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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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.

Refusing to PARCC in NJ

Wars are won one battle at a time.

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Yesterday nearly 100 people attended the State Board Meeting in Trenton, the overwhelming majority went to voice their concerns about the PARCC test slated to be administered in the Spring.

It may not seem like a large turnout, but it was. I have been attending local board meetings for two years now, and I can tell you that they are not well-attended events.

Many teachers do not feel comfortable going, because they worry about the consequences of voicing concerns. With teacher tenure now in jeopardy and evaluations tied to test scores, their fears are understandable, particularly since the test itself is riddled with problems.

Many parents don’t attend, because they don’t really know how much of an impact they can make by going, being educated, and voicing their opinions. Also, parents are tired; I get it. Many households have two working parents or if one parent stays home the other is working ridiculous hours. (And babysitters are expensive!) After a long day of work or caring for kids, there is homework,laundry, lunch boxes to clean, lunch to make, religious obligations, sports practices, talent shows, school concerts, and a million other things. Most board meetings start at 7:30/8pm on a weeknight, just when many parents are putting the kids to bed or getting a minute to actually relax a little. It takes dedication to make a cup of coffee and head out (especially in the dark, cold winter) to a school board meeting.

Therefore, the fact that nearly 100 people traveled to Trenton on a freezing cold weekday to attend a meeting that started at 10am was impressive. (The NJEA knew this and smartly offered free lunch to those registered to speak.) Those people waited for 4 hours until 2pm for the public comment portion to start, knowing that they would only be allowed to speak for 5 minutes.

Nearly 100 people!!!

This is IMPRESSIVE in this day and age where most business and even friendships are conducted from home via the computer. These people took time to write something and drive somewhere and speak publicly.

So many more people wanted to go, but couldn’t because they have jobs to go to and no ability to take a day off. Or like me they had children to take care of and to pick up from school and no one to fill in for them for the entire day. Or for a million other reasons, they couldn’t go. But they wanted to and that is important to recognize too.

There is a movement that is growing in numbers, and its collective voice will not be easily ignored. The PARCC test is not the answer to any of the problems in education; it IS the problem.

Yet as impressive as those nearly 100 people were to make the trip to speak out on behalf of our students and their teachers, many more will need to step up to the plate locally to keep the pressure on. Consider writing a refusal letter and attend your local meetings to voice your opinion and ask questions.

Please share this blog post with others on Twitter or your Facebook wall. I welcome comments as well.

Thank You!

Here’s an article about yesterday’s NJ State Board Meeting:

http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/15/01/07/anti-testing-turnout-puts-state-board-of-education-to-the-test/

This is an article about Sarah Blaine a former teacher and full-time practicing attorney in NJ, which includes her testimony from the Board meeting (a video link as well).

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/01/08/mom-spells-out-problems-with-parcc-common-core-test/

Here’s a link about Ohio’s decision to delay the PARCC:

http://wkbn.com/2015/01/07/educators-happy-with-delay-in-parcc-reading-exam/

My past PARCC-related posts:

PARCC Learning

PARCC Only Drives Instruction Into the Ground

PARCC Attrition

No Propaganda in the Classroom

My first year of teaching, I had no idea what a standard was. I was too busy trying to navigate an inner city classroom with 30 students who I could barely get to sit down.

As a member of Teach for America, I had only received 6 weeks or so of training prior to setting foot in the classroom. (I had been an English major, preparing to apply to Ph.D. programs. Then I saw a sign advertising TFA , and decided I wanted to help solve the problems that I had been thinking and writing about in my honor’s thesis.)

Many have criticized TFA for placing poorly prepared teachers into the most challenging environments and in a way they are right. They did. But no teacher preparation, and certainly not a national set of standards, would have been an adequate replacement for my deep desire to succeed and to help my students whom society had failed.

You see standards are just a set of learning goals. At the end of the day, week, year…what do the students need to be able to know and do. The rest is up to the teacher. Breaking the skills and knowledge into steps, formulating units and lessons, and choosing materials and tools to help the students achieve understanding. The standards are the end goal, but teaching happens on the journey there.

So you see, when I first heard about Common Core I got excited by the rhetoric. What teacher doesn’t like the buzz words they smartly attached to these standards such as “rigorous” and “evidence-based”? I loved the idea that all schools would be held to the same standard no matter where you lived in the country. It sounded so good that it nearly made me forget that a standard was …well, just a standard.  And it turns out that the designers exaggerated their powerhouse design.

http://www.aei.org/publication/common-cores-five-big-half-truths/

Despite what the ads claimed, standards can’t do what they claim that they can do. Only quality teaching can lead to better educational equity and more well-prepared students. I taught 7th grade English for a year, using the Common Core Standards before I went on maternity leave. That year it was annoying, because I had to learn to navigate new standards that were quite wordy, and frankly, with 3 children of my own and one on the way, time was limited to say the least.

Many people do not know that teachers have to submit online lesson plans every week and each lesson must be tied to a standard. Lesson planning software has come a long way, so teachers now just have to click on the applicable standards for each lesson. Sounds easy, but I taught Reading and Language Arts and an advanced class as well. So I was clicking 3-5 standards for 4 lessons a day. Then I had to compose more specific learning objectives that were based on the standard for each individual lesson.

Once I finished all of that, then I could start gathering materials for the lessons whether it be finding articles, video clips or websites, or creating my own worksheets, projects, homework assignments etc. (And I won’t even mention the amount of time spent grading quizzes, tests, homework, journals, and essays.) The point is that the standards are really not that big of a deal. Even the shift from a focus on novels to more informational text didn’t bother me, because I had been teaching tons of informational text for years. Plus in my classroom, I had the flexibility to address the standards my own way despite what the curriculum map said.

For instance, the NJ ASK (the old standardized test being replaced by the PARCC) required a persuasive writing piece. So I designed an invention unit where my students learned and analyzed advertising techniques then applied them to market their own inventions. My students had a blast creating prototypes or actual inventions in some cases. They created posters, videos, and put on presentations in addition to writing a persuasive essay. It covered reading, writing, speaking, listening, and media literacy standards both on the old NJ standards and the new Common Core. I taught that unit for 8 years. Ask any student who was in my class during that time, and I guarantee you that they remember their invention. It was a month of fun….rigorous fun.

So before all of these buzz words, acronyms “STEM”, and drastic standard changes, I was already doing it. And, I am sure that I was not the only one.

The problem came when the new standards became a political soapbox and a money-making scheme for testing and tech companies.

The new test was online, so districts needed to purchase costly technology and improve their bandwith and connectivity. Cha-ching!

The new test focused on new standards and new ways to solve math problems and ask questions. So, schools would need to purchase new “Common Core Aligned” textbooks.  Cha-ching!

The new test required typing and computer skills. So, schools and parents need to buy more computer-based games and programs. Cha-ching!

Then the Common Core became inextricable from the curriculum. Heck, even teachers were to be evaluated based on the scores their students received. Finally teachers would be held accountable for ensuring that their kids learn and score well. (This one is funny, because not every teacher teaches reading and math or teaches in the tested grades.)

Then the propaganda got heated. Common Core was either the nation’s savior or our president’s attempt to socialize the nation. Just Google Common Core ads and see how far the propaganda has gone on both sides. But love them or hate them, the Common Core Standards really aren’t the biggest problem.

The whole debate has lost sight of the children as they are moved like pawns in a political and money-grubbing game. I am tired of seeing propaganda. Tired of stupid memes. Tired of seeing happy kids leaning over computers

http://theweek.com/article/index/252851/forget-cursive-teach-kids-how-to-code

I just want our kids to be left out of it and in the hands of good, caring teachers, who feel valued for the essential and hard work that they do.

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Typing Homework: The New Key to Success in Elementary School?

Homework.

Ask any teacher, student, or parent and they are certain to have an opinion about it.

Teachers:

  • “It’s necessary reinforcement of skills learned in class.”
  • “Oh really, your dog ate it? I have never heard that one before.”
  • “It gives students a chance to do what we don’t have time for in class.”
  • “It’s an easy way to raise your grades, if you do it on time!”

Students:

  • “It’s a waste of time.”
  • “I love fun projects.”
  • “I don’t have time because of my other after school activities.”
  • “It’s a good way to raise your average.”
  • “Wait! We had homework?!”

Parents:

  • “It keeps my kids busy and out of my hair.”
  • “The projects are more work for me than my kids.”
  • “It is a struggle to squeeze it in with everything else we have to do after school.”
  • “It’s busy work. I doubt the teacher even reads it!”

Having taught both elementary and middle school, I can say with confidence that homework is much more time-consuming and onerous in middle school. The fact that students have 6-8 different teachers makes it difficult for teachers to balance the amount of homework and projects due at once. Once you factor in quizzes and tests, it can get even more complicated.

I used to give tons of homework as a new middle school English teacher, but over the years I cut back considerably. I realized how many of my students were overbooked after school between religious commitments, sports practices, music lessons, tutoring, etc. I lived in town with my students and saw few of them riding bikes, raking leaves, playing games like I did as a kid.  Few were reading books or pleasure either, because they were just too busy with structured homework and activities.

I started limiting homework as much as I could and shifted to encourage independent reading as much as possible. My students kept journals and recorded their thoughts as they read on sticky notes. I created a culture of reading in a more relaxed way and found much more authentic learning and thinking was happening than when they were doing nightly vocabulary assignments, for example.

Now, with the new PARCC assessment coming in the spring, students will be tested completely on the computer starting in the 3rd grade (and as early as kindergarten next year). These tests come with stakes higher than ever as the schools will use the data to evaluate teachers and administrators and to determine funding and graduation. It has been said over and over that online testing will revolutionize education and they are right. But it won’t be in a good way.

An online test requires typing skills for the students to be able to complete the test in a reasonable time frame. (These time frames can be seen here: http://parcconline.org/update-session-times. The test duration is 60-75 minutes a day for each ELA and Math for 4 days TWICE a year.)

The demand for typing skills has led many districts to purchase typing programs and even to begin assigning weekly typing homework. I have even heard educators and administrators discuss ways to help your child build stamina for these long tests by playing online games or reading on a Kindle or other type of device.

Recently the Atlantic City Press ran an article about the new emphasis on typing classes and to be honest it made my stomach lurch. Particularly this section,

“While most students can text up a storm or race through video games, they rarely have to use more than two fingers to do it. Slusarski teaches keyboarding to show them how they can use all of their fingers to be more efficient. She said it can be difficult for younger students, whose hands may not yet be big enough to spread across the keyboard, but they try.”

http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com/education/teachers-hope-typing-classes-hold-keys-to-test-success/article_54ccaaf8-74ea-11e4-9bb3-0fa656cb1179.html

The article went on to praise the a child who was recognized for achieving the fastest typing record in his school. He attributes his success to playing computer games at home.

Why is it that a student’s typing speed is suddenly a marker of success in fifth grade,  as if school were a vocational school? Suddenly, instead of limiting screen time for my children as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, I should be worried that since my kids don’t play video games and stare at screens that they will be at a disadvantage in school? Should I start finger stretching exercises prior to kindergarten to help my children’s fingers “spread across the keyboard”?

This is insane. I send my children to school to learn, not to be trained. Not only will my children not take these developmentally inappropriate tests, but they will not be participating in typing homework as young as third grade. In fact, I am starting to wonder exactly how much screen time my children are getting in school.

The real question is why hasn’t the American Academy of Pediatrics come out against the national push toward online testing. Their stance on limiting screen time is clear.

“Today’s children are spending an average of seven hours a day on                                entertainment media, including televisions, computers, phones and                            other electronic devices. …Studies have shown that excessive media use  can            lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders,                  and obesity. In addition, the Internet and cell phones can  provide platforms            for illicit and risky behaviors.”

– See more at: http://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/Pages/Media-and-Children.aspx#sthash.hAyoJto7.dpuf

But I can show you what my children were doing this week after school. You tell me if you think I should stop them and start typing practice and online games instead.

My oldest drew about 15 pictures and was teaching his brothers all he has been learning in school about Native Americans.

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My kindergartener made a painting for his Winter-themed Show-and-Tell.

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All three played with shaving cream, homemade play dough, and helped to paint a castle created from the recycling bin.

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It is time to start advocating for what is best for our children.

Better Technology = A Better Life?

The holidays are here. What better way to show your loved ones that you love them than to buy them the newest and best technology available today?

Best Buy’s Black Friday sale boasts the following on their website today…

iPad Air starting at $319.99

iPod Touch (64GB) $249.99

iPhone 6 $0 down (an asterisk leads a close reader to the terms and conditions)

Apple MacBook Air (Latest Model) $899.99 (You save $100)

On Thursday night, I went to a parent information session about the new PARCC assessment and the new technology being used in the schools to support the transition to online testing. The presentation and workshops were given by the superintendent, other administrators, and teachers in the district. The majority of the information presented came from the website I referred to on my last post http://www.parcconline.org. The information was mostly in line with what I had heard before, with a few exceptions.  But there was an overwhelming sense that the new technology is exciting and the way of the future. (Though to be fair, the superintendent did add towards the end of the evening that there is no replacement for reading to your children and having them read to you every night.)

Arguments in favor of technology are everywhere these days. And companies like Best Buy, Apple, and Google reap mega profits from this prevailing belief. School districts are allocating more and more of their budgets to acquiring physical technology like Smart Boards and Chrome Books. But this isn’t the only way companies are turning profits from the technology craze. School districts are now purchasing rights to typing programs to use with students as young as third grade (and most likely even younger once the K-2 PARCC hits the ground next year).

They also pay big bucks for test prep programs like Study Island. Parents are shelling out money too $1.99 at a time on educational Apps on their phones, iPads and also for the phones and iPads they purchase for their kids, presumably because they are sick of sharing. Some companies and website offer their services for free at first only to charge later once they have a solid user base. And a trip down the toy aisle shows a large variety of technology-based learning tools for kids as young as babies, if you include to infant proof cover for iPhones and iPads.

But for a moment, if we take a step back from all of the excitement, is there another way to look at this obsession with technology? Is it really improving our lives as much as these companies want and depend on us to believe? Has Facebook and other social networking made our relationships better? Has technology been making our students brighter and more prepared to face a world plagued by problems that have spiraled out of control?  Has online banking and shopping made our lives easier? Is the world a better place now that we are so incredibly technologically advanced?

The answers to these questions are not cut and dry, yes or no. I am not suggesting that we all pile up our technology and burn them or throw them into the ocean. That would cause its own problems. (But as a side note, think about all of the waste rapidly changing technology creates. Ever try to throw away a computer? It has to go to a special place, where hopefully it is recycled, but who really knows.)

What I am suggesting is for people to just pause and think twice when the newest technology or  a new use for an existing form of technology is suggested.

Think about when your email was hacked.

Think about when your computer got a virus or stopped working suddenly.

Think about when your credit card or debit card had chargers on it from an unknown party, and you had to have a hold put on your account until a new card arrived.

Think about the carpal tunnel you feel in your fingers or wrists sometimes when you text too much.

Think about the school shootings that speak to a generation of kids with decreased empathy and ability to form meaningful social connections.

Think about how much less time is spent outdoors in nature, which is being destroyed at an alarming rate.

Think about the terrorist organizations that can spread hate and recruit members worldwide through the internet.

Just stop and think.

The Common Core Standards and PARCC claim to be champions for critical thinking, but  how can we expect to raise and educate critical thinkers, if we ourselves do not think critically.  Before instituting daily typing practice for your little ones to ensure that they achieve high test scores or logging them into a website sent home from the school to drill math facts or reading comprehension, just think of what you are not making time for each night. I know I am stretched to the limit every night between homework, cleaning out lunch boxes, going through folders, signing papers, marking events on my crowded calendar, making dinner, baths, and laundry. What about time to go to the library, eat dinner together, read stories, go to the playground, paint a picture, or have a dance party?

The world is a scary place, but I think that the best way to prepare our children for the future has absolutely nothing to do with technology, more rigorous standards, or a test.