We thank one of our readers for sharing this terrific infographic:
Sorry for being on break for so long.
The following is testimony to the NJ Department of Education submitted by Montclair resident Lynn Fedele on June 3, 2015
I am here to speak today about the PARCC testing that we experienced this past year and to advocate for the state DOE to withdraw completely from this program.
There is no doubt that the country and the state are in a time of great flux and controversy in education. The reauthorization of the federal ESEA law is underway, and the proposed bill, which has passed out of the Senate committee with full bipartisan support and is expected to pass through the US Congress in the next few months, contains language that no longer requires the Common Core State Standards and their accompanying assessments. While the proposed bill does require yearly testing in the elementary school and once in high school, that it does not require the Pearson-generated PARCC is a step in the right direction, and New Jersey will be able to utilize its own tests, which can begin a return to some normalcy from what we experienced in the schools this past year with the PARCC.
There have been numerous stories of inappropriately difficult material, confusing directions, and technical difficulties circulating statewide since the first testing window in March. But these issues are merely the tip of the iceberg. Despite the Pearson-generated and oft-repeated propaganda about how PARCC will be easier for the schools to implement in comparison to other tests because of the length of the testing windows and the technological platform, actually administering the PARCC has been a terrible detriment to the education of our children. Stressful and time-consuming, the PARCC in practice has caused serious disruptions to learning.
While the high school students were tested on PARCC material for 11 hours this year, the actual time spent administering the test was much longer. Setting up the technology and allowing for proper procedures to be followed added close to an hour a day to the testing times listed by PARCC, and this was compounded by the frequent technology issues that ensued during test administration, which increased the time spent administering the assessments. As a result, as educators we’ve had to deal with rotating schedules, shortened schedules, and many shortened and cancelled classes.
All of this time has added up to equal a great deal of curriculum and class time loss for the students. Continuity has been, for far too many of us, completely shot. Depth of understanding has been sacrificed for broad overviews to quickly cover required material. Cooperative learning projects have been decreased and supplemental material has been frequently ignored no matter how much we know that these things increase student interest, involvement, understanding, and retention. Classroom strategies have been far too frequently changed from student-centered, student-directed activities that address multiple learning styles and foment the students’ abilities to make cross-curricular connections to lectures and a piling on of homework in the hopes that students can get at least the basics of a given topic.
This is a serious problem. According to the National Institute of Applied Behavioral Science*, students on average retain only 5% of the information presented through lecture and only 10% of the information presented through reading, yet these methods are becoming ever more the trend in instruction due to lost classroom time. Student-centered cooperative learning and project-based learning involve other, far more effective modes of information and skill acquisition and retention but are too demanding of rapidly shrinking classroom time. Group projects usually involve many strategies, including discussion groups, in which 50% of information is retained; practice by doing, in which 75% of information is retained; and teaching others, in which 90% of information is retained. In the rush to cover material that is forced upon us by the extraordinary time given over to the PARCC, our teaching is becoming less effective and less creative, and our students are retaining less and less information.
Additionally, in the crunch for time, important units of study have been shortened or sacrificed in their entirety. The following is a list of some of what has been short-changed, truncated or lost in just one school because of the time the PARCC has stolen from our classrooms and our students.
- Biology – 4 chapters of Ecology given very superficial coverage with no group work or projects
- Physics – Electromagnetic radiation was dropped and most labs and demonstrations were cancelled
- Chemistry – 3 chapters were shortened, including work on stoichiometry, and many labs and demonstrations were cancelled
- World History – 2 chapters covering the rise of totalitarianism and World War II have been reduced to partial coverage through lecture.
- S. History I – Support activities, group projects and supplemental materials were dropped
- Psychology – Child Development unit shortened and most projects dropped
- Medical Science – 3 chapters have been taught in the space normally allotted for 1 chapter with a great reduction in the depth of material and an increase in homework
- IT Applications – A unit about Linux dropped and non-Windows support (Mac, Android, tablets, etc.) was dropped
- Culinary Arts – The students suffered a loss of skills, practice, and continuity that was described as akin to a summer vacation, and then more time was lost in re-teaching skills.
- American Literature – “To Kill a Mockingbird” was dropped
- World Literature – “Things Fall Apart” was dropped
- AP English Literature and Composition – “The Things They Carried” was dropped
- Algebra I – Percentages and most word problems were dropped
- Algebra II – A unit on Quadratics was shortened and the review of monomials and exponents were dropped
- Pre-Calculus – Binomial theorem was dropped, as were Geometric and Arithmetic Progressions
- World Languages (French, Spanish) – Group projects and written assignments were shortened or dropped altogether
All that has been lost was included in our students’ education last year. Each teacher I have spoken with is distraught about this situation but at a loss for what to do. We know this is not good for education, and we know that our students are losing much of the solid understanding they will need in college and in life. We are losing the ability to help nurture children into becoming the interested, life-long learners and thinkers they ought to be.
We do not want to short-change our students. They deserve better. But with the PARCC consuming far too much time, we are being given no other choice, and our children are paying the price.
Pearson’s Yellow Brick Road
I have never been happier that we refused to allow my fourth grader to take the PARCC. Yesterday, I asked her what she’s heard at school about the PARCC tests her peers have been taking. Although she has never sat for a PARCC test herself, she was able to tell me that some of the 4th grade PARCC reading passages were from the Wizard of Oz (apparently one passage was about the Emerald City, and another told the story of the Tin Man). So in theory, if your child has not yet sat for the 4th grade PARCC, you could embark on a Frank Baum marathon this weekendto give your child a leg up on his or her upcoming PARCC test.
This is one of the many logistics issues that has never made sense to me about the PARCC test security protocol: especially in the age of social media…
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Refusing the Ugly
By Lynn Fedele
I am a teacher. I am also a member of Montclair Cares About Schools. I am proud of both.
My father was a teacher, too, who taught History at North Bergen High School for over 30 years. He was also a union officer. He was proud of both.
When I started teaching 24 years ago, I never imagined I would have to become an education activist in my private life, and when I moved to Montclair 18 years ago, I never imagined I would be faced with such acrimony for speaking out on behalf of children.
Yet despite my failures of imagination, things have gotten a bit ugly in Montclair. A new group of “anonymous parents” with a website and a lawyer – Shavar Jeffries, a charter school advocate who recently lost the mayoral race in Newark to Ras Baraka – have launched an attack video against MCAS and placed a FOIL request for the emails of a township activist. They have filed a highly dubious ethics complaint against town councilman Sean Spiller. They have said some very hurtful things.
A comment that really got to me was one by Jeffries, published in an article in the Montclair Times. The article states that, according to Jeffries, parents are not speaking out publicly “out of fear that district educational staffers may retaliate against their children.”
When I read this, my first thought was, how in the world did we get to a place and time where it is acceptable to make such malicious, unfounded comments about teachers?
My second thought followed quickly: I’m just glad that my father isn’t alive to see this, because it would break his heart.
Then I cried.
I don’t want to get sucked into the muck and the mire of this. I want to continue to speak and to work for what is best for children – all children. And I will, because Montclair is a place with a long, beautiful history of struggle, of people coming together to face issues that are not easy to face. I moved here because of the town’s history of activism, especially in dealing with race and education. We have been a national model in many ways, and this is due to the people here who have continually striven to do what is right when what it right is not what is easy. Still, there is a much bigger picture here, one that Montclair is a part of and one that because of all the turmoil surrounding public education reveals the chance of something good happening for us all.
Because truthfully, something strange is in the air, some kind of shift in the educational wind. It may not be as dramatic and immediate as I would like, but suddenly, the clouds of “reform” are parting and there is a distinct possibility for hope, for rational discourse about real education. The current animosity cannot be maintained forever, and as more people are waking up to what “reform” really entails, more people are entering into this discussion. This is a very good thing.
In the past few months, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions has been taking testimony as it looks into rewriting No Child Left Behind (you can find the senators’ contact information here on the left side of the screen).
Arne Duncan admitted that there has been too much focus on standardized testing in schools.
Last month, in his weekly radio address, President Obama stated: “This year, I want to work with both parties in Congress to replace No Child Left Behind with a smarter law that addresses the overuse of standardized tests, makes a real investment in preschool, and gives every kid a fair shot in the new economy.”
Chris Christie, in speaking with potential Iowa supporters, admitted doubt in his previously unflagging support for the Common Core State Standards.
Test refusal in New Jersey has surpassed everyone’s expectations.
And in Montclair news, superintendent Dr. Penny MacCormack has announced her resignation.
None of this adds up to a complete reversal of the movement toward standardization and testing that has been squeezing public education, but something is happening. And I think this something is causing the moneyed, charter-school, privatization advocates to come out swinging wildly.
Whether we look at these changes and reversals as the hard work of activists bearing fruit, or shifts in the political winds, or the American public waking up to the dangers of standardization and testing, or as simple career opportunism, the fact remains that now is the time for educators to have their voices heard. Because people are starting to listen.
There is a place here and now for us to speak up loudly, to address education issues as fervently as we can. On the local level, we are facing the search for a new superintendent, and this in the midst of troubles surrounding the badly depleted budget Dr. MacCormack will leave in her wake. Nonetheless, we need to create our wish list for change – true education reforms – that will help bring the Montclair Public Schools back to being the innovative, creative, and student-centered places they have always striven to become. There is a lot of work to be done. Fortunately, teachers are quite accustomed to hard work.
So here is a beginning, a wish list of things I would like to see happen in Montclair:
*More people speaking up. It’s been happening, with teachers, parents, and community members. Keep it coming, The more voices, the more opinions — the more ideas and the more possibilities.
*Fair contracts for paraprofessionals. Their work is never under-appreciated by the students, parents, and teachers with whom they work, but they have been increasingly undervalued by Central Services and the BOE. All paraprofessionals deserve full-time status with benefits.
*Smaller class sizes. We have been watching class sizes in Montclair grow, and educators know how important this issue is. For some of the many reasons why class size matters – including its effects upon the achievement gap – click here. This may require hiring more teachers and re-examining scheduling in some of the schools.
*More special needs resources and teachers. The district has been losing one court case after another in recent years for deficits in following students’ IEPs. Special needs students need to have curriculum and methods tailored to their needs in order for them to succeed, and these needs should not take a back seat to the demands of unrealistic standards and testing.
*Refocus elementary and middle school curricula on their magnet themes. Yes, the standardized testing will be with us for some time longer, but sacrificing what makes each school a unique addition to the Montclair community will not improve any child’s educational experience. Additionally, cutting back on physical education, foreign language instruction, art, music, history and science will not help our kids be ready for anything in life, never mind college or careers.
*More support for and the extension of small learning communities at the high school. The successes of the small learning communities continue despite increased pressure to standardize curriculum and methodology to fit the tests, and they would flourish if given the necessary resources to develop their programs more fully.
*Support for Imani and a return of The Writer’s Room. The type of one-on-one student support these programs provide has immeasurable effects, for beyond mere test scores. Education is an extremely personal venture, one that relies upon interpersonal connections and supports.
And there is so much more. We need to speak up about alternative assessments, about actual performance based assessments and project-based learning.
So please, add to this list. Write letters and emails. Shout from the nearest rooftops – whatever works. There is a Contacts page on this site; there are BOE meetings to attend. The time is now. If we do not lead in advocating for true education reform, we can be sure that others – with whatever motives they have – will.
I am not going to stop speaking up for what is best for kids, and I think my father would have been proud of that, too.
They’re Not Glorified Babysitters
The link below will take you to a wonderful piece written by a Montclair paraprofessional.
Excerpt: “I want you to think about these things when I tell you that we paraprofessionals and personal care assistants have no job security, tenure, or – in the case of my colleagues in Montclair – no health insurance. Because we’re understaffed, the classroom teacher has to jump into the rotation and work with students, which means they don’t have time to do assessments or train the rest of the staff on a particular child. On top of academics, our job also involves feeding, toileting, and other lessons in self-care. Ponder this troubling fact: Even though it’s a full-time job, most of us need to work a second job to make ends meet because the pay is atrocious and severely inadequate. I was lucky to be making $22,000 a year in a district that is now reportedly in a $6 million hole.”
A Teacher’s Letter on Paraprofessionals
This letter was submitted anonymously by a teacher in the Montclair Public Schools district.
What is the value of a paraprofessional in our classrooms? It is really quite simple: our schools could not run without them.
If you doubt this, pay attention sometime to the rhetoric of the guides on our school tours. In giving the school the best possible image ever, the tour guides tell parents about low class size, and the amount of paraprofessionals in the room offering extra support. In fact, this is such a huge selling point for parents entering our school system that the tours fudge the truth a bit, pretending adults in the room at that moment – long term subs, student teachers, a parent volunteer – are full time paraprofessionals.
Our parents understand the significance of having competent paraprofessionals in the room. It means that their child will receive individual, differentiated instruction as well as tender loving care all day. It means that when a child needs extra assistance or is easily distracted, that someone who knows him or her well will take the child to a quiet place and go over the lesson with him or her.
Teachers and paraprofessionals in a solid relationship can seamlessly switch roles to serve the needs of the classroom community better. A teacher can conference with one child while the paraprofessional circulates to help individuals and maintain a peaceful atmosphere. A paraprofessional can quickly address non-academic needs – a nurse visit or an upset child – without any interruption to the teacher’s lesson or the rest of the group.
Paraprofessionals offer a sense of stability to children. They go with the children to lunch, recess and to their related arts classes. Teachers don’t. The children develop a bond with paraprofessional that is unique and trusting. Some children who are shy to ask a teacher for help will feel comfortable asking the paraprofessional.
Of course, the paras also serve our most vulnerable children: those with special needs. A teacher simply cannot create a classroom environment in which all children can rise to their academic potential without the assistance of the paraprofessional. They are not merely, “an extra set of hands;” on the contrary, they are extra eyes, ears, a second point of view, and another person who wants to see children feel comfortable and successful in this time of “rigor.” They are our collaborators and our co-teachers.
To cut the paraprofessional staff is to rob the children of the care they need. It is to rob the children’s parents of the care that they are promised every year during school tours. It also robs our budget of needed personnel as it continues to hire people with new titles that don’t come close to servicing real students in real classrooms every day in Montclair.
We are sorry that our district disregards our paraprofessionals and makes them feel like they are unimportant. It shows a great disconnect between the people who sit in offices all day making large salaries and the ones that barely sit at all unless there is a student beside them, making very small salaries.
Our schools cannot run without an ample staff of paraprofessionals. Please remember this when considering the upcoming budget.
Support the Paraprofessionals
Many people in town do not understand how important Paraprofessionals are to the schools and to our children, and because of this many paras are in danger of losing their jobs as the Montclair Board of Education addresses how to close the budget gap. The following statement was submitted anonymously by a paraprofessional who has worked in the Montclair Public Schools for many years.
“Until I worked in the schools, I had no idea how important the Paraprofessional roles are. The kids are alone with us for 45 minutes a day. They are with us more than they are with the classroom teacher. We organize and monitor lunch and recess; we attend all related arts classes with the children. If there is a teacher out or an emergency arises, I can sub anywhere. I have been the tech teacher, the gym teacher, the music teacher, and a 5th grade math teacher.
” I do this job for the love of children and for the convenience of my family. When I took this job several years ago, it was a real eye-opener for me as a parent to see the inside of a school and see how it really functions. Schools are very busy places, and there is so much to be done at once. Kids need a lot of help, attention, support and encouragement in order to learn to the best of their abilities. That’s what we do.
“EVERY school had teachers who got up to speak at BOE meetings last year and spoke of how they needed more paras. They asked to have 1st grade teaching assistants back. You want to talk about closing the achievement gap? That is not going to happen without competent, trained paras – those who know what to do and how to do it – in the classrooms for the early grades, and the special needs students will certainly not improve if they do not get the care and attention to which they are legally entitled. The teachers are stretched beyond their limits with the new standards, curriculum, materials, RTIs and SGOs, and this is on top of their regular duties; they need us and the kids need the work we do.
“When the BOE mentioned outsourcing, I thought of all of this. I was thinking of how the Board members have no idea of our role in the schools.The stress throughout the years at every budget meeting has me wondering how these people can make these decisions. And now they’re thinking of firing us.
” The kids that I have had throughout the years come back to me for hugs and hellos. We are constants in their lives for 6 years.”
Who the paraprofessionals are is important to the children, the parents, the teachers and the principals – in short, they are important to the schools are deserve greater respect than they are currently receiving. At the time of publication of this piece, the BOE is not considering outsourcing the paraprofessionals but laying them off instead, and as many as 34 hardworking people may lose their jobs. How many of our students will lose the help and attention they need? Balancing the budget on the backs of special needs and early elementary students is wrong.
Please come to the next BOE meeting on 3/16 2015 and speak up about the budget.
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The Poetry of Teaching
Here’s some coverage of the wonderful night spent at Tierney’s this past Wednesday, January 28.
Through words and song, Montclair’s teachers wowed the audience throughout the night with their talent. The event was co-sponsored by the Montclair Education Association and Montclair Cares About Schools.
The U.S. Senate’s H.E.L.P. committee (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) has been accepting testimony from around the country about No Child Left Behind and its focus on standardized testing with an eye to possibly enact some changes in the law.
The Badass Teacher’s Association has collected a good number of testimonials from teachers and has posted them on their blog.
The following is the testimonial sent in by Montclair resident Lynn Fedele:
My name is Lynn Fedele and I have been teaching English in New Jersey for 24 years. I am writing to address the problem of standardized testing and the problems it has created in our schools.
When we look to see how to measure student learning in schools, we are looking for an answer to a complex set of qualitative questions. How do we measure learning? How do we measure a child? How do we measure teachers? How do we measure student-teacher relationships and how these relationships impact learning? What type of learning is most valuable to our society at the present moment? In the future?
I believe these questions are crucially important to the health of our society and democracy, to the growth of our children. In my experience, these questions are not in any way accurately measured by standardized testing.
Standardized tests have become increasingly relied upon in recent years for information they do not measure, especially since the advent of No Child Left Behind. What might have begun as an attempt to discern how public schools perform has come with a host of unintended, negative consequences that have damaged many students’ classroom experiences, damages that are being exacerbated by the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, the impending PARCC assessments and the federal government’s Race to the Top program. Literacy is, of course, of incredibly important, but simply achieving literacy has replaced the broader and better goal of truly understanding literature and language. We have come to accept functionality as being good enough. Stories are now read for a small set of easily measurable skills, not for independent thinking and development, and most certainly not for enjoyment.
Where I teach, for the first many years, test prep was a small part of my teaching duties, and my life as an English teacher was an interesting mix of reading and writing both creatively and academically. There was time and space for students to explore their own ideas, to develop their own relationships to language and to literature. There was time to prepare for college and time for students to explore their creative interests and skills. I loved my classes and their variety; I loved my job.
Enter NCLB. The New Jersey High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), which had been an important exit test, suddenly became paramount. To ensure that students passed, my school eliminated electives for juniors and all had to take a full-year test prep class. For ten long, dull years, more than half my day was spent teaching this course. Instead of poetry, we read dull articles about mundane subjects designed not to be in any way controversial, and therefore holding no real interest for the students, much like the HSPA itself. Gone were personal reactions to stories and characters, replaced by formulaic searches for the textbook’s notion of theme and main idea. Instead of writing to explore and develop ideas, to express critical thinking, students wrote strict five paragraph essays summarizing what they had read or expressing their opinions of topics in which they had no real interest. Instead of taking classes in psychology, sociology, nutrition, astronomy, statistics, art, music, or a third year of a foreign language, students practiced bubble tests and wrote perfunctory essays. On the state exams in past years, sixteen-year-olds have been asked to write persuasively about stray cats and about postage stamps. I have never been able to truly understand what the students were meant to learn from these exercises beyond how to sit still and follow directions.
As the years progressed and NCLB engendered testing in more and more grades, I began to see a change in my high school students, and not for the better. My students who have grown up facing year after year of standardized tests are now afraid to think for themselves, are widely panicked about finding the “right” answer. They also now largely think in threes, as they have been drilled into finding three reasons to support their opinions in their five paragraph essays, and into writing a minimum of three examples in each detail paragraph. When I now ask them to describe something, they immediately list three adjectives, frequently synonyms. Additionally, as the state writing rubrics for all levels of the standardized tests put grammar and mechanics at the bottom, making them the least important aspects of writing, my high school students have close to no knowledge of how English functions. It wasn’t on the tests, so far too frequently, it just wasn’t taught. The overwhelming majority of my seniors this year cannot define the terms “subject” and “predicate,” never mind understand how a sentence functions to present meaning. Yet they all passed the HSPA.
Now that we are facing the prospect of the PARCC assessments, we are being told that there will be a vast improvement in the assessments, that the reading will be “relevant” and that these are not “bubble tests.” These claims are misleading and disingenuous. I have taken the sample PARCC assessment in high school Language Arts Literacy that is now available online. While the readings do involve actual literature as opposed to the stale reading selections of past tests, this does not give them relevancy. In the samples, the students are asked to compare two related works of literature from two very different historical eras and cultures. As the students are given absolutely no information regarding the historical context of the tests, the questions that pertain to how they differ—in particular the comparative essay assigned—are too obscure to answer with simple common sense, nor do the questions promote a clear understanding of what is written. If they do not know, for example, that the two texts are separated by close to 2,000 years and were produced in such incredibly different circumstances, understanding the themes of the texts is impossible. The fact that one selection is actually narrative and the other a lyric poem also adds to the difficulty of a simple comparison. Without the appropriate historical context, without properly studying, and without the time it takes to truly reflect upon what they have read, the students’ essays are bound to be filled with broad generalities and false assumptions. Many who advocate the PARCC say that these types of questions show “rigor,” but true rigor, truly asking students to apply themselves to challenges, does not mean they should be asked to do something that is next to impossible to do well, or even to do properly.
The informational texts are no better. Given excerpts of texts that are written beyond their grade level, students not only struggle with basic understanding and vocabulary but the historical context and
relevancy of the texts. These become an exercise in frustration and provide no opportunity for actual learning.
Additionally, while the PARCC assessments are not technically “bubble tests” as they are taken online as opposed to on paper with a Scantron sheet, much of the assessment is still multiple choice, but the questions utilize technological functions with which the students are unfamiliar. This means that opposed to generating their own ideas about the meaning and importance of a text as a whole or of portions of a text, they are still being guided to answer to somebody else’s idea of what is most important and what text means, even though literature is always, always open to interpretation, meaning that there is more than one right way to understand a narrative or poem. The questions that ask students to identify, select, and use the computer mouse to drag supporting information into a text box are also truly multiple choice questions. If they are selecting 2 out of 6 possible choices to find an answer, then that is multiple choice, regardless of whether they are filling in a bubble or clicking with a mouse.
On the whole, the students hate the testing and the preparation it entails, as do I. They are not learning to love reading or writing; on the contrary, for far too many of my students, these things have simply become a chore. They all become functionally literate—my school boasts an excellent passing rate on the HSPA—but only a very few now become true readers, capable of understanding complex texts on their own terms, and precious fewer ever express the desire to become writers.
As an educator with over 20 years’ experience in the New Jersey public schools and as a parent of two school-aged children, I urge you all to stop marching blindly toward increased levels of standardization and testing. Our children depend upon us to provide them with opportunities for learning and growth in a welcoming, nurturing atmosphere, one not weighed down by the stressors of preparing for the next test. Our children need to develop their intelligence, creativity and talents so that they can become life-long learners and people who can fully function in our diverse society, who can participate actively and effectively in our democracy. Our children are far more than numbers, and we owe them far more than high-stakes tests.
Today in Trenton 1/7/2015
The state Department of Education held open testimony today in Trenton, which was well attended by teachers, parents, and students from across the state, most of whom spoke out loud and clear against the upcoming PARCC assessments. To see video clips of testimony, read testimony, and read about the event, follow the links:
Montclair Cares About Schools facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Montclair-Cares-About-Schools/151421161685482
Marie Corfield: http://mcorfield.blogspot.com/