Attention Governor Christie: The Study Commission on the Use of Assessments Needs a New Face

Dear Members of the Study Commission,

Thank you for your service on this Commission thus far. I was present in the audience at the public hearing in Jackson and presented my testimony in Camden. The number of people who took the time to come to the hearings and deliver such well-researched and passionate testimony speaks to the severity of the problem the use of assessments in NJ has become.

The fact that the head of the Commission, Commissioner Hespe, left the hearing in Camden after only two hours of testimony without explanation or apology alone is grounds for him to be removed as head of the Commission. Furthermore, it was a grossly dishonest misrepresentation of the testimony delivered at all three hearings for Mr. Hespe to publish an article in the Asbury Park Press just three days after he left the hearing prematurely.

(http://www.app.com/story/opinion/columnists/2015/02/20/nj-ed-commish-parents-demand-test-like-parcc/23754797/)

I have started an active campaign to takeover Mr. Hespe’s position as head of the Commission. Please take a moment to read the Open Letter that I wrote to Mr. Hespe.

https://pushingthependulum.com/2015/02/22/an-open-letter-to-the-nj-state-commissioner-of-education-david-hespe/

photo credit: kdphotography67.com

Paige Vaccaro testifying before the Commission in Camden photo credit: kdphotography67.com

I have sent a copy to Governor Christie and have applied formally on the DOE website to be appointed to this position. I also plan to take any steps necessary to make my campaign known to the public.

My experience as an educator for 12 years has been quite diverse. I have taught in three states in both public and charter schools. I have taught in the inner city communities of Baltimore, Brooklyn and Newark and in a suburb in Monmouth County. I have also tutored and run classes at the high school and college level in addition to preparing and presenting several professional development workshops.

I am certified to teach grades K-12 and have home schooled preschool for three of my four children so far. I am an active member in the community who often attends and speaks at board meetings. I have also served as a Vice President of a local PTA. I am an English major adept at reading and analyzing large amounts of information and a skilled writer as evidenced by my popular blog http://www.pushingthependulum.com.

I recognize that there are already teachers serving as members. However, I resigned from teaching in August of 2014, therefore I am able to speak more freely about the issues that teachers face. I am also a mother to four young children and feel that the commission desperately needs true parent representation. The Commission member from the NJPTA does not represent all of its members fairly as shown with the We Raise NJ and JerseyCAN campaign that are blatantly pro-PARCC. This is a conflict of interest if the Commission’s goal is to provide the Governor with a fair, unbiased report on the use of assessments in NJ.

At the very least, to balance the pro-PARCC members of the Commission, there ought to be a member of the refusal movement on the Commission as well.

I would appreciate a prompt response to my request to avoid any unnecessary steps, such as a petition. However, I am more than prepared to start one and to follow through with my intention to transform this Commission into what it should have been from the start. The residents of NJ deserve to be heard and for their testimony to be represented fairly and considered appropriately.

Once a member of this Commission, I intend to explore other ways, besides public hearings and accepting emails, to gauge the effects of assessments in NJ. I would help develop surveys for parents, students, teachers, and administrators to get a more widespread idea of public opinions on the matter. Much of NJ has no idea that this Commission even exists, so how can their voices be heard?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Paige Vaccaro

A Different Kind of Refusal

There are a hundred articles I could be writing about tonight. I am itching to write again and take a rest from trying to hold Commissioner Hespe accountable for walking out on the public hearing. Yet somehow I just can’t seem to let it go.

My obsession with getting my letter out there in the public eye led me to delusions of grandeur. My mother called after reading it to express her concern about me taking over the job as the NJ State Commissioner of Education. She wanted to know if I would move to Trenton and who would take care of the kids. I chuckled at her for taking me so seriously, but then I found myself falling deeply in love with the “What if”.

What if NJ had an Education Commissioner that wasn’t a politician?

What if I could actually hold a public hearing and listen to people’s concerns and respond thoughtfully and respectfully to their testimonies? What if I took their concerns to heart and fought to represent them properly to the media and in turn to the Governor?

What if I could make research and testimony-based suggestions about how education could be improved?

What if I had the ear of the media and I could say more than what the special interests like Pearson and Google want me to?

So many what if’s. Then, the Washington Post sent me a rejection email that was only two sentences long. Yet I had to read those two short sentences five times just to understand that they did not want to publish my open letter to David Hespe. I thought for sure they were mistaken. But again it was like testifying in front of the Study Commission, you can have all of the passion and sound reasoning in the world… it really doesn’t matter.

Hespe walks out of the public hearing without an explanation and doesn’t return nor apologize. Then, two days later Hespe gets a piece published in the Star Ledger. Hespe mentions nothing about portion of the testimonies he heard, and instead spews more pro-PARCC rhetoric.

What do I get? A rejection email from the Washington Post and silence from all of the other news outlets I contact. Even though I am the one with four kids in public school. I am the one with 12 years of teaching experience. I am the one who drove to Camden even though a pipe broke in my house. I am the one who stays up until all hours of the night reading, researching and writing to stop these tests that will harm my children, not his.

It doesn’t matter.

He is the one with the title.

I guess it was kind of silly of me to think I would score publication on my first real try. I guess those who say I am an idealist are right. I stood at my kitchen sink washing some of the never-ending tower of dirty dishes and tears started to fall from my eyes. I could hardly believe myself. I really thought that that letter would go viral and the people of NJ would rally behind me as the new Commissioner. I really thought that finally I would break through and make a real difference in the lives of our collective children.

I felt the dream puncture and deflate like a balloon.

Harlem

BY LANGSTON HUGHES

What happens to a dream deferred?
      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

So, do I just let it go? Or do I start a petition to take over as Commissioner or at least become the new head of the Study Commission? What do you think?

All hope is not lost. My letter has over 3,300 views already. Many have sent messages or left comments in support of my letter. A reporter from local paper in Northern Jersey contacted me to say she wanted to publish it. I could keep emailing, tweeting, trying.

I could refuse to believe that people like me don’t matter. I could refuse to allow an appointed official act as if he is above those who pay his salary. I could refuse to allow people to make decisions for our children that do not listen to research, parents, teachers, administrators, board members, or the children themselves.

What do you think I should do?

Paige Vaccaro Testifying before Hespe and the Study Commission photo credit: kdphotography67.com

Paige Vaccaro testifying before Hespe and the Study Commission.
photo credit: kdphotography67.com

Activism in Education: Looking Beyond the PARCC

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As the dates for the test get closer, it becomes less and less likely that NJ will join the many states that have bowed out of the PARCC. The conversation has turned to focus on how to compose a refusal letter and figuring out what each district will do with the children who have refusal letters on file.

In many ways, being a part of this movement has been inspiring. I have watched more and more parents getting informed and asking tough questions. There are so many Facebook groups that have formed on the national level such as “Opt Out of the State Test-The National Movement” (14,000+ members), the state level such as “Opt Out of the State Standardized Tests-New Jersey” (5,000 members), and at the local level such as “Ocean Township Cares About Schools” (177 members).

These groups have helped to disseminate research and articles. But they have also helped people to connect with one another in a very powerful way. No longer do people have to feel like lone rangers, but they can draw upon others for strength and support. It isn’t one person against one principal or superintendent or school board anymore. Through social media, the movement was able to start and continues to grow.

Radio stations like 101.5 have engaged in the conversation. Jim Gearhart has been instrumental in giving parents a platform to voice their concerns on his talk show. Newspapers both online and in print, have run articles and editorials giving the public a glimpse of the debate raging across the state and country.

This week there is a round of public hearings scheduled where people can register to deliver testimony about their views on testing in NJ. This will no doubt lead to even more media publicity for critics of the PARCC test, which will lead to even more people joining the struggle.

But the real impetus for parents will come when the PARCC starts and their kids struggle.

The test is too long. Many of the questions are too confusing and developmentally inappropriate. Many children do not have to typing or PARCC-specific computer skills to succeed. Pearson may not even find enough graders to score the test, since the company has resorted to advertising on Craigslist.  When those tests are scored, many are going to fail. And I was rooting for sit and stare, simply because the debacle it would have created would have further escalated the demise of the PARCC.

In a nutshell, the PARCC will in all likelihood implode itself without much more help. But what then? Does anyone really believe the obsession with testing and data-mining will end there? Education is a lucrative business and as long as it stays that way, our children are in jeopardy. This grassroots parent movement cannot just be a movement, because movements start, they grow, and then they die.

Diets don’t work, because they are not permanent solutions. To lose weight and keep it off you have to make a lifestyle change. The same goes for parents. You cannot send a refusal letter or shout at a few board meetings then go back to life as usual.

Just as high stakes tests will not eradicate poverty or give parents and teachers all of the answers they are looking for, ending them will not create a utopia in education. Our education system needs this activism to continue long after the PARCC test has come and gone. We need students, parents, teachers, administrators, board members, and politicians to keep talking, keep thinking, and keep moving towards one positive change after another.

It isn’t hard to organize a group of people against something that is detrimental to society, particularly with social media. But the real trick would be to get these people to then become a real resource for schools. These groups could share research, articles, and practices, then work together to put pressure on their administrators and school boards to adopt more progressive reforms. This should and could happen locally. We must stop looking to the federal government to fix everything.

If the goal is better schools, then simply rallying against the PARCC or other tests like it will not be enough. There has to be energy, effort, and activism put into alternative reforms and the best place to start are these small local groups that this fight has formed. Start the conversation by asking, “If we don’t want to see the PARCC in our schools, then what DO we want to see?”

What do you want to see in your schools? Please share in the comments below.

I know I want to see more field trips, more project-based learning, and more science and social studies in the elementary school curriculum…and that’s just for starters!

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Mr. Obama, “You Suck” (A Guest Post by my husband Dr. Carl Vaccaro D.O.)

I will start this out by saying that I don’t really care about who is president.  In reality it doesn’t matter.  All the pointless arguing we do about whether or not the president’s policies are good or bad, or which party’s policies would be better or worse, does nothing but blind us to our lack of freedom.  The president, as a position and a character, has become nothing but a polarizing figure; nothing but a tool used to make us hate each other.  A political circus is created as a source of hatred, so that we will argue and fight with each other, instead of seeing that the real enemy is the power behind the government.

The best evidence of this would be the argument over gun control.  There are few issues today that create as much hatred and animosity than the debate over gun ownership.  One one side is a  group that believes that as long as I can own my missile launcher, the constitution is preserved and I can rest easy.  On the other hand are the people who feel that every gun is a gun used to kill and feel that all guns should be banned.  We have all heard the trite and inflammatory arguments.  But the reality is much more complex.

On one side of the the coin is a co-worker whose husband hunts.  He owns guns in order to provide low cost healthy food for his family.  He took his son hunting for the first time and informed him that if he wasn’t ready to prepare a deer for butchering than he wasn’t ready to hunt.  This would be a reasonable argument for gun ownership.

The flip side of the coin was a published medical epidemiological article that showed that statistically a gun owner was more likely to commit suicide then to shoot a home intruder.  http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/160/10/929.full   Guns for home protection are more likely to cause an accident or be the agent of suicide then anything else.  It’s not that gun owners are more likely to commit suicide, but rather that it is statistically unlikley that you will need a gun in order to protect your home.

You can see how if we actually have a rational conversation about gun ownership, most of the hatred on both sides melts away, and maybe…just maybe we can do something that they don’t want…find common ground.  If we spend so much time and energy fighting each other on things that are essentially non-issues, we will never get to the real issues.  The real question is why is all of this on an education blog.

The Common Core and testing has drastically de-emphasized history and literature.  There is no standardized test for history, and they have forsaken classical literature for non-fiction.  The real question is why?

History gives us our context; it gives us knowledge of where we came from, and the ability to question.  As does analyzing  literature, especially classical literature. The standardized tests endorsed by the government have created an environment where the classes that give us the knowledge and ability to question and be critical are devalued.  If you really tie money and teacher pay/jobs to test scores, but don’t test history or literature, what does that mean?  We will be able to type, we will be able to program computers, we will be able to read technical writing, but will we be able to think and question why?

Maybe we will be allowed to own guns to defend ourselves from the government, but will we be smart enough to know when to shoot them and who to shoot them at?

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Our son chose to go to Valley Forge for his birthday to learn more about the Revolutionary War. His anti-gun mother bit her tongue.

Dr. Carl Vaccaro, D.O.

A Love Deficit

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Just 5 minutes ago, I held my 14-month-old daughter, while my 3-year-old son clung to my leg. We waved goodbye to my kindergartener and second grader, before the school bus pulled away.

There was something about the way their faces were framed in the glass. A simple gesture, my oldest pressed his palm flat against the glass, but it took my breath away. All of the stress of the morning rush drained out of me, and I was filled by an overwhelming sense of love.

This morning my husband had the TV news on, which is not the norm in our house. I read the printed newspaper, and then get most of my news online. I prefer it that way. So that I can pick and choose the amount of negativity I want to let into my brain.

But my son’s palm….pure love. So different from the news, where protesters were chanting about wanting dead cops.

This week has been emotional. I have become increasingly passionate and motivated about educating people on the impacts of high-stakes testing on schools. I have been excited by the connections I have made to like-minded people. I have been encouraged by the growing readership of this blog.

On the other hand, I have been touched by tragedies. A few days ago, I looked up my most influential college professor, to share my blog with him, only to find that his son recently went missing in NYC.

http://town-village.com/2014/12/08/missing-stuy-town-mans-family-says-he-may-have-left-the-city/

Suddenly, it didn’t matter to me that I had 300 views on my blog. My heart ached. I tried to imagine missing one of my own children. That night I closed my computer and took a rest from my obsessive writing, because I just wanted to hold my kids and pray for Andreas Robbins’s safety.

Then it happened again. I bumped into an old friend at the mall. I went to give her a big hug, and she shied away. Her husband quickly said, “She can’t hug you.” Then she said three words, “”It came back.” She meant her cancer. Out of respect for her privacy, I won’t detail the tragedies she has faced in her life, but know they are of the most painful imaginable.

On the car ride home from the mall, I heard that it was the anniversary of the Newtown massacre. When that tragedy happened, I had just returned to teaching after a 1 and a half year maternity leave, and my father had just passed away. I remember sitting in Barnes and Noble with the People magazine cover in front of me. Something about all of those faces. No one knows this, but I bought that magazine and carried it in my work bag for the rest of the school year with all of the papers I had to grade.

I didn’t really analyze why at the time. But today when I saw my son’s palm pressed against the glass, I knew why.  The grief was too much to comprehend. At the time, I had lost my father, whom I was so close to, and the grief I felt was crushing. But I could not imagine the grief those people felt having their loved ones shot and killed in a horrific act of violence in an elementary school. That shook me. It still does.

Perhaps I carried that magazine, so close to the work of my students, to remind myself that teaching is more than just lesson plans, grading papers, and delivering instruction. It is more than just ensuring that students learn. It is more than inspiring them to think and to be excited about learning. It is about love.

I guess that’s why the new direction of reform is so upsetting to me. The idea that education is something that can be “data-driven”, “standards-based”, or “rigorous”.  The fact that teachers should be held accountable. Yeah all of that sounds good. But when the corporations and politicians dictate education policy, it is the love that gets lost.

Children growing up in today’s society are inheriting a world with a deficit of love. Perhaps to be career and college ready, what our children need most….is love.

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An Email from My Father: Positivity, Love, and a Call to Action

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I asked my Mom, a retired kindergarten teacher, if I could interview her for this blog. In typical “tough mom” fashion, she said she would think about it. Stay tuned…

So as a I sit here, encouraged by the fact that so many people are reading my writing, I was trying to figure out what else to write. There are so many thoughts and emotions running through me that tonight I can’t seem to focus. (Or maybe it’s all the text messages asking me for my new address for Christmas cards that people are sending, when I have yet to give Christmas cards a minute’s consideration.)

I have been reading a lot about race relations in the wake of the Michael Brown case and Eric Garner. But in my current sleep deprived state, I am going to choose to defer to my dad’s thoughts and message.  Tonight I came across an email from my Dad that I had shared over a year ago on Facebook. My father was a leader and a fiery independent thinker.  So even though he died before he knew what a blog was, his story will shine here, as it has in my classroom over years as I told stories to my students about his life experiences.

Dear Paula, Matthew, Paige and Gregory.

I have some special feelings about what has happened on November 4th 2008.  I would like to let all of you know a little about why I have such feeling by telling you a brief history about my life and what I had to deal with as a young person growing up in the small town on Carlisle Pennsylvania.

I was born in 1941 the year Pearl Harbor was attacked. In Carlisle I went to kindergarden and first grade in segrated schools and I went to second grade in my first  interegrated school.  The remainder of my schooling in Carlisle was done in such schools.

My graduating class of 1959 there were eight black students.  I used the term black because there was no such thing at that time as an African-American.  We were known as Negros and not blacks.  I remember reading a article about my basketball ability which was that I was a “negro with gazelle like skills.”

I played football, basketball, baseball and my senior year I ran on the mile relay team in the district finals.  I chose to go to Tennesee State to college because my brother Clyde went to Prudue University and told me that he had a very rough time there with traveling and being with the team so I took his advice and went to an predomently black school in the south.

The city of Nashville was segrated during the sit-ins. Of the 60’s I personally couldn’t allow myself to be subjected to some of the things that blacks had to go to at that time.  We traveled by bus and it wasn’t good.  There were signs telling Negros where to eat written on the floor.

I seem to have to tell you guys so much I realize that It would take reams of paper to do so.  I want to say some other things about my family that I want you to know however, I will stop this part and tell you to look for Part 2 of this e-mail.  I love all of you and I am proud of all of you and I cherish the life that we’ve had and still do have I will always support all of you and particularly my wife, your mother.

I will send you the next part soon.

                                     I Love Everyone

                                     Daddy

This is a historic time in our lives so remember you can achieve anything in life. Yes we can.

Racism did not end in my father’s lifetime, and it probably won’t in mine either. But perhaps, if we as a nation come together and admit that our current education system is broken, then maybe we can start to heal the racial divide whose open wounds taint the lives of us all.

What happened to Michael Brown and Eric Garner was tragic and incidents of police brutality must be investigated and prevented. But thousands of children, not just black children, suffer everyday in schools that are failing to meet their needs. Why not start with the children? When a school is failing, let’s not abandon it to be inherited by those not fortunate enough to be able to move or afford private school. In every neighborhood there are born leaders, but what is missing is the public support.

When the protests are over, and the media moves on to something else….will those protestors get up off the ground and do the long, hard work that will really and truly prove that they believe that “Black Lives Matter”? Because if they do matter, then, Common Core and high-stakes testing are not going fix anything. The solution must come from the people.

As I look at more and more “Stop Common Core” Facebook pages, I find almost as much insulting propaganda as was in the pro Common Core commercials I posted yesterday. Hate only breeds hate.

My Dad never got a chance to send us part two of the email. So it’s a good thing he ended with positivity, love, and a call to action.

dadmom

Common Core Commercials: Who Pays?

A firm believer in limiting screen time, I try my best to follow through. But I do recognize that it is not the root of all evil.

I DVR DWTS and Chopped to indulge on nights when I am not blogging, reading,  or passing out from exhaustion. But all day, I keep the TV off the vast majority of the time. However, my youngest boy is almost 4 and loves the shows Rescue Bots and How It’s Made. How It’s Made is educational, but the Rescue Bot obsession drives me nuts.

The Rescue Bots is a cute show, don’t get me wrong. Not much violence, no guns really, and some funny irony for the parents stuck watching. But my issue isn’t with the show. We can’t get the show On Demand, so we have to DVR it.  That means commercials. I try my best to fast forward, but sometimes it just isn’t possible.

Well today I was in the kitchen washing dishes and heard a commercial for the Common Core. I shut the water off and walked in just in time to see it was sponsored by the Urban League, Comcast and NBCUniversal. I rewatched it, and was so angry by what I saw.

Here are links link to the two ads that ran during that television show:

Put Our Children 1st PSA – Everybody Wins

Put Our Children 1st PSA – Full Potential

The president of the urban league, Marc H. Morial, has an impressive resume as an entrepreneur, lawyer, professor, mayor, CEO…yet he has no experience as a teacher. Having taught for 5 years in the ghettos of Baltimore, Brooklyn, and Newark, I can, without reservation, tell you that he was either paid a whole lot or just simply never stepped foot in an inner city classroom. Even in the suburbs, there is a pervasive divide when it comes to race and socioeconomic status. This divide was not remedied by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and it won’t be by the Common Core either.

How will Common Core be equally implemented in schools overrun by violence, drugs, and gangs? How will Common Core feed all of the children who come to school hungry, sad, angry, or all of the above? How will it fix the segregation in our nation’s schools? Before I taught in the suburbs of NJ, I taught in 3 schools in 3 different states where poverty reigned, and I did not have a single white student.  How will Common Core fix the inequality, corruption, complacency?

Not to mention that when money is tied to test scores, people will cheat. I am not saying they might, I am saying that they WILL. How do I know? Because I have witnessed it with my own eyes. In Baltimore, I had a principal come into MY 3rd grade classroom and make kids erase the wrong answers and fill in the right ones.

In Brooklyn, I had a test booklet from the previous year slipped onto my desk after school hours with instructions for me to review it with my students days before the test. That test booklet had more than 50% of the same questions on the test my students took. The testing companies repeat questions from year to year, therefore usually they only release tests that are already 5 years old. I never found out where that test booklet came from, but all of the teachers in the grade received one on the same day in the same way. Thankfully and by sheer luck, I ignored the note and decided that my kids did not need anymore practice. But during the test my classroom phone rang and a fellow colleague was terrified because his students recognized the questions and accused him of cheating.

This is the dirty side of education. The one most people don’t hear about. But I can assure you, that I have no hidden agenda. I just want the empty promises that these commercials promise to be true. That’s why they make me so angry.

Comcast and NBCUniversal won’t sponsor my message….because the truths I speak simply don’t make anyone money.