy or Daddy to be your attorney?

— Mommy.

Ok. Then Daddy is going to be the attorney for your adversary.

J is going to be the court reporter.

— What’s a court reporter?

J, your job is just to sit there and pretend to type what we’re saying.

We show the two year old what to do and she bangs on the table like a court reporter for a minute and then returns to smearing peas onto her face and into her hair.

So then we need a hypothetical dispute. E’s across-the-street sometimes future-husband, sometimes arch-nemesis will do for an adversary. In our hypothetical, they’re fighting about sometimes-nemesis stealing E’s stuffed shark.

J again bangs on the table. M examines the witness. And E answers the questions.

We swear the witness and “go on the record.”

This witness giggles much more than your run of the mill deposition witness as we go through the preliminaries.

Then…

“When did your shark go missing?”

— Last week.

“What is your basis for stating that my client took your shark?”

— I saw him.

etc.

etc.

A few substantive questions in, M asks a ridiculous question and I object to the form of the question.

Then we go off the record to have a discussion about my objection.

We go back on the record and the questioning continues.

I object to the form of the question again.

And so forth.

After our first deposition dinner, deposition dinners, believe it or not, became a common request for a couple of years:

“Mommy, can we play deposition again?”

Thankfully, more recently they’ve petered out, as I think that M and I have been getting tired of generating hypotheticals and, to be honest, the last thing I want to do at the family dinner table is to act out a hypothetical version of my day job.

This is one example of our daughters’ dinner table civics education. Oh, and even my oldest is still a few years away from 6th grade.

But what do deposition dinners have to do with education policy?

Well, with the roll out of Common Core this year, we’ve been hearing a lot about the Core’s central goal.  That goal, of course, in case you’ve been hiding under a rock, is to ensure that every child graduates with the skills that will make her “College & Career Ready.” But before we do a close reading of what, exactly, “College & Career Ready” means (that is a subject for another day), can we start with the premise?

Why do we dedicate so many of our tax dollars to ensuring that every child in this country has access to a public education?

Is it because it’s our duty as a country to make sure our kids are “College & Career Ready?”

Or, dare I suggest, is it because, as a nation, we decided that an educated citizenry is a necessary component of a functional democratic republic?

Horace Mann is largely credited with the growth of the modern public school movement. I’m not sure how many of us realize that education wasn’t compulsory throughout the United States until the early 20th century.  Mann was a mid-19th century reformer who is credited with developing the system of Common Schools that would become our modern public school system (for the record, he too was a lawyer by training).

As this PBS.org website explains:

Mann’s commitment to the Common School sprang from his belief that political stability and social harmony depended on education: a basic level of literacy and the inculcation of common public ideals. He declared, “Without undervaluing any other human agency, it may be safely affirmed that the Common School…may become the most effective and benignant of all forces of civilization.” Mann believed that public schooling was central to good citizenship, democratic participation and societal well-being. He observed, “A republican form of government, without intelligence in the people, must be, on a vast scale, what a mad-house, without superintendent or keepers, would be on a small one.”

I’m with Mann.

The number one reason I approve of my tax dollars supporting public education is that I desperately hope that we are an educated and informed citizenry that can look beyond the muckraking, grandstanding, empty rhetoric, and self-aggrandizing to vote for elected representatives who reflect our political philosophy and will advocate policies that we believe are best for our communities.  In short, I don’t want to live in a mad-house of a nation.

To avoid the mad-house, we need to educate students to learn lessons from history, to understand our government and how to advocate for themselves in our democratic republic, and provide our children with access to the education necessary to resist slick rhetoric in favor of reasoned discourse and critical analysis of what they read, hear, and view.  In the internet age, I believe these skills are more critical than ever.  I worry about standards for public education that tout college & career readiness rather than civic education as their central goal.

The public schools I attended did a great job teaching these skills. And I take my duty as a citizen seriously: I research candidates and issues before I vote, and I often find myself frustrated by the farcical nature of modern political discourse. But then again, I’m also a nerd and an amateur policy wonk.

So sue me. But don’t depose me at the dinner table.

I believe that educating an informed electorate is the central reason why we publicly fund public schools and why education is compulsory for all children.

College and career readiness? That’s just icing on the cake.

And what worries me when I review the introduction to the CCSS Grades 6-12 standards for History and Social Studies on the Common Core State Standards Initiative website, is that there is not a single mention of preparing students for their future roles as members of an informed electorate:

The standards below begin at grade 6; standards for K–5 reading in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects are integrated into the K–5 Reading standards. The CCR anchor standards and high school standards in literacy work in tandem to define college and career readiness expectations—the former providing broad standards, the latter providing additional specificity.

It seems to me that we have a philosophical and theoretical disconnect here.

Why do we fund public schools?

Why do we make public school compulsory?

Is it really all about “CCR” (College & Career Readiness)?

Does educating an informed electorate still matter in the wake of Citizens United?

Does justice require educated citizen jurors who are capable of sifting through facts to arrive at thoughtful and well-reasoned verdicts?

And if these things matter, shouldn’t preparation for citizenship be at least as much at the heart of our public education system as “College & Career Readiness”?

Or are we headed straight into the madhouse of Horace Mann’s nightmares?

It’s Supposed to be a Core

Can we please start with the name?

As we all know by now, 45+ states adopted the Common Core State Standards (the “Core” or “CCSS”) in connection with their applications for additional federal funding under the US Department of Education’s Race to the Top program, also known as Arne Duncan’s brainchild. Now, the name implies that these standards are supposed to be a “core,” that is, that they are supposed to be what dictionary.reference.com defines as “the central, innermost, or more essential part of anything.” In other words, they are supposed to be a base, a jumping off point, a common point of reference that will ensure that, at the very least, all third graders  have learned to, among other things, “Fluently multiply and divide within 100, using strategies such as the relationship between multiplication and division (e.g., knowing that 8 × 5 = 40, one knows 40 ÷ 5 = 8) or properties of operations. By the end of Grade 3, know from memory all products of two one-digit numbers.” CCSS.Math.Content.3.OA.C.7

I can’t  — and I won’t — object to what is effectively a national standard that requires all third graders to memorize their basic math facts. I really can’t. I think that’s a good thing, and I’m glad that we are finally, as a nation, developing some shared standards on a grade-by-grade basis for what constitutes a minimally acceptable public education. That. Is. A. Good. Thing. When I taught at a public high school in rural Maine I had many 10th and 11th graders who had never memorized their basic multiplication facts. So Hallelujah to the idea that we are going to make kids learn their math facts and hold teachers, schools, and communities accountable if the kids fail to do so.

But, as name implies, CCSS needs to be implemented as a “core,” which necessarily implies that the classroom teachers will not be limited to teaching what’s set forth in the Core. For instance, has my third grader’s inspiring, joyful, and wonderful math teacher somehow violated CCSS.Math.Content.3.OA.C.7 by requiring the kids to memorize the 10’s, 11’s, and 12’s times tables? I’ve heard stories from friends I trust implicitly that the implementation in some districts (so far, thankfully, not the one my kids attend) is such that a teacher like my daughter’s would be PUNISHED for requiring the kids to memorize the 10’s, 11’s, and 12’s times tables, because those are not “know[ing] from memory all products of two one-digit numbers” and teachers need to spend ALL of their time teaching the Core.

People. It’s a CORE. It is meant to represent a floor, not a ceiling, for what public schools need to provide and what students need to learn.

Now the question is… how do we, as parents and as taxpayers, make sure that our districts’ CCSS implementations are true to the name? How do we make sure it truly is a floor, and not a ceiling?