Dear Commissioner Hespe: can we talk?

Dear Commissioner Hespe,

My son is four years old.

He’s not yet old enough to be enrolled in our local public elementary school (which, by the way, my husband and I both attended when we were children), but we’re very fortunate that when he’s older, he’ll be spending each day with teachers we know personally–and trust implicitly.

Right now, he’s enrolled in the primary program at our neighborhood Montessori school. As you probably know, the Montessori philosophy is, in many ways, very different from many of the philosophies our public schools have been forced to adopt—particularly in the past few years. Maria Montessori, an educator who devoted herself to studying the ways in which children develop and learn, believed that education should be shaped around the children’s universal needs and developmental patterns.

What a novel idea.

My son’s day at school centers around activities that are designed to “support the intrinsic love of learning in each child.” He and his classmates prepare their own food, wash their own dishes, take care of the animals on the school’s property, garden, and listen to and learn about classical music. They perform activities that improve their fine and gross motor skills. They learn to set the table for snack time. They read stories and sing songs. They practice empathy and courtesy. And they learn how to add, subtract, read, and write (in cursive only) by working with sensorial materials like beads, decimal cards, counting rods, and sandpaper letters.

But you know what they don’t do? They don’t worry if gardening won’t help them score well on standardized tests. They don’t use curricular materials from testing corporations like Pearson. They don’t work on a computer or an iPad, for neither is present anywhere in the primary Montessori classroom. They don’t practice manipulating a mouse or developing keyboarding skills in anticipation of online high-stakes standardized tests they’ll have to take a few years down the road.

And they certainly don’t worry about what will and will not make them “college or career ready.”

I’m not making these points because I plan to continue my son’s Montessori education once he’s old enough to transition to our local public school, and I’m not making these points because I agree with everything about the Montessori philosophy—because I don’t.

No: I’m making these points because although I am unflinching in my support for public education, and although I have complete confidence in and respect for my son’s future teachers, I know that the high-stakes standardized testing you so confidently support will have a negative effect on my son’s education.

Why? Because the tests you support are ruining authentic teaching and learning. They’re perverting the overall purpose of schooling. They’re creating stress and strife between schools and families—and even, at times, between parents and their own children. They’re sending the dangerous message that the only things that are worth learning are those that can be measured. They’re promoting the idea that one type of intelligence is and should be valued over others. They’re driving the best teachers from the profession.

And, perhaps most unfortunate of all, they’re turning public schools everywhere into clinical, stressful, and punitive environments—even for our youngest children—instead of joyful places that help children learn to love learning.

I know these things because not only am I a parent and an advocate of public schools, I’m also a public school teacher.

In the past 14 years, I’ve taught virtually every level and every grade of high school English, and I’ve seen the ways our schools have been forced to change because of misguided state and federal mandates.

I’ve seen 18-year-olds cry (yes, cry) because they couldn’t pass the HSPA and were worried that they wouldn’t graduate from high school because of it. (These were often the students who could rebuild a car’s engine without being given directions, could remodel a room in a house, could draw or paint better than I could ever hope to, could fix a computer without any guidance, or could play music that people would pay to listen to—yet they truly believed, because of scores on standardized tests, that they were failures. The State Department of Education had labeled them as such.)

I’ve seen special needs students become completely demoralized and frustrated because of the demands of high-stakes standardized tests.

I’ve seen English language learners who have been in our country for fewer than two years be forced to take and pass the same standardized tests with which many American children struggle.

I’ve seen high-achieving students melt down amid the pressure and competition that exists in increasingly high-stakes environments.

I’ve seen teachers from across the country be forced (yes, forced) to abandon activities they’d developed—activities that children loved and benefitted from—to make room for test prep.

I’ve seen administrators be pressured to give what they know to be meaningless directives to their teachers in the name of raising standardized test scores.

I’ve seen school districts be forced to cut programs and personnel so they could afford to implement the Common Core State Standards and accompanying high-stakes tests.

I’ve seen schools whose students live in abject poverty be punished or closed because of low scores on standardized tests—and I’ve seen students from those schools be turned over, without their consent, to schools managed by private and largely unaccountable management organizations.

And I’ve seen the outcry of concerned parents and educators alike go unanswered—sometimes completely unacknowledged—by those who dictate education policy.

How, in the United States of America, have we come to this?

I know you’re aware the New Jersey’s public schools have been rated among the top in the nation for years, so your support for the reforms to which so many parents and educators are fundamentally and vehemently opposed is very concerning.

But most concerning is that your most recent broadcast, which is clearly a response to the growing opt-out/refusal movement that’s sweeping the country, is a veiled threat that will ultimately pit districts against families, perpetuate the myth that excessive testing leads to student achievement, and punish even small children for the decisions their parents make with regard to testing.

And that, in my opinion, is unconscionable.

I am thankful for my role as a parent, and I am thankful for all of the teachers my son will have over the course of his academic career—because those teachers, too, will have an important and special role in shaping the person my son will turn out to be.

I am thankful for my role as a teacher, because over the past 14 years, I’ve learned so much from my students, their families, and my colleagues.

I am thankful for the due-process protections that allow me to write this letter, because the day I’m unable to publicly say what I know is best for children—my own included—is the day I can no longer continue on in the job I love.

I am thankful for the parents and educators all over the country who are standing up for children and for public education in the face of reforms that will ultimately destroy the system as we know it.

And finally—and this makes me sad—I am thankful that my son is not yet old enough to attend the public schools that I wholeheartedly support and believe in: because right now, I can still go to sleep at night knowing that he will not be directed by the New Jersey Department of Education to take flawed high-stakes standardized tests—which I know are harmful to children, to teachers, and to public schools—against my explicit wishes.

I remain hopeful, though, that by the time my son is in school, everyone who has influence in shaping education policy will understand the dangers of test-and-punish policies–and move away from such policies before they do any more damage than they’ve already done.


Ani McHugh


Adding: Here was my initial–and more objective–response to your broadcast.



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4 responses to “Dear Commissioner Hespe: can we talk?

  1. Susan Jolley

    And here’s the scariest part of all: The agenda of the so-called reformers is really the opposite of what they proclaim. They would like nothing more than to weaken the public schools and deaden the experience for both students and teachers so that parents become so dissatisfied that they withdraw their kids in favor of private and charter options. Most reformers are just not as honest as Gov. Cuomo, who actually said recently that his mission in his next term will be to dismantle the public schools–the last public monopoly, as he called them. So the reformers’ objective is clear–to starve the public schools of funds, bust the unions, destroy tenure, turn schools into test-prep factories, and demoralize and denigrate teachers in the media by calling them greedy and lazy (not hard to do to a profession that has been traditionally female and selfless–why would greedy or power-seeking individuals go into teaching when they can work on Wall Street or run for office?). The result will be that education will be a fully for-profit entity.The most appalling aspect of all this is that the propaganda campaign against the public schools has actually been working. Gates, Walton, and Koch brothers money talks. We have to have faith, though, that the voices of parents and teachers can reverse the trend before it’s too late to restore the love of learning to a generation of our children. Thanks for writing this letter. Hope someone brings it to Commissioner Hespe’s attention.

  2. Julie Borst

    Thank you, Ani, for speaking out and doing it so eloquently. As a parent of a high school student who requires special education services, Mr. Hespe’s letter is especially troubling. I have become outspoken on both special ed issues and high-stakes testing. I would be thrilled if any of my daughter’s teachers from the last 12 years stood up and said what you have today. I hope they find the courage. I very much appreciate yours.

  3. Pingback: About today’s NJDOE memo… | teacherbiz

  4. Great letter Ani! Thanks for saying so well what so many of us feel! One questions the motives behind the insistence on testing. One can also wonder if
    any connections exit somewhere along the line? Thank you!

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