Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week: Delirium at the State BOE Meeting Part 1!

Today was open topic day at the NJ State BOE, which means anyone can testify about any education topic. The board has their regular meeting in the morning, then public testimony in the afternoon. Due to NJASK testing, there was a small contingent of NJEA members present along with concerned parents and citizens.


It started with a resolution to recognize May 2014 as Physical Education and Sport Month. A physical education teacher gave a brief presentation on the topic. Forgive me for not knowing her name, but she's a firecracker. She's been teaching close to 50 years. I met her at a previous BOE meeting and she's the epitome of a career educator: fiercely passionate, knowledgeable, inspiring and uplifting. During her presentation she reminded the board that even though NJ is one of the top states in PE in the nation, because of budget cuts and increased demands of standardized testing, many districts are not fulfilling the mandated 150 minutes of PE per week. Board president Arcelio Aponte told her to mention this to acting Education Commissioner David Hespe. (More on this in tomorrow's post.) She then got the entire room up and doing an 'brain break'-type activity, wherein Aponte laughingly admitted that he'd lost control of the meeting. Leave it to a teacher to take control.

Then came the presentations. Chief Performance Officer/Assistant Commissioner of Data, Research, Evaluation and Reporting (now there's a mouthful), Bari Erlichson, presented on the PARCC field tests. I guess ya gotta love data to have a title like that. Trouble is data doesn't have a pulse. It's not a flesh and blood, 98.6 degree little kid. It can only tell you so much. I live Tweeted the testimony, so you can check out the details there. Does anyone know if there's a Chief Crying, Stressed-Out Eight Year Old Commissioner of Calming Fears position at the DOE? If so, I want to apply.

According to Erlichson, the PARCC trials went swimmingly well. She even had slides of Tweets from teachers and administrators praising the process! Why, one of the superintendents was from Mount Olive. Now, where have I read about him before? Oh... yes... Jersey Jazzman wrote a little piece on him. This is just the tip of the iceberg, you really do need to read the whole piece: 
Before he was hired in Mount Olive, Reynolds was director of Newton Learning, an education company he formed as a division of Edison Schools. Edison Schools is a private education management company and [former NJ Education Commissioner] Cerf was formerly the chief operating officer.  
How nice that his school district's trial run went so well.

So anyway, back to Bari. Did you know that, according to her, "NJASK is one day of testing then kids relax for the afternoon"? Dear God, what kind of hell-hole have I been teaching in!?! My school does 4 days of testing in the morning, then regular academic classes in the afternoon! Such torture must be stopped!! I'm so glad she is on the job to set the record straight because she made the point several times that all this testing info must be messaged properly. Apparently it doesn't matter if it all works or not. So long as the message is good, all will be well.

She also talked about technical issues with the computers the students used, including 'proctor caching' issues, and all the ways districts are magically fixing them. Teachers, memorize that phrase because you too will soon be catching proctors! What's wrong with 'sharpen pencil and open book'? Oh right, chrome books are so much more reliable profitable.

Now mind you, I have nothing against technology in teaching when used appropriately, and there are many great reasons for the switch to a tech-based style of teaching and learning, but this roll out is happening way too fast, and board member and former NJEA President Edie Fulton knows it. After Bari showed all the tweets of happiness and joy over the trial runs, there was this:
Fulton: Where are the negative comments on the field test? 
Erlichson: I had to abbreviate my presentation.

But the good Dr. Bruce Baker came to the rescue as soon as I tweeted that exchange. Bari, here are some dissenting voices in case you want to update your Power Point:  

"Education in the school came to a screeching halt. No other uses of technology were permitted during testing time." 
"I am a teacher as well as a parent of a field-tested student. I am certain this sort of paradigm shift in high-stakes testing, where results will be used to 'evaluate' teachers, will force educators to spend more time instructing how to take the test, how to be most successful on the test and how to remain motivated for the test than actually educating students. In essence, I fear PARCC and preparing for the PARCC will become education as we know it." 

Sounds more and more like China, doesn't it?

Oooo! Oooo! Oooo! Guess what, teachers?!?!? According to Bari, more PARCC practice tests are coming in the fall! YES! AND... regional training centers for test administrators! And Bari even said they need to reach out to districts that aren't electronically ready for the PARCC because, you know, "the NJASK just can't get to the standards the way a computer-based test can." Wow, I guess that means the state is going to pay for their tech upgrades and— oh wait... never mind. (Pssst: $800 million budget shortfall)

On questions where there are multiple right answers:
Fulton: Have you ever seen one of them?
Erlichson: I haven't drilled down enough. (Translation: No.)

The pilot was administered to about 10% of all students in NJ. Board VP and retired teacher, Joe Fisicaro, questioned the potential technology problems with a fast roll-out next year:
Fisicaro: 10% is a very small number. What happens next year when tens of thousands of students take the test? 
Aponte: Everyone gets frustrated when technology doesn't work... We are committed to moving forward with PARCC. We are sticking to our timeline. 
Hespe: Field testing has green-lighted PARCC. Change is hard. Our achievement gap numbers are devastating.  
Aponte: The public needs to know the field test is going well. We fully expect to stay on our time schedule. (emphasis mine)
There you have it folks. Damn the technology problems and full speed ahead! We don't care about your district or student tech issues. We don't care whether your teachers have had time to unpack the standards and write curriculum. We are committed to reform! I'm so relieved to hear that. 

To close this discussion, Erlichson asked one final, chillingly telling question:
"PARCC is part of the regular school day. How do we present this so people don't think it's a lost week?"
First, dear readers, it's not a lost week. It's a lost two weeks: one in March and one in May. Second, if this grand scheme is so wonderful, so fantabulous, so marvelously marvelous, nobody would have to do any spin. This thing would sell itself. But it's not and it won't.

But wait, there's more! Now we move on to the NAEP scores review. Yippee! 

While Erlichson confirmed that NJ has been "leading the nation" in 2011 and 2013 our scores are flat. *Sigh* This is what I can't stand about reformy logic. See, normal logic goes something like this:
We are at the top + We've been at the top for a decade = We are doing a good job because proficient equals a high level of mastery, like a B+. So, let's maintain our strengths, define the areas that need improvement and work to improve them.

But reformy logic goes something like this:
We are at the top + We've been at the top for a decade = Our scores are flat. Excellence is so overrated! Something must be wrong and we've got to fix EVERYTHING—NOW!!! And it doesn't matter if the 'fix' will really work or if it's even valid, we just have to convince the public that it is!
Let's look at this another way: The Yankees are the most successful baseball franchise in history. They've won 27 World Series and 40 American League Pennants. Do they have areas in need of improvement? Sure, every team does. That's why they trade players and hire excellent coaches, trainers and managers. But what if suddenly one day the owners decide that excellence isn't good enough? What if they decide that a consistent winning record (even though they might not win the World Series every year) isn't up to snuff? What if they want every player to be perfect—for half the price? What if they told Derek Jeter, one of baseball's all time best players, that he suddenly has to change the way he plays the game because his numbers aren't perfect enough? Oh, and they are slashing funding for trainers and coaches in the process. Could he do it? Would he do it? Why would he do it?

That's what education 'reform' is doing to NJ. In its race to perfection, it's completely avoiding the correlation between achievement and socioeconomic status, slashing school budgets and placing all it's reformy eggs in the testing basket. If you want the New York Yankees' winning record, you have to fund your team like the New York Yankees.   

Still not convinced that what the state BOE is doing is wrong? I leave you with this from Acting Commissioner Hespe testifying at a state budget hearing on Monday (paraphrased):

If the PARCC and Common Core Standards are properly implemented, there will be no need for remedial college courses.

Tomorrow: More BOE delirium, and public testimony.