Monday, November 30, 2015

NJ Legislature looks at full day K this week

Camden resident and public education activist, Sue Altman, is guest posting today to call attention to an important bill up for a vote this week in the NJ Assembly:

Two important education related bills are up for floor votes in the NJ State Assembly this week. One bill will establish a task force to look at whether full day K should be mandated statewide

Is full day Kindergarten a good thing? On one hand, some parents say that not all little ones can handle being in school for a full, seven-hour day, and they would rather provide enrichment on their own; on the other hand, there are many families who might want and need full day school as soon as possible.

And, importantly, there are worries from parents and others that the mandatory kindergarten would just turn into hours upon hours of sedentary test prep and heavy academic work for our littlest, wiggliest students, who should be spending their days outside, playing and exploring the world. Test prep for little kids is an absolutely terrible thought— surely there is no test prep in kindergarten… right?

Sadly, there is. Given the stakes attached to tests in later grades, it is unsurprising the test prep starts early. The following is an excerpt from a public testimony submitted by Ms. Phyllis Doerr, a Kindergarten teacher in Newark, NJ, from the Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in New Jersey.

The antics of the little ones in her class are at once a testament to the wonderful imaginations of 5-year olds, but also a sad illustration of why high-stakes testing affects all students, even when testing is not done in the grade itself. In New Jersey, there is a moratorium on grade span testing in grades K-2, but the long shadow of testing still hangs over those students. Who can blame the schools or the teacher for teaching to the test? These are predictable effects of focusing on this kind of narrow definition of educational attainment. If our education system is based on standardized testing outcomes, we will continue to see test prep infused into every nook and cranny of K-12.

Have you ever known a kindergartner? They are curious, silly, adorable, with a brilliant imagination. Why would we force them to practice ridiculous tests that conform to our weird, "rational," adult-view of the world? Why are we making the worst part of education (tests) the focal point of our whole system?

In another universe, I'd support full-day kindergarten. But in an era of scant recess, little play, no free time, and high-stakes testing, I worry that full day Kindergarten is excessive academic test-prep in disguise. I hope I'm wrong. At the very least the task force should contain a heavy dose of parents with small children.

From Phyllis Doerr:

In the Kindergarten grade level at my school we do not administer standardized tests. However, hours and hours of tests are included in our math and language arts curriculum. In order to pain a realistic picture of the stress, damaging effects and colossal waste of time caused by testing in kindergarten, allow me to bring you to my classroom for our first test prep session in late September... 
The test for which I was preparing my students was vocabulary. I say a word that we had learned in our Nursery Rhyme unit. Then, I read a sentence containing that word. If the sentence made sense and the word was used correctly, the student would circle the smiley face. If the word was used incorrectly, they should circle the frown. This task requires abstract thinking, a skill that kindergartners have not yet developed and this is a foundational problem for this type of test. 
My first sample vocabulary challenge as we began our practice test was the word "market" from the nursery rhyme "To Market, To Market." After explaining the set up of the test, I begin. "The word is market," I announced. 
One boy answered, "I like oranges!" 
"Okay, Luke is on the right track. Who can add to that?" 
"I like apples. I get them at the store." We're moving in, closer and closer. A third child says, "It's where you go and get lots of things." 
"Yes! What kinds of things?" 
"Different stuff." 
Another student chimes in: "We can get oranges and apples and other types of food at the market." 
"Excellent! Everyone understand market?" A few nod. 
"Now I will give you a sentence with the word 'market' in it. If the sentence makes sense, you will circle the smiley face, but if it is a silly sentence, and it doesn't make sense, you circle the frown." A hand goes up. 
"Mrs. Doerr, what's a frown?" I explain what a frown is. 
Next, I read the sentence: "'I like to play basketball at the market.' Now does that sentence make sense?"
The students who are not twisting around backwards in their chairs or staring at a thread they've picked off their uniform nod their heads. 
"Guys, listen. I'll tell you the sentence again: 'I like to play basketball at the market.' Does that make sense? Remember we said a market is where we shop for food." 
A hand goes up. Terrell says, "I like soccer!" 
"Okay, Terrell, that's great! But did I use the word 'market' correctly in that sentence?" 
"I don't know." 
Another hand. "Yes, Ariana? What do you think?" 
"My dad took me to a soccer game. He plays soccer!" 
"Thank you for sharing that, Ariana." She picked up something from the sentence and made what seems to be, but is not, a random connection. "Girls and boys, look at me and listen. I want you to really think about this. Would you go to a market to play basketball?" 
At this point everybody seems to wake up. Finally I was getting somewhere! 
"YES!!!" They cried out in unison. 
Of course!! It would be a total blast to play basketball at the market! 
So here we find another problem with this vocabulary test: a 5-6 year old's imagination. A statement that uses a word incorrectly sounds okay to a child whose imagination is not limited by reality. It is the same reason Santa and the Tooth Fairy are so real to kindergarteners-- unencumbered imagination.... 
Next, I tested a second group that I knew would have more difficulty. During testing, I walked around to see that a few students had nothing written on their papers, one had circle every face on the whole page, another had just circled all the smileys, and one, a very bright little girl, had her head down on her arms. I tapped her and said, "Come on, you need to circle one of the faces for number 5." She lifted her head and looked up at me. Tears streamed down her face. I crouched down next to her. "What's wrong, honey?" 
"Mrs. Doerr, I'm tired," she cried. "I want my mommy." 
It was a moment I will never forget. I took her test and said, "Would you like a nice comfy pillow so you can take a rest?" She nodded. I exchanged her paper for a pillow.

Ms. Doerr's entire testimony was published this summer in the Washington Post.

Sue Altman is a proud graduate of NJ public schools. She attended Columbia University, received a dual degree from the University of Oxford, UK in International and Comparative Education and a Master’s in Business Administration. She also worked in independent schools for six years as a teacher and administrator. Originally from Hunterdon County, NJ, Sue currently resides in Camden, NJ.

Note: To contact your state legislator, click on the link on the right side of this page and find your legislative district. Be sure to call!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Hey NJ! #EdReform Big Brother is watching your kids!

I'm coming for your kids' data.
The first time I heard then NJDOE Commissioner Chris Cerf speak at the NJEA Convention he spoke about all the student data the state was collecting. He was giddy with excitement over it; frothing over how it will 'transform' education... Into what exactly? My first thoughts were that Big Brother had indeed landed. 

So, where is all this fabulousness and wonderfulness that Cerf and other 'reformers' literally drool over? Because the only 'transformations' I've seen are the vast numbers of students refusing to take the PARCC and SBAC, massive public school closings, the expansion of segregationist charter schools, and the beaucoup bucks 'reformers', for-profit education services companies and 'non-profit' charter operators are raking in as a result.

But this is how America operates. We're a capitalist society. Money—not people—runs this country. And those with a lot of it and who want more of it have finally managed to crack the code of the last hold out against corporate takeover: public education. And they've got their sites (sic) set on our kids.

Right now it's being used to evaluate students, teachers and schools. It's also an ad hominem judgment on communities of low income and color. But who knows what the future will bring and how this data will be used? It's one thing for the government to have my child's social security and driver's license numbers. It's quite another for them to have her entire educational history at their disposal to use as a marketing tool so education companies can ply their wares. What other data will the government then try to collect? And of course, what proof do they have that any of this is valid?

So, what can you do? Well, thanks to the efforts of Leonie Haimson and the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, you can send this letter to the NJ Department of Education:

To whom it may concern: 

I am the parent and legal guardian of (full name of child), currently (x ) years of age. 

My child attended x school in grades K-x (during what years); x school in grades x-y, (during what years) and x high school (during what years) in [what] school district.
Please provide me with whatever personally identifiable information (PII) that the State Education Department has collected on my child and which of this information is included in the state’s student longitudinal database, including any and all information in the database that has been contributed by other state agencies. 

To access this information, and challenge it if it is incorrect is every parent’s right under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99), and the state cannot charge me a fee for accessing it. 

This was confirmed by Dale King, Director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Family Policy Compliance Office, in a letter he wrote to the Nevada Education Department on July 28, 2014: 

….educational agencies and institutions, as well as SEAs [State educational agencies] may not charge a fee for search and retrieval of education records. See § 99.ll(b) 

I also demand a list of any and all third parties, and/or governmental agencies, that have been provided with any of my child's PII, which elements of PII they have received, and under what privacy and security agreements these disclosures were made. 

Finally, I would like to know what governmental, citizen or advisory board exists to oversee the collection, use, distribution and eventual destruction of my child’s PII data, and their members. 

Thank you for your cooperation in this matter and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

The letter should be submitted to the NJ Department of Education by clicking here. S
elect Education, then Chief of Staff. Fill out the requested information at the top, cut and paste the letter in the space at the bottom including your child's information. Although these requests are free, write $1 under payment information, which is the maximum authorized cost. Without an entry in that space, the form won't allow you to submit.

You can submit as many forms as necessary to obtain this information about all of your children.

Keep a copy of what you submitted.

NJDOE must respond within seven days.

Please email and let them know what you find out.

Thank you to Save Our Schools NJ organizer, Christine McGoey, for sharing this valuable information!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

An important message for all @NJEA members

Dear Fellow NJEA Members,

I'm pleased to formally announce today that I'm running for NJEA Secretary-Treasurer. The election is in April, 2017. Having to reach members from High Point to Cape May, this race, unlike an assembly race, is a marathon, not a sprint, so it's essential to start early. 

From the moment I stood up to Gov. Christie at a Town Hall Meeting in 2010, I've been fighting for our great public schools, students and education professionals—you! Whether running for state office, testifying before the State Board of Education, blogging about education and social justice issues, speaking to crowds at protest rallies or appearing on national television, I've worked hard to fight the attack on public education. But I want to do more. That's why I'm running for NJEA Secretary Treasurer, and I'm asking for your vote and your support.

My decision to run for state assembly in LD16 in 2011, '12 and '13* was born out of a passion for public education and a committment to fight corporate education 'reform' which is designed for one thing only: to turn neighborhood schools into profit mills - threatening not just our profession, but the ability of every child in New Jersey to receive a thorough and efficient education. I will not sit back and watch that happen to one of the best public education systems in the country—that we built! 

On day one, I will fight for an iron-clad guarantee that the state will fully fund our pensions and return cost of living adjustments to our retired members. I will work to restore the honor and respect we deserve as educated, experienced professionals, ensure fair and equitable funding of our public schools, and eliminate the punitive effects of standardized testing on our students and teachers.

Social justice begins with free, open and accessible public schools for all students. I will fight to stop the educational apartheid that closes schools and marginalizes special education, ELL students and students of color in our poorest communities . I will stand up to the corporate interests that want to privatize our schools, turn our students into test-taking machines, destroy our association and reduce our profession to one of low-wages and high-turnover. 

I will not stop. I won't give up. I won't back down. Send me to NJEA so I can work for you, and together, we can work for our students!

For more information, including ways you can help me help you, please visit my website and like my Facebook page. And of course you can find me on Twitter @mariecorfield.

Thank you for all the work you do to make ours one of the very best public education systems in the country, and thank you for all you do for the children of NJ. 

All my best,

The work we did in '11, '12 and '13 helped pave the way for what looks to be a flip of at least one seat in the district, and move the state one vote closer to a veto-proof majority. As of this writing the NJEA-endorsed challenger Andrew Zwicker leads incumbent Donna Simon by approximately 70 votes. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Newark, 'civility' & ed 'reform'

StudentsFirst co-founder, Dmitri Mehlhorn, has been engaged in a charter school debate with Jersey Jazzman for the past few weeks. As I read one of Mehlhorn's responses, I clicked on a link that led me down an Internet rabbit hole and into my own response to one of his blog posts about civility in the ed 'reform' debate. That led to Mehlhorn's response via a set of tweets. 

It's taken me a while to respond, but I don't believe in coincidence. So it was no coincidence that last week I attended a Newark Advisory Board meeting, which became the perfect starting point for my response. 

This is Part 1.


When people are subjected to years of abuse, they generally respond in one of two ways:

  1. Cower in fear, close up, shut down, go inside
  2. Get loud, aggressive, defiant, act out
The students and parents at the October 26th Newark Advisory Board meeting definitely fell into the second category. Having been under state control for the last 20 years—the last 6 under the unholy triumverate of Christie/Cami/Cerf—they have had little to no say in how their public schools are run. And right now, they're being run into the ground.

Under Gov. Christie, charter school expansion has ballooned and NJ's public school system, one of the most equitably funded in the nation, has been underfunded to the tune of over $7 billion...

Source: Education Law Center

While corporate tax breaks welfare has soared to... guess how much? You got it, over $7 billion! 

Coincidence? I think not.

Newark's school budget has also been hit with a one-two punch: budget cuts and $225 million diverted to charter schools. 

Instead of doing anything to fix poverty—a proven factor in a child's ability to learn— the ed 'reform' zeitgeist says the teachers are to blame, so we should give children who are 'stuck in failing schools' choice, then there will be better educational outcomes for all. Except that's just not the case because choice is not for all; it's only for those who are lucky enough to win the charter school lottery. 

So those in Newark who are being denied the choice of their neighborhood public school have been loud and angry because no one is listening to them. That's what normally happens when one isn't being heard. Whether a one-on-one conversation or a geopolitical debate, when one side isn't being heard, they tend to get louder and louder until FINALLY THEY ARE HEARD! The protest rally before the start of the meeting was one in a long list of actions aimed at being heard. Parents and students who are being denied their choice of a quality education are enraged because, first Cami, and now Cerf is starving them to death. Their schools of choice are, as parent advocate Donna Jackson said, "crumbling, while the charters get all the bells and whistles." How is that choice? How is that good for students? 

The Newark Students Union, which has largely led the revolt against the state-sponsored apartheid, quite literally took over the meeting. After staging a rally outside the venue and marching in under a banner that read "Full Local Control", they rushed the stage and demanded Cerf's resignation. They roused the already charged audience to chants of "Cerf's gotta go!" and stood in front of the stage holding the banner the rest of the night. Spontaneous demonstrations interspersed with pop-up arguments between public and charter school parents left what little control the board had over the proceedings in tatters. 

During the public address portion, parents and students didn't hold back. Why should they? Why should people who've been treated like ants at a picnic sit politely in their seats while being sprayed with Raid 'ed reform'? Why should people who are watching their beloved neighborhood schools being stripped of funds, closed and flipped to charters, their teachers let go, classes and activities cut, buildings left to collapse from neglect while the charters get all the 'shiny new' sit there and take it? 

One speaker after another complained about how disastrous conditions in many of Newark's public schools have become:

One speaker told the board that, because of the complete dysfunction that is One Newark, a third grader is still not enrolled in school. How is this good for all students? How is this 'raising the bar'? How is this more 'rigorous'?

It takes a special kind of cold heartedness to sit and listen to the cries of parents and students and do nothing. Cerf's an expert.

Not one charter school parent complained. Maybe because they are getting the very best the district has to offer. Must be nice if you win the lottery.

The US has chronically underfunded public schools that are mostly in large, urban centers with high concentrations of low-income, minority citizens. What would happen if, instead of policies that bled them, those schools were infused with resources to meet the needs of their students? What would happen if every one of our 'failing' schools suddenly became true community centers that helped not only students, but their parents succeed? What would happen if every mother in those areas had access to high quality prenatal care? What if every parent had access to quality preschool, quality, affordable food and a living wage like so many who live in the mostly white suburbs? Well, maybe those 'failing schools' wouldn't be so 'failing'. But it's a lot more profitable to invest in charter schools than fix any of those other things, so why bother? 

No one writes about Newark like Bob Braun, who summed it up perfectly here and here:

State control of the Newark schools is, well, just plain nuts. Crazy. Lunatic. Insane. A case study in mass hysteria put to the service of politicians who use it to enhance their careers while avoiding their responsibility to children and bureaucrats who can make a good buck pretending the process makes sense. Where else could losers like Chris Cerf and Cami Anderson make $257,000 with bonuses and chauffeured limousines?  
[T]rying to get out of state control is a perfect example of what has come to be known as a Catch-22 and, those of you who already know what a Catch-22 is, know it is insane. This is how the Urban Dictionary defines Catch-22:
“A Catch-22 is a requirement that cannot be met until a prerequisite requirement is met; however, the prerequisite cannot be obtained until the original requirement is met. ” 
The people responsible for [the continued state control of Newark are]–you got it!–STATE APPOINTEES. State appointees led by none other than the weeping weirdo running the show, Christopher Cerf. Cerf is the state appointed superintendent, put in office by the Big Buffoon himself, Chris Christie. The state person actually responsible for this particular requirement is Vanessa Rodriguez, who has her own special title–"Chief Talent Officer.”  The school board has tried more than once to fire Rodriguez and Cerf won’t let it. 
Are you following along? The board can’t get its control back until it does what the state says. But it cannot do what the state says because the state failed to do it in the first place and is insisting on continuing to fail because it is in the best interest of the state and its high-paid appointees to fail but let the board take the blame for the failure. If Cerf continues to fail–as Cami Anderson did before him–then the board continues to be powerless and, because it is powerless, it cannot force Cerf to do anything. 
An endless loop of loopiness. 
Look, face it–it’s just nuts to go along with this Catch-22. It will allow charter schools to take over the Newark public school system and make a lot of money for a lot of people who live in places like Mendham, Montclair, and Glen Ridge. 
That should be obvious. Obvious to any sane person. (emphasis mine)

No one running the Newark school district bothers to listen to the sane people—the ones with the protest banners. Their disruption is in direct response to the disruption that the has been heaped on this city for decades. Their walk-outs, march-ins and protests are in direct response to the cone of silence Cami Anderson erected when she became superintendent. Their rage is an equal and opposite reaction to Anderson's launch of the dysfunctional, disorganized and downright disrespectful One Newark plan that continues on under Chris Cerf. 

Ed 'reformers' don't listen to those who disagree with them

I asked someone near me if this was typical of these meetings. His response, "Yea."

And they call this 'reform'.