Who Isn’t Refusing the PARCC?

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This image might look familiar to you. Many have been changing their profile picture to show solidarity in the grassroots movement to refuse the high stakes PARCC test. This simple act will empower many to have the courage to compose and submit their refusal letter, even if they feel like they are the only ones in their town. There is power in numbers . This is an easy way to visually show the number of supporters and to increase their reach and power.

The refusal movement is growing and with the PARCC set to start tomorrow, the numbers will only rise. Though many of us have been working tirelessly to get the word out, many parents remain uninformed. Of course there are some who are informed and will choose not to refuse the test for their children.Perhaps they feel that the test is just another test. Or maybe they know their child will do well, and therefore it doesn’t bother them. Or even they may think the test is good practice for life. My goal is not to diminish their reasons, but to point out that their choice is an informed choice.

What about the overwhelming number of parents out there who are just simply not informed or misinformed?

Many school districts across the state have held information nights to present the parents with all of the wonderful benefits of the revolutionary PARCC test. If a parent does not have an education background and has faith in their schools, it would be easy after sitting through such a presentation to feel good about this new test. Who wouldn’t want a test that can really help the teachers and parents understand the needs of their children and get every child to be career and college read? Sounds great! And what’s more modern than a Chromebook? Technology is the way of the future, so why not prepare students for the future?

But let’s face it, the PARCC test, or any test standardized or not, does not have the power to do what supporters claim it can do.

Tests don’t level playing fields. Tests don’t make anyone ready for any career or college. Tests don’t tell parents or teachers what a child needs or doesn’t need. To achieve those goals you need human interaction by way of teaching, listening, conversing, and working.

However the PARCC test has:

  • reduced the amount of time and resources spent on science and social studies in the elementary school.
  • strained local school budgets to allow for the purchase of technology (namely Chromebooks) and PARCC-related training.
  • caused physical damage by requiring students as young as 8 years old to type and stare into computer screens for extended amounts of time.
  • caused anxiety in students and teachers by placing increased stress on testing.
  • caused schools to cancel meaningful and relevant assessments such as midterms and finals in high school and authentic assessments in lower grades.
  • reduced the time teachers have to teach yet increased the amount and pace of learning.
  • given many students an unwarranted feeling of failure.
  • caused schools to cancel field trips.

I could go on, but I won’t. Instead consider that if even half of this is true, then why aren’t droves of parents refusing? Well, if you set aside those who truly are informed and have decided to push ahead with the test, there are many others to consider.

Let’s face it. The most parent participation in school happens at the kindergarten level. Then it slowly tapers off until junior year of high school when parents become worried about the college application process. Perhaps one problem this whole mess has revealed is that the days of just blindly trusting schools to do what is right for our children are over. We all need to be active, informed participants in our schools, even if that means giving up some of the time suckers that we all know and love (Netflix, stupid video games on our phones, Facebook, Pintrest, Instagram, etc.)  Because a distracted populace is one that is easily manipulated.

Secondly, consider the fact that the obsession with high stakes testing started way back in 2001 with the inception of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The majority of schools escaped feeling any pressure because the threshold for achieving Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) was so low. What this means is that if a school had a subgroup population such as special education or Hispanic not meet the required mark, all the school had to do was show that group improved marginally the next year. It became okay that they failed, so long as they just failed a little less. I have sat through presentations where our principal broke down exactly how many kids had to pass to make AYP, and it was shocking how few.

Schools even went so far as to cater to kids who fit into more than one subgroup population (African-American and special education, or low-income and Hispanic) and make sure that they had priority for any special extra help classes.

However, schools in high poverty areas were hit the hardest. They were threatened by state takeovers. Administrators were afraid to lose their jobs, which too often came with lucrative opportunities for easy corruption. Inner city children have been suffering in schools dominated by test preparation for years. Sure the PARCC test takes it to a new level, but the damaging effects of high stakes testing have a long track record in this country.

Where was this movement in 2001, 2005, 2008?

One teacher reached out to me and asked me to write about the kids whose parents have no idea that they can refuse the test. In her diverse elementary class, the kids refusing come from affluent, educated families.The kids in her class from families with low socioeconomic status, uneducated parents, or recent immigrants are left to suffer through the test, while the other half of the class gets to go hang out in the library and read books. The worst part is that the teacher feels pressure not to encourage test refusal, so when the test begins she will have to bite her tongue and watch her lowest performing students suffer through a test that many believe has been proven developmentally inappropriate.

So while we celebrate the success of this grassroots movement, we should remember those children who must suffer through this test not because their parents chose for them to take it or because their teacher thinks it is a good idea. They will do so because their parents are uninformed or misinformed, and once again they will be left behind.

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

In the Blink of an Eye

I remember the moment when I first looked into the eyes of of my first baby. His eyes black as night peered at me from under the blanket draped over us, Barely wiped down from the messy miracle of birth, he was placed against my bare chest. We could have been anywhere at all. In a cab. In a meadow. On the moon. Those eyes were all that I saw, the only things in the world, besides his soft heartbeat against my chest.

It’s easy to forget the wonder of that moment in the rush of everyday life. The lunchboxes to pack. The homework to complete. The papers to sign and return. The toys on the floor. The dishes in the sink. The laundry, the laundry, the laundry. But yet it is a wonder that we adults should never take for granted.

When I was pregnant with my first baby, the first ultrasound was incredible. I had never seen anything like it. The grossness of a transvaginal ultrasound (sorry fellas but reading those words is much easier than going through one) suddenly didn’t matter when the little flicker of the heartbeat came into focus on the screen. That was my baby growing inside of me.

By the third ultrasound, I was obsessed with them. I carried the pictures with me everywhere and stared at them in awe. Ultrasounds were the coolest things in the world. I remarked once to the technician, at the 6 month ultrasound for my second baby, that she must have one of the best jobs in the world. To which she replied, “Yes, when the baby is healthy.” I felt my heart drop into the pit of my stomach.

My first pregnancy and delivery had gone without a hitch. I had no reason to think about complications. I was so lucky, and I never even thought twice about it. Of course the technician’s job wasn’t all declaring with glee, “It’s a boy”, or “It’s a girl.” Sometimes there was no heartbeat. No heartbeat. I couldn’t imagine, but in that moment of awkward silence I was forced to.

I had no way of knowing that that baby inside me that day would be born prematurely. I had no idea that I would be rushed for an emergency C-section and that I wouldn’t hear him cry when he was born, because he had trouble breathing and was rushed from the room. I had no idea that I wouldn’t hold him for over 24 hours after birth, or that I would learn to nurse him with an IV sticking out of his scalp.

Thankfully, he was okay after a few days in the NICU and was able to come home with us from the hospital. Though, I met many parents that were not so fortunate.

Now my first baby is 7 years old and my second is 5. I don’t know where the time goes, but I know it goes quickly. Just talk to any parent of a child about to graduate high school, and they will tell you that it feels like just yesterday that they were putting their child on the bus to kindergarten.

Testing starts on Monday in our town and across much of New Jersey. And I think what bothers me the most is the precious time that is being wasted. Ask parents what they want for their children more than anything in the world and few will reply high test scores, but many will say that they want their children to be happy.

Why make school feel like work?

Children are in school a fleeting 13 years (not counting college, if they attend). The current life expectancy in the U.S. is 79 years old. They will spend the vast majority of their lives working. Of course we all hope our children love their occupations, but the reality is that many adults do not.

Why not invest the time, energy, and money wasted on testing our children to death and spend it on making the 13 years of school more inspiring, engaging, and full of learning driven by discovery and doing instead of receiving? The test makers claim that their tests make education more rigorous and prepare children for college and careers. Well, I think rigor comes from teaching, thinking,and applying knowledge to actual tasks and projects not from tests.

Children best prepared for the world spend time in it from a young age. You want to prepare children for college and careers, improve the foreign language programs in America that are grossly lacking compared to other countries. Take the children on more trips to see their town, state, country, and world. Sure, have the children analyze text, but then instead of answering questions on the computer, ask them to take what they learned and DO something with that knowledge.

They could write and deliver a persuasive speech. Participate in a debate. Create an advertisement. Draw a comic strip. Design a lesson about what they read and teach it to the class. Write and illustrate a children’s book about it. Research other points of view and compare and contrast them. Start a service learning project to make real progress towards solving a problem they read about.

Those activities require higher order thinking skills and demonstrate rigor much more than a test with multiple choice, short answers or even a complex essay. Yet those activities are being cut from teacher lesson plans in favor of more and more worksheets to “get through” the demands of the Common Core and more and more test prep to prepare for tests that are tied to teachers’ livelihood.

On Monday, the test will begin and the clock will keep ticking. Ticking off the minutes they have to complete each section. Ticking off minutes for short breaks. Ticking off the minutes until school is over and they can finally run free. Ticking off minutes of their childhood that they will not get back, even if the PARCC test is thrown out in a year or two.

In the blink of an eye, a piece of their precious childhood will be wasted.

And all of us are to blame.

My parents and I with my second son in the NICU.

My parents and I with my second son in the NICU.

Video: Camden Study Commission Testimony

Below you will find the links to the videos of the testimony from the public hearings in Camden on February 19, 2015 before Education Commissioner David Hespe and the rest of the Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in NJ.

I am proud to have had the opportunity to represent the children of NJ beside such dedicated, informed, and passionate people. The energy in the room far surpassed the number of people, though the turnout was great for 10 am on a freezing cold Thursday. A special thank you to Pem Stanley for videotaping, editing and posting all of the testimony.

(My testimony can be found in Part Three. Here is a link to the text of my speech.)

You can choose to refuse.

Part One

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YsqNzcOKA8M

Part Two

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XYjLOPPmMJ8

Part Three

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzV2YYYy4xM

Part Four

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XwV7Gc-JwUk

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

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

Bittersweet Victories

So I have officially been procrastinating for two and a half hours. I am supposed to be writing my testimony for the public hearing in Camden on Thursday before the Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in NJ.

During the public hearings in Jackson, I was so fired up and inspired by the testimonies. The evidence against the use of the PARCC test was staggering. Victory over the test seemed inevitable, which felt encouraging, until I really started to think about it.

How dare they just impose this test on the entire state without any regard for its validity or impact on student achievement? The more the evidence mounted up around the Study Commission’s table, the harder it became to see them and the lies that they represent. As I drove the long drive home, the buzz of energy from the night fell away and in the coming days I was left not with the sweet taste of victory, but with the bitterness of anger.

Several speakers spoke about how they will not allow our children to be guinea pigs, but really that is all they are to these education reformers. Commissioner David Hespe came out of the testimony with nothing but more spin doctoring in the media, when really he should have been apologizing for wasting all of our time with this ill-conceived test.

The opt out movement, or refusal here in NJ, truly shows that the people are never powerless against the state. That alone is an important message that parents, teachers, administrators, and school boards needed to hear. No it is not enough to just simply say, “The state made us do it.” That mentality has been dominating education for far too long.

I also have to add that it makes me angry that a parent’s right to refuse was ever an issue. But what makes me even angrier is that so many schools initially said that students would have to”sit and stare”. Really? They design a terrible test that takes twice the amount of time and then expect students to sit through the whole test silently doing nothing. What part of this is in the interest of the child? Not the test, nor the refusal policy.

My oldest of 4 children is in second grade this year, so next year he will be in a tested grade. There is no way that I will accept him sitting and staring for the ridiculously long PARCC test. In fact, I won’t even tolerate him having to sit and read a book for the entire time or even do work quietly in the library independently.

I send my children to school to learn in a supportive, enriching environment. A standardized test does not teach anything. It does not help drive instruction. It does not give parents nor teachers a better understanding of their child’s achievement. It does not make children career and college ready. All it does is waste time that would be better spent learning.

So, I sit here struggling to write my testimony. I struggle because I know that whatever the Study Commission comes up with to appease the angry public, will not be good enough for me. Maybe I am an idealist. Maybe my expectations are too high for public schools. Maybe it was a match that would never make it to heaven. But, I am okay with that.

Change is slow, particularly when special interests drive change in the wrong direction. But in this case I cannot afford to be patient. I will continue to fight. However, if the PARCC stays next year, I will most likely be fighting as a homeschooling mom, who still cares about what happens to public education.

This long weekend, I had all of my children home with me. I watched them playing together and learning together. I am getting tired of trying to convince people in positions of power to care about my children. This whole debacle has shown how little respect our department of education and those who work under it  have for children. They have no business meddling in education, if they can’t shown any compassion for the students from all walks of life that are affected by their rash and selfish decisions.

So as the test refusal movement grows, celebrate the power of civil disobedience. But remember that these victories are only bittersweet.

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Why Are Teachers So Afraid?

I am a teacher who was raised by teachers. I have always believed that once you become a teacher, you remain one for life. Though I resigned at the end of last year, I want to be clear that I would have had no problem at all publishing this blog under my name while teaching full-time. I am not afraid to speak my mind now, nor have I ever been.

Anyone who has ever taught with me, has witnessed me speaking up in team meetings, department meetings, and even board meetings, while employed as a teacher.

In my third year of teaching, non-tenured since I had just moved to Brooklyn from Baltimore, I spoke out against the widespread cheating that occurred during standardized tests in my school. Later in my career, I started and circulated a petition against our teacher’s union asking for information on the number of jobs that would be saved if teachers voted in favor of a salary freeze. When I was upset by how terribly our subgroup populations (special education, African-American, Hispanic, and low income) performed on the NJ ASK, I submitted a letter to the principal and superintendent with an attached list of 21 suggestions for improvement.

When my oldest started kindergarten in the same district where I was teaching, my principal (in good faith) cautioned me against speaking at board meetings. He said it was too political. To this, I replied that I was not afraid of politics. That year, I spoke at board meetings about everything from the lack to books in classrooms to the truth about connectivity woes that were not being honestly reported. I was quoted in the local newspaper speaking out against advertising on the side of our district school buses. In the end, my resignation speech was quoted in an Asbury Park Press article about teacher burnout. Here is the link.

My point here is not to wow you with my leadership skills or impress you with my bravery. It is to make the point that passionate, respected teachers who speak their mind rarely get fired for their actions. In fact, though I resigned from my previous district to relocate in search of a district that more closely embraced my ideals, I made more friends than foes. I still talk to the board members that at times I engaged in heated debates with. I still have the support and respect of many colleagues and parents I worked with over the years.

This is not to say that retribution doesn’t happen. In far too many schools it does. But what about the rest? I refuse to believe that the vast majority of teachers are so fearful of their administration that they will not speak up about the negative impact that PARCC and other standardized tests and reforms have had on their students, classroom, and schools. The children have had little to no voice in this whole debacle, and they need their teachers, who know them best, to advocate for them.

Tenure may look different in coming years (or extinct), but it was put in place to allow teachers the freedom to advocate for their students and teach in the way that they felt was best. Tenure protected teachers who taught evolution and tenure will protect teachers who speak out about the harmful effects of ill-conceived tests like the PARCC and the poorly designed Common Core Content Standards (CCCS) that are dominating curriculum and instruction across the nation. Tenure has been criticized for keeping bad teachers in classrooms, but I feel the biggest failure of tenure is that it has failed to empower the good ones. Teachers need to take advantage of it before it is taken away.

And if tenure is not enough to make teachers comfortable speaking out, then why don’t more teachers speak out who could stand to lose their job. Why don’t we hear more advocacy from teachers who have a strong second income or bread-winning spouse? Why don’t we hear more from teachers who are about to retire and have nothing to lose speaking out? Where are the young teachers who don’t have tenure but are still idealistic and fiery and want to speak out to ensure that they are not locked into a career dominated by the power of money instead of the needs of children?

There has been a precedent set. Superintendents like Dr. Joseph V. Rella and Dr. Michael Hynes from Long Island have spoken out openly in the media about the damaging effects of the new standardized tests. A Florida kindergarten teacher named Susan Bowles refused to give the state test to her students and was not fired. An 8th grade science teacher from  Long Island named Beth Dimino did the same and was not fired. In Seattle a few teachers got together and  refused to administer tests and their students were removed from their classes to take the test in the library. Yet, many of those students and their parents in turn refused to take the tests. Those teachers are now facing sanctions (unclear exactly what they are) but are not expected to lose their jobs.

I am not saying that every teacher should outright refuse to give the PARCC test or any test that they don’t believe in, though that would be nice. But I am saying that more teachers need to find their voices and enter into the public debate without fear.

America,” the land of the free and the home of the brave,” needs to take a long hard look at why so few teachers are willing to openly join an intellectual discussion about the validity of Common Core and the testing regimen that came with it.  We need to hear from them what is going on behind the classroom walls, not from politicians.

And if they are truly afraid to speak, then we have another bigger problem that needs to be addressed.

Teachers, we need to hear from more of you.

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