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

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

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

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

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

A few thoughts today.

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

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

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

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

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Writing Off “Those Kids”

Just curious… does anyone else find this New York Times “Room For Debate” piece by Michael Petrilli, president of The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which ran under the headline “Charters Can Do What’s Best For Students Who Care,” as breathtakingly offensive as I do? What boggles my mind is that this man is a leading voice among the so-called education reformers. His honesty is, at least, honest, I suppose. Unlike the DFERs, at least he’s not out there shouting that access to charter schools is the new civil rights movement of our time. He’s not out there suggesting that charter schools don’t cherry-pick and weed out students. So there’s that. I guess.

Instead, Petrilli’s saying that the fact that tax-dollar-funded charter schools kick out large numbers of students is “a feature, not a bug.” And that when it comes to discipline, “[t]raditional public schools that serve all comers have to find a middle ground, as best they can, which often pleases no one.”

And this guy is a thought-leader for the education reform movement.  His institute’s tagline is “Advancing Educational Excellence.”  I guess a more accurate version would read, “Advancing Education Excellent For Some.”

Judge for yourself.  Here are the money paragraphs from Petrilli:

Because [charter schools] are schools of choice, they have many advantages, including that everyone is there voluntarily. Thus they can make their discipline codes clear to incoming families (and teachers); those who find the approach too strict can go elsewhere.

This is a good compromise to a difficult problem: Not all parents (or educators) agree on how strict is too strict. Traditional public schools that serve all comers have to find a middle ground, as best they can, which often pleases no one. Schools of choice, including charters, need not make such compromises. That’s a feature, not a bug.

It’s not too strong to say that disruption is classroom cancer. It depresses achievement and makes schools unpleasant, unsafe and unconducive to learning. We need to think long and hard about taking tools away from schools — especially schools of choice — that allow their students to flourish.

In other words, we should divide students into those who care and those who don’t. We should provide resources to those who care, and warehouse the rest.  And when our public schools actually attempt to meet kids where they are and to reach all kids, they’re engaged in compromises that “please[] no one.”

Of course Petrilli eliminated two key words from his last sentence.  It should read: “We need to think long and hard about taking tools away from schools — especially schools of choice — that allow [some of] their students to flourish.”

I’m flabbergasted.

Is it really okay to openly advocate for charter school discipline policies that weed out a significant portion of the student body (without, in most cases, replacing those expelled or “counseled out” students, of course)?

Is it really okay to say that our public schools are places of compromises that please no one?

Is it really okay to imply that public schools truly are the schools of last resort, that their highest and best purpose is to serve as dumping grounds for those students who are not good enough (or malleable enough, or terrified enough, or controllable enough) to succeed in charters?

On Twitter, Petrilli argued that he’s saying that public schools should be able to kick kids out with impunity as well, as if that somehow makes his proposal okay. I asked him what he suggests doing with all of the kids he suggests kicking out. His response was that we can send those kids to “alternative schools.” In other words, we’re supposed to warehouse “those kids” in faux-schools until they drop out or end up in prison, but there’s no point in trying to motivate them, reach them, or educate them. We should just separate them from the rest of us.  We should just face facts and write them off. Because they don’t care. They are ungovernable. Unteachable.  And so we owe “those children” nothing.  Despite the fact that they are children.

According to Petrilli, apparently the fundamental problem with traditional public schools is that they don’t kick out more kids.  If only the public schools expelled more children, then they’d be “advancing educational excellence.”  The real problem with American education is that we just don’t have enough high school drop-outs, I guess.  It’s not inequitable allocation of resources.  It’s not failing to combat poverty and inequality.  It’s really just the low school expulsion rate that’s to blame.

Presumably in an all-charter system this will mean dumping the unwanted students into low-performing charters until those charters either kick them out or are closed and a new batch of substandard charters arise to take them on. In a mixed public/charter district, this will mean dumping those kids back into the traditional public schools, further damaged by the alienation, sense of failure, and disruption that go along with getting kicked or counseled out of a charter school. But according to Petrilli, there is no need to worry about that, since bringing stability to the lives of students with anger or behavior issues is apparently not a priority. And stratification of students in publicly funded schools is apparently “a feature, not a bug.”

I am just amazed that someone who is, for better or for worse, a leading voice in education policy setting will openly come out and state that some kids just suck, and the best thing we can do is to just weed them out and get rid of them.

“Those kids” are apparently not worth educating.

“Those kids” are apparently not worth reaching.

“Those kids” apparently don’t belong in classrooms with the rest of our kids.

So, here’s my question: at what age do we write kids off?

When is a child old enough to be thrown away?

When does a child go from being a cute little boy or girl to becoming one of “those kids”?

And how do we distinguish kids worth educating from kids who should be warehoused in alternative environments?  Are we weeding out the rebels?  The creative thinkers?  Those who question authority?  Are we rewarding malleability, conformity, and keeping your head down?

This isn’t even code for active advocacy of re-segregation of schools. It’s a blatant statement that we should re-segregate schools. With impunity. As we cloak ourselves in righteousness. Because you know, there are kids who matter, and kids who don’t. And if socio-economic factors happen to determine who belongs in which category for the vast majority of those kids, who cares? Because why care about a kid who doesn’t care, regardless of why that kid appears to “not care”?

I’m still trying to figure out why my tax dollars are supporting quasi-“public” charter schools that their own proponents encourage to refuse to serve certain kids. Their own proponents agree that the charter schools do — and agree that they should — weed out “those kids” with impunity. Can someone please explain to me how that is preparing kids for citizenship in a democratic society? Unless, of course, the goal is to create a permanent underclass of citizens who are uneducated, easily manipulated, and disenfranchised.

Why don’t we just kill two birds with one stone? We can expel students who have problems with authority from school and just send them directly to prison. After all, justice and equity are irrelevant to Petrilli’s vision. And why bother with trials if we’re not going to be judged by jurors with access to basic education?

In Petrilli’s world, order is apparently the order of the day. Children don’t deserve second chances. Late bloomers have no opportunities to turn themselves around. Troublemakers should be warehoused. And public education with public funds owes nothing to the public.

Perhaps I’m just naive, but I, for one, am outraged. You should be too.  Even — and perhaps especially — if you support charter schools.

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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)

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Squelching Out the Meaning

Peter Greene’s recent blog post “Meaning and Standardized Writing” is spot on. As Greene writes, the problem with a great deal of student writing is that it’s motivated by the need to complete the assignment and be graded, rather than by addressing the problem that all good writing seeks to solve, which Greene conceptualizes as: “How can I communicate what I want to communicate in a meaningful way?”

Greene then juxtaposes good writing with standardized-test writing:

The standardized testing approach to writing, both in “writing” assessments and in the open-ended response format now creeping into other tests, gets virtually nothing right at all. Nothing. The goal is itself a meager one– let’s just measure student technical skill– and even that is not measured particularly well. Test writing is the opposite of good writing. The problem the student is trying to solve is not “How do I create a meaningful expression” but “How do I provide what the test scorer wants to see” or “What words can I use to fill up this space.”

Tonight, my 4th grader brought me her ELA (English Language Arts) homework to review. Here’s the prompt (or, as Greene rightly notes, the “stimulus”):

And they say there’s no “test prep” in our schools this year…

First of all, I’m not sure why it’s the “SEEC” method rather than the SEEEEECC method, but hey, what do I know?  Now I am a lawyer, and the SEEC (“SEEEEECC”) method reminds me very much of the law school writing formula, IRAC (Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion).  I don’t think that rules of thumb for structuring writing are terrible for writers embarking on their first efforts at a new kind of analytical or expository task, but writing teachers must ensure that their students understand that writing rules are made to be broken, and that slavish adherence to writing rules will lead to kludgy, painful-to-read prose.

The problems with standardized writing assessments, however, are two-fold. First, many writers never make that leap away from the SEEC or IRAC rules, so that their writing is so rule-oriented that it’s boring, inflexible, and painful to read (trust me, I’ve read my share of painful legal briefs, although I’ve also read some really outstanding — and engaging — legal prose). Second, the rubrics (or scoring matrices) reward strict adherence to the rule, which again reinforces the problematic idea that good writing is writing that adheres to rules.  

Here’s my fourth grader’s response to the SEEC-based writing prompt (used with her permission):

I love my kid, but I can’t figure out who was more bored: her when she wrote this, or me when I read it.

It’s fine and it’s technically correct, but Greene’s point shines through: there is no question that this paragraph is not a paragraph in which my 10 year old is communicating what she wants to communicate in a meaningful way. Rather, she is — as Greene predicts — writing to answer the wrong questions. Her writing is dull and lifeless because she is asking herself “what can I write to satisfy this assignment” or “how can I fill up this piece of paper” or “what can I use to fill in five paragraph-sized blanks,” and, as Greene notes, “these are all the wrong question to start with.”

On the other hand, there has been a lot of “authentic” writing — i.e., writing that answers the “correct” question of how can I communicate what I want to communicate — going on in my house recently (and I don’t mean my blogging, although of course that’s exactly what my blogging is — my attempt to communicate to the world my point of view regarding the “reforms” to our education system).

The weekend before Thanksgiving, my daughters started playing “The Letter Game.” My oldest daughter started writing letters to my younger daughter. My younger daughter kept bringing them to me to help her read them, but what I didn’t realize at the time (I might have been busy blogging) was that my kindergartener was writing decipherable notes (full of invented spellings, of course) back in response to her sister. For about two hours, the two of them were communicating through the written word. As they were wrapping up their game, I realized what had been going on, and was amazed by the little one’s notes. (Unfortunately, the big one managed to throw them away while she was on a cleanup frenzy the following day, so I can’t show them to you here.)

To me, that was an extraordinary breakthrough. It was my little one’s first authentic experience with using written language to express what she wanted to communicate. Over the long weekend, a lot more authentic writing happened in my house. The girls (my daughters and their close friend) began writing “newspapers” documenting happenings in the imaginary world they’d conjured up. Here are a few examples:

FYI, Jake Blaine is a figment of their imagination. I’ve never met a Jake Blaine in my life.


Apparently the Newspaper is in the process of being rebranded…

And my little one decided to start “blogging.” Here are some of her “Blog Posts”:

“Julianna’s blogs.”


(“My friends are sad.”)


(“A cat sat on a mat.”)


(“Flower grow very tall. And pink. Sun Post.”) The big one incorporated this into their newspaper, above.

The newspapers and the “blog posts” are writing that these kids generated for themselves, to communicate what they want to say in a meaningful way.

Do you see the difference between writing that is authentic, or, as Greene says, between writing that communicates what the author wants to communicate in a meaningful way and writing that attempts to do nothing more than fill the page, follow a formula, or give the exam-reader what the exam-reader is looking to find? A writing teacher who knows his students (like Greene), is best situated to design writing assignments that will facilitate an environment in which students learn to effectively communicate what they want to communicate in a meaningful way. But when the stimuli-drafters are far removed from the classroom, the students, and their teachers, and when the stimuli ask students to react formulaically to the prompt, we suck the joy out of writing, out of school, and out of teaching.

I don’t blame my daughter’s ELA teacher. I’ve spoken with her in detail, and I know how much she tries to slip authentic and joyful assignments between the inevitable test prep. I know how much more she wants for the kids, but how hamstrung she is by the district’s (and PARCC’s) demands. But to me, the juxtaposition of the joyful, authentic writing happening without adult intervention in my house against the dry and lifeless writing my daughter did for school tonight illustrate better than anything I can write exactly what’s wrong with our high-stakes test driven culture, and the all-business ELA Common Core State Standards that accompany that test-driven, automaton-producing educational ideal.

I know detractors might argue that these are two different types of writing: analytical writing versus creative writing. But that’s exactly my — and I believe Greene’s — point. When writing is authentic and meaningful, expository and analytical writing is both intellectually meaningful and creative (check out your average New Yorker article). But when formulas and mnemonics rule, writing becomes about spitting words out onto paper, and not about contributing meaning to our human endeavor on this lonely little planet. Why on earth are we allowing test-driven school culture (especially one that attempts to standardize and test writing, of all things) to squelch the meaning out of our kids’ words?

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Asinine Arne’s Idiotic Idea

Update (12/6/14): The proposed rules have been published in the Federal Register.  There is a 60 day comment period.  Please go and comment (I submitted a slightly edited version of this post, of course). Here is the link: https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2014/12/03/2014-28218/teacher-preparation-issues Thanks for your attention to and care regarding education and the preparation of new teachers.  Oh, and be forewarned that there is a 5,000 character limit in the online comment box, so if your comments exceed that (as mine obviously did), you will need to add them as a PDF or other document.

Update (12/2/14):  A slightly less “salty” version of this piece appeared on Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post blog, The Answer Sheet, today.  Here’s the link:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/12/02/the-concept-education-secretary-duncan-has-entirely-missed/   To be honest, I actually like the WaPo piece better.  I think that toning down the raw edges of this piece increases its impact.  So please feel free to read in either place and let me know what you think.

The pre-Washington Post piece appears below:

When it comes to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his asinine ideas, it’s hard to figure out which idea is the worst of the worst. But I think we have a winner. On November 25th, the New York Times published an article titled, “U.S. Wants Teacher Training Programs to Track How Graduates’ Students Perform.” Yes, you read that correctly. When an aspiring teacher graduates from her teacher education program, that program will be ranked based on how the aspiring teacher’s students perform (on standardized tests). And, even worse, programs that fail to generate higher student performance (never mind whether some are sending teachers to suburban classrooms full of privileged children while others are sending new teachers to the rural or urban trenches) will lose some federal funding if their alumni’s students fail to perform. Now, please bear with me. Out here in lawyer-land, there’s a slippery concept that every first year law student must wrap her head around: it’s the idea of distinguishing between actual (or “but for”) causation and proximate (or “legal”) causation. Actual causation is any one of a vast link in the chain of events from the world was created to Harold injured me by hitting me, that, at some level, whether direct or attenuated, “caused” my injury. For instance, Harold couldn’t have hit me if the world hadn’t been created, because if the world hadn’t been created, Harold wouldn’t exist (nor would I), and therefore I never would have been hit by Harold. So, if actual or “but for” causation was legally sufficient to hold someone responsible for an injury, I could try suing “the Creator,” as if the Creator is somehow at fault for Harold’s decision to hit me. Well, that’s preposterous, even by lawyer standards, right? The law agrees with you: the Creator is too far removed from the injury, and therefore cannot be held legally responsible for it. So to commit a tort (legal wrong) against someone else, it isn’t sufficient that the wrong allegedly committed actually — at some attenuated level — caused the injured’s injury (i.e., that the injury would not have happened “but for” some cause). Instead, the wrong must also be proximally related to that injury: that is, there must be a close enough tie between the allegedly negligent or otherwise wrongful act and the injury that results. So while it would be silly to hold “the Creator” legally responsible for Harold hitting me, it would not be similarly silly to hold Harold responsible for hitting me. Harold’s act was not only an actual or “but for” cause of my injury, it was also an act closely enough related to my injury to confer legally liability onto Harold. This is what we lawyers call proximate (or legal) causation: that is, proximate causation is an act that is a close enough cause of the injury that it’s fair — at a basic, fundamental level — to hold the person who committed that injurious act legally responsible (i.e., liable to pay damages or otherwise make reparations) for his act. [As an aside to my aside, if this sort of reasoning makes your head explode, law school probably isn’t a great option for you.] Well, it appears that Arne Duncan would have failed his torts class. You see, Arne didn’t get the memo regarding the distinction between actual causation and proximate causation. Instead, what Arne proposes is to hold teacher prep programs responsible for the performance of their alumni’s K-12 students (and to punish them if their alumni’s students don’t measure up). Never mind the myriad chains in the causation link between the program’s coursework and the performance of its graduates’ students (presumably on standardized tests). Arne Duncan somehow thinks that he can proximally — fairly — link these kids’ performance not just to their teachers (a dicey proposition on its own), but to their teachers’ prep programs. Apparently Arne can magically tease out all other factors, such as where an alumna teaches, what her students’ home lives are like, how her students’ socio-economic status affects their academic performance, the level of her students’ intrinsic motivation, as well as any issues in the new alumna’s personal life that might affect her performance in the classroom, and, of course, the level of support provided to the new alumna as a new teacher by her department and administration, and so forth. As any first year law student can tell you, Arne’s proposal is asinine, as the alumna’s student’s test results will be so far removed from her teaching program’s performance that ascribing proximate causation from the program to the children’s performance offends a reasonable person’s sense of justice. [Not to mention the perverse incentives this would create for teaching programs’ career advising centers — what teaching program would ever encourage a new teacher to take on a challenging teaching assignment?] So what’s the rationale for Asinine Arne’s Idiotic Idea?

“The last thing they want or need is an easy A,” Mr. Duncan said. “This is nothing short of a moral issue. All educators want to do a great job for their students, but too often they struggle at the beginning of their careers and have to figure out too much on the job by themselves.”

I graduated from a teacher prep program. I earned an M.A.T. (Master of Arts in Teaching) from the University of Maine, where my concentration was in teaching secondary school English. And Arne both is and isn’t wrong. There is no question that my M.A.T. program could have been a year of easy A’s for me. There was a lot of work, but it’s true, I didn’t really find the intellectual work of the classes themselves particularly challenging. However, I made a decision — and I don’t think I was alone among teachers in making this decision — that if I was going to have the moral authority as a teacher to ask my students to work to the best of their ability, then I had to have had the experience of working to the best of my academic ability. So, I really worked my tail off in that program because I felt it was important for me to do so, not because the courses themselves really demanded that level of work. And yes, for whatever it’s worth, I graduated with a perfect GPA. But as I understand it, perfect GPAs common in many graduate programs, not just education. That being said, I had a few terrific professors in my M.A.T. program (Ted Coladarci for Educational Psychology comes to mind) and I had my share of ho-hum to pretty awful professors there as well (I won’t name names, but my personal “favorite” was the all-but-dissertation grad student who taught us nothing but then required us to write an end-of-course reflection paper about the transformative experiences we’d had in her course — a lot of alcohol enabled me to draft 57 lies in 4 pages). But good, awful, and in-between, that 13 month teacher prep program also provided me with a strong grounding in the theoretical — and practical — components of running my own classroom. Our program started in mid-June (on my birthday, in fact), and after a summer of intense theory, from the first day public schools were in session that fall, we were in actual classrooms with actual students. At first we observed, met regularly with our mentor teachers, and began designing lessons to meet our students’ needs. As the fall semester progressed, we taught some lessons in our practicum classes. Then, in the spring semester, we student taught full time (we each had two 8 week placements) for the entire semester (our academic courses met in the late afternoons and evenings). That spring, I was responsible for teaching — under the guidance of and with the help of my mentor teachers — full rosters of students. After the spring semester ended, we returned to straight classroom work for the summer to round out our education coursework. When I began my first teaching job the following fall, I was as well-prepared as I think I could be, but I was also unprepared, because there is a huge gap between a student teacher, who benefits from the gravitas and classroom management accountability instilled by her mentor teachers, and a brand new teacher who must, for the first time, create the gravitas and accountability necessary to effective classroom management on her own. It isn’t that my academic preparation was bad — it really wasn’t — it’s simply that there is a fundamental divide (even with the year of practicum and student teaching experience our program afforded us) between studying how to do something and actually doing that thing yourself. After teaching for a couple of years, for a whole variety of reasons, I left the classroom, moved back near my family in New Jersey, and decided to apply to law school. I am here to tell you that my law degree provided me with far, far less practical experience than my M.A.T. degree. For those of you who aren’t familiar with how law school works, at a typical law school you take a standardized curriculum the first year. Pretty much every first year law student in this country studies Contracts, Torts, Property, Criminal Law, Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law, and Legal Research & Writing in her first year of law school. During the following two years, law students take a variety of electives, although most law students make sure to take a few other basic classes during those years: i.e., Corporations, Evidence, and maybe Criminal Procedure. In Legal Research & Writing a law student writes a few legal memoranda and a couple of legal briefs. In the entire year long course, I think we finished four major pieces of writing (two memos, a summary judgment brief, and an appellate brief). What we don’t learn in law school is anything practical. We don’t learn how to draft the supporting papers for our motions, we don’t learn how to talk to adversaries on the phone, we don’t learn about scheduling orders and negotiating confidentially agreements, and we don’t learn how to interview clients. We certainly don’t learn how to review documents, create deposition outlines, or draft contracts. Anything practical we learn during our law school years we learn from our summer internships: I learned a fair amount interning for a Third Circuit Court of Appeals judge after my first year of law school, and even more as a second year summer associate at the large firm I joined upon graduation. And for the record, as with my teaching program, I had some terrific law school professors (Claire Dickerson and Diana Sklar come to mind), and I had some pretty awful law school professors. Frankly, that was my experience from elementary school through the end of law school — some teachers were awesome for me, others, not so much. When I left my M.A.T. program to begin my first year as a teacher running my own classroom, it took me a bit of time to get my sea legs as far as classroom management went, but my professional program had provided me with the tools to get there. When I graduated from law school (and FYI, I graduated with high honors, so the issue isn’t one of not being able to hack law school), finished studying for and taking the bar exam, and actually started my first job, I knew nothing. More experienced attorneys had to walk me — step by step — through how to do everything from how to put together a motion to how to take a deposition. The point of this Very Long BlogPost is that Asinine Arne has, to my mind, entirely missed the point. No professional academic program can 100% prepare you to hit the ground running in your career. Rather, professional expertise is something you develop over years of actually practicing your profession — and the further you progress in your career, the more you appreciate the theoretic base you learned in your academic preparation. I’m a far better lawyer in my tenth year of practice than I was in my first, and I imagine that if instead I was a 15th year teacher this year, I’d be a heck of a lot better at teaching than I was when I left the classroom after two years of teaching experience. That being said, compared to law school, there is no question that my M.A.T. program gave me the skills I needed to develop professional expertise, and frankly, it did a far better job of teaching practical skills I’d need in my classroom than law school did at teaching practical skills I’d need in the courtroom. Arne says:

“All educators want to do a great job for their students, but too often they struggle at the beginning of their careers and have to figure out too much on the job by themselves.”

Figuring out how to do the job by yourself is the key to developing from a student into a professional, whether you’re a teacher or a lawyer. At some point, every professional must make this transition, and all of the training in the world can’t substitute for the on-the-job experience that transforms a recent professional program graduate into a seasoned veteran. Actual professionals know this. It’s too bad Asinine Arne didn’t get the memo. P.S.: Arne Duncan has been secretary of education for six years, and in that role he is ultimately responsible for the educational progress of all U.S. students. According to the most recent PISA results, U.S. students’ scores haven’t improved on Duncan’s watch. Therefore, by Duncan’s own logic, I propose that we deprive his alma mater — Harvard University — of some federal funding for its current students because Duncan’s failure to improve U.S. PISA scores demonstrates that Harvard (which educated Duncan) is responsible for U.S. students’ flat scores on the PISA exam. If Duncan and Harvard don’t like the logic of my modest proposal, then Duncan should withdraw his proposed scheme for rating teacher preparation programs based on the educational outcomes of their alumni’s students, as my logic simply tracks his own.

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Montclair Times Letter to the Editor

Good Morning and Happy Thanksgiving!  At the moment, in addition to all of the usual things I’m thankful for (family, including a house full of people and a huge 51 person family Thanksgiving feast this afternoon; snow; friends; and the good fortunes of good health, a decent job, and the good fortune to be able to live a pretty decent life), I’m thankful for my fellow citizens here in town who are speaking up against the takeover of our schools by high-stakes standardized testing (specifically, PARCC).  There were three letters to the editor in yesterday’s local paper, The Montclair Timesquestioning or opposing PARCC in our schools, including mine, which I have reposted below. The momentum is building locally to just say no to these high-stakes tests.  Especially in a town like Montclair, where our school board is appointed, not elected, the Opt-Out movement (and mass opt-out at the local level) is how we parents can, at a grassroots, local level, vote to say no to the test-focused realignment of our public schools.  Happy Thanksgiving, Acting Commissioner David Hespe.

To the Editor:

The name says it all: the new Partnership for Assessment of College and Career Readiness (“PARCC”) standardized test our district must offer to our 3rd-11th graders this spring reflects what its developers believe is the purpose of public school: to prepare children for college and careers.

They are wrong. The purpose of public education is — and should be — far more lofty: to educate inquisitive, analytical, and thoughtful citizens prepared to cast educated votes and participate in thoughtful analysis and debate should they be chosen as jurors. Readiness for college and careers is a by-product of that goal, but the goal is preparation for effective citizenship, not vocational training for employment.

I’ve been a Montclair schools parent for five years now, and while I applaud many of our public schools’ offerings, my older daughter’s school experience has been shockingly bereft of social studies education. Discussions with teachers and administrators reveal the reason: where the PARCC reigns supreme, the curriculum narrows. There is no time for social studies beyond map skills, an occasional out-of-context project, and the ubiquitous pre-digested and uncontroversial Scholastic News.

What happened to classic elementary school fodder such as current events, studies of world cultures, inquiries into genealogy and family history, research into Native American cultures, immersive units studying Ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, China, or Mesopotamia, and even the most basic American history? The often-whispered answer is that these units were casualties of the PARCC assessment: PARCC doesn’t test social studies, so our schools don’t teach it.

Montclair is one of the rare New Jersey suburbs with a rich history of refusing to standardize itself. Say no to off-the-shelf standardized education. Start demanding citizenship-focused public schools by refusing the PARCC.

Sincerely,

Sarah Blaine

"Old Books" by Naypong courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

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.

"Old Books" by Naypong courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

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.

Hespe’s Flawed Analogy

In an article in today’s New Jersey Spotlight, Acting Commissioner Hespe confirmed that my initial analysis of his guidance was spot-on. He said:

“A good parallel is compulsory attendance. Parents don’t have the option, students are supposed to go to school. The same with [opting out], they don’t have that option.”

But it is the Acting Commissioner’s analogy that is flawed. Parents — who have the right to direct their children’s educations — may opt-out of school (and related testing) by homeschooling their children without fear of negative consequences for the children or themselves. See N.J.S.A. 18A:38-25. It’s been more than a decade since I took Constitutional Law and I haven’t done detailed research on this (see my prior disclaimer), but as I recall, Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925), was pretty unequivocal in holding that parents’ rights trump states’ rights when it comes to the education of their children. It’s not unreasonable to believe that courts would be willing to hold that parents’ rights to direct their children’s educations, as enshrined, inter alia, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters and N.J.S.A. 18A:38-25, might well extend to refusing PARCC without giving up our right to a public school education for our children.

I believe, at a fundamental and basic level, that strong public schools are necessary for democracy. NJDOE, through Acting Commissioner Hespe, perhaps unintentionally, or perhaps by design, is attempting to force opt-out parents into choosing between abandoning public schools (as students at private school and homeschooled students are exempt from PARCC testing requirements) or allowing their children to sit for developmentally inappropriate tests. This isn’t a choice parents should be forced to make — and as the Supreme Court held way back in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, when it comes to directing children’s education, parents’ rights trump the state’s rights.

NJDOE’s Declaration of War

I am an opinionated blogger, and I blog here in my personal capacity. Unlike some other bloggers doing excellent work in the world of education policy and beyond, I do not claim to be a citizen journalist objectively reporting the news. I’m just a mom with a keyboard and opinions. I occasionally manage to put my thoughts into words as I explore education policy from my perspective as a public school parent. And although I am an attorney, I do not pretend to be blogging in my professional capacity, and I certainly do not intend any of my musings here as legal advice.

That being said.

That being said.

That being said, New Jersey’s Acting Commissioner of its Department of Education, David C. Hespe, appears to have declared war on parents and children who oppose his standardized testing policies.

Specifically, today the Acting Commissioner issued guidance to chief school administrators, charter school lead persons, school principals, and district and school test coordinators regarding “Student Participation in the Statewide Assessment Program.”  Go read it yourself.

But here’s my synopsis:

This. Means. War.

Acting Commissioner Hespe has declared war on us — and our children.

Acting Commissioner Hespe advocates punishing children for their parents’ political opposition to NJDOE’s destructive over-testing policies.

NJDOE has crossed the line.

Hespe says:

We have received a number of inquiries regarding the ability of parents and students to choose to not participate in the statewide assessment program, including the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment. In an effort to clarify school district responsibility in this regard, the Department is providing the following guidance.

First, I want to take a moment to celebrate each and every person who has forced the Acting Commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Education, David Hespe, to respond to the opt-out/refusal movement.

Thank you for fighting back against the over-testing of our children along with its predictable results: test-prep focused classrooms practices and narrowing of curriculum (just once, I’d like to see social studies instruction at my daughter’s school that is something more than map skills). There is something wrong when our 9 year old fourth graders are expected to sit for more testing than our state’s aspiring attorneys must take to become licensed to practice law. (A New Jersey fourth grader is expected to sit for 10 hours of PARCC testing plus 90 minutes of NJ ASK science testing, for a total of 11 hours and 30 minutes of testing. The New Jersey Bar Exam is a total of 11 hours and 15 minutes of testing.)

I am still in the process of educating my fourth grader about the pros and cons of the PARCC testing, and as a parent of a high-functioning and inquisitive fourth grader who does not suffer from test anxiety, I am letting her have input into the decision our family is going to make regarding whether she will be sitting for these tests this spring, rather than forcing my decision on her. After all, this is her education, and she is the one who will ultimately suffer any consequences. As much as I’d dearly love to just refuse on her behalf, I won’t do so unless she is on board. So for now, our family remains on the fence.

Second, Hespe’s key argument supporting testing is: “Federal funding of key education programs is dependent upon districts meeting [No Child Left Behind’s Adequate Yearly Progress] requirement.” Really? That’s the best you’ve got?

Note that Hespe does not identify which key education programs’ funding is contingent on our kids taking these tests. As FairTest.Org notes, “In a state with a waiver, a ‘priority’ school must set aside 5-15% of its federal Title I and II funding to use in state-approved programs in the school. The money is not ‘lost.’ It generally may be used for various school improvement efforts.” Here’s the link. New Jersey is a waiver state, so I’d love to know exactly what federal funding the Acting Commissioner believes my daughter’s school will lose if she and more than 5% of her peers refuse the test. I have not done the research myself, but from the limited reading I have done, it appears that this is a toothless threat.

Third, here is Acting Commissioner Hespe’s actual guidance — or, more accurately, his declaration of war:

In accordance with the above, State law and regulations require all students to take State assessments. For the 2014-2015 school year, the PARCC assessment will replace the prior statewide assessments – the NJASK in grades 3-8 and HSPA in high school; as such, all students shall take the PARCC assessment as scheduled. Since the PARCC assessment is part of the State required educational program, schools are not required to provide an alternative educational program for students who do not participate in the statewide assessment. We encourage all chief school administrators to review the district’s discipline and attendance policies to ensure that they address situations that may arise during days that statewide assessments, such as PARCC, are being administered.

In short, Hespe says:

  • State law requires all students to “take” State assessments;
  • PARCC is required by the State, so schools are not required to provide an alternative education program for students who do not participate in the statewide assessment; and
  • NJDOE “encourages” all chief school administrators to review district discipline and attendance policies “to ensure that they address situations that may arise during days that statewide assessments, such as PARCC, are being administered.”

Let’s take Hespe’s Declarations of War one at a time.

(1) State law requires all students to “take” State assessments and “all students shall take the PARCC assessment as scheduled.”

Or what?

Or what, Acting Commissioner Hespe?

At the end of the day, no one at my daughter’s school can force her to click a mouse, type on a keyboard, or pick up a pencil.

So I say, bring it. It doesn’t take a Ph.D to realize that it is fundamentally wrong to base education policy on essays our fourth graders are required to type — when they’ve never taken typing classes. Last spring when I began exploring these tests, I watched my daughter struggle for over 7 minutes to input the answer to a math question she’d solved in 30 seconds.  I’m a mom and a former teacher, and I see no value whatsoever in tests that measure my 4th grader’s computer savvy rather than her academic skills.

(2) PARCC is required by the State, so schools are not required to provide an alternative education program for students who do not participate in the statewide assessment.

Last spring, as New York’s opt out movement alone grew to more than 60,000 students, a lot was written about so-called “sit and stare” policies. See, e.g., this piece from The Answer Sheet blog at The Washington Post

But unless I’m fundamentally misreading this memo, Hespe appears to be encouraging districts to adopt sit and stare policies in an effort to intimidate parents into not opting their kids out.

Bring it on, Acting Commissioner Hespe. Bring it.

It appears to me that you’re taking a page from your boss’s playbook by telling those of us who disagree with you to “sit down and shut up.”

It appears to me, Acting Commissioner Hespe, that you’re trying to bully those of us who do not see the value in your precious PARCC tests by punishing our children.

That’s low, Acting Commissioner. Really low. And do you know what? You don’t intimidate me. All you’ve done is piss me off. And Acting Commissioner, I’ll tell you this: pissing off parents — and voters — like me is probably not the way to ensure the long-term success of your policies. You were just a faceless bureaucrat. Now I want to get you fired. You deserve no less for attempting to bully parents by punishing our children.

(3) NJDOE “encourages” all chief school administrators to review district discipline and attendance policies “to ensure that they address situations that may arise during days that statewide assessments, such as PARCC, are being administered.”

I’m not certain what Acting Commissioner Hespe is getting at here, but I suspect his purpose may be to suggest that districts should implement attendance and discipline policies that will impose punitive consequences on children whose parents opt them out of these tests.

Is Acting Commissioner Hespe really suggesting that parents who keep their children home during testing are risking their children’s promotion to the next grade as a result of too many absences?

Is Acting Commissioner Hespe really suggesting that school districts should implement discipline policies that will impose punishments on children who refuse testing?

Would Acting Commissioner Hespe attempt to link state funding to local districts with the local districts’ willingness to implement punitive measures against those children whose parents refuse PARCC on their behalf?

The next step for me will be to see how my district interprets this guidance. Will it opt to provide alternate educational experiences and keep its promise that no academic decisions will be made based on this year’s test results?

But one thing seems certain. Acting Commissioner Hespe is scared. Really scared. He’s scared that the PARCC consortium is coming apart at the seams.  He’s scared that his precious testing regime is about to implode before it gets started. He’s scared that his tests aren’t going to generate enough data about enough kids to satiate the data monsters.

And he’s terrified of the growing opt out movement. So Hespe’s doubled down on PARCC. First he linked high school graduation to PARCC testing. Now he’s threatening parents and children who refuse PARCC. Defensiveness is rarely a sign of strength.

So as awful as this guidance is, it tells me that we’re winning. In a post-Citizens United world, there’s still some hope for grassroots activism and organizing. We are winning the war to do away with excessive and punitive standardized testing. And, of course, the whole education reform movement relies on its standardized testing foundation.

All the Acting Commissioner did with this policy was to galvanize me, for one, to fight harder. Who’s with me?

P.S.  For a terrific analysis of the Acting Commissioner’s magical thinking with respect to the supposed benefits of PARCC vs. the now apparently fatally flawed NJASK/HSPA (the portion of his letter I didn’t get around to analyzing), check out Peter Greene’s terrific piece over at Curmudgucation.  Will Hespe’s Magical PARCC promise my kids ponies?  What about unicorns?