A Different Kind of Refusal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It doesn’t matter.

He is the one with the title.

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

I felt the dream puncture and deflate like a balloon.

Harlem

BY LANGSTON HUGHES

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

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

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

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

What do you think I should do?

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

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

Bittersweet Victories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Overcoming Fear: Guest Post by, Robert Quinn

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Fear.

It is a prison for many of us.

As a sufferer of social anxiety, I have lived with fear of social interactions for over 20 years. It began when I was in college. I had a difficult time standing in line at the checkout counter. For doing so, especially in a long line, gave me the feeling that others were looking at me.  Or, as any anxiety suffers can relate that “their eyes were on the back of my head”. In extreme instances, tremors in the limbs can occur.

You can imagine that life would be challenging if facing such a mundane task created such difficulties. In fact, we begin to do things to make ourselves comfortable. I would wear a hat. Sometimes, due to our anxiety we may act unusual. And then, a most terrible thing will happen – we are negatively reinforced and do not want to perform that social action again.

For many years, I did not go to church. Not because I did not want to. My anxiety of the people kept me partially away. But truth is known as a Catholic, my greatest fear was to go up and receive communion. I stayed in the pew many years even after returning.

I think that I have been ruled by my fear long enough. But I know that out there will be someone just as I was, trapped by this problem. To those, I say face your fear. Don’t let it hold you back. You are important.

I have begun to control my fear. I go to church and can receive communion. I can stand on line at the store with no hestiation. And recently, as this battle has heated up with PARCC and Common Core I have started to face perhaps my ultimate fear – public speaking. On 1/29/15, I gave a speech at the Jackson Township high school. I am very proud of what I wrote, because I feel that one of us finally needed to say it. And certainly it felt good to stand up to bullies.

I haven’t fully conquered my fear. Perhaps someday I will, but for now it’s more akin to putting down a revolt. Don’t let your fear control your life. You can do great things if you face your fear. And those of us who support you don’t think any less of you if you get up and stumble in your process of facing your fear. What you cannot allow to happen is for it to control you.

My good friend, who helped me get through my anxiety to speak the night of the speech, whispered in my ear “You sound like a politician!” Well, I’m no politician. To be truthful, I’m not sure if we human beings want someone of integrity to run for office anymore. What good candidate would subject their family to it? But I will say that I did thoroughly enjoy getting up to give the speech. Perhaps I will do it again.  If I can do this, what can you do? You’d be surprised.

Q

Here is the text of Robert Quinn’s testimony delivered on January 29, 2015 to the Study Commission on the Use of Assessments in NJ, headed by Education Commissioner David Hespe.

Thank you for inviting us here tonight to listen to our feedback regarding Assessment standards in New Jersey.   As a father of two, I am representative of the end results of these standards every night I help my children with their homework.

Recently, as Common Core has been in its implementation, I noted a change in my children’s education – for the worse. In many instances, the math is over complicated. The lessons try to teach the child what’s “behind” borrowing and lessons are rushed in an effort to pace them to the test. These practicalities are not only wasteful; they are confusing to the child and discouraging to their learning.

One big concern I have, beyond my own children, is how Common Core is affecting our most vulnerable children. We have heard some of our Districts in New Jersey called failing, but the reality is that the State of New Jersey is failing them. And they have been failing them for decades. This is the standard that our government has allowed to become acceptable. The rapid and fundamental changes involved in Common Core leave this segment of our population only further behind. This is an injustice to these young children, who have so much potential.  And perhaps that is the one goal of the standards and testing system.  Those in power are interested in keeping this segment of our population where they are. The key to move out of poverty is encouraging the love of education, which is the opposite of Common Core & PARCC..

We note that the PARCC standards seem to assume that everyone should go to college. And while college is a good aspiration in life, there are other worthy pathways in life beyond that of college that these standards do not account for.  And we look to our recent college graduates and wonder – will they have a job?  Perhaps one of my problems with these standards is that they treat the non-college requiring pathways as if they are menial. When in reality, these are the most stable and productive jobs in our present economy. Hard work and discipline is to be commended no matter the pathway.

Some have said, “Give PARCC a chance”. We parents hear “Let me use this experimental test on your child during their most productive learning years”. Parents have grave concerns related to how Common Core was implemented: Acceptance of Standards before they were developed/Million dollar deals with Book companies/Testing companies/Data Collection companies, Lack of input from New Jersey’s teachers, lack of input from parents. We notice that some of the same advocates for PARCC testing and Common Core in our government do not send their own child to schools where it is required. Why don’t they stand for what they claim to believe in?

While the focus for advocates of Common Core and PARCC has been standards, there are no statewide standards for refusing the test. In fact, there have been mixed reactions and communications to parents throughout the state. Some of the communications stated that the parent could not refuse the test. We as parents have rights to direct the education of our children and not the government.

To those in our government who would dare to say a voice such as mine is standing in the way of progress, we would certainly ask… the children’s progress or yours? We are standing right where we belong, between our children and those that would steamroll their future.

Thank you.

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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