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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Activism in Education: Looking Beyond the PARCC

As the dates for the test get closer, it becomes less and less likely that NJ will join the many states that have bowed out of the PARCC. The conversation has turned to focus on how to compose a refusal letter and figuring out what each district will do with the children who have refusal letters on file.

In many ways, being a part of this movement has been inspiring. I have watched more and more parents getting informed and asking tough questions. There are so many Facebook groups that have formed on the national level such as “Opt Out of the State Test-The National Movement” (14,000+ members), the state level such as “Opt Out of the State Standardized Tests-New Jersey” (5,000 members), and at the local level such as “Ocean Township Cares About Schools” (177 members).

These groups have helped to disseminate research and articles. But they have also helped people to connect with one another in a very powerful way. No longer do people have to feel like lone rangers, but they can draw upon others for strength and support. It isn’t one person against one principal or superintendent or school board anymore. Through social media, the movement was able to start and continues to grow.

Radio stations like 101.5 have engaged in the conversation. Jim Gearhart has been instrumental in giving parents a platform to voice their concerns on his talk show. Newspapers both online and in print, have run articles and editorials giving the public a glimpse of the debate raging across the state and country.

This week there is a round of public hearings scheduled where people can register to deliver testimony about their views on testing in NJ. This will no doubt lead to even more media publicity for critics of the PARCC test, which will lead to even more people joining the struggle.

But the real impetus for parents will come when the PARCC starts and their kids struggle.

The test is too long. Many of the questions are too confusing and developmentally inappropriate. Many children do not have to typing or PARCC-specific computer skills to succeed. Pearson may not even find enough graders to score the test, since the company has resorted to advertising on Craigslist.  When those tests are scored, many are going to fail. And I was rooting for sit and stare, simply because the debacle it would have created would have further escalated the demise of the PARCC.

In a nutshell, the PARCC will in all likelihood implode itself without much more help. But what then? Does anyone really believe the obsession with testing and data-mining will end there? Education is a lucrative business and as long as it stays that way, our children are in jeopardy. This grassroots parent movement cannot just be a movement, because movements start, they grow, and then they die.

Diets don’t work, because they are not permanent solutions. To lose weight and keep it off you have to make a lifestyle change. The same goes for parents. You cannot send a refusal letter or shout at a few board meetings then go back to life as usual.

Just as high stakes tests will not eradicate poverty or give parents and teachers all of the answers they are looking for, ending them will not create a utopia in education. Our education system needs this activism to continue long after the PARCC test has come and gone. We need students, parents, teachers, administrators, board members, and politicians to keep talking, keep thinking, and keep moving towards one positive change after another.

It isn’t hard to organize a group of people against something that is detrimental to society, particularly with social media. But the real trick would be to get these people to then become a real resource for schools. These groups could share research, articles, and practices, then work together to put pressure on their administrators and school boards to adopt more progressive reforms. This should and could happen locally. We must stop looking to the federal government to fix everything.

If the goal is better schools, then simply rallying against the PARCC or other tests like it will not be enough. There has to be energy, effort, and activism put into alternative reforms and the best place to start are these small local groups that this fight has formed. Start the conversation by asking, “If we don’t want to see the PARCC in our schools, then what DO we want to see?”

What do you want to see in your schools? Please share in the comments below.

I know I want to see more field trips, more project-based learning, and more science and social studies in the elementary school curriculum…and that’s just for starters!

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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.

The Things I Can’t Change

The Serenity Prayer

God grant me the Serenity
To accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the Wisdom to know the difference.

This prayer hung in my kitchen throughout my childhood. My father hung it there, when he received it as a gift from his sister.  When I would get frustrated about something, he would point to it.

I always thought the second line was stupid. Everything can be changed. I believed that with my whole, young fiery heart. And I think tonight, I finally realized my problem. I have never had, “the Wisdom to know the difference”. In my mind, I have always thought that if things don’t change, then people aren’t working hard enough.

Well, tonight I think it finally sunk in. That sometimes it’s not that things can’t or won’t change, but it’s a question of how long and how hard of an uphill battle do I want to fight?

When my husband and I decided to move, I promised myself to do the best research I could to ensure a quality school system and community for our children. The battle I fought in the town we were leaving was long and hard. Some said what I accomplished was impressive, but for me it wasn’t nearly enough. I felt like a failure.

I was leaving a profession that was so important to me. I wasn’t able to help those students I know were falling through the cracks and would keep falling without me advocating for them. I felt terrible that I couldn’t motivate and inspire more like-minded people (fellow teachers, friends, parents, etc.) to speak up and get involved. I felt bad telling parents of my former students that I was leaving and that I would never teach the younger siblings of families that  I had grown so close to.

But in the end, I took a deep breath and walked away. Knowing that I couldn’t stay somewhere and keep banging my head against the wall. I had already developed an ulcer and lost far too much sleep. Many asked me if I really thought I could find better. I was confident that I could and that I did. But one of my colleagues was right to say that the sweeping reforms were national and could not be escaped.

Tonight I realized that though I have found a better place for our family, I still am not sure that it is good enough. I wanted a place with more parent and community involvement. I found a place with three parent organizations. Yet tonight I sat at a meeting for one of those organizations as the ONLY member of the public at the meeting. Sadly the other groups and meetings don’t have much attendance either.

I feel cheated. I feel lost. I feel alone in this battle despite all of the Facebook groups that tell me that there are people out there fighting the same fight.

At what point do I just give up fighting for better public schools and just homeschool?

I just paid $100 to own this blog and $20 to print business cards to promote it. But tonight I feel like letting my kids finish out the school year and then just walking away…again. As inspiring as all of these Opt Out and other reform movements are, I just don’t know if I have it in me to lead one, because the battle is such a grueling one.

My first responsibility is to my children, and I know that leaving them in public school is not the best possible choice for them. But then I think that even if I homeschool my children, they still have to go out into a country that will be so much worse off, if things continue the way they are going.

Maybe I should be up late planning to homeschool next year instead of trying to fix a system that so many people are so complacent about.

Now that I am older I understand why my Dad’s sister gave him that prayer. Because he, like me, was never satisfied accepting that anything was unchangeable.