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

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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.

Dear Star Ledger Editorial Board, Dial Yourselves Down

For many years, I did not read the newspaper. I was busy balancing a teaching career and a new, growing family. All a newspaper subscription was to me was more stuff that I had to squeeze into our overflowing recycling can.

I am also stubborn and literally pay for nothing that I read or do online. No iTunes. (I use free Pandora, ads and all.) No extra lives or power-ups on Candy Crush. No book downloads unless they are free, which is part of the reason why I am reading Oliver Twist. No online news subscriptions. Okay fine, we do pay for Netflix, but I feel like that doesn’t count since we have been members since the days of mailing the DVD’s back in those little red envelopes.

But in October we moved to a town in a different county in NJ, and I wanted to get to know our new area. I ordered daily delivery and at least skim the Atlantic City Press every day.  Overall, I find it a great way to get to know local politics, businesses, and events. However, the more I get involved in education reform, the more I become infuriated with the lack of balance in reporting both locally and across the state. Few reporters ever question those they interview with any questions that challenge their views or politics. Therefore, the media becomes a platform that allows them to stand upon and control the message that reaches the public. This is exactly how Education Commissioner David Hespe got away with spreading his pro-PARCC message just days after he walked out in the middle of a public hearing.

The last straw for me though was an editorial published by the Star Ledger Editorial Board yesterday telling the public in reference to the “collective freakout” about the PARCC test, “Let’s try to dial it down.” Should the public really be taking advice about how to feel about education from the editorial board of a newspaper? What sort of authority or education do they have regarding education?

The editorial begins by saying, “…Of course, no kid should be forced to sit for hours and stare at a blank computer screen while other students take it.” Well, clearly the Editorial Board missed the fact that before parents started to fight back, many school districts were implementing sit and stare policies. The “of course” was not so obvious to many school administrators and school boards across the state of NJ.

Secondly, yes, it was a bit rash to call Pearson’s surveillance of social media “spying” but the hysteria that surrounded that discovery should not downplay real legitimate questions about transparency, the internet, and our children. The public has a right to know what their tax dollars are paying for, what exactly these companies are looking for and in turn doing with the information that they collect.

Finally, the most ridiculous claim of the entire editorial came late in the article.

Remember that there is a broader public purpose here, one much more important than taking pot shots at the PARCC. One of the main reasons we need this standardized test is for parents in struggling districts like Camden or Newark, who would otherwise have no way of knowing whether their kids are in a failing school.

“Pot shots”? Yes, that is why so many people traveled to Jackson and Camden to present testimony to Commissioner Hespe…to take a pot shot. That is why thousands of people refused the test for their children…to take a pot shot. That is why 500 early childhood experts signed a statement calling the Common Core Standards, upon which the PARCC test is based, developmentally inappropriate for young learners…to take a pot shot. That is why so many parents and teachers are concerned about the impact on learning time the PARCC creates by requiring two full testing periods a month apart….to take a pot shot.

But the lowest of the low is the assumption that the poorest communities of NJ desperately need the  PARCC test, because without it they can’t figure out that their kids are failing.

WHAT?!

Seriously, has anyone on the Star Ledger Editorial Board ever been to Newark or Camden? I would love to take a field trip to one of these cities with the Editorial Board. I would ask them to find one single parent that has no idea that their kid is failing or that more importantly that their schools are failing their kids. All they hear is about failure. They know the graduation rate is low. They know the incarceration rate is high. They know that crime, violence, and drugs threaten their children at every turn. They know that their schools are nothing like the schools that their Governor went to in Livingston, NJ. Every test has come back that the schools in these areas are riddled with failure and the PARCC test will be no different.

These communities do not need a test. They need learning. They need their schools to be safer. They need to use funding for quality, engaging curriculum and support services rather than meeting the expensive demands that an online test puts on the budget through technology and training requirements. They need lessons that inspire students rather than prep them for tests. They need gardens, playgrounds, field trips, science experiments, and after school clubs and sports. They need mentors. They need love, patience, and an understanding that poverty is a real influence on education and can not be cured by a test.

The Star Ledger Editorial Board has some of their own improving to do. Maybe they should ask Pearson to design a test for editorial boards so that maybe they can look around and see that they are not doing anyone any good by writing editorials like this.

Attention Governor Christie: The Study Commission on the Use of Assessments Needs a New Face

Dear Members of the Study Commission,

Thank you for your service on this Commission thus far. I was present in the audience at the public hearing in Jackson and presented my testimony in Camden. The number of people who took the time to come to the hearings and deliver such well-researched and passionate testimony speaks to the severity of the problem the use of assessments in NJ has become.

The fact that the head of the Commission, Commissioner Hespe, left the hearing in Camden after only two hours of testimony without explanation or apology alone is grounds for him to be removed as head of the Commission. Furthermore, it was a grossly dishonest misrepresentation of the testimony delivered at all three hearings for Mr. Hespe to publish an article in the Asbury Park Press just three days after he left the hearing prematurely.

(http://www.app.com/story/opinion/columnists/2015/02/20/nj-ed-commish-parents-demand-test-like-parcc/23754797/)

I have started an active campaign to takeover Mr. Hespe’s position as head of the Commission. Please take a moment to read the Open Letter that I wrote to Mr. Hespe.

https://pushingthependulum.com/2015/02/22/an-open-letter-to-the-nj-state-commissioner-of-education-david-hespe/

photo credit: kdphotography67.com

Paige Vaccaro testifying before the Commission in Camden photo credit: kdphotography67.com

I have sent a copy to Governor Christie and have applied formally on the DOE website to be appointed to this position. I also plan to take any steps necessary to make my campaign known to the public.

My experience as an educator for 12 years has been quite diverse. I have taught in three states in both public and charter schools. I have taught in the inner city communities of Baltimore, Brooklyn and Newark and in a suburb in Monmouth County. I have also tutored and run classes at the high school and college level in addition to preparing and presenting several professional development workshops.

I am certified to teach grades K-12 and have home schooled preschool for three of my four children so far. I am an active member in the community who often attends and speaks at board meetings. I have also served as a Vice President of a local PTA. I am an English major adept at reading and analyzing large amounts of information and a skilled writer as evidenced by my popular blog http://www.pushingthependulum.com.

I recognize that there are already teachers serving as members. However, I resigned from teaching in August of 2014, therefore I am able to speak more freely about the issues that teachers face. I am also a mother to four young children and feel that the commission desperately needs true parent representation. The Commission member from the NJPTA does not represent all of its members fairly as shown with the We Raise NJ and JerseyCAN campaign that are blatantly pro-PARCC. This is a conflict of interest if the Commission’s goal is to provide the Governor with a fair, unbiased report on the use of assessments in NJ.

At the very least, to balance the pro-PARCC members of the Commission, there ought to be a member of the refusal movement on the Commission as well.

I would appreciate a prompt response to my request to avoid any unnecessary steps, such as a petition. However, I am more than prepared to start one and to follow through with my intention to transform this Commission into what it should have been from the start. The residents of NJ deserve to be heard and for their testimony to be represented fairly and considered appropriately.

Once a member of this Commission, I intend to explore other ways, besides public hearings and accepting emails, to gauge the effects of assessments in NJ. I would help develop surveys for parents, students, teachers, and administrators to get a more widespread idea of public opinions on the matter. Much of NJ has no idea that this Commission even exists, so how can their voices be heard?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Paige Vaccaro

Video: Camden Study Commission Testimony

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

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

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

You can choose to refuse.

Part One

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

Part Two

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

Part Three

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

Part Four

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

Paige Vaccaro Testifying before Hespe and the Study Commission photo credit: kdphotography67.com

Paige Vaccaro Testifying before Hespe and the Study Commission
photo credit: kdphotography67.com

A Different Kind of Refusal

There are a hundred articles I could be writing about tonight. I am itching to write again and take a rest from trying to hold Commissioner Hespe accountable for walking out on the public hearing. Yet somehow I just can’t seem to let it go.

My obsession with getting my letter out there in the public eye led me to delusions of grandeur. My mother called after reading it to express her concern about me taking over the job as the NJ State Commissioner of Education. She wanted to know if I would move to Trenton and who would take care of the kids. I chuckled at her for taking me so seriously, but then I found myself falling deeply in love with the “What if”.

What if NJ had an Education Commissioner that wasn’t a politician?

What if I could actually hold a public hearing and listen to people’s concerns and respond thoughtfully and respectfully to their testimonies? What if I took their concerns to heart and fought to represent them properly to the media and in turn to the Governor?

What if I could make research and testimony-based suggestions about how education could be improved?

What if I had the ear of the media and I could say more than what the special interests like Pearson and Google want me to?

So many what if’s. Then, the Washington Post sent me a rejection email that was only two sentences long. Yet I had to read those two short sentences five times just to understand that they did not want to publish my open letter to David Hespe. I thought for sure they were mistaken. But again it was like testifying in front of the Study Commission, you can have all of the passion and sound reasoning in the world… it really doesn’t matter.

Hespe walks out of the public hearing without an explanation and doesn’t return nor apologize. Then, two days later Hespe gets a piece published in the Star Ledger. Hespe mentions nothing about portion of the testimonies he heard, and instead spews more pro-PARCC rhetoric.

What do I get? A rejection email from the Washington Post and silence from all of the other news outlets I contact. Even though I am the one with four kids in public school. I am the one with 12 years of teaching experience. I am the one who drove to Camden even though a pipe broke in my house. I am the one who stays up until all hours of the night reading, researching and writing to stop these tests that will harm my children, not his.

It doesn’t matter.

He is the one with the title.

I guess it was kind of silly of me to think I would score publication on my first real try. I guess those who say I am an idealist are right. I stood at my kitchen sink washing some of the never-ending tower of dirty dishes and tears started to fall from my eyes. I could hardly believe myself. I really thought that that letter would go viral and the people of NJ would rally behind me as the new Commissioner. I really thought that finally I would break through and make a real difference in the lives of our collective children.

I felt the dream puncture and deflate like a balloon.

Harlem

BY LANGSTON HUGHES

What happens to a dream deferred?
      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

So, do I just let it go? Or do I start a petition to take over as Commissioner or at least become the new head of the Study Commission? What do you think?

All hope is not lost. My letter has over 3,300 views already. Many have sent messages or left comments in support of my letter. A reporter from local paper in Northern Jersey contacted me to say she wanted to publish it. I could keep emailing, tweeting, trying.

I could refuse to believe that people like me don’t matter. I could refuse to allow an appointed official act as if he is above those who pay his salary. I could refuse to allow people to make decisions for our children that do not listen to research, parents, teachers, administrators, board members, or the children themselves.

What do you think I should do?

Paige Vaccaro Testifying before Hespe and the Study Commission photo credit: kdphotography67.com

Paige Vaccaro testifying before Hespe and the Study Commission.
photo credit: kdphotography67.com

Bittersweet Victories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Q

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.