Monthly Archives: January 2014

The real agenda behind Christie’s extended school day and school year proposal

Just one day after he vetoed a bill that would create a task force to study the implications of mandating full-day kindergarten across the state, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is facing intense criticism for the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal and a federal investigation into his use of Hurricane Sandy relief funds, used his State of the State address to convey a message he’s been promoting for years: that New Jersey’s public school system is failing and in need of drastic, sweeping reforms—in this case, an extended school day and an extended school year.

Though debates over the length of the school day and year are not new, proponents of education reform, like Christie, push the idea as part a political, social, and financial agenda—one that has little to do with student achievement and more to do with weakening teachers’ unions and facilitating charter proliferation in the Garden State.

In his speech, Christie claimed that the “antiquated” calendar that was in place when he was a child needs to be revamped if our “lagging” academic growth is to be rectified and our students are to “compete in the world economy.”  Setting aside the fact that Christie’s son attended the elite Delbarton school, which is in session for 6 hours per day for 163 days per year (as opposed to the 180 days per year that are mandated for New Jersey’s public school students), it’s important to note that the Governor failed to specifically acknowledge that 2013 NAEP results again revealed New Jersey’s public schools to be among the top in the nation. And while there are glaring gaps in achievement among students in the state—test scores are predictably lower in racially- and socioeconomically-segregated areas—on the whole, New Jersey’s children are among the highest-achieving in America. Christie also failed to mention that because of the emphasis he’s placed on high-stakes testing, districts have been forced to narrow their programs of studies, cut personnel, and focus too much on test preparation–all of which negatively impact instructional time.

So why does Governor Christie continually advocate for top-down, one-size-fits-all changes as drastic as revising both the daily and yearly school calendar—especially without presenting any research to show that longer days and a longer year lead to increased achievement–and without presenting any specifics about how and when such a plan would be implemented? Even a brief glance at the Governor’s history is enough to give anyone unfamiliar with the situation some insight.

Immediately after he took office, and despite the promises he made to teachers before he was elected in 2009, Christie went on the offensive against public educators in the state of New Jersey.  He has repeatedly disparaged teachers and their unions; has suggested that teachers don’t care about student achievement—only about having the “summer off”; and has pushed policies, like vouchers and merit pay (which isn’t working as the Governor would like us to believe–read Jersey Jazzman’s analysis here), that are ultimately destructive to our state’s system of public education.

In October of 2013, Christie infamously referred to New Jersey’s urban school districts as “failure factories.” If we  acknowledge that with this label Christie identified areas of concentrated poverty and starved public schools, we can conclude that by extension, he labeled children who suffer the effects of poverty and segregation as failures. A few weeks later, just days before the November election, Christie screamed at a public school teacher who dared to question him about those remarks.

Such behavior isn’t uncommon for Chris Christie, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the hostile climate the Governor has created—the very one that his supporters celebrate—extends well into the depths of his administration.

Christie praised Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson in his State of the State address, but failed to mention the staunch parent opposition that’s accompanying her decision to close neighborhood schools and convert them to charters. He failed to mention that Anderson hired a disgraced New York City principal who was banned from ever working in that city again because he used $9,000 of taxpayer money for personal expenses to head a charter school. And perhaps most tellingly, he failed to mention that in a letter that was retracted and revised just hours after it was distributed for circulation to teachers and parents, Anderson suggested that Newark students engage in criminal activity on days off from school.  And Christie, the leader of the State of New Jersey and a staunch supporter of Anderson, did not even acknowledge the issue. (Can we deduce that one goal of a longer school day/year is to keep would-be criminals off the streets of Newark?)

And just last week, officials investigating the George Washington Bridge scandal released text messages between Port Authority official David Wildstein and an unnamed person in which Wildstein joked it was okay that “children of Buono voters” were unable to get to school because of the lane closures he helped orchestrate. (Is it okay to for Buono-supporters’ children to miss hours of instructional time because of an act of political retribution?)

It seems that members of the Christie administration are content with labeling children, whether they be failures, criminals, or expendable offspring of non-Christie-supporters—and such a practice is counterproductive to the hard work of educators who truly care about the children of New Jersey and calls into serious question the Governor’s motives.

And just as it seems that Governor Christie’s funding promises to other state leaders hinge on political support and endorsements (Democratic mayors have suggested that they were denied grants and funds for their failures to endorse Christie in his reelection bid; see here and here), the Governor chooses to fund the schools that promote his reform agenda (note the proliferation of charters in Newark and Camden) and withhold funds to those that don’t (note the crumbling buildings and deplorable conditions in Trenton and the neighborhood schools being shuttered in cities across the state).

If Christie has his way, many children in New Jersey will be handed over to unproven, privately-run, sometimes-profiteering charters which, on the whole, exaggerate segregation; are allowed to hand-pick their students; have high student attrition rates; encourage extraordinary teacher turnover, which hurts students and disrupts unions (hint: think organizations Teach for America, whose Corps Members typically teach for a couple years before leaving the classroom); and are responsible for great educational and regional instability in already-volatile areas. (A little more on charters in general here.)

If Christie is to pursue his goals of extending both the school day and the school year, he should begin by presenting research which shows that there is a benefit in doing so–something that he has failed to do thus far.  He should explain how he plans to pay for such changes–especially given that he had to be ordered by the New Jersey Supreme Court to fully fund struggling urban districts after he slashed over $1 billion in education funding.  He should renounce high-stakes tests as methods of teacher evaluation, since such measures are grossly unreliable and do not help students. And if he is serious about adding instructional time for all students in New Jersey, he should support a bill which aims to ensure that all New Jersey children have access to full-day kindergarten. Doing so will demonstrate to students, families, and educators that he truly wants what’s best for the children of New Jersey–and that he isn’t simply making decisions to facilitate the privatization of our schools.

Until the Governor is willing to listen to real educators who have dedicated their lives to children (and not Teach for America executives who have virtually no teaching experience themselves), and until he is willing to listen to parents who have a vested interest in their communities and who oppose charters that divide communities and divert public funds from neighborhood schools, he should focus on making sure instructional time is spent wisely (arts, music, and vocational programs should be available to all students, and teachers shouldn’t be forced to focus on test prep with the sole aim of raising scores on meaningless assessments) and all students have access to fully-funded schools.

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Attention dog owners: introducing the new Common Core National Canine Standards

Acknowledging that recent implementation of the Common Core State Standards is reshaping the landscape of public education in the United States, I, along with a secret group of politicians and “philanthropists,” a panel of experts, have designed and not tested The Common Core National (just being real) Canine Standards, using the CCSS as a model.

Mission Statement/Rationale: Given that many canines in the United States are lagging behind their global counterparts (i.e. the Finnish Spitz), The CCNCS provide a consistent, clear understanding of what all American canines, despite predetermined “breed” and “category” classifications are expected to learn–with the goal of ensuring said canines are college (i.e. service dog school) and career (i.e. herding, hunting, retrieving, sled-pulling, home-guarding,) ready.  Even canines in the visually-appealing but otherwise useless “Toy” group will benefit from learning the same skill sets that canines all over the country will be learning under the CCNCS.

 The Finnish Spitz

Photo and caption from Wikipedia

The Finnish Spitz is “best trained with a soft voice and touch. This breed will not respond well to harsh training methods.”                          Description and photo from Wikipedia

The Standards:

The following standards dictate what canines must learn in the various stages of their lives.  Many standards are accompanied by negative behaviors that will result in “Disqualification”—a label which simply indicates a canine is not yet proficient in the attached standard. We expect that up to 70% of canines will be “Disqualified” until handlers themselves become proficient in teaching the standards listed below.

General Behavior: With the ultimate goal of college and career readiness, all canines must have a firm foundation in standard general behavior from the time they are born to the time they reach an age of five (5) months. It is the expectation that all canines will display proficiency in the below areas by then. After the age of five months, canines will be considered adults.

CCNCS-GB.Puppy.1: Sit still for increasing amounts of time without wildly flinging self at humans’ legs, faces, etc.

CCNCS-GB.Puppy.2: Chew only items designated as canine toys; neglect all other items. (Disqualifications too numerous to list here.)

CCNCS-GB.Puppy.3: Eliminate only outside dwellings or on designated areas within dwellings (i.e. on “pee-pee pads,” on patches of false grass, in litter boxes—although the last option is insulting to canines and not generally recommended). (Disqualifications include, but are not limited to, eliminating on hardwood, tiled, or carpeted surfaces; in shoes; under furniture; in locations that might not otherwise be suspected, etc.)

CCNCS-GB.Puppy.4: Retreat to crate with prompting; remain in crate without making noise (i.e. whining, muttering, barking) until retrieved by handler.

CCNCS-GB.Puppy.5: Nap in appropriate locations (i.e. not in the middle of the floor, on furniture) and at appropriate times (i.e. not during the day if such behavior creates a nocturnal pattern).

CCNCS-GB.Puppy.6: Cohabitate peacefully with all residents of dwelling. (Disqualifications include harassing resident cats or older canines; preying upon small, caged rodents—i.e. hamsters or gerbils; engaging in conflicts or power struggles with humans other than the primary caretaker, etc.)

General Health and Wellness: Given that it is important for all canines to maintain a level of health and wellness conducive to proficiency, it is expected that all canines behave according to the following standards:

CCNCS-GHW.K9.1: Consume assigned food in a controlled and moderate (i.e. at appropriately-paced) fashion.  (Disqualifications include food-aggression, shunning own food in favor of human food, stalking humans at mealtime, spreading food on floor during mealtime, sulking when not fed from table, etc.)

CCNCS-GHW.K9.2: Attend veterinarian visits willingly and behave appropriately during examinations. (Disqualifications include hiding from handlers prior to appointment time, refusal to enter automobile, refusal to enter veterinary facilities, aggressive behavior toward veterinary professionals, excessive shivering, refusal to remain on examination table, locking legs when asked to move, insistence on sitting under furniture designated for humans, etc.)

CCNCS-GHWK.K9.3: Allow self to be bathed regularly, including allowing groomer to clean ears, trim nails, and brush teeth. (Disqualifications include refusal to present ears, nails, and teeth for maintenance; aggressive snapping at air from blowdryer, carrying on in holding crate or tub, failure to sit still for scissors or clippers portion of grooming, etc.)

College/Service Dog School Readiness: In order to be prepared for the rigors of higher education, all canines must demonstrate proficiency in the following areas:

CCNCS-CoR.K9.1: Focus exclusively on handler, while effectively ignoring external stimuli (i.e. squirrels, leaves, other canines, felines, tennis balls, sticks, rabbits).  (Disqualifications are too numerous to list in this space.)

CCNCS-CoR.K9.2: Remain calm and composed during severe weather (i.e. thunderstorms, tornadoes, blizzards) and noise imposed by humans (i.e. from fireworks, vacuums, electric mixers). (Disqualifications include shivering, salivating, retreating to corners, lap-dwelling, seeking refuge under blankets, etc.)

CCNCS-CoR.K9.3: Retrieve objects when instructed to do so, and relinquish said objects upon command. (Disqualifications include running in opposite direction with items, engaging in “tug-of-war”-type behaviors, growling/presenting teeth during struggle, etc.)

CCNCS-CoR.K9.4: Display appropriate leash-walking behavior, which includes but is not limited to sitting when handler stops, remaining on handler’s left side, and maintaining slack on leash. (Disqualifications include biting/pulling own leash, wrapping leash around handler, darting in front of handler with blatant disregard for his footing, etc.)

CCNCS-CoR.K9.5: Maintain appropriate level of control when approached by humans (Disqualifications include excessive elation, incontinence, retrieving and forcing toys upon human, displays of aggression, etc.)

Career Readiness: (Note: while there are many breeds of canine, most of which have been assigned “jobs” by humans, the expectation is that all dogs, regardless of breed or size, will be proficient in Career Readiness standards.)

CCNCS-CaR.K9.1: Pull sled with human passenger at least 20 feet.  (Disqualifications include refusing to comply, causing rein entanglement, causing sled to overturn, directing sled into vegetation or snowbanks, etc.)

CCNCS-CaR.K9.2: Defend dwelling from intruders (i.e. postal employees, solicitors seeking to provide home-improvement estimates, neighborhood children, bicycles, pizza delivery people, school buses, etc.). (Disqualifications include general apathy, sleeping through trespassers’ approaches, the absence of barking even when attentiveness is displayed, barking in an insufficiently-audible manner, etc.)

CCNCS-CaR.K9.2: Herd sheep, cattle, reindeer, groups of children, etc. into formations dictated by handlers.  (Disqualifications include limb-biting that draws blood, allowing members of flock to escape, directing members of flock to wrong locations, frightening members of flock to the point that they are unable to relocate, neglecting duties and using opportunity of open field for play, etc.)

CCNCS-CaR.K9.3: Track scents of animals (to assist hunters), track scents of humans (to assist search and rescue efforts), track scents of contraband (to assist law enforcement officials). (Disqualifications include tracking toys/sticks instead of assigned subject; identifying “incorrect” subjects or substances, as such behaviors can have legal ramifications, etc.)

A Final Note:

These standards have been developed by people who shall not be named experts, and they are not negotiable we invite handlers from all corners of the United States to participate in their implementation for the benefit of their canines and with no strings attached if they want a cut of federal funding.

Handlers who are able to bring their canines to proficient levels within a set period of time will be rewarded with handsome compensation packages.  Handlers whose canines are unable to reach proficiency within a set period of time will be put on improvement plans, following the implementation of which said handlers will either be reinstated to their full previous positions or dismissed and barred from handling canines in the future.

We are currently working to develop Common Core National Feline Standards, and you are not allowed to have any input if you are an expert in feline development and would like to contribute to the drafting process, please contact us by leaving a comment below stay home and wait for us to call you.

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More ridiculous propaganda from Priya Abraham and StudentsFirst

Oh, look: StudentsFirst of Pennsylvania tweeted a link to an article by education expert Priya Abraham (just kidding–she’s a “Senior Policy Analyst for the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives” with no background or experience in teaching or education) that yet again advertises Michelle Rhee’s agenda: to bust unions, diminish the immeasurable value experienced teachers bring to the teaching field, and push policies that will ultimately rid the profession of experts and replace them with an influx of “young zealous [inexperienced] teachers” who should be replaced every few years.

Abraham begins her article with this gem of a claim [emphasis added]:

“Given our still-sputtering economy, Americans have grown used to their public schools facing tight budgets. This fiscal squeeze has drawn out a hidden crisis in public education: How do we keep our best teachers in the classroom?

The short answer is, we don’t.

Between 2009 and 2012, public schools laid off about 140,000 teachers across America. In most places, teachers are let go in order of seniority, based solely on how long they’ve been in the system.”

There it is, in four sentences.  We don’t keep our best teachers in the classroom?  The 140,000 teachers who were laid off between 2009 and 2012 were all “young”–and categorically superior to their more veteran counterparts–and therefore their dismissal is a gross injustice for that reason alone? Our very best teachers are the ones without seniority?

To support this claim, Abraham cites a single, anecdotal example: a special-needs student (the son of Philadelphia representative Vanessa Brown) made progress with a “dynamic new teacher” with whom he “connected so well,” until years later, when he “grew frustrated,” “started acting out,” “missed an opportunity to go to college,” fell into a “long, dark depression,” and ultimately considered suicide. Abraham attributes these problems to a “more senior teacher” who mistook the student’s learning difficulties for behavior issues–and who also”bumped” the student’s previous, younger teacher out of a job when layoffs hit Philadelphia.

First of all, this story, as Abraham tells it, doesn’t even make sense.  A wonderful, young second-grade teacher had a positive impact on Brown’s son, but years later (how many years later is unclear, because Abraham claims the student “moved up three grades in just one year”), when the student was in ninth grade, his second-grade teacher was “bumped” by a “more senior [ninth grade] teacher”–who was then responsible for the student’s high-school problems?   Okay, but the relationship between the second-grade teacher and the ninth-grade teacher is unclear to me, save for the fact that Brown’s son had them both in class, because I don’t understand how Abraham can attribute the absence of the second-grade teacher to a ninth-grader’s struggles.  Maybe I’m missing something.

Anyway, it is a tragedy when any teachers are laid off, particularly in urban districts that have high concentrations of special-needs students; and it is a tragedy when any student is unsuccessful–and certainly more of a tragedy when a student feels depressed and hopeless.  And logistical problems aside, this anecdote raises a few more questions:

1) By what metric is Abraham measuring this student’s progress?  She cites none, other than the fact that he “moved up three grades in just one year.”  Is she referring to standardized test scores? grades? or solely emotional health (which is, inarguably, vital for students in terms of academic success)?

2) Conversely, what metric is Abraham using to attribute this student’s emotional (and presumably, academic) collapse–to the point of near-suicide–to one teacher, whose primary fault, as listed here, can be attributed only to years of experience?  Test scores?  Emotional struggles? Disciplinary records?

While the answers to these questions are unclear because Abraham’s argument is grossly unsupported, the questions themselves expose an interesting paradox that groups like StudentsFirst–and reformers like Michelle Rhee and organizations like Teach for America–don’t want people consider: that if education is all about the “connection” to which Abraham attributes this student’s early success (and to be clear, I believe that a teacher’s ability to connect with students is very important), then test scores are less important than reformers make them out to be–and the reform obsession with standardized test scores is misguided.  But even more problematic is that Abraham’s implication here is, invariably, that teachers lose their ability to “connect” once they’re not “young” and “zealous” anymore.  And that’s just nonsense.

So what’s the verdict, StudentsFirst and Priya Abraham: is it the emotional connection teachers make with their students that’s important?  Or is it scores on standardized tests?  The latter is the metric with which Michelle Rhee is rabidly obsessed, but with so much outcry over standardized testing abuses all over the country, are reformers attempting to make a tactical shift in focus to push their agenda? Here, Abraham seeks to quantify the immeasurable. That’s great, but not when the immeasurable is manipulated to categorically favor novice teachers over experienced ones.  (Remember when Michelle Rhee said that if something isn’t measurable, it isn’t worth teaching/learning? How funny.)

Either way, a glaring problem remains for reformers who attempt to claim that inexperienced teachers are preferable: neither high test scores nor emotional connections can be attributed exclusively to one “type” (age? level of experience?) of teacher–and attempts to create a tangible profile of what a “successful teacher” looks like contribute to the depersonalized climate that is polluting public education.

And either way, this anecdote is an opportunistic oversimplification and exploitation of one student’s very real struggles for the purposes of pushing the reform agenda that’s damaging our public schools.

Let’s be real.  Are there veteran teachers who are ineffective?  Yes–and administrators must work with them to help them improve–or move to have them removed from their positions.  And are their novice teachers who are disasters?  (Or how about this: are there novice teachers whose sole “commitment” to the field centers around the promise of a padded resume and financial support for graduate school?) Of course. Any arguments otherwise are inaccurate generalizations. But one thing is indisputable: that content mastery, and further, mastery of effective ways to present content to students in a meaningful manner, takes years to develop.  Years.

The ultimate irony? Reformers’ primary criticism is that our students are underprepared for college and careers–presumably that they don’t know enough to function competitively in either endeavor–but teachers’ expertise, which can only be shaped by years of experience, is devalued and discounted.  Only people with little experience in a classroom could believe such nonsense, and Abraham is a prime example. Her implication here is that all veteran teachers are out of touch, crotchety, and ineffective. Period.  And that inexperienced teachers who have energy are immeasurably better.  Period.

But I suppose none of this is surprising, since most proponents of education reform have little or no experience in a classroom–and yet they still feel they have the authority to dictate policy and know what’s best for kids.

The bottom line is this: when we implement policies that completely disregard teachers’ expertise and years of experience–and further, when we vilify experienced teachers for the purpose of promoting a political and social agenda–students suffer.  For that reason and so many more, Abraham’s article is reprehensible and irresponsible.

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Guest post: my mom, a retired English teacher, reflects on recent changes in education

Here’s a guest post by my mom, a former Teacher of the Year, who laments the effects education “reform” is having on students, teachers, and education in general:  

I began teaching in 1973. I retired July 1, 2013.  I taught every grade and every level of secondary English (yes, we called it English, not language arts or LAL) during my career, which I loved with a passion.  I am so fortunate to have had a profession I felt so devoted to, one that allowed me to engage with everything I loved: literature, writing, and young people of diverse backgrounds, interests and abilities. I have often though that without my rich career and all I have learned from it, I might be a much different person, much poorer in my understanding of human nature, adolescence, history, sociology, the arts, the creative process, and the complexity surrounding every facet of learning and personal growth.

There was a time, a few short years ago, that I could not imagine retiring from this career I felt so devoted to.  How sad to say that now I am glad to be gone, relieved of the burden of trying to conform to the current climate of “education reform,” the current practice of misusing big data and standardized tests, relying on arbitrary evaluation procedures, and meting out punitive consequences to teachers, administrators, and schools, all of which are being held responsible for conditions and outcomes beyond their control.

When I look back over my career, there are moments that stand out to me. Not one of these moments can be measured by a standardized test.  And not one of these moments has been, or ever should have been, documented by an administrative evaluator.  Here are some of those moments.

I remember a 15-year-old 7th grader for whom school represented repeated failure telling me “Mrs. Jolley, I wish you were my mom”— just because one day I asked her why she seemed so sad. No metric for that.

I remember ELL students, not very proficient in English, writing with a longing that could break your heart about how much they missed their native countries.  Hmmm. Not the prescribed 5-paragraph “controversial issue” format. No formula there.

I remember an African American boy named Marcus who quietly came up to my desk after class to express his concern for me (a white teacher in a class of mostly black students) after we read a passage from Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in which white characters cruelly persecuted the black protagonists. Marcus, who was 14, was showing empathy for ME. He didn’t want me to take it personally that white people were portrayed as villains. He knew I wasn’t like that.  I was so moved.  Does someone want to measure that? (By the way, we read the whole novel, not excerpts as the CCSS suggest.)

I remember 9th graders enthusiastically researching the law, writing scripts, dressing up, acting out, and filming a mock trial of the Friar from Romeo and Juliet.  They charged him in the deaths of the two young lovers.  At night they watched Law & Order to get some pointers.  So cute!

I remember inventing assignments and projects (I-Searches, multi-genre pieces) that gave students choices to investigate subjects they were interested in, giving them responsibility, accountability, and investment in their own learning. So exciting even five years ago; today there’s no time for such things. What’s the point? It’s not on a test, everyone says.

I remember a time when department meetings, faculty meetings, and in-service days revolved around reading, sharing ideas, learning about our subjects—and not around  the only topics that seem to matter today: lesson plan format, testing, rubrics, teacher evaluations and technological gimmicks.  Watch your back! If you don’t conform it will be held against you!

I remember AP students who told me their lives were changed after reading Hamlet, or Beloved, or Middlemarch. Is there a metric for that, or is a score on the AP exam the only thing that counts? Yes, we did lots of close reading, but is that what students will remember?

Mostly I remember a time when I could be creative, do lots of research, veer off in different but related directions, have discussions, allow students to talk about how they feel (yes, David Coleman), and even lecture occasionally, without worrying if I covered every one of the myriad points in the Danielson model in EVERY lesson.

I am so sad when I read that students, teachers, and schools are labeled “failures.” I am bewildered when I read statements from “reformers” with no background in child development writing standards, arbitrarily setting cut scores, misinterpreting  test results, making flawed comparisons with other countries, giving only lip service to parents, and blaming  teachers for every ill in society. I am angry when I think of people with no background in education (i.e. politicians from BOTH parties and businesspeople) condescending to, insulting, and even vilifying teachers, whose job is more difficult, challenging, and complex than anyone who has never tried it can imagine.

I worry that teachers coming into the profession will never know the joy I felt as an English teacher. I lament that a noble profession has been co-opted by profiteers and business interests, by privatizers and by many who pretend they know what’s best for children.  As teachers, and former teachers, administrators and former administrators, we must speak out, talk to each other, and talk to parents to turn this trend around.  We have to do it for our children and grandchildren, so they can know that school and learning can be joyful and enriching—and that it is more than test prep, testing, canned lessons, and conformity.

–Susan Jolley

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