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.

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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.

Career and College Ready?

From the first moment I heard the catchphrase “career and college ready”, it bothered me, though I couldn’t easily put my finger on why.  The notion that school is a place to prepare students for life beyond school is certainly not revolutionary.

We teach children how to add and subtract so that one day they can work a cash register or balance their checkbooks. We teach children how to read so that they can fill out applications and follow written instructions or directions. We teach children about the world around them so that they can understand how things work and why people act the way that they do.

The now of education is inextricable from the later. Right?

Well, consider this quote:

“Education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” -John Dewey

Perhaps, in focusing so much on preparing them for later, education has missed the boat in capitalizing on the now of the process of learning. Setting benchmarks and piling on assessments to make certain that children are on a track that will guarantee success might actually be derailing students from ever reaching that success.

If we teach children to enjoy learning, the process of it (the reading, the computing, the exploring, the writing, the thinking, the creating, the debating) they will learn more than if we teach children to be focused on the measurable results of learning. If we excite children about the act of learning, the pursuit of knowledge will become a self-propelled race rather than a proscribed march through pre-determined checkpoints.

Ask a college professor or an employer, what makes a great student or employee.

I am certain that they will not answer with a list of skills and knowledge, but rather a type of character.

Successful people excel in careers and college because they can think, they like to think, and they have within them the desire and fire to achieve.

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The kids completing observation journals after a nature walk at Huber Woods. Ages 3,5, and 7 learning together.

Monkey in the Middle

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

Hopscotch.

Double dutch.

Kickball.

Catch.

Flip flop.

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

Flip flop.

A game suited for politics not education.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flip flop.

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

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

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

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

Flip flop.

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

Maybe politicians like Christie ought to learn a new game.

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

Our children.

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

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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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Guess What? Common Core Kindergarten Is Not the Savior of the Poor

Erika Sanzi recently published a critique of Sarah Blaine’s article about the Common Core standards for early education, particularly kindergarten, being “developmentally inappropriate. Sanzi starts off her article stating that she felt torn and wished that she could side with Blaine since, “Like Ms. Blaine, I look at all of this from a place of privilege.”  Yet Sanzi goes on to support the developmental appropriateness of Common Core for the early grades.

Sanzi claims, “There is much wisdom to be found in the voices of educators on this question of developmental appropriateness.” Then she cites one English arts specialist, Pat D’Alfonso, as evidence. It makes me wonder if Sanzi ever read the Joint Statement of Early Childhood Health and Education Professionals on the Common Core Standards Initiative Issued by the Alliance for Childhood that was issued March 2, 2010. This joint statement was not signed by one  “English arts specialist” but rather over 300 educators and health professionals, many highly renowned in their fields, see their statement, names and credentials here.

Simply stated, Sanzi just like many legislators, education businesses like Pearson, school boards, and administrators have ignored the wisdom of those who understand early learning best. These standards were not designed with any regard to our youngest and most impressionable learners and only time will tell the true damaging effects of these irresponsible reforms.

But what makes me angry is the claims that these Common Core standards, despite being deemed inappropriate by over 300 highly knowledgeable people, who have experience studying and working with young children, have been touted as the savior of the poor in America. It is utterly ridiculous to suggest that somehow these standards are the antidote to the vast achievement gap between rich and poor, between people of color and those of European descent (or however you want to word it), and even between regular education and special education.

Poor children in America are in crisis and kindergarten is where major triage begins in order to compensate for what most agree is a 30 million word gap during their early years. Reading early and often is the antidote that can fill the gap and put students from widely different backgrounds on much more equal footing.

In addition, by requiring students from the beginning to use evidence from the text when writing and speaking, Common Core allows for students to depend far less on their prior knowledge and, in turn, quickly begins to mitigate the impact of having had less conversation or vocabulary rich experiences in early childhood.

In addition, by requiring students from the beginning to use evidence from the text when writing and speaking, Common Core allows for students to depend far less on their prior knowledge and, in turn, quickly begins to mitigate the impact of having had less conversation or vocabulary rich experiences in early childhood. (Sanzi)

Reading early and often does help. But sadly there is less and less time for reading in classrooms where rapid skill acquisition reigns.  What the kids are doing in most kindergartens is a far cry from children making up for lost time being read to and engaging in conversations. It is dominated by worksheets and assessments  If the PARCC test does extend to kindergarten next year, then you better believe kindergarten will also include typing practice.

Most schools with low-income students don’t have many books.  Especially since so much money is being spent on technology upgrades and training in order for the kids to be tested by the new PARCC test. Chicago public schools are refusing district wide, because it simply costs more money than they have to lay out. Sanzi is naive to think that this new set of standards and the inevitable (profitable) tests that will be tied to them will have the power to magically lift children out of poverty. In fact, it runs the risk of turning children off to reading, learning and school at an early age. The best motivating factor for reading success is the desire and love of reading. Children need positive associations not close reading and critical analysis when they are 5, before reading becomes work it must be loved. Why squander the opportunity?

But simply waiting until our children reach a testing year, and refusing the test will not solve the problem either. There has been a fundamental shift in how education is viewed and sadly that view is inextricably entwined with money. The real savior of the poor in this country will not come from the Common Core or lack there of. It will not come from taking the PARCC or refusing it. Starting from day one of kindergarten developing the skill of citing the text, will not make up for less conversation, but teaching parents how important it is to speak and read to young children will.

If we want all children to have a quality education, it will only come from the parents and teachers working together with their communities to demand better. Better schools and better education only comes with sustained hard work. Each community has its own strengths ans weaknesses that the people who live there know all about. The key is to start small and gradually grow more community education associations, parent groups, committees, and have those groups work together to create positive change one step at a time.

It isn’t a magic bullet but rather a long battle that will take blood sweat and tears. But then, with every small victory the community, school, and children grow stronger…together.

Common Core lays out the goals, but certainly doesn’t dictate how to get there. It’s hard to believe that beginning to read early ever hurt anyone but it’s near impossible to deny that failing to do so can quite literally ruin a child’s life. (Sanzi)

The goal needs to be less about when or how a child learns to read and more about how we can inspire and motivate children to want to read and to want to go to school everyday. No one would argue that not learning to read can ruin a child’s life. But I would argue that it is almost as bad to not show children how to love to read.

It is a crime not to inspire them to do more than perform well on the arbitrary, poorly designed tests that we allow for-profit companies to create for them. No child should feel like a failure at age 5, 6 , or 7. They shouldn’t cry when it’s time to do their homework. They deserve more and it is up to the adults to give that to them.

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My older son’s story about reading to his baby sister.

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.