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.

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

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

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

by Belinda Edmondson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Guest Voices: Dr. Colleen Daly Martinez

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

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

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

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

 

March 15, 2015

Dear Senator Ruiz, and Senate Education Committee Members,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respectfully,

Dr. Colleen Daly Martinez

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

Millburn Graduate Takes On Millburn Superintendent’s Logic

Dear Superintendent Crisfield:

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

My History in the Millburn Public Schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Arguments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proposals for Collaboration and Consensus-Building:

As a Millburn graduate, I have a few suggestions:

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parting Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

GUEST VOICES: Mom Lynley Jones to Senator Lamar Alexander

If you are looking for a short, sweet, and to-the-point sample letter to send to fixingNCLB@help.senate.gov, please check out this note from my neighbor and close friend Lynley Jones to Senator Lamar Alexander and the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor & Pension Committee:

Dear Senator Alexander,

I urge you to repeal the annual testing requirements enshrined in the current “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) legislation. Any NCLB reauthorization should, at most, require testing three times during a child’s career. Further, any reauthorization should remove the pressures on States and local school districts to attach high-stakes consequences to test results. Please eliminate the imposition of penalties and sanctions such as teacher evaluations, teacher compensation, firing staff, requiring conversion to charter school status, or school closings, based on test scores.

Our public schools are the cradle of our democracy. A diverse and thriving democracy depends on an educational system that prepares children for thoughtful, creative, constructive, and well-informed debate. The health and well-being of our nation depends on giving children the time to eat a healthy lunch, exercise their bodies, and think freely and creatively during unstructured periods of time such as recess. The success of our economy depends on rewarding and encouraging creativity and novel approaches to problem-solving.

The over-emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing risks all of this. Please stop allowing the over-emphasis on testing to squelch the joy out of school for the next Steve Jobs, E. B. White or Georgia O’Keefe. American children deserve better.

Sincerely,

Lynley Jones

Montclair, New Jersey

cc (via web submission):

Senator Robert Menendez

Senator Cory Booker

Dear PARCC, Can We Talk?

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of regular contributions by guest bloggers on this site. This was written by Justin Escher Alpert, an attorney from Livingston, New Jersey. I’ve met Justin briefly a couple of times now, and I came across this piece in a Facebook group. I am sharing it here with his permission.

 

Dear Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC):

The reason that you failed… the reason that parents across the country are rising up and organizing against your standardized test… it is not a matter of a bad roll-out… it is not a matter of bad PR. The reason that you failed is philosophical… Your standards did not account for real-world innovation.

Let’s together take a look at an actual PARCC Sample Question from the Grade Three Mathematics Practice Test:

“A library has 126 books about trees.

Part A

The library has 48 fewer books about rivers than about trees.

Select from the drop-down menus to correctly complete the statement.

The number of books the library has about rivers is [Choose…\/] and the total number of books the
library has about trees and rivers is [Choose…\/].

Part B

Two students borrow books about trees. Each student borrows 8 books. How many books about trees remain in
the library?

Enter your answer in the box. [_____]”

Now, let’s leave aside the fact that the poorly-worded second question does not necessarily give the test-taker enough information to answer. We know that standardized test scores correlate to the wealth and education of the parents of the test-taker. The children of wealthy, educated parents are more likely to have actually set foot in a local public library with adequate resources. For an urban child whose family may not know the value of an education, this standardized test question might merely be a hypothetical. I actually went down to the Newark Public Library and looked around and started asking some questions. They have signs up apologizing to their patrons that they have not had a budget to purchase new books for the past several years. Perhaps we should set new standards for libraries and assist them to have robust and current book collections that serve the intellectual needs of their communities so that we do not reduce the concept of public libraries to be mere hypothetical questions… but I digress.

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers has very narrowly defined excellence in a manner that corresponds to the wealth and education of the parents of the test-taker while we have missed our moral and constitutional obligations to adequately fund our urban public schools (and, apparently, our urban public libraries). With respect to the schools, private charter companies have stepped in and arbitraged the cost difference based on fulfilling this very narrow definition of excellence. PARCC has created a new set of “standards,” but there is little regard for real-world innovation.

To gain a better understanding of what happens when innovation is only recognized from the top down, one need look no further than the students in Newark who are setting new standards for active, civic engagement by traipsing up and down the Mid-Atlantic to draw attention to real world problems with schedules, courses, teachers, desks, and edible lunches. The answers to your hypothetical PARCC questions have seemingly become more important than creatively solving the real-world problems as they present themselves (whether in the public library system or in the public school system or otherwise).

When a child grows up in an educated and diverse community such as Livingston, New Jersey (with a warm, welcoming, and well-staffed modern library (with 51 non-fiction books about trees)), that child goes through a public school system that is accountable directly to the active and engaged parents in the community. The goal of the public school system is not to make our children “ready for college and careers.” We do not need a system to find the faults and shortcomings of our children. The goal of a public education is to create active and engaged members of the community. The goal is to create and empower citizens (like those brave kids in Newark) who can look at faults within systems and readily organize to correct them. The entire existence of PARCC Testing seemingly misses The Point.

When a graduate receives a diploma from the Board of Education of a town like Livingston, New Jersey, that young adult will know her strengths and interests having been broadly exposed to this world, and will have the backing and respect of the community to make her voice heard. Your PARCC addition and subtraction problems about hypothetical library books is important, in your judgment. What if we felt that third-grade calculus were more important and we taught it during a model rocketry class? Or what if an impassioned and empowered physical education teacher felt that third-grade statistics were important and taught it through a rigorous spring Sabermetrics program where kids kept close track of their kickball stats? Or what if we felt that third-grade geometry were more important and we taught the Fibonacci sequence through a rigorous design and history program? By the way, it doesn’t take wealth to do any of this creative instruction. You can teach the mathematics of sound waves with two tin cans and a piece of string and really get kids excited about the process. Where does innovation come from? If the parents of the children who meet and exceed the PARCC standards wanted to change the PARCC test questions, could we? What if we wanted to switch from a testing-based model of education standards to an experience-based model? To whom would we need to speak? Is there a form we could fill out? The options are limitless, but impassioned and empowered professional educators are distracted because they have to return focus to YOUR standards, as limited by YOUR OWN imagination, on an absolutely brain-numbing computerized test that misses everything that was important about the student-teacher relationship.

You had a valiant effort, PARCC. We don’t fault you for trying (there was a lot of money to be made). You know… you don’t have to disband. We could redirect your efforts. We could take your standardized questions, perhaps, and turn them into a series of suggested lesson plans. Maybe if we focused our efforts on a third-grade class in Newark and a third-grade class in Livingston together taking a field trip to a modern regional public library and learning first-hand how to find out how many books there are about trees and rivers, we could then incorporate the relevant math lesson with regard to borrowing books about trees, and there would be a greater likelihood of what we were testing for actually having been learned due to the real-world context. And then we could disregard the standardized test. To demonstrate that innovation can come from any person at any point, perhaps if we actually help those kids in Newark with their real-world problems with schedules, courses, desks, edible lunches… and if we gave them impassioned and empowered teachers backed by a strong system of social services… and yes, maybe even stocked their local public libraries with 126 real books about trees… we might free them to help us determine the answers to new, more robust real-world questions, like, say:

Question 1:

What should be the ratio of (i) the number of in-state higher education freshman seats to (ii) the number of in-state high school graduating seniors?

Enter your answer in the box. [_____]

or…

Question 2:

If a state is interested in investing in itself, what should be its financial commitment to higher education tuition support?

Enter your answer in the box. [_____]

Perhaps, rather than PARCC assessing whether OUR children are “ready for college and careers,” you might help us set new standards for “colleges and careers” so that “colleges and careers” are actually ready for our (if I do say so myself) brilliant (but flawed… every last one of them… each in their own unique but lovable way) children when they graduate. Perhaps every job working for a major corporation or an institution of higher education should be available as a full-time position that pays a real living wage, because that would be important. Maybe, because we want our children to grow up to be responsible and engaged participants of their communities, we could limit those jobs to 40-hour work weeks so that those job holders are actually free at the end of the day to be responsible and engaged participants in their communities. Could you help us set new standards like that?

When a child grows up in an educated and diverse community such as Livingston, New Jersey, that child is given the safe, judgment-free space to find his or her own place in society while learning through diverse experiences… with diverse teachers… across disciplines where there are no standardized questions, much less answers. Those opportunities need to be provided (and properly funded) for every child, regardless of the wealth and education of the parents.

We might find that what is important is not that we can regurgitate standardized answers, but that we can push the very limits of our understanding as we learn and grow by proposing new questions and being empowered to collaboratively develop real-world working answers to those questions.

Let’s definitively end standardized testing-based education. Let’s talk about moving in a new, experience-based direction that actually addresses and solves real-world problems.

Thank you for your strong leadership.

Very truly yours,

 

Justin Escher Alpert
Livingston, New Jersey

Cowardly David Hespe Hid From The Parents Who Overwhelmed The NJBOE Today To Say No To PARCC

Today, somewhere in the neighborhood of one hundred parents, students, teachers, school board members, and other New Jersey professionals gathered at the River View Executive Building Complex in Trenton, New Jersey to prove just how out of touch New Jersey Comissioner of Education David Hespe is with New Jersey parents, students, teachers, and community members. In particular, as you may recall, David Hespe claimed that there was no opt-out or test refusal movement in New Jersey. Today, we proved him wrong

For those who don’t recall, on October 30, 2014, then Acting Commissioner Hespe issued guidance to school districts and charter school leaders in which he suggested (but did not require) that they institute punitive measures in an attempt to squelch New Jersey’s opt-out/test refusal movement before it got started. Hespe’s guidance backfired. Instead, he just pissed me — and countless other New Jersey parents — off. Today was our first chance to publicly speak out to Hespe’s sort-of bosses, the New Jersey State Board of Education (Hespe’s real boss is Governor Chris Christie, and there is no doubt in my mind that regardless of what the NJBOE does next, Hespe will continue to dance to PARCC’s tune until Governor Christie tells him to change course).

I arrived at around 10:40 this morning. The presentations to the Board were already in full swing, and the room was so full that I couldn’t even get standing room, so a friend and I waited out in the hall. The crowd continued to grow. I believe that 96 people were signed up to speak, but although a few speakers didn’t show, there were plenty of other non-speaking parents, teachers, community activists, and local school board members who had come to listen and/or show their support.

Unfortunately, NJBOE’s protocol is to divide public comment speakers among four different rooms, and to assign 1-2 NJBOE members to listen to comment in each room. Although this is far more efficient in terms of time (even then, there’s a 5 minute time limit, but enforcement was much less draconian than enforcement of the 3 minute time limit at our local Montclair Board of Education meetings), it’s unfortunate that the press, fellow attendees, and Board Members themselves do not get to hear more than a small sample of the total comments presented. Intentional or not, this diminishes the power of a large turnout of parents almost universally united around a common issue (here, opposition to PARCC and similar high-stakes standardized testing).

Here are both halves of Room A (with filming by the Asbury Park Press, as I understand it):

And here are both halves of Room B:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is Room C, where I testified:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here is Room D:
As you can see, among the four rooms, there were a LOT of citizens, most of whom, like me, took a day off from work because we think it is important that the NJ State Board of Education hear from parents and students about the mess the PARCC is creating in our schools. I don’t have accurate numbers, because many people came to be supportive without speaking, but I’d guess that the turnout easily exceeded 100 people.
Perhaps the most gratifying part of the event for me personally was to hear from the half-dozen or so children who’d come to testify. Almost all of them told me that they’d been inspired to come testify by my daughter Elizabeth Blaine’s public comment to the Montclair Board of Education a couple of weeks ago, which I haven’t mentioned also led to us getting interviewed (to my enduring political chagrin, but it’s nice that we have common ground on something) on Fox News’s Fox & Friends morning show. Just in Room C, we heard from a 10 year old girl, a 7th grade girl, and a 9th grade boy. All three were opposed to PARCC and the related test prep.
It was also terrific to get to meet — in person — many of the fellow New Jerseyeans I’d only connected with virtually through our shared opposition to these tests. I’m only sad that because of the four-room set up, I didn’t get to meet a number of other terrific leaders that I know were there.
But the major takeaway from today is that there is a strong — and rapidly growing — PARCC refusal movement in New Jersey. And it was great to see members of the press, from the pieces that already appeared on the Star Ledger and the Asbury Park Press website to the appearance of reporters from NJ101.5 to The Alternative Press – Edison (and there may well have been other reporters I wasn’t aware of). Go readd the Star Ledger and Asbury Park Press articles: their reporters didn’t pull any punches today. The bloggers were out in full force too. Here’s a piece from Marie Corfield that contains some stunning news: following the comments he listened to today, the President of the NJBOE apparently stated publicly that they know that they can’t force kids to take this test. I’ll add more blog links as I come across them.
Take note, Commissioner Hespe. You declared war on the parents and students of New Jersey back in October, but we are organizing, we are rallying, and we are fighting back. I did note, however, that you were too cowardly to sit in any of those rooms to hear for yourself what the parents and students of New Jersey are saying. I heard from more seasoned activists that this was par for the course from you — you apparently don’t deign to bother with public comment. That’s all part and parcel with the CCSS/PARCC playbook, of course, which generally fails to prioritize democratic values. I don’t think your disappearing act gives you cover to continue claiming that New Jersey doesn’t have a growing opt-out/test refusal movement.
Watch out, Commissioner Hespe: this is one war we’re going to win.
Finally, Governor Christie, with your PARCC study commission that has not yet publicly released the preliminary report that was due on December 31, 2014, don’t think your teflon governor act is going to allow you to escape blame for imposing PARCC and Common Core on the people of New Jersey. Trust me, from the brief foray I made into the world of Fox News, your national base isn’t impressed with your Common Core and PARCC cheerleading. Your national ambitious may well hang on this issue.
We lefties won’t rally behind you on this either.
Ironically, Governor Christie, through your minion David Hespe, you are a uniter: you are uniting the left and the right, the rich and the poor, the white and the black, the native English speakers and the English Language Learners, in shared opposition to your market driven education reform policies — including, but not limited to, your imposition of PARCC onto the people of New Jersey. It was a powerful thing to watch as the wealthy and privileged parents from Basking Ridge made common cause with parents from Newark. We don’t resemble each other in race, socioeconomic status, or political affiliation. But one thing was clear: no matter what our backgrounds, none of us want you to dismantle our public schools.
And we all agree on one thing: education is a necessary ingredient for democracy. A policy aimed at dismantling public schools is a policy aimed at devolving democracy into demagoguery.
We won’t forget. And we won’t — we can’t — let you win.

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

by Sarah Blaine

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

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

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

“What’s a deposition?”

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

Well…

All of my lawyer friends…

How do you do it?

You don’t.

You act it out.

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

— Okay.

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

— Mommy.

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

J is going to be the court reporter.

— What’s a court reporter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then…

“When did your shark go missing?”

— Last week.

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

— I saw him.

etc.

etc.

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

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

We go back on the record and the questioning continues.

I object to the form of the question again.

And so forth.

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

“Mommy, can we play deposition again?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As this PBS.org website explains:

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

I’m with Mann.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do we fund public schools?

Why do we make public school compulsory?

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

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

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

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

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