Thursday, March 24, 2016

NJDOE + NJ Chamber of Commerce = Act of Incredible Desperation

A few weeks ago I attended a presentation in Clifton. The presenter, Dana Egreczky, was there on behalf of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce (NJCC). Ostensibly, the purpose was to help parents understand the importance of standardized tests and their children's future in the business world. 

Anyone who pays attention to what's happening in Trenton, and, frankly, in DC, knows that the Chamber is a regular attendee at legislative education committee meetings. They often provide testimony and it's always on the side of the so-called education reform movement. I would even go so far as to say they, and the NJ Business and Industry Association, have more influence on what happens in our schools than parents and teachers. 

So, when the NJCC steps out into the daylight to weigh in on standardized testing, you bet I wanted to hear what they had to say. Two organizations that I am a part of are members of our local Chamber of Commerce. If NJCC is going around spreading misinformation on my behalf, I want to know about it.

The Clifton presentation was appalling. I haven't been able to get a copy of the presentation given to parents, but here is a link to the presentation she gave to Clifton students. A dad who was at the parent presentation audio taped it. He also blogged about it. You can read and listen to it here. The presentation was delivered in an angry tone, she made incredible claim after claim in an attempt to scare parents into letting their children take the PARCC tests. When asked for citations to back up her claims, parents were chided for having "opinions" and that in the 50 times she had delivered this particular presentation (no citation for that claim either), no one had ever asked for citation. Basically, her answer to any question was to bugger off. 

The next day, a parent sent an email to the president of NJCC asking for an explanation. The president wrote back and claimed no responsibility for Dana, saying she did not work for NJCC, even though she had identified herself as a Sr VP at the Chamber and President and CEO of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Here is part of his response:
“thank you for the feedback....Ms. Egreczky is a consultant on a grant regarding CORE curriculum issues, not an employee of the Chamber....she is just beginning her presentations so your feedback is greatly appreciated as the intent is to be educational, not confrontational...we will make sure to modify her presentations to achieve our goal in a more user friendly style....please understand that she is not speaking for the Chamber and the issues you expressed concern about are not advocated by the Chamber....if you would like to discuss further, please contact me...thank you again"
Fast forward a couple of weeks and she was in another town delivering her message of despair. Parents reported that her presentation was toned down from what they heard happened in Clifton. NJCC likely had a conversation with her and I hoped the rhetoric had been brought down to the usual Kool-Aid level you hear at PARCC-in-the-Box presentations. I decided to wait until she came into my area to see it again. 

Last night, a friend sent me the presentation given in Deptford. Well, it is different than the one she gave in Clifton. Still no citations, still claims from crazyland, only now the presentation is on behalf of We Raise NJ, a coalition of Gates-funded reform groups. NJCC is still listed in the presentation, but now in a much less conspicuous way. 

The reason for the backstory and purpose of this post is to let everyone know what We Raise NJ is spewing. Their "coalition" is the NJ Chamber of Commerce, NJ Charter Schools Association, National Council of La Raza, NJ School Boards Association, Garden State Coalition of Schools, NJ Black Alliance for Educational Options, NJ Council of County Colleges, NJCAN, NJASCD, NJ Business & Industry Association, and New Jersey PTA. And, yes, lots of Gates Foundation money in exchange for pushing Common Core State Standards and the aligned testing in this group. 

The Clifton presentation ignored students with disabilities. The new one does not. This gem is on slide 63 and looks like it was thrown in as an afterthought. I hope you are all as appalled as I am with this 50+ year old line of thinking. Keep in mind We Raise NJ is telling parents that taking a test is the answer to everything, but for students with disabilities - meh, they are just a blight on society and should be forced to take the test too, just because.

Following this line of logic, We Raise NJ thinks that a single, not yet validated, test based on low level standards is going to the address how we take care of (nothing here about actually lifting up students and individuals with disabilities) our most vulnerable population. This is disgusting. And then to suggest that the parents and teachers of these students don't know how they are doing and that this test, which is NOT DIAGNOSTIC in any way shape or form, is going to enlighten them? Seriously? 

Just so parents of gen ed students are not left out. These are directed at you. God forbid you want a manicure, you've just put your child's future at risk.

The purpose of all this is: 

Got that? By taking PARCC, your child will not be living with you 30 years from now. 

If you're wondering WHY Dana is making the rounds to schools all over the state to deliver this garbage to you. Well, probably a good idea to ask to see your district's Corrective Action Plan (technically, the ESEA Accountability Action Plan). This show counts as an approved "action" by NJDOE. 

Have you had enough yet? I sure as hell have. Our kids deserve better than this! 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Acts of Desperation in the Name of Education

This morning I received an email from Carolee Adams, President of the New Jersey Eagle Forum. In her email, she described her experience at a local Board of Education meeting last night. It's not often that you walk into the auditorium and find it completely packed with students. When it is, there are usually awards being handed out. But not last night. 

Last night, those students were there on a public policy assignment. Cool, right? Well, maybe not so much. The Superintendent addressed the students, a plea to have them take the PARCC exams. Apparently, there will be a letter, with the permission of the BOE, sent home to parents also encouraging them to let their children take the PARCC. The reason for the pleas is to protect the high rankings of the high schools in the district. 

I know this Superintendent. He is my neighbor and my daughter's out of district placement is in one of his schools. I have a lot of respect for this man. There is a good reason why his schools are ranked so high (besides the stupid test scores). His staff - from the building principals to the janitorial staff - are fantastic. You could not ask for a better high school environment for your teenager. You could not ask for a more thoughtful and dedicated teaching staff. That is worth more than any standardized test score. I know he knows this. 

I'm less than thrilled at his approach, though, for a couple of reasons. First, don't put our kids in the middle like that. Having them attend a BOE meeting as part of an assignment is a great idea. Ambushing them with a guilt talk about the district losing its ranking because of a single, still not validated test based on a less difficult set of standards than New Jersey used to have, is not a great idea.

Secondly, nothing that I am aware of, has changed in the teaching philosophy of this district. Nothing has changed in the level of teacher quality, student engagement, or student performance - that is, their ability to actually demonstrate what they've learned, not based on a standardized test. Please, don't ever put the weight of district rankings on the heads our kids and their test scores. It's not fair to them. They have enough pressure.

So why would the Superintendent do such a thing? Well, presumably, this is part of a Corrective Action Plan (CAP). I have asked to see the CAP and am hoping it will be shared today. (I waited until after 6pm to publish, and haven't heard back. I will follow up when I see it.)

A CAP, in this case, is a plan districts must come up with to show how they will increase test participation rates. 

As NJDOE is following through with its promise to issue CAPs to districts who did not meet the 95% participation rate last school year, we have seen all kinds of crazy responses around the state. Parents are being told: 

  • Money will be withheld from the district if their kids don't take the test (it won't, NJ has a law preventing that from happening: "Notwithstanding the provisions of N.J.S.18A:55-2, or any other law, rule, or regulation to the contrary, the commissioner shall not direct the State treasurer to withhold funds payable by the State to a school district based on the participation rate on any State assessment of the school district's students.")
  • Graduation - both from high school and from lower grades - will be in jeopardy (not so, there are currently many paths to high school graduation, read here, here, and here
  • Placement into advanced classes will be barred (even NJDOE does not recommend using one variable to make or break a placement)
  • A visit from the NJ Chamber of Commerce to scare parents into letting their kids take the test, read about that particular inanity here (after complaints, she appears to have toned down the Armageddon-like speech, but not the actual presentation) 
  • And, my personal favorite, that parents cannot "opt out/refuse" the tests for their children this year (of course they can, they aren't asking for permission) 

I'm obviously thrilled my daughter's Superintendent did NOT suggest any of those things. He did, however, clearly demonstrate one of many issues with an education system that is at the mercy of high stakes standardized test scores - the ranking and sorting of students and their schools. Education is not a competition, in spite of what the USDOE, NJDOE, and myriad business groups would have us believe. 

Once again, our kids deserve better than this. 

Friday, March 4, 2016

The ESSA Negotiated Rulemaking Committee - update

This afternoon, the US Department of Education announced the participants (voting and non-voting) for the ESSA Title 1 negotiated rulemaking committee. I, and presumably everyone who had provided testimony to USDOE on January 11th, was invited to apply/be nominated. I wrote about the January 11th experience here and here

The parameters for the committee participants can be found on the Federal Register here. I found it odd that they asked for parents and students, but they also required you demonstrate your representation of others. Presumably, that meant USDOE would not be interested in a parent who was not connected to any large group in some way. 

Of course, I put my name in. I approached Save Our Schools New Jersey, for whom I am a volunteer organizer and Montclair Cares About Schools, an organization for whom I have a lot of respect. Both organizations came through with tremendous support. I also sought and received support from Dr. Chris Tienken, Assistant Professor of Education Administration at Seton Hall University and Dr. Mark Naison, Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University.

I was not selected for the "Parents and students, including historically underserved students" slots.  Nor for the "Civil rights community, including representatives of students with disabilities, English learners, and other historically underserved students" slots. 

Who was? Well, let's just simply say that The Gates Foundation certainly spends its money well. The two parent slots went to the Immediate Past President of PTA Ohio and to the Director of Education Policy at the South East Asian Resource Action Center (SEARAC) - she also used to work for the Campaign for High School Equity Coalition project, another Gates-funded initiative. 

It's disappointing to see that the parents selected are affiliated with groups that are deeply involved with The Gates Foundation to the tune of several million dollars. That money, according to The Gates Foundation website went specifically for Common Core State Standards (CCSS) implementation, education and training of their constituents on CCSS and the aligned testing, and for developing plans for increasing awareness of CCSS. 

In the second category, the two voting members are the Migration Policy Institute and National Disability Rights Network (NDRN). Thankfully, NDRN does not take funding from The Gates Foundation. However, one of the non-voting participants in that category does, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. They are actually the reason why I started this blog. You can read what I had to say about them here. As of the end of 2014, they had about $2.9 million in Gates grants (I wrote about that here). Unfortunately, NDRN is a member of The Leadership Conference, and they have signed press releases and letters to Congress in support of mandatory testing. 

Is it too much to ask? To have representation that actually reflects what is happening right now, on the ground, to our kids? Between SEARAC, PTA, and The Leadership Conference we are looking at a $10 million Gates investment for a seat at the table. They have the "historically underserved and disabled students" buttoned up. 

Parents, I hope you are all in for one heck of fight. 

ETA: ExxonMobil has a seat at this table too. Just a friendly reminder of what CEO Rex Tillerson thinks of your children

ETA2: Oh goodie, one of the teachers is a Teach Plus fellow and currently, an inclusion teacher. That's another $17 million in Gates grants. 

So, how do you all feel about $27 million or so of Bill's bucks at the table? Think our kids get a fair shake out of this? You know what I think.