It’s been a bit since my last post. One of the things (other than, ahem, returning to school for a third graduate degree because I truly
am a glutton for punishment love learning) that keeps me busy is helping out around the periphery with the amazing folks who are involved with a local political engagement/transparency group, NJ 11th for Change. For those who don’t know, the fabulous folks at NJ 11th for Change are amazing grassroots advocates who are now focused for 2019 on mobilizing to bring some sunlight to New Jersey politics, which is a tall order indeed (they did it in December, when they were part of a coalition that put the kibosh on the NJ Democratic machine’s ridiculous plan to enshrine gerrymandering for all time through an incredibly partisan legislative redistricting proposal).
I’m not sure how long she’s been doing it for, but a few weeks ago in the NJ 11th for Change Members’ Facebook group, I first encountered one of member Gail Lalk’s brilliant posts in which she asks folks to distill down their thoughts about political topics by posting in Haiku form. These posts change the conversation in remarkable ways.
As Gail said when I asked whether I could credit her here:
I like being queen!
I’m now the Haiku lady
It’s pretty funny.
Anyway, I couldn’t resist this morning’s Gail-created Haiku challenge. She wrote:
Haiku challenge topic (your response doesn’t have to be a haiku unless you enjoy that):
What can we do to improve
What is taught to kids?
There were quite a few thought-provoking responses, but I found myself on a bit of a roll…
Students and teachers
Building trust, caring, and love
Are key to learning
* * *
Computers and tests
Cannot smile, crack a joke
* * *
Shared knowledge and skills
Respect and honor for all
Reduce class sizes
* * *
Fight segregation and hate
* * *
Give each kid a chance
Fund wrap-around services
* * *
Not one size fits all
Kids are individuals
* * *
I encourage you to let Gail inspire you (as she inspired me) and to add your own education aspirational Haiku in the comments…
An Open Letter to Senator Susan Collins (R-ME)
Dear Senator Collins:
Almost nineteen years ago, on my twenty-fifth birthday, I sat in a conference room on the University of Maine and had dinner with the cohort of pre-service teachers I’d be together with for the next 13 months as we studied to obtain our entry-level Maine public school teaching certificates in the University of Maine’s M.A.T. program. I spent the following academic year interning and then student teaching in some of Maine’s public schools, including Old Town High Schooland Hampden Academy. I learned the craft of teaching from excellent, highly-trained, and deeply experienced mentor teachers, and studied with some top-notch University of Maine professors. That spring, I accepted a job teaching high school English at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School.
I am originally from New Jersey, and after two years of teaching at OHCHS, I moved back to New Jersey, where my mother was battling cancer. But Maine – and particularly Maine’s education system and Maine’s students – remain dear to my heart.
One of the two most important courses I took during my master’s program at the University of Maine was my course in inclusion of students with disabilities in general education classrooms. In that course, I learned about the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §1400, et seq. (“IDEA”), and what my responsibilities were going to be as a general education teacher tasked with educating students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment, as required by IDEA.
As I am sure you know as a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, what the least restrictive environment means is that children with special needs are required by law to be placed in a general education classroom or a setting as close to the general education setting as much as possible consistent with that child’s right to receive a free and appropriate public education. That is, the least restrictive environment provision is IDEA’s anti-segregation provision: it precludes public schools from simply shunting students with disabilities off to the side, separate and unequal, with little or no meaningful access to peer interaction with typically developing students.
During the two years in which I taught at OHCHS, I attended countless IEP meetings, and worked diligently to effectively implement IEPs in my classroom. I served students with all sorts of special needs in my general education classroom, and I believe all students – both typically developing and those with special needs – benefited from learning together. When appropriate, I also supported decisions to move children in my classroom out of my classroom to resource rooms or other environments that could better meet their needs, as the least restrictive environment must be determined on a case-by-case basis, and sometimes is not the general education classroom. I always thought carefully about those decisions, and worked to make sure that my general education classroom was as inclusive as possible for students with special needs.
When I returned to New Jersey, I left teaching and eventually enrolled in law school. In private practice, my proudest work to date has been my work as a pro bono attorney on impact litigation filed by disability and education advocates to try to force New Jersey’s Department of Education to faithfully implement the least restrictive environment provisions of IDEA, as New Jersey, unlike Maine, had – and sadly continues to have – one of the worst records in the country on including students with special needs in general education settings. Unlike my requirement in Maine almost twenty years ago, to this day, New Jersey does not require its pre-service general education teachers to take even one credit of coursework specifically aimed at learning to teach students with special needs in general education classrooms, which I believe at least partly explains New Jersey’s problematic record on implementing the least restrictive environment provisions of IDEA.
At this point, it is apparent that the only thing that might help New Jersey enter the 21st Century on this issue would be meaningful enforcement of IDEA’s least restrictive environment provisions by some combination of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs and Office of Civil Rights. As a result, it is imperative that the Secretary of Education – of either party – have considerable expertise in the language, provisions, implementation, and enforcement of IDEA (and Section 504).
I watched Betsy DeVos’s HELP committee hearing, and I’m watching the vote (well, actually, this far into the letter, the procedural wrangling following the vote) live right now. What boggles my mind is what one of your colleagues – I can’t recall which one right now – just said about the U.S. Department of Education having essentially two jobs when it comes to K-12 education: (1) to carry out the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“ESEA”) and (2) to carry out IDEA. What was clear as day at Ms. DeVos’s HELP committee hearing was that Ms. DeVos was dangerously unfamiliar with at least one half of her job: that half of her job in which she’s tasked with ensuring implementation of IDEA.
As a cabinet level position, Secretary of Education cannot be an entry-level job. Yet there is no question that even I have significantly more familiarity and experience with IDEA than Ms. DeVos. When you were my Senator, I had great respect for you and your primary concern with effectively representing the people of Maine. You are no longer my Senator, but I continue to believe that you have integrity and that the people of Maine will support you so long as you vote your conscience.
As a fellow American, I urge you to vote no on Betsy DeVos when her nomination comes before the full Senate. Every child, parent, teacher, child study team member, and other educator or related services professional deserves an education leader in Washington who has significant expertise in his or her job. Half of Ms. DeVos’s job when it comes to K-12 education is implementing IDEA. Ms. DeVos demonstrated her lack of expertise in this area, and, even more concerning, has not expressed outrage at the fact that students with disabilities are being asked to waive their rights under IDEA if they want to access school voucher programs.
Our children, our parents, our teachers, and our country deserves better. Please put the people of Maine and the United States ahead of party loyalty. Please vote no on Betsy DeVos’s nomination when her nomination comes before the full Senate.
Very truly yours,
Administrative Law 101: Administrators Must Implement the Law as Written
The New Jersey State Board of Education is currently considering regulations that would make passing PARCC ELA 10 and PARCC Algebra I high school graduation requirements for all New Jersey public school students starting with the Class of 2021. A portfolio option under supervision of the Commissioner of Education would only be available after students attempted and failed PARCC. Below is my planned May 4, 2016 testimony to the State Board of Education on the proposed regulations, explaining why, in my opinion, the regulations promulgated by the New Jersey Department of Education for approval by the State Board of Education exceed the State Board’s authority. Although my analysis is technical, I tried to write it so that it would be accessible to the general public. For your convenience, the text of the proposals and the relevant statutes are linked in the text so that you can follow the analysis yourself.
I am here today as a parent of two current New Jersey public school students – one in the class of 2023 and the other in the class of 2027, both of whom will be directly affected if you adopt the PARCC graduation regulations proposed by the Department of Education. Careerwise, I am a former teacher turned attorney. My professional life as an attorney in private practice includes ten years litigating commercial issues, including significant experience in Securities Fraud and Securities & Exchange Act Section 16(b) litigation, along with insurance coverage litigation, and litigation of breach of contract and other commercial disputes. In that capacity, I have spent a great deal of time over the past decade parsing statutes and regulations.
After carefully reviewing the proposed regulations (see p. 42 of the PDF), the statutes those regulations purport to implement (linked below), the enabling statute setting forth the New Jersey State Board of Education’s powers, and the PARCC website, it is my opinion that the proposed regulations conflict with the statutes they purport to enable, and that there is reasonable doubt as to whether the power to implement these regulations resides in the State Board of Education.
Given this conclusion, as a taxpayer, a parent, and an attorney, I implore you to vote against the proposed PARCC graduation requirement regulations. I do not want to see our state wasting taxpayer dollars in yet another lawsuit challenging the legality of the proposed regulations. For the sake of brevity, I have limited my analysis to the proposal for the Class of 2021 forward, as those are the new permanent regulations that would affect both of my children.
I reviewed New Jersey Statutes Annotated 18A:7C-1 through 7C-6.1, which set out the State’s involvement in developing and approving the Statewide assessment test; specify to whom that test must be administered; set out the conditions under which a comprehensive alternative assessment program, such as portfolio reviews, may be used to meet the testing graduation requirement; and most critically set out the Statewide levels of proficiency required as minimum standards to earn a high school diploma. Copies of the relevant statutes are attached to your copies of my remarks.
Any regulations enacted by this Board setting out the details of the proficiency tests must not, of course, conflict with any of the statutes noted above.
So what do the statutes the Board’s regulations seek to implement require? N.J.S.A. 18A:7C-1 et seq. require that the Commissioner develop a graduation exit test to be approved by this Board in order to obtain a State-endorsed high school diploma. Id. at 7C-1, 7C-2, 7C-4. The Statewide assessment test must be administered to all 11th grade students. Id. at 7C-6 and 7C-6.1. It must measure those minimum basic skills all students must possess to function politically, economically and socially in a democratic society: specifically, the test must measure the reading, writing, and computational skills students must demonstrate as minimum requirements for high school graduation. Id. at 7C-1, 7C-6.1. Further, if a student uses a comprehensive assessment option instead – i.e., the portfolio option – the student’s use of the portfolio option must be approved by the Commissioner of Education. Id. at 7C-4.
The problem is that the graduation requirements enshrined in the proposal for the Class of 2021 forward do not meet the requirements set forth in the statute.
First, the Statewide assessment test must be administered to all 11th graders. See N.J.S.A. 18A:7C-6; 7C-6.1. Under the Class of 2021 forward regulations, however, the tests that students will be required to obtain passing scores on to earn their high school diplomas, however, are the 10th grade ELA test and the Algebra I test. By definition, the 10th grade ELA test will not be administered to all 11th graders statewide.
The Algebra I test is even more problematic, as many students across the state take Algebra I (and therefore the Algebra I PARCC End-of-Course test) as early as 7th or 8th grade. It also, of course, makes no sense to tell children as young as 12 that their high school graduation depends on their performance on a test they’re taking now. Further, making obtaining a Proficient score on the End-Of-Course test for a course often taught in 7th or 8th grade a high school graduation requirement might well have the unintended consequence of discouraging districts from offering accelerated math programs to qualified students.
Second, I’ve scoured the PARCC consortium website in detail, and nowhere does it say that the PARCC ELA 10 and PARCC Algebra I tests were designed to measure whether students have achieved those minimum basic skills all students must possess to function politically, economically, and socially in a democratic society. Instead, PARCC is focused on assessing college and career readiness – a laudable goal, but a much higher standard than the minimal basic skills standard the Board is authorized to employ in approving a test to determine which public school students in the state will be denied high school diplomas. Specifically, PARCC explains on its page regarding test design that:
Key milestones included developing college-and career-ready determination policies and performance-level descriptors in ELA/literacy and math to describe: 1. What it takes for students to succeed in entry-level, college courses and relevant technical courses, and 2. The knowledge, skills, and practices students performing at a given level are able to demonstrate at any grade.
Further, the statute is clear: as far as math goes, you are tasked with only one thing: to measure computational basic skills – i.e., students’ ability to do arithmetic. See N.J.S.A. 18A:7C-1(a). The Performance Level Descriptors for Level 4 performance on the PARCC Algebra I End-of-Year test, however, require students achieving Level 4 to, for example:
- Determine equivalent forms of quadratic expressions and functions;
- Graph linear, quadratic and cubic (in which linear and quadratic factors are available) functions, showing key features; and
- Graph the solution sets of equations, linear inequalities and systems of linear equations and linear equalities.”
While those may well be appropriate expectations for an Algebra I End-of-Year course assessment, it strains credulity to state that a student who meets these requirements has done nothing more than demonstrate the basic computational skills necessary to function in a democratic society. I can tell you that in my 10 years practicing law, while I’ve used my basic computational skills many times to do preliminary damages calculations, determine amounts of prejudgment and post judgment interest, and heck, even track whether my billable hours were on target to meet my firm’s expectations, I have never – not once – needed to apply my high school algebra quadratic function graphing skills to function – pun not intended – socially, politically, or economically in our democratic society.
Finally, there is nothing in the statutes that unilaterally authorizes the Board to demand that high school students take not one, but up to 6 tests as a condition of graduation. Yet, the Class of 2021 proposal, while only requiring students to pass ELA 10 and Algebra 1, also requires students to take ELA 9, ELA 10, ELA 11, and any appropriate math PARCC tests, which could include Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II, before he or she may demonstrate competency via portfolio.
Given the serious conflicts between the school statutes pertaining to graduation enacted by our legislature and the proposed regulations promulgated by the Department, I think it is clear that your duty requires you to vote against enacting the proposed graduation requirement regulations. As a taxpayer, public school parent, and attorney, I urge you to do so, and to instead direct the Department to develop standards that harmonize with the statutes you are tasked with enforcing. If you and/or the Department think that the standard for obtaining a State-endorsed high school diploma should be raised to be a college and career readiness standard, then it is up to you and the Department to lobby our legislature to make that change.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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:
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).
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.
Guest Voices: Maatie Alcindor on NorthStar Academy
Maatie Alcindor is originally from Cambridge, Massachusetts, but has been a New Jersey resident for the past 16 years. For the past 15 years, she’s been working in the pharmaceutical industry. She is the single mother of one 20 year old son and of “Bob da Dog.” I first encountered Maatie in a local issues discussion group on Facebook, as we live in the same town. The subject of charter schools had come up, and in her posts in that group, Maatie told some of the story she tells here today. We have never actually met in person, but I was so moved by her story in the discussion group, that I messaged her to ask if she’d be willing to write her story up for wider distribution via my blog and beyond. She agreed. Below is Maatie’s story — as she tells it — about her son’s middle school experience at a NorthStar Academy charter school in Newark, New Jersey (part of the Uncommon Schools charter network):
We were residents of East Orange, NJ the spring before my only child started the 5th grade. At the time, my son was attending fourth grade at the East Orange Charter School and we loved it. Unfortunately for us East Orange Charter only went up to the 4th grade. Through the NJ State Education web page I found out that the highly touted North Star Academy (NSA) Charter School in Newark was opening a middle school in North Newark not far from my East Orange home! Soon after, some friends and I attended the prospective parents meeting for the new North Star Academy Middle School.
And that is where the trouble began. From the very first meeting I knew something was not right. I did not like the way we were spoken to but I thought to myself… give them a chance. The successive meetings did not change my initial uneasy feeling toward the administration. We were given application packets and advised that we the parents had to drop off the completed forms. If not, the application would not be accepted. It was explained to us that if we were serious about our children’s education we would make the time to submit the applications ourselves. No other people would be allowed to deliver the packets for us. Even when parents explained that due to their work schedules it would be a problem to bring in the forms, NSA said no accommodations would be made. Imagine my irritation when I arrived at the downtown Newark location to submit my application and was told to just drop it in a bin (no one was there to confirm the submission). There was no reason to force parents to take time from work to simply drop an envelope in a tray; it was just a test of our commitment to follow the schools rules.
We were told to expect 2-3 hours of homework per night and extensive homework packets during weekends and vacations. I expressed concern that the amount of work seemed a lot for an 11 year old child and left no time for other activities or family time. It was basically inferred that if I cared about my son’s future I would follow their program or find another school and watch him fail. Rules of conduct while in school were even more concerning. Throughout their day the students would get in trouble for such things as talking in the hallway, missing or incomplete homework, uniform pants not being the right shade of beige and the dreaded “not tracking the speaker with your eyes.” Yes, the children would get in trouble for not looking directly at the teacher during their lesson. Even during lunch there were more opportunities to get detention including talking too loud and talking when the principal entered the lunch room. They were expected to stop talking if the principal walked into the lunch room!!!!! Detention was usually an hour meaning that during the winter months the kids that were let out around 4:30 or 5:00 pm which left them to navigate home in the streets of Newark alone by either walking or public transportation after dark.
Though the Vice Principal came across genuine and caring; I found the Principal to be indifferent to parental concerns. The school’s Parents Council was viewed as a “social group” by the school administration and did not influence school policy in any way. The school secretary habitually did not answer the office phone and was apathetic to parents’ requests to pass information to our children. Messages for children about changes in pickups or where they were to go after school were routinely responded with “If I see ‘em I’ll tell ‘em” (a lot of times she didn’t “see ‘em”). We were expected to trust their every action without question. For example, the 5th grade class trip was to Florida Everglades. When I asked which airline they would be flying with I was repeatedly told to just drop my son off at the school and that he would be traveling to the airport with the group. When I went to the Principal directly and asked for the flight information… his reply was that I was having separation anxiety and that I had all the information that I needed to know. I did not allow my son to go on that trip. The following years the Vice Principal and some of the teachers did their best to keep me informed of trip details.
My feelings for charter schools in general are a little more ambiguous. I hated the North Star model but I think if done right there may be a place for charter schools. North Star’s main issue was lack of engagement with the community. It was a school in the community but not of the community. To be honest it felt very racist though I do not think they thought of themselves as racists. The principal took on the air of an overseer, our children were no longer our own but property of NSA to be raised by their rules of behavior. On several occasions I witnessed the surreal scenes of all white “board members” that would come to visit the school smile as the children would beat the African Style drums to call every one to morning circle. The board members seemed very pleased to watch the call and response exercise as the white Principal walked around to check the uniforms of the school’s all black and Hispanic students. Later I asked the Principal why as American citizens the children didn’t just do the Pledge of Allegiance as in any other school? I was told mockingly, that since we were African Americans, the drums represented our history. I advised him that I went to school with predominantly Irish Americans and we never started the day with Celtic music or Toe Dancing. With only one black teacher on staff at the time I wondered who gave them their ideas.
Parents and students who questioned the school’s methods were seen as discipline problems and were treated accordingly. The work load was assigned as a way to take up their free time. Parents desperate not to have their children end up in the gang infested neighborhood schools were willing to compromise their authority and hand their kids over to NSA with the promise of college dangled continuously in front of them. Those who went on to the NSA Preparatory High School found more of the same heavy handed tactics as before. Most of the male students left for other schools before making it to 12th grade.
The idea of Charter school was appealing to me. We had such a great experience his fourth grade year at East Orange Charter School and we wanted more. North Star Academy was a nightmare and a decision I will always regret. In 2009, my son was part of the first eighth grade class to graduate from North Star Academy Middle School. That fall we moved to a different town but his four years at North Star had done its damage. My son’s freshman year in high school was very hard for him. In spite of the hours upon hours of homework that he endured at North Star Academy he did not have any real study or note taking skills. North Star normally gave them their notes and study sheets but did not allow for any independent thinking. For several years he had trouble engaging in class due to North Star’s passive learning style of teaching. Where North Star allowed for him to repeatedly take the same test over and over in order for them to record the most acceptable score, he was frustrated by the fact this was not the case at his new school. My son is now in his third year of college and he is on track to graduate with his Master’s Degree in Environmental Science in two years. It is a shame that he thinks so poorly of those middle school years and usually uses an expletive to describe his experience. My feeling is mutual.
The Study Commission Recommended That Our Kids Be Stuck Testing Into Eternity: Now What?
Yesterday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in New Jersey issued its long-awaited final report. To the surprise of no one, the Governor’s minions Commission concluded that the PARCC test is wonderful, and that not only should New Jersey keep using it, we should require all high school students to take it to qualify to graduate starting with the Class of 2020, and require them to earn passing scores on the 10th grade English and Algebra I tests starting with the Class of 2021. My older daughter is in the Class of 2023 (and my younger daughter is in the Class of 2027), so this has a direct impact on my family and me. For the record, this year 36% of NJ students who took the 10th grade English Language Arts test receiving scores demonstrating that they met or exceeded expectations, and again, 36% of Algebra I test takers received scores reflecting that they’d met or exceeded expectations.
Here are the initial thoughts I shared on Facebook about the result:
Over a hundred people came out to the 3 public comment sessions. All but maybe ONE of them spoke against PARCC testing in NJ. Parents and educators everywhere — from teachers to my daughter’s recently retired building principal to our town’s superintendent — are opposed to this sham of a test. But the pre-determined outcome is in fact the actual outcome. Public comment had no impact whatsoever.
The game is rigged, and it’s our children who are losing. But this outcome can be laid solidly at Chris Christie’s door, and the national media should hold him accountable for it. After all: he appointed the “independent” study commission; he appointed New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe; and he appoints all of the members of the New Jersey State Board of Education. So the buck stops with Christie.
But on a structural level, the fact that ALL public education policy makers are ultimately accountable to one person demonstrates how broken and easily manipulated our state education policy truly is.
We the Parents, We the Taxpayers, and We the People need to step in. It is time to demand change — an amendment to the NJ state constitution, if necessary, to get elected representation on the State Board of Education. Rule making bodies like NJSBOE and NJDOE have tremendous power to interpret state education statutes however they see fit. They must be accountable to the people and not just to a governor dreaming of the White House.
In NJ, our local school boards have abdicated policy making responsibility saying that they’re hamstrung by state mandates. And those state mandates come from entities that are all accountable only to our governor. Structural change is necessary if we want to preserve public education for our children and the future.
And here are my expanded thoughts (very expanded, I’m sorry, I’m a lawyer, I’m nerdy, and since I was reading through the enabling legislation myself for my own edification, I figured that at least a few of you policy nerds might want to follow along at home as well. For the rest of you, don’t say I didn’t warn you…) about where we go from here. I think I will do a separate post looking at the actual report itself to see if it measures up to the Common Core standards PARCC claims to measure. Look for that tonight or tomorrow. In the meantime, here goes…
A Brief Digression on the Death of Local Control
Wednesday night I plan to attend my local district’s Board of Education meeting. For me, at least, the hot topic will be school tours, which are a big deal for parents of incoming kindergarteners and incoming middle schoolers in our all-magnet suburban school system.
Last weekend, a local micro-news blog created a brouhaha when it reported a scuffle between the district PTA council president and the superintendent over whether the district had decided to replace school tours with online videos. For a whole lot of reasons, I think school tours are important, so Wednesday night I plan to attend our local Board of Education’s next meeting to express my opinion during public comment.
Why does this matter? What is unusual about this vignette is how rare it is for our local Board of Education to actually have the authority to set policy about a school-related issue, so for once my comment might actually make a difference. The only reason our local board has sole authority over this issue is that this is such a unique local issue that Trenton has not bothered to dictate tour procedures to our town. But on virtually every other topic these days, most New Jersey education policy decisions emanate from Trenton, where the New Jersey Department of Education and the New Jersey State Board of Education issue implementing regulations for state education statutes, and issue policy guidance and bulletins to New Jersey school districts.
New Jersey’s Code of Ethics for School Board Members Demonstrates State Usurpation of Local Control
New Jersey’s Code of Ethics for School Board Members, N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(a), requires local school board members to make this pledge even before they pledge to look out for the educational welfare of children:
“I will uphold and enforce all laws, rules and regulations of the State Board of Education, and court orders pertaining to schools. Desired changes shall be brought about only through legal and ethical procedures.”
Although the local tide has turned and our local BOE seems slightly more independent now, for the past few years, our local school board interpreted this pledge as requiring it to slavishly follow Trenton’s mandates, regardless of whether the local board of education thought that such mandates might be harming our children. Whether deliberately or not, they seemed to ignore the second sentence of that pledge, and nobody but nobody was willing to utter a peep against Trenton. Especially given that the Christie administration decided to ignore the legislatively enacted state aid funding formula (“SFRA”), I think they were all terrified to open their mouths and bring the wrath of Trenton down upon them in dollars of aid magically not allotted to our district.
So for the first couple of years in which I attended local Board of Education meetings, when the public spoke out – and speak out it did – about the harm that many of these state mandates were doing to children, our local BOE copped out by saying that these were decisions made in Trenton, and its hands were tied. I urged it to take action to influence and change state policy, but was largely ignored, presumably as a naive gadfly, which I undoubtedly am.
From my talks with friends, colleagues, and fellow activists throughout the state, my understanding is that Montclair’s school board was far from alone in taking this position. This 2001 Code of Ethics for School Board Members seems to have served to hamstring many local school boards, depriving them of local control on any and all topics on which the State Board of Education and/or the New Jersey Department of Education have decided to opine. The ethics rule, which sounds reasonable on the surface, has functioned to make our school boards little more than powerless rubber stamps for whatever state policies the NJDOE and the NJ State Board of Education decide to impose on New Jersey’s public school children.
NJ’s State-Level Policy Makers
So the real questions are – who are the members of the State Board of Education, and how does our Commissioner of Education get appointed? Those are the true power brokers of education policy in the state, so let’s figure out how they get into office. Here’s the answer:
The members of the NJ State Board of Education are appointed by the governor – currently, Governor Chris Christie, of course. This is mandated by the New Jersey State Constitution of 1947 at Article 5, Section 4, Paragraph 4, which reads:
“Whenever a board, commission or other body shall be the head of a principal department, the members thereof shall be nominated and appointed by the Governor with the advice and consent of the Senate, and may be removed in the manner provided by law. [irrelevant for our purposes section about the Lieutenant Governor’s appointment process] Such a board, commission or other body may appoint a principal executive officer when authorized by law, but the appointment shall be subject to the approval of the Governor. Any principal executive officer so appointed shall be removable by the Governor, upon notice and an opportunity to be heard.”
N.J.S.A. 18A:4-4 implements this constitutional requirement in the statute setting out how the New Jersey State Board of Education is chosen. It reads, in relevant part:
“The members of the state board shall be appointed by the governor, by and with the advice and consent of the senate, for terms of six years commencing on July 1.”
What this tells us is that by now, given that we are in the seventh year of Governor Christie’s tenure, all of the New Jersey State Board of Education members were appointed, re-appointed or allowed to continue in office by Gov. Christie, and are beholden to him – and only to him – for their positions.
N.J.S.A. 18A:4-1 confirms that Art. 5, Sec. 4, Para. 4 of the Constitution applies to the state department of education, and that therefore the provisions about the appointment of a principal executive officer apply. It reads:
“The state department of education is hereby continued as a principal department in the executive branch of the state government, and it shall consist of a state board of education, which shall be head of the department, a commissioner of education, and such divisions, bureaus, branches, committees, officers and employees as are specifically referred to in this title and as may be constituted or employed by virtue of the authority conferred by this title and by any other law.”
So again – who is responsible for appointing not just the members of the State Board of Education, but also the Commissioner of the Board of Education? Chris Christie’s State Board of Education, subject to the governor’s approval, of course. In fact, Dave Hespe can be removed by Chris Christie whenever Christie feels like it, so long as he gives his buddy Dave notice of his removal and an opportunity to plead his case first.
The long and the short of it is – New Jersey’s governor has a LOT of power over state education policy, especially since the 2001 local school board code of ethics hamstrung any local Board of Ed members who wanted to push back hard against asinine state mandates. I have no idea of the backstory that led to the 2001 ethics law, but I do find it curious that the timing coincides with the federal government centralizing some control over education policy through the 2001 No Child Left Behind law.
Now, the legislature can, of course, override the State Board of Education by passing legislation abrogating Department guidance and/or Board-issued regulations. However, to do so, it must pass such legislation through both houses of the legislature and, of course, get those bills signed by… you guessed it… the Governor. And, of course, the implementing regulations for any such legislation passed by the legislature will be created and approved by… you guessed it… the State Board of Education. So any way you parse it, the NJ governor has enormous control over what happens in our public schools, and among other negatives to this lack of checks and balances is the fact that governors with different policy prescriptions can wildly swing education policy from one election to the next.
The Study Commission
Yesterday, as I mentioned at the top, the Governor’s “independent” Study Commission released its report on state testing in New Jersey, which concluded, unsurprisingly, despite around 200 in person or emailed public comments in opposition and virtually none in support, that the PARCC is super awesome. But, of course, it’s absurd on its face to think that a Study Commission appointed by the same governor who is responsible for appointing the State Board of Education and the State Commissioner of Education would reach a different conclusion than whatever the governor’s office (or his presidential campaign) wanted it to reach. All three of these entities are answerable only to Chris Christie, and as newspapers have reported throughout Governor Christie’s tenure, he is not hesitant to bully those who disagree with him into submission. And when those who disagree with him are people he thinks should be loyal to him, the gloves truly come off.
So the Study Commission’s conclusion:
“However, one point must be abundantly clear: the Study Commission firmly believes all students in New Jersey’s public schools who are eligible should be required to take the State standardized assessment (i.e., PARCC). Doing so will ensure all students are progressing well in their educational endeavors and all public schools are effective for all students. High-quality assessments such as PARCC will hold schools accountable for serving all of their students, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Study Commission believes it will be impossible to effectively close achievement gaps between and among students without accurate and actionable information”
was pre-ordained. Ironically, the Study Commission’s entire report would earn a big fat F under the Common Core Standards if it were graded according to PARCC scoring rubrics. The reason for this, of course, is that paragraphs like the one I just quoted cite to absolutely no evidence to support their conclusions.
Where Do We Go From Here?
One of my takeaways from this sham of a process (and don’t even get me started on the Common Core Review Commission, which also issued recommendations yesterday, and which was, perhaps, even worse in terms of process, if that’s even possible) is that there is way too much power over education policy consolidated in the hands of one person in this state: our Governor.
There is no question that Governor Christie’s minions appointees on the State Board of Education and at NJDOE will gleefully embrace the Study Commission recommendations, and that so long as this governor or a successor who shares his education policy prescriptions remains in office, the people will have little to no ability to shape more student-friendly education policy.
It seems to me that from an education policymaking process standpoint, there are two takeaways to move New Jersey education policy in a productive direction:
(1) We need to amend the New Jersey State Constitution so that at least some of the members of the State Board of Education are elected officials, accountable directly to voters rather than to the Governor. The governor’s control over the rule making process is way too all-encompassing, and at least some elected State Board of Education members would provide needed checks and balances for educational policy making in New Jersey. Especially now, when the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (“ESEA reauthorization”; i.e., No Child Left Behind’s replacement) has moved a great deal of education policy making authority from the federal government back to the states, we need to ensure that state level education policy cannot be so easily held captive by special interest groups who’ve courted the governor, but no one else.
(2) We need to introduce and pass legislation that makes it explicitly ethical for local Board of Education members to push back against state mandates that harm students. It seems to me Paragraph (b) of the Code Ethics should be strengthened and replace Paragraph (a) as the first duty of local school board members. Paragraph (b) currently reads:
“I will make decisions in terms of the educational welfare of children and will seek to develop and maintain public schools that meet the individual needs of all children regardless of their ability, race, creed, sex, or social standing.”
Our kids deserve local leaders with the authority to actually put the children’s best interests first. As the Study Commision report hammers home, this administration can never be trusted to do that.
Who’s with me?
Updated to Add (1/13/2016): Apparently New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe agrees with me. Here he is, quoted in yesterday’s Star Ledger:
New Jersey, let’s take our cue from New Jersey Education Commissioner and make a really good change to the New Jersey State Constitution. It is time for We the People to reclaim our power over our children’s futures, instead of leaving that power consolidated in the hands of the New Jersey governor, currently Chris Christie; the unelected New Jersey State Board of Education, each of whom owes his current tenure in the job to Chris Christie; and Christie appointee, New Jersey Education Commission David Hespe.
Those Terrifying Teachers
- 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 Audible.com 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 Common Core’s Scalia-esque “Originalism”
As you are no doubt aware if you are an education policy geek like me and/or even a mild political junkie, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, in his efforts to pander to the Republican base that will never nominate him for President anyway, announced a few months back that he was instituting a “review” of the Common Core State Standards here in New Jersey. I’ve shared my thoughts about the process issues associated with that review in the companion piece to this one. The short version is that this past Thursday night, September 17, 2015, Governor Christie’s Common Core Review Farce Commission held the first of three public meetings to solicit feedback from the public about the standards. Please note that each speaker was allotted a whopping 3 — count ’em, yes, 1, 2, 3 — minutes to provide feedback about the whole of the Common Core standards.
So, for what it’s worth, here is my 3 minute critique of the Common Core ELA standards:
I am here to discuss two major flaws in the ELA standards: (1) their insistence on privileging “close reading” and use of “textual evidence” over reading texts as products of their broader historical, social, and political contexts, and (2) their insistence on ignoring the reader’s experience as a participant in making meaning of texts.
First, as a lawyer, I had to learn multiple approaches to analyzing the Constitution. There is originalism a la Justice Scalia, in which judges purport to divine the original intent of the framers of the Constitution and then apply that intent to analyses of statutes and fact patterns. This is akin to the Common Core’s approach: for example, a high school ELA standard reads: “Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.” See CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5. This is one approach to literary analysis.
The problem, however, is that like Justice Scalia, the ELA standards rely on only this one party trick, this one way of analyzing, interpreting, and making meaning of texts. The ELA standards end their analysis at the author’s choices and author’s intent. The standards ignore the idea that it is possible — and, indeed, sometimes critical, to analyze how understanding of a text has changed as society has changed.
For instance, between 1898 and 1954, the text of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution did not change. However, the Plessy v. Ferguson court interpreted that text to condone “separate but equal” while 56 years later the Brown vs. Board of Education court interpreted that very same text as prohibiting “separate but equal.” The words did not change: society did. No ELA standard requires students to grapple with the impact of social conditions on understanding texts.
Second, the ELA standards suffer from not capitalizing on teenage self-absorption. Reader response theory is the theory that a text’s meaning arises in the transactions between readers and texts. For instance, the students I taught in western Maine made sense of The Great Gatsby very differently than did my wealthy, suburban peers back at my high school in Short Hills, NJ. Both offered valuable perspectives that deepened my understanding of the text.
In discussing the ELA standards, David Coleman famously said: “…as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think.” It is heartbreaking that his philosophy permeates the standards. In truth, each human being makes meaning out of the texts she encounters. Our standards should reflect this truth, and indeed, literature classes built around this truth help our teens to move from self-absorption to empathy, a net gain for our democracy.
As you review the ELA standards, I implore you to fundamentally re-imagine the standards so that context and reader response theory are once again offered as meaningful analytical frameworks. Justice Scalia’s originalism adds an important layer of insight to Constitutional analysis, but his approach is not — nor should it be — the only one available to lawyers and judges. Similarly, English teachers across New Jersey need standards that allow them the freedom to offer their students multiple analytical lenses. Our children deserve no less.
P.S. For more insight on this topic, please read Seton Hall education professor Daniel Katz’s essay titled “Dear Common Core English Standards: Can We Talk?”
Refuse Early So Teachers Can Teach
I know this is shocking elsewhere in the country, but here in New Jersey, we just finished our second week of school. As the school year begins, I’m reflecting on what this year’s goals for my pro-public education advocacy should be. I know this much: my first goal is to engage, encourage, and support parents to not just refuse standardized tests like PARCC, but to refuse early and supportively (rather than confrontationally). In particular, I think we can best support our teachers, our children, and our schools by refusing early enough in the year to empower our children’s teachers to build curriculum and lesson plans around children’s needs rather than around the dictates of the testing industry.
To that end, I encourage you to submit your refusal letters early, as this strategy will only work if there are mass refusals. I sent mine yesterday, as one concrete action I could take to support the #ParentStrike movement across the country. Here is my letter, which you should feel free to copy and modify to fit your needs:
I am Sarah Blaine, the mother of _________ in Mrs. ________’s homeroom. I write to let you know that in accordance with Montclair Board of Education policy regarding test refusals, _________ will not be taking the PARCC test in 2016. I write now, at the beginning of the academic year, with the hope that enough of my fellow parents will do the same so that you, my child’s teachers, will hopefully not feel constrained to teach to the PARCC or any other standardized test. Instead, my hope is that a high number of early refusals will allow you to feel free to use your professional judgment to provide our children with the most developmentally appropriate and engaging lessons you have the power to create, instead of wasting time preparing for educationally irrelevant state-mandated tests.
__________ is thrilled so far with both of you, and I look forward to a constructive, engaging, and challenging school year for her. Please know that I am always open to conversation and suggestions as to how to best support __________’s learning both inside and outside of the classroom. Our family has not made this decision to refuse testing lightly, but rather as an attempt to express our support for a public education system in which teachers will once again be treated as the knowledgeable professionals we know that they are (I am a former public school teacher myself, and earned my M.A.T. before I began teaching in a rural community).
I am, of course, happy to speak with you further about this issue, but I trust that my wishes for ____________ will be respected, and that she will of course be, in accordance with district policy, provided with non-punitive alternatives.