Stop Blaming, Start Acting

When schools became big business, they became political.

Everyone has a stake in the education game these days…something to gain (money and power) and something to lose (money and power).

In his book, manifesto really, “Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling,” John Taylor Gatto exposes schools for the systemic prisons that they have become. Ask anyone in education and they will tell you that schools just aren’t what they used to be.

But my question is, whose fault is it?

Who is to blame?

A passionate education reformist and self-proclaimed activist, I have fought with, written to, and offered alternative solutions to every level I could gain access to from classroom teachers to supervisors to principals to superintendents to school boards to city council to the mayor to the State Commisioner of Education to the Governor to Senators to the Secretary of Education and even the President himself.

And I have come to one simple conclusion.

My husband says it often, that if you look to government to solve your problems then all you will get are more problems.

If we the people want education reform, then we the people need to demand it.

Period.

If we wait for the pendulum to swing, or the next president, or governor or superintendent or whatever…then it will be too late. Time stops for no one.  And our children cannot wait.

If you don’t like the way schools are being run, then find your voice. Find others and encourage them to find their voice and together you will become louder.

Speak from a place of knowledge and offer solutions rather than just critiques. Start small and find your confidence and then get bigger, tackle bigger and bigger goals until you see the change you want.

If your child cries and fights you over homework. Say something. Don’t let it ruin your night, week, year, relationship.

If your child hates to read or write, make time for the library and journal together. Talk to the school about what reading and writing looks like in the classroom and start a discussion about how it could be done differently.

If the math doesn’t make sense, ask the district to run a parent academy and explain it. If it still doesn’t make sense start a discussion about how it could be done differently.

Small steps.

Local change.

That is the real power that we the people have.

These are OUR children, OUR schools, and OUR responsibility.

One block at a time we can rebuild and stop waiting for others to do the work for us.

IMG_3983.JPG

 

 

 

 

Let Me Tell You A Little Something About Sacrifice

Today I traveled 45 minutes to Camden County Community College to testify before the State Commission on the Use of Assessments in NJ headed by the State Commissioner of Education David Hespe.

I left my house at 8:15 am and just walked in the door at 2:15 pm to one casualty of this war I have been fighting against the implementation of the PARCC test.

Exhibit A: My Kitchen Counter

20150219_141407

I took this picture when I walked in the door at 2:15 pm from Camden. I have until the bus comes at 3:40 to write.

This picture of just one area of my kitchen, is a microcosm of my struggle to continue to be the best mom to my children that I can be, while I advocate for change in education. The wine I drowned my nerves in last night, the last board book I read to my daughter, a full yet abandoned lunchbox from my son who stayed home sick today, a baby bottle empty except some curdled drops, multiple coffee cups, saline nasal spray, washed dishes, unwashed dishes, a glove without a match, and even an unopened mushroom growing kit.

So many people have remarked, “I don’t know how you do it!”  They mean raise 4 kids and have time for anything else. Well the path that I have chosen may be noble, but it sure ain’t pretty (see Exhibit A).

I started working on writing my testimony only a couple of days ago, after much procrastination and deliberation. Finding time was nearly impossible. Our two big kids had a 4 day weekend that became 5 days with a snow day. Then a pipe burst yesterday in our old house that we were in negotiations to sell to a very interested buyer (who knows how they feel about our house now that the whole kitchen is in pieces). Our kindergartner woke up with croup this morning, and it didn’t look likely that I would make it to Camden, but my gut insisted that I find a way.

So my darling husband, against his better judgment packed up my (sick) 5-year-old, 4-year-old, and 16-month old and drove the whole crew an hour and 15 minutes to survey the damage in the old house and talk to a contractor. After dropping off my oldest at school at 8:15 am, I was feeling guilty and almost drove straight home, but instead I kept going to Camden.

What is my point?

My point is that people like me make it look easy. It looks like I have it all together. Many of my friends jokingly call me supermom, but really I have no magical powers. My kitchen surely attests to that. The truth is that being involved, reading, writing, and advocating for change looks romantic, but it is hard.

I hardly ever get to read books (my most favorite thing to do in the world) or watch television. Keeping up with the laundry for this family of 6 is impossible. The dishes to wash are endless. Groceries vanish faster than I can buy them. The toys are all over the floor and there are a million papers stuffed into drawers and heaped into piles. I don’t have a cleaning service or even a babysitter (except my in-laws who pitch in once a week or so travelling from 75 minutes away).

So when I post my testimony from today, I want you to remember that first and foremost that I am a mom. A mom who has a million responsibilities and a never-ending to do list that goes on for days. I am also a human being with fears and insecurities. I may have spoken today with confidence and passion, yet  I have been too intimidated to hand out business cards at my sons’ school during pick-up or drop-off to promote this blog that has become so dear to me.

I look at the numbers of people who are reading, and I am encouraged. I try not to get caught up in how few people share my posts or comment (whether publicly or privately). I force myself to smile and appreciate even the smallest of victories. And when I need motivation, I look at my children.

I would much rather help sculpt a better world for them than agonize over the fact that I have lost my kitchen counter once again.

Thank you to all of those who came out today to speak in Camden, and to all of those who were there in spirit. I am proud to be fighting alongside so many great minds and passionate activists. It is a shame that Commissioner Hespe left at the beak for lunch and did not give all of the speakers today the respect that they deserved. He should have at the very least offered his apologies.

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

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.

callout-29388_640

Reasonableness: Listen to the Kids

So much of the education reform sweeping the country has been based on the thoughts, education, and experience of teachers. But none of it has been based on the thoughts, education, and experience of children.

There was an uproar this week on many of the Facebook pages that I follow related to education reform about President Obama’s decision to appoint the pop star Shakira to the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. Though many acknowledged the fact that she had been active in promoting preschool education in her native country Colombia, they were frustrated that once again no American teachers were asked to join the committee.

We all know that celebrities wield a lot of power in this country and around the world. And that power can mean great social gains, such as when Brad Pitt and his work to lobby for Katrina victims. “The star,who has a longtime connection with architecture and green housing, started the Make it Right charity in 2007 and committed to building 150 homes in the city’s devastated Ninth Ward.” But in that same article, those homes have come under fire this year for rotting wood. Only time will tell if this celebrity will follow through.

But what is the excuse for ignoring the millions of teachers in this country who work day in and day out with the children that education reform claims to want to help to succeed? Teachers are educated in how to create and modify assessments. Teachers have been making and grading assessments since the beginning of time, yet when it come to the PARCC test it is Pearson, a for profit company that calls the shots. This company turns to Craigslist to find its graders, offering “$12/hour for college graduates of any field.

The disrespect and distrust of a nation of educators is disturbing. However, what is even more disturbing to me is the manner in which every aspect of current education reform seems to ignore the voice of the children. It is so clear to me that the vast majority of politicians, Pearson employees, school board members, and administrators making education decisions have either never actually worked with children or have completely forgotten how important it is to listen to them.

Recently a NJ school district has come under fire for a survey given to students.

“Several Ocean Township parents have filed a lawsuit against the local school district for what they say is illegally administering a survey to sixth, ninth and twelfth-grade students that ask detailed questions about their sexual behavior and attitudes, mental and psychological problems, and other personal questions without parental consent.”

Read more at http://thecoaster.net/wordpress/ocean-parents-file-lawsuit-over-student-survey/#hA4EF5sCwWxYXcHQ.99

So many of the questions on that survey showed a complete lack of respect for privacy and a complete disconnect with what is appropriate to ask a child, particularly in the 6th grade.

How is it that a district (it is not the only one to administer such a survey) can survey students on such personal issues, yet no one has thought to survey children about the changes that the PARCC test has imposed upon their schools and learning. I am not talking about a survey that serves the need of Pearson and the testing machine, but a survey that asks students about how this high stakes test has affected their teachers, lessons, assignments, and attitude towards learning.

Please click on this link to see the actual survey that was given out to students during field testing. There is only concern for issues directly related to test design and access to technology. I would love to hear if any school district has surveyed students about the education they received this year under the pressure of the upcoming PARCC exam. Please share in the comments if you have seen one, but I suspect that there are none.

I did find the testimony of a 10-year-old-girl, named Wednesday at the NJ State Board of Education Meeting.

I read and watched the videos of many people who spoke that day, but it was Wednesday’s video that really hit home to me as a teacher and a mother. I checked today, and on YouTube it has only had less than 400 views. I hope to change that with this post, because I know there are many more than 400 students who feel the way that she does.

If you have never shared a blog post before, this is your chance to make a difference, and help to insert a young student’s voice in this whole testing debate.

I feel like people are more apt to think that a young child’s words are shaped by their parents. I am a skeptic so I get it, but for me this little girl was speaking from the heart. The reactions of the crowd in the room speak to that sincerity. The tremendous amount of time and courage that Wednesday had is commendable as her voice is the voice of many young children struggling under the stress of high stakes testing.

Wednesday found out last year that she is dyslexic and she spoke about how they are, “given so many tests now,” Even math for her has become a struggle. “Math is only confusing word problems…the number of words on the worksheets makes me want to cry.” But even for students who don’t struggle with the work, they are being affected too. According to Wednesday, “Teachers no longer take the time to include creative projects because that takes too much time away from tests, tests, tests.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IuN_nGiI5W4&feature=youtu.be

Many parents are submitting their refusal letters to prevent their children from having to take the PARCC. Acting Commissioner of Education, David Hespe, has backed down from his hard-line stance against test refusal now that he sees the movement is growing.

“Every district should apply its own policies. If a student comes in and is disruptive, you should have a disciplinary policy for that,” he said. “If they’re not disruptive, you should have a policy of what you do with that child. We should not automatically assume that coming to school and not wanting to take the test is a disciplinary problem.”

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

But parents cannot submit letters to prevent their children from losing valuable instructional time all year long. They cannot submit letters refusing to allow the school their child attends to teach to the test.

Perhaps the next step after refusal is to start a call to action to local school boards to survey students about the education they received in classrooms this year.

Ask the students about their attitudes towards learning and towards the test. Ask them how much time was spent preparing for the tests. Ask them how stressed out their teachers are. Ask them how many worksheets they are asked to do. Ask them how much time was spent on typing practice and taking practice tests. Ask them how many field trips they went on and long-term projects they were able to work on.

Listen to the kids.

They have no reason to lie.

It is their education at stake.

IMG_5573

A first grade worksheet (copyright Pearson)

Refusing to PARCC in NJ

Wars are won one battle at a time.

20150106_115848

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