PARCC Or Bust

The PARCC test simply will not die.

The state of NJ sits stubbornly on the list of the 6 states plus DC, out of the original 26, that grip the PARCC test like a dying wish.

Well, nearly 50 people stormed the State Board of Education meeting to pry that dying wish out of the State’s cold dead hands.

Blood is in the water here in NJ. The opt out movement far surpassed the Education Commissioner Hespe’s original prediction. Parents have now seen the effects of these ill-conceived tests and every single day someone new asks me about how they can opt their child out.

But the PARCC will not leave NJ quietly.

Not with Commissioner Hespe sitting on the PARCC Advisory Board. Not with Commissioner Hespe at the head of the Study Commisssion on the Use of Student Assessments in NJ. Not with that Commission recommending that the PARCC test, after only ONE year under its belt, become the sole test required for graduation.

Hespe went from confidently dismissing the opt out movement as a weak and misguided minority to treating the movement as a serious force to be reckoned with.

Hespe is sweating.

Now is not the time to back down.

The first threat Hespe doled out was that parents were not allowed to opt out. (Yet thousands of parents found a way to refuse.)

The second threat was that students whose parents refused to allow them to take the PARCC would have to sit and stare throughout the entire test. (Very few districts stuck to this policy and finally Hespe came out and discouraged sit and stare policies.)

The third threat was that opt outs would cause schools to lose funding. (Parents refused anyway and there has yet to be any evidence that ANY school district lost funding. See this video by, superintendent and opt out leader, Dr. Michael Hynes for more evidence.)

The threats weren’t working. Parents would not back down, and the numbers of parents opting out began to climb.

So Hespe and other test supporters tried a different tack. They reduced the testing time… a little.  See parents…we are listening to you. Now shut up and go away.

But the reduction in testing time only spoke to a tiny fraction of the criticisms of the PARCC. Then the test results came out and the vast majority of the state of NJ (one of the best performing states in education) FAILED.  Hmmm….looks a lot like what happened in NY and their opt out movement is at least 10 times that in NJ.

Don’t worry they said. It’s the first year of the test. The kids will get better, after all, these tests are rigorous…it will take time for little Johnny and Mary Lou to catch up. They need typing practice and time to learn how to navigate the testing tools like scroll bars and rulers on the screen. They need to learn how to engage in close reading and explain their math answers in explicit detail.

And if that isn’t enough encouragement….

Insert the fourth threat…

Your kid takes the test every year from 7th grade on or he can’t graduate.

You hear that parents! They won’t. We swear they won’t. Don’t you dare opt out. We hold your kids’ future in OUR hands not YOURS. We say PARCC or bust.

Well played Hespe, well played.

Well I say…

There is no wizard behind the curtain.

Call his bluff.

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Stop Blaming, Start Acting

When schools became big business, they became political.

Everyone has a stake in the education game these days…something to gain (money and power) and something to lose (money and power).

In his book, manifesto really, “Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling,” John Taylor Gatto exposes schools for the systemic prisons that they have become. Ask anyone in education and they will tell you that schools just aren’t what they used to be.

But my question is, whose fault is it?

Who is to blame?

A passionate education reformist and self-proclaimed activist, I have fought with, written to, and offered alternative solutions to every level I could gain access to from classroom teachers to supervisors to principals to superintendents to school boards to city council to the mayor to the State Commisioner of Education to the Governor to Senators to the Secretary of Education and even the President himself.

And I have come to one simple conclusion.

My husband says it often, that if you look to government to solve your problems then all you will get are more problems.

If we the people want education reform, then we the people need to demand it.

Period.

If we wait for the pendulum to swing, or the next president, or governor or superintendent or whatever…then it will be too late. Time stops for no one.  And our children cannot wait.

If you don’t like the way schools are being run, then find your voice. Find others and encourage them to find their voice and together you will become louder.

Speak from a place of knowledge and offer solutions rather than just critiques. Start small and find your confidence and then get bigger, tackle bigger and bigger goals until you see the change you want.

If your child cries and fights you over homework. Say something. Don’t let it ruin your night, week, year, relationship.

If your child hates to read or write, make time for the library and journal together. Talk to the school about what reading and writing looks like in the classroom and start a discussion about how it could be done differently.

If the math doesn’t make sense, ask the district to run a parent academy and explain it. If it still doesn’t make sense start a discussion about how it could be done differently.

Small steps.

Local change.

That is the real power that we the people have.

These are OUR children, OUR schools, and OUR responsibility.

One block at a time we can rebuild and stop waiting for others to do the work for us.

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Students Like the PARCC Test?!

Recently I had a converstaion with a third grade teacher about the PARCC test, and I just can’t get it out of my head.

She told me that her students like the test. They love to show what they know and want more tests. She said that she thought that all of the stress related to the test came from the nervous adults.  She claimed that adults are just not comfortable with change. Though she did admit that maybe some of the enthusiasm for the test came from the treats and special things the school did to encourage the kids to do their best on the test last year.

Here is one example of a test day treat that some schools use (not necessary this particular teacher).

But, I wanted to listen to hear the other side.

My newsfeed is full of fellow activists against the PARCC test. This teacher felt very strongly that the test was a good thing for her students. She teaches in a district known for their excellent schools. Maybe she knows something I don’t.

So I listened, when usually my modus operandi is to argue.

I listened, but when she finished. I asked a question.

What about the fact that the majority of students in NJ scored below grade level on the PARCC test last year? How did the students feel when the report came home telling them that they failed?

I can honestly say that this teacher’s response shocked me.

She replied that she knows that many parents just didn’t show their children their scores. My face probably gave away my thoughts, so she continued to say that the students don’t really know what the colors or levels mean.

I guess she has a point. Most third graders cannot comprehend the most likely wordy score report that arrived home this year way after their third grade year ended (certainly too late to drive instruction as the test advocates promised).

But what about the kids in all of the other tested grades? Do they know they failed? Should their parents hide the score reports too and maybe the newspaper reports that the majority of NJ students scored below grade level?

http://www.nj.com/education/2015/10/nj_parcc_scores.html

Should parents and teachers make them feel better by telling them that a couple of years ago the vast majority of NY students failed too (prompting their powerful opt out movement)?

Should failing be no big deal when so much time and money is devoted to the PARCC?

What kind of children are we raising if we teach them to try their best on a test that might soon count for graduation, but in the same breath tell them that failing is no big deal?

What kind of education reform relies on this kind of bait and switch? Not one that I want for the children of NJ. Not one that I will tolerate for my children.

If my children return to school next year, I will compose their opt out letter in September and explain to my children why I wrote it.

I do not believe in the carrot-and-stick approach to learning. I do not believe in anyone exciting my children to perform academically for anyone except themselves. I do not believe that deceiving children is a productive way to educate them.

And I do not believe there is any value in the PARCC test.

Even if the students are excited to take it.

They should be excited about learning. Period.

 

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My third grader trying his hand at cuneiform during a homeschool unit about Mesopotamia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not One Boy

This is a photo of my little boy standing in the snow at age 4.

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Four years have already passed since this picture.

In four more he will be the same age, age 12,  as Tamir Rice was when he was shot and killed by a police officer. Tamir was only armed with a pellet gun.

Many might find it weird for me to read an Op-Ed about Tamir Rice, a black  inner city Chicago youth, and connect it to my son.

But why not?

Because my son is only a quarter black?

Because my son doesn’t live in inner city Chicago or an area with similar levels of violence?

Because my son isn’t even allowed to play with guns and won’t be allowed to have even a pellet gun even at age 12?

Because my son is not in danger?

But I still see the the connection.

Because if I can’t read the Op-Ed piece in the New York Times today, and imagine my son laying there bleeding for four minutes after being shot without apparent cause, while two police officers did nothing to help him…then I am part of the problem.

Tamir was a boy.

My son is a boy.

No boy should die like Tamir did.

Forget the hashtags and the debates.

No boy should die like Tamir did.

Not mine, not yours, not Tamir’s mother’s.

Not one.

 

 

 

 

 

An Ode to Imperfection

Sometimes my imperfections get to me.

I nervously wipe the mud from around my 2 year old daughter’s face under the scrutinizing eye of another more well-kept mother.

I muse loudly about the state of my boys’ clothes, “I have no idea how you got them so filthy.”

I make a mental note to buy some new pants (or more likely find the next size bin of hand-me-downs), when I notice on the run that a pair has become too short.

I remark how pretty the bow or barrette is in the hair of other people’s little girls, while glancing self-consciously at my own little girl’s wild mane of frizzy curls dotted with bits of leaves and grass or colored with paint.

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Most of the time, I feel confident in our decision to homeschool, to get dirty, to learn beyond the confines of the classroom, and to live differently than most around me. Most of the time, I believe in the value of unstructured play and the power of just being outside and using what the Earth has to give as toys.

Most of the time I feel okay that my own hair is frizzy, my jeans torn, my face untouched by makeup for weeks and sometimes months at a time. Most of the time I can take people’s reaction to my family with pride. Yes they are all mine. Yes I am with them all day long. Yes I teach them too. Yes it is as crazy as it sounds, but also wonderful too (and stressful too).

But sometimes, I feel self-conscious. I feel jealous. I feel unsure of myself and the path that I have taken. I panic that maybe I haven’t been using a rigorous enough curriculum in math or that my kids are not better off with me than at school. I wonder if one day I will regret not taking the time to buy my baby girl beautiful dresses and brush her hair into pigtails of perfect banana curls.

Sometimes I just want to give up, run away, take a nap or do something other than this. Sometimes, if I am brutally honest with myself, I find that I judge others even as my mind is accusing them of judging me.

Most of the time all of us are imprefect. Sometimes we just need to remember exactly that and love each other (and ourselves) and our imperfections all the same.

 

 

 

“Hands On”

Hands on learning has been a buzz word as long as I have been in education.

Most educators sing its praises, though I know a few die-hard traditionalists that think way too much time is wasted on making learning “fun” and students need to just sit down, shut up and learn. I get that too. A little bit more of that would go a long way.

Just to learn your multiplication facts. Just to be able to diagram a sentence or spell basic words or know Greek and Latin roots even. Just to know the scientific method or the names of the 50 states.

With the emphasis on engaging students, teachers sometimes can feel like court jesters desperately performing to win the attention and praise of students, colleagues, supervisors and even themselves. Perhaps the onus has shifted too far away from the students thereby causing a deficit of responsibility, engagement, and creativity in spite of, or even because of, the brilliance of the show that so many teachers put on everyday in their classrooms.

Part of my resilience to the technology movement in schools stems from this idea of the students in a passive role. As testing has become a central, guiding (sometimes choking) force, technology has stepped in as a quick fix. Why wait for your students to read and take notes on a chapter? Instead the modern teacher can just show them a short video and digest the information for them in a snappy Powerpoint presentation with a corresponding note packet, and even review with a hands on game on the SMART Board.

But “hands on” means more than just having a student use their finger to drag and drop on a SMART Board screen. “Hands on” to me means so much more than an elementary student following textbook examples of base 10 models or snap cubes.

The point of hands on is to touch. To play an active role. To experience the learning. To feel. To experiment. To explore.

Take a look at your child’s textbooks, particularly at the elementary school level. You will see “Hands On Activity” every few pages. It is actually quite brilliant. It makes the textbook seem progressive and gives teachers an easy way to add collaborative work into their lesson plans, but is it really “hands on” learning? I would argue that often it isn’t more than lip service.

If the students were really doing “hands on” learning, then they would actually put their hands on more than just plastic manipulatives or computer screens. They would go where they could put their hands on real things. Teachers would fill their classrooms with interesting things for their students to put their hands on like artifacts, organisms, sticks, rocks, tools, old books with tattered yellowing pages, encyclopedias, and even people from different walks of life to share stories and shake hands.

With their hands on learning, students would be less distracted, frustrated, and disengaged. Learning is most powerful when it comes organically.

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So Sick of “Standards”

You pretty much have to live under a rock, and a really big one at that, to not have heard the term Common Core Standards.

Ok, well I have a new one for you, have you heard of the Next Generation Science Standards?

Sounds good, right?

I mean who doesn’t want to be a part of the “Next Generation”? What are the alternatives?

Time travel or death?

To be fair, I have not taken the time to really delve into the comprehensive website that has been compiled to explain the need, rationale, and support for these standards. But if you have the time, it looks like a great, albeit expensive to produce, read.

Here’s the link: http://www.nextgenscience.org/ 

Just think of all of the money the Common Core Standards cost. All of the new textbooks, materials, training, curriculum mapping, lesson planning, and resources. Not to mention all of the people paid to develop the standards, materials, and curriculum.

But even better think of all of the money that was made. What better way to  boost to our economy than completely revamping the math and ELA standards on a national level? Sure the rhetoric was lovely. Common Core would achieve lofty goals.

  • Every student held to the same standard.
  • All students would have an equal opportunity to quality education.
  • Academic rigor would dominate.
  • The tests would determine career and college readiness from grade 3.
  • Data and resources could be shared across the country.

There is a whole Common Core website rich with resources, FAQ’s and explanations on a fabulously extensive website, one that was no doubt expensive to create.

Here is the link if you are interested in learning more: http://www.corestandards.org/

But the rhetoric failed to mention how incredibly profitable the whole endeavor was to companies like Pearson, who produced the majority of the new materials and tests. In fact, it was so profitable that they decided to tackle the science standards too!

It’s hard to compile how much the shift to Common Core cost the average school district. But as our local school district spent more money on curriculum, training, and materials and made more cuts to faculty, staff, and extra curriculars…I couldn’t help but wonder.

So many of the people in charge of making and approving school budgets have no clue what they are doing. They don’t read the new standards. They don’t think about the changes. They just act or trust that their superintendents know best. And that needs to stop.

Perhaps our school budgets wouldn’t be so strapped and so many teachers wouldn’t lose their jobs or stipends, if they would stymie the race to buy everything to keep up with the ever-changing, ever-shiny new standards.

The Next Generation Science Standards website makes me sick. I can see the waterfall of dollars beginning, even as the class time for science in elementary school is being reduced. The only good that may come of this is that the tide hemorrhaging of elementary science will take a turn for the better as science tests become more important in the upper grades.

But I can’t help but suggest that the way to improve science instruction and “rigor” is not expensive at all. And it doesn’t require new standards, curriculum, training, or a ton of new, expensive resources. Technology is not a requirement either.

I am even going to explain it without the help of a fancy,expensive website and staff of writers and researchers. Just me and my little cheap blog.

That’s right.

What if the Next Generation would be better off trying to look like the previous one?

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Examining birds while waiting for a monarch tagging workshop.

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Nature’s playground

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Playing with perspective

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At the American Museum of Natural History in New York City examining dinosaurs. How many field trips have been cut over the years?

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Learning about how soap works by experimenting with milk and food coloring.

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An oldie but goodie, making a water xylophone.

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Experimenting with different types of food and the effect on the activity of yeast. After filling we put balloons on top to capture and help us measure the gas produced.

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Observing

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What goes up….

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Play is work.

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Before we left, he built a shelter out of shells to protect his favorite crab from the scavenging seagulls overhead.

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Still wondering what animal this femur (?) came from.

A decomposing skate found in Cape May. We examined it's partially detached jaw bone.

A decomposing skate found in Cape May. We examined its partially detached jaw bone.

Learning to stop and take a deep breath to appreciate beauty.

Learning to stop and take a deep breath to appreciate beauty.

That Student

He was that student.

You know the type. He talked when the teacher said quiet. He stood up when the teacher said sit down. When it was time to work, he asked to go to the bathroom. When it was time to hand in homework, his rarely if ever made it into the collection pile.

On the bright side, he had a winning smile. He could make the teacher laugh on those days she wasn’t driven to want to cry. He had some great insights when novels were discussed, though he was loathe to write them down.

The difference was that his English teacher one year had just arrived at that suburban school from teaching in some of the roughest neighborhoods in the country. She didn’t buy his tough guy talk that he was from the “ghetto”, for she had seen the ghetto and that town didn’t have one. His shenanigans didn’t even shake her, for she had come from places where kids fought and cursed and came to school fueled with the kind of anger that drove third graders to throw over desks…sometimes at her.

When he brought a book to class to read, he claimed it was a great story. She recognized it as a piece of adult urban erotica she had seen in other places. She brought it to the teachers’ room and a colleague commented, “Well I bet that’s all your kids in Newark read, right?” His joke wasn’t funny. And it wasn’t funny when she asked the guidance counselor to schedule a meeting, and she said his mother probably wouldn’t come anyway. And it wasn’t funny when she did come and showed no parenting skills at all.

He was that student.

Back in 7th grade that year, he was crying out for help and probably had been for years. He couldn’t read well. He acted up to cover up for it, like so many other kids like him.

But back then he was just a pain in the neck to his teachers. It wasn’t until high school that he started really disrupting classes and making his teachers cry out to the administrators to “do something” with the kid.

An administrator had the sense and heart to go back and ask that 7th grade teacher what she had done to reach him. How had she handled his behavior? What advice could she give?

What could she say? Sure she remembered him. She remembered all of her students.

The one who she walked home from school down the dangerous drug-infested streets of Baltimore to tell her parents about her disrespectful, disruptive behavior. They didn’t have a phone and she couldn’t bear to have her ruin another day. The one whose father answered the door strung out on drugs and offered to beat her right there in the street.

The one who was 14 years old with a mustache in the 6th grade. The one whose father abused him and called him stupid. The one who was a gang member and whose mother admitted to being one too. The one who had rival gang members try to break into her classroom to jump him, while she was teaching. The one who she would walk the streets on her lunch break to find and convince to come back to school. The one who came back to hug her when he heard she was moving, despite getting expelled days before she would get approval for skipping him ahead to the high school based on a portfolio she worked with him to create. An approval that was revoked when he set off fireworks in a school hallway.

The one on her basketball team who was barred from playing because the switchblade she carried to protect herself, on her ride home in the dark on the subway, fell out of her backpack in math class. The one who cried that basketball was her life and that she would never hurt anyone unless she had to.

What could she have said that would have saved him? What could have been done so that a few short years later she didn’t read his name in a police report, telling he was accused of drug distribution to a minor and the illegal possession of a weapon.

The drugs that are choking our society will never go away, if schools don’t step up and start trying to reach those kids. Teachers like her are flailing. pressured to show achievement in a system that is failing so many.

That student was failed by us all, even the teacher who cared so much.

She should have kept pushing. We all should.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

-Martin Luther King Jr.

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Children Will Learn What We Teach Them

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”

-Albert Einstein

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

-Maya Angelou

I know, without a doubt, that years after being in my class that my students don’t remember the themes of the novels I so diligently taught. They don’t remember the exact words of the comments I wrote obsessively in purple pen all over their essays. But I know they remember feeling like my class was more than just reading and writing some words.

Standards.

Objectives.

Assessments

Data.

Evaluations.

Education in this country has become obsessed with trying to quantify learning. But learning is not an a+b=c kind of endeavor. The answer is not a formula to be derived.

The PARCC test has been heralded as being able to determine if a child is on the track to career and college readiness in as early as the third grade. This test, though abandoned by many states, is driving education in the state of NJ and a few other states late to the discovery that it is actually a poorly designed assessment.

Elementary curriculum continues to be narrowed (since NCLB) to focus solely on reading and math. Math is being narrowed to focus on one methodology of teaching (whether it is right or wrong is not the point). Reading is being narrowed by a focus on informational texts (despite cuts to time spent on history and science) and by an obsession with technology (to simulate the test, students are assigned keyboarding practice and shown video clips daily in lieu of being read to by their teachers).

These shifts may seem minor to the untrained eye, or even a sign of the times where the digital age now rules. But, this cannot be further from the truth.

If all we teach our children in school is to do math a specific way, read certain types of texts and answer certain types of questions, and a handful of technology “skills” like drag and drop, scroll and how to type quickly, then that is what our children will learn. If we drill these things hard enough and long enough, then test them on it….they will pass with flying colors. The problem is that we will be patting ourselves on the back with the same hand that has robbed a generation of a true education.

Training is not education.

Education is imitation borne of admiration.

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Education is exploration.

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Kids doing archaeology in the backyard to find buried objects.

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Kids exploring the Metropolitan Museum of Art after learning about Ancient Egypt.

Education is experience and explanation.

Kids learning about irrigation from a friend who is a farmer.

Kids learning about irrigation from a friend who is a farmer.

Learning about evolution from his Daddy.

Learning about evolution from his Daddy, who is a physician.

Education is hands-on and often messy.

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Education is best shared with a smile.

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When we teach children, we are teaching much more than how to read or write or compute.

We are teaching them how to think, to live, and to love…

Or else we are teaching them not to.