Monthly Archives: February 2014

Ras Baraka: “I will be the real ‘Education Mayor.'”

On February 17th, mayoral candidate Ras Baraka unveiled his Blueprint to Achieve Excellence in Newark’s Schools in a public forum at the Newark campus of Rutgers University. Just before the meeting, Baraka met privately with about a dozen education activists and bloggers to discuss the many issues the families and educators in Newark are faced with—and I was fortunate to be part of that session.

In both the closed meeting and the public forum, Councilman Baraka’s central message was consistent and clear: that strong schools are the “linchpin of a community,” and that they must be preserved and protected in order for a community to function properly and thrive.

But according to Baraka (and many others in the city), Newark is being torn apart by State Superintendent Cami Anderson, a Chris Christie appointee whose controversial “One Newark” plan is being challenged by students, parents, community members, and educational and legal experts who question Anderson’s qualifications, authority, and motives.

Just over a month ago, the Governor praised Anderson’s reforms in Newark during his State of the State address:

In our largest school system, in Newark, we have brought in a new organization and new resources, not only in the form of state aid but in collaboration with parents, teachers, and community leaders on the ground. One result – we negotiated a historic contract with the teacher’s union and delivered real merit pay alongside increased teacher involvement.

Most importantly we want to encourage innovation while listening to the specific needs of our urban communities. It’s the reason why we have empowered our superintendents in Newark and Camden to make choices that work best for their kids, their parents and their schools.

In Newark, that superintendent is Cami Anderson.

Cami has moved to pay the best teachers, to stop actions that are failing kids, to empower 50 new principals, create cooperation between public schools and charter schools and reorganize the school systems’ structure to focus on putting students, schools and parents first.

But many others, including students, parents, educators, and grassroots organizations formed specifically to call attention to Anderson’s reforms, tell a very different tale of the state of the city’s schools.  The district has been under state control for 19 years, and Baraka says he will “fight vociferously” to restore local control and ensure the democratic process is restored in Newark. After all, the job of a superintendent of public schools, he says, is to improve public schools, not close them.

Baraka describes the culture Anderson has created as one in which “dissent is punished” (recently, five principals were suspended and the President of the PTO was banned from his daughter’s school for speaking against the “One Newark” plan) and schools are closed arbitrarily and without any citizen input.

Anderson has also launched what many perceive as attacks on unionized teachers during her tenure in Newark. Just today, Bob Braun reported that Anderson plans to ask Commissioner Cerf, who will leave his post to take a job with Amplify at the end of this month, to grant her a “waiver or equivalency,” which would allow her to lay off teachers with no regard for due process or seniority.

Anderson’s policies are obviously an extension of Chris Christie’s education reforms, and many Newarkers take issue with the Governor’s September statement that accompanied his announcement that he planned to renew Anderson’s contract:

“She’s done a great job, and I don’t care about the community criticism,” Christie said. “We run the school district in Newark, not them.”

Baraka, who was a teacher before he became principal of Central High School in 2007, says the the “One Newark” plan is more like a “one-person plan,” since Newark stakeholders had no input in its creation.  “One Newark,” designed by outsiders who have little experience educating children and unsupported by evidence of their effectiveness, he says, weakens the Newark community–and, in turn, weaken schools.

In response to Anderson’s reforms, which many have described as “dictatorial,” Baraka—along with a team of experts—has developed his Blueprint to Achieve Excellence in Newark’s Schools that he says will move the city’s schools in the right direction.  The plan, which is specific and comprehensive–and which Baraka shared with a standing-room-only crowd in the Essex room at Rutgers University’s Paul Robeson Campus Center–details an educational approach that is drastically different from Anderson’s top-down directives.

Public Forum

The first member of Baraka’s education team to speak was Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, a former teacher and Newark Teachers Union officer and the current Chairperson of the Newark Board of Education.  Baskerville-Richardson is staunch in her opposition to what she calls Anderson’s “period of destruction” in Newark’s schools, and insisted in Baraka’s public forum that the standardized testing driving many of Anderson’s reforms has “helped no one but the testing industry.”  As a lifelong Newark resident, Baskerville-Richardson understand just how important it is for a district to have control over its hiring, facilities, and curriculum; under her leadership, the local control over fiscal management was restored to the Newark school board.

Dr. Lauren Wells, another member of Baraka’s education team, is a former teacher who holds a B.A. in English from Temple University, a Master’s degree in Educational Leadership from Columbia, and a Ph.D. in Education from the UCLA.  During the public forum, Dr. Wells described the “experiential gaps” that plague students who come from high poverty areas.  Citing the popular reformy claim that poverty isn’t an “excuse” for poor academic performance, Dr. Wells claimed that because we know how poverty affects academic achievement, we have a responsibility to do something about it.  Wells compared a city to a living system, and noted that if an organ isn’t working properly in a person’s body, the entire system is affected; the same, she said, goes for a city like Newark.  If the school system isn’t functioning properly, the community suffers; likewise, the poverty that plagues the city affects the school system.  So to improve the school system, Wells said, officials from all city departments need to work together to “weave the city’s resources in a tapestry” that works in a coordinated way and in a common direction to develop a comprehensive plan that will improve the living and academic conditions in Newark.

The third member of Baraka’s education team is Dr. Janice Johnson Dias, a graduate of Brandeis University and Temple University and a professor of Sociology at John Jay College.  Her extensive work with community and social service organizations gives her a unique perspective about the ways in which social influences shape a student’s educational experiences, and this work is reflected in Baraka’s education policy.  Johnson Dias began her remarks by contending that although many people believe that one of the best ways a person can avoid avoid being poor is to get a good education, but she pointed out that there is much dissent surrounding what actually constitutes a “good” education.  For some, she says, “good” means that a student was obedient; for others, it means that a student came to school every day; still others define a “good” experience as one in which a student pushes himself beyond prescribed boundaries. But such dissent is, according to Johnson Dias, the root of conflicting ideologies regarding the best ways to improve Newark’s schools.

Johnson Dias described the ways in which a student’s “sense of relatedness” matters in terms of his academic achievement, and noted that when minority children feel animus in the very environment that’s meant to encourage their development, their sense of self-worth—and ability to achieve at their potential—suffers greatly.

To address this problem, Johnson Dias said that parents and community members must create an environment of learning that extends beyond the walls of a school building.  She insisted that schools must create systems which recognize and celebrate that there’s excellence in all children in some form—not just in the areas that can be tested on a standardized test.  (When a test is politicized to convey the message that anyone who fails it is dumb, students internalize their results and begin to believe they’re dumb, she says.)

Councilman Baraka was the last to speak at the public forum, and his message echoed those of the members of his education team: that in order for children to succeed academically, they need to find support in their schools and in their communities.  The mayor of a city, he says, is responsible for ensuring strong neighborhoods—and closing schools destabilizes neighborhoods.  Ergo, Baraka’s education plan isn’t limited to improving conditions in schools: it extends to include the entire Newark community.

Though his detailed plan is available here, Baraka used the February 17th public forum to discuss his plans to:

  • Implement programs to improve literacy throughout the community (parents, grandparents, etc.), including  public housing, senior centers, hospitals, etc.
  • Recognize that parents have “enough sense” to know what their children need, so they need to be engaged in discussions about schools BEFORE decisions are made–not after
  • Appreciate—and not belittle—people’s experiences to work with people who know and understand their community’s needs better than outsiders
  • Establish incentives for teachers to live in the city
  • Ensure that children have access to a universal preschool program
  • Stop all of Anderson’s initiatives, including school closures and charter expansion, until the superintendent provides any type of documentation that such measures even work.

Ras Baraka’s Blueprint to Achieve Excellence in Newark’s Schools was created by education experts who understand that after 19 years of failed state control in Newark, something needs to change–and that change should be driven by people who know and understand the Newark community’s needs.  It’s supremely ironic that the current administration’s “One Newark” plan is creating a great divide within the city–one that’s causing great unrest in an already-volatile area–and Baraka insists that the initiatives detailed in his blueprint will make him the “real education mayor” that Newark children and families so desperately need.

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Education reform in New Jersey: like bad reality TV

I’m a cool dad.  That’s my thang.  

I’m hip–I surf the web; I text.

LOL: laugh out loud.

OMG: oh my God.

WTF: why the face.

-Phil Dunphy–Modern Family

I was really worried when they canceled Jersey Shore.  Everyone loves a little excitement (and controversy, and dysfunction, and fake eyelashes), but when Snooki got pregnant and was relegated to the house next-door to the house where all the fun happened–for her own safety and the safety of her unborn Snooki–everyone knew the end of the entertaining New Jersey drama that attracted attention from all over the country was near.

How lame!

But I shouldn’t have been worried, because shortly after everyone’s favorite fist-pumpers packed their tans and laundry and headed back to their home states (wait! You didn’t know that most of them weren’t from NJ? What’s next?! Allegations that they’re not even Italian?), politicians and school reformers recognized how boring New Jersey got and kicked their own dysfunction up a notch–just for grit and giggles.

It’s obvious that we need a fresh, new reality show in New Jersey, so I suggest that someone strap a GoPro to his head and start lingering around the buildings where all the important people in New Jersey hang out to capture footage on film.  Like right now–time’s a-wasting! Here’s some of the recent stuff you’ve missed already, chronicled in a fake twitter feed that highlights some of the real messed-up-stuff that’s happening in New Jersey courtesy of lots of fake educators:

  • NJ Ed Commish Chris Cerf forced new assessment and evaluation systems onto NJ schools, then left to take a job with AMPLIFY, the Murdoch-owned company that will $ell materials to $chool$ that have to implement Cerf’s reforms. #WTF?!
  • Newark State Superintendent Cami Anderson wrote a letter to the city’s parents suggesting that Newark kids would commit crimes if the district closed schools so its teachers could go to the NJEA convention.  #WTF.
  • Chris Christie funnels money meant for Sandy victims to projects that will make tens of millions for his friends, then tells students that greedy unionized teachers are the reason he had to cut funding for schools. #WTF!
  • Paymon Rouhanifard got put in charge of Camden’s schools, even though he had no administration certificate, no experience running a school, and just a little more than five minutes of teaching experience.  #WTF!
  • Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, founder of Camden’s LEAP Academy University Charter School, raised the school chef’s salary to $95,000—when most people in comparable positions make about $50,000.  Oh, and he’s her boyfriend.  #ForRealsies. #WTF.
  • There’s this for-profit company called “PinkHulaHoop1, LLC” (that gets its own #WTF) that’s BFFs with Cami Anderson, and they hold hands and work together to funnel public money to charters. #WTF!
  • On a super snowy day in January, Cami Anderson played a not-fun game of “charter-kids-stay-home, public-school-kids-bundle-up and get to school!” #WTF.
  • A few days later, Anderson played another not-fun game of “I’ll cancel school, but I won’t do it until 7:35am, when tons of people people have already ventured out into the ice.” #WTF.
  • The Star-Ledger endorsed Christie, then said the decision was “regrettable”…but then praised Christie’s ed reforms and Chris Cerf…because, #REFORM! #WTF.
  • David Wildstein thinks it’s okay for “children of Buono voters” to be stuck on buses for hours because he felt like closing the George Washington Bridge. #wtF!!!!
  • The Jersey City BOE made a new rule limiting who can speak at meetings–and for how long…because really, why should taxpayers have input!? #WTF.
  • The Highland Park School District laid off 9 staff members, including the union president and vice-president, and then said it wasn’t a deliberate attempt to break the union. Okay.  #WTF.
  • Cami Anderson made a NY principal who was caught using $9,000 in taxpayer money on personal expenses the principal of a Newark charter school. #WTF?!
  • Newark charters keep lying about how many kids are on their wait list. #LOL.
  • Rutgers University let Dr. (#LOL) Steve Perry give the keynote address at a conference about college readiness.  No, not #kidding.  #WTFWTFWTF.
  • Chris Christie refused to visit Trenton Central High School, and it took until January 2014 (after NBC aired a national story about the crumbling building with undrinkable water and dead mice in the wall) for someone in charge to agree to give students a new building. #WTF!!!!
  • The NJDOE was “optimistic” about its findings that 1/4 of teachers in a pilot study were only “partially effective.”  And by 1/4 they actually meant many fewer than that, but they wouldn’t say so and hoped you wouldn’t notice. #WTF.
  • Cami Anderson suspended five principals and banned a PTO president from his child’s school because they all spoke out against the One Newark plan. Because that’s fair and reasonable.  #WTF.
  • Chris Christie pointed his finger in the face of NJ public school teacher Melissa Tomlinson while his wife laughed in the background. #WTF!!
  • The NJ Supreme Court had to order Chris Christie to restore funding he cut from the state’s poorest school districts. You know, kind of like when judges force absent parents to pay child support.  #WTF.
  • And finally–New Jersey voters overwhelmingly re-elected Chris Christie. #W.T.F.

What am I forgetting?  (A lot–I know.)  Anyway, if someone can get started on this project, that’d be great.  Maybe a reformy reality show would run its course pretty quickly–much like Jersey Shore did–and its stars will be forced into obscurity after their too-long stint of causing damage in New Jersey.

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STANDARDIZED: a film everyone needs to see

On Thursday, February 6th, nearly 200 parents, educators, and education activists convened on Philadelphia’s Ritz East theater, known primarily for its commitment to screening independent, foreign, and documentary films, for a much-anticipated showing of Standardized—Lies, Money, & Civil Rights: How Testing is Ruining Public Education.  

It’s no surprise that the Ritz’s showing of Standardized was so well-attended; Philadelphia’s public schools have suffered greatly as a result of Governor Corbett’s drastic budget cuts, and the School Reform Commission has forged ahead with its ultimate plan to close neighborhood schools and open charters in their places.  Similar reforms are being imposed just across the Delaware River in New Jersey, most prominently in state-run school districts like Newark and Camden, where parents and educators are embroiled in similar battles over top-down directives that are changing the landscape of public education at an alarming rate.

The 75-minute documentary, co-directed by English teacher Dan Hornberger and media professional Jim Del Conte—both resident Pennsylvanians—“sheds light on the invalid nature of [high-stakes] tests, the terrible consequences of high-stakes testing, and the big money that’s involved” and comes at a time when public outcry about implications of standardized testing is becoming louder and more prevalent by the day.

It’s clear, from the first few minutes of the film, that the testing mania sweeping the United States is politically-motivated—and, further, that Obama’s Race to the Top is a more-dangerous version of Bush’s No Child Left Behind, particularly because it’s responsible for the mass school closures that are being imposed on children in major cities all over the country.  And because profit-driven corporations prey on the implications of a the test score-driven competition the federal government is imposing on schools, companies like Pearson are making hundreds of millions of dollars each year from schools—many of which are in the midst of budget crises so crippling that they must ask for donations of paper and pencils—whose federal funding is tied to test scores.

At the film’s structural core are in-depth interviews that examine the testing movement from various perspectives. Parents describe the countless days of testing to which their children are subjected and detail ways in which their children’s educational experiences have been limited or hurt by the proliferation of standardized tests. Education experts list the flaws in test construction, the inherent folly in the grading process (think non-educators scoring standardized tests in cubicles in mall basements), and the ways in which standardized tests disproportionally hurt minorities and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. And activists describe their tireless efforts to alert community members and legislators of the damage education reform has caused; and professors and other education experts list—in detail—just how misguided the current overemphasis on standardized testing is.

Perhaps most personally, Dr. Mark Naison, an author, professor of history and African American studies at Fordham University, and founder of the Badass Teachers Association, uses his prominent role in Standardized to chronicle what he describes as the institutional “child abuse” that results from America’s obsession with standardized tests.  Naison, a lifelong educator, mentor, and coach, describes how oral history projects he directed—in collaboration with teachers, students, and community leaders in the Bronx—were “systematically pushed out of schools by excessive testing, rating schools and teachers on test results.”  (Click here to watch Naison describe these projects and the ways in which their elimination spurred his public education activism.) Ultimately, he concludes, the standardized testing that’s used to vilify and demoralize teachers, grade and rank schools, and stigmatize children needs to be resisted consistently and passionately by educators and parents alike.

After the screening, audience members had an opportunity to ask questions of filmmakers Dan Hornberg and Jim Del Conte—as well as Dr. Mark Naison, who made the trip to Philly from NYC; Jim Horn, author of Mismeasure of Education; and Helen Gym, a former teacher and co-founder of Parents United for Public Education.  Their collective discussion was an extension of the film’s fundamental message: that the only way to stop the dangerous path politicians and “philanthropists” have laid for America’s public schools is for educators to stand up for what they know to be best for children–and for parents to opt their children out of standardized tests.  (The film screened in Long Island in January, and this article about testing resistance in New York appeared shortly thereafter.)

The current push to “reform” education is an exceedingly complex and intricate one that’s driven primarily by politics and free-market interests—instead of by educators, parents, and experts in child development. But in creating Standardized, Hornberger and Del Conte have provided even those largely unfamiliar with the implications of the standardized testing movement with a concise, accessible, and powerful message that pairs the urgency of the situation with immediate actions those concerned about the future of public education in the United States can take to put a stop to reforms that are bad for children. The film is currently screening in major cities across the country, but according to the filmmakers, it will be available for online viewing in the coming months.

Ultimately, everyone—parents, educators, and taxpayer—should see this film, because it’s simply too important to miss.

Our children cannot wait.

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Written testimony to the NJ State Board of Education for Lobby Day–February 5th, 2014

Dear Members of the New Jersey State Board of Education:

In July, I submitted to you a written testimony that detailed the many concerns I have with the overuse and misuse of standardized testing.  I was thankful for the opportunity to share those concerns with you, and I was hopeful that educators who work with children every day would be given proverbial “seats at the table” for education policy-making in the Garden State.  But since July, I’ve watched as the damaging reforms that concern me—and so many other educators and parents—have been pushed forward with dangerous speed.

So now I implore you, with urgency, to reevaluate these reforms–for they are harmful to the children of our state.

All good teachers know that if one student in a class of 30 struggles, the best course of action for the classroom teacher is to provide support to the struggling student while preserving the high level of instruction that allows the majority of the class to excel. After all, it would be unreasonable and foolish to make drastic curricular changes that would negatively affect all students to accommodate one who needs additional help.

The same common-sense, personalized, supportive policy should apply to districts in our state, but unfortunately, it doesn’t. No one disagrees that there are schools whose students aren’t performing to their capabilities, but it simply does not make sense, especially given that New Jersey’s students consistently rank among the best in the nation, to make sweeping changes that will hurt all students to “fix” problems that exist in localized regions (more specifically, areas of concentrated poverty, where students struggle because of factors outside of school) across the state. Who will benefit from the PARCC testing?  from Student Growth Objectives and Percentiles?  from AchieveNJ?  The answer is categorical: not students or teachers–but corporations, private investors, politicians, and anyone else seeking to profit, either financially or politically, from our children.

Good teachers also know that many lessons that look good on paper can lack in substance and fail in execution—and the current reforms being imposed on students and teachers in New Jersey (SGOs, AchieveNJ, CCSS/PARCC testing) are plagued by those same problems.  We’ve heard for years—mostly from non-educators who claim that our children and teachers are failures—that it’s as simple as testing students: we should test them at the beginning of the year and test them at the end of the year, because doing so will tell us whether they’re learning and whether their teachers are teaching. Sounds reasonable.

But the inherent flaws in such an oversimplified and ill-advised plan will cause ultimate, long-term damage to children.  Here’s an incomplete list of reasons why:

  • Neither standardized tests—nor standardized test scores—help students learn.  Period. Conversely, high-stakes tests cause much anxiety in children of all ages (I’ve personally witnessed 17-year-olds cry and feel sick because of the pressures associated with the HSPA), and tests that are administered solely for teacher-evaluation purposes lose meaning for students who are not at all affected by their scores (I’ve witnessed high schoolers complain about End-Of-Course testing being a “waste of time” because its only purpose is to test “how good the teacher is”; I’ve also witnessed some students simply refuse to take those tests because they didn’t have graduation or grade implications).
  • Standardized test results do not help teachers improve their teaching–especially since teachers are not even permitted see the tests they administer. Good teachers assess their students’ understanding each day; they don’t need a spreadsheet with meaningless (and many times, inaccurate or invalid) data to tell them how their students are performing.
  • Many schools struggle to keep up with technological advances as it is, and requiring that districts have the means to administer online PARCC tests in the coming school year is an unreasonable mandate. What will happen when operating systems crash?  when students are unable to submit answers to hours-long tests?  when wireless connections fail? when pages fail to load?  when hardware fails? when security is breached?
  • Imposing top-down policies on all districts in the state drains our public schools of funds and diverts taxpayer money to testing companies, Wall Street bond traders, and politicians. Does Pearson, a company that gets contracts worth tens of millions of dollars, really know what’s best for our children?
  • Increasing the number of standardized tests our students take causes narrowing of the curriculum and a great loss of instructional time. After all, vocational programs, graphic/performing/culinary arts, extracurriculars, and other electives cost money to run–so how can districts keep them and still afford to pay for all the unfunded mandates being imposed by the State?
  • Evaluating teachers based on students’ test scores (please see Bruce Baker’s discussions about the glaring flaws with the SGP model) will jeopardize teacher autonomy and force teachers to teach to meaningless tests.
  • Judging teachers, students, and schools by standardized test scores will provide reformers with flawed excuses to close neighborhood schools, privatize public education, and further segregate students by socioeconomic status and race.
  • Judging teachers by students’ test scores will also cause dangerous competition and resentment among teachers: within any given school, who gets the high-achieving students?  Who gets students with learning disabilities?  Who gets the students who come from impoverished families? How are such determinations made?  There is much danger in a practice that pits teachers against each other and turns students into commodities that are bargained for. 
  • Good teaching cannot and should not be measured by tests, so an evaluation system founded on the premise that educators can be rated based on numbers on a spreadsheet promotes the very kind of depersonalization that’s crippling public schools across the country.  Evaluators–human beings–should judge teachers using a variety of measures, and evaluators who fail to do so accurately and efficiently should themselves be evaluated for efficacy.  That ineffective teachers cannot be removed from the classroom is a glaring untruth that is perpetuated by programs like AchieveNJ.
  • Above all, standardized tests do not measure the immeasurable talents of so many of our children, and an over-reliance on such tests will incorrectly label countless gifted children as failures. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s shameful. 

I can assure you that while the stated goal of these reforms is to increase student achievement, the exact opposite will occur. All students, even the highest achieving, will be negatively impacted by these mandates–and perhaps worst of all, New Jersey’s neediest and most at-risk students will suffer the most.

In closing, I ask you to consider these questions: would you want your own children to be subjected to the reforms being implemented in New Jersey?  Do any parents wish for their children to go to a school that relies too much on standardized testing–and cuts programs and personnel in the name of raising test scores? Do any children look forward to going to school and taking–or preparing for–standardized tests? Do the reforms being implemented in New Jersey foster in our children a love of learning and a love of school? Do these reforms send the message that even children who are not high achievers in math and Language Arts can be exceptionally smart, successful, productive, worthwhile members of society? And could–or should–the worth of the teacher who had the most profound impact on your life be measured by standardized test scores?

If your answer to any of these questions is “no,” please reconsider the mandates that are crippling public education in New Jersey–and focus instead on providing direct, personalized support to the students, educators, and districts that need it the most. Otherwise, we will knowingly and deliberately weaken all of our schools in the name of empty, unproven reforms that look good on paper but are supremely flawed and harmful in practice.

Thank you very much for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Ani McHugh

English Teacher, Delran High School

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