The Great Smarties Candies Refocusing Strategy

Q. What do Smarties candies (the American kind), Orwellian Doublespeak, Union solidarity, Hamilton, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the New Jersey Turnpike’s Joyce Kilmer Rest Area have in common?

A. They’re all at least referenced in today’s blog post.  To learn more and see how they’re connected, read on.


As a parent, there are days and weeks in which I’m left simply shaking my head at the absurdity that comes home from my kids’ schools. This has been one of those weeks.

This week is PARCC testing for the 5th graders in my daughter’s school.  According to my daughter, parents of approximately a quarter to a third of the students in her class, including hers, refused to allow our kids to be tested.  Back in February of 2015, before the first round of PARCC testing, our local Board of Education passed a test-refusal policy, which reads, in relevant part:

“It is the policy of the Montclair Board of Education that the parental decision to decline testing should be met at the district level with educationally appropriate and non-punitive measures.”

Our district’s PARCC parental refusal policy.

On Monday evening, after the first day of testing, my daughter reported that the kids in her class who took PARCC were given Smarties candies afterward by her teacher, but that the kids whose parents refused were not offered any candies.  And according to her, her teachers knew this was a bad idea, because on the first day they made half-hearted efforts to hide this fact.  A child stood up to throw out his Smarties wrapper, and the teacher asked him what he was doing.  He replied, “Throwing out my wrapper.”  The teacher said, “Ahem” and gave him the stink eye.  The kid then responded, “Oh, uh, uh, yeah, I was throwing out my tissue.”

Tuesday morning I got to the bus stop, where the mom of another of the 50 or so students served by this two teacher teaching team came up to me excitedly to share the same story: that the kids in these teachers’ “switch” class who took PARCC were given Smarties candy, but the kids who refused did not.

When I had a free moment at work later that morning, I sent a note to the teachers.  I wrote:

Dear Ms. B and Ms. E:

As you are aware, yesterday was the first day of PARCC testing for 5th graders at our school.  My daughter, along with other students in your classes, was not permitted to take PARCC, which is a political decision my husband and I, as her parents, made after a great deal of thought and research.

Last night and this morning, I heard reports from my daughter and from another child in your classes that yesterday both of you distributed rewards of candy (Smarties) to those children in your classes whose parents allowed them to take the PARCC, but that children whose parents did not allow them to take the PARCC were not given candy.

As a preliminary matter, I am not a fan of candy being distributed to children by their teachers.  If, however, you are going to distribute candy to children, it strikes me as problematic that you as their public school teachers would effectively punish the opt-out children for political decisions made by their parents.  I look forward to an email from you confirming that if treats are going to be distributed in the future, decisions regarding who will get treats will not be based on something out of the children’s control (i.e., the political decision to opt-out/refuse, which was made by these children’s parents).

I trust your response to this email will resolve this matter and I will not need to pursue this matter further.

Thank you.

Best regards,

Sarah Blaine

I did not copy anyone.  No administrators, no principals, no central office staff.  I figured that this was a momentary lapse on their part, and that a quick email pointing out the foolishness of their position would suffice to either put a stop to the candy distribution altogether, or to at least ensure that it was distributed to all children in their classes.

Boy was I wrong.

By dinner time on Tuesday, I’d gotten no response from the teachers, and my daughter reported that Smarties were again distributed to the testing kids only, and this time the distribution was more blatant, as if the teachers had gotten bolder after Monday evening had passed with no parental complaints about the inequitable treatment of our kids.  So I forwarded my original note to the principal, along with a cover email:

Dear Dr. A:

Please see the email below, which I sent to Ms. B and to Ms. E this morning.  I have not received any response as of yet.  Time is of the essence, as today, Smarties candies were again distributed only to those children in Ms. B and Ms. E’s classes who took the PARCC test.  Because students — especially elementary school students — whose parents refused to allow them to test have no control over that political decision made by their parents, I believe that it is unacceptable for teachers in your building to only provide candy to those children whose parents did not make that political decision.  Either no candy should be distributed or candy should be distributed to everyone, at least when the kids have no control over the situation.

I feel confident escalating this situation to you without teacher confirmation given that another child independently reported that this was happening to her parent, so I’m confident that the teachers’ selective distribution of candy is not something my child made up.

Thank you for your anticipated prompt attention to resolving this matter.

Best regards,

Sarah Blaine

By mid-morning this morning, there was still radio silence, from both the teachers and the principal.

Around lunchtime I emerged from a meeting in Trenton (ironically the main topic of this meeting was the State’s proposal to make taking PARCC and passing certain sections of PARCC a graduation requirement), and as I ate my lunch I checked my phone, where I discovered this gem:

Good afternoon Ms. Blaine,

Miss B and I have received your email.  Thank you for sharing your concerns.  Please be advised that the “Smarties” were NOT a reward for taking the PARCC.  They are one of many refocusing strategies we use throughout the school year.

Thank you very much and have  a great day.

Yours in learning,

Mrs. E & Miss B

Yes, you read that correctly.  Apparently my teachers give their students candies made of pretty much pure sugar (dextrose is the first ingredient on the label) as a “refocusing strategy.”  Let me type that again:

R E F O C U S I N G   S T R A T E G Y

R E F O C U S I N G   S T R A T E G Y

R E F O C U S I N G   S T R A T E G Y

R E F O C U S I N G   S T R A T E G Y

Funny, no matter how I squint at or format those words, they still seem to be monumentally out of focus.  My children’s teachers can’t seriously have defended distributing candy only to testing children as a “refocusing strategy.”  But every time I read those words, that’s what I see.  CANDY = A REFOCUSING STRATEGY.

Of course, aside from the pedagogically dubious practice of hopping up 5th graders on sugar to refocus them, my daughter’s teachers didn’t address my actual concern, which was why on earth only kids who took PARCC were worthy of being “refocused.”

It’s almost as if they need more practice reading non-fiction.

Or more worksheets aimed at helping them to pick out the main idea of my letter.

Perhaps they’d do better if my email had been written in multiple-choice format, in true Pearson style, with a question full of negatives and full credit awarded only for choosing ALL correct responses:

Which of the following is NOT in compliance with the Montclair Board of Education’s policy of providing educationally appropriate and non-punitive responses to parental decisions to decline to allow their children to test?  Choose ALL that apply.

(A)Allowing non-testing kids to sit in the library, where they are supervised while doing school work or reading for pleasure.

(B)Beating them over the head with number 2 pencils.

(C)Forcing them to sit and stare silently in the testing room with no books or other materials to alleviate their boredom while their peers take the tests.

(D)Giving candy to testing kids, but only big fat Bronx cheers to refusal kids.

If you chose B, C, AND D, I’ve got some Smarties for you.

Otherwise, ppppppppppptttttttbbbbbbbbtttttpppppfffffff.  How’s that for an onomatopoeic representation of a Bronx cheer?  And if you’re a teacher who did not choose B, C, and D, perhaps it’s time to consider a career change?

But wait… there’s more.

As I drove home from Trenton, I found myself fuming about that email.

REFOCUSING STRATEGY?!?!?  I couldn’t look at the email again because I was driving, but the words would not leave my head.

And no matter how I turned them over in my mind, all I kept finding was that one of my favorite verses from Hamilton — especially the first line — kept playing over and over in my head:

You must be out of your Goddamn mind if you think

The President is gonna bring the nation to the brink

Of meddling in the middle of a military mess

A game of chess, where France is Queen and Kingless

[The rest of that Hamilton verse is so exquisite that I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t either seen the show or, like me, spent months listening obsessively to the soundtrack.]

These teachers must be out of their goddamned minds if they think

This parent will buy for a second with a wink

That the Smarties candies distribution

As a “refocusing strategy” is a  reasonable solution

Ok, my rap skills suck (we share the same alma mater, but Lin-Manuel Miranda I am not), but the teachers’ justification for their behavior sucks even worse.

Indeed, as the winter holiday party was in the works last December, Ms. E wrote the following email to the parents in the class regarding the holiday party:

“Thank you all!  It will be a sugary day.  We sugar them up–then send them home to you!! XOXO”

My Common Core non-fiction text inference skills tell me that Ms. E does not believe that providing kids with a sugary candy is an effective refocusing strategy.  I can, however, infer that she thinks sugary candies are appropriate for celebrations — or, perhaps, for rewards.

Continuing up the Turnpike, I found my annoyance growing rather than abating, so rather than continue fuming, I pulled off the New Jersey Turnpike at the Joyce Kilmer Rest Area, where I wrote to the superintendent, who has explicitly stated at Board of Education meetings that he wants to be made personally aware of any punitive action taken by school district employees against opt-out kids. As a courtesy, I copied the principal, but I decided to leave the teachers off this email, although I forwarded their email responding to my initial email to the superintendent.  Please excuse any less than artful phrasing, given that I composed this on my phone at a rest stop.

Dear Mr. B:

Please see the below email exchange between my 5th grader’s teachers and me in which they attempt to defend their practice of feeding Smarties candies (pure sugar) ONLY to students who took PARCC and not to students whose parents refused to allow them to take PARCC, using the pretense that feeding pure sugar to students is a “refocusing strategy” necessary only for those kids who took the test and not for those kids who sat for hours quietly completing work (ironically, ReadWorks-style test-prep) during testing time.

I look forward to you immediately addressing this issue and making it clear to your entire staff that preferential treatment of those students whose parents allowed them to take PARCC is not something this district condones or allows, as per the BOE’s February 2015 resolution to that effect.

I forwarded my original email (below) to Dr. A last night but have not yet received a response.

I am currently in the car home from a meeting with NJ State Board of Education president Mark Biedron regarding the proposed regulations that would implement PARCC as a graduation requirement. I cannot believe that in 2016 in Montclair we are seriously seeing teachers punishing kids (that is, denying elementary school children candy) for their parents’ anti-PARCC stances, especially given the “non-punitive responses” language in the BOE’s February 2015 PARCC parental refusal resolution.

I know that you have expressed your commitment to ensuring that children like my daughter are not punished by their teachers for their parents’ refusal decisions. I look forward to your prompt handling of this matter. I can be reached at XXX-XXX-XXXX and am available to discuss this issue at your convenience this afternoon in hopes that it will be resolved before my child arrives at school tomorrow morning.

Best regards,

Sarah Blaine

That email generated a quick response (it arrived by the time I got home about an hour later), not from the superintendent, but from the principal.  Remarkably, she claims to have bought the teachers’ explanation, hook, line, and sinker.  (Apparently she wasn’t aware of my superb rap regarding that point.)

Now I presume, of course, that she’s trying not to throw her teachers under the bus (although I will eventually get around to writing up my prior encounter with her, in which she absolutely threw one of these teachers under a bus — and asked me to allow my daughter to read that email), but what educator really could feel comfortable defending teachers’ decisions to distribute candy comprised of pure sugar to their students as a pedagogically sound “refocusing strategy”?

I feel like I’ve wandered into some bizarre alternate universe.

So I couldn’t help it, I wrote back and this time I got a little snarky:

Dear Dr. A:

Thank you for your prompt response to this, my second email to you regarding this issue (my first was sent last night at approximately 6:30 p.m., before today’s testing session).

I would welcome the opportunity to discuss this with you further.  My cell phone number is XXX-XXX-XXXX.

As a preliminary matter, since I have a master’s of arts in teaching and yet have never seen any research supporting feeding children candies comprised of pure sugar as a “refocusing strategy,” I would appreciate it if you could point me to some research supporting the use of sugary candy as a “refocusing strategy.”

I would also appreciate some documentation of the teachers in this class using this “refocusing strategy” prior to PARCC testing week, as this is the first I have heard of them employing this particular “refocusing strategy.”  I understand that Ms. B occasionally distributes Tootsie Rolls to students who win competitive educational math games in her class, but not that the class as a whole is given Smarties or other candies as a “refocusing strategy.”  Can you please document how often my daughter’s teachers are feeding her class candy without my knowledge or consent?

Finally, I appreciate your willingness to ensure that to the extent that the teachers are feeding the children candy, candy is available to all students in the class, especially given our Board of Education’s policy that test refusers will be met with educationally appropriate and non-punitive responses.

Best regards,

Sarah Blaine

In the least surprising development in this saga so far, Dr. A has not yet responded, much less furnished me with any studies supporting the use of sugary candies as a “refocusing strategy.”

And again, surprising no one, as I’ve informally surveyed teachers and professors of education, all of them have laughed and/or cursed at the idea that sugary candies could possibly constitute an effective refocusing strategy.

In an aside, one fellow activist said that she was pretty certain that there is a law in our state that expressly prohibits the distribution of food items in which any iteration of sugar is the first ingredient at school during school hours.  She turns out to be correct — at least for schools, like ours, in which more than 5% of the student population qualifies for the federal free or reduced lunch programs.

N.J.S.A. 18A:33-16 reads, in relevant part:

As of September 2007, the following items shall not be served, sold or given away as a free promotion anywhere on school property at any time before the end of the school day, including items served in the reimbursable After School Snack Program:

(1)Foods of minimal nutritional value, as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture;

(2)All food and beverage items listing sugar, in any form, as the first ingredient; and

(3)All forms of candy as defined by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.

There are some exemptions, but none of them are likely to apply here, unless the distribution of candy is a school celebration, such as a class holiday or birthday party, or a curricular activity, such as a lesson on foods from other cultures.  The other exceptions are individual in nature (sugar for diabetics, rewards specified in a students’ IEP, etc.), and again, are not applicable here.  Further, guidance from the State specifically notes that the although the use of food as an incentive or reward is not prohibited, any such foods must meet the guidelines set forth in N.J.S.A. 18A:33-16, so Smarties candies are not acceptable.  That guidance further notes: “[r]esearch has shown that using food items as rewards can negatively affect students’ healthy attitudes toward eating.”  [And amazingly, the guidance even cites a publication that they say contains evidence in support of this proposition.] Somehow, I find myself more skeptical than ever that the principal will be able to point me to a study supporting the use of candy as a “refocusing strategy.” If she can find one, I have a funny feeling it will have come out of the Relay Graduate School of Education. Boom!

The first ingredient in Smarties, of course, is dextrose (sugar).

Smarties Nutrition and Ingredients Label. First Ingredient = Dextrose.

So not only is my daughter’s teachers’ distribution of Smarties candies to PARCC-taking kids not only poor and unsupported pedagogical practice, since 2007 it has also been against the law.


Really.  In the literal sense of the word.  The unbelievable cluelessness of her teachers truly does inspire awe in me, as does the principal’s decision to double-down on their preposterous pretext of an explanation.

Candy as a Refocusing Strategy.

It is truly awe-inspiring.  Or at least, perhaps, a bit Orwellian. Or is it that the euphemism “refocusing strategy” is an Orwellian way of describing the teacher’s actions?

But back to the topic at hand: I find myself wondering if the choice of “Smarties” candies was a deliberate choice to inspire students to greater “smartness” on the PARCC test.

The kid loves Hamilton and Smarties. We also refused to allow her to take PARCC.

This afternoon, as you can see from the photo, I bought my daughter a big bag of Smarties, because:

(A) she is fortunate to be able to eat candy with relative impunity at this age;

(B) it is within my prerogative as her parent to allow her to eat candy;

(C) I really appreciate her good natured willingness to allow me to share this story with all of you;

(D) I like Smarties too (although my waistline doesn’t need them).

If you guessed (E) All of the Above, you win… SMARTIES.  (Ok, not really, as I think they all got eaten by neighborhood kids — and a few parents.)

Here she is, with a friend, all sugared up on Smarties.  As you can see, focused (much less “refocused”) is not an appropriate description of their mental state:

This story, of course, while entertaining (although not nearly as entertaining as another story involving her ELA teacher, which I will share in another post, because I’m running out of steam tonight, and this blog post is already way too long), has more serious ramifications.

What does it mean when a public school teacher, as a state actor, takes it upon herself to punish students whose parents have made a political decision to protest the negative effects of high-stakes testing by declining to allow the child to test?

When the issue first came up Monday night, my daughter was initially hesitant regarding whether I should call the teachers out on this.  But I posed this hypothetical to her:

What if your teachers had only given Smarties to Christian kids?  Would anyone think it was okay to exclude Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or agnostic/atheist children in your class from receiving Smarties?

Of course, she agreed that everyone would say such a decision was horrible and unacceptable, and that teachers in public schools cannot do this.

But, I pointed out to her, it isn’t the kids’ decision what religion (if any) they’re being raised in, is it?

She agreed that this was not something kids can control at their ages.

Yet, I said, surely all of the non-Christian kids’ parents could convert their children to Christianity and therefore assure their children’s access to Smarties, right?

She agreed that this could, hypothetically, happen.

Here, of course, I pointed out to her that the PARCC refusal decision was also a parental decision, and that if her father and I hadn’t made this decision, she would not be allowed at her age to unilaterally refuse PARCC.  So just as in the hypothetical it would be unfair to punish the non-Christian kids for their parents’ beliefs, here it would be — and is — unfair to punish the test-refusing kids for their parents’ beliefs (which is entirely the rationale for the district’s opt-out policy in the first place, and is why even the most pro-testing and pro-education reform members of our local Board of Education voted in favor of it).

One of my ongoing frustrations as a parent who actively opposes the use of annual, high-stakes testing in our public schools is the accusation that we opt-out parents are mere tools of teachers and their unions. See, for example, here, here, here, here, and most recently and obnoxiously, here.  I think this story demonstrates that this is not the case, as we are certainly not tools of these particular teachers, and my greatest frustration with teachers’ unions is their unwillingness to help prune teachers who are embarrassments to their profession as a result of their consistently shoddy pedagogy, poor judgment, and casual cruelty toward students.

As is clear from this story (as well as the story of my last run-in with my daughter’s teachers over the opt-out movement, which was the time when the principal threw the teachers under the bus), there are still teachers out there, like my daughter’s, who, for whatever reason, support PARCC and other forms of high-stakes standardized testing, so we opt-out parents are certainly not the tools of all teachers.

More to the point, though, as their leaders made manifestly clear at the 2015 Network for Public Education conferences, the national teachers unions’ leaders are most certainly only supportive of the reduction or elimination of high-stakes testing in public schools to the extent that they believe such support furthers their own ends.

In 2015, as the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“ESEA,” then also known as “No Child Left Behind” or “NCLB,” and now in its reauthorized form known as the “Every Student Succeeds Act” or “ESSA”) was on the table, Randi Weingarten of the AFT in particular (although as a practical matter NEA has been no better on this point) explained her refusal to support the Tester Amendment to ESEA, which would have eliminated No Child Left Behind’s annual testing requirement in favor of only a grade-span testing requirement: i.e., under the Tester amendment state testing in ELA and math would have been required only once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school.  Randi explained that this was a sacrifice she could make to ensure that the union had a seat at the table for issues that mattered more to it.  In other words, Randi was ready and willing to sell out children and their parents on the over testing issue to maintain her own access to power.

Here is some of what I was tweeting back then as I listened to her speak:

My reaction to Randi Weingarten’s explanation of why AFT refused to support the Tester Amendment.


Even in the moment, I was calling out the union-parent divide regarding annual standardized testing.


This year at NPE, the AFT’s vice president used a similar line of argument to justify their union’s shockingly early endorsement of Hillary Clinton.  Personally, I’m not sure what good a seat at the table does either of the teachers’ union when their input is ignored every step of the way, just as I’m not sure why they’d support the continuation of annual testing, which is the key ingredient in state plans to evaluate teachers based on their students’ year-over-year change in standardized test scores (a policy that hurts students and teachers).

This year’s issue was the uber-early endorsement of Hillary.

The vast majority of teachers work desperately, often under frightful pressure to the contrary, to provide pedagogically sound, developmentally appropriate, humane education to their students, and as a former teacher myself, I appreciate their work immensely.  But as a parent, I have no particular love for the union’s long history of refusing to self-police, as a semi-professional association, their own members.  We lawyers are far from perfect at this, but like doctors, we do try, and lawyers are disbarred, suspended, and/or admonished every year.  Teachers’ failures to self-police their ranks are, in my opinion, a major contributor to the false but widespread myth that our nation’s public schools, as a whole, are failing.  People remember their outlier bad teachers, and judge the system by them.

I often wonder whether many of the absurd policy prescriptions advocated by so-called education reformers could be avoided or eliminated by sending reformers to psychologists for counseling to resolve residual trauma leftover from one or more bad relationships they had with their teachers during their own childhoods.  Instead, however, reformers seek to do what I, too, would like to see done: to advocate a policy that would result in getting rid of teachers who are embarrassment to the profession.  It is not that their goal is wrongheaded: it is merely that their methods are nonsensical and at best only tangentially related to their goals.

Reformers seek to identify and fire teachers based on student performance on standardized tests.  Their theory goes that if a child can’t demonstrate gains on these tests, regardless of how poorly designed, invalid, unreliable, culturally biased, and flawed they may be, then that is proof positive that the child’s teacher hasn’t done his or her job.  That, of course, is silly, as a million other factors may have affected that child’s results.  Indeed, to some degree as a parent I’m more concerned by a teacher with an excellent record of standardized test results, as there is a good chance that indicates a teacher who is crassly willing to sell out his or her principles to do the worst forms of test-prep.  It’s the cheerleaders for testing and those whose ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance is so well-developed that they honestly believe that the crappy nightly reading passages with related multiple-choice questions aren’t test prep that I, as a parent, fear.  The teachers who are testing cheerleaders are, in my experience, the most likely to also be guilty of shoddy pedagogy, poor judgment, and/or casual or thoughtless cruelty to students.

For me, the metric isn’t student performance on standardized tests.  For me, the metrics that merit firing a teacher are — after having met with the teacher over time to identify the issues and offer suggestions and opportunities for improvement — continuing shoddy pedagogical practices, consistently poor judgment, and a serious track-record of casual cruelty to students.  None of those can be measured effectively by a teacher’s student’s standardized test results, but all of those can be documented and substantiated over time by an administrator willing to do the work.  This doesn’t mean that I don’t think all teachers should be entitled to due process given the enormous pressure and competing points of view forced on them by parents, students, and administrators — of course I do — but administrators need to stand up and do their jobs so that teachers’ due process rights do not somehow prohibit the eventual firing of subpar teachers who refuse to show improvement.

And in point of fact, there are relatively few teachers whose practice is so continually bad that they should be fired.  Indeed, I think my daughter’s teachers should be counseled and supported (and provided with some professional development that includes basic civics instruction on what public school teachers cannot do), but frustrated as I am with their judgment regarding the candy, I don’t think this alone is anywhere near a firing offense.

So as a parent, at best I’m in constant tension with teachers unions’ even lukewarm support of the opt-out movement, as teachers’ union support of opting-out naturally puts teachers’ — and not students’ — best interests at heart.  Specifically, here in New Jersey, while I’m appreciative of the support that the NJEA gave to the opt-out movement in 2015 and to a lesser degree through its New Jersey Kids and Families initiative in 2016, I am nevertheless under no illusion that as soon as the NJEA sees the opt-out movement and its proponents as enemies rather than allies, the NJEA will sell us out as quickly as you can say Chapter 78 contributions.

I think the unions’ — especially the national unions’ — willingness to sell out students and parents is simply a fact of life, but as a parent advocate it’s why I feel that the parent movement against high-stakes testing is in an uneasy truce, at best, with teachers’ unions.  Yes, I have a New Jersey Kids and Family bought “Our Family Refuses PARCC” sign on my lawn and it makes me happy to see lots of those signs around my town, but although yay — it was free to me — the provenance of that particular sign makes me uncomfortable.  I’d just as leave have bought my own sign, as I did back in 2015.

I would love it if the leadership of our local union would issue guidance to teachers around refusing students, so that kids like mine are never again placed in the uncomfortable position of feeling like they need to tattle on their teachers to their parents.  But as a parent, I understand that the union’s job is to look out for its membership, and my job is to look out for my children.  Supportive as I might be of teachers and, generally speaking, of their unions, when push comes to shove, I, like any parent, will choose my kids every time.  Those simple facts: that for parents, our children, all children, and public education in general are our priorities, not knee-jerk support of teachers union, drives home the fact that the opt-out movement is a parent-led movement, and neither a union-led movement nor the opportunistic manipulation of parents by teachers’ unions.  Indeed, one of my concerns about the more extreme reaches of the parent-led opt-out movement is that even after reason returns to the use of testing, educators are not going to be able to put the opt-out movement genie back in the bottle.  I hope that someday when we win this fight, I, as a parent-leader, will be able to be effective at helping to convince parents to “opt-in.”


P.S.  A silver lining to this debacle with my kid’s teachers is that in the course of our discussion of the use of candy as a so-called “refocusing strategy,” my kid learned what the term Orwellian means.  We discussed the premises of Orwell’s Animal Farm as well as 1984, while sitting out on our neighbor’s stoop.  This then led to an enlightening discussion with a Cuban immigrant who was part of the conversation.  She told us, partially with the help of our other neighbor as interpreter, about the restrictions on free speech and lack of food, money, and resources she experienced under Castro in Cuba.

P.P.S. I’m sure that some teachers are going to be upset with me for “teacher bashing.” To them, I say two things: (1) we can’t even begin to learn to talk to each other if that talking means we can’t identify and call out problems when we see them and (2) if these teachers don’t want to be held accountable for their poor judgment, perhaps they shouldn’t display such poor judgment.

Those Terrifying Teachers

  1. Those who control education policy in this country these days are obsessed with getting our kids college and career ready. They want our kids to succeed. But their narrow definition of success is bankrupt of humanity. The implicit assumption in a goal of “college and career readiness” is that it is the job of schools to prepare our kids for getting into the most highly-selective colleges so that they can go on to have the most financially lucrative white-collar careers. The college and career readiness mantra leaves no room for the satisfaction of a master craftsman, a choice to pursue service over money, or even the stereotype of the starving artist. The college and career readiness trope is about measuring success by measuring bank accounts.

As a child, I grew up in a wealthy community in which the overwhelming value transmitted to children by that community was that success meant the acquisition of material wealth. In particular, the message that was drilled into me, over and over again, was that success meant achieving top grades and participating in activities that would make me attractive to highly-competitive colleges and universities. Attend one of those highly selective colleges or universities, the message went, and I would never have to worry about material wealth, or achieving success as my community defined it.

I always had a hard time explicitly swallowing this message, but I nevertheless internalized it. I attended a highly-selective college, although I had to fight with my parents about my choice, because attending one of the small, liberal arts colleges that comprise “The Little Three” wasn’t as instantly impressive to strangers as it would have been if I’d attended a name recognition giant like Harvard or even Cornell. My small-scale rebellion was to choose to apply Early Decision to the small liberal arts college I thought would be the best fit for me instead of waiting to hear from the better known colleges my parents would have preferred.

My micro-rebellions continued, even as the internalized values of my childhood predominated. For instance, I felt drawn to the kibbutz movement, although once I spent a few months volunteering on a kibbutz after college, I quickly realized that theory was swell, but practically speaking, the kibbutz movement — and commune life more generally — was not all it was cracked up to be.

After college and my return from a post-college year of volunteering in Israel, I took some time to get my bearings waiting tables before I ended up at a master of arts in teaching program and eventually in a rural Maine classroom. As I’ve written before, I was young and naive and I’m sure I was not nearly the teacher then that I think I could be now. But I contributed something positive to the world, and overall I think that my classroom time in Maine was a net-positive for my students and their community before I returned to New Jersey to be closer to my mother, who was, by then, six years into a cancer diagnosis. Some day, I’d like to return back to a high school classroom.

Back in New Jersey, I applied to law school. And again, I got sucked into the definition of success that had been drilled into me as a child, as this definition was once again reinforced in law school. The message about success in law school was that success was about achieving the highest grades and getting job offers from the most prestigious law firms. Again, I sort of bucked the system, but not really: I went to a large New Jersey law firm with high salaries and a good reputation, but because I was married and gave birth to my first child before I graduated from law school, I turned down offers from more prestigious New York law firms. I knew that I couldn’t be the kind of parent — and daughter to my still cancer-fighting mother — that I wanted to be if I needed to bill large law firm hours and manage a Manhattan commute.

I spent seven years at that large New Jersey law firm, although the last year or two were spent in a crisis of conscience as I tried, among other things, to square my internalized notions of success with the idea that I didn’t want to — and wasn’t — doing what it would have taken to try to “succeed” there: i.e., make partner. And to be honest, I can’t even begin to imagine how miserable I’d be now if I had done those things. As it is, I regret that I spent much less time with my mother than I wish I had during the last year of her life, because I was so worried about making a good impression during my first year at that law firm.

If I had overcome my conscience and values enough to stay, I would have grown more and more miserable as my kids advanced through our good but far from perfect local public school system, which has been rocked by education reformers’ attempts to make it an exemplar district for suburban education reform. That law firm was a home base for so-called education reformers: many of its clients were hedge funds and private equity funds, and so we were subjected to propaganda from the high-performing charter schools, and indeed, Democrats for Education Reformer’s new president, Shavar Jeffries, became a partner there shortly after I left. I would have not just worn golden handcuffs; I would have been wearing a golden gag.

So for the past three years I’ve been on a new path, a path in which the partners at the small, woman-owned law firm where I work now know, because I’ve told them directly, that I have no interest in killing myself to convince them that they should make me a partner. Rather, I cut my hours back to three-quarters time so that I have more time for my family, friends, and the causes I care about.

I am fortunate indeed to be able to work only three-quarters time without great financial stress. While I appreciate that I am privileged to live a comfortable life, I’ve stopped coveting the multi-million dollar mansions up on the hill. Let the Stephen Colberts and the CEOs and the private equity fund managers live in those: frankly, I’m much happier in my house on a lot measured in square feet rather than acres. Here I have the good fortune of living on a close-knit street with neighbors who have become dear friends. Our children develop independence by running in a pack from noon to nightfall, a rare phenomenon these days.

For me, success is realizing that I have enough, and that time is a far more precious commodity than money. I’m successful because while my time still seems limited, I know that I’m able to be a better mother to my children because work doesn’t keep me family dinner and reading to my children. I’m successful because I’m able to cultivate friendships, and be flexible, and take my kids for a five day camping trip on an island in the middle of a lake. I’m successful because I have a spouse who supports me in these things, and doesn’t insist that I continue working at a job that was killing me, just so that we acquire more stuff.

I don’t live in one of our town’s fancy mansions. My furniture has been torn to pieces by our cats and kids. I can’t justify joining the country club at the end of my block, with its lovely pool and golf-course that my husband would enjoy. I don’t get to donate thousands of dollars at charity galas, or jet set off to Europe or a tropical island any time I’d like. My wardrobe is a far cry from being fashion forward.

But I look at my life, and I’m pretty content.

I have time for some activism in the education world.

I have some time to write this blog.

I have a husband, family, and children who mean the world to me.

I have the opportunity to offer my cousin a place to live while she attends a local college that would otherwise be out of reach for her.

I have the best neighbors I could possibly imagine, and I know the close-knit community of our street is only possible because our properties are small enough that there’s the density needed to ensure that our kids have a pack of built-in friends.

I have strong friendships, many of which have lasted for twenty or thirty years or more, and I have time to nurture those friendships through phone calls, email, and yes, even Facebook, as well as in-person visits.

I have a best friend whose joy in his daughter brings me delight every time I see them together.

I have the satisfaction of knowing that I’m able to make a small but nevertheless meaningful contribution toward moving the education conversation in this country in the direction in which I think it should go.

I have the opportunity to send my children to good schools, with diverse peers who will teach them more about the world than I could ever hope to do on my own.

I’d call each of those things a hallmark of success.

Given all of that, what do I teach my children about success in this dog-eat-dog world?  It would be easy to fall back on what I was taught as a child: that success is attending the highest ranked school and then getting the job or starting the career that will earn the most money. But I don’t believe that anymore. These days, I believe that success is not so easily measured. Success is not the biggest bank account or the most prestigious job. Success is building a life filled with meaningful relationships, opportunities for service, outlets for creativity, and the self-awareness to find contentment in enough.

The college and career readiness trope lacks humanity. It misses the point that many of us don’t want our children’s schools to set our kids on a path toward internalizing the idea that success is defined as having the most stuff.

So these days, I try to teach my kids a broader definition of success than the one I internalized as a child. I try to teach my kids that success is living a life that values kindness, service to others, and creativity. Don’t get me wrong: I have talented children, and I want them to have the opportunity to attend amazing colleges, and to pursue rewarding careers. But I also don’t want them to sacrifice their happiness and satisfaction in the pursuit of material gain. What frustrates me as a parent is that current education policy forces our schools to shove the narrow definition of success that characterized my childhood down my children’s throats.

And do you know what? I don’t think the best teachers want our children to give up kindness, service to others, compassion, or creativity either. I don’t think the best teachers define success as narrowly as education policy says they should.

These days, we live in a world in which the ultra-wealthy — through their minions — set education policy despite having little or no experience in public school classrooms.  The ultra-wealthy toil away in their Greenwich, CT hedge funds or Manhattan equity funds or Silicon Valley venture funds or their hugely-endowed philanthropic trusts, and try to bring some meaning into their lives by devoting some free time and excess cash to tinkering with our education system. But their measures of success are barren: they inundate the policy environment with claims that college and career readiness can be measured through test scores, but I notice that they don’t even attempt to measure what it means to provide an education that identifies and nurtures each child’s unique gifts and talents.

Career teachers scare the crap out of the ultra-wealthy. Career teachers scare the crap out of them because comparing the life of a career teacher to the life of an ultra-wealthy hedge fund manager demonstrates how empty a life spent in pursuit of money and power truly is. Career teachers scare the crap out of the wealthy tinkerers, because career teachers are adults who have eschewed the temptation of the private sector in exchange for the opportunity to be of service.

The ultra-wealthy attack teachers because a choice to teach is a choice to say that there are things more important than money and material success.

The ultra-wealthy are terrified by those who make the choice to teach, because a choice to teach is a choice to value service over greed. Career teachers, merely by their existence, are living critiques of the lives the ultra-wealthy have built.

The ultra-wealthy try to motivate teachers with merit pay and career ladders. But career teachers ignore the lame financial incentives and bogus career ladders, because career teachers are about measuring success by the humanity they’re able to infuse into their classrooms, not by the size of their paychecks.

So the ultra-wealthy respond by attempting to de-professionalize teaching.

The ultra-wealthy try to strip away teachers’ benefits.  The ultra-wealthy try to transform teaching into a glorified temp job by devaluing teacher training and teacher experience. But the career teachers aren’t going to stop doing what’s best for children without a fight, because the career teachers are there to serve children and communities.

The ultra-wealthy — and their minions — attack those who choose teaching as a career. They do it because teachers are the people who have implicitly voted with their feet against living lives devoted to the unregulated pursuit of greed, money, and power. And somewhere, deep down, the ultra-wealthy know that the career teachers are right to reject these things. You know those teachers: they’re terrifying indeed.

The Reality Television Paradigm of All-Charter School Systems

Today, the New York Times  Sunday Review published an Op-Ed about the farce that is the so-called “New Orleans” charter school miracle.  You should go read it.  A quote:

“There is also growing evidence that the reforms have come at the expense of the city’s most disadvantaged children, who often disappear from school entirely and, thus, are no longer included in the data.”

The quote is absolutely on target.  Further, let’s talk about the logical results of how even a properly functioning (according to the charter cheerleaders) all-charter school district would work.  By definition, a charter school is one that is intended to trade results for regulation: that is, We the Public eschew traditional regulation over watching how our public dollars are spent by the charter (which is governed by a private board, usually impervious to OPRA/FOIA requests and the like) in exchange for producing “results” — i.e., high scores on standardized tests from its students.  If a particular charter school isn’t producing results by the end of its initial charter period, in theory the state and/or the chartering entity should be shutting that school down.

But the logical conclusion of that paradigm is a two-tiered system of charter schools.  The so-called “high-performing charter schools” (e.g., the KIPPs, the Uncommon Schools, the Success Academies, the Green Dots, etc.) will figure out the formula for magically skimming-off as many of the high-performing kids as possible, and so their test scores will reflect the “results” the charter authorizers demand.  But the rest of the charter schools, the B-squad charter schools of virtual charters, for-profits, mom and pop charters, less savvy charters, etc. — they are far less likely to have figured out, or, if they’re ethically run, to have wanted to figure out, the secret-sauce for creaming off those most likely to perform well on the standardized tests and quickly counseling out the rest.  And so, instead, if the all-charter system functions as it is supposed to, after 3 years or 5 years or whatever, the B-squad charters schools will be shut down.

But what happens to the children who attended those B-squad now-shut-down charter schools, and/or those who are pushed out of the high-performing charters?  Well, their educations are disrupted, over and over again, as they are shuffled from low-performing school to low-performing school. Their former schools shut their doors, over and over again.  But new low-performing charter schools will continue to open in the wake of those that keeping closing: after all, until they drop out, the students of the low-performing charter schools need to be housed somewhere.  For those relegated to the low-performing charter network, their chances to build communities around their schools are low, as even their schools are transient: heck, even if they do manage to graduate, many of their alumni won’t even have a school in which to hold a reunion ten or twenty years from now, because the iterations of the schools they attended will no longer exist.  And that disruption, that lack of community, that being shunted around from low-performing school to low-performing school, that will make them less likely to graduate, less likely to be able to overcome the already-substantial long odds that accidents of demographics, the dark side of poverty, have placed in their way.

As evidenced by this article, an all-charter school system is a way to write-off our most challenging children, the ones that each and every one of us should look at and say that as citizens of this country, it is truly our moral responsibility to make sure that these children have every opportunity we can give them to break the cycle of poverty, because the American Dream is truly dead if a significant subset of our community has no way to succeed.  But the way to keep the American Dream alive is to ensure that We the People provide our most vulnerable children with opportunities to attend well-resourced, integrated, stable schools that won’t disappear on them, sometimes mid-school year.  It is not to keep pulling the educational rug out from under these children, every two, three, or five years.

But the charter cheerleaders, they say that closing down the low-performing charters, that’s evidence of success, because closing down low-performing charters is how the charter system is supposed to work: that’s how you hold the poorly performing schools accountable, by shutting their doors when they don’t perform.  The charter cheerleaders, however, don’t realize, if they’re naive, and don’t care, if they’re cynical, that closing down one low-performing charter means opening another one in its place.  After all, the low-performing students of the low-performing charters are those who aren’t savvy enough to game and navigate the incredibly complicated systems privatization brings.  Instead, intentionally or not, they are shunted around from one substandard education experience to another until they simply give up and drop out, or, if they do graduate, graduate with substandard skills and substandard opportunities.  The narrative that shutting down low-performing schools works is a narrative that is either incredibly naive or incredibly cynical.  What that narrative isn’t, however, is a narrative that serves kids — all of our kids — well.

That narrative is, however, as Michael Petrilli over at The Thomas B. Fordham Institute implicitly admitted last winter, a narrative that distinguishes between our country’s deserving students, the deserving poor, and the un-deserving poor, who, at best, deserve, according to Petrilli and his allies, to be housed in a substandard world of alternative schools until they are eventually released from the system, likely into also-privatized prisons.  Petrilli’s vision is one that reflects the worst values of the Industrial Age we thought we had left behind, the “Hard Times” of a Dickensian dystopia in which some children are stuffed full of “facts, facts, facts, nothing but facts, ma’am,” and slated for success, and the others, well, the others simply aren’t our concern.

All of our children deserve better than this.  All of our children deserve access to stable, caring, well-resourced, community schools that aren’t going to disappear on them at the whim of some bureaucrat, whether or not they “perform” on the asinine boondoggles that are today’s high-stakes standardized tests.

I, for one, say no thank you to the logical consequences of an all-charter school system, as any moral citizen of this country should agree.  That isn’t to say that our truly public school systems can’t do better.  Certainly, in many of our communities they can and should (especially if We the People actually provide them with the resources they need in an equitable fashion). But the answers to the real problems of poverty and deprivation are not privatization and prison.  Or, to put it another way, publicly-funded education shouldn’t be a real-life version of reality tv in which those who are savvier win the immunity challenges, and the less-savvy are voted off the island.

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

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

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

by Belinda Edmondson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Guest Voices: Dr. Colleen Daly Martinez

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

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


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


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


March 15, 2015

Dear Senator Ruiz, and Senate Education Committee Members,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dr. Colleen Daly Martinez

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

#WhatIf …?

Yesterday, Diane Ravitch noted on her blog that United States Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan invited school districts to ask “What if”?  His issue was scalability of solutions or some other corporate edubabble, but the Twitter-verse co-opted the #WhatIf hashtag and started to ask real questions.  24,000 tweets and counting later, the “What If…?” questions are still going strong.

The #WhatIf idea really appealed to me since those types of “What if…” questions are what got me started writing this blog.  So I’ve jumped on the bandwagon throughout the day.

Here are some of mine (a few slightly edited) to give you a sampling.  But you should really check out the trending hashtag and the retweets, because there are so many amazing ones.

Thank you so much, Diane Ravitch, for bringing this to our our attention.  I’ve had a great time today asking “What if…”

What are your What Ifs?

How I Almost Became an Education Reformer

by Sarah Blaine

By 2011, I’d been practicing law for about six years. That spring, I hit a watershed moment in my practice. I was put on a crazy project that culminated in the one and only time I billed over 300 hours in a month. During that month, I never saw my children awake for more than a few stress filled moments in the morning, and I worried that my “Mommy always comes back” mantra was appearing less and less true in my three year old daughter’s eyes. I had no idea what was going on in my seven year old’s life.  At the culmination of the project that forced my 300+ hour month, one of the partners I worked for came into my office to praise my efforts. She told me that I should keep doing what I’d been doing. G-d forbid.

This partner happened to be a single mother who’d moved a kid sized desk and kid sized folded couch into her office so that her preschooler could sit, headphones engaged, for hours watching videos on a portable DVD player until she passed out asleep on the fold out couch, as mom juggled conference calls. Being a single mom cannot be easy, and in between the 300+ hour months, partner-mom took plenty of vacations with her daughter, and for some of her work binges, she shipped her daughter out to her parents for some actual attention (and presumably less screen time). Nevertheless, while her work-life balance choices seemed to satisfy her, the model she presented did not inspire me. I didn’t want to disappear from my kids’ lives for months at a time. Big law partnership looked more and more like a booby prize. One month at a pace of over 300 hours was problematic enough for my marriage and my children: as fun as the work challenges and accomplishments it had brought had been, it was not an experience I cared to repeat on a regular basis. I certainly didn’t aspire to it as a permanent state of being.

And while the work was intellectually challenging, it was not fulfilling. Helping hedge fund principals and private equity gurus achieve their litigation goals did not leave me feeling that I’d done the world a solid. The intellectual challenge was not enough, since I felt that I was using my brain to leave the world a little worse off. A little less fair. And I watched, from the inside, as the scales of justice continued, in my estimation, to tip a little further away from the have-nots.

As a result, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that partnership at a large law firm was not a future I wanted for myself. I would happily spend the rest of my life driving Mazdas rather than Mercedes in return for a job that would allow me to make plans with my family and friends. My ideal job would let me, on balance, get paid a living wage to leave a positive mark on the world. I no longer dreamed of riches; I simply dreamed of enough.

So I wanted out. As I considered next steps, I began thinking about actually doing what my law school essay said I’d applied to law school to do: to marry my old career with my new one by putting my legal education to use helping students, especially disadvantaged students like the ones I’d taught a decade before in rural Maine.

But still. We had, like so many others, bought our house at the height of the housing boom, and our hefty mortgage payment loomed each month, without hope of a refi. A few more years of preschool tuition loomed, and there was only so much expense reduction we could manage. Leaving my community was not an option. So poverty wages were not an option.

As I considered my future, I started coming across programs. Interesting programs. Financially lucrative programs. Programs and jobs that paid wages I could live on. All I needed to do was to buy into the education reform agenda.

For instance, The Broad Residency helped mid-career professionals transition to jobs in education. And education jobs must mean doing good for the world. Along with annual salaries of $90,000 – $100,000. For jobs in education. Doing good. That sounded like something I could live with. Education Pioneers offered a similar career path. Less money. But still, it had possibilities. Maybe I could earn a comfortable wage and do some good.

So I started applying. I vaguely knew that the programs supported “education reform,” but I’d left teaching a decade earlier, so I had little idea of what that meant beyond support for charter schools. For the chance to do some good (and a comfortable wage), I could probably support the charter movement. Although I had some reservations, I wasn’t in the trenches or up to date on the latest education reform policy wars, and the reformers’ slogans sounded appealing. After all, they wanted to put students first, close the achievement gap, and accept no excuses. That all sounded good to me. As the misery of my big law career dragged on, I desperately wanted to find some work that would allow me to see my family and feed my soul. The education reform organizations sounded more and more tempting. As I revamped my resume for these fellowship opportunities, I conveniently forgot to mention my experience as a volunteer member of the contract negotiations team for my local teacher’s union up in Maine. I hadn’t done a lot of research, but I’d figured out that much.

So I applied. For the fellowships, and other jobs at charter schools and reform-oriented organizations. Luckily, I was not their ideal candidate. Looking back, I suspect that I was too much of an unknown quantity: yes, I had only a few years of teaching experience, but that experience was in an unknown rural public school, and I’d gotten into teaching by a traditional method (i.e., obtaining a traditional teaching certification by earning a Master of Arts in teaching degree at an actual university). My experience mirrored that of TFA students, but my preparation for teaching far exceeded TFA’s summer training. And my teaching experience predated No Child Left Behind. I might actually believe in portfolio assessments. Or project-based learning. Or that class size matters.

Similarly, I’d attended an elite undergraduate university, but I’d earned my advanced degrees from (much cheaper) public universities. I’d graduated from law school with high honors, but it was Rutgers, not Harvard. And pedigree seems to matter to the education reformers.

I was parent of a public school student in a town with a reputation for socio-economic diversity that resulted in our public schools never making the top rankings in NJ Monthly magazine.

My pro bono legal experience including partnering with the Education Law Center on impact litigation intended to increase the access students with disabilities had to inclusive classrooms.

I simply did not appear malleable enough.

I got to the final round of interviews with one of the education reform fellowships, but looking back, I am sure that I tanked myself in the group activity when I suggested taking parents’ and teachers’ concerns seriously and advocating obtaining buy-in from all stakeholders rather than ramrodding my hypothetical superintendent’s agenda down resistant parents’ and teachers’ throats.

I did get out of big law. Here I am: a parent who eats dinner with my husband and kids almost every night, a practicing attorney at a small firm that does not do education law, but also does not expect me to aspire to bill 300 — or even 200 — hours in a month. I am an occasional education blogger, and a volunteer in my children’s schools when the stars align between job responsibilities and school volunteer opportunities.  My paid work is not particularly fulfilling, but my colleagues are lovely and it could be worse.  It’s not a bad life.  And I put my kids to bed every night.

My ambition is still to find an opportunity that would allow me to actually manage to do what I went to law school to do: that is, to combine my legal and teaching backgrounds to improve our education system. Or maybe, just maybe, if the opportunity was right, to go back to teaching. Because after all these years, I still miss students. I miss the classroom. And I miss the knowledge that I’ve made a difference in children’s lives. This time, however, it would be Social Studies. If anyone is even teaching that anymore.

But in the meantime, I try.

And I intend to try more.

And, when I can, I intend to write more, so that I can reach an audience beyond my indulgent neighbors.

I try to educate those around me concerning why due process rights matter for public school teachers.

I try to suggest that while teachers’ unions certainly could benefit from reform (and a revamp of their communications operations), they are not inherently evil.

I try to explain the pernicious insidiousness of attaching high-stakes decisions to standardized test results.

I try to be an ambassador for the teachers who were once my colleagues, as they are maligned in the media and beyond.

I try to explain what I learned about the unique problems of rural schools, and why one-size-fits-all education solutions don’t work for a country as diverse as ours.

I try to explain why I am a true believer in the Supreme Court’s mandate requiring schools to provide students with special needs access to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.

I try to be an effective advocate for my own kids within our local school system.

I try to explain that while technology can be a valuable tool, it is not a panacea that will cure all that ails education. That data, while valuable, is just another tool.

I try to explain why poverty matters.

I try to explain the distinction between educating future citizens versus training future cogs for our economic engine.

And I try to keep educating myself, and to keep measuring my own knowledge and assumptions against research, experience, and common sense.

And in all of that trying, I try most of all to remember that I flirted with the land of education reform. If I’d appeared a little more malleable, perhaps I would have ended up a bona fide reformer. I am sure that many of the so-called reformers were once in my shoes. Many of them, I am sure, also wanted out from careers they found unfulfilling. Many of them wanted jobs where they felt that they could make a difference. And The Broad Residency, and Education Pioneers, and the charter schools, and the other reform organizations: they promised those opportunities. The chance to make a difference. To put students first. And to make good salaries. Really good salaries. The job boards tell the stories.

The education reform world is tempting, particularly to those who feel trapped by golden handcuffs. So I try not to demonize the Education Reformers, because I know how easily I might have ended up one of them.

But instead, I am just me. So I will continue to try to add my spin to the policy discussions. And maybe, there will come an opportunity that will allow me to marry my teaching background, legal expertise and writing skills. Someday.