Let Me Tell You A Little Something About Sacrifice

Today I traveled 45 minutes to Camden County Community College to testify before the State Commission on the Use of Assessments in NJ headed by the State Commissioner of Education David Hespe.

I left my house at 8:15 am and just walked in the door at 2:15 pm to one casualty of this war I have been fighting against the implementation of the PARCC test.

Exhibit A: My Kitchen Counter

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I took this picture when I walked in the door at 2:15 pm from Camden. I have until the bus comes at 3:40 to write.

This picture of just one area of my kitchen, is a microcosm of my struggle to continue to be the best mom to my children that I can be, while I advocate for change in education. The wine I drowned my nerves in last night, the last board book I read to my daughter, a full yet abandoned lunchbox from my son who stayed home sick today, a baby bottle empty except some curdled drops, multiple coffee cups, saline nasal spray, washed dishes, unwashed dishes, a glove without a match, and even an unopened mushroom growing kit.

So many people have remarked, “I don’t know how you do it!”  They mean raise 4 kids and have time for anything else. Well the path that I have chosen may be noble, but it sure ain’t pretty (see Exhibit A).

I started working on writing my testimony only a couple of days ago, after much procrastination and deliberation. Finding time was nearly impossible. Our two big kids had a 4 day weekend that became 5 days with a snow day. Then a pipe burst yesterday in our old house that we were in negotiations to sell to a very interested buyer (who knows how they feel about our house now that the whole kitchen is in pieces). Our kindergartner woke up with croup this morning, and it didn’t look likely that I would make it to Camden, but my gut insisted that I find a way.

So my darling husband, against his better judgment packed up my (sick) 5-year-old, 4-year-old, and 16-month old and drove the whole crew an hour and 15 minutes to survey the damage in the old house and talk to a contractor. After dropping off my oldest at school at 8:15 am, I was feeling guilty and almost drove straight home, but instead I kept going to Camden.

What is my point?

My point is that people like me make it look easy. It looks like I have it all together. Many of my friends jokingly call me supermom, but really I have no magical powers. My kitchen surely attests to that. The truth is that being involved, reading, writing, and advocating for change looks romantic, but it is hard.

I hardly ever get to read books (my most favorite thing to do in the world) or watch television. Keeping up with the laundry for this family of 6 is impossible. The dishes to wash are endless. Groceries vanish faster than I can buy them. The toys are all over the floor and there are a million papers stuffed into drawers and heaped into piles. I don’t have a cleaning service or even a babysitter (except my in-laws who pitch in once a week or so travelling from 75 minutes away).

So when I post my testimony from today, I want you to remember that first and foremost that I am a mom. A mom who has a million responsibilities and a never-ending to do list that goes on for days. I am also a human being with fears and insecurities. I may have spoken today with confidence and passion, yet  I have been too intimidated to hand out business cards at my sons’ school during pick-up or drop-off to promote this blog that has become so dear to me.

I look at the numbers of people who are reading, and I am encouraged. I try not to get caught up in how few people share my posts or comment (whether publicly or privately). I force myself to smile and appreciate even the smallest of victories. And when I need motivation, I look at my children.

I would much rather help sculpt a better world for them than agonize over the fact that I have lost my kitchen counter once again.

Thank you to all of those who came out today to speak in Camden, and to all of those who were there in spirit. I am proud to be fighting alongside so many great minds and passionate activists. It is a shame that Commissioner Hespe left at the beak for lunch and did not give all of the speakers today the respect that they deserved. He should have at the very least offered his apologies.

In My Crazy Mind

Let me start with a true story (at least as true as I remember).

When I was about 10 years old, my family went to Sea World. I was quite the animal lover, and seals were my favorite. We bought some little sardines and threw them to the seals who barked happily. Well, even at that age, I had an overactive sense of justice. So I decided that I would save the cutest seal with the long eyelashes from being trapped in that unnatural place.

I leaned way too far over the edge, far in the corner hoping that no one would see me. I dangled the sardine, luring the seal closer to me, then tried to grab the seal by the neck at the same time. My plan was to pull it up from the tank and set it free. I am not really sure what I was going to do with a full-grown seal. I can imagine me with my puffy 80’s afro and cutoff jean shorts trying to run, dragging a barking seal. Of course I never got that far, but I still think it would have been a pretty awesome feat…at least until I got to my getaway car and realized I didn’t have the keys or know how to drive.

Okay, humor me….one more.

In 7th grade, at about age 13, my mom took us to the Ecology Site where we had been going since birth to see the animals. It’s a neat place with a wide variety of animals from bald eagles to bunnies and bears. I take my own children there to this day, when I go home to visit.

Well, that summer, the Ecology Site had a dairy cow visiting. I was a Long Island girl. I had never really had a close encounter with a light brown and white cow as beautiful and sweet as that one (or with any cow at all for that matter). I looked at her, and she looked at me with big brown eyes. It was love at first sight.

In all my teenage glory, I shrieked and cooed and proclaimed that it was the most beautiful creature in the world. (Did I mention that I have always had a penchant for drama?) Well, this went on and on and on. My mother was getting tired of my swoon fest and was ready to head home. I wasn’t having it. I wanted to stay and pet her forever. Those eyes! She even let me pet the short soft fur between her eyes. She didn’t belong at that horrible Ecology Site. She deserved to be free, I proclaimed.

Once again, I found myself concocting a plan where I could take the cow home with me. My mom had heard enough. No the cow is not that cute. No you can’t take her home. No I don’t want to hear about how cute she is again. Don’t be fooled by the fact that my mom is a kindergarten teacher. Her sarcasm is hardly elementary.

So, my mother started to walk away, and over her shoulder she nonchalantly quipped, “Yeah, well we will see how much you love that cow the next time you eat a hamburger.”

My jaw dropped. Her words hung in the air like smog, polluting my altruistic thoughts. Yet it only took me a second to retort, in full teenage rage, “I will NEVER eat meat again.”

Much to my mother’s dismay, I held true to my word. I have been a vegetarian ever since.

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Tomorrow PARCC testing starts for the 3rd and 4th graders in my sons’ school. Thankfully, my two older boys are in kindergarten and 2nd grade, so they won’t be impacted this year, for the most part. However, I have never been one to only care about my own children.

My heart has this fantasy where I just run into the school tomorrow, round-up all of the kids and lead them from their Chromebooks and the PARCC test and set them free into the field. Maybe the kids would all hold protest signs or maybe they would do science experiments or maybe write creative stories under the clouds or maybe they would just be.

Anything is possible….at least in my crazy mind.

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The Importance of Being “SOOPR MOM”

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The more involved I get in education reform, the deeper I get into politics and the further I see schools getting away from the best interests of children.

My son, who is in kindergarten, made this for me the other day in school. In fact nearly everyday, he comes home and pulls out a small squarish folded up piece of paper with a picture for me. It usually says, “SIMONMOM,” but he is coming along with his writing abilities. It shows how even at school, in the middle of all of the hustle and bustle, he is thinking about me.

I guess this is a perfect metaphor for why I have been relentless in fighting back against the PARCC and against people in positions of power that have clearly forgotten what it is like to be a parent of a young child. Truly education reform and the people driving it have lost touch with the wonder of childhood.

The children, for the most part, have no idea that the adults are fighting around them (except maybe those fortunate few whose parents have turned this fight into a civics lesson for them). They have no idea that when they enter their name into a computer that some company is collecting data about them that one day will turn into a profit.They have no idea that the test their teachers are proctoring was not made by those teachers, will not be graded by those teachers, and are in many cases not supported by those teachers. The very same teachers who are with them day in and day out taking care of them academically, socially, emotionally and more. They have no idea that their parents and grandparents did not have the pressures in school that are now the norm today. They have no idea that there may very well be a better way to learn.

Why?

Because they trust us.

The other day I watched my 5 year-old son run ahead of me and into the street. Thankfully no cars were coming, but I still pulled him aside and explained how dangerous it was to run out like that without looking both ways at least. He looked me in the eyes and said, “Well I knew you were watching, so I didn’t have to look.”  But what if I wasn’t watching and luck wasn’t in our favor?

The state of education today is a direct result of parents not watching. The more I watch the more I notice how so many others are not. It is not that parents don’t care, because I believe that the vast majority of parents want nothing but the best for their children. Yet, caring is not the same as watching and holding administrators, board members, city council members, local, state, and national politicians accountable. The Open Public Records Act is a powerful law, but only if people use it. Public hearings are pointless if the public is not informed. Politicians and other leaders will not listen if they know that no one is watching.

Every time I read an article about the PARCC test failing I think about how it NEVER should have been implemented across the entire state in the first year. The amount of money spent on this test is truly revolting as a recent article estimated that NJ will spend 22.1 million dollars on the PARCC test just this year. This doesn’t count the technology and training expenses that happened prior to the start of this test.

There will be no winners. Even if the anti-PARCC movement succeeds (as I believe that it will), there are still many people who will walk away from it with fatter pockets. Though in my heart of hearts I want to demand that the companies hand as much of that money as possible back to our schools and for those politicians who refused to listen to the criticisms of the public who elects them to lose their jobs, I will be satisfied if parents learn one lesson.

We need to be the superheroes our children trust us to be. We must constantly remain vigilant about what we allow to occur in education. For when we do not watch for villains, our children suffer. The PARCC is just one episode of an ongoing saga of good against evil playing out in our public schools.

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)

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

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.