Preaching Beyond the Choir: Refuse the PARCC

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

-Margaret Mead

Last night, at the second public hearing of the Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in NJ, it was clear that there is a ” small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” embarking on a journey to reverse damaging and money-driven education reforms.

6pm on a Thursday night is not a great time for the public to come out to talk about education. Many people concerned with education teach and/or have children of their own to care for, but that did not stop over 150 people from attending. After quickly feeding my 4 kids and kissing them goodbye I drove an hour to arrive at the 6pm start and stayed until 9. For three hours I listened, but the testimony went on for over 5 hours.

The speakers were students, teachers, parents, administrators, and board members who were incredibly well-prepared and passionate. Much more prepared than NJ was for the growing number of test refusals.  Local school boards and superintendents have been floundering to create policies as the state’s position on test refusals has been inconsistent and unclear from the start.

(No you can’t opt out. No you can’t refuse. Wait, yes you can refuse, but your school will lose money. No they won’t lose money, but your child will have to sit and stare. Wait, they can read a book in the testing room. No wait they can’t be in the testing room. You need to keep them home. No actually we will send them home. Well, actually they will be in another room, but we won’t teach them. Well, let’s just leave it up to the local school boards, but we don’t condone refusing.)

Commissioner Hespe and now the NJPTA have suggested that there is only a small group of misinformed parents leading this test refusal movement. They could not be further from the truth. First of all, one speaker named delivered a petition, with over 9,300 signatures,expressing opposition to the use of high stakes testing in NJ. (You can sign here.) So perhaps the group is not as small as it may seem.

And misinformed? In reality, every single speaker had clearly done their research and every testimony was filled with facts, research and first hand experience. For those who spoke have lived the damage caused by these reforms. The educators teach in classrooms where autonomy is shrinking in favor of test prep and a love of learning replaced by feelings of inferiority and failure. The parents see the differences in their children and the frustration with nightly homework that is difficult to understand. The students a high school freshman (Jacob Hartman) and a 19 year-old college education major (Melissa Katz) showed their intelligence and drive by hammering the commission with diligent research and fact upon fact.

The crowd was energetic and supportive of each other, united in this tiring yet noble battle to take back education from the crushing control of greedy individuals and corporations and hand it back to the teachers and students to whom it rightfully belongs.  Only one speaker spoke in favor of the PARCC, but a savvy blogger quickly revealed today that that woman was nothing more than a spokesperson for the NJPTA. Read her post here. The NJPTA has suddenly stepped into the PARCC debate to help us ignorant parents sort the whole thing out.

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

The fact is that this small group of parents causing the ruckus IS informed. They are not looking to anyone for information for they have done the research for themselves. But the challenge now becomes how does this small group get this research and knowledge out to the rest of the unsuspecting parents out there?

The answer is easier than we think. The first step was to write all of the amazing testimony. Now we just need to get people to read it and watch the videos to see the passion and intelligence behind this movement. As the PARCC test dates get closer, the effects of test-driven education will drive more and more parents and teachers to look for a way out.

The fire is set, now we must fan the flames and watch it spread across NJ.

Please take a moment to watch one of these videos from last night or read one testimony. Even just one will be enough to create a spark. We need to get more people thinking and questioning the value of the PARCC and other high stakes tests. You can also tune in to NJ101.5  or follow Amanda Oglesby at APP.com or on Twitter @OglesbyAPP.

Here are some links to a few of the testimonies from last night.

A parent from Manalapan, Inbar Shalev Robbins

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FblpTQ5hQXU&feature=youtu.be

A teacher and blogger named Sarah

https://thereadingzone.wordpress.com/2015/01/30/my-parcc-hearing-testimony/

A teacher Jaclyn Brown

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCyfNo7xXu4&feature=youtu.be

For more information on the Opt Out Movement in NJ please check the state Facebook page: Opt Out of State Standardized Tests – New Jersey or look for a local group in your area.

Beware….this fire is catching.

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Common Kindergarten

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

It is his body and mind crying out for more.

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.

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A first grade worksheet (copyright Pearson)

Refusing to PARCC in NJ

Wars are won one battle at a time.

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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

The Whole School Did What?!

Not much surprises me anymore. But today something happened that left me speechless.

On the way home from school, I asked the typical, “How was your day?” Well my oldest son, who is in 2nd grade, responded, “A little good and a little bad.” Immediately, my ears perked up and of course zeroed in on the negative. “What do you mean a little bad? What happened?”

He started to explain that when he was outside playing in the snow; he realized that he had two different gloves on. One glove was too big and kept falling off.

Sounds pretty normal, except that today it was snowing (albeit it only accumulated an inch or two) and 25 degrees out here in NJ. We are new to the school district, having just moved here 3 months ago, but I felt pretty sure that it isn’t common practice to have outdoor recess in the freezing cold and especially not in the snow!

“Wait an minute! You had outdoor recess…today?!”

My kindergartener chimed in, “No mom we played in the snow in the morning.”

Ok, then I was really confused. Both of them were outside just playing in the snow?

My oldest, “We went out right after our math minute in the morning, just for a little while to play. The whole school did, but not all at the same time.”

Just in case you missed it.

THE WHOLE SCHOOL GOT A CHANCE TO PLAY IN THE SNOW.

With all of the focus on raising the standards and increased accountability and testing, a principal, our principal,  thought it was important to make a little time for the kids to play in the snow. This in a time where recess minutes are being cut and preschool is becoming universal and “standards-based.” In a time where children from age 3 are asked to start preparing for college and careers. In a time when standardized tests are claiming over 9 hours of instructional time not counting time spent on test preparation. In a time where teachers, schools, and principals are being judged by their students’ test scores.

It took me a sad number of questions, before I even understood what my children were telling me. The idea of  principal letting kids play in the snow was so foreign to me. All of the principals that I have have ever known (at least 7) have been damage control specialists. I could hear their questions in my head.

Wouldn’t parents call to complain that it was too cold? What if a child wasn’t properly dressed in a warm coat, hat, and gloves? What if their shoes got wet and then they developed hypothermia? What if a child slipped and fell on the ice? What if the kids got too wild or threw snowballs? How much instructional time would be lost?

I had a friend and colleague who once got into trouble for taking her math students outside to draw geometric shapes on the concrete walkway. The assistant principal said it was a security threat for her to have propped the door open for the 15 minute lesson, and he also wanted to know if the chalk would wash off. (sigh)

As soon as I got home, I called my mother and my mother-in-law to tell them that the kids played in the snow at school today and both were just as shocked as I was. After I hung up the phone, tears welled in my eyes. I was so happy that my children are able to learn in a school that understands and values the wonder of childhood. But those tears were bittersweet, for I know that so many of America’s children are not so lucky.

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PARCC Learning

PARCC is based on the core belief that assessment should work as a tool for enhancing teaching and learning.”

I like the sound of that.

I mean who can argue with a “core belief”?

And what neanderthal wouldn’t want to enhance teaching and learning?

Just like the Common Core ads on television (see my post Common Core Ads:Who Pays?), the language used on the PARCC website is compelling. It sounds like the answer to every teacher and parent’s prayers.

Because the assessments are aligned with the new, more rigorous Common Core State Standards (CCSS), they ensure that every child is on a path to college and career readiness by measuring what students should know at each grade level.

This sounds good too.

Wow! A set of standards that can actually ensure that every child is on the right path. Man, if the standards can do that, what do we need teachers for? Just hand the kids the standards, then give them the test. Presto! Career and college ready!

Educators are not stupid enough to believe this hyperbole, so then for whom is the PARCC website made for? I can’t quite figure it out. In the top right corner of the homepage, it says in bold “Stay Informed!” and provides a place for you to enter your email address. But perhaps the people who update their website should enter their own email, since the FAQ sheet contains information that conflicts with their homepage.

On the homepage, they list the names of the states who make up the PARCC. There are 13 states listed and Pennsylvania as a “participating state”. That makes 14 total.

The FAQ states, “… (PARCC) is a group of 19 states working together to develop a common set of computer-based K–12 assessments in English language arts/Literacy and math linked to the new,more rigorous Common Core State Standards (CCSS).”

Where did those other 5 states go?

If the PARCC website can’t even keep track of how many states are part of their own organization, how can they be trusted to grade rigorous math problems that require critical thinking skills?

It may seem like just a silly, minor mistake, but when you entrust a company like Pearson (who has historically made A LOT of mistakes Pearson Testing Problems)…little problems quickly become big ones.

These PARCC tests have been replacing midterms and final exams in some districts like Glen Ridge. These tests take a lot of time (a combined testing time of 9 hours and 45 minutes in 3rd grade and the time increases from there). The computerization of testing has cost districts a lot of money, which was spent often under the assumption that districts would receive reimbursement through Race To The Top (RTTT) funds. Well if RTTT is defunded, then what?

But most importantly the PARCC has impacted education, as I have written about before PARCC Data Drives Instruction. Even if the anti-testing movement succeeds, some of what was lost cannot be immediately regained.

Revolving door education reform has left many teachers exhausted, cynical and burned out. My mother retired from teaching kindergarten years ago, when they took her doll corner away. (As if the importance of play and all of the research supporting it suddenly didn’t matter.) How many dedicated teachers were driven into retirement or out of the profession because of the increasing focus on testing? How many students have already been turned off to learning?

The PARCC doesn’t want to stop at twice a year assessments. They have developed a whole battery of testing resources for teachers to implement all year long. That is if states agree to purchase and implement them. They rushed to buy Chromebooks, typing software, and increased connectivity…so why wouldn’t they?

According to their website there is an entire “PARCC Assessment System”.  That includes:

  • Diagnostic assessments in reading, writing and mathematics.
  • Mid-year assessments in ELA/literacy and mathematics
  • Performance-based assessments (PBA) in ELA/literacy and mathematics.
  • End-of-year assessments (EOY) in ELA/literacy and math.
  • Speaking and listening component (ELA/literacy only).

Each is described in great detail. Why? because these, my friends are all big moneymakers. Why just cash in on the tests? Why not make a backdoor deal with tech companies? (Sorry that’s not proven yet, but the investigation is underway LA School iPad Scandal.) Why not develop and sell a whole assessment system that makes money all year long?

I have read extensively about the dangers of high stakes testing and about the PARCC, but nowhere have I seen anyone mention this assessment system. The doubling of the testing time from one week to two weeks already had my teacher head spinning. But if states start adopting other components of this assessment system, I am not sure when students will actually learn anything, They will be assessed too often to learn anything with any depth and certainly with any creativity.

PARCC is based on the core belief that assessment should work as a tool for enhancing teaching and learning.”

It appears to me as if they used the wrong word.

The PARCC doesn’t aim to enhance teaching and learning.

It aims to replace it.

And boy will that make some corporate big wigs a whole lot of money!

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All quotes come from the official PARCC website:

http://www.parcconline.org/about-parcc

“Facts Are Stubborn.” – John Adams

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“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclination, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

-John Adams  in Defense of the British Soldiers on trial for the Boston Massacre, December 4, 1770 http://www.foundingfatherquotes.com/father/id/1#section=quotes

John Adams, one of our founding fathers, spoke fiercely, intelligently, and eloquently in defense of American freedoms. But no matter how well he spoke, the one spark that colonists needed to support the American Revolution was facts. Once the people knew the facts, the fire was inevitable.

But aside from rhetoric, back then, the facts were not manipulated as thoroughly as they are today. In today’s society, the facts are so obscured and people seem satisfied to live in a maelstrom of bias. Their televisions, computers, phones, newspapers, and radios exist in a realm dominated by bias and special interest. Not only do people not know the facts, they don’t even understand their own rights anymore.

Since the beginning of the PARCC test, I have been asking why don’t we just say no. The argument I most often heard was that we can’t, because it comes from the state. Oh, so if it comes from the state, then we must do it? Is that how it works? Really? I thought the state was made up of elected officials? If we as educators, parents, administrators, board members, mayors, etc. do not like what the state says (or even worse think the state’s policies are detrimental to our children) then are we not obligated to inform them of such? Anyone could write a letter,place a phone call, organize a meeting expressing their views.

No one had to tell Superintendent Dr. Joseph Rella of Comsewogue School District his right to speak up, because he took it upon himself to speak up. He wrote an open public letter to the State Education Department and even robo-called all of the families in his district to invite them to a rally against high-stakes testing.  http://truthinamericaneducation.com/common-core-state-standards/ny-school-superintendent-on-common-core-stop-it-scrap-it-or-fix-it/

Dr. Rella’s letter went viral and should be revered as an example of what we need more superintendents to be. We need leaders not administrators content to collect a large paycheck for towing the line and complying with every changing mandate that comes down the line.

“Children should be educated and instructed in the principles of freedom.”

John Adams: Defense of the Constitutions, 1787

Well, how can we educate our children on the principles of freedom, if we as adults do not even understand or exercise them? Why don’t we see more teachers voicing their concerns at school board meetings. I was told by an administrator that speaking at a board meeting is just too political for a teacher. Really? Well, if it is then it shouldn’t be. Teacher tenure was designed to protect teachers’ freedom in the classroom.

         Though tenure doesn’t guarantee lifetime employment, it does make firing teachers a difficult and costly process, one          that involves the union, the school board, the principal, the judicial system and thousands of dollars in legal fees. In              most states, a tenured teacher can’t be dismissed until charges are filed and months of evaluations, hearings and              appeals have occurred. Meanwhile, school districts must shell out thousands of dollars for paid leave and substitute              instructors. The system is deliberately slow and cumbersome, in order to dissuade school boards and parents from              ousting a teacher for personal or political motives. http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1859505,00.html

Tenure has been cited for the reason many bad teachers are still in classrooms, which I have certainly seen to be the case at times over the years. But the bigger problem I see is that more teachers do not use the power of tenure to advocate for what they know is right for their students. There is no reason a teacher should be afraid to stand up at a board meeting and speak. Though I realize not every teacher has the guts to refuse to administer a standardized test like this teacher from Florida did.  http://www.foxnews.com/us/2014/09/11/florida-kindergarten-teacher-refuses-to-give-standardized-tests/ The fact is that she kept her job. Her passion and sincerity was acknowledged and respected.

The fate of high stakes tests tied to the Common Core standards is at this point uncertain, but I can tell you that the pressure is on. The evidence against the value of these tests is mounting quickly. See this article for an excellent synopsis of the arguments in favor of opting out of testing.

http://www.parents.com/blogs/parents-perspective/2014/12/19/education/im-saying-no-to-high-stakes-testing-and-you-may-want-to-too/

Facts are stubborn.

We need to be too.

Mr. Obama, “You Suck” (A Guest Post by my husband Dr. Carl Vaccaro D.O.)

I will start this out by saying that I don’t really care about who is president.  In reality it doesn’t matter.  All the pointless arguing we do about whether or not the president’s policies are good or bad, or which party’s policies would be better or worse, does nothing but blind us to our lack of freedom.  The president, as a position and a character, has become nothing but a polarizing figure; nothing but a tool used to make us hate each other.  A political circus is created as a source of hatred, so that we will argue and fight with each other, instead of seeing that the real enemy is the power behind the government.

The best evidence of this would be the argument over gun control.  There are few issues today that create as much hatred and animosity than the debate over gun ownership.  One one side is a  group that believes that as long as I can own my missile launcher, the constitution is preserved and I can rest easy.  On the other hand are the people who feel that every gun is a gun used to kill and feel that all guns should be banned.  We have all heard the trite and inflammatory arguments.  But the reality is much more complex.

On one side of the the coin is a co-worker whose husband hunts.  He owns guns in order to provide low cost healthy food for his family.  He took his son hunting for the first time and informed him that if he wasn’t ready to prepare a deer for butchering than he wasn’t ready to hunt.  This would be a reasonable argument for gun ownership.

The flip side of the coin was a published medical epidemiological article that showed that statistically a gun owner was more likely to commit suicide then to shoot a home intruder.  http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/160/10/929.full   Guns for home protection are more likely to cause an accident or be the agent of suicide then anything else.  It’s not that gun owners are more likely to commit suicide, but rather that it is statistically unlikley that you will need a gun in order to protect your home.

You can see how if we actually have a rational conversation about gun ownership, most of the hatred on both sides melts away, and maybe…just maybe we can do something that they don’t want…find common ground.  If we spend so much time and energy fighting each other on things that are essentially non-issues, we will never get to the real issues.  The real question is why is all of this on an education blog.

The Common Core and testing has drastically de-emphasized history and literature.  There is no standardized test for history, and they have forsaken classical literature for non-fiction.  The real question is why?

History gives us our context; it gives us knowledge of where we came from, and the ability to question.  As does analyzing  literature, especially classical literature. The standardized tests endorsed by the government have created an environment where the classes that give us the knowledge and ability to question and be critical are devalued.  If you really tie money and teacher pay/jobs to test scores, but don’t test history or literature, what does that mean?  We will be able to type, we will be able to program computers, we will be able to read technical writing, but will we be able to think and question why?

Maybe we will be allowed to own guns to defend ourselves from the government, but will we be smart enough to know when to shoot them and who to shoot them at?

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Our son chose to go to Valley Forge for his birthday to learn more about the Revolutionary War. His anti-gun mother bit her tongue.

Dr. Carl Vaccaro, D.O.

PARCC Data Only Drives Instruction Into the Ground

I am not a big believer in the catch phrase “data-driven” instruction.

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A bulletin board from my 7th grade Reading and Language Arts Class that tracked books read on hand cutouts. The bottom papers are signed parent pledges to help their children meet reading goals.

 

 

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These posters were made by my students to sell impossible products such as a foul-smelling deodorant.

First of all, instruction cannot be driven by a test given in March and May, because by the time the results come in, the school year is over. So instead the school year is driven by test prep. In my previous school, this meant that 5th graders were taking practice PARCC tests on the computer every Friday. This was not to gauge their progress towards mastery of the standards so much as it was to get them familiar with the technology and format of the test.

Taking so much time to practice disrupts instruction, yet the acquisition of these computer skills is being sold as critical for college and career readiness. But I bet you that any employer would be willing to pay for a typing class for a potential employee who was a well-spoken, intellectually sound writer.

Secondly, the data, which the PARCC provides, only covers a subset of the knowledge and skills required by the Common Core Standards. (One test cannot test every single aspect of every standard. For instance, there are speaking standards that are not tested.)  By their very nature, a cumulative test has to be less than thorough. So when a teacher sees the test data in September for his or her new students, even the breakdown of strengths and weaknesses will not be enough to “drive instruction.” That teacher will still have to their own assessments. This is particularly true in Reading and Language Arts where there are so many subskills behind the reading and writing done on the test. The PARCC does not even give a reading level that would help guide a teacher to suggest appropriate independent reading books.

Thirdly, every teacher takes a course on assessments. While earning my M.A.T. at Johns Hopkins, we discussed, administered, and analyzed data from various types of standardized tests and teacher-made assessments. We learned about formative and summative assessments. The PARCC is a summative assessment that claims to be able to do what a formative assessment does, but it cannot.

The goal of formative assessment is to monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback that can be used by instructors to improve their teaching and by students to improve their learning. More specifically, formative assessments:

  • help students identify their strengths and weaknesses and target areas that need work
  • help faculty recognize where students are struggling and address problems immediately

Formative assessments are generally low stakes, which means that they have low or no point value. Examples of formative assessments include asking students to:

  • draw a concept map in class to represent their understanding of a topic
  • submit one or two sentences identifying the main point of a lecture
  • turn in a research proposal for early feedback

http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/assessment/basics/formative-summative.html

The PARCC is not filling some void in education. It is replacing sound educational philosophy and practice. The students who the school districts deem in need of better scores, will be subjected to more PARCC-like practice (presumably from PARCC prep books that Pearson is gearing up to crank out and profit from or test prep programs like Study Island). But in reality those students are not getting any closer to better reading comprehension or writing skills. They are just going to be even more turned off by learning and school.

Finally, I don’t know about you, but I do not want data to drive the instruction of my children. I would much prefer sound education research and known best practices to drive instruction. Or better yet, well-trained happy professionals who feel fulfilled by their job and have enough energy and freedom to infuse their lessons with creativity. I want instruction driven by innovation. Or by the interests of the students. Or by current events. Or by the students themselves, as they are given tasks that make them think, create, and perform in ways that make them prepared for the challenges they will face not only in college or careers, but in life.

The phrase “data-driven instruction” is thrown around as if teachers have been wandering around aimlessly with no clue how to plan lessons. But the fact is that teachers are masters of assessment, all kinds of assessment. We devise our grading policies and in the end calculate the grades. We can often assess a student’s level of understanding by the expression on their face or their body language.

Now with the new software available, parents can see the individual assignment and test grades of their children as they are entered by the teacher. They get a running average throughout the marking period from the comfort of their own home.

We do not need any more data.

We know the United States is behind. We know there is an inexcusable divide in the quality of education that children get based on their race or socioeconomic status.

We have the data.

What we need are leaders that are not bound by the purse strings of lobbyists. We need local leaders to step up and take education back from the greedy hands of corporations and politicians and take it upon ourselves to ensure our children get the quality education they deserve. That means parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, and board members.

Let’s stop letting others do the thinking for us. Because they are getting it wrong. Gravely wrong.

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A Love Deficit

Just 5 minutes ago, I held my 14-month-old daughter, while my 3-year-old son clung to my leg. We waved goodbye to my kindergartener and second grader, before the school bus pulled away.

There was something about the way their faces were framed in the glass. A simple gesture, my oldest pressed his palm flat against the glass, but it took my breath away. All of the stress of the morning rush drained out of me, and I was filled by an overwhelming sense of love.

This morning my husband had the TV news on, which is not the norm in our house. I read the printed newspaper, and then get most of my news online. I prefer it that way. So that I can pick and choose the amount of negativity I want to let into my brain.

But my son’s palm….pure love. So different from the news, where protesters were chanting about wanting dead cops.

This week has been emotional. I have become increasingly passionate and motivated about educating people on the impacts of high-stakes testing on schools. I have been excited by the connections I have made to like-minded people. I have been encouraged by the growing readership of this blog.

On the other hand, I have been touched by tragedies. A few days ago, I looked up my most influential college professor, to share my blog with him, only to find that his son recently went missing in NYC.

http://town-village.com/2014/12/08/missing-stuy-town-mans-family-says-he-may-have-left-the-city/

Suddenly, it didn’t matter to me that I had 300 views on my blog. My heart ached. I tried to imagine missing one of my own children. That night I closed my computer and took a rest from my obsessive writing, because I just wanted to hold my kids and pray for Andreas Robbins’s safety.

Then it happened again. I bumped into an old friend at the mall. I went to give her a big hug, and she shied away. Her husband quickly said, “She can’t hug you.” Then she said three words, “”It came back.” She meant her cancer. Out of respect for her privacy, I won’t detail the tragedies she has faced in her life, but know they are of the most painful imaginable.

On the car ride home from the mall, I heard that it was the anniversary of the Newtown massacre. When that tragedy happened, I had just returned to teaching after a 1 and a half year maternity leave, and my father had just passed away. I remember sitting in Barnes and Noble with the People magazine cover in front of me. Something about all of those faces. No one knows this, but I bought that magazine and carried it in my work bag for the rest of the school year with all of the papers I had to grade.

I didn’t really analyze why at the time. But today when I saw my son’s palm pressed against the glass, I knew why.  The grief was too much to comprehend. At the time, I had lost my father, whom I was so close to, and the grief I felt was crushing. But I could not imagine the grief those people felt having their loved ones shot and killed in a horrific act of violence in an elementary school. That shook me. It still does.

Perhaps I carried that magazine, so close to the work of my students, to remind myself that teaching is more than just lesson plans, grading papers, and delivering instruction. It is more than just ensuring that students learn. It is more than inspiring them to think and to be excited about learning. It is about love.

I guess that’s why the new direction of reform is so upsetting to me. The idea that education is something that can be “data-driven”, “standards-based”, or “rigorous”.  The fact that teachers should be held accountable. Yeah all of that sounds good. But when the corporations and politicians dictate education policy, it is the love that gets lost.

Children growing up in today’s society are inheriting a world with a deficit of love. Perhaps to be career and college ready, what our children need most….is love.

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