Monday, March 31, 2014

Note to Gov. Christie: Those who live by the accountability sword will die by the accountability sword.

From the moment he was sworn in four years ago, Gov. Christie has been on a personal jihad against public education, unions and teachers. Labeling us “greedy” and “selfish”, and our apartheid schools in high-poverty districts as “failure factories”, he’s done everything possible to brainwash the general public into thinking our schools are overrun with bad teachers who must be held accountable.

He succeeded in getting a new evaluation system passed (my district uses Danielson)* that now tracks every pencil stroke of a student against their teacher. No stone is left unturned as administrators evaluate everything from how a teacher greets her students at the door, to whether students are able to solve their own social problems. And forget about expecting to be found ‘highly effective’ (a score of 4 on a 1-4 scale). Every teacher in New Jersey has been spoon-fed the mantra, “live in 3; vacation in 4”. To be highly effective, students pretty much have to teach themselves and solve their own problems. So, if you are a highly effective teacher, you essentially teach yourself into obsolescence. And yea, that’s totally reasonable, especially with kindergarteners.
Oh Charlotte, what have you done?

But no matter how hard teachers are trained in the new evaluation system, there are some things in our students’ lives that are simply beyond our control; that not even the best teacher in the world can fix.


But for no-excuses Christie, that’s no excuse. Teachers must be held accountable! It’s our fault kids struggle to learn because they’re poor. It’s our fault their parents are going through a bitter divorce that keeps them up at night with worry. It’s our fault they have an undiagnosed learning disability. If we can just hold teachers to unreasonable standards, slash their budgets, and test kids til their brains turn to Jello, we will banish those bad teachers once and for all!

And while Gov. Christie gets to hire his staff, I, on the other hand, have no choice which students I teach. I MUST take them all regardless of what baggage they bring with them, and yet I MUST be held accountable for their academic performance.

Well, those who live by the accountability sword will die by the accountability sword. Gov. Christie unleashed the accountability monster, so it’s time for him to have a taste of his own medicine: he must be held accountable for Bridgegate.

I hereby declare Governor Chris Christie ‘ineffective’ on the Danielson rubric for politician effectiveness!

Gov. Christie, you are accountable to the people of New Jersey for surrounding yourself with a bunch of —(to use a word you admitted your mother used, and you called Assemblyman Reed Gusciora)—‘numbnuts’.

You are accountable to the people of New Jersey for hiring not one… not two… not three… but four incompetents. Talk about a failure factory! You hired them. You created a work environment that fostered this type of behavior. That speaks volumes about your ability not only to lead a state but—heaven forbid—a nation. I can just see it:

“Hey, Mr. President, that despot dictator won’t back down, so we created some traffic problems on his border with some Bradleys.”

It doesn’t matter that you looked at the camera all puppy dog-eyed and sad and told Diane Sawyer,
“I’m certainly disappointed in myself that I wasn’t able to pick up these traits in these people. I’m disappointed in myself that I didn’t look closer, that I trusted too much.”

You are accountable.

It doesn’t matter that a bogus investigation, paid for with $1 million of taxpayer money, exonerated you and slut-shamed Bridget Anne Kelly. You, sir, are accountable for her actions. (Oh, and can I deduct my portion of that $1 mil from my income taxes ‘cause I’d really like a refund.)

You must be held accountable for the millions of people who were late for work or school, and for the ambulance that could not answer a call in a timely manner because of your poor judgment. Four people behaved horrendously because of your poor judgment.

The buck stops with you, Governor. You can point your finger all you want. You can spray yourself with Teflon all you want. You can trash Bridget Kelly and deny being friends with David Wildstein all you want, but they didn’t act in a vacuum.

‘I didn’t know’ is right up there with ‘the dog ate my homework’. You are ineffective. You need to go.

* If anyone has a link to the Danielson rubric that shows all the domains, please send me the link. I’ve only been able to find a PDF.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

#NJEdMarch27 Postscript

I've been struggling to put words together to reflect on last Thursday's education march on Trenton. As a fledgling blogger, I sometimes find it easier to write about an event as a witness, but last week I was a participant. I was honored to be on a speakers list that included so many passionate voices for public education. And even more honored to speak to such a passionate, enthusiastic crowd. Hundreds of people—parents, students and teachers—braved the bitter cold and wind to make their voices heard.

We are all sick and tired of the lies being told about public education by people who can afford to send their children to the very best private schools in New Jersey: that our schools are 'failure factories', our teachers are 'lazy', and poverty doesn't matter. And no one hammered home that point better than Central High School Principal and Newark Mayoral Candidate, Ras Baraka.

I'll stop talking now. Sit back and watch this terrific video recap of the march by my friend and fellow teacher, Ronen Kaufman.

And remember... 
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

#NJEdMarch27 from Ronen Kauffman on Vimeo.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Rally for NJ Public Education Part 3: ‘Bad Teachers’ & ‘Failing Students’ are the WMDs of Ed 'Reform'

Thirteen years ago, after the horrific attacks of 9/11, the Bush/Cheney/Condi triumvirate sold the nation on a war based on a lie: that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was connected to the terror attacks. Even after it was proven they didn’t have WMDs and the terrorists were Saudis—not Iraqis—Bush and Company plowed on, squandering our budget surplus, putting billions on the nation’s credit card in hopes of gaining control of Iraq’s oil reserves, and sacrificing the lives of thousands of brave young men and women in the process.

In 2011 I visited the Washington, DC office of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg—a WWII veteran—to talk to him about education policy. Outside his office was a display called “Faces of the Fallen": 

"... a memorial to the service members who lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq. Begun in 2004, the memorial… consists of more than 100 placards, each containing the pictures, names, ages, hometowns and causes of death of service members who sacrificed their lives to serve our country.” It was, to say the least, a moving and humbling tribute to so many brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. 

While President Bush was perpetrating that lie on a shell-shocked nation, he was cooking up another one: failing students. More recently accompanied by ‘bad teachers’, these two phrases have become the WMDs of the war on public education. They have been manufactured and sold to the general public by business people and elected officials—both Republican and Democrat—in order to cash in on the $600 billion education industry despite the fact that there is an enormous amount of data generated by the US government and researchers from a variety of public and private enterprises that says the problem in America isn’t public education, but poverty.

While President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan were wringing their hands over the US scores on the 2010 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), Diane Ravitch actually analyzed the data and debunked the Chicken Little myth:

“American students in schools with low poverty… had scores that were equal to those of Shanghai and significantly better than those of high-scoring Finland, the Republic of Korea, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia… the scores of students in low-poverty schools in the United States are far higher than the international average, higher even than the average for top-performing nations, and the scores decline as poverty levels increase, as they do in all nations.” (Reign of Error, p.65) (Emphasis mine.)

American schools are not 'failing', the sky is not falling, but the ability of many Americans to provide for their families is. 

But why look at messy things like facts when rhetoric is so much easier to sell and profit from? While school district budgets across the country are being slashed, those same districts must come up with thousands, and in some cases, millions of dollars to pay for technology and other upgrades to prepare for the onslaught of standardized testing despite no proof that it will improve student learning!

As the assault on public education marches on, two glaring ironies are emerging:
  • While ‘reformers’ push for more ‘accountability’, testing, and standards for our kids, theirs go to elite private schools with low student-teacher ratios, rich curriculums, shorter school days and years, and no punitive accountability measures. 
  • As educator/blogger Mercedes Schneider reports, the long overemphasis on standardized testing in other countries is backfiring as they graduate more and more students who are excellent at test taking, but who lack critical, creative, and higher order thinking skills: “Asian countries do better than European and American schools because we are ‘examination hell’ countries,” said Koji Kato, a professor emeritus of education at Tokyo’s Sophia University. “There is more pressure to teach to the test. In my experience in working with teachers the situation is becoming worse and worse.”

Click here for the answer.
Be sure to read Schneider’s entire post. It’s a veritable primer on the ultimate goal of education ‘reform’.

So again I ask: What will you do to help stem the tide of education ‘reform’? I know where I’ll be on March 27th. I’ll be in Trenton with people from all across the state fighting to take back our classrooms from profiteering carpetbaggers. Please join us!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Rally for NJ Public Education Part 2: Stop Bashing Teachers!

Is it just me, or is everything marketed as ‘sexy’ these days? Almost every bride on every bridal reality show (Ok, I admit it, I watch them all!) wants to look sexy. (Whatever happened to classy?) Cell phones, computers, paint colors, guns, food, tools, toothpaste and a zillion more products are all marketed in some way, shape or form as sexy. I’ll bet somebody somewhere thinks it’s a good idea to market shower caulk as sexy!

Along with “risqué” one of the definitions of sexy is “excitingly appealing; glamorous, as in: a sexy new car.” So although a commercial may not use the word ‘sexy’ in it, the subliminal messaging is there nonetheless. Marketing experts know that the key to opening consumer wallets is to offer the chance of an appealing, glamorous (sexy) life along with their product.

So, what does all this have to do with education? In their efforts to privatize public education and turn it into a multi-billion-dollar, for-profit enterprise, education ‘reformers’ have to market and sell it in slick, messaging that’s ‘excitingly appealing’, aka sexy! Public education advocate, Leonie Haimson, one of the founders of Parents Across America, and head of Class Size Matters in NYC, has assembled a compendium of reformy-speak buzzwords including:

“transformational”, “catalytic”, “innovative”, “bold”, “game changer”, “effective”, “entrepreneurial, “economies of scale”, “instructional efficiency"

“Wow!” you say, “They sound so excitingly appealing and glamorous! Damn it, why isn’t my local public school doing this?? I WANT THIS FOR MY KIDS!!"

Now hold on a second. Before you go opening your mental wallets to the education ‘reformies’, consider this from public school teacher/blogger, Jersey Jazzman, who also happens to be a doctoral student in educational theory, organization and policy at Rutgers University (you know, an expert):

“[Education reformers] do not care that all of the research points exactly AWAY from the solutions they propose. They do not care that it is inherently contradictory to say ‘we don’t have the money’ and then fund programs like vouchers that will further drain the state’s coffers. Nor do they care that it’s illogical to say how much they value teachers while simultaneously pushing to cut their pay.”

So, while ed ‘reformers’ are busy selling you that shiny new car, many veteran teachers have had it with the abuse, the bullying and the blame. Far too many are retiring earlier than they had originally planned. And with every experienced educator we lose, our students lose years of experience. But that’s okay because waiting in the wings is a “catalytic”, “innovative”, “bold”, “game changer” with absolutely no experience to take their place! 

You see, reformers don’t care if their plans work or not because this is what really motivates them:

Yes, this is an actual slide from an actual education ‘reform’ presentation. The You Tube link is no longer available. Hmmm… wonder why? Could it be that that video was so cringe-inducing (especially the part where the presenter tells the audience he’s an education expert because he saw the movie ‘Dangerous Minds’) that the blowback from the education community shredded it to pieces?

Bashing teachers is a marketing tool, folks! It’s been packaged and sold to the general public by politicians, billionaires and those who do their bidding as part of a slick and sexy marketing campaign that diverts attention away from the real problems facing New Jersey and the rest of the US: poverty, staggering income inequality and the decline of the middle class. Public education is a $600 billion industry, and corporations, certain ‘non-profits’ and Wall Street investors are hijacking it and making some beaucoup bucks at the expense of hard-working education professionals—and your kids! Oh sure, they love to tell you it's all about the kids, but how many of them sat back and did absolutely nothing while Congress cut SNAP benefits?

New Jersey does not have an education problem of epidemic proportions. We consistently rank at or near the top in student achievement in the US. But we do have about 200 apartheid schools in our inner cities, with high concentrations of poor and/or minority students. They are not, as Gov. Christie calls them, ‘failure factories’. The teachers in those schools are working with a higher concentration of students with special needs than those of schools in our wealthiest suburbs, and like the dedicated staff in that hospital in my previous post, they are being blamed.

Do we have some bad teachers in our profession? Of course we do—just like any other profession. And thankfully it’s now easier to remove them from the classroom. But we also have bad elected officials, business people and ‘edupreneures’ who have little to no education experience, but who have boatloads of influence, money and power, and have sold the general public on the hokum that teachers are responsible for all the ills of society. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to remove them from power.

Think about it: who is a bigger threat to the welfare and prosperity of New Jersey: a school teacher with a median income of $62K who is going to work every day, providing for her family, trying to make a difference, or a billionaire with a lot of political connections and a nose for venture capitalism who wants to privatize public education without a shred of evidence it will benefit children?

It’s time to stop blaming teachers! It’s time to stand up! Speak out! Fight back! Come to Trenton on March 27th at noon and make your voice heard!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Rally for NJ Public Education Part l: It's the Poverty, Stupid!

This is a story about a hospital in an inner city neighborhood that serves a very high population of low-income people of color. Many don’t have the resources to properly care for themselves. Unemployment is high, and many still don’t have health insurance. A significant number live in poverty, and about one third don’t speak English as their first language. Many have seen their SNAP benefits cut so they can’t provide proper nutrition for themselves and their families. Some areas around the hospital are dangerous; gangs, gun violence, drug trade and crime have proliferated.

The hospital cannot turn anyone away who comes in for treatment. Some patients follow the prescribed course of treatment and get better, but others, because of any number of reasons outside the hospital’s control, don’t. There is only so much they can do once a patient leaves, especially if the patient is homeless.

Although it has an experienced and dedicated staff and has instituted successful education, service and outreach programs that have helped unify the community, this hospital has been under state control for almost 20 years and there has been a lot of dysfunction in management. Resources have not always gotten to the areas where they were desperately needed. Repairs to the actual structure of the building have long been neglected, so parts of it are unsafe to occupy. It’s top heavy with state-appointed administrators and supervisors, so doctors and nurses don’t always have adequate supplies with which to treat patients. The state bases the success of this hospital on the overall health of the citizens in its surrounding community. But despite the fact that many staff put in a lot of extra hours to help patients and their families, they alone cannot overcome the obstacles they face. While it has gotten extra state funding in the past because it’s in a high poverty area, recently its funding has been slashed. Staff has been blamed for the ‘failure’ of the hospital and let go, caseloads have increased, and the state is putting more and more pressure on it to ‘perform’.

So, despite all the research that shows this will not work because the problem isn’t a ‘failing’ hospital, but the effects of high poverty, the state decides to shutter its doors and open a new one across town that has fewer beds and staff, and that patients have to win a lottery to enter. The community is very angry. This hospital is a cornerstone for them. It will be very difficult for some to make the trip across town, but the state doesn’t care. They have staged protests and spoken out, but their voices fall on deaf ears. 

While the new hospital technically serves everyone in the city, any public hospitals that lose patients to it will also lose funding. Once there, patients may get treatment at first, but if the hospital decides their treatment is too expensive or will sully their ranking in any way, the patient is told to take their illness elsewhere.

Sound crazy? If so, then you are well aware of what’s happening to public education in our major cities. From Los Angeles to New Orleans to Chicago to Philadelphia to Newark and all points in between, public schools in high poverty neighborhoods are being labeled as failures, their staff fired, their doors shuttered because, in the eyes of education ‘reformers’, poverty doesn’t matter despite the fact that research shows this to be true. Parent, teacher, education blogger and researcher, and doctoral student, Jersey Jazzman hammered home this point when testifying recently in front of the New Jersey State Legislature’s joint committee on education about the damaging effects of Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson’s One Newark plan (at 5:25 mark):

“Yes, Newark charters are among the schools in Newark with higher proficiency rates, but they… also serve fewer free lunch eligible students. The graph shows a clear correlation between economic disadvantage and test-based outcomes—a dynamic that has been studied extensively and is not debated among education researchers. Poverty indeed does matter.” (emphasis his)

Newark’s schools have been under state control for almost 20 years. During that time—starting decade or so earlier—the rich have gotten richer, the poor poorer, and the middle class has shrunk so much that many more are now struggling to make ends meet. Parents and community members there are sick and tired of not having local control over and a say in the functioning of their community public schools. Central High School Principal Ras Baraka is running for mayor in part because of the destruction of Newark's public schools.

Closing schools and ‘turning them around’ or flipping them to charter schools is not the answer. Anthony Cody, Nationally Board Certified science teacher who taught in Oakland for almost 20 years and who blogs at Ed Week, points out the flaws in Arne Duncan’s attempts at turnaround when he was CEO of Chicago’s school system:

“The schools that have approached improvement with patience, working to build community support and teacher stability, following principles of democracy and inclusion, have made gains far beyond those being seen at the mayor's ‘Turnaround schools,’ which have been showered with resources.”

Diane Ravitch said it best in her latest book, Reign of Error:

“Closing a school is not a reform. It is an admission of failure by those in charge, an acknowledgement that they do not have the knowledge and experience to evaluate the needs of the school, help the students, strengthen the staff, and provide the essential ingredients needed for a good school.” (p. 223)

The front lines of the attack on public education are in our nation’s big cities. From Los Angeles to Chicago to New Orleans to Philadelphia to Newark, parents and community members are fighting back. But that’s not enough. The death of public education will occur in part because not enough of us in the suburbs did something to stop it. So what can you—and everyone who cares about public education—do? Come to Trenton on Thursday, March 27th at noon for the New Jersey Education March and stand up for public education everywhere in New Jersey.

This is not just a rally about Newark’s schools. This is not just a rally about Newark’s citizens. This is a rally about all of us, all our schools, all our children, all our neighborhoods. Because if we let mass closings of schools, disruption of neighborhoods, and segregation of students happen in Newark, it can happen anywhere.

Martin Luther King said it best:

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Friends, please join us. We must stop this madness.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

How does Gov. Christie sleep at night?

As governor, Chris Christie has done a lot of truly awful things to the people of New Jersey in the past 5 years, but even more egregious than promulgating the myth of ‘failing schools’, demonizing teachers and other public employees, leaving Sandy victims sinking without a life boat, calling a Navy Seal an ‘idiot’, telling the press to ‘take a bat out’ on a 78-year old grandmother (who just happens to be the Senate Majority leader), turning his back on the poor, minorities, the middle and working classes, seniors, the LGBT community, commuters, and the homeless, surrounding himself (there are still no dots connecting him) with irresponsible, vindictive, selfish and, dare I say anti-semitic, staff who would put millions of George Washington Bridge commuters at risk for juvenile, political sport, is the report out of the New York Times and picked up by Rachel Maddow Tuesday that he actually gave away pieces of the World Trade Center as political carrots to the top 20 mayors on his  ‘must-get’ endorsements list.

Governor Christie cares so much about winning that he’s willing to trade off pieces of hallowed ground—a burial site—for political favors. It's like FDR giving away pieces of The USS Arizona.

Everyone who lives in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut metro area has a 6-degrees of separation story about 9/11. Everyone knows someone who knew someone who lost someone or saved someone. When that anniversary rolls around, millions of emotional scabs get ripped off. On any given day, the site of the two reflecting pools, edged with the names of all the victims is quiet and somber. Flowers and other mementos are left on the perfectly engraved names by friends and family who never forget and who will never fully heal. For all intents and purposes, it’s a sacred site for many who never got closure, whose loved one’s remains were never found. And every piece of wreckage should be treated as if it, in some way, is imbued with their spirit.

Ever walk past FDNY Ten House? Engine Company 10 Ladder Company 10 is right across the street from the World Trade Center site. They lost 5 members on 9/11. On the front wall of the newly re-built firehouse is this enormous bronze tribute to the fallen heroes of that day: New York's bravest.  Wonder how they feel knowing that the governor of New Jersey has treated their fallen brothers and sisters with such disrespect?

Three years ago while on the campaign trail, I stopped at a firehouse in the 16th district where, unbeknownst to me, a piece of the World Trade Center had been presented a few days earlier. (I'm trying to find out whether that mayor was on Christie’s list.) I walked into the room and saw a hulking piece of twisted steel and immediately knew what it was. That’s the kind of unconscious hold those buildings had on the tens of millions of us who took them for granted every day. They were our beacon on the Turnpike, guiding us home from a long day’s journey or a long day’s commute. They were the watchtowers of the tri-state, standing guard over commuters and travelers alike. They were our Mt. Everest and K-2. They simply were… Until they weren’t.

I took this picture back in the '80s. It's been on my refrigerator for years.

And in a slow motion split second, they were replaced with smoke and ash and fire, and screaming and running, and tangled piles of twisted steel and broken glass, broken bodies and broken hearts, fighter jets chasing after ghosts, the acrid smell of jet fuel mixed with so much death… and all that fluttering paper.

And then came the eerie silence that enveloped us like a tomb. With so many airports, the sound of airplanes is like white noise to those of us living in this part of the country. When it stopped for several days afterward, the silence was deafening. And with it came the smoldering pile, the shattered lives, the numbness, the nation at war, and the thousands of brave men and women who would sacrifice their lives—and continue to do so—in a war that was started in the wrong country for the wrong reasons.

I grew up in the shadow of the World Trade Center. I watched it get built every day as I walked to St. Stephen’s School along Chestnut Street in Kearny, rising higher and higher over the New York skyline before the view of lower Manhattan was partially obscured by the garbage dumps that claimed the meadowlands.

My very first day of teaching ever was 9/11. I sat at the front door of the school signing students out all day. From where I sat, I had a clear view of rt. 78, and I watched as police, fire and rescue vehicles raced east to an unknown fate. I wonder how many of those brave men and women made it back home to hug their spouse or their children?

Governor Christie gave away pieces of our collective souls to win political favor, to win an election. How can anyone in their right mind call this leadership? How does Gov. Christie sleep at night?

Excuse me, as Rachel Maddow suggested, I have to go take a shower.

Note: I did an online search to find the list of mayors, and emailed Matt Flegenheimer, one of the writers of the NYT story, to see if he has a copy. As of this posting I have not heard back.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

'Cosmos', The Spanish Inquisition and Education 'Reform' in NJ

Within the first 5 minutes of the new ‘Cosmos’ series hosted by astrophysicist, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, he takes a not-too-subtle jab at creationists and climate deniers when he describes the explorers and dreamers over the course of human history who dared to imagine what was out there in space, and how we all got here.
Imagination alone isn’t enough. This adventure is made possible by generations of searchers, strictly adhering to a simple set of rules:
  • Test ideas by experimentation and observation.
  • Build on those ideas that pass the test.
  • Reject the ones that fail.
  • Follow the evidence wherever it leads.
  • Question everything.

He might as well have been talking about the education community, which for over a decade has been at the mercy of the ‘reformy’ Inquisitors who just refuse to accept the mountains of research and evidence that disclaim their ideology because it all leads back to one thing: poverty. But poverty is messy, and they can’t profit from it. But they can make a profit from charter schools, merit pay, union busting, mass firings of teachers, SGOs, SGPs, standardized testing, and all the other garbage they keep throwing at teachers and students.

So, with help from the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Broad Foundation and The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) they manufactured an education crisis and, packaged and marketed it to as many elected officials—both Republican and Democrat—as possible around the country.

But something very interesting is happening, something they probably didn’t expect: parents, teachers, community leaders and students from coast to coast are fighting back because the reforms are archaic and outright damaging to students, the teaching profession and public education. And the fight is alive and well here in the Garden State. We are blessed to have the likes of Blue Jersey’s own, Jersey Jazzman, Rutgers Graduate School of Education Professor, Dr. Bruce Baker, suburban-mom-turned-education-activist, Darcie Cimarusti, aka Mother Crusader, and retired Star Ledger reporter, Bob Braun, among the many New Jersey bloggers reporting from the front lines (because you won’t find much coverage in the mainstream news).

‘The Fight’—as I like to call it—was on full display last Wednesday in Trenton. For hours, a standing room only crowd of educators, parents and concerned citizens testified in front of the New Jersey State Board of Education about the horrendous physical, emotional and financial effects of education ‘reform’ on one of the best public school systems in the nation. I documented much of the testimony here and here. NJEA gave each board member a binder full of over 1,000 letters from educators all over the state detailing their uphill battles against draconian budget cuts, stifling standards and endless, mindless test prep. The testimony was moving: some speakers cried, others yelled, some spoke softly but carried a big stick, one brought pictures of her own two children for the board to see who is really being affected. These were not greedy teachers or union thugs. They were passionate, articulate, well-educated members of the overall community that supports public education.

Today, ‘the fight’ takes center stage in Trenton once again, as the legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Schools hosts a hearing on Superintendent Cami Anderson’s controversial One Newark plan which, in addition to closing schools, seeks an end run around the landmark TEACHNJ law (aka ‘tenure reform’) so she can fire veteran educators to hire more low-wage, low-skilled Teach for America recruits, because you know, anyone can be a teacher in 5 weeks! I’m surprised I haven’t seen an infomercial yet. “For just 3 easy payments of $19.95 you too can pad your resume—er, teach for a couple of years in a really challenging school district because experienced educators are so overrated (and overpaid)—before moving on to that high-paying white collar executive career you’ve always dreamed of!”

The Good Ship Ed Reform has run aground in Port Newark. It’s listing to port and it’s taking on water. Christie’s poll numbers are tanking (and he’s been mum on all the craziness in Newark), Cerf is off to Amplify—you know, that company he has no idea as to whether they have contracts in New Jersey—and Cami’s gone into hiding. We still don’t know if she or anyone else from her staff will be at today’s hearing.

But we do know this: it should be filled with a whole lot of people with a whole lot of facts to disprove One Newark. Senator Ron Rice (D-Essex) is all over this; he’s sponsored legislation that would include public input on any school closings. And Senate Education Committee Chair and architect of the TEACHNJ law, Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), is not happy that Anderson wants to play fast and loose with the law. Her resolution objecting to the waiver passed both the Senate and the Assembly.

I’m really hoping that the confluence of all these events is a sign that the planets will align; that fact—not fiction—will once again begin to drive education policy; and that the education reform inquisition will be burned at the stake.

It would be this funny if it weren't so true.

I leave you with this quote from last Wednesday:

“This whole process was started on a false assumption. New Jersey does not have failing schools.”

We have too high a concentration of students living in poverty in our large urban areas.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Eulogy for Public Education Part 2: What happens when a child vomits on a test? Bag it & send it to Trenton!

Some of the New Jersey educators who testified at the State Board of Ed meeting on March 5th

Yesterday’s post focused on written testimony and letters that people submitted to the State Board of Ed. Today’s quotes are based on notes I took while people were testifying. I tried to live Tweet, but Wi-Fi/cell service is lousy at the board offices—at least if you have AT&T.

The two board members who were assigned to hear testimony in our room were Edie Fulton and Jack Fornaro. Edie is a retired educator and past president of NJEA, so she knows first hand what educators are going through. Jack has a long career in both the public and private sectors. Both were very engaged. They did not sit stone-faced like many local board of ed members do; they asked questions and made comments. They nodded in agreement and understanding.

And as for the title of this blog post? Yes, indeed, that test has to be bagged and tagged. Unbelievable.

From a special education teacher:
Thank you for looking over the light reading our members have sent you (the binders full of letters)… Why are we using an assessment that’s been proven not to work (SGOs/SGPs)? … There aren’t allowable accommodations for brain-injured children to take standardized tests… If a child refuses to take the test, is that an accurate reflection of the student’s and teacher’s abilities? … If a child [vomits on a test], SOMEBODY has to bag that test and send it to the state.

From a parent advocate:
Why are the citizens of New Jersey so disrespected? (complaining about the board’s unresponsiveness to her inquiries) … Has the CCSS been internationally benchmarked? … The US leads the world in scientific papers published and Nobel Prizes won. Is our education system so bad?

On the massive amounts of test prep time and the technological failures experienced:
Precious learning time is being stolen from our students… Many technology problems with Chrome Books… Students can’t annotate text on them, yet that’s how we teach them to decode text… Is it fair to base my SGP on a test that’s not being administered under optimal conditions?
Deborah Smith Gregory from the NAACP talking about Cami Anderson’s recent presentation to the State BOE, and the conditions in Newark in general:
  • Why didn’t any of you ask her questions?
  • She did not mention English language learners or special needs students in her presentation.
  • You didn’t ask any questions about the TFA staff hired on top of advanced teachers in the ‘holding pool’.
  • Why aren’t violence issues addressed with such vigor as student achievement?
  • We demanded Cami not be renewed, but she was, with a $50,000 bonus for minor results in some schools and declining results in her ‘turn-around’ schools.
  • We demand the state investigate the money being spent in Newark.
  • Anderson is derelict and deleterious and she must go.
  • Anderson treats us like a colony of slaves!

From a classroom teacher who is also a local association president:
This whole process was started on a false assumption. New Jersey does not have failing schools… Micromanagement does not lead to better student achievement… Despite all this, things are not getting better in schools. Teachers are leaving because they can no longer do this to children… I am frequently asked:
  • Can they fire me if I’m not at where I should be in my lesson plans?
  • Can I still hatch chicks in the classroom?
  • Can I still paint with my students?
  • Can I still sing with my students?
Edie Fulton comments:
We don’t have the power to slow down PARCC. (Fornaro says it has to come from the state legislature.) Lesson plans are for subs. So much of what we (teachers) can do is spur of the moment.
 (If only that were still true.)

From a member of the New Jersey Association of Colleges for Teacher Education:
There is no research to indicate that raising the minimum GPA requirement for entry into a teaching school from 2.5 to 3.0 is good.

What else is new?

Speaker continues:
If that goes through, are we breaking a contract with applicants? ... Teachers are leaving the profession, but they sure don’t want to enter it… Too much testing (Speaker mentioned that there is too much testing of our education majors. They now have to pass the PRAXIS 1 & 2. It’s becoming too expensive.)… If we are going to have higher standards, they should be higher for everyone (wink, wink to TFA)

On yet more testing:
One teacher spoke about her district administering the MAP (Measure of Academic Progress) test. This is the test that many Seattle teachers refused to administer because the students don’t take it seriously, it’s flawed, and it’s being used to evaluate teachers—a purpose for which it’s not intended. She also spoke about tech staff fixing tech glitches while her class was trying to take tests on Chrome books—including re-booting machines and fiddling with student login info!

At this point someone in the other room is testifying—yelling so loudly they are almost drowning out the speakers in our room. Turns out is was Deborah Jackson, a parent activist from Newark. Loud applause when she was done. Edie joked that our room has to do better when applauding for our speakers.

From a retired teacher and representative of the Alumni Association of South Side High School in Newark:
More than one person is calling for an investigation into Cami Anderson’s financial dealings in Newark… She is moving Newark Vocational School—which has a great culinary arts program—to another building so central office can take over that building. The new building has no facilities to accommodate the culinary arts program.
On Anderson’s One Newark Plan:
  • Where are the objectives for learning and moving our students forward?
  • Where is the long-range goal?
  • Where are the timeline and benchmarks?

More on technology:
We are assessing our students’ technology skills—not their knowledge of math and language arts!

A teacher on the new evaluation system:
I want to live in the 4’s (Note: under the new evaluation system, in which teachers are assessed on a 1-4 scale, we have been told to ‘live in the 3’s and vacation in the 4’s”.)… Chokes up as he asks how to put a number on a teacher who teaches kids to support aging Vietnam veterans?

A middle school special education teacher on testing her students:
I had to administer 138 tests in 4 days to 69 students. I felt like I couldn’t breathe… Their weeks are filled with tests… I surveyed them about how they felt about it all. They responded: unnecessary, scared, nervous, useless, stressed… Evaluations are subjective!

The next step in this process is to make sure our elected officials in Trenton hear these and other stories—your stories. They have the power to slow down the implementation of PARCC. They have the power to ensure that TEACHNJ is properly implemented. Parents and community members also need to learn more about what’s happening in their local schools. Most parents have no idea what’s coming next year with PARCC. They have no idea how difficult this new test is, nor do they know what happened in New York last year as test scores plummeted. Teachers in my district recently took sample PARCC tests and were shocked at how difficult they were.

Educators, if you have not already done so, please send your letter to the State Board of Education, PO Box 500, Trenton, NJ. 08608, and send me a copy, too. I’ll continue to compile and post them in batches. And don’t forget to contact your state representatives and demand they step in and stop this madness. Their contact info is here

Saturday, March 8, 2014

A Eulogy for Public Education Part l: Why is the NJ State Board of Ed Using Napalm to Cut the Grass?

Along with approximately 50 other education professionals from the New Jersey Education Association, members of the Newark Teachers Union (AFT-NJ), and parents and other concerned citizens, I attended a lobby day at the State Board of Education last Wednesday—Chris Cerf’s last day as state education commissioner.

In certain ways it was like a funeral. While passionate, articulate, well-educated speakers delivered anecdotes of excellence in teaching, and the joy, inspiration and enthusiasm that go along with it, there were many harrowing, absurd, and truly heartbreaking stories of what public education has devolved into under Cerf’s fiefdom.

NJEA delivered a binder to each board member filled with over 1,000 letters from teachers across the state. Many educators brought more letters with them from co-workers who couldn’t attend. Two rooms were set up for testimony. I was assigned to the smaller of the two where 36 speakers had registered. At 5 minutes each, they were easily looking at 3 hours of testimony.

Binders full of letters

The following are quotes pulled from copies of testimony and/or letters. They are posted anonymously because, contrary to popular belief, tenure does not mean a job for life. Teachers can and do get targeted by administrators with an ax to grind. Almost every person who sent me their testimony asked me not to use their name. Reading through all the text has been emotionally draining. 

From a So. Brunswick teacher on how the new ranking system unfairly targets low income students and students with disabilities:
    “South Brunswick was not too long ago considered a ‘lighthouse’ district by the state of NJ - a beacon, an example for other districts to follow. I'm not sure the business model allows for any district to be progressive in a way that would earn a distinction of ‘lighthouse’ any longer and that scares me.
    “This ‘lighthouse district’ is now a district with three focus schools? South Brunswick’s middle schools earned the distinction of focus school due to their ‘too large’ discrepancy between the highest (Asian) and two lowest (special education and economically disadvantaged) performing subgroups.”

From a teacher in a state-takeover district:
    “I remembered the countless hours that I had spent in graduate school, watching how good evaluations are supposed to be conducted and began to feel somewhat uneasy about what was to come because what was being proposed looked nothing like what I was taught in graduate school. Evaluations weren't supposed to be ‘gotcha moments.”

From a math teacher:
    “I am choosing not to believe that the collateral consequences being suffered are actually intended, but rather in the mission you are aiming to achieve through these changes…You should know that it’s working, all of it. Your educators – a significant, influential portion of them – are becoming discouraged… You are forcing them to change their approach in the classroom and even reconsider their career in public education. That’s great! However, you’re also affecting the best, and running the risk of alienating those who may become your best. Rational people understand two things about our jobs right now: substantive changes take patience; trends lead to expected outcomes. What we don’t understand is why you’re using napalm to cut the grass… Why is everyone treated as a failure? We strive not to do that in your classrooms. We differentiate our instruction so higher learners sail beyond the basics and slower learners aren’t anchors. Why shouldn’t differentiated evaluation apply to the differentiators?... the common words and phrases I hear encompassing this collective school year and the years preceding it – regardless of age, teaching level, subject or district – are ‘drowning’, ‘uncertainty’, ‘stressed’, ‘disconnected’, ‘retirement’.
    “Our administrators – confused and strapped for time – come to school every day knowing that, no matter how well they manage their time, they will fail to live up to the anything-but-static responsibilities and requirements imposed upon them. Observations that take multiple hours to produce have been jumbled and discarded within the Teachscape program our districts pay numerous taxpayer dollars for… Did you expect your administrators to become sterilized by your wave of changes?
    “Our professional worth is determined, not by our educational credentials or the unmeasurable affect we have, daily, on your students, but by a number generated from an “educational responsibility checklist” by a mentally-taxed observer within a 20 minute snippet of time. If you saw what this was doing to your veterans – the ones who’ve honed and perfected their craft daily over a career – you would be “sad and disappointed,” said more than one colleague.
    “Is public education creeping toward privatization because public education is the untapped oil-well of America’s fading manifest destiny?
    “If our education system is going to have any substantive impact on our nation's youth, it is going to have to nurture thinkers, not build fact robots who could squash Ken Jennings in Jeopardy but who couldn’t reason their way past a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”

From a special education teacher in a former Abbott District:
    “The one-size-fits-all approach to teacher evaluation, SGO's, SGP's, and PARCC testing are in direct opposition to making accommodations to suit the needs of children in not only these classes, but in inclusion and general education classes as well in urban school districts. To say that many children in urban classrooms don't have any type academic support outside of school is a gross understatement. Most live in low-income households, with daily stressors that adults would find hard to handle. These children are expected to come to school and learn even though there have been massive cuts in mental health services for all except those who have it specified in their IEP's. How is that factored in on the PARCC? Who will pay for this? The children, of course, when dedicated teachers are judged only by test scores, and decide to leave the field of education in frustration.”

From another special education teacher/art therapist in a former Abbott District:
    "Many questions have been asked by teachers regarding specific problems in with the evaluation system, SGOs, etc. and little provided in response. Even supervisors do not have answers for us. Precious hours have been spent on paperwork that has no validity. The collection of this information is flawed and questions have not been answered. However, the machine continues to turn with little consideration for humanity. Where is the research data that proves that these reforms are in fact valid and reliable?"

From a mom/teacher:
    “Apparently, many of the new initiatives driving these changes are tied to corporate entities. Parents question the motives behind the piloting and purchasing of costly, corporate kits, especially in vulnerable districts. What can you tell us about the recent sale of Newark’s Eighteenth Avenue School, which Senator Rice has alleged to be illegal? Or the $2.3 million sale of products from Amplify, the current employer of our former commissioner of education? Other corporate stakeholders, like Teach For America, only see dollar signs in the eyes of our children. In contrast, I thank God every day for my children’s teachers.”

A teacher reflects on John Dewey’s vision of Experiential Education:
    “We have become, in many instances, no longer teachers, but simply an entity to deliver information on which children will be tested. Despite the rhetoric of the PARCC movement, it appears that we are moving backwards – to the classroom that Dewey argued against.

A fourth grade teacher on how testing is affecting students’ health:
    “I used to teach purely for joy; now I find my overriding purpose is to keep a job… We force-feed concepts to young children who are developmentally not ready or equipped to analyze and synthesize what is asked of them. Many of the creative projects that made learning fun have fallen by the wayside. I have 4th grade students who no longer want to come to school, and we are resorting to teaching breathing and visualization techniques to lessen their performance and test-taking anxiety. All the while we assess, assess, assess, gather data, and report on what I already know about my students.”

On ‘data collection’:
    “Time that used to be spent teaching is now used to assess and collect data. I have missed at least 20 days of instruction due to testing students this year. While we continue to raise expectations for our students, we do not give teachers time to help students meet these expectations.

On the demoralizing of educators:
    “Teachers have been made to feel very small when it comes to standardized testing. If our students don’t do well, it must mean we’re horrible teachers and the blame is put on us. And some of the directions for teachers are insulting. For example, we have to sign a document that states we will not sleep during testing. What teacher would ever sleep while giving a test, let alone a state-mandated test! I wish [teachers] could have more say in making the decisions on how to best assess our students, as we have their best interests in mind.”

A special education teacher feels she is failing her students:
    “I am spending more and more time preparing my students for and giving them assessments which are testing skills well above their ability. They look to me for the guidance and support they need when in my room and I cannot help them. Watching them feel so defeated has been frustrating to say the least! I feel I have let them down and they feel they can no longer count on me.”

Another special education teacher puts it simply:
    “Please help us get back to the task of ‘teaching our students the love of learning’ and not simply ‘teaching to the test.’”

A 4th grade teacher is at a loss for words:
    “I am at a loss for words as to how to describe my experience teaching this year.  When I began teaching, I knew exactly why I chose this profession.  I woke up each day with a zeal and enthusiasm that only a fellow teacher would understand… This has changed tremendously in the past year… The excessive evaluations, assessments, SGOs, SGPs and standardized testing have made the students and teachers feel a stress that cannot be explained in a letter.”

On the effect of standardized testing on future generations of students:
    “We are stifling creativity in both the teachers and the student, and we are creating an educational system that will, instead of raising the bar of learning, lower it. We are taking away both the desire and the ability of the next generation of children to be independent thinkers.”

A teacher laments he will never be a “Highly Effective Teacher” under the AchieveNJ program:
    "The Achieve NJ program is set up to reward one thing: standardized teaching, plain and simple. Achieve NJ favors canned lessons and pre-packaged approaches that were never meant to be what teaching was about. Achieve NJ, with its ‘data-driven’ approach, seeks to quantify what simply can’t be converted into numbers: high quality teaching. Oh, I understand there’s a science to teaching, but the scientific approach means that anyone with a heartbeat could be placed in front of a classroom and succeed in delivering canned instructional material to those present. But, how many of those same people could really inspire children?
    "You wonder why the media tells us that America (not New Jersey mind you) is falling behind in education? It’s because the things that always made America great have been sucked out of our classrooms by Pearson-created curricula and Amplify-sponsored standardized testing: vision and innovation. You see, a master teacher, a teacher who is gifted in the art of teaching has a vision of how far his students can go and can help them to achieve that vision. A master teacher realizes that the most successful lessons are the ones that were developed in his or her own mind and heart. There’s no place and certainly no time left for innovation in the Achieve NJ program.”

A veteran teacher reflects on what new teachers have to look forward to:
    “Young students entering the field of education are given a dose of reality: if you make this a life-long career, the respect of the existing culture is not there for you.”

An art teacher on the difference between the corporate and the education worlds:
    “Education is not a business; we work with children of various abilities and personalities, not a product, but human beings. This evaluation process is not helpful, but is damaging to morale and effectiveness of teachers.”

From a first grade teacher on the inappropriateness of standardized testing for young learners:
    “It is not the goal of teachers to emphasize testing in the early elementary years… Research shows that the ‘gift of time’ is extremely valuable to young children. The SGO does not address the maturation of young students.”

A PE teacher on the use of standardized evaluation systems across subject areas:
    “Teachers should not be evaluated with one type of evaluation. You can’t use the same format for a classroom teacher and then go see a PE class or an art or music class and expect the same. The classes are totally different and therefore need to have a different way to evaluate that teacher.”

Feeling overwhelmed:
    “I am an experienced teacher who is overwhelmed by trying to implement everything I am expected to do.”

A PE teacher on how CCSS and PARCC are preventing her from fulfilling her legally required duties:
    “As a result of the CCSS and PARCC testing our school has had to move to a 6-day schedule, so our students no longer participate in the 150 minutes of physical education and health every week as required by the state!”

A school librarian on the devastating effects of PARCC and CCSS on her library and curriculum:

    “In order for my district to meet the technology requirements to administer the PARCC, over $400 thousand has been spent on Chrome books and infrastructure support for our district. Those unfunded mandates have created budget issues that directly affect all students. My library budget… is now $8,000 LESS than [it was] in 1991.”

My thoughts on the ‘brain drain’ this is causing:
    "In addition to being a teacher, I’m also the vice president of my local education association, so I hear it all. My colleagues are overwhelmed and under trained. They are burned out, stressed out, and many are simply giving up and retiring early. With every veteran teacher who says to me, 'You know, Marie, I was going to stay another few years, but I just can’t take it anymore', we lose decades of experience. It’s bad enough to do this to adults, but realize that what you do to us, you ultimately do to the children of this state. If we are stressed, they are, too. This is not good for the future of New Jersey."

Part 2 tomorrow...