Yesterday, Chris Christie issued Executive Order #159, a mandate which creates a governor-appointed “study commission” tasked with accomplishing the following:
The Commission is charged with reviewing and providing appropriate recommendations about the effectiveness of the volume, frequency, and impact of student testing occurring throughout New Jersey school districts, including those administered for college admission, college credit, and college pathways. The creation of this Commission will also help ensure the effectiveness of the Core Curriculum Content Standards, including the Common Core State Standards, and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers (PARCC) assessments.
Accompanying the Executive Order is a set of regulations that modifies the terms of TEACH-NJ, the teacher evaluation component of Christie’s reform law that was passed in 2012. Indeed, that teachers’ evaluations will not be based as much on inherently flawed SGP calculations is good news for teachers and their students; see more on this from Marie Corfield. But, as Jersey Jazzman notes, the arbitrary nature of the order itself “lays bare the fundamental problems with AchieveNJ.”
There appears to be a good deal of debate regarding this order, but everyone seems to agree on one thing: that Christie issued it to avoid finding himself in a position to veto the largely popular A3081/S2541, legislation that was much more comprehensive than Executive Order #159 and had almost unprecedented bi-partisan support.
The contents of the order and regulations aside, there are some bigger concerns people should be considering here. First and foremost, what were Christie’s motives for this move? What was it about the original legislation–remember, it had overwhelming bipartisan support–that he found so objectionable that he’d have to veto it? Why was Sweeney so unwilling to allow a vote in the Senate?
I’m quite certain that we can all make some pretty accurate guesses about the answers to these questions, but focusing on this particular order and the circumstances around it is a distraction from the larger issue here: the extent to which education policy has been corrupted by toxic federal mandates.
THIS is what we should be focusing on. As many and as valid are our concerns about PARCC testing, for example, PARCC is just one component of a large, destructive plan that seeks to drastically change (read: cripple, destroy, privatize, etc.) the institution of public education in the United States.
A quick review: in 2001, President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act–a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act–which required states to develop, administer, and report the results of standards-based assessments. While many people celebrated NCLB as a way to improve educational outcomes for students and schools, many criticized the law because, among other things, of its focus on flawed standardized tests.
In 2009, President Obama and US Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced Race to the Top (which many people, including Diane Ravitch, have described as NCLB “on steroids“), a competition that awards federal funds to states that adopt various reforms–one of which is the Common Core State Standards. It is Race to the Top that essentially forces states to buy into the testing craze that most educators knew all along was bad news.
A brief aside here: though many people don’t know the intricacies of CCSS, most do understand that the initiative is the subject of much debate from people on both ends of the political spectrum–and that Common Core-aligned tests are used punitively and to promote the current administration’s education reform agenda. Last weekend, at a meeting of the National Governors Association, Chris Christie dismissed opposition to CCSS as a manifestation of people’s fears about the power of the federal government:
He said that voters, “given the lack of confidence they have in government in Washington and that type of centralization, want their governors” to figure out solutions that work for their states. [Emphasis mine.]
That’s weird, because the National Governors Association, of which Christie is a member (and was when the standards were adopted), was largely responsible for the Common Core:
The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state-led effort coordinated by the NGA Center and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Governors and state commissioners of education from 48 states, 2 territories, and the District of Columbia developed a common core of state standards in English language arts and mathematics for grades k-12.
It’s curious that Christie, and other governors who are now getting heat about the standards (and even governors like Bobby Jindal, an original CCSS supporter who now wants LA to break ties with the CCSS), didn’t consider the implications of the initiative he pushed when he signed on to it in 2009. As Save Our Schools NJ notes, various versions of Christie’s (incomplete and late) move to study the effects of testing are being considered or implemented throughout the country–and as many people have observed, the process of studying reforms after they’ve been implemented and have done irreparable damage is glaringly backwards.
But I digress. Back to the issue in NJ. Many people (parents, students, educators) in the state are frustrated and angry that students will still have to take PARCC exams in the 2014-2015 school year–but it’s important to understand that a delay of PARCC implementation was never part of A3081/S2154. Even if it were, though, students would still have to take whatever tests would replace the PARCC–be they Smarter Balanced assessments or revised NJASK/HSPA tests that would have had to be rewritten to align with the Common Core.
In short, the PARCC is just one form of Common Core testing–the one New Jersey chose to use–and as long as New Jersey is a Common Core state that’s receiving federal funds under Race to the Top, our students will have to be tested in accordance with the federal mandates that accompany these initiatives. If we weren’t subjecting students to PARCC testing, we’d be subjecting them to something very similar–and no doubt equally flawed, equally expensive, and probably equally invasive of their rights to privacy.
So, the bigger picture:
That students and teachers across the country are at the mercy of untested, unproven reforms is the problem here.
That those reforms are being used to push a privatization agenda that further segregates our population and punishes students and schools in our already-struggling urban areas is the problem here. (This is certainly no secret in New Jersey; Christie even acknowledged his pro-charter, pro-school choice agenda within the text of his executive order. What he failed to acknowledge is the crippling damage it’s done to children in cities like Newark and Camden. Also, read this just-published piece from The Atlantic entitled “Why Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing.”)
And until there is enough resistance to corporate-driven education reform and the toxic, punitive testing culture Obama’s Race to the Top has created, comparatively small pieces of legislation or executive orders themselves–independently and in isolation–will do very little to cause significant changes to our broken system. (This certainly doesn’t mean that such legislation isn’t worthwhile; the opposite is true. We must continue to put pressure on lawmakers, we must hold them accountable for their actions, and we must force them to act in the best interest of our children, their teachers, and their schools. My point here is that Executive Order #159–and the legislation from which it’s derived–is just one piece of a much larger puzzle.)
So what are parents, educators, and taxpayers in New Jersey to do? Lots of things.
First, understand that there are many more important bills pending in the legislature. Here are two (and there are more which I don’t have on hand); call your legislators and ask them to support these bills:
- A3079 prohibits the administration of standardized testing in kindergarten through second grade.
- A3077 “Requires school districts and charter schools to annually provide to parents or guardians of enrolled students information on certain tests to be administered during the school year.” (This “information” includes the costs associated with administering standardized tests, the validity of the test results, the ways in which results will be used, etc.)
More immediately, and because the PARCC tests are coming this year whether we like it or don’t: know your rights. Know your children’s rights. Understand the tests themselves (you can and should take a sample of the PARCC test like I did, so you can understand what your children will be asked to do and evaluated on), and understand the steps you are entitled to take if you wish to refuse those tests on behalf of your children. Watch the film Standardized and visit sites like fairtest.org to understand the problems with high-stakes tests. Join groups like Opt Out of State Standardized Tests–New Jersey (on Facebook) to read about others’ experiences and share your own. (Also, here’s a post I wrote a few months ago about refusing the NJASK; most of it should be applicable to PARCC testing, though I will compose another PARCC-specific post soon.)
The bottom line is this, and it’s nothing new: we cannot trust most politicians to act in the best interest of children, of teachers, or of public education on their own. We simply cannot.
Our job, then, has to be to continue to remind politicians–and other policymakers–that we are watching, we are informed, and we will continue to advocate for what’s best for children.