The Great Smarties Candies Refocusing Strategy

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

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


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

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

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

Our district’s PARCC parental refusal policy.

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

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

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

Dear Ms. B and Ms. E:

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

Best regards,

Sarah Blaine

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

Boy was I wrong.

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

Dear Dr. A:

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

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

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

Best regards,

Sarah Blaine

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

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

Good afternoon Ms. Blaine,

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

Thank you very much and have  a great day.

Yours in learning,

Mrs. E & Miss B

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

R E F O C U S I N G   S T R A T E G Y

R E F O C U S I N G   S T R A T E G Y

R E F O C U S I N G   S T R A T E G Y

R E F O C U S I N G   S T R A T E G Y

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But wait… there’s more.

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

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

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

You must be out of your Goddamn mind if you think

The President is gonna bring the nation to the brink

Of meddling in the middle of a military mess

A game of chess, where France is Queen and Kingless

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

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

This parent will buy for a second with a wink

That the Smarties candies distribution

As a “refocusing strategy” is a  reasonable solution

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Mr. B:

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

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

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

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

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

Best regards,

Sarah Blaine

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

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

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

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

Dear Dr. A:

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

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

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

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

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

Best regards,

Sarah Blaine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smarties Nutrition and Ingredients Label. First Ingredient = Dextrose.

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


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

Candy as a Refocusing Strategy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She agreed that this could, hypothetically, happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Common Core’s Scalia-esque “Originalism”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

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

Chris Christie Has A Bridge To Sell Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 Year Old Takes Down PARCC at Local Board of Education Meeting

Updated and with Backstory Below, 12/16/2014:

The public portion of our local school board meeting ran from 7:40 p.m. until 12:40 a.m. last night.  Included on the agenda was a first reading of a policy (a copy is attached below) to require the district to provide educationally appropriate and non-punitive alternatives for kids whose parents refuse to allow them to take the PARCC tests.  The policy will not be voted on until the next meeting, which is not until January 26, 2015.   My 10 year old 4th grader attended the meeting with me, and was the first speaker when public comment began around 9:45 p.m.  (She waited patiently and listened intently to a good chunk of the prior two hours of the meeting — and when she got bored, she read her book.)

Please watch the VIDEO of her describing her experience with PARCC preparation.  She speaks for herself quite eloquently, if I do say so myself!

10 Year Old Takes Down PARCC (in case the embedded video doesn’t work, here’s a link to a YouTube version).

A few thoughts today.

1.  I want to thank our local micronews blog, Baristanet, for promptly covering last night’s meeting, with its article comprehensively describing the Board meeting live on its site by this morning.  I’m glad that there was real — and relatively real-time — press coverage of last night’s meeting.  We can’t be an informed community without reliable journalists to report the news.  The Montclair Times and The Alternative Press -Montclair  have now filed stories as well. I am really hopeful that given this prompt response last month’s lack of full coverage was an aberration. Thank you to our local press — your job is critical.

2.  This morning Elizabeth’s story appeared on Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post education blog, The Answer Sheet.  I want to give Valerie the credit she deserves for this piece.  In early November, we took a family trip to Washington, D.C.  As some regular readers of this blog know, Valerie, who is a super-hero in the movement to push back against the current so-called “education reform” movement, published my second blog post ever — and a bunch of my blog posts since that time — on The Answer Sheet.  Coincidentally, it turned out that The Washington Post was on the route from our DC hotel to our nearest Metro stop.  I sent Valerie an email saying that it was a thrill to see the HQ of the newspaper that had published some of my work, and she graciously offered to give us a tour of the newsroom.  She came in on a Sunday and met us to give us our tour (my youngest adores her because she suckered Valerie into letting her abscond with a pink flamingo ornament from Valerie’s desk) and, as you can imagine, we talked education, teaching, policy, and politics.

Elizabeth was an active participant in that conversation.  I think Valerie was blown away when, after she’d told a story about using her role as a journalist to expose an inequitable situation faced by a boy with a physical disability in the DC schools, Elizabeth asked, “Do you think that the DC or the Philadelphia schools are worse these days?”  So Valerie encouraged Elizabeth to write about PARCC and PARCC test prep from a student’s perspective.  On our way home, Elizabeth was composing the first paragraph of what eventually became last night’s public comment to the Board.  She’s been working on it on and off ever since.  But when we learned this weekend that the Board had placed the PARCC parental refusal on its agenda, Elizabeth buckled down and finished the last bits of her piece.  My involvement was to add the explanatory note that appears in the WaPo piece, to fix about 3 typos, and to give Elizabeth a brief mini-lesson on embedded quotation marks.

After she finished, she read it aloud a few times, and we timed her and discussed some tips for public speaking.  I honestly wasn’t sure whether she would actually speak or not until she went up there.  And I couldn’t be prouder of my kid!  I think that last night demonstrated, far more comprehensively and concretely than any standardized test possible could, that Elizabeth is on track for college, career, and, most importantly, active and thoughtful participation in civic life.  I cannot begin to thank her teachers enough for their role in helping her to grow into the amazing little girl she is and continues to become.  I don’t need a standardized test to tell me that they’re doing wonderful work — but I can and will continue to do what’s within my power to ensure that they can do their work as unfettered as possible by mandates from those, such as Arne Duncan, David Hespe, and Penny MacCormack, with little or no classroom teaching experience.

Reading Log Revolt

Parents and teachers of elementary school aged students, I have a confession to make:

I loathe the reading logs my daughter brings home.

So, just to be clear, the reading logs that return from my house, faithfully filled out each week or month — those reading logs are big fat lies.

My older daughter is now in fourth grade. Each year since kindergarten, she’s brought home some version of the nightly “reading log.” Depending on the year and teacher, it’s been as simple as writing down the name, the book, and the number of minutes read (initialed or signed by a parent, of course), or it’s been as involved as a reading response journal that requires her to summarize, or pick out key details, or connect the text to her own life, and to record the number of pages read, time spent reading, etc.

But each reading log comes with one universal expectation: every single night, there’s some minimum requirement for reading (i.e., number of pages read, or amount of time spent reading). And on a nightly basis, that reading must be tracked.

My older daughter (unlike my little one) started kindergarten as a fluent reader, who had already moved on to reading simple chapter books (Magic Tree House, Beverly Cleary, etc.). More importantly, she started kindergarten as a lover of books. My biggest concern (and oh-how-I-wish-my-mom-was-here-to-laugh-as-I-finally-emphathized-with-her-experience-with-me) was how to pry her away from books. But within weeks, the reading log began to change all of that: “Mom, am I done with my fifteen minutes yet?” “Mom, why do I have to write this?” “Mom, I don’t know what to say.” And worst of all: “Do I HAVE TO read?” This, from my voracious reader. This, when previously my bigger concern had been prying books out of her hands: “Stop reading! Go outside and play with your friends!”

Something had to be done. I was watching my daughter’s joy in reading disappear before my eyes. So I made a deal with her: as long as she continued to read voluntarily on her own, I’d stop timing her, stop nagging her, and just sign whatever she brought me for a reading log as long as it looked vaguely reasonable (and honestly, even if it did not). Despite my general emphasis as a parent on honesty, I discovered that I didn’t care in the least if the reading log was accurate or not, because I knew that she was doing far more reading — with far more joy — on her own than the reading log required. Accurate logging was sucking the joy out of reading. It was like my billable hours requirement. For first graders. As a lawyer, tracking my time at work is a necessary evil. But I’m in my forties. My daughter is nine.

And for five years now, that’s how it’s worked in my house.

But there’s always a tension. Now teachers require the kids to write down which pages they read each night. Teachers, my kid doesn’t want to constantly track, track, track. And my kid doesn’t want to constantly be tracked, tracked, tracked.  My kid wants to escape into the world of fiction, where time loses its meaning as she inhabits its characters. My kid wants to read last thing in bed at night, and first thing when she wakes up in the morning, and in the bathtub. She wants to bring her “emergency pack” of books to her little sister’s family picnic for school, and she doesn’t complain when she doesn’t see the iPad for weeks on end, because she has her books.

And I fully believe that part of the reason she still wants to do those things in fourth grade is because I long since agreed that her reading log could be a work of fiction. But I hate lying, and I hate undermining your authority, and I’m wondering if maybe, perhaps, this can be the year that I come clean and we can make a deal: stop requiring the reading log, so I can stop lying on the reading log. But if not, be assured: this is the one and only aspect of my life in which my signature on that reading log my daughter faithfully brings back to you each month is not worth the paper it’s written on. And my daughter is learning a lesson from that — that sometimes, when the system is stupid and counterproductive, the greater good makes it okay to lie and game the system. I don’t like that lesson, but we’ve talked about it, and in this case, I think it’s worth the trade off.

So, for now, the joy my daughter continues to take in the printed page far outweighs the momentary discomfort it causes me to sign — and certify — as true, a reading log that is generally a patchwork of guesses, at best. Because I love my kid.  But wouldn’t it be better if we simply refused to make reading a chore?

I’ll trade lying on reading logs for photos like this any day.