Friday, January 1, 2016

NJ's literacy solution: longer school day for kindergarteners?

My blog has been quiet of late. Due to some health problems, I've had to scale back a bit on my workload. Nothing life-threatening, mind you, just enough for me to reprioritize for a little while. But I'm on the mend, and there's no better day to start back up than New Year's Day.

Courtesy: Upworthy
This week marks the end of the current NJ legislative session. Newly elected officials will soon be sworn in, but there's a bill coming before the Assembly Education Committee next week that has me scratching my head. 

A4779, sponsored by Ams. Reed Gusciora (D-15) and Asw. L. Grace Spencer (D-29) says: 
a. The Commissioner of Education shall declare an educational state of emergency for a school district in which, for at least 75 percent of the schools in the district, 65 percent or more of the students in the school to whom a State assessment was administered have not achieved proficiency in the English language arts/literacy subject area of the State assessment. 
b. Upon declaring an educational state of emergency pursuant to subsection a. of this section, the commissioner is authorized to distribute supplementary State aid to the school district, which shall be in addition to the State aid payable to the district pursuant to P.L.2007, c.260 (C.18A:7F-43 et al.) or any other law. The supplementary State aid shall be used for the specific purpose of establishing a mandatory after school program for students in grades kindergarten through three, the duration of which is two and a half hours from the end of the school day, which is designed to increase student proficiency in English language arts and literacy. The supplementary aid shall also be used for establishing voluntary literacy programs for students in other grades, including after school programs and summer programs. 
c. When an educational state of emergency is declared for a school district, the executive county superintendent of schools shall hold a public meeting of interested stakeholders for the district including, but not limited to, parents, students, teachers, school administrators, community leaders, and business leaders. The purpose of the meeting shall be to discuss community involvement and potential corrective measures to address the district’s low proficiency rate in English language arts and literacy.

d. A school district that establishes programs to increase student proficiency in English language arts and literacy pursuant to subsection b. of this section shall continue to implement the programs for a minimum of three years or for as long as the school district meets the criteria of subsection a. of this section, whichever is longer. (emphasis mine)
I have some real concerns about this bill, but before I get into them, let me be clear: I have no beef with Asm. Gusciora or Asw. Spencer. I don't know anything about the origins of this bill. I don't know Asw. Spencer, but Asm. Gusciora serves part of my county. He supported my assembly run, fiercely advocated for marriage equality, and generally supports causes I agree with. He's also a fellow member of the 'Wrath of Christie' club. My criticism is not aimed at them, but at the Christie administration and the NJDOE, who continue to hold our large, mostly poor/minority/urban school districts hostage, which forces workaround bills such as this one into existence.  

Here are my concerns:

First, I don't know about you, but whenever I read the words "state of emergency" as it pertains to public education, my ed 'reform' radar starts beeping. Newark, Camden, Jersey City and Paterson have all fallen victim to one definition or another of "state of emergency" which has resulted in one scenario: complete or partial state takeover, reduced funding, and the expansion of charter schools. None of which has been proven to help all students achieve.

Second, how do we define a "state of emergency"? If we are basing it solely on a state standardized test, which in this case is the PARCC, then we are making a false assumption. According to former NJ Assistant Education Commissioner Bari Erlichson, the PARCC test is not diagnostic:

Erlichson (at the 1:00 mark): In terms of testing the full breadth and depth of the standards in every grade level, yes, these are going to be tests that in fact are reliable and valid at multiple cluster scores, which is not true today in our NJASK. But there’s absolutely a… the word "diagnostic" here is also very important. As Jean sort of spoke to earlier: these are not intended to be the kind of through-course — what we’re talking about here, the PARCC end-of-year/end-of-course assessments — are not intended to be sort of the through-course diagnostic form of assessments, the benchmark assessments, that most of us are used to, that would diagnose and be able to inform instruction in the middle of the year. 
These are in fact summative test scores that have a different purpose than the one that we’re talking about here in terms of diagnosis. (emphasis mine)
Third, the tests were designed for students to fail. NJ's own reading expert, Ryder University Professor Russ Walsh, examined the PARCC sample questions and found them to be several grade levels above that being tested. And since the Common Core Standards are directly tied to the PARCC, we would be subjecting little children to more and more developmentally inappropriate instruction. Throw in the fact that many high poverty schools also have a higher percentage of English Language Learners than their wealthy and mostly White suburban counterparts, and you have a recipe for a manufactured "state of emergency."

Fourth, extending the day by two and a half hours for 5-7 year olds? Why? In Finland, the top performing education country in the world, first graders attend only a half day of school and get 15 minute breaks between each lesson. As a teacher of full-day kindergarteners, I can tell you firsthand that by about 1:30 pm, most are shot (this holds true for many first graders and some second graders). And when many K's get that tired, they don't slow down. Quite the opposite: they tend to ramp up. They're tired of sitting and paying attention. Their little brains are tired of thinking and concentrating. They need to play. But thanks to the Common Core, they're being pushed to learn more at an earlier age, and that's not a good thing. A 2015 Boston Globe article reported:
In two reports published earlier this year, the Boston-based nonprofit Defending the Early Years took aim at the kindergarten standards in ELA (focused on literacy at this age) and math. The first report singled out the expectation that kindergartners should be able to “read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.” 
Emergent-reader texts include repetitive lines like, “Brown bear. Brown bear. What do you see?” or, “The fat cat sat on a mat.” These are no trouble for some 5-year-old kindergartners and even some 4-year-olds, says Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an emeritus professor of early-childhood education at Lesley University and the report’s lead author. But, Carlsson-Paige adds, many normally developing kids won’t read these books on their own until age 7. “When we require specific skills to be learned by every child at the same time, that misses a basic idea in early childhood education,” she says, “which is that there’s a wide range to learning everything in the early years.” 
Take walking as an example. An average child might learn to walk at 1 year, while some will be walking at 8 months and others might not take their first steps until they’re 15 months. They all end up walking just fine. 
What does earlier reading in kindergarten predict for reading proficiency and academic success in later grades? Not much, according to the report, which cites study findings that by fourth grade, children who were reading at age 4 were not significantly better at reading than their classmates who’d learned to read at age 7. The report also points out that in Finland and Sweden, kids don’t even start formal schooling until they are 7 years old. Yet, Finnish and Swedish teenagers regularly trounce their American counterparts in international tests of reading, math, and science. 
Given the wide developmental variation in young learners and the evidence that early reader advantages fade, the report concludes that a kindergarten literacy standard will simply crush the spirits of the late bloomers, linking school with “feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and confusion.” (emphasis mine)
Since the bill requires a minimum of 3 years of implementation or "as long as the school district meets the criteria", my guess is that if it's passed, this clause will be forgotten and "3 years" will stretch into a permanently extended school day to compete with the longer school day of many charters.  

Fifth, where will the money come from? Gov. Christie has defunded NJ public education to the tune of $6 billion. Newark charter schools are bleeding the public school system of millions of dollars. It's so bad that Charter Cheerleader/Superintendent Chris Cerf (former NJ Education Commissioner), has ordered administrators to make drastic budget cuts, and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka is pleading with current Education Commissioner David Hespe to halt the expansion of charters to keep the district from drowning...

I'm not suggesting that we leave struggling readers to fend for themselves, but we cannot continue to throw taxpayer dollars at programs that are not research-based and developmentally appropriate. Why not fund the schools according to the law and let the administrators decide where and how the money would best be spent? Ah, but that assumes those who work with students every day know what's best, and we can't have that now, can we?

The Assembly Education Committee is chaired by Asm. Patrick Diegnan who has been a staunch supporter of public education. My hope is that the committee will listen to the voices of those who know what works in public education and revise or kill this bill.