Monday, December 29, 2014

The 12 Reformy Days of Christmas

Happy holidays, everyone! I hope all my fellow educators out there are enjoying a much-deserved break before we gear up for testing season! (Sorry, no coupons, sales or bonus buys are associated with this much anticipated season, but boy-oh-boy your job sure is on the line!)

To keep you all in the holiday spirit for a few more days, here's a little Christmas ditty from me to you. Enjoy!

Many thanks to Save Our Schools NJ for inspiring me with their great post on the upcoming PARCC test! 

The 12 Reformy Days of Christmas

On the first day of Christmas reformies gave to me a test that is designed for students to fail.
Credit: Students365

On the second day of Christmas reformies gave to me two flawed evaluation systems and a test that is designed for students to fail.

On the third day of Christmas reformies gave to me three billionaire edupreneures...
Bill Gates. Credit: NY Post 
Eli Broad. Credit: LA Times

Credit: Washington Post

... two flawed evaluation systems and a test that is designed for students to fail.

On the fourth day of Christmas reformies gave to me four talking heads...
US Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Credit: US News

Michelle Rhee

Amplify CEO Joel Klein. Credit: Mark Von Holden Getty Images

Campbell Brown. Credit: NY Times

... three billionaire profiteers, two flawed evaluation systems and a test that is designed for students to fail.

On the fifth day of Christmas reformies gave to me FIVE CELEBRITY CHARTER SCHOOL OWNERS!
Andre Agassi. Credit: Getty Images

Deion Sanders. Credit: AP

Jalen Rose. Credit: Getty Images

Kevin Johnson. Credit: AP

Rapper Pit Bull. Credit: Gary Miller via Getty Images

...four talking heads, three billionaire profiteers, two flawed evaluation systems and a test that is designed for students to fail. 

On the sixth day of Christmas reformies gave to me six vulture philanthropists...
Mark Zuckerberg. Credit:
Arthur Rock. Credit: Rock Center for Corporate Governance

Netflix's Reed Hastings. Credit: Richard Brian, Reuters

David Tepper. Credit: Business Insider
The Koch Brothers. Credit:

... FIVE CELEBRITY CHARTER SCHOOL OWNERS! Four talking heads, three billionaire profiteers, two flawed evaluation systems and a test that is designed for students to fail. 

On the seventh day of Christmas reformies gave to me seven Chiefs for Change... 
Idaho Chief Tom Luna

Louisiana Chief John White

Delaware Chief Mark Murphy

New Mexico Chief Hanna Skandera

Oklahoma Chief Janet Barresi

Rhode Island Chief Deborah A. Gist

Tennessee Chief Kevin Huffman

... six vulture philanthropists, FIVE CELEBRITY CHARTER SCHOOL OWNERS! Four talking heads, three billionaire profiteers, two flawed evaluation systems and a test that is designed for students to fail.

On the eighth day of Christmas reformies gave to me eight burned-out teachers, seven Chiefs for Change, six vulture philanthropists, FIVE CELEBRITY CHARTER SCHOOL OWNERS! Four talking heads, three billionaire profiteers, two flawed evaluation systems and a test that is designed for students to fail. 

On the ninth day of Christmas reformies gave to me nine days of testing...

... eight burned-out teachers, seven Chiefs for Change, six vulture philanthropists, FIVE CELEBRITY CHARTER SCHOOL OWNERS! Four talking heads, three billionaire profiteers, two flawed evaluation systems and a test that is designed for students to fail. 

On the tenth day of Christmas reformies gave to me ten poorly-trained TFA recruits... 

TFA's Wendy Kopp. Credit: Wikipedia
... nine days of testing, eight burned-out teachers, seven Chiefs for Change, six vulture philanthropists, FIVE CELEBRITY CHARTER SCHOOL OWNERS! Four talking heads, three billionaire profiteers, two flawed evaluation systems and a test that is designed for students to fail. 

On the eleventh day of Christmas reformies gave to me eleven charter school scandals (merely scratching the surface), ten poorly trained TFA recruits, nine days of testing, eight burned-out teachers, seven Chiefs for Change, six vulture philanthropists, FIVE CELEBRITY CHARTER SCHOOL OWNERS! Four talking heads, three billionaire profiteers, two flawed evaluation systems and a test that is designed for students to fail.  

On the twelfth day of Christmas reformies gave to me twelve reformy governors (these are but a few)...
NJ Gov. Chris Christie. Credit: NY Post

Maine Gov. Paul LePage. Credit: Bangor Daily News

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. Credit: Huffington Post

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Credit: Daily Kos
Former PA Gov. Tom Corbett. Credit: Lehigh Valley Live

... eleven charter school scandals, ten poorly trained TFA recruits, nine days of testing, eight burned-out teachers, seven Chiefs for Change, six vulture philanthropists, FIVE CELEBRITY CHARTER SCHOOL OWNERS! Four talking heads, three billionaire profiteers, two flawed evaluation systems... 

And a test that is designed for students to fail!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

In honor of #SandyHook: An open letter to America's elected officials

(Note: There are many elected officials across this country from the halls of Congress to the smallest town councils who are working to pass meaningful gun legislation, and I thank them from the bottom of my heart. This letter is written to all, but with a special bent towards those who still don't get it.)

Dear Elected Officials, 

Two years ago today I stood in the hallway of my K-4 school and said to a coworker, "Did you hear? There was another school shooting—at an elementary school. They shot kindergarteners." I remember looking at the little ones who were passing us on their way to class and thinking, it could have been them; it could have been us. According to Moms Demand Action, there have been almost 100 school shootings since that horrendous day at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, where 20 children and 6 adults were murdered by an insane gunman.

It's been two years since the parents of those children hugged them tight and said goodbye as they walked into their school for the very last time.

Two years, and nothing has been done, but not for lack of trying on the parts of some very dedicated public servants on both sides of the aisle. Why? Why are only some of you trying, and not every single one of you?

"It's not the right time to talk about gun violence," you say. 

"We have to let the families mourn," you say.

"We don't want to politicize such a tragic event," you say.

Well, I say, "Baloney!" Every single time a child dies from gun violence—whether in Newtown, CT or Newark, NJ, is the exact time we should talk about preventing it. Gun violence is a preventable public health crisisIf We the People truly love our children—all children—we would make saving them our top priority.

Thanks to those of you who are more afraid of offending the gun lobby than protecting our children, our schools have become prisons for the innocent. Every door is locked at all times lest an intruder find a closet or empty classroom in which to hide. Fire drills are now accompanied by a new set of drills with menacing names like 'active shooter', 'lock down', 'lock out' or 'Code C' (C for Columbine?) And the students know why—even the little ones. They know, and they're afraid, but we do our best to calm their fears and change the subject. Back in the 50's and 60's when 'duck and cover' drills were practiced, it was because of a threat from a place beyond most young children's comprehension: the Soviet Union or Cuba, somewhere over 'there', far away. Now the threat is very real, yet completely unpredictable. Is it that kid in 3rd period chemistry or the one who always sits by himself at lunch or the star football player? Who knows which one will snap, and when—and if they'll have a gun?

While many of you have been busy slashing education funding to the bone, school districts across this country are scraping together scarce resources to upgrade entrances to make them impervious to gunfire, installing bullet-proof glass, metal detectors, baggage scanners, panic buttons, state-of-the-art surveillance systems, and devices that can instantly detect a sexual predator simply by scanning a drivers license. More and more now have armed police on premises all day. I'm sorry, but I didn't see a line item for these expenses in the recent appropriations bill. Did I miss something? 

Because of your failure to act, school culture has also changed. What was once harmless child's play is now grounds for suspension. Drawing a battle scene between aliens and soldiers on a piece of paper could land a second grader in the guidance office. Darth Vader must leave his light saber home during the Halloween parade. 

All this keeps children safe, but it does not keep them free. You imprison them and the nation because you are more beholden to the gun lobby and its big checkbook than you are to the will and safety of the American people—including many responsible gun owners. The more schools feel like prisons, the shorter the school to prison pipeline becomes.

The new normal for many of America's children is anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder because they live with the daily fear and the real possibility of being injured or killed by a gun. For some, the feeling is merely background noise like, 'look both ways before crossing the street, and be careful because some lunatic with a gun could kill me in school'. For others it's a 50-piece marching band parading through their head because now, not only are their neighborhoods and homes not safe from gun violence, their schools—the one place where many gained respite—are perceived unsafe, too. It alters their brain chemistry. It keeps them from learning and living and becoming the best version of themselves. 

In a few short weeks many of you will be sworn in to begin a new term of service, but who will you serve? It has become glaringly apparent in light of recent Supreme Court decisions that the will of the people has been usurped by the will of corporations and powerful lobbies. When does a child's right to live supersede the wants of the NRA? When do all of you who wear the Bible on your sleeve, who are so concerned about what goes on inside a woman's body, start putting the fifth commandment before the second amendment when it comes to protecting children from gun violence? 

In order for the constitution to work, we need laws that strengthen and enhance its tenets. There is more than enough room in our society for the second amendment and sensible gun legislation. We need national laws that make the consequences of illegal sales, possession, use and trafficking of firearms swift and severe. We need background checks for every, single gun purchase. And we need laws that will help keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. These laws can be enacted without compromising the rights of the millions of law-abiding gun owners, but that requires you to serve We the People not We the Corporations.  

Despite Gov. Christie's best efforts, a recent report says that I live in one of the safest states in the nation in terms of gun violence. That said, the lives of too many children in New Jersey are ended by a bullet. Clearly, the state still has work to do:
New Jersey still doesn't require a background check for every firearm sale, and has not passed a law banning .50-caliber rifles... Nearly 75% of guns discovered at crime scenes in the state were imported from outside New Jersey... 
"Unfortunately, trafficked firearms purchased in nearby states with weak gun laws are inundating New Jersey," said the report, which called for a new strong federal statute to make gun trafficking a federal crime. (emphasis mine)
While the article goes on to say that a recent Pew Research Center poll found that "52% of Americans favor gun rights, compared with 46% opting for gun control", Media Matters reports that the polling questions are deeply flawed and do not accurately reflect the views of the overwhelming majority of Americans. So, please don't hide behind the banner of the "will of the people" on this one because it just ain't so.

Mike Pohle & Newtown riders. Credit: Hunterdon County Democrat
I was in Frenchtown, NJ in March 2013 when 26 cyclists from Newtown, dressed in Sandy Hook's colors of green and white, stopped by on their way to Washington, DC to lobby for stricter gun control legislation. I heard their impassioned calls to end the slaughter of our children. I listened to Mike Pohle, a fellow Raritan Township resident, choke back tears as he talked about the tragic loss of his teenage son in the Virginia Tech massacre. The Newtown Action Alliance wasn't calling for an all-out gun ban. They simply wanted common sense reforms like those mentioned above. But that didn't happen because too many of you were more concerned about the green of your campaign coffers than the green of the ribbons they wore.  

The loss of a child is the greatest tragedy anyone will ever face. During this holiday season, in far too many homes across this country, stockings will be hung, candles lit, places set, gifts wrapped and prayers said for children who are no longer there. Scabs will be ripped off, old wounds exposed, hearts broken all over again as families remember what was and grieve for what could have been. Corporations won't be doing that. Neither will lobbies. Their doors will be closed, the lights off, they will be home with their families.

Please remember that as you celebrate the season with your family, with your children. Please remember that when you are sworn in next month. Please remember to do what's right, not what's easy. The very lives of our children are depending on you.



Sunday, December 7, 2014

'College and Career Ready': the big, fat myth of standardized testing

Hats off to Delran, NJ Education Association President Mike Kaminsky (@MKaminskiNJ) and his leadership team! They are doing excellent work in the push back against education 'reform'. Not only did they recently host both a showing of "Standardized" (trailer above), and a Take the PARCC night, Delran also threw down the gauntlet with this very powerful statement against standardized testing, posted on DEA member and fellow ed blogger, Ani McHugh's Teacherbiz blog:

We, the members of the Delran Education Association, believe that authentic, teacher-created assessments are an important component of any successful instructional program. However, we stand in defiant opposition to the New Jersey Department of Education’s obsession with the use of high-stakes standardized testing, both in our own district and in districts across this state. 

And that's just the beginning. It's a perfect overview of education 'reform' and standardized testing for folks who haven't read every book that's been published on the subject over the past few years.  

Show me the money!

Along with about 350 other concerned parents and educators, I attended the Take the PARCC event, which was a BYOPD affair. The first half hour was spent trying to get everyone in the room logged on to the Pearson website to take the sample test. I'm hoping that all works out statewide on actual testing days because Acting Commissioner Hespe assures us that over 90% of school districts across the state are tech ready. And for those that aren't, he's got about $1.3 million in grant money... for the whole state

Gov. Christie has cut close to $5 billion in education funding since he was first elected, and the devastating effects are still being felt. So I'm happy that the state managed to scrape together a few bucks for cash-strapped school districts. I'm sure the good people of Bernards Township, one of NJ's many affluent and successful suburban districts, are thrilled that, despite their hefty property tax bills, they will have to raise about $900,000 to replace their turf fields, which have a shelf life of 10 years, because the state could only cough up $58K to help 'em out with their tech upgrades. That's a whole lotta bake sales.

Source: Bernards Twp. School District website

The state itself has spent about $27 million so far to gear up on their end. Where'd they get that money? The pension system and the transportation trust fund have been raided to the bone, but we magically have $27 mil to—oh silly me! The money must be found because this is for the edupreneures children.

Angry Birds? No, Angry Parents!

Once everyone was logged on, Ani and Mike led the audience through some of the nuances of the platform, and it quickly became clear that this test is first and foremost about computer skills. If the students don't have them, they won't do well—period. The size of a Chromebook screen isn't much bigger than an iPad. Students have to read passages and mathematical equations, answer questions, keystroke essays and scroll through text on something with which many have very little experience. And it starts in third grade. Many administrators know this, so they're scrambling to get as many of these devices into the hands of as many students as possible. I don't care how much time the average 8-year-old spends on the computer, playing Angry Birds for hours is a whole lot different than this:

That's 9 days of testing, folks: 5 in March and 4 in May. Once that sunk in, the demeanor of the room quickly changed. The Q&A session progressed rapidly from 'how can this happen?' to 'how can I opt my kid out?' Several parents stood up to announce community groups and Facebook pages they've started in order to organize and inform other parents. So much for Hespe telling us at the NJEA Convention that he isn't "aware of any opt out movement in the state." By the end of the night, I think there were more interpersonal connections made than Internet connections.  

The biggest takeaway of the night was this: Parents have to lead this revolution. Teachers can and do lead the fight on other ed 'reform' battles, but the front lines on testing must be filled with parents. And my money is on the parents of special needs children because they always have to fight, and this one's gonna be particularly ugly.

The big, fat myth

The bottom line is that Common Core and the PARCC will not magically make every child #CACR—'college and career ready'. It's not about developing a generation of super students or magically lifting every single child out of poverty. It's all about money, and the money is the hostage. The message Arne Duncan sends to school districts all across the country is this: if your students don't hit their cut scores, you don't get your money. If it really, truly were about helping all students succeed, K-12 educators would not have been given a seat at the table, we would have been given the whole damned table. If it really, truly were about helping all students succeed, K-12 educators would be able to rely on their own assessments to guide their instruction, instead of assessments developed by people who are not necessarily K-12 educators and that may be scored by Craig's List hires or robots (yea, don't get me started). 

Case in point: I was recently interviewed by New Jersey News12 on the state's gear-up for the PARCC. Commissioner Hespe was also interviewed. To be fair, much of an interview gets left on the cutting room floor. The reporter spent about a half hour interviewing me for what amounted to a 30 second sound bite. But, listen to Hespe's comment at the 2:28 mark:
[PARCC is] going to prepare students for the tests of the future.
That is what Hespe thinks the PARCC will do, and I don't know about you, but that scares the bejeezus outta me. The flawed tests are based on a flawed set of standards that the teachers must teach so the students can get better and better at taking flawed tests. 

For all the data mining that now happens to our children, the founding fathers of CCSS and PARCC refuse to acknowledge some startling data from the US Census Bureau, brought to you by ed blogger extraordinaire, Lloyd Lofthouse

  • 26% of [US] jobs do not require a high school degree, but only 11.8% of the adults who dropped out of high school are qualified for these jobs. More than half are overqualified.
  • 40% of the jobs require a high school degree, but more than 88% of Americans have a high school degree—more than double the jobs that require this much education.
  • For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to combine everyone with a college degree—associate degree, BA, masters, professional and doctorate—and only 27% of the jobs in America require one of these college degrees, but 53% of the adult population might be qualified for these jobs—more than twice the number required. 
This means a large sector of the American work force is highly over educated and working in jobs that don’t require the education they earned, because those jobs do not exist. 
In addition, if there are shortages of skilled workers in some fields, how can that be blamed on the public schools, teachers and teachers’ unions? After all, Americans pride themselves on the freedom of choice regarding their lifestyles, and our children and adults make academic choices as they age. For whatever reason, these choices lead to dropping out of high school or staying in school to graduate and/or go on to earn an associate, BA, professional or doctorate degree. If an individual majors in the wrong field, do we blame K–12 teachers for that, too? (emphasis mine)
Another ed blogger, Leonard Isenberg, who writes at summed it up this way:
50% of recent college graduates with degrees are working at jobs that do not require one, e.g. waiter. Add to this the fact that the total capacity of all colleges and universities in the U.S. is just 30% of high school graduates and one wonders what the rest of students are supposed to do in a privatizing education culture that has closed public school industrial arts and other alternative career and trade programs.

So, students are graduating college with Cadillac degrees only to find work in the Edsel factory. The CCSS and PARCC will not solve that problem, but they will make a boatload of money for the testing industry. And while college debt is at record highs, that debt, unlike corporate debt, isn't erased in bankruptcy.  

Essential questions

Parents, before you make sure your child is well-rested and well-fed for test days ('cause the other 171 days aren't really important), blogger Peter Greene, has put together this handy list of questions for you to bring to the next NJ State Board of Ed meeting January 7th:
The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers... is a magical magical test. It can tell with absolute precision, how prepared your student is for college or career because, magic. And who wouldn't want to know more about the powerful juju contained in the PARCC test. 
So if Mr. Hespe and any of his friends come to explain how crucial PARCC testing is for your child's future, you might try asking some questions.

  • Exactly what is the correspondence between PARCC results and college readiness. Given the precise data, can you tell me what score my eight year old needs to get on the test to be guaranteed at least a 3.75 GPA at college?
  • Does it matter which college he attends, or will test results guarantee he is ready for all colleges?
  • Can you show me the research and data that led you to conclude that Test Result A = College Result X? How exactly do you know that meeting the state's politically chosen cut score means that my child is prepared to be a college success?
  • Since the PARCC tests math and language, will it still tell me if my child is ready to be a history or music major? How about geology or women's studies?
  • My daughter plans to be a stay-at-home mom. Can she skip the test? Since that's her chosen career, is there a portion of the PARCC that tests her lady parts and their ability to make babies?
  • Which section of the PARCC tests a student's readiness to start a career as a welder? Is it the same part that tests readiness to become a ski instructor, pro football player, or dental assistant?
  • I see that the PARCC will be used to "customize instruction." Does that mean you're giving the test tomorrow (because it'a almost November already)? How soon will the teacher get the detailed customizing information-- one week? Ten days? How will the PARCC results help my child's choir director and phys ed teacher customize instruction?
  • Is it possible that the PARCC will soon be able to tell me if my eight year old is on track for a happy marriage and nice hair?
  • Why do you suppose you keep using the word "utilize" when "using" is a perfectly good plain English substitute?
  • To quote the immortal Will Smith in Independence Day, "You really think you can do all that bullshit you just said?"
The PARCC may look like just one more poorly-constructed standardized math and language test, but it is apparently super-duper magical, with the ability to measure every aspect of a child's education and tell whether the child is ready for college and career, regardless of which college, which major, which career, and which child we are talking about. By looking at your eight year old's standardized math and language test, we can tell whether she's on track to be a philosophy major at Harvard or an airline pilot! It's absolutely magical!

Never has a single standardized test claimed so much magical power with so little actual data to back up its assertions. Mr. Hespe would be further ahead to skip his fancy final paragraph and just tell his people to look parents in the eye and say, "Because the state says so." It's not any more educationally convincing than the magical CACR bullshit, but at least it would be honest. (emphasis mine)

But for all its promises of miraculously making every single child in the United States 'college and career ready', the PARCC test is quickly wilting under the bright lights of scrutiny. As of this writing, only 12 of the original 26 states that signed on, plus the District of Columbia, are participating. When K-12 educators do not take an active role in designing the curriculum and the accompanying assessments, the result is a deeply flawed, poorly executed grand experiment that will ultimately crash and burn.

Final thoughts

As the US moves more and more toward an education system like China's, China has seen the error of its truly rigorous ways and is moving more toward a system like what ours used to be—one that embraced minds like Einstein's as something to be celebrated and nurtured, not standardized.