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.

Awesome.

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:

https://parentingthecore.files.wordpress.com/2016/04/smarties_video.mp4

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.

Civics Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Brief Digression on the Death of Local Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NJ’s State-Level Policy Makers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Study Commission 

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

So the Study Commission’s conclusion:

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

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

Where Do We Go From Here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s with me?

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

image

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.

A Call To Action For East Ramapo, NY

Friends, fellow activists, especially my fellow Jews, this post is to bring your attention to what has been happening in East Ramapo, NY (Rockland County) for the past number of years, as the Haredi community has taken over the local school board, and systematically deprived the public school students of the East Ramapo School District, most of whom are poor and minority, of even a remotely acceptable public education.  
 
For background on the issue, please read this New York Magazine article, or listen to this episode of This American Life.  You can find many resources on the issues, as well as a CALL TO ACTION at http://www.strongeastramapo.org.  Recently, Meryl Tisch (NY Regents) and David Sciarra (Education Law Center) joined the call for the New York Legislature to pass a bill establishing state monitoring of the East Ramapo district to put an end to these abuses with an Op-Ed in The New York Times.
 
The East Ramapo school board has accused its critics of anti-Semitism, which is part of why I think it’s particularly important for the Jewish community to speak out against its abuses of the gentile students who attend its public schools.  Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin made a strong start with his piece and Rabbi Ari Hart with his. 
 
Specifically, at the moment the major issue is the bill that just passed the NY Assembly today to establish long-term state monitoring over the East Ramapo school district.  The NY Senate is being resistant to posting this bill for a vote, and the legislative session comes to an end this coming WEDNESDAY, JUNE 17TH.  
 
Today I spoke with Rabbi Adam Baldachin of Rockland Clergy for Social Justice.  They are in all-hands-on-deck mode looking for all of the media coverage and additional support from civil rights groups, Jewish groups, and any other groups that will sign on in support of this bill.  Please consider lending your support to this bill, and to stand up for American and Jewish values even when it is some of our fellow Jews who are doing the oppressing.  We must make sure that our own house is in order, and as Rabbi Salkin states, what is happening in East Ramapo is a shonda.  
 
Thank you for your time, attention, and help spreading the word and pressuring the New York State Senate to pass this bill.  Below is the list of groups that have already signed on to support the legislation:
 
JUNE 9, 2015
 
IN SUPPORT OF A. 5355 S. 3821 FOR EAST RAMAPO OVERSIGHT LEGISLATION
 
RELIGIOUS AND CIVIL RIGHTS ORGANIZATIONS
 
 
 
Alliance for Quality Education
 
American Jewish Committee
 
Anti-Defamation League (ADL)
 
Bend the Arc, Jewish Social Partnership for Justice
 
Editorial Board Journal News
 
JALSA-the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action
 
Jewish Labor Committee
 
Jews for Racial and Economic Justice
 
New York City Bar Association
 
New York Civil Liberties Union
 
New York State Conference NAACP
 
Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
 
Reform Jewish Voice of New York
 
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
 
Rockland Business Association
 
Rockland Clergy for Social Justice
 
Rockland County Executive
 
Rockland County Legislature
 
Rockland County School Boards Association
 
Rockland Board of Rabbis
 
Uri L’Tzedek Orthodox for Social Justice

Thank you for standing up for this community.  This is why we are a democratic republic.  We need checks and balances to make sure that a local majority — of any race, religion, ethnicity, or creed — does not trample on the rights of the minorities in its midst.  As an education activist, as a Jew, as an American, and as a human being, I thank you for your support.

Testing and the Re-Segregation of Public Ed

Today, I was part of a full house at the New Jersey Senate Education Committee as it considered bills and a resolution relating to the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career) tests.  Along with many other grassroots parent activists, I am frustrated by the Senate Committee Chair’s unwillingness to set down all of the much stronger PARCC bills passed by the New Jersey State Assembly for a vote in her committee.  Rather, only one of the four bills, prohibiting PARCC-style testing for grades K-2, was set down for a vote by her Committee.  Senator Ruiz also offered a substantially watered down replacement bill for the Assembly bill to notify parents of standardized testing.  Senator Ruiz’s version of the bill, for example, fails to require that parents be notified of information as basic as what use local districts will make of standardized tests administered to their children (e.g., will the tests factor into student placement into gifted and talent programs or remedial education, etc.).  

So instead, I focused my efforts on the two bills introduced by my terrific local state senator, Senator Nia Gill.  Senator Gill introduced two bills: one to require local districts to publish their PARCC opt-out numbers within 10 days of completing test administration, and the other to explicitly prohibit New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe from withholding state aid from districts with high PARCC refusal rates.  

The text of my full testimony is below.  In it, I address the elephant in the room: the use of standardized test scores as a proxy to encourage resegregation of school districts by class and, to the extent that class and race are unfortunately still correlated in this country, race.

My testimony:

My name is Sarah Blaine.  I am here today to in particular support Senator Nia Gill’s bills, S2884 and S2881.  No one is paying me to be here today: in fact, I took a day off work to attend this hearing.  I have two children, a kindergartener and a fourth grader, in the Montclair Public Schools. Both of them only get one shot at their educations.

When I saw changes in my older daughter’s curriculum as a result of Common Core, I sat down to read the standards.  I’m an attorney now, but before law school I taught high school English.  Given that I would have loved some standards (or, heck, books) as a new teacher in a rural community with few resources, I started out on the assumption that national standards were probably a good idea.

But then I watched what was happening in my daughter’s classroom change.  As PARCC loomed, homework became more test-prep focused, with multiple choice questions and written paragraphs that had to follow strict formulas.  I learned that my older daughter’s school had reduced the number of elective periods.  Social studies education virtually disappeared.  Science became reading the textbook and filling in blanks, instead of labs and hands on experimentation.  My 4th grader has not had a single field trip this year — and as far as I know, none are scheduled.  I realized that I was seeing a predictable result of high-stakes testing in action: my daughter’s school was narrowing the curriculum to increase the time available for test prep. 

In Montclair, as across the country, test scores are closely correlated with the socio-economics of the populations tested. Although Montclair is consistently characterized in the press as “affluent,” according to NJDOE statistics, over 20% of our total school population is economically disadvantaged. Montclair has two NCLB focus schools not because those schools are lousy — they’re not — but because we are one of the few NJ towns with an economically and racially diverse enough school population to demonstrate an achievement gap.  This has driven an increased emphasis on test prep, which benefits no one.

Last December my spunky 4th grader testified directly to our Board about why “PARCC stinks” based on how test-prep was taking over her classroom.  I can tell you this much: after that speech, which went viral and led to her live appearance on national television, I have no doubt, without any need for PARCC results, that when the time comes my child will be college and career ready. Of course, I already knew that: her parents’ advanced degrees, race, and socio-economic status make that a virtual certainty. If you policymakers want more children to succeed, you need to spend your time implementing equitable economic and housing policies to ensure that all citizens have the chance to join a robust and secure middle class.  

The Montclair Public Schools administration worked hard to implement — and, indeed, cheerlead for — PARCC.  However, locally I wasn’t alone in my concerns about the effect that PARCC was having on our schools: more than 42% of Montclair children refused PARCC.  However, we Montclair taxpayers were not even able to obtain that statistic from the school district without a fight.  That is why I support Senator Gill’s bill to ensure that taxpayers are afforded access to the testing numbers.

Recently, Education Commissioner Hespe — and Governor Christie — began explicitly threatening to withhold state funding from school districts with high PARCC refusal rates.  That threat is unacceptable, as the school district has no way to compel me or any other parent to allow our children to sit for these tests.  To be clear, I don’t say no because my child is anxious or scared. 

Rather, I say no to PARCC because I see, as a parent, the destructive effect that annual testing and high-stakes uses of annual results are having on the quality of education offered in our state’s traditionally high-quality public schools.  I see that aggregate test scores are used — be it by real estate agents or home buyers — as proxies for socio-economic status, with the effect of further re-segregating our communities.  I see it, and I get it, because I, too, looked at those test scores and school rankings when we were choosing the New Jersey community in which we wanted to raise our children.  But then I realized that I didn’t want my children growing up in the same narrow bubble that characterized my childhood in Short Hills — and instead of moving to the town with the highest test scores, we moved to Montclair.

If more New Jersey towns were integrated like Montclair, all of our children would learn a little more compassion, a little more wisdom, a little more humility, a little more sense of what’s possible, a little less fear of those not like them, and a little more awareness of how the accidents of birth can and do affect children’s futures.  But politically, that will never fly, so you continue to test children and communities into submission, instead of choosing the tough — and admittedly expensive — policies that might actually work.  Then, when parents like me say no, Commissioner Hespe tries to threaten us into submission.  And so I support Senator Gill’s bill to prevent Commissioner Hespe from withholding funds from districts like Montclair, where the parents have had the courage to say no to the destructive effects of high-stakes annual tests.

I ask you to support these bills because democracy cannot function effectively if it is predicated on failure to inform the citizenry of what is happening in our public schools.  I ask you to support these bills because democracy cannot function effectively if it is predicated on empty threats from state-level bureaucrats meant to intimidate parents and communities.  Our children deserve better.  Thank you.

David Hespe & The Immersive Logic of Test Prep

Studying for the bar exam requires stepping into a bizarre alternate reality. After three years of law school, my classmates and I celebrated our graduation and pretty much immediately began our bar studies.

I began with the PMBR prep course. The PMBR course is a supplemental bar course that focuses specifically on test taking strategies — and, to a lesser extent, content — for the Multi-state Bar Exam (“MBE”). All states other than Louisiana require aspiring attorneys to take the MBE, in which you have 3 hours in the morning and another 3 hours in the afternoon to answer 200 multiple choice questions. The questions are tricky, confusingly worded, and have multiple right answers: your job is to figure out which answer the test makers think is the “best” right answer. Depending on your state, your MBE score is somewhere around half of your total bar exam grade. The bar exam is high stakes: no one wants to risk failing the bar exam.

To be honest, ten years later I can’t remember whether I took PMBR’s 3 day course or its 7 day course. What I do remember is this: on the first day of the course, they gave us a sample MBE exam. After a lifetime of acing standardized multiple-choice achievement tests, I got maybe — maybe — a third of the sample PMBR MBE questions correct. Now, that might have been slick marketing strategy to convince me that the course was worth my new law firm’s money, but my take is that it was legit: I did poorly because I hadn’t yet immersed myself in the MBE’s bizarre logic.

The test prep worked. After a week of PMBR, I was scoring significantly better. I don’t recall details, but I do recall hours of analyzing individual exam questions, discussions of strategies for identifying and discarding tricky wrong answer choices, and of immersing my brain in the test maker’s logic. After PMBR ended, BAR/BRI (the comprehensive bar preparation course) began. For BAR/BRI, we packed into a large lecture hall to watch videotaped cram lectures in the bar subjects in the mornings (I still recall Seton Hall professor Paula Franzese’s Property songs, and especially her promise that when the bar exam was over, there would be ponies). In the afternoon, I sat in my house or my local library reducing my morning notes into easily memorized flashcards for cramming “black letter law” into my head.

When I couldn’t take it anymore, I picked up my then eight or nine month old from day care and played with her for awhile (yes, my first child was born in the fall semester of my third year of law school; in case you’re wondering, I graduated with high honors). Then I’d spend my evening studying more. About halfway through the BAR/BRI course, BAR/BRI had us spend a day taking a practice MBE. Because of my responsibilities as a mom, I’d been front loading my studies, and unlike many of my peers, I discovered at that point that I’d successfully immersed myself in the test-makers’ multiple-choice logic. As a result, I kicked the practice exam’s butt, and felt that I could focus the rest of my bar prep focused on the essay writing, with only a bit of continued MBE practice to keep my head in the game.

Bar exam essay writing was, again, its own unique genre. We were highly encouraged to write strictly according to the IRAC formula, in which we started with an Issue (e.g., “An Issue raised by this fact pattern is whether Fred is guilty of involuntary manslaughter”), then set out the Rule (“The elements of involuntary manslaughter are…”), then Analyzed the facts presented (“Fred’s actions meet the first element of involuntary manslaughter, because he…; Fred’s actions meet the second element of involuntary manslaughter, because he…”), and then stated our Conclusion (“Because Fred’s actions satisfy each of the four elements of involuntary manslaughter, he will be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter”). Bar exam essay writing makes for some scintillating prose.

When the bar exam arrived, my reaction was “Bring it on!” And four months later, I was gratified to learn that I’d passed. But the bar exam was a bizarrely arbitrary rite of passage. It was strange to realize that after three years of law school, I was unprepared to pass my chosen profession’s licensing exam without two months of intensive commercial test preparation. It was also strange to spend so much time learning “black letter law” (i.e., specific “rules” of law that would lead us to a particular correct answer). Even for the essays, analysis must lead you to a “correct” answer. This has nothing to do with the reality of legal practice, but it makes perfect sense to bar examiners because formulaic essays are far easier to grade. The same is even more true of the bar exam’s multiple-choice questions. Never mind that as a practicing lawyer your job is to see nuance, and to craft the best arguments you can (within the limits of your ethical responsibilities, of course) to support your client’s position. In ten years of practice, I’ve written a lot of briefs, but no judge has given me a multiple-choice test.

Compared to the bar exam, law school exams are a far closer approximation of what practicing attorneys actually do out in the real world. Many are open book, and whether open or closed book, the point of professor-written law school exams is to demonstrate that you’ve learned how to “think like a lawyer,” that is, that you’ve learned to apply legal principles to analyze and dissect the nuances presented by complex fact patterns. A typical law school issue spotter will say something like, “Read the following fact pattern [anywhere from a couple of paragraphs to a page or two]. Identify the legal issues.” And then you’ll discuss the facts, apply the legal principles you’ve learned to those facts, and analyze the interplay of facts and legal principles. The point is to figure out whether you can see the areas of concern, so that when you enter practice someday, you’ll be able to listen to your client and figure out where to start researching whether he has a case. On a law school issue spotter, there generally isn’t a right answer: the professors care more about whether your analysis makes sense than whether you’ve correctly memorized the legal principles, as they know that any lawyer worth her fees (and who values her license) will do research before making recommendations to her client.

The strangest part of the bar, however, was getting my bar results two months into my new job as a baby lawyer at a large law firm. It wasn’t strange because I’d passed: I’d worked hard and I knew I had a decent head on my shoulders. What was strange was getting that score and realizing how little bar exam study had done to prepare me for the actual job of being a baby lawyer.

When I started in private practice, I didn’t know how to do anything:

I didn’t know how to file a motion.

I didn’t know what a motion was.

I didn’t know how to draft a certificate of service.

I didn’t know that you needed to submit a proposed form of order along with your motion.

I didn’t know what a case management conference was.

I didn’t know what a discovery plan looked like.

I hadn’t participated in a large-scale document review.

I didn’t know how to mark exhibits or move them into evidence.

I certainly didn’t know how to write a deposition outline.

I had no experience taking depositions, and didn’t know the first thing about how to manage a witness.

I didn’t know what an in limine motion was.

I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a trial brief.

I knew nothing about recruiting and working with expert witnesses.

In short, like every other baby lawyer, I didn’t know squat about how to actually succeed in my chosen career (other than what I’d learned the prior summer when I’d worked as a summer associate at my new law firm). If I’d started out as a solo practitioner, I would have committed malpractice. Thankfully, however, all that issue-spotting had earned me a position at a law firm with the resources to provide me with intelligent supervision and strong on-the-job training.

Ten years on, I find that I do use the skills tested on those law school issue spotter exams. In particular, I can read the file on a new case, and use the analytical skills I honed in law school to analyze the issues in light of the law, do (or assign) research where needed, determine what additional facts I need to learn, and make recommendations to my colleagues or my clients. When we learn new facts, I can adjust our initial analysis as needed to account for the changes and to craft new strategy. Those are skills evolved from prepping for those convoluted issue spotter law school exams.

However, ten years into private practice, I don’t draw on my two months of intensive bar test prep to advise my clients or manage my work. I don’t rely on essay formulas to craft my briefs, and of course I have never encountered an MBE-style multiple choice question. But the thing is… PMBR and BAR/BRI worked. Test prep works. Test prep taught me to immerse myself in the logic of the test-makers, and how to effectively game the system to achieve my goal: a passing score. In the past ten years, I’ve occasionally encountered some pretty crappy lawyers, but they all have one thing in common: they passed the bar exam.

The fact that test prep works is what scares me as a public school parent, because as a parent I know that my child’s standardized test scores tell me virtually nothing about whether she’s actually mastered the academic skills she needs for a successful future.

My two months of bar test prep taught me that mass-produced bar prep can successfully raise scores: my MBE score skyrocketed when I left my inquisitiveness, curiosity, and thoughtfulness at the door, and instead immersed myself completely in the test-makers’ logic. I was willing to engage in two months of intensive test-prep because the stakes were so high: I could have lost my new job for failing the bar. Test prep was a means to an end, and it was an end I wanted (passing the bar so I could begin my career as a litigator at a large law firm), so I was willing to spend (my firm’s) money and my time on the commercial test prep courses. Thankfully, though, our (generally tenured) law school professors focused on preparing us for the practice of law, and not on preparing us for a soon-to-be-forgotten standardized test.

But what will my child gain from devoting 9 of her 13 years of public education to test prep? She might become a genius at immersing herself in the logic of the test makers, but will she learn to write purposefully and well? Will she learn to creatively attack a problem? Will she learn empathy and art appreciation and history and how to work as a member of a team? I fear that the answer is no, or at least not nearly as much as she would have if testing wasn’t driving curriculum.

Thankfully, my older child attends a school where the bulk of the teachers have tried hard to minimize the encroachment of test prep on the “real” curriculum, but even so, it seems to me that my 4th grader is bringing home fewer challenging projects that engage her as a learner. Tonight she complained that her teacher has been racing through math curriculum so that they’ll have “covered” all of the topics they need for the PARCC End of Year testing. Fortunately, my kindergartener attends a K-2 public school that is relatively insulated from the test-taking pressures. Her class is making daily observations of their tadpoles’ development. Tonight at dinner the little one flummoxed the older one by explaining the functions of the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the pre-frontal cortex.

I am thrilled that our local district’s test-focused superintendent (with her district-wide quarterly assessments to determine whether our kids were on track to succeed on the statewide annual assessments) recently resigned, and her interim replacement is a career educator who seems interested in putting exactly as much focus on standardized test scores as they’re worth. But not all children are in a district where progressive education seems to be making a resurgence.

Test prep — defined as taking concrete steps to get children into the heads of the test-makers — works. It really does, even on a test that’s allegedly of critical thinking, such as the bar exam (and, presumably, the PARCC). So as the stakes continue to grow, teachers will understandably be more and more tempted to engage in intensive test-prep (although bills to change this are in progress, under current New Jersey law, this year’s PARCC scores are worth 10% of teachers’ evaluations, but next year’s scores will be 20% of teachers’ evaluations, and the year after that PARCC scores will be 30% of teachers’ evaluations). Even where the teachers are not tempted, their principals or superintendents or even New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe may put unbearable pressure on them to raise scores — and coerce parents to allow their children to test — by any means necessary. For instance, just today (now, technically, yesterday) in an interview with the Newark Star Ledger, David Hespe threatened

“We are going to do whatever is necessary to make sure that we have a comfort level moving forward that we are going to hit that 95 percent,” Hespe said. “This is not a no harm, no foul situation here.”

Under Hespe’s vision, public schools will become publicly-funded versions of BAR/BRI and PMBR courses, and a child-centered, holistic public education will become rarer and rarer. Parents will be threatened and coerced to let their children test or risk further state intervention and loss of funds for their local districts (which already experienced drastic cuts in state aid under the Christie administration). The privatization movement will rejoice, as public school parents with the means will opt-out completely by sending their children to private school. Fewer parents of privilege will be left to speak out, and public education will instead continue its march to the test-prep driven bottom as it serves a higher and higher percentage of students whose parents can’t offer them other options.

I’ve refused to allow my test-aged child to test, because I believe in public education. My children attend public school in Montclair, New Jersey because I know that all children do better when they attend high-quality, integrated public schools with children whose life experiences differ from their own. It’s that vision of diversity and equitable opportunity that I want for my children, and that I, for one, believe is critical to keeping the American dream alive. Yet state bureaucrat David Hespe threatens local districts — and tries to sow division — in integrated local districts like ours because so many of us Montclair parents from all walks of life have joined together to protest PARCC’s destructive effects.

As I watched our local schools narrow curriculum and move toward a test-prep focus for two years under the reins of our test-driven (now former) superintendent, I toyed with the idea of pulling my kids out of their integrated public schools and sending them to private school (knowing that doing this would have required us to sell our house in our beloved neighborhood), but doing so would be a defeat. Instead, I elected to fight for our public schools by writing, speaking, and ultimately refusing to allow my child to take the PARCC tests. I will continue to do so.

The scary thing is: test prep works. That’s why it’s so tempting to teachers, principals, and school district officials whose careers are on the line. And that’s why we parents are the last line of defense. David Hespe might want to, but no one can fire us. That’s why we parents must stand firm against pressure such as that exerted today by David Hespe. It is up to We The Parents to ensure that our nation’s public schools in all neighborhoods remain — or become — more than test-prep factories. Our kids deserve no less.

The last time David Hespe threatened us public school parents, it backfired on him. In fact, I, for one, give him (through his October 30, 2014 memo threatening sanctions for opting out) credit for single-handedly sparking New Jersey’s until then minuscule PARCC refusal movement. Now, instead of learning from his mistake, David Hespe has doubled-down on his punitive approach to public education. Today, Hespe announced his strategy of trying to ensure public school parent capitulation to PARCC by threatening to further interfere in our local school districts and perhaps even withhold state funding.

One would almost be tempted to think that Hespe has bought into (or been bought by) the immersive logic of the test-makers. Hespe’s reasoning skills might get him a passing score on a standardized test, but reasoning his reasoning will get him nowhere in the court of public opinion. We New Jerseyeans are contrarian by nature. David Hespe, please take note: threats to inflict collective punishment on entire communities because New Jersey parents have refused the PARCC tests as an act of conscience and courage are far more likely to infuriate than subdue us. We New Jersey taxpayers — and our kids — deserve a state education policy maker with real world — and not test prep — reasoning skills. I don’t need to wait five months for his score: Hespe failed the test.

It’s a Matter of Trust – My Testimony to the Governor’s PARCC Study Commission

Today, I joined a group of about 40 amazing parents, teachers, school board members (although all of them gave the caveat that they were testifying in their personal capacities) and even an amazing Superintendent to testify publicly before Governor Christie’s PARCC and Assessment Task Force. Every single person who testified did a terrific job, and I’ll note that at this public hearing, not a single member of the public spoke in favor of the PARCC test. I’ll see if I can do a better write up later about the meeting. But in the meantime, here’s a link to a video of me testifying.

And here is the text of what I said (I’m starting to feel like something of a broken record):

My name is Sarah Blaine. I’m an attorney and the mother of two daughters, ages 6 and 10, both of whom attend public schools in Montclair. I’ve been practicing law for almost a decade now, but before I went to law school, I earned a master of arts in teaching degree and taught high school English for a couple of years in rural Maine. Over the past year, as I saw the changes in my older daughter’s curriculum, I began looking into the Common Core State Standards, and the effects they were having on our kids’ schools. As part of that inquiry, I also began looking at the new tests to measure our kids’ achievement, the PARCC tests created by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career. The more I learned, the more concerned I grew. I began writing about my concerns on a personal blog, parentingthecore.com, and quite a few of my pieces – including one this morning – have been picked up by The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog.

I stand here today to tell you that the PARCC tests are not going to improve education or help our students.

It’s all really a matter of trust. That’s what a lot of our debate about PARCC and Common Core boils down to: trust – and, where opinions and plans for public education diverge, who we, as parents, can trust to have our kids’ best interests at heart. Do we trust our children’s teachers and principals: the people we can hold accountable on a personal level – by looking them in the eyes and raising our concerns – and on a policy level, by publicly bringing any concerns we may have to a democratically constituted school boards who are elected solely to deal with education issues? Or do we trust state and federal bureaucrats and elected officials who are accountable to a broad swath of voters for far more than just education policy, and therefore, as a practical matter, outsource a great deal of their education policy setting to private corporations, such as Pearson, which sells curricula and designs tests, all to benefit its own bottom line?

In an ideal world, we could trust both, but unfortunately, our world is far from ideal. I, for one, start out more skeptical of the for-profit corporation than of our local teachers, principals, and school boards.

I was recently engaged in a discussion about the Common Core and the PARCC with a parent who is a strong proponent of the Common Core and the PARCC. He shared a little bit of his story, which illuminated the trust issue for me. In short, his oldest child began his education at a private school. The parents eventually learned that their child was lagging far behind his peers in the public schools, and moved the child to our public schools. But because those parents’ trust was broken early on by that private school experience, they’ve become huge proponents of testing to ensure that they receive up-to-date information regarding their children’s progress.

I hear and can relate to those concerns, although I find it ironic that it was a private school’s failure that triggered them.

My take, however, is different. As a parent, I start the school year each year trusting my kids’ teachers. Now, that doesn’t mean that such trust can’t be eroded over the course of an academic year. But over the years, in preschool and then in our public schools, of the 15 classroom teachers my kids have had, I’ve come across exactly one teacher who broke that trust. That’s not perfect, but those are still pretty good odds. So I’m willing to trust our schools and our teachers with our kids, and to trust that they have our kids’ best interests at heart. If I find that my trust is misplaced, I’m confident that I can go up our chain of command, and ultimately publicly air my concerns at a Board of Education meeting.

What those parents I told you about, whose trust in schools was broken by a bad private school experience, have effectively done is to substitute trust in their children’s teachers for trust in a test, under the mistaken belief that a test will ensure real accountability. And perhaps in a world where the tests are trustworthy, there’s no harm in trusting tests. But unfortunately, given the amount of time and energy I’ve spent inquiring into the PARCC tests, I think those parents are going to discover that their trust in the PARCC is at least as misplaced as their earlier trust in their child’s private school.

The PARCC consortium recently published its sample “Performance Based Assessments,” which New Jersey’s public school kids will be attempting starting just over a month from now. I have a fourth grader, so I took a quick look at the fourth grade math PBA this morning. Here’s a sample question:

Jian’s family sells honey from beehives. They collected 3,311 ounces of honey from the beehives this season. They will use the honey to completely fill 4-ounce jars or 6-ounce jars.

Jian’s family will sell 4-ounce jars for $5 each or $6-ounce jars for $8 each.

Jian says if they use only 4-ounce jars, they could make $4,140 because 3,311 divided by 4 = 827 R 3. That rounds up to 828, and 828 multiplied by $5 is $4,140.

Part A

Explain the error that Jian made when finding the amount of money his family could make if they use only 4-ounce jars.

Enter your explanation in the space provided.

Take a moment. Can you tell me the error?

Here’s the error: Jian’s math was correct, but his reasoning was mistaken, because he rounded up to 828 instead of down to 827, when the 828th jar won’t be totally full, so he can’t sell it for $5. So since his family can only sell 827 full jars of honey, the answer should have been 827 jars x $5/jar = $4,135.

What is this question really testing? Is it, as the PARCC’s proponents would state, testing whether kids “really understand” remainders and have the “higher-order thinking” skills necessary to pick up on the “trick” in this question? Or is it, as is obvious to any parent, testing whether our 9 and 10 year olds are (a) picking up on the word “completely” and (b) testing whether our kids have the life and business savvy to make the connection – under the pressure of a high-stakes test – that in this one case, they should be ignoring the remainder, instead of rounding to the nearest whole number.

My concern is compounded by the emphasis that the fourth grade Common Core math standards – and the Pearson produced Envisions math curriculum purportedly aligned to those standards – places on estimating, rounding, and reasonableness. This is a copy of one of my daughter’s Envisions math workbooks. The flagged pages are all pages that ask the kids to rely on estimating, rounding, or reasonableness to arrive at their answers. It’s not every page, but as you can see, the emphasis on those skills, which I’m not denigrating, is heavy. Given that emphasis, not only is this a trick question, but the kids themselves are already primed to miss the trick by the emphasis their standards and curricula place on estimating, rounding, and reasonableness.

Trick – and other unfair – questions like this are endemic throughout the PARCC practice tests I’ve reviewed. The English Language Arts questions are even worse. It is unfair by any measure to ask 9 and 10 year olds to type thematic essays about a Maya Angelou poem and a Mathangi Subramanian story. In addition, the essay prompt itself is ambiguously worded: the prompt asks the kids to “Identify a theme in ‘Just Like Home’ and a theme in ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me.’ Write an essay that explains how the theme of the story is shown through the characters and how the theme of the poem is shown through the speaker.”

What’s unclear from the language of the essay prompt is whether the kids should be identifying one theme common to both the story and the poem, or whether the kids should be identifying separate themes for the story and the poem.

One trend I’m sure you’re aware of across the state is that many of our high schools have been eliminating midterms and finals to make room for PARCC. The ambiguity of the essay prompt – and unfair trick of the math question – illustrate why eliminating local, teacher-created tests, midterms, and finals in favor of standardized tests is a bad idea. All teachers make mistakes – both in inadvertently drafting ambiguous questions and incorrectly grading answers, but kids are savvy and can point those mistakes out to the teachers. That’s built-in accountability.

Pearson and PARCC, however, are accountable to no one. Our teachers won’t even be allowed to look at – much less discuss – the PARCC tests. They won’t see the kids’ results, or where they might have been tripped up by a trick. So there will be no one to tell us which questions were unfair, ambiguous, or otherwise problematic. That is, there’s no accountability for Pearson, and as I’ve discovered this year, there is no question that even the Pearson materials – be they PARCC practice tests or Envisions – that the public does have access to have plenty of mistakes.

If the stakes for these tests were low – and the time they sucked away from “real” teaching was minimal – then I doubt the outcry would be so intense. Instead, however, these are the tests that even this year, unproven as they are, will make up 10% of teachers’ evaluations, and they will continue to take on an increasingly central role in evaluating our teachers, schools, and children. Not surprisingly, for those kids who don’t make the cut, Pearson now controls the G.E.D. test.

I urge you to carefully review the PARCC sample tests yourselves, keeping in mind the age level of the students who are intended to take them. Please recommend to the Governor that we join the dozen or more other states, including, most recently, Mississippi, in rejecting the PARCC as a valid means of assessing our kids. New Jersey’s kids deserve better.

Our New Jersey teachers and principals are accountable to our local communities. Where individual districts have ongoing problems with ensuring educational equity, the state can step in through its Quality Review system to address those problems on a case-by-case basis. But the PARCC test is setting up a narrative that all of our schools are failing. After spending significant time reviewing what’s happening in our schools and what’s contained on a for-profit corporation’s PARCC tests, I, for one, am confident that the problem is with the test, and not with our kids, our teachers, or our schools.

Thank you.

No Child Left Behind Reauthorization – ADD YOUR VOICE TODAY

Peter Greene over at Curmudgucation remains my favorite education blogger because of his incisive ability to cut through the crap and point out what’s important. My only concern, however, is that because he writes so much excellent content, sometimes some of his most critical messages get lost in the shuffle. This is an example (not that I’m suggesting he should post less; quite the contrary!).

As Peter Greene pointed out yesterday, any and all of us — parents, teachers, administrators, students, policymakers, think tank denizens, taxpayers, bloggers — should be dropping everything this weekend to take up Senator Lamar Alexander on his invitation to write to the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee regarding its proposed Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“ESEA”) (i.e., No Child Left Behind (“NCLB”)) reauthorization proposal!

The email you need to send your thoughts to is: fixingNCLB@help.senate.gov — once again, that’s fixingNCLB@help.senate.gov — and in case you missed it, mailto:fixingNCLB@help.senate.gov is the email address we should be flooding this weekend.

According to Senator Alexander’s Press Release, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is holding hearings on the extent of testing, with at least the first hearing scheduled for Wednesday, January 21, 2015. Please don’t miss this opportunity to add your voice to the debate regarding annual standardized testing by a means that could actually make a difference.

This is democracy in action and — no matter what your opinion is — shame on you as a citizen of this democracy if you don’t take the time to add your voice to the chorus (and instead let the monied lobbyists substitute their voices for yours).

Below is my contribution.

P.S. Sorry Peter, but brevity is not my forte!


Dear Senator Alexander and the Members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee:

I write to you today to urge you to repeal the annual testing requirements enshrined in the current iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“ESEA”), which is most commonly known as No Child Left Behind (“NCLB”). Any ESEA/NCLB reauthorization should, at most, require testing three times during a child’s career. Further, any ESEA/NCLB reauthorization should remove the pressures on States and local school districts to attach high-stakes consequences to test results including, but not limited to, tying teacher (or teacher preparation program) evaluations to test results and/or imposing closing or other sanctions on neighborhood schools with low test scores (such as firing staff or requiring them to convert to charter school status).

About Me

My name is Sarah Blaine and I am the mother of a 4th grader and a kindergartner, both of whom attend the public schools here in Montclair, New Jersey, which is a socio-economically integrated town with widely respected (but, due to our diversity, never particularly highly “ranked”) public schools that serve a diverse population, yet regularly manage to send top-performing students to the most highly selective colleges and university in the country. I’m a graduate of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. I also earned my J.D. with high honors from Rutgers University’s School of Law (Newark), and I’ve been practicing law for the past nine years. Before I went to law school, I earned my master of arts in teaching degree from the University of Maine, and I taught high school English at a public school in western Maine.

Last winter, as I watched Common Core State Standards-fueled changes unfold in my then-third grader’s classroom, I began to occasionally blog about the experience. To my continued surprise, my second blog post was published in The Washington Post under the headline, “You Think You Know What Teachers Do, Right? Wrong!” where it generated well over a million page views and was the most emailed and shared piece on the Washington Post’s website for a few days. I’ve published a number of additional pieces on The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, including: “Pearson’s Wrong Answer – and Why It Matters in the High-Stakes Testing Era,” “Mom to Common Core Task Force: Take the 4th-Grade PARCC Practice Test. I Dare You to Tell Me It Makes Sense,” and “The Concept Education Secretary Duncan Has Entirely Missed.” I urge you to take a few minutes to read them.

Annual Standardized Testing Narrows Curriculum

My writing began as an inquiry into whether the changes I saw unfolding in my daughter’s classroom were positive or negative. I really didn’t know the answer, and I still think it’s more nuanced than Common Core is good or Common Core is bad. I certainly never imagined that my writing would lead me to become a proponent of the test refusal movement: the reality is that I was a National Merit Semi-Finalist back in the day, and during my own education, I never met a standardized test I didn’t like. In fact, standardized tests often saved my tail, as I was one of those classic students whose report card was littered with “Underachiever” and “Does Not Work Up To Potential.” Standardized tests let me prove that my grades did not always reflect my intellect and that I might be, as I in fact was, a “late bloomer.” So I am not someone who is naturally inclined to oppose standardized testing.

But as I’ve watched the effect that standardized tests — and, in particular, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (“PARCC”) test — are having on my children’s education, I’ve grown increasingly concerned that our nation’s over-emphasis on testing is driving our public schools in the wrong direction. In an effort to bring at times much needed change to low-performing school districts, you as policymakers have imposed a test and punishment regime on all public schools (even those that are high-performing), which has led to unintended yet very real consequences for all public schools and the students they serve.

In particular, the onerous scored-based consequences for teachers, schools, and districts have placed inordinate pressure on teachers, schools, and districts to “teach to the test.” Some proponents of the testing approach to education will say that there is nothing wrong with teaching to a “good” test. Leaving aside, for the moment, the question of whether the new tests, such as PARCC, are “good” tests worth teaching to, the question we need to ask ourselves is: “What are we not teaching?” That is, what units, lessons, materials, and concepts are teachers not teaching to make room for the test-prep required for successful performance on the PARCC and similar tests across the country? Once we’ve identified what’s not being taught, we then have to ask ourselves whether the tradeoff is worthwhile. I can tell you, wholeheartedly and without reservation, that the tradeoffs I’m seeing are not worthwhile.

When annual standardized tests have high-stakes consequences, topics that aren’t covered on the test aren’t taught.

When annual standardized tests have high-stakes consequences, teachers who attempt to tailor education to their students are subversive.

When annual standardized tests have high-stakes consequences, teachers who attempt to provide meaningful social studies, civics, and history instruction are subversive.

When annual standardized tests have high-stakes consequences, teachers who reach students through class discussion and debate are subversive.

When annual standardized tests have high-stakes consequences, subjects such as music, theater, art, and physical education become afterthoughts.

When annual standardized tests have high-stakes consequences, small children are denied the recess time their bodies crave.

When annual standardized tests have high-stakes consequences, our children become important to our local districts for the data they can provide rather than for the human beings that they are.

As frustrating as the myriad other objections to the PARCC in particular are, it’s the above-described narrowing of the curriculum that is the basis for my real objection to annual standardized testing coupled with high-stakes consequences.

PARCC Illustrates What’s Wrong with Teaching to Tests Rather than Teaching for Democracy

PARCC, however, is illustrative.

The PARCC is not like the standardized tests I took in elementary school, junior high school, or high school. The PARCC is not even like the GRE or LSAT. Frankly, it is most reminiscent of the Bar Exam. The fourth grade PARCC English-Language Arts practice test asks nine and ten year olds to identify the themes in a Maya Angelou poem and a Mathangi Subramanian story and then to “explain how the theme of the story is shown through the characters and how the theme of the poem is shown through the speaker.” As a former high school English teacher, I can tell you that thematic essays are often challenging for early high-school students, and that there is no question that they’re developmentally inappropriate for fourth graders.

The multiple choice questions on the fourth grade PARCC English Language Arts test are poorly worded, confusing, and susceptible to arguments that more than one answer choice might be correct. The computer-based format is difficult to navigate, confusing when you switch from one approved device to another, and developmentally inappropriate to the extent that it asks 8, 9, and 10 year olds to type essay responses. Frankly, the PARCC sample tests themselves are the biggest argument against these particular tests, and, if you haven’t already, I urge you to sit down and take some of them. Really, if you’re going to require that our small children take these tests, you should at least do us the courtesy of sitting down and taking them yourselves. I don’t think it’s possible to understand the consequences of your policy decisions without looking at what your policies are requiring of small humans.

But as to PARCC, even its name demonstrates what is wrong with the test-based accountability movement. As noted above, the PARCC acronym stands for “Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career.” Its proponents will tell you that its goal is to measure students’ progress toward “college and career readiness,” whatever that means. But this is where I part ways with PARCC’s proponents. We taxpayers don’t pay for public education to spend our money providing college and career prep for other people’s kids. If we did, as a taxpayer I’d tell you to go pay to educate your kid as you see fit, and let me take care of educating mine. But as a citizen of a democracy, I believe I have a duty to contribute to the public education of all children, because education is fundamental to maintaining a vibrant and meaningful democracy. That is, the purpose of education is not college and career prep: the purpose of public education is preparing citizens for thoughtful participation in the democratic process. PARCC doesn’t measure this, and PARCC test prep doesn’t prepare kids for the duties of democracy.

Social Studies Education Then and Now

I was educated in the public schools of a wealthy New Jersey town (Millburn-Short Hills) long before the days of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, or PARCC. In those days, our teachers believed in educating citizens, and test prep wasn’t on anyone’s radar. In fourth grade, then as now, the social studies topic for the year was New Jersey. But in my fourth grade class, studying New Jersey meant designing and building a model Lenni Lenape village, learning a New Jersey song, writing and presenting research reports on each of New Jersey’s 21 counties, studying colonial life in New Jersey, and a field trip to Allaire State Park’s Allaire Village to learn about the post-colonial iron industry. It was an incredible course of study, which is why I remember it more than 30 years later.

My older daughter is now in fourth grade. Her social studies topic this year is also New Jersey. But we are now halfway through the school year, and the sum total of her social studies education has been reading a chapter of her textbook to prepare for a map skills test, reading a chapter about the states in the Northeast, and bubbling-in questions at the back of Scholastic News’s Common Core aligned “magazines.” The richness of my fourth grade social studies experience is gone. That is the real effect that annualized testing has on schools.

And what is she doing instead? She’s preparing for the PARCC. The Scholastic News assignments with their multiple-choice questions are thinly-veiled test prep. The map skills get taught because reading and interpreting maps are fair game on the PARCC. She’s spent 6 hours — and counting — just learning to navigate the computer interface, including learned how to manipulate the protractor when her math class hasn’t yet studied angles, so none of them know what a protractor is or why they’d need to use it. For language arts, she’s reading test-length friendly passages and drafting formulaic paragraphs reacting to them. And even though strict adherence to writing formulas produces nothing but bad writing, she can’t deviate from them, because Pearson’s test graders will be looking for each element of the formula, and not whether her content is compelling. She’s not building models of villages, going on field trips, or learning to write research reports, because none of those things can be tested on the PARCC.

And where teachers’ evaluations and schools’ annual report cards are dependent on test results, those tests drive curriculum.

The difference between my daughter’s fourth grade public school social studies curriculum and mine is a direct result of our test-focused culture, and the PARCC only exacerbates this divide.

What You Can Do When You Reauthorize ESEA/NCLB

Please stop requiring local districts to substitute test prep for citizenship prep. Please allow local communities to determine how to best reach the students they’re responsible for teaching. We can do better for our kids. I know this, because my fourth grade teacher did better for me. But annualized testing — and the test prep pressures they cause — are making good teaching impossible, which is why I am, as a matter of conscience, refusing to allow my child to take the PARCC. On behalf of all of our nation’s kids, please join me in rejecting any reauthorization of ESEA/NCLB that continues the current requirement of annualized standardized testing or that attaches high-stakes consequences for teachers or schools to the scores that children achieve on those tests.

Sincerely,

Sarah Blaine

Montclair, New Jersey

cc: Senator Robert Menendez (via web submission)

Senator Cory Booker (via email)

Representative Donald Payne, Jr. (via web submission)

 

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

 

Dear Members of Governor Christie’s PARCC Task Force:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you truly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

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

Montclair (and Beyond), It’s Time For Action

Almost eight years ago, my family was trying to figure out where — in New Jersey — to buy a house and put down roots. I’m a Jersey girl, born and bred. I grew up in Short Hills, and attended the Millburn Public Schools for 13 years. As my local readers know, the Millburn Public Schools are consistently considered some of the highest performing schools in the state. However, in March of my senior year of high school, our family moved to Montclair. I commuted back to Millburn for the last few months until I graduated, but the following fall my brother began his sophomore year as a student at Montclair High School. At the end of that year, my family moved back to Short Hills, so that my brother graduated from Millburn High School.

When it came time for us to decide where to raise our kids, school quality was a primary factor as we tried to decide where to put down roots. We considered towns all over northern New Jersey. When talk turned to Montclair, I called my brother. I asked him to comment on the quality of his education in Millburn versus in Montclair’s far more diverse (and less highly ranked) public high school. He said:

“Do I think it’s possible I got into a slightly better college because we moved back to Short Hills? I don’t know, I guess that’s possible. But I learned more about life and people and how to get along in the world in my one year in the Montclair Public Schools than I learned in my twelve years in the Millburn Public Schools — and those are lessons I still carry with me every day.”

I was sold.

Almost eight years after that conversation, I now have two children enrolled in the Montclair Public Schools. Almost universally, I have been thrilled with my daughters’ teachers, who have been thoughtful, dedicated, experienced professionals.

But things are changing. Our test-taking focused national, state, and now local culture threaten the values that make Montclair unique: by insisting that all children must learn all things in lockstep, we deviate from education best practices. And by accepting — without question — a test-taking culture that imposes hours and hours of standardized testing on our 8, 9, and 10 year old children, without carefully reviewing these tests and pushing back as a community where we believe the tests are poorly designed, developmentally inappropriate, and leading to intense pressure to narrow curriculum to meet the tests’ demands, we are stepping away from the community values that make Montclair special. Our schools should be — and historically, through our all-magnet public school system, have been — tailored to meet our children’s needs, but now we seem to be under pressure to tailor our children to meet state and federal politicians’ and bureaucrats’ unrealistic expectations — and if we don’t, our schools will be declared failures.

So what can we — as parents — do?

First, we must educate ourselves. If you’re reading this, you know how to read and write. So take an hour. Sit down and work through the 3rd or 4th or 5th grade English Language Arts sample exam, which is available at parcconline.org/practice test . Think of yourself at 8, 9, or 10 years old. Ask yourself whether these questions strike you as fair, whether you could make arguments in favor of more than one of the responses, and whether you think that we as a community should allow our schools to be judged based on our students’ performances on these exams. Here is a sample essay question from the 4th Grade English Language Arts test to get you started:

Identify a theme in “Just Like Home” and a theme in “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me.” Write an essay that explains how the theme of the story is shown through the characters and how the theme of the poem is shown through the speaker. Include specific details from the story and the poem to support your essay.

[As an aside, yes, we are asking 9 year olds to identify themes in two different stories (whether they are supposed to be the same theme or unrelated themes is unclear from the prompt), and then to explain “how the theme of the story is shown through the characters” and “how the theme of the poem is shown through the speaker.” I have a masters in teaching high school English, and I’m not really sure what that means. Are they asking for examples of how the character’s/speaker’s actions demonstrate the theme(s)?]

Second, if, after reviewing the tests yourself, you find that you have concerns about these tests, think seriously about refusing these tests on behalf of your children. There are all sorts of Facebook groups for parents who are thinking of opting-out (for e.g., there’s one called Opt Out of Standardized Tests – New Jersey).  Talk with your children about this. You will start to hear that your kids will not be alone if they refuse these tests. There is strength — and power — in numbers. And I’ve found that the front-line educators in our schools will at least quietly applaud your efforts. The school culture may be such that they are not comfortable speaking up publicly, but they know right from wrong when it comes to educational practice. Mention that you’re thinking of joining the opt-out movement, and you will see eyes light up.

Third, speak up. Attend Board of Education meetings to make your voice heard. Talk with other parents. Write letters to the editor and op-eds. Call and write to your legislators. Contact the Board of Education — at both the state and local levels. Demand that our local Board of Education immediately issue its position regarding the opt-out/refusal movement, and demand that they make alternate learning opportunities available to our kids.

Fourth, suggestion alternates to a testing-focused culture. We can evaluate our kids’ learning in different — but more effective — ways. For instance, we can demand that our district evaluate kids’ progress toward achieving standards by asking schools to work with students and parents to compile portfolios of student work or require students to complete capstone-type projects at critical junctures. I taught high school in rural Maine at the turn of the millennium and we were able to make the portfolio and senior project approach work there. There is no reason we can’t manage the same here in Montclair. Standards-based assessment does not require standardized testing.

Fifth, demand detailed local coverage of Board of Education meetings. Many people (including me, but I was far from alone) spoke at the BOE meeting on Monday, November 17, 2014, but it is now more than a week later and the only coverage I saw in our local media (print and online) was a small Montclair Times article regarding a tiny subset of what was discussed (it discussed only the process by which the BOE can respond to questions posed at meetings). But The Montclair Times failed to do a comprehensive article regarding the meeting, and Baristanet, Patch, and The Alternative Press were completely silent.  [UPDATE: At 7:42 on Tuesday, November 25, 8 days after the meeting was held, Baristanet ran this story, which does attempt to summarize the public comment portion of the meeting, but still does not summarize the three reports to the BOE, nor the illuminating BOE discussion after public comment ended.]  We don’t know what’s happening unless we have journalists covering these issues.

And yes, Montclair Cares About Schools did a terrific email summarizing the last BOE meeting, but as much as I tend to agree with them on many issues, I recognize that this is an email from citizens summarizing their point of view, and that while I think it was a quite accurate summary, I’m not sure this was always true of all of their characterizations of BOE materials in the past, and more generally speaking, the MCAS email doesn’t have the same authority as an unbiased news source that our local news outlets at least theoretically have.  I can’t find a link to the email on their blog, but the Montclair Cares About Schools blog, Montclair Voices, does contain a bunch of the public comments made at last week’s meeting.  Similarly, our Montclair teachers’ points of view (and a bunch of their public comments to the BOE last week) are reflected on our teachers’ new blog, Montclair Education Matters.

High quality — and diverse — schools are what brought many of us to Montclair, and they are what keep us here. We need to unite as a community to reject externally-imposed policies (whether imposed by NJDOE or the USDOE) that stand between our children and the well-rounded educations our children deserve — and that our teachers know best how to provide.  And that includes educating and supporting our local school board members so that they have the knowledge, community support, and tools to stand with us at the front lines of saying no to so-called “education reform” that is bad for our children, bad for our schools, and bad for our community.

BOE: Provide the District’s PARCC Opt Out Policy

Update:  The local access channel was able to post the BOE meeting on its website today.  I am not computer savvy enough to figure out how to take a clip of my 3 minutes, but I can tell you that I start at the 2 hour and 30 minute mark on this link:

http://vp.telvue.com/player?id=T01411&video=217601

If someone knows how to grab my snippet and put it on YouTube, I’ll link it that way instead.

Original Post:

Here is the text of my prepared remarks for tonight’s local Board of Education meeting.  I think I deviated a litte bit — but not very much — from what’s written here.  If I can figure out how to get a snippet of the video, I will add that to this post (embarrassing as that might be).  Please note that my comments were limited to 3 minutes.

I am here today to ask the District to formally state — in writing to all parents — its policy regarding how children who are refusing the PARCC exams will be accommodated.

I attended the District’s October 23rd PARCC Family Presentation, where Gail Clarke was asked to comment regarding the district’s opt-out or refusal policy for the PARCC exams. She stated that no policy was in place because the State DOE had not yet issued its guidance regarding opt-out decisions.

A week later, on October 30th, the New Jersey Department of Education issued “guidance” to school districts stating that districts were under no obligation to provide educational alternatives, and suggested — but did not require — that districts update their attendance and discipline policies to address PARCC opt-out issues.

NJDOE’s guidance is at odds with Montclair’s prior policy.

So, given the conflict between Montclair’s NJASK opt-out policy and the State’s recent guidance, I am here to ask what Montclair’s policy will be for handling PARCC refusals. And, as a parent, I am here to urge you to adopt an accommodating and humane policy.

I’ve reviewed the 3rd and 4th practice exams and sample questions on the PARCC website. I found many questions confusing and developmentally inappropriate — frankly, the “gotcha” feel of these questions reminded me of the New Jersey Bar Exam.

I am also concerned that we are asking students as young as 8 to compose essay responses on computers when the district hasn’t provided comprehensive typing instruction.

But I am most concerned about the narrowing of the curriculum in response to testing pressures: in particular, I worry about how little social studies education my 4th grader has seen compared to what I’d studied — in a NJ public school — by her age. Where are the units studying mythology, genealogy, Native American culture, American history, and the ancient world? Our district’s lack of social studies education is a sad disappointment — and a direct result of our testing-focused culture: Social Studies gets short shrift because it is not on the test. Elementary school social studies should be more than “map skills.”

I try to avoid making decisions without access to all of the facts, which is why I’ve reviewed the PARCC sample materials in depth. So before I make a final decision regarding the PARCC exams, I would like to review the District’s PARCC opt-out policy.

This is an urgent matter, given that my daughter reports that her class has already lost at least 6 periods of instructional time to PARCC preparation, including last week when her class was asked to attempt an End of Year math practice test before the children had been presented with many of the topics tested.

Thank you.