Monthly Archives: May 2014

TPAF Board of Trustees: please file suit against Christie for pension abuses

Mary Ellen Rathbun – Board Secretary
Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund
Division of Pensions and Benefits
50 West State Street
PO Box 295
Trenton, NJ 08625-0295

Dear Ms. Rathbun,

In 2009, Chris Christie wrote an “Open Letter to the Teachers of New Jersey” in which he refuted NJEA’s warnings that if elected governor, he would worsen New Jersey’s pension crisis. In this letter, which we now know is full of blatant lies constructed solely to gain the trust and votes of New Jersey’s teachers, Christie said the following:

  • The claim that any harm would come to your pension should I be elected Governor is absolutely untrue. It is a 100% lie. Your pension will be protected when I am elected Governor.
  • Just so I am clear, what [the unions] are saying about my intentions to hurt pensions or lay off teachers is absolutely, 100% untrue.
  • I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor.

In 2011, however, Christie made sweeping changes to pension laws that forced public workers all over the state to increase their pension contributions and pay more toward their health benefits. As a result, many public workers have seen steady decreases in their take-home pay—but they were promised that in return for their increased contributions, the state would do its part to ensure the fidelity and long-term health of the pension fund. According to P.L. 2011 Chapter 78:

“State and all other applicable employers shall make their annual normal contribution to each system or fund…. The State and all other applicable employers shall also make their annual unfunded accrued liability contribution to each system or fund…. The annual normal contribution plus the annual unfunded accrued liability contribution shall together be the annual required contribution.”

But instead of holding up his end of the bargain—the very bargain that he himself created and touted as a bipartisan effort to fix the state’s pension crisis—Christie has announced that he will disregard Chapter 78 and greatly reduce the State’s scheduled payments to the fund in an effort to address the State’s $2.7 billion budgetary shortfall. Christie has repeatedly blamed public worker pensions for New Jersey’s financial woes, yet in clear violation of New Jersey’s pay-to-play laws, he has been shipping those same pension funds to the financial firms whose campaign contributions helped him get elected.  This, of course, is an example of political corruption at its worst–and an added insult to the hard-working public-sector employees who have no choice but to make the pension payments that are required by law.

Because of Governor Christie’s reckless and self-serving economic policies, New Jersey now has the lowest credit rating of any state in the nation, unemployment numbers that remain above the national average, and an increasing number of families facing foreclosures. Taking money away from public workers who have made every pension payment required of them will exacerbate these problems, further cripple New Jersey’s middle class, and worsen to the state’s economic woes. (Ironically, Christie complained that the agencies who lowered New Jersey’s credit rating “downgrade people who continue to act responsibly”–yet Christie is unapologetic that his illegal actions punish the only people who consistently–“responsibly”–contribute to TPAF: teachers.)

Perhaps most despicable is that the governor has garnered support for his illegal acts by attacking the integrity, work ethic, dedication, and motives of public workers in the state. It should be clear to anyone who’s paying attention that Chris Christie’s broken promises have little to do with the state of the pension fund itself—and more to do with advancing a political agenda that favors the 1%.  (His repeated refusal to institute a millionaires tax is evidence of as much.) Christie is intent on dismantling the middle class and disparaging public sector workers, who instead should be respected for their overwhelming contributions to the State of New Jersey.

Just as Christie was ordered by the New Jersey Supreme Court to restore funding the urban school districts from which he withheld over a billion dollars, he must be ordered to make the pension payments that are required by law. As you know, the TPAF Board of Trustees is authorized to take legal action to ensure that teachers’ “contractual rights” are upheld—so to that end, please file suit to protect teachers’ rights and to address Chris Christie’s clear violation of the law. Otherwise, the governor’s irresponsibility and political agenda will continue to starve the fund to which New Jersey’s public school teachers have dutifully contributed their entire careers.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.


Ani McHugh

English Teacher, Delran High School (Burlington County)

Member, New Jersey Education Association



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Dear Eva Moskowitz: NO, I would NEVER work at Success Academy.

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 3.51.45 PM


Dear Eva Moskowitz,

Hey. I got your email yesterday.

And so too, apparently, did hundreds–maybe thousands– of teachers from all over the State of New Jersey. I’m still trying to figure out how you got access to our public school email accounts and what kind of regulations, laws, or codes of ethics you’ve violated by sending solicitations to our professional inboxes (how much did it cost for you to pull this off, by the way?), but that’s a completely separate issue.

I find it really odd that you’re recruiting in what appears to be at least a 100-mile radius of NYC, since I live and work about an hour and a quarter away from Manhattan; and although the Indoctrination SessionCandidate Reception” you’re hosting on May 27th sounds intriguing (well, mostly just the part about the drinks and hors d’ouevres), I regret to inform you that there’s no way in hell I’d ever take a job with Success Academy. Ever.

I thought it was pretty despicable that you sent a similar version of the email you sent me to Newark teachers—again at their work email addresses—around the time when Cami Anderson announced mass layoffs of public school teachers and mass closures of district schools, so I wrote this.

So imagine my shock when a new message from Success Academy popped up in my inbox! Given that you thought I’d be interested in leaving a job I love and pursuing employment within your chain of charters, I’m assuming you didn’t read my last post—so I’ll recap my main points, which in this capacity will also serve as reasons I will not be attending your Indoctrination Session “Candidate Reception,” here:

I also just read you “might run for mayor some day“–mostly so you can expand your empire. Good Lord.  I’m sorry for all the kids who will be left behind if you somehow get control of NYC.  

Anyway, please accept this post as my RSVP to your invitation–and PLEASE stop preying upon the public school teachers in New Jersey who are working hard to fight the destructive policies you promote.

Oh, and finally: do not ever email me at my place of work again. Ever.




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Cami Anderson-protesting Newark students “coached by adults”

Last night, nine members of the Newark Students Union participated in a sit-in at the NPS Board of Education meeting to protest Cami Anderson’s One Newark plan. Outside, dozens of others protested Anderson’s reforms in the street. (Here’s more coverage from Bob Braun and Rosie Efthim.)

The students inside 2 Cedar Street presented a list of demands to Cami Anderson, insisting that she resign immediately, that local control of the education system be restored in Newark, that public schools be fully and fairly funded, and that all schools currently open remain open.


From the Newark Students Union Facebook page: President Kristin Towkaniuk gives NSU list of demands to Cami Anderson.

And as she typically does when Newark residents challenge her in public, Anderson cut the meeting short and left the building.

Today, Anderson released a statement accusing the students of being “coached by adults to stage a sit-in” and labeled the protest as a “politically orchestrated event.”

From NSU Facebook page

Anderson’s letter is posted on the NSU Facebook page

UPDATE: Read the Newark Students Union’s response to Anderson’s statement here.

What’s clear from Anderson’s statement is that she, an outsider hired by Chris Christie and Chris Cerf to “reform” Newark’s schools, finds the children who are directly affected by her damaging reforms to be incapable of a) recognizing the injustice that’s being done to them, b) organizing themselves in opposition to that injustice, and c) being intelligent, knowledgeable, and motivated enough to articulate their dissatisfaction without “coaching” from politically-motivated adults.

How insulting.

But not surprising.  Anderson’s beliefs are consistent with the implications inherent in state-takeover situations: that the people who live in struggling urban areas cannot be trusted to make decisions for themselves or act in their own best interest.

Remember that under the One Newark plan—most recently, because of the just-released results of the “school choice” enrollment plan—many students are being forced to go to schools they did not “choose”—and, many times, to go to schools that are far away from their homes. Still others still don’t know where they’ll be attending school for the 2014-2015 academic year.  As Bob Braun observes, fewer than 60% of students who participated in the enrollment plan were matched with schools they requested; everyone else is pretty much out of luck. And if families choose to appeal their placements, they’ll forfeit the spot Anderson’s crew reserved for them and they’ll have to re-enter the application process with no guarantee of a different or better placement. By virtually all accounts, Anderson’s attempts to push “school choice” have proven disastrous.

In essence, families are at the mercy of a woman who has made it her mission to destroy the community she’s being paid nearly $300,000 to serve. What’s ironic is that Cami Anderson is unapologetic about using children as pawns to advance her own political agenda—yet she claims that those same children, when they become upset enough to spend the night in a Board room to stand up for themselves and their peers, are actually the victims of politics. (Just not her politics! Someone else’s politics!)

To summarize Cami Anderson’s reformy philosophy: Newark parents and children are so incapable of understanding what is and isn’t in their own best interest that any concerns they voice simply must have been fed to them by a politically-motivated opponent of Anderson’s reform plan. Thus, dissent is meaningless and inauthentic–and it should be ignored.

Congratulations to the Newark Students Union for standing up to Cami Anderson.  People all over the country are giving you the credit you deserve–even if she’s trying to undermine your efforts.

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PARCC anxiety? Hope, thy name is Test Prep!

Exciting news: PARCC has made a series of practice tests available online for people who are wondering whether they’re College and Career Ready!

In case you’re late to the game, PARCC tests are “high quality, computer-based K–12 assessments in Mathematics and English Language Arts/Literacy [that] give teachers, schools, students, and parents better information whether students are on track in their learning and for success after high school, and tools to help teachers customize learning to meet student needs.”

YES! Thank goodness. We need “better information”–and since “better” is a comparative term without a reference here, we’ll just assume that PARCC people are comparing the information about student progress that already exists (other/inferior standardized tests, teacher-created assessments, teacher observations, parent input) to the new, revolutionary assessments they’ve created that are sure to reinforce what Arne Duncan already knows: that American education sucks.  After all, we can’t really get everyone to participate in the “failing schools” hysteria unless we call attention to just how bad our teachers really are and just how stupid our kids are.  (Teachers and kids aside, even legislators and school board members are dumb. So obviously, the logical way to make everyone smarter is to make PARCC tests that are even harder than the standardized tests they’re replacing–so more people, literacy experts with PhDs in English included, become confused and perform poorly.)

But kids: if you’re in 3rd grade and you’re worried that you’re not quite Harvard-ready yet, don’t panic.  Instead, take this practice test–and when you do poorly because you aren’t an an expert in keyboarding, the test is poorly constructed, the questions are confusing you’re stupid, use the opportunity of your miserable scores to get your parents to pay for a tutor who will test-prep you to College and Career Readiness! (Calm down. You have plenty of time. And if your parents are hesitant to sign you up for PARCC prep, ask them to buy you the American Girl doll with the Pearson textbook in her backpack–just to reinforce the idea to them that Pearson really does know best.)

If you’re in 11th grade, though, Colleges and Careers are just around the corner–so if you can’t pass these PARCC practice tests, you’re pretty much screwed for the rest of your life.  Here are some pointers to help you as you click your way to a measurement of your worth as a human being:

  • Remember everything your teachers taught you about the virtues annotating and interacting with a text?  Good.  Now forget it all, because you won’t be able to annotate in the little 4″ x 5″ boxes that house the passages you’ll need to read. (PARCC says students will be able to highlight on the real test, but the practice tests don’t offer that “accessibility feature.”) Anyway, deal with it, because real books and paper tests and pens and pencils are obsolete. Do you think anyone in Shanghai reads from an actual book? Please.
  • Most questions have a Part A and a Part B, so when they say “there are 20 questions in this section,” they really mean “there are 40 questions in this section.” Also, most of the time your Part B will be wrong if your Part A is wrong.  (Sometimes, questions have up to 7 options, from which you need to choose two or three answers. But don’t give up!  You can get partial credit.  Sometimes.)
  • Anyone who’s watched the SNL Gap Girls knows that “Carpet Tunnel Syndrome” is a very painful ailment that you “catch from a computer”… so be careful, because you’ll be doing a lot of scrolling, clicking, and typing on the PARCC test. A LOT.  You’ll need to scroll within the passage you’re required to read–something that can only be accomplished if you click within the text box and manipulate the cursor accordingly–and you’ll also need to scroll through the test questions while the text remains stationary.  Sometimes you won’t be able to see the passage and the questions that ask you to reference the passage at the same time.  Also, you’ll be required to drag and drop statements from the top of a screen to the bottom, and many times you won’t be able to see the work you’ve compiled–or the options that remain–on the same screen.  Again, deal with it. Welcome to the 21st Century.

Grade 11 ELA Drag:Drop

  • You’ll have to watch a video as part of the PARCC test. (#Winning!)  Your school will need to purchase earbuds for everyone to use on the real test (districts can just add them to the tab they’ll run up trying to pay for all these unfunded mandates), but for the practice test, it’s BYOHeadphones. I personally recommend Beats by Dre, because they come in cool colors that might distract other test-takers into scoring even worse than you’ll score, and because “Sometimes You Just Need More Power” when you’re watching a video about the Declaration of Independence. Bonus: you can also help make even more money for some tech companies, like Apple, while you’re at it.
  • For your final practice test essay, you’ll have to use three sources, none of which you’ll be able to see at the same time (and none of which you can annotate–yet), and you’ll have to answer this question:

Both John and Abigail Adams believed strongly in freedom and independence.  However, their letters suggest that each of them understood these terms differently based on their experiences.

Write an essay that explains their contrasting views on the concepts of freedom and independence.  In your essay, make a claim about the idea of freedom and independence and how John and Abigail Adams add to that understanding and/or illustrate a misunderstanding of freedom and independence.  Support your response with textual evidence and inferences drawn from all three sources.

Adams essay


I know, I know–you might have some questions about this prompt…like why is “make a claim” so unclear?  Should “freedom and independence” be considered as separate “terms” (as they’re referred to in the second sentence of the prompt), or one entity–since the “idea” of freedom and independence is singular in the fourth sentence of the prompt?  Is the “understanding” or “misunderstanding” of freedom and independence one that John and Abigail share, as the fourth sentences of the prompt suggests–or, since the second sentence of the prompt says the two have different understandings of the terms (which, again, may be considered collectively or independently), might the Adamses need to be looked at individually because they “understood these terms differently based on their experiences”? Would John and Abigail both “add to” an understanding of the test-taker’s “claim” if they have “contrasting views on the concepts of freedom and independence”?  How many times should a test-taker have to reread a prompt in order to understand what it’s asking?  And how are test-takers supposed to use evidence from all three sources if their time is consumed by clicking back and forth between tabs that look the same and scrolling through numbered paragraphs that also looks the same since test-takers can’t annotate freely?

The answer to your concerns is, of course, “shut up”–because if you don’t understand the essay prompt, or anything else on the test, you’re clearly stupid like the rest of your American peers.  And you should enroll yourself in a charter or private school asap, because traditional public schools, your teachers, and all the “white suburban moms” who misled you into believing you were a genius have clearly failed you.

But again–don’t get discouraged.  Really.  Remember that people who answered a Craigslist posting to score essays for $12/hour and Kelly Temps are among the writing experts who will be scoring your written responses–so you can rest assured that your work will be assessed accurately and fairly.  And besides, Pearson barely ever makes test-construction or scoring errors!

And NO–PARCC tests should not be renamed Q-TIP (Questions that Trick & Intimidate People), WTF (We Test Fools), or ASS (American Students are Stupid).  Don’t be fresh.

Go forth and take tests, American children!  Colleges and Careers await you!


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Predictable reform tactics in Camden, Part 2: layoffs and scripted lessons


Camden students protest teacher layoffs (Photo: JOHN ZIOMEK/Courier-Post COURIER-POST )

As is happening in urban areas across the country, the Camden school district is undergoing a reformy makeover that involves a loss of local control, teacher layoffs, charter expansion, and resulting community outcry.

A little over a month ago, I wrote about Camden state-appointed superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard’s plans to lay off teachers and convert district schools to charters.

This week, another piece of that plan fell into place.

At the Monday, May 12th school board meeting, which Superintendent Rouhanifard abandoned prematurely because of growing opposition from the parents and teachers in attendance, employees who had received Rice notices the week before learned the fate of their positions by reading the board minutes that were distributed when the meeting was cut short. Those employees, some of whom have more than a decade of service to Camden’s children, received RIF letters the following day.

In total, 241 layoff notices were issued—206 to teachers.


Student Protests

In response to the layoffs, more than 300 high-school students, accompanied by many parents and community members, staged a walk-out yesterday in protest of the superintendent’s decisions:

When cellphones flashed “noon” in Ziaira Williams’ history class, students shifted in their seats, exchanged glances, and then filed out into a hallway of purple and gold, launching a two-hour protest of Camden City School District layoffs.

Williams’ history teacher received a layoff notice Monday and said goodbye to his exiting pupils with silent pats on the back and nods of appreciation, Williams said.

“They’re glad we’re doing this. They said, ‘Go ahead,’ and honestly, I don’t care if I get in trouble – I want my teachers back,” the 17-year-old junior said.

Hundreds more would join the two-mile march from Camden High to the Board of Education building downtown Wednesday afternoon, including students from Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy, Brimm Medical Arts High School, and Woodrow Wilson High School, many carrying signs and chanting, “Save our teachers!”

The walkout came in response to the district’s announcement Monday that it would lay off 272 people, 206 of them teachers, to bridge a $75 million revenue gap. Samir Nichols, a senior at Creative Arts and the school’s valedictorian, said he organized the rally.

The protest grew so large that police blocked off Haddon Avenue and Cooper Street. It apparently prompted NJ Transit to suspend for about an hour service on the RiverLine between the Walter Rand Transportation Center and the waterfront.

When the students and parents arrived the central administration office, Rouhanifard emerged to address them:

 “First of all, I want to say I appreciate you all coming out here today — this is a great way to have a dialogue about these issues,” he said, speaking to the students from the front steps of the central administration building. “I want to answer some of the questions you have — we are not closing any schools. We have been saying that for the last three months.

“As for the layoffs, we have a budget problem and we are managing it as best we can. It is a hard time for everyone. I’m going to be coming in to the schools over the next two weeks to speak with you and the staff.” The latest round of layoffs is just the most recent example of ways in which outsiders are seeking to gain control of—and micromanage teachers in—Camden’s schools.

No, not exactly closing district schools: just starving them, phasing them out, getting rid of teachers, and importing charter operators.

UPDATE: Rouhanifard sent an email to district officials today announcing that staff members who were present for the students’ protest “will be disciplined.” See here for the story.



Many reformers decry traditional teacher-training programs, instead insisting that one does not need to be trained as a teacher to be effective in the classroom. Teach for America corps members, for example, receive only 5 weeks of training the summer before they’re tasked with educating children, and they typically only stay in the classroom long enough to fulfill the conditions of their agreement with the organization and then move on to permanent careers in other fields (or to running urban districts despite having very little teaching experience; Newark’s Cami Anderson and Camden’s Paymon Rouhanifard are perfect examples).

One way to promote this agenda is to take freedom away from teachers, a practice that’s already happening in Camden’s schools. Professional educators with decades of experience are being provided with canned, scripted curricular units that even go so far as to tell teachers what to say and what to write on the board in virtually every lesson; these units must be followed to the day, without diversions to accommodate for struggling students, etc.  Here’s just one example from the Grade 1 Reading Unit, which was sent to me by a Camden teacher. (Notice the document is scripted by date. Though it does acknowledge some procedures may need to be “adjusted,” many Camden teachers say they have virtually no flexibility when it comes to deviating from this very specific plan–and that in theory, every 1st grade teacher in the district should be doing the exact same lessons every day.  This is a reading unit only; educators are required to teach from scripts like this for every subject, every single day.):

 Independent Practice:

(You do)

“I am going to show you another page, and I want you and your carpet partner to say many things about what you notice in the picture.” Show the class another picture.



“Write this heading on the board and ask students to go back through the text and stick post it’s on NEW things they discovered. Then have each student share the three things he or she learned.Choose three things to write on the board (for example, polar bears live in the Artic, polar bears mostly eat seals, and polar bears give birth to one to three cubs).

“The second step is to write ‘two interesting things.’ Use the same approach as in the first step. (For the polar bear article, you might write, 25,000 to 40,000 polar bears live in the Artic and polar bears can sneak up on their prey.)

“Last, have students think of one question they still have about the topic. Have students share some of their questions. Write ‘1 question we still have’ on the board along with one sample question (for example, How long do polar bears live?).”

And as for assessments? Those are provided too—directly from the Department of Education website. Teachers are provided login information, and they must print and administer assessments every five weeks—and score those assessments the way the DOE directs them to.

No personalized learning and no departing from the script. Compliance, compliance, compliance.

In other words, the standardization of teaching and learning.  

Exactly what urban children who live in poverty need–and exactly the way to promote excellence in teaching!



Because veteran teachers are more expensive than novices—and veteran teachers speak out when they see injustice. There’s no room for dissent, which isn’t conducive to school closings and charter expansion, in state-controlled districts!

So, many teachers, stripped of professional judgment, creative license, and the freedom to do what their experience tells them is best for children, will leave once they realize that what they’re required to do goes against what they know is good teaching. (One less expensive teacher to pay for! #winning!) Those who don’t leave (teachers who are passionate about their jobs and who comply solely for the sake of Camden’s children: you know, the ones Camden should hold on to at all costs) can be targeted–and disciplined–for failure to follow the scripts, even when their teaching is far more meaningful than what’s listed in the document they’re required to follow. In essence, teachers must follow these scripted lessons even when experience tells them those lessons don’t work; otherwise, they must make changes in secret in order to do what is best for their students while avoiding punitive measures.

And new teachers who don’t know any better (or TFAers who don’t care because they don’t plan on teaching for more than a couple of years) will follow a script if doing so is the only way for them to keep their jobs.



Don’t despair: even though the district is cutting hundreds of experienced teachers, there are still plenty ”teaching,” “school leadership,” and “other” Camden positions being advertised on the Teach for America Greater Philly page. Evidently, the Mastery Charter Schools chain is hiring administrators and elementary, special education, and secondary science teachers. (See? The “if people just agree to work for a charter, we can save jobs!” approach.)

The district is also still looking for an “Analyst, Talent Management” (manage that “human capital!”), a bunch of “Special Assistants” (“Performance and Data; Talent Management; Finance and Operations; School Support; Innovation; General Counsel”) and a “Manager, Communications.”

It’s odd that the district has money for these positions, yet it’s letting go of its most dedicated educators.

But really, it’s all about the money–even at the expense of some of New Jersey’s neediest children.

That’s education “reform.”


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Congratulations to Ras Baraka and the people of Newark!

Last night, Ras Baraka won the Newark mayoral election by a comfortable margin–yet the election was closer than it would have been had it taken place a month ago.


Outside money.  Lots of it.  And nobody should be surprised.

In a last-minute push, wealthy advocates of education reform–who arguably have no interest regarding what goes on in Newark other than whether or not charter schools proliferate and privatization reigns–shoved over $3 million at the Jeffries campaign in attempts to derail Ras Baraka’s lead.

But $3 million wasn’t enough to keep Newark’s citizens from doing what they knew to be best for their city.  And that’s a beautiful thing.  

The people of Newark are no strangers to disenfranchisement.  Their school district has been under state control for nearly two decades, and most recently, Cami Anderson–a former Teach for America executive with barely any teaching experience–came in and started closing schools without any community input. Among other offenses, she suggested that Newark’s children are criminals, allowed her blatant charter favoritism to endanger students’  and teachers’ lives by letting charter kids stay home during a snowstorm but making district kids go to school, asked for a “waiver of equivalency” to expedite the firing of experienced teachers, and decided that there would be no self-contained classes in charter schools–only district schools.

And when Newark’s citizens got mad (or “shrill and unreasonable,” according to the Star-Ledger), Anderson decided she wouldn’t attend any more school board meetings, even though it’s her legal obligation, as state-appointed superintendent, to do so.  In other words, everyone who has a problem with her decisions should just shut up and not bother voicing concerns–because they have no input anyway. (In recent weeks, Anderson has been flitting around the country on Newark’s dime to promote her agenda, and she’s also suggested that her brothers would come to Newark and show her critics “what’s up.”  Nice.)

Ras Baraka, an educator, is a consistently-outspoken critic of Anderson–but charter school founder Shavar Jeffries, who tried to distance himself from her (after that cozy breakfast at IHOP), supports the very policies she pushes: school closings, teacher firings, and privatization.  So ultimately, Jeffries’ message became this: Cami is right, but she should be less obnoxious so she doesn’t make people mad–because mad and informed people are roadblocks to education reform. And Newarkers saw through it.

It is convenient for wealthy education reform advocates, most of whom claim school closings are best for the people they know nothing of, to write checks from their comfortable homes in faraway cities and use fake and manipulated “data” to make decisions about urban families’ lives. After all, rich outsiders don’t have to listen to public outcry and opposition.  But in attempting to impose their agendas on urban families, the message they send is clear: we know what’s better for you than you do.  (So again, shut up, Newark citizens.)

But Newark citizens won’t shut up-and thank goodness. They do have a voice, and they used it, loudly, yesterday. They overcame a force that has been silencing them for entirely too long, and we should all celebrate the resulting victory.

Local control is supremely important, and Baraka’s win is a victory for public education all over the country. It is a victory for children.  It is a victory for the teachers who have chosen to spend their careers educating the neediest students.  And it is a denunciation of the failed and discriminatory policies of education reformers like Chris Christie, Cory Booker, Cami Anderson, and Chris Cerf. Baraka’s win proves that an informed population can overcome big money to make meaningful decisions for themselves–even when the rich and powerful try desperately to keep them from doing so.

Congratulations to Mayor-elect Ras Baraka, everyone who worked so hard on his behalf, and the citizens who used their voices to support him and their own best interests.


Video: Students at Central celebrate Ras Baraka’s victory

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Letter to NJ Legislators from the Delran Education Association

Dear Senator Allen and Assemblymen Conaway and Singleton:

The results of the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests are in, and once again, they show what most of us have known for decades: that New Jersey’s students are among the top in the nation.

The NAEP scores also show something else we’ve known for decades: that students’ standardized test scores largely correlate with their socioeconomic status. New Jersey and Connecticut, another top-performing state, are among the wealthiest in the nation, and we can interpret as much from their results.

But within even the wealthiest states in the nation, and certainly here in New Jersey, there exist concentrated areas of poverty where students produce test scores that are lower than those of their wealthier counterparts. Governor Christie labeled schools in these urban areas as “failure factories,” primarily because he believes that students’ “success” or “failure” is determined solely by scores on standardized tests.

We, as educators, know differently: the children in the State of New Jersey are not failures, and they should not be treated as such.

Good teachers know that if one student in a class struggles while the rest of the group excels, the solution is not to completely change of the course of instruction to affect the entire group: the solution is to provide additional support and encouragement to the struggling student while maintaining high expectations for all children in the room.

The very same concept should apply to districts in New Jersey, especially given that our State has a long track record of academic excellence. Common sense tells us that students who come to school hungry, sick, abused, or neglected generally produce lower test scores than students whose living conditions are more stable, and common sense also tells us that the best way to improve academic achievement for students living in poverty is to improve the societal conditions that make it extraordinarily difficult for them to succeed. The common-sense solution: we should focus our resources on supporting struggling districts while allowing successful ones to continue making educational decisions that are best for their students.

But instead of implementing common-sense solutions, policymakers in New Jersey have implemented sweeping, punitive reforms that force all districts—even the most successful ones—to place too much emphasis on standardized test scores. These changes have not been proven to improve educational conditions for anyone, yet districts are being forced to fund and implement them regardless of whether or not they believe them to be good for children.

In response to these mandates, a growing number of parents are expressing discontent about the increasing number of standardized tests their children will take—and the high-stakes consequences associated with those tests. Similarly, educators across the state have great and numerous concerns about ACHIEVE NJ, the evaluation system that uses students’ standardized test scores to determine teacher effectiveness. Here’s why:

  • Profiteering corporations—not classroom teachers and other professionals directly involved with educating our children—are guiding curricular decisions in schools. Pearson, the testing company that was just awarded the contract for the PARCC exams—which 3rd-11th grade students in New Jersey will take next year—has a decades-long history of scoring and test-construction errors that have affected tens of thousands of students and cost the corporation tens of millions of dollars in fines. Yet between the tests they create and the textbooks and test-prep materials they sell to districts in order to prepare students for the tests, Pearson will make hundreds of millions of dollars from our children. Should we trust a company whose primary interest is profit to understand the needs of our children or dictate what they learn in school?
  • Standardized tests themselves are inherently flawed; they’re extremely limited in the skills they purport to assess (typically, language arts and math), and since teachers and parents are not permitted to see secure testing items, there’s often no way to understand how and why students earned the scores they did—or even whether or not test questions are appropriate or fair. Many times, standardized test scores are not returned until the summer, when students have moved on to new teachers and new courses, and the scores offer no insight into a student’s perceived strengths or weaknesses. Instead, students and their teachers are reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet, and the “data” that results will dictate whether children, teachers, and schools are successes or failures.
  • Many districts have estimated that they’ll spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to implement the Department of Education’s reforms, and taxpayers will bear the brunt of the burden for these unfunded mandates. Districts must be equipped with adequate technology to administer the PARCC exam, and many districts have cited the cost of technology upgrades as justification for laying off teachers and other professionals.
  • Many students and teachers who field-tested the PARCC exams this year cited numerous problems with the tests; some reported that the website crashed repeatedly, many observed that the tests were disorienting or difficult to navigate, and still others found the questions and passages to be unreasonably difficult. For many, the process of field-testing, which in many districts only involved a sampling of students, shed light on how logistically difficult the PARCC will be to administer to entire student populations—and how much instructional time will be lost for these tests.
  • Not only are standardized tests themselves flawed, the process by which the New Jersey Department of Education will use scores on those tests to evaluate teachers is equally flawed for many reasons. Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, Joseph Oluwole, a professor at Montclair State University, and Mark Weber, a public school teacher and doctoral candidate at Rutgers University, have written extensively about Student Growth Percentiles; ultimately, their research raises serious concerns about the validity of SGP calculations as measures of teacher effectiveness. Tying students’ test scores to teacher evaluations ultimately forces a narrowing of the curriculum, hinders collaboration among teachers and pits them against each other, and is not an effective method of identifying successful or struggling educators. Teachers want to be evaluated, but meaningful evaluation can only be done by professional educators who actually observe what happens in a class and engage in dialogue about what’s working and what’s not.

In short, high-stakes tests do not improve education; instead, when relied upon too heavily, they have the exact opposite effect.

As educators, we know that all of our students possess gifts and talents, many of which cannot be measured by multiple-choice tests in language arts and math. We know that all children deserve rich, diverse programs of studies that are not compromised in the name of test prep. We know that all children deserve educators who are free to do what they know to be best for their students—instead of being forced to spend their time and energy on test prep. We know that when districts are forced to cut the people and programs that make children love school in the name of test prep, we have a responsibility to speak out against such destructive practices. And we know that children who struggle academically need to be supported and encouraged—not repeatedly tested and labeled—in order to flourish.

For these reasons and many more, we cannot support the overuse and misuse of tests whose sole purpose is to label children, teachers, or schools as successes or failures. We cannot support untested and unproven educational policies—especially at the expense of children, teachers, and taxpayers. We cannot support the supplanting of people, quality instructional programs, and public schools by computerized test prep, prepackaged curricula, and charter schools. We cannot support reforms that punish our most at-risk children and widen the opportunity gap that exists before children even set foot in a classroom. We cannot support the standardization of our children and teachers in the public school system that’s tasked with ensuring all students receive a world-class education. And we cannot support education policy that will ultimately drive our best and most beloved educators from the profession.

We ask that you please consider co-sponsoring S-1841/A-2901, which will delay the implementation of PARCC testing and the use of SGPs as measures of teacher effectiveness for the 2014-2015 academic year. We also ask that you consider supporting similar bills, such as A-3081, A-3079, A-3077, S-253/A-990, and S-1581/A-2723, which all seek to slow down implementation of reforms that simply need more time to be evaluated before they are mandated.

And finally, we ask that you continue to listen to the concerns of parents and educators, as they know what is best for our children.


The Delran Education Association

Representing 300 teachers and Education Support Professionals


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Gasp–“The Best School in Newark” is closing!

Welcome to Newark, the land where educational instability is the norm and a charter school founded by an Assistant Superintendent in the district gets shut down because of abysmal performance.

That’s right, folks: visitors to the official Greater Newark Charter School website are greeted with a banner advertising the institution as “The Best School in Newark,” a proclamation that’s followed immediately by an announcement from the director that NJ Commissioner of Education David Hespe will not to renew the school’s charter so Greater Newark will be forced to close its doors at the end of June.

The school, founded by current NPS Assistant Superintendent Peter Turnamian, has been on probation in recent months, yet director Christopher T. Pringle urges families to ignore the fact that the school is slated to close–and instead re-enroll their kids for next year:

In the meantime, it is very important that the school maintains its base of students. As we progress through the appeals process, one of the arguments that could be made is GNCS does not need to remain open, because all of the students have transferred out. To avoid this, all returning students should complete the re-enrollment packets that were sent home two weeks ago. We fully intend to be in operation next year, and it is important for you to maintain your child’s seat by completing this packet. In the event that you have not received the packet, please contact the school and we will be sure to get you one.

That’s right, parents: plan on sending your kid to Greater Newark school, which the Commissioner of Education is about to shut down. Because otherwise, the Commissioner of Education will shut down Greater Newark. 

Hespe maintains the school’s test scores warrant the closure–and I can’t help but wonder whether the Commissioner is using his own data or the “data” that’s posted on Greater Newark’s own website.  (I’m no statistician, so if someone could tell me how the hell people are supposed to interpret this graph without more information, I’d appreciate it. And NO, the inspirational quotes from mystery students and parents at the bottom of the page don’t offer any insight.) 

Anyway, Newark’s state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson has been noticeably silent amid news of Greater Newark’s slated closure–and noticeably absent from the city’s landscape in recent weeks.  (And I wonder how Assistant Superintendent Turnamian feels about his charter-baby being shut down on his watch.) Anderson’s absence, says Bob Braun, suggests she might be on her way out in advance of her Two Newarks One Newark plan’s inevitable demise and the city’s mayoral election. And really, is anyone surprised?

In Anderson’s climate of educational turmoil, school closures are the norm–and Greater Newark’s closure is evidence of a dysfunctional system that leaves children’s lives hanging in limbo. The institution’s claim that it’s the “Best School in Newark” is blatantly and categorically inaccurate, much like the supposed “success” of many other “miracle” charters–and of the “reform” movement in general. The Newark children who are being used as pawns by people who clearly can’t manage a school?  Who cares. The lack of oversight that allows charters to run amok in the city?  Who cares.  The funds that get diverted from starved district schools and funneled to unchecked charters?  Who cares. Reform!

And while Cami Anderson travels around the country and infects other states with her reformy plague, wealthy proponents of education reform continue to pump inordinate amounts of cash into Shavar Jeffries’ campaign–undoubtedly to do everything they can to keep pro-education candidate Ras Baraka out of  the mayor’s office.  Baraka, whose Education Blueprint is a comprehensive plan that will seek to undo the damage Anderson has inflicted and implement meaningful reforms to the city’s troubled school system, has been under attack–both literally and figuratively–by Jeffries supporters for months.  He is undoubtedly the biggest threat to Anderson’s Two Newarks One Newark plan–and his election would be a major victory for public education both in Newark and across the country.

Anyone with an interest in public education should watch the Baraka/Jeffries race in Newark, as it will be a clear indicator of one of two things: that people realize that Anderson’s education “reform” is damaging and does the opposite of what it purports to do–or that big money from outsiders can purchase political seats in urban areas and override the will of the people who live there.



Also slated for closure is Camden’s City Invincible Charter School, a two-year-old school whose scores are lower than those in the Camden School District.  And in a particularly interesting instance of big charter vs. little charter, City Invincible’s principal, John Frangipani, complained that large charter chains like KIPP, Uncommon, and Mastery, which further remove local control/interests and have favor with so-called education “reformers,” are eager to take over his school:

In an interview last night, Frangipani said he knew the odds were long in the city, where larger charter organizations are moving in.

The KIPP, Uncommon Schools and Mastery networks each have at least preliminary approval to open up to five schools in Camden over the coming years under the Urban Hope Act.

Frangipani said Uncommon had even called looking for possible recruits before the school was even told it was closed.

“We’re on the outside looking in, I get that,” he said. “We’re a small operation, and the state wants to bring in the larger ones with the track records. But at least give us a fair shot to prove ourselves.”

The school hasn’t had a chance to prove itself, Frangipani says–as if logic and reason are driving the decisions to close schools in urban areas like Camden and Newark.  No: this is about the bigger picture.  The corporate picture.  The reform picture: the one that supports no-excuses charter chains.

Though Camden and Newark are separated by about 80 miles, their problems are similar: they’re state-controlled, they’re led by inexperienced Teach for America superintendents who are on a quest to close neighborhood schools, and they’re experiencing segregation and instability that’s purposefully inflicted by the proliferation of unproven corporate charters.

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Refusing the NJ ASK

Let’s just get this out of the way: it is your right, as a parent, to refuse high-stakes testing for your child.

In New Jersey, there are some exceptions to this rule (the HSPA, which was administered in March, is a graduation requirement, so students must take it)–but there is no law or regulation which states that any child must take the NJ ASK.

The HSPA and ASK are certainly not new assessments in New Jersey, but given that Bush’s NCLB and Obama’s Race to the Top have essentially perverted the original purpose of standardized testing, parents, students, and educators have had enough with the flawed tests that are being used to label children and teachers and close public schools.

The Opt-Out movement is a nation-wide attempt to restore local control to education (last month, an estimated 30,000 families in New York refused the state’s Language Arts assessment), but the idea of refusing the tests is relatively new to many New Jersey parents, students, administrators, and teachers.  And because there’s no precedent for refusals, many districts are unsure about how to respond to parents who opt their children out.

Here’s what we DO know:

  • There is no “opt-out” provision spelled out in NJ Administrative Code…but that doesn’t mean that parents are unable to opt their children out of testing.
  • The operative word in Administrative Code is “shall”: 6A:8-4.1 dictates that “District boards of education shall, according to a schedule prescribed by the Commissioner, administer the applicable Statewide assessments,” and that “all students at grade levels three through 12, and at any other grade(s) designated by the Commissioner pursuant to (a) above, shall take all appropriate Statewide assessments as scheduled.”  When districts challenge parent refusals, it is often this code they cite.  However, “shall” expresses intention; “must” sets forth a mandate.
  • Under the Fourteenth Amendment, parents have the right to “guide the religious upbringing and education of their children.” How this applies is unclear, but evidently some attorneys have cited this information in presenting parents’ legal rights to refuse tests for their children.

It’s important to note that district administrators and teachers are in precarious positions with regard to test refusals; all educators want what’s best for children, but administrators are also cognizant that the State is monitoring the percentage of students participating in state testing and daily attendance rates.

But ultimately, it comes down to this: nobody can force a child to take a test.  Period.  

And because there isn’t a policy regarding how districts should respond to test refusals, it is up to individual districts to decide how they’ll handle those refusals.

In Montclair, administrators were advised by Timothy Steele-Dadzie, NJASK 6-8 State Coordinator, that they could arrange “alternate plans” for students whose parents formally refused testing. Such accommodations might allow students to do “independent reading” or other school work in a non-testing room. While the DOE insisted that this policy was Montclair’s, and not the State’s, the fact that Montclair’s children are entitled to such accommodations indicates that all districts in the State of New Jersey are allowed to make similar arrangements.

Ultimately, the decision to refuse standardized tests is a personal one that should be made by families–but the most important thing parents who decide to opt their children out of tests can do is know their rights.  If you choose to keep your child from participating in the NJ ASK, for example, here’s what you can do (and expect push-back, especially if your district’s administrators haven’t discussed how to handle such situations):

  1. Write a formal letter to your superintendent, BOE, principal, child’s teacher, and anyone else you feel should know about your wishes; include your reasons for refusing the tests.  (Again, this is a personal decision–but feel free to reference/use/share this if it’s helpful.)
  2. Specify that you’d like your child to be placed in an alternative setting so he/she can read, do schoolwork, etc–and so he/she isn’t a distraction to students who are taking the test.
  3. Do not feel compelled to keep your child home for all testing and make-up days.  Districts have an obligation to provide your child with an education, and administrators cannot insist that your child stay home and accrue unexcused absences in a case like this.  (If necessary and logistically possible, an option is for you to bring your child to school after testing each day.  Generally, students must be present for four hours in order to get credit for the day.)
  4. Many parents are requesting schools use the Void 2 code in the NJ ASK Score Interpretation Manual (page 69 in the 2013 manual): “2 = A student refused to test or engaged in behavior inappropriate for testing”–although there are apparently other coding options/irregularity reports. Once voided, a test cannot be given back to a student for completion.  (This includes on make-up days.)
  5. Insist that you be contacted if the district cannot (or will not) make such arrangements for your child.
  6. Do not let districts tell you your child won’t be able to be placed in specific classes without ASK scores.  Your child’s teachers know best what the most appropriate setting is for him/her and can recommend placement.
  7. Unless your school is a “focus” or “priority” school, your district should not lose funding even if it fails to meet the 95% participation rate, which was an NCLB mandate.  (NJ got an NCLB waiver in 2012.) See this link; it’s from NY, but applies to NJ as well.

There’s much uncertainty regarding refusals and opt-outs, but again, parents have the right to keep their children from participating in these assessments–especially given that they do not improve or inform your child’s educational experience in any way.  The only ones who benefit from standardized testing are testing corporations who profit financially and politicians who use unreliable test scores inappropriately to label children, determine teacher effectiveness, and close urban schools.

Could there be negative consequences for schools and teachers if students refuse the tests?  I suppose so–but fear of ramifications should not keep educators from doing what they know is right for children and for public education. (For instance, if my top-performing students don’t take standardized tests and my SGP is negatively affected, so be it. If I’m fired for the scores my students earn on unreliable, biased, and meaningless standardized tests, then I’m not sure I could otherwise continue, in good conscience, to teach in a climate that forces me teach to a such tests when I know it to be poor educational practice.) In short, the consequences of NOT standing up to destructive policies and mandates will be much more damaging than spotty and temporary resistance to parental voice.

Many thanks to the parents and educators in New Jersey who are leading the way with test refusals–most notably, the administrators and contributors to the Opt Out of State Standardized Tests–New Jersey Facebook page, which has sample opt out letters, discussions, and district-specific information, and the New Jersey page of the United Opt Out national site–which is being rebuilt since the site was recently hacked.

I’ll continue to add links and resources to the text of this post over the next couple of days, but I wanted to publish it as soon as possible for parents who are concerned about the upcoming ASK tests.  Please check back.

Adding: the Common Core-aligned PARCC (a Pear$on test) will replace the ASK and HSPA next year, and it’s an expensive, unfunded mandate that will cost districts tens of thousands of dollars.  In just the last week, Boards of Education in Moorestown, Willingboro, Stafford, and Burlington Township (and more, I’m sure) have announced reductions in force.  Willingboro cut 12 positions, but is spending $200,000 for computers so they’ll have the technology required for PARCC testing.  Stafford is reportedly cutting 40 positions–the cuts will affect teachers in six buildings–and the superintendent issued this statement regarding the budget: “The district must prepare for the new state mandated PARCC assessment and align curriculum to the mandated Common Core State standards.” Are taxpayers and parents okay with this?



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