PARCC Or Bust

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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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Children Will Learn What We Teach Them

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“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.

Monkey in the Middle

“One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn’t belong.”

Hopscotch.

Double dutch.

Kickball.

Catch.

Flip flop.

One of these games has no place in the schoolyard. One of these games is hurtful to children and impossible to play fairly.

Flip flop.

A game suited for politics not education.

Education has become the playground for politicians. They change policies and stances on a whim trying to appeal to voters, when the winds of favor begin to shift. A scant few of these decision-makers have any experience or knowledge in the field of education, yet every single one has the confidence and often ignorant audacity to make grand statements and enact sweeping changes without a minute’s hesitation.

Sure, one can argue that politicians have advisers. They assemble commissions. They hold public town hall meetings. They fill in the gaps of their experience and knowledge with the wisdom and experience of others.

However, this system of communication is broken. The advisers do not possess the knowledge or experience base specific to K-12 education and the voices of the public are simply not heard.

Take NJ for example. Governor Chris Christie appointed David Hespe to Commissioner of Education. Hespe has some experience in education (see his bio), but it is limited to mostly the college level except for a stint as Assistant and Interim Superintendent in Willingboro School District. He also did some work with STEM activities at Liberty Science Center. However, the vast majority of his experience is political.

So we have Commissioner Hespe, who headed the Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in NJ. I was able to attend two of the three public hearings held by this Commission and witnessed students, parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members speak about the damaging effects of the PARCC tests and the implementation of Common Core. Yet, after each of these public hearings, Hespe published an Op-Ed piece continuing to laud the benefits of Common Core and PARCC in the state of NJ. He did not acknowledge the experience and knowledge of the public who took the time and energy to prepare and deliver testimony. Read my testimony here.

In fact, Commissioner Hespe cared so little about what the public had to say that during the third public hearing he walked out during a short lunch break and did not return. Hespe never gave an excuse or an apology, nor did he or Governor Christie, who appointed him, respond to my petition asking to replace him as the head of the Study Commission.

So when Governor Christie came out suddenly against the Common Core, I knew his decision run for president would not be far behind. Why? Because it was purely a political move. If it had any educational weight at all, then it would have stemmed from those public hearings, from the town hall meetings, from the growing opt out movement in the state, or from the droves of frustrated students, parents, teachers, and administrators.

Flip flop.

In an article by Amanda Oglesby in App.com, Christie appears to be one with the people of NJ.

“I have heard from far too many people — teachers and parents from across the state — that the Common Core standards were not developed by New Jersey educators and parents,” Christie, who is running for president, said in a May speech at Burlington County College. “As a result, the buy-in from both communities has not been what we need for maximum achievement. I agree. It is time to have standards that are even higher and come directly from our communities.”

The problem is that he hasn’t heard anyone really. He tells teachers to shut up. His own Commissioner walks out of public hearings.

Under his direction, NJ has spent millions on the conversion to Common Core Standards and the Common Core-aligned PARCC tests through the tests themselves and the new curriculum, technology, and countless hours of professional development that they have required. He already has what he calls “buy-in”, because our tax money has already been spent and wasted.

Flip flop.

When this new imagined set of community-created standards hits the ground, who will pay for all of those changes? Will Pearson, the company cashing in on all of the flips and flops refund the money spent, so that NJ can invest it in mythical standards that are even ‘higher’?

Maybe politicians like Christie ought to learn a new game.

Just for a moment stop the lip service and take a look at the monkey in the middle.

Our children.

Except for them this is more than a game and they are the ones losing.

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Dear Star Ledger Editorial Board, Dial Yourselves Down

For many years, I did not read the newspaper. I was busy balancing a teaching career and a new, growing family. All a newspaper subscription was to me was more stuff that I had to squeeze into our overflowing recycling can.

I am also stubborn and literally pay for nothing that I read or do online. No iTunes. (I use free Pandora, ads and all.) No extra lives or power-ups on Candy Crush. No book downloads unless they are free, which is part of the reason why I am reading Oliver Twist. No online news subscriptions. Okay fine, we do pay for Netflix, but I feel like that doesn’t count since we have been members since the days of mailing the DVD’s back in those little red envelopes.

But in October we moved to a town in a different county in NJ, and I wanted to get to know our new area. I ordered daily delivery and at least skim the Atlantic City Press every day.  Overall, I find it a great way to get to know local politics, businesses, and events. However, the more I get involved in education reform, the more I become infuriated with the lack of balance in reporting both locally and across the state. Few reporters ever question those they interview with any questions that challenge their views or politics. Therefore, the media becomes a platform that allows them to stand upon and control the message that reaches the public. This is exactly how Education Commissioner David Hespe got away with spreading his pro-PARCC message just days after he walked out in the middle of a public hearing.

The last straw for me though was an editorial published by the Star Ledger Editorial Board yesterday telling the public in reference to the “collective freakout” about the PARCC test, “Let’s try to dial it down.” Should the public really be taking advice about how to feel about education from the editorial board of a newspaper? What sort of authority or education do they have regarding education?

The editorial begins by saying, “…Of course, no kid should be forced to sit for hours and stare at a blank computer screen while other students take it.” Well, clearly the Editorial Board missed the fact that before parents started to fight back, many school districts were implementing sit and stare policies. The “of course” was not so obvious to many school administrators and school boards across the state of NJ.

Secondly, yes, it was a bit rash to call Pearson’s surveillance of social media “spying” but the hysteria that surrounded that discovery should not downplay real legitimate questions about transparency, the internet, and our children. The public has a right to know what their tax dollars are paying for, what exactly these companies are looking for and in turn doing with the information that they collect.

Finally, the most ridiculous claim of the entire editorial came late in the article.

Remember that there is a broader public purpose here, one much more important than taking pot shots at the PARCC. One of the main reasons we need this standardized test is for parents in struggling districts like Camden or Newark, who would otherwise have no way of knowing whether their kids are in a failing school.

“Pot shots”? Yes, that is why so many people traveled to Jackson and Camden to present testimony to Commissioner Hespe…to take a pot shot. That is why thousands of people refused the test for their children…to take a pot shot. That is why 500 early childhood experts signed a statement calling the Common Core Standards, upon which the PARCC test is based, developmentally inappropriate for young learners…to take a pot shot. That is why so many parents and teachers are concerned about the impact on learning time the PARCC creates by requiring two full testing periods a month apart….to take a pot shot.

But the lowest of the low is the assumption that the poorest communities of NJ desperately need the  PARCC test, because without it they can’t figure out that their kids are failing.

WHAT?!

Seriously, has anyone on the Star Ledger Editorial Board ever been to Newark or Camden? I would love to take a field trip to one of these cities with the Editorial Board. I would ask them to find one single parent that has no idea that their kid is failing or that more importantly that their schools are failing their kids. All they hear is about failure. They know the graduation rate is low. They know the incarceration rate is high. They know that crime, violence, and drugs threaten their children at every turn. They know that their schools are nothing like the schools that their Governor went to in Livingston, NJ. Every test has come back that the schools in these areas are riddled with failure and the PARCC test will be no different.

These communities do not need a test. They need learning. They need their schools to be safer. They need to use funding for quality, engaging curriculum and support services rather than meeting the expensive demands that an online test puts on the budget through technology and training requirements. They need lessons that inspire students rather than prep them for tests. They need gardens, playgrounds, field trips, science experiments, and after school clubs and sports. They need mentors. They need love, patience, and an understanding that poverty is a real influence on education and can not be cured by a test.

The Star Ledger Editorial Board has some of their own improving to do. Maybe they should ask Pearson to design a test for editorial boards so that maybe they can look around and see that they are not doing anyone any good by writing editorials like this.

In My Crazy Mind

Let me start with a true story (at least as true as I remember).

When I was about 10 years old, my family went to Sea World. I was quite the animal lover, and seals were my favorite. We bought some little sardines and threw them to the seals who barked happily. Well, even at that age, I had an overactive sense of justice. So I decided that I would save the cutest seal with the long eyelashes from being trapped in that unnatural place.

I leaned way too far over the edge, far in the corner hoping that no one would see me. I dangled the sardine, luring the seal closer to me, then tried to grab the seal by the neck at the same time. My plan was to pull it up from the tank and set it free. I am not really sure what I was going to do with a full-grown seal. I can imagine me with my puffy 80’s afro and cutoff jean shorts trying to run, dragging a barking seal. Of course I never got that far, but I still think it would have been a pretty awesome feat…at least until I got to my getaway car and realized I didn’t have the keys or know how to drive.

Okay, humor me….one more.

In 7th grade, at about age 13, my mom took us to the Ecology Site where we had been going since birth to see the animals. It’s a neat place with a wide variety of animals from bald eagles to bunnies and bears. I take my own children there to this day, when I go home to visit.

Well, that summer, the Ecology Site had a dairy cow visiting. I was a Long Island girl. I had never really had a close encounter with a light brown and white cow as beautiful and sweet as that one (or with any cow at all for that matter). I looked at her, and she looked at me with big brown eyes. It was love at first sight.

In all my teenage glory, I shrieked and cooed and proclaimed that it was the most beautiful creature in the world. (Did I mention that I have always had a penchant for drama?) Well, this went on and on and on. My mother was getting tired of my swoon fest and was ready to head home. I wasn’t having it. I wanted to stay and pet her forever. Those eyes! She even let me pet the short soft fur between her eyes. She didn’t belong at that horrible Ecology Site. She deserved to be free, I proclaimed.

Once again, I found myself concocting a plan where I could take the cow home with me. My mom had heard enough. No the cow is not that cute. No you can’t take her home. No I don’t want to hear about how cute she is again. Don’t be fooled by the fact that my mom is a kindergarten teacher. Her sarcasm is hardly elementary.

So, my mother started to walk away, and over her shoulder she nonchalantly quipped, “Yeah, well we will see how much you love that cow the next time you eat a hamburger.”

My jaw dropped. Her words hung in the air like smog, polluting my altruistic thoughts. Yet it only took me a second to retort, in full teenage rage, “I will NEVER eat meat again.”

Much to my mother’s dismay, I held true to my word. I have been a vegetarian ever since.

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Tomorrow PARCC testing starts for the 3rd and 4th graders in my sons’ school. Thankfully, my two older boys are in kindergarten and 2nd grade, so they won’t be impacted this year, for the most part. However, I have never been one to only care about my own children.

My heart has this fantasy where I just run into the school tomorrow, round-up all of the kids and lead them from their Chromebooks and the PARCC test and set them free into the field. Maybe the kids would all hold protest signs or maybe they would do science experiments or maybe write creative stories under the clouds or maybe they would just be.

Anything is possible….at least in my crazy mind.

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The Importance of Being “SOOPR MOM”

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The more involved I get in education reform, the deeper I get into politics and the further I see schools getting away from the best interests of children.

My son, who is in kindergarten, made this for me the other day in school. In fact nearly everyday, he comes home and pulls out a small squarish folded up piece of paper with a picture for me. It usually says, “SIMONMOM,” but he is coming along with his writing abilities. It shows how even at school, in the middle of all of the hustle and bustle, he is thinking about me.

I guess this is a perfect metaphor for why I have been relentless in fighting back against the PARCC and against people in positions of power that have clearly forgotten what it is like to be a parent of a young child. Truly education reform and the people driving it have lost touch with the wonder of childhood.

The children, for the most part, have no idea that the adults are fighting around them (except maybe those fortunate few whose parents have turned this fight into a civics lesson for them). They have no idea that when they enter their name into a computer that some company is collecting data about them that one day will turn into a profit.They have no idea that the test their teachers are proctoring was not made by those teachers, will not be graded by those teachers, and are in many cases not supported by those teachers. The very same teachers who are with them day in and day out taking care of them academically, socially, emotionally and more. They have no idea that their parents and grandparents did not have the pressures in school that are now the norm today. They have no idea that there may very well be a better way to learn.

Why?

Because they trust us.

The other day I watched my 5 year-old son run ahead of me and into the street. Thankfully no cars were coming, but I still pulled him aside and explained how dangerous it was to run out like that without looking both ways at least. He looked me in the eyes and said, “Well I knew you were watching, so I didn’t have to look.”  But what if I wasn’t watching and luck wasn’t in our favor?

The state of education today is a direct result of parents not watching. The more I watch the more I notice how so many others are not. It is not that parents don’t care, because I believe that the vast majority of parents want nothing but the best for their children. Yet, caring is not the same as watching and holding administrators, board members, city council members, local, state, and national politicians accountable. The Open Public Records Act is a powerful law, but only if people use it. Public hearings are pointless if the public is not informed. Politicians and other leaders will not listen if they know that no one is watching.

Every time I read an article about the PARCC test failing I think about how it NEVER should have been implemented across the entire state in the first year. The amount of money spent on this test is truly revolting as a recent article estimated that NJ will spend 22.1 million dollars on the PARCC test just this year. This doesn’t count the technology and training expenses that happened prior to the start of this test.

There will be no winners. Even if the anti-PARCC movement succeeds (as I believe that it will), there are still many people who will walk away from it with fatter pockets. Though in my heart of hearts I want to demand that the companies hand as much of that money as possible back to our schools and for those politicians who refused to listen to the criticisms of the public who elects them to lose their jobs, I will be satisfied if parents learn one lesson.

We need to be the superheroes our children trust us to be. We must constantly remain vigilant about what we allow to occur in education. For when we do not watch for villains, our children suffer. The PARCC is just one episode of an ongoing saga of good against evil playing out in our public schools.

Letter to the Editor AC Press: “PARCCing: No Time to Learn”

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In the article, “Schools Get More Time to give PARCC”, published on March 7, due to the weather delays and closings last week, the state Department of Education allowed for more days to add to the testing calendar. The testing window now extends until the week of March 24. Though snow cannot be predicted, the loss of learning time is inexcusable.  With a week off in April for spring break, students will then face an additional week of PARCC testing in May.

School districts have given up so much of the school year to tests that it leaves parents to wonder when their children have time to learn. The PARCC is nothing but a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Originally, there were 22 states participating in the PARCC consortium and now the number has dipped below 10 states. Why is NJ taking so long to abandon the expensive promises of high stakes standardized tests? As school budgets are approved this month with more cuts, pay attention to how much these tests are costing your district on top of what they are costing your children’s education. It is not too late to refuse. Put education back into the hands of teachers. Corporations like Pearson, who makes this test, do not have our children’s best interests in mind.