Friday, May 29, 2015

What has Common Core Cost Us?

I went into an IEP meeting yesterday, helping out a friend, knowing that Gov. Christie was going to be making some announcement related to education. A couple of hours later, when I got out of that meeting, friends had left messages, texts, and Facebook posts about the announcement. What is true? Should we be popping open bottles of Champagne? Tossing confetti? Holding a parade?

I felt like a wet blanket. The governor's press release had some interesting language, which I'll get to in a minute, but most important is his refusal (pun intended) to get rid of the PARCC exam. Why is that important? Because PARCC was designed (and I use that word loosely) to measure Common Core State Standards. If the governor is getting rid of Common Core, then why on earth would you bother to keep its test? The answer, besides the money, is that we can expect whatever New Jersey's new standards are, they will look a lot like Common Core. Take a look at Indiana, a state that dumped Common Core early in the game and replaced it with what is jokingly referred to "Common Core Lite." If Christie wants new standards written and in place by the end of the year (hard to write that with a straight face - standards take years to develop) then I fully expect NJ Lite Core Standards.

Christie took the usual swipe at the federal government, our need to get away from federal control of our schools, the need for teachers to be involved in the coming changes to New Jersey education (read Jersey Jazzman's thoughts on that), how no New Jersey teachers were involved in the writing of the Common Core State Standards - ignoring that only ONE k-12 teacher sat on a review committee - no special education, no early childhood education specialists at all. The entire statement is disingenuous at best. New Jersey accepted Common Core State Standards before the ink was dry. They couldn't wait to trade our kids' education for a waiver from No Child Left Behind.

He also referred to a commission for creating new standards, which I fully expect to be comprised of the usual suspects. The ones that allegedly represent teachers and parents. The ones who have been the biggest cheerleaders for Common Core and PARCC. Selling it like their life depended on it. The New Jersey School Boards Association, New Jersey Association of School Administrators, New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, New Jersey Parent and Teacher Association, and so on.

What Gov. Christie did NOT mention was the costs. What exactly have the costs been of implementing all new curriculum aligned to Common Core? The textbooks, the workbooks, the licensing for online materials, the teacher professional development, the infrastructure to support online learning and test taking, the purchase of computers, laptops, and tablets. What was the social loss of educational opportunities for our kids -- loss of art, music, recess, field trips, science, social studies?

I want to know what this has cost us! Commissioner Hespe was asked by the Assembly Education Committee what the local district costs have been. He told the Committee he did not have that data, nor were they going to ask for it. So, NJDOE, who does obscene amounts of data collection on our kids, doesn't want to know what this has cost??? Seriously?

The local Board of Education in my tiny corner of Bergen County has deflected questions about costs for years. Blowing off the questions as just the usual cost of adjusting curriculum as they always have. Only, that's not true. The usual costs of maintaining excellent curriculum do not involve a complete overhaul of how teachers teach, and maybe more importantly, don't ignore how students learn.

So, time to get real. We all deserve to understand, in the most transparent way, what this has cost us. The Boards of Education who took Christie's 2% cap deal so they didn't have to bring school budgets to a local vote (like mine did), need to rescind that deal and return local control.

P.S. Well, that didn't take long. The New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association's announcement of involvement on new commission.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Jumping Into the Fray

It's taken me a long time to get to this point. There were a few editorial incidents that almost got me here earlier this year. A very generous friend with a well-established following has allowed me space on her blog over the years. So, here I am because the issues of special education, testing, and the claim that without high-stakes standardized testing, students with disabilities -- along with economically disadvantaged and students of color --couldn't receive a good education, know how they are doing versus their peers, and are having their civil rights violated. Let's also throw in that white suburban moms were ruining their chance at equal educational opportunities just because they didn't want their own precious children stressed.

Yeah, time to call bullshit. I am one of those (mostly) white suburban moms. I am also the mom of teenaged daughter with traumatic brain injury. During our K-10 experience, the annual standardized testing, brought to us by No Child Left Behind, has been a disaster. I've been asking child study teams for years what the purpose of testing a student who is not educationally operating anywhere near grade level is. What exactly does anyone expect to get out of that that her teachers don't already know? The answer, in grades 3 through 7 were all the same. Let me know if any of  these sound familiar. "NJASK provides valuable data." "NJASK is required by law. Everyone has to take it." "NJASK is an excellent test and your daughter should try her best." "Don't worry, NJASK doesn't count for anything." "We will make sure your daughter is in a separate testing room and will be given lots of breaks." And so on. Anyone with a child with an IEP has heard some version of one or all of those. Anyone not living under a rock in NJ this past testing season will recognize the same arguments made for the PARCC exam.

Let me tell you the truth. Are your ready? A report that says "not proficient at grade level" is not helpful in any way, shape, or form -- either for you or for your child's teachers. It does not reflect the hard work done by both your child and their teachers. It does not reflect actual progress made throughout the year. And, just for good measure, if your child is like mine and fully understands her disabilities vs. her friends' abilities, it is the ultimate slap in the face. So, once again, what exactly is the purpose of giving this test to someone like my daughter and the thousands like her?

Thanks to a friend I finally figured out that I could opt my daughter out of NJASK. And that's exactly what I did. No semantic games of "refusing." Just relieved teachers and administrators who had all seen years of demoralized students and were powerless to do anything to help them.

Fast forward a couple of years and parents are catching on in droves. The entire education "reform" movement and the crazy testing that goes with it has finally woken them up. The landscape they have found is "reformers" who are incredibly well funded and have been carefully crafting and controlling the message of US education policy.

When I see a press release from The Leadership Conference, like the one from 5 May 2015, condemning "anti-testing efforts," I have to wonder why. Why do they and the members who signed (some organizations I have belonged to) believe that giving unproven tests to children of color, children who live in poverty, and children with disabilities, will level the proverbial playing field? If the same claims made by NCLB were true, then why didn't it work?

After the steam stopped coming our of my ears, I did what I usually do. I went to The Gates Foundation website and sure enough, The Leadership Conference had received over $1.7 million "to educate, inform, convene and communicate with its national coalition of civil rights advocates about the [Gates] US Program's Education Strategies." I find it hard to believe that money would have been taken if the leadership of The Leadership Conference didn't already buy into the testing crap. In my eyes, it sure explains the tone of the release. You can read the press release here. The signatories are an interesting mix of civil rights and special education groups.

That evening I wrote to Wade Henderson, Esq., President and CEO of The Leadership Conference. I'll post the full text of the letter below. Needless to say, I have not heard a peep from Mr. Henderson.

There have been other posts and letters to The Leadership Conference. I'll bet they did not expect any response at all. Here is the response from Jesse Hagopian and the Board of Directors of Network for Public Education. Here is the response from Julian Vasquez Heilig. And, here is a response, published in The Washington Post, from Wayne Au.

If you've made it this far, thanks for hanging in there. Here is my letter to Wade Henderson:

5 May 2015

Wade Henderson, Esq.

President and CEO

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

1629 K Street NW, 10th Floor
Washington, DC 20006

Dear Mr. Henderson,

I very rarely take the time to respond to press releases by organizations such as yours. However, the release dated today, 5th May, has left me wondering who exactly you’re representing, because it certainly is not me or my disabled daughter.

Please allow me to explain why the current testing, and its abysmal 14-year track record, are not in the best interests of students with disabilities (SWD), for persons of color, or those who are economically disadvantaged.

As a parent and a parent advocate, I am in a position to see, on the ground, how the effects of NCLB, and now the implementation of Bill Gates’ vision of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the accompanying tests, have grossly underserved those LCCHR represents.

It’s easy to understand the draw of the notion that a student’s progress or a teacher’s effectiveness can be quantified. I have a corporate background. I get it. But, this is people we are talking about, and more specifically, people who for whatever reason have challenges that deserve much more than the idea that a test score will help them overcome those challenges.

NCLB did not close achievement gaps. It did not lead to better and innovative curriculum. It did not improve US scores on PISA.

What NCLB did do is create a really clear map of where the deepest pockets of poverty are in this country. It did demonstrate that attaching “high stakes” (someone’s profession, their livelihood) to a number made for a narrowing of curriculum as everyone was forced to teach to a test. Race to the Top is that program on steroids.

For the last 14 years, tax-payer money has been going to support a program that is not focused on raising up students, no matter what their situation. Special education, as I have lived it, in some of the wealthiest areas of this country, has been cut short by the insipid notion that having “higher expectations” and doing well on a test that takes none of my daughter’s disabilities into account, will somehow, magically produce better students, now called “college and career ready.” Anyone with the most basic background or exposure to SWD’s knows this is not true. We also know that all the money spent on testing and on remediation because a single test reported that students are “failing,” has not resulted in desperately needed funding reaching the populations most in need – students with disabilities, students of color, and students who are economically disadvantaged. 

Those scoring low on tests were labeled “failing” and punished with the loss of funds! Those “failing” scores translated into “failing schools” that were then closed and/or sold off to charter school companies. Imagine the very heart of your neighborhood being cut out. The effects are devastating – on the fired teachers, on the displaced school children, on loss of neighborhoods. This method is called “test and punish.”

Now, with the onset of CCSS testing -- here in New Jersey it is PARCC -- we have had to deal not only with the complete overhaul of CCSS-aligned curriculum, but also with whatever districts have had to purchase in order to administer this fully online test – infrastructure, hardware (laptops, tablets, etc.), new technology staff to manage all of this, professional development to administer the test, and so on. Districts, already strapped for money, have still had to find it somewhere. There has been no accountability for the money spent on CCSS or the testing. Do you think special ed programs didn’t suffer because of this? Do you think in areas with poverty that money could not have been spent on more meaningful things such as - textbooks, art supplies, and afterschool programs? What exactly was wrong with the grade span testing pre-NCLB? And why are you not advocating alternative assessments, such as NYC’s Performance Standards Consortium, which allow students like my daughter to show what they can do rather than simply fail a standardized test.

It is disheartening to hear organizations like yours, and the ones that comprise your membership, speak out against the one action that has actually gotten attention after years of parents being ignored. It is astonishing that your civil rights group doesn’t recognize civil disobedience when you see it, and what’s more, you condemn it!

Please, I implore you, take the time to understand what these standardized tests provide in terms of usable data. Receiving a “not proficient at grade level” designation is not even remotely helpful, especially when true diagnostic tests are available. Speak to parents. Speak to teachers.

I would be happy to have a discussion with you about testing, about special education, and how organizations like yours can help those of us living through this morass called public education.

Julie B.

 If I ever hear from Mr. Henderson I'll let you know.

P.S. If anyone wants to talk about civil rights and special education rights let's start talking about equitable funding for schools, about properly funding special education programming, about well trained teachers, about alternative routes to graduation, and let's expel the myth that everyone has to be college and career ready.