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...