Letter to the Editor AC Press: “PARCCing: No Time to Learn”

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In the article, “Schools Get More Time to give PARCC”, published on March 7, due to the weather delays and closings last week, the state Department of Education allowed for more days to add to the testing calendar. The testing window now extends until the week of March 24. Though snow cannot be predicted, the loss of learning time is inexcusable.  With a week off in April for spring break, students will then face an additional week of PARCC testing in May.

School districts have given up so much of the school year to tests that it leaves parents to wonder when their children have time to learn. The PARCC is nothing but a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Originally, there were 22 states participating in the PARCC consortium and now the number has dipped below 10 states. Why is NJ taking so long to abandon the expensive promises of high stakes standardized tests? As school budgets are approved this month with more cuts, pay attention to how much these tests are costing your district on top of what they are costing your children’s education. It is not too late to refuse. Put education back into the hands of teachers. Corporations like Pearson, who makes this test, do not have our children’s best interests in mind.

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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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