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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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.

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

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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Overcoming Fear: Guest Post by, Robert Quinn

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Fear.

It is a prison for many of us.

As a sufferer of social anxiety, I have lived with fear of social interactions for over 20 years. It began when I was in college. I had a difficult time standing in line at the checkout counter. For doing so, especially in a long line, gave me the feeling that others were looking at me.  Or, as any anxiety suffers can relate that “their eyes were on the back of my head”. In extreme instances, tremors in the limbs can occur.

You can imagine that life would be challenging if facing such a mundane task created such difficulties. In fact, we begin to do things to make ourselves comfortable. I would wear a hat. Sometimes, due to our anxiety we may act unusual. And then, a most terrible thing will happen – we are negatively reinforced and do not want to perform that social action again.

For many years, I did not go to church. Not because I did not want to. My anxiety of the people kept me partially away. But truth is known as a Catholic, my greatest fear was to go up and receive communion. I stayed in the pew many years even after returning.

I think that I have been ruled by my fear long enough. But I know that out there will be someone just as I was, trapped by this problem. To those, I say face your fear. Don’t let it hold you back. You are important.

I have begun to control my fear. I go to church and can receive communion. I can stand on line at the store with no hestiation. And recently, as this battle has heated up with PARCC and Common Core I have started to face perhaps my ultimate fear – public speaking. On 1/29/15, I gave a speech at the Jackson Township high school. I am very proud of what I wrote, because I feel that one of us finally needed to say it. And certainly it felt good to stand up to bullies.

I haven’t fully conquered my fear. Perhaps someday I will, but for now it’s more akin to putting down a revolt. Don’t let your fear control your life. You can do great things if you face your fear. And those of us who support you don’t think any less of you if you get up and stumble in your process of facing your fear. What you cannot allow to happen is for it to control you.

My good friend, who helped me get through my anxiety to speak the night of the speech, whispered in my ear “You sound like a politician!” Well, I’m no politician. To be truthful, I’m not sure if we human beings want someone of integrity to run for office anymore. What good candidate would subject their family to it? But I will say that I did thoroughly enjoy getting up to give the speech. Perhaps I will do it again.  If I can do this, what can you do? You’d be surprised.

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Here is the text of Robert Quinn’s testimony delivered on January 29, 2015 to the Study Commission on the Use of Assessments in NJ, headed by Education Commissioner David Hespe.

Thank you for inviting us here tonight to listen to our feedback regarding Assessment standards in New Jersey.   As a father of two, I am representative of the end results of these standards every night I help my children with their homework.

Recently, as Common Core has been in its implementation, I noted a change in my children’s education – for the worse. In many instances, the math is over complicated. The lessons try to teach the child what’s “behind” borrowing and lessons are rushed in an effort to pace them to the test. These practicalities are not only wasteful; they are confusing to the child and discouraging to their learning.

One big concern I have, beyond my own children, is how Common Core is affecting our most vulnerable children. We have heard some of our Districts in New Jersey called failing, but the reality is that the State of New Jersey is failing them. And they have been failing them for decades. This is the standard that our government has allowed to become acceptable. The rapid and fundamental changes involved in Common Core leave this segment of our population only further behind. This is an injustice to these young children, who have so much potential.  And perhaps that is the one goal of the standards and testing system.  Those in power are interested in keeping this segment of our population where they are. The key to move out of poverty is encouraging the love of education, which is the opposite of Common Core & PARCC..

We note that the PARCC standards seem to assume that everyone should go to college. And while college is a good aspiration in life, there are other worthy pathways in life beyond that of college that these standards do not account for.  And we look to our recent college graduates and wonder – will they have a job?  Perhaps one of my problems with these standards is that they treat the non-college requiring pathways as if they are menial. When in reality, these are the most stable and productive jobs in our present economy. Hard work and discipline is to be commended no matter the pathway.

Some have said, “Give PARCC a chance”. We parents hear “Let me use this experimental test on your child during their most productive learning years”. Parents have grave concerns related to how Common Core was implemented: Acceptance of Standards before they were developed/Million dollar deals with Book companies/Testing companies/Data Collection companies, Lack of input from New Jersey’s teachers, lack of input from parents. We notice that some of the same advocates for PARCC testing and Common Core in our government do not send their own child to schools where it is required. Why don’t they stand for what they claim to believe in?

While the focus for advocates of Common Core and PARCC has been standards, there are no statewide standards for refusing the test. In fact, there have been mixed reactions and communications to parents throughout the state. Some of the communications stated that the parent could not refuse the test. We as parents have rights to direct the education of our children and not the government.

To those in our government who would dare to say a voice such as mine is standing in the way of progress, we would certainly ask… the children’s progress or yours? We are standing right where we belong, between our children and those that would steamroll their future.

Thank you.

No….WE Raise NJ

The new coalition called We Raise NJ, headed by the NJPTA, was formed to add a different voice to the debate around the upcoming PARCC test in NJ. But really it is too little, too late.

Acting Commissioner of Education David Hespe, said back in October that there was no opt out movement. Maybe back in October there wasn’t, but the movement has been gaining steam ever since. The biggest obstacle has been ignorance. How can you warn parents who are largely unaware of the new education reforms and their impact on their children? How can you get them to pay attention, get educated, and rise to a call to action?

Well, it wasn’t a propaganda campaign of misinformation that did it or a small group of loud parents as the incoming NJ PTA president suggested in an article for NJ Spotlight.

“Her successor, incoming NJPTA president Rose Acerra, added: “There is a small group of parents making noise, but I think there are more who are looking up to us to give them information.”

More and more parents became involved because they are seeing the effects of the PARCC test first-hand. Their children are coming home with typing homework. Their children are being school budgets are being spent on technology upgrades to support this test. Their children are being test prepped to death with worksheets and pep talks. Their children’s teacher’s are stressed and that stress easily trickles down.

Acerra is wrong to suggest that it is just a “small group of parents making noise”, because more than half of the states originally slated to take the PARCC test have now declined to use it. When whole states are saying no to the PARCC, the opposition cannot be downplayed to just a few rabble-rousers. No one needs the NJPTA to give them information, because, though they help support essential school programs, they do not deal directly with educating students.

Parents need to hear from administrators who feel comfortable to speak candidly. Superintendent Michael Hynes from Long Island published an OP-Ed piece about the dangerous direction of data-obsessed, mandate-laden education reform.

Parents need to hear from experts in the education field about what exactly is developmentally appropriate for their children. Parents need to hear from teachers who are not afraid to lose their jobs, like those threatened recently in Philadelphia to not speak with parents of their students about testing concerns. Parents need to talk to their pediatricians about the AAP’s recommendations to limit screen time and the impacts of early and extensive use of electronic devices.

“We’re cautiously optimistic with the test, but we’re watching it like everyone else,” said Tyrrell, who lives in Neptune Township. “Unfortunately, we don’t know all the answers until after we give the test,” she said. “I think a lot of people are preemptively judging something without seeing the results.”

Maybe former NJPTA president Debbie Tyrrell is content to just “wait and see”, but many parents have already seen enough, particularly those parents who are also teachers and administrators. Sample tests are posted online, so what the test entails is no secret. T

Many parents do not want to give one more dime to the testing company, Pearson, until they know the results of the federal investigation into their business practices. They do not want their children to sit through a minimum of 9 hours and 45 minutes of a test as an experiment to see what happens. They do not want their children educated in the narrow confines of test preparation. They do not believe that a test with confusing and convoluted questions will provide any more enlightening information about the intelligence or ability of their children.

And let us be clear that they do not want the NJPTA to give them more of the same song and dance that they have heard all along.

WE Raise NJ…not the NJPTA, not the legislators, not the education commissioners, not the companies or their C.E.O’s, not even the president.

It’s time to listen to those who are the closest to the kids.

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Activism in Education: Looking Beyond the PARCC

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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Testing: You Can Refuse, But You Can’t Hide

Reading and math have had a long history of being tested with standardized tests. The classic notion of reading, writing, and arithmetic has been the center of people’s perception of what kids learn at school. But this idea represents a very narrow understanding of what really goes on at school.

Standardized testing usually starts in the third grade. When I first started teaching in Baltimore City, it was a big deal if you were assigned to one of the testing grades (grades 3 and 5 in that K-5 school). If you taught in a tested grade, the pressure for your kids to perform was much greater, especially if your school, like mine, was drastically under-performing and in danger of being taken over by the state.

Also, the more your test scores improved, the more funding the school would receive. (This is particularly important if your principal, like mine, was misusing thousands of state funds for her own personal gain in the form of lavish “professional development” trips and paying friends’ salaries for positions they didn’t actually hold or qualify for.)

But this added pressure of testing was reserved for those teachers teaching the third or fifth grades. The other teachers were left out of the test prep activities and the proctoring of tests. They weren’t held accountable for the test scores at all, as if the third graders hadn’t had to go through K, 1st, and and 2nd grades or the 5th graders hadn’t had a teacher for 4th grade that contributed to their learning as well.

In the middle school, this inequality in testing is even more pronounced. Since teachers teach specific subject areas, even if they switch grades, they can still remain teacher untested students for their entire career. Yet math and reading teachers are doomed to a career dominated by standardized testing. In NJ and many other states, social studies has never had a standardized test and that has led to it being marginalized, particularly in the elementary school.

The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) is increasingly alarmed by the erosion of the importance of social studies in the United States. This erosion, in large part, is a consequence of the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Since the introduction of NCLB, there has been a steady reduction in the amount of time spent in the teaching of social studies, with the most profound decline noticed in the elementary grades. 1In addition, anecdotal information indicates that many American children are receiving little or no formal education in the core social studies disciplines: civics, economics, geography, and history. That such a situation has evolved is untenable in a nation that prides itself on its history, its system of government and its place as a leader in the global community.

By requiring states to measure student achievement in language arts and mathematics and tying school performance reports and financial incentives to testing results, NCLB resulted in the diversion of both funding and class-time away from social studies and other non-tested subjects. The phrase “if it isn’t tested, it isn’t taught” resonates in the American educational community, with significant implications for educational practices and outcomes.

http://www.socialstudies.org/positions/nclbera

A few years ago, science was added to the NJ ASK and science teachers began to feel the pressure that reading and math teachers had been feeling for an eternity. But with the push to tie teacher evaluations to test scores, the standardized testing machine couldn’t stop at adding science. What about social studies, physical education, health, art, music, family and consumer science, keyboarding, and industrial arts? Those subjects had teachers too, and they needed to be evaluated. But how without creating a standardized test for every single subject?

The answer was Student Growth Objectives or SGO’s. SGO’s were based on these teachers making standardized tests of sorts. These tests were developed collaboratively by teachers in the same subject area and/or grade. Benchmark tests are now given twice a year, once in September and again in May or June. They are written, administered, and graded by the teacher. The SGO is based on a goal set by the teacher as to what level of growth they hope to achieve that school year.

So this means that your children are now tested in all areas by test standardized across every discipline taught in school. And it doesn’t even end there.

Teachers of the PARCC tested areas (elementary grades 3-5 and reading and math teachers from then on) are evaluated based on Student Growth Percentiles, which will be calculated using the PARCC data from this year. However those teachers must also develop their own benchmark tests (one or two) to determine an SGO as well. (Where I taught, this was a 200 question multiple choice test developed by teachers.)  So, in reading and math, many students face four tests a year that are not directly tied to their current lessons but rather overall academic achievement goals.

When do the teachers have time to teach? 

Right now, tying teacher evaluations to test scores is new so the percentages may change down the road. But here is the breakdown of how teacher evaluations will be calculated this school year of 2014-2015.

Teachers of PARCC tested areas: 

Teacher Practice 55%  SGO: 15%   mSGP(mean Student Growth Percentile): 30%

Teachers of non PARCC tested areas: 

Teacher Practice 85%  SGO: 15%   mSGP(mean Student Growth Percentile): none

So teachers of students that do not take the PARCC will have 85% of their evaluation based on their lessons and observations. And, the “standardized test” that they give allows them some really nice advantages. They create the test. They administer the test (with none of the oversight and regulations that come with the PARCC test) . They grade the test. They even get to set their own goals for what they want to achieve. Pretty good deal.

Teachers of students who take the PARCC have just barely over half of their effectiveness based on their lessons. 85% vs. 55% is a HUGE difference. Plus they have even less time to teach, because they have to give benchmarks for their SGO’s and take 2 weeks out of instructional time to give the PARCC.

Who in their right mind would want to be a math or reading teacher under these circumstances? If teachers fare poorly under this system, will they be able to find enough desperate, young or naive suckers or altruistic saints to fill their shoes? 

This system is unequal and guarantees a school curriculum dominated by testing. So, send in your refusal letters, I know I will. But don’t fool yourselves. Even if we “Take the PARCC” and it goes down in flames, our children’s education will not be saved.

Testing: You can run, but you can’t hide.

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A Response to Rob Furman: Elementary Education Reform is Big Business

Access to universal preschool sounds like such a lofty idea.

What better way to level the playing field than making sure that our youngest learners get an equal opportunity to have a good head start in life? Who could deny that some children in America are experiencing preschools that are nurturing environments of play-based learning, while others are getting nothing but shoddy day care centers or babysitters with TV remotes in hand? Anyone who wants to deny children quality preschool must be out of touch with reality, right?

Wrong.

Yes, children come to kindergarten with vastly different abilities and habits as elementary principal Rob Furman suggests in his article, “4 Surprising Reasons Why Preschool and Kindergarten Must Change” published by Huffington Post. ” As an elementary principal I have seen the difficulty kindergarten students have starting school when they have had no Pre K experience. Most students are soaring academically, while others (those without Pre K experience) are trying to learn how to hang up their coat or to sit and raise their hand if they need the teacher’s attention.” 

But the reason that some kids come to school unprepared has more to do with the experiences they are receiving at home, not at preschool. Some children are read to every night before bed, are taken to Mommy and Me music classes like Music Together or Gymboree, are fed healthy food regularly, are able to safely play outside in their backyards or at nearby playgrounds, are spoken to with kindness and encouraged to ask questions, and are raised in peaceful supportive home environments. Those kids excel. They would excel academically and behaviorally regardless of preschool, because they feel safe, loved, and are free to explore.

Other children are not so lucky. Without paid maternity leave in America, many moms and dads who want to stay home with their young children are not able to afford it in today’s economy. Therefore, more and more children are placed in day care centers from an early age than ever before. Many American children of all financial situations live in homes where stress levels are high. Parent expectations are high from choosing the safest car seat to looming college tuition.

High stress careers, financial woes, marital problems, health problems, depression,drug abuse, an endless pursuit of perfection and so many other issues drive many parents into survival mode. Families aren’t eating dinner together anymore and children aren’t playing kickball in the streets like I did as a child. Older siblings are inundated with extracurricular activities and sports that demand more and more of our children’s time at younger and younger ages. The younger children in families are raised on fast food in car seats, watching DVD’s as they are shuffled from practice to practice and activity to activity. Television and other electronic devices have become a savior to busy parents. They keep the kids busy, so they can check Facebook or watch whatever is on the DVR to decompress from their own stress.

And what about our nation’s poorest families? Child hunger and homelessness are rarely spoken about unless it is the holidays, yet for too many children it is a daily struggle. Gang and drug violence plague poor neighborhoods where the media rarely reports on the harsh reality of youth growing up there. I know because I have taught in an elementary school where kids had to leave out of the back door because there was a shooting out front and a teacher and a principal were assaulted inside during school hours.

Universal preschool would help those kids yes, but what would help more would be real progress in the war on drugs and real solutions to ending gun violence. It would help if their parents were educated and read to them or just spoke to them with  patience and kindness. It would help if they had safe places to play without fear of abuse, abduction, or violence. It would help if they had books in their homes and in their hands. It would help if they were sung to or hugged and told that they are special.

Furman’s article speaks volumes about how misguided even some elementary school principals are about how children learn best.

“Given the new expectations for our kindergarten students, Pre K programs must develop the pre-learning experiences necessary for reading and math readiness. I often hear our parents saying, ‘What has happened to play time in kindergarten?’ Well, sadly playtime in kindergarten is gone. But playtime is perfect for our Pre K programs ( Fact Check) Pre K should now accommodate all those very important social skills so necessary for student success in later years. That is not to say that our children will not have fun in kindergarten. We always want to be mindful of developmentally appropriate learning experiences for our children. Pre K experiences will be more focused on imaginative play, appropriate social skills and academic readiness.”

You cannot say “Well, sadly playtime in kindergarten is gone,” and, “We always want to be mindful of developmentally appropriate learning experiences for our children,” in the same breath and not be a hypocrite.

The fact is that universal preschool and compulsory “advanced” 1st grade kindergarten are not going to do anything to advance the academic potential of ANY child. Not if the curriculum is based on reading and math readiness that comes in the form of worksheets, computer programs and testing and at the expense of recess.

Kids learn math, reading, and social skills by having a safe and nurturing environment to play. All these new mandates and reforms has brought is exactly the opposite.

Florida parents are fighting to keep recess in their elementary schools because the districts are claiming that with the new rigorous Common Core standards that there is no time to play.

 http://insider.foxnews.com/2015/01/14/florida-elementary-schools-cut-out-recess-blame-common-core

(But really, I think this is Jeb Bush posturing for a presidential run and coming out against the Common Core. Once again, our children have become a political springboard.)

Education reform is full of rhetoric right now,so parents need to be more informed and vigilant than ever. If you are not sure if this is true, just take a moment to read what an executive at Pearson (the company that makes and reaps huge profits from the PARCC assessment and many other high stakes assessments) has to say about why it is worth it for our nation to have spent $1.7 billion on testing in 2012. With the new obsession with expanding and redesigning high stakes tests, that number will only grow.

http://researchnetwork.pearson.com/educator-effectiveness/is-1-7-billion-a-lot-or-a-little-to-spend-on-testing

Remember in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz what happened when Dorothy finally saw who was behind the curtain. It was not at all what she expected.

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”
― L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Pay attention to the motivation behind these education reforms. Make them take off their masks. They don’t care about our children.

P.S. Rob Furman makes a lot of money off of education reform too. http://www.furmanr.com

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Common Kindergarten

Today I had a conference with my second oldest son’s kindergarten teacher.

On Back to School Night, when I first laid eyes on her, I knew she was a kindergarten teacher that I would like my son to have. Her warmth radiates from her like a little yellow sun in a child’s drawing. The sound of her voice singing, “Stop, Look, and Listen,” makes you want to stop wiggling in your chair and pay attention.

The conference went well. My boy knows his letters and numbers. He is a beginning reader. He has even started writing stories!  I was so happy to see his invented spellings describing penguins from the classic story Mr. Popper’s Penguins that we have just finished reading at home. The teacher readily explained how she was challenging him to grow even though he has progressed past what the class is learning as a whole.

I was a proud mother, but I had to ask about the testing. Had the PARCC test impacted the way kindergarten was being taught? She said, “No but the Common Core has.” She described how now the children were expected to learn so much more in such a short period of time (our district still has half day kindergarten).

Well, education reformers would see this as progress. They claim that kids need to start young preparing to be college and career ready. But when I mentioned science to my son’s teacher, she admitted that there just isn’t really time for it, nor for social studies either. (Do people not study these subjects in college or have careers in these fields?) These subjects have long been marginalized in elementary school, but with so much stress being put on children learning more and more reading and math skills earlier and earlier; these subjects are getting even less attention.

Curriculum companies know this and have started marketing “integrated” science and history literacy programs. This means that instead of a cohesive science or history curriculum these textbooks include a passage here and there of science and history-related topics. So if they read The Hungry Caterpillar by, Eric Carle, .they might then read an informational text about caterpillars. That ought to cover it, right?

Wrong.

The best part about science is inquiry. Experience, experiments, and observations pique a child’s imagination and sense of wonder. Those raw feelings are the most effective impetus of learning.  Let a child hold a worm, feel moss, or build a house of sticks. Those experiences lead to questions. They drive children towards books about nature. They give them something real to write about rather than the same canned prompts.

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The same is true for history. A love of history comes from experience and wonder about people and places. Map skills are best learned by following a map. And field trips and artifacts have the ability to transport children to other worlds in ways that a short informational text cannot.

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Am I unhappy with the job that my son’s teacher is doing? No, because given the pressures of time and the demands of the Common Core, she has managed to inject joy and authentic learning into her classroom. She said that she is grateful that she is still able to give the kids some time to play. But I have to wonder what will happen to the pockets of joy that she is able to create, if and when the PARCC testing begins in kindergarten. How long until the block corner becomes a long table of laptops and recess a stand and stretch break?

In the race to get ahead, America is only falling behind. The answer to how to get children to be critical thinkers and higher achievers is to get them excited about learning, not shut them down with tests and test prep.

When I see articles like this one about forest kindergartens, it makes me ashamed that I settle for sending my child to school everyday, knowing that his “trouble focusing” has little to do with his behavior, being a boy or even his maturity.

It is his body and mind crying out for more.