The Value of Homework

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Talk to any parent of a school age child, especially on a weekday (or Sunday night), and the subject of homework is bound to work its way into conversation.

An article recently came out about extensive research that showed clear evidence that elementary students reap nearly no benefit from homework. But for many parents, this was just official confirmation of what they already knew.

The intention of homework is often stated as reinforcement of skills learned in class. That purpose itself is problematic.

Every child in every class does not need the same level of reinforcement assigned across the entire class  after every lesson. Some children do not need to do nightly, monotonous spelling assignments to score 100% on the spelling test, while some children can do spelling homework until they are blue in the face and never score above a 70.

Many children are avid readers and do not need the burden of a reading log or endless comprehension questions slowing them down. Many other children just need someone to read to them and talk to them more to increase their access to positive literacy experiences.

When  I snapped the photo today of my  sons helping me prepare vegetables for a stir fry dinner, the irony of the word “homework” struck me. Perhaps what children need most is less homework in the traditional worksheet or book report sense and more home work or housework. In trying to keep up with the modern obsession with perfection, many parents outsource house work rather than go the traditional route of assigning chores to their children. Too many children have become so disconnected from the concept of work in the home and that leads to the same disconnect when they get out into the world.

A landscaping company comes to upkeep the perfect lawn. A cleaning service comes to upkeep the perfect house. A company comes to open and close the perfect pool. Painters, plumbers, roofers, ….you name it.  All so that parents can free up time to upkeep the perfect body at the salon or gym or to work long enough hours to pay for all of those expenses.

It is more common to buy food or eat out than to grow food in the backyard where kids can be a part of the process that gets food on the table. Heck, so many American families rarely even make it to the table together due to endless activities and sports practices that often start at age 4.

As a result, work becomes something arbitrarily assigned by an authority figure, rather than something integral to daily life. Our children become input/output machines and then the teachers in the upper grades and later employers lament the lack of problem solving skills and work ethic in the younger generations.  Companies have made fortunes on convincing consumers that life was hard and that we needed a plethora of products and services to make it easier. But actually, the answer is easy and cheap.

Bring back home work in the traditional sense. Turn off the website that drills math skills and put down the spelling lists. Take the time to reinforce life skills and a sense of responsibility. Imagine the potential such a simple shift could have on the typical American family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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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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.

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.