Will Everyone Write A Letter?

Cynicism, especially in response to politics, is like a vitamin I choke down every day, but overall I’m a glass half-full kind of gal. At the end of April, before we left for San Francisco, I sent letters to my New York state legislators. Representing my district are James L. Seward in the Senate and Clifford W. Crouch in the Assembly. In the past week I received responses from both of them. Their letters give me reason to feel hopeful that there are indeed higher-ups in New York State that might be on our side.

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Response letter from Assemblyman Clifford W. Crouch

Assemblyman Clifford’s e-mails and letters have always been short and to the point, yet personal, and I appreciate that.  I’m curious where this goes via Assemblywoman Kathy Nolan and I hope that Assemblyman Crouch does host a forum this summer to hear from parents, teachers, and administrators.

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Response letter from New York Senator James L. Seward

Senator Seward’s letter is a bit more on the bureaucratic side, but still a personal response. The last paragraph, which is obscured by my scrawled directions on the back side (sorry) says, “We may have swung too far in testing requirements, and should the education committee review these issue, I will be sensitive to the concerns you have raised. Again, thank you for contacting me. I welcome your advocacy and concern.”

I realize that New York has a long way to go.  It seems like many drink deeply of the Kool-aid these days.  New York is now one of three states left actively participating in the inBloom database project, which is heavily funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, while Louisiana has responded to public outcry and withdrew its own student data, and “Kentucky, Georgia and Delaware – all initially listed as partners on the inBloom website – told Reuters that they never made a commitment and have no intention of participating. Georgia specifically asked for its name to be removed.” Massachusetts and North Carolina are also re-evaluating their participation in the project.

Although 45 states & D.C. adopted the Common Core State Standards, several states are waking up and starting to question the wisdom of this decision. Indiana is leading the way with sentiments against the Common Core. “Anti-Common Core movements are alive and growing not only in Indiana but in Michigan, Alabama and other states,” according to a Washington Times article. But New York is not one of those states. New York is still heavily committed to fully implementing the Core despite growing resistance from parents and teachers with valid questions and concerns.

Is APPR really working in our state? According to award-winning principal Carol Burris, there are many problems with New York’s teacher evaluation system, and it seems that everyone except the education department is willing to acknowledge this.

And when it comes to testing, testing, and even more excessive testing, New York reigns champion.  While policy makers and non-educators prefer their children receive the well-balanced and enriching type of education offered by many private schools that are not stifled by mandates and excessive testing, we at public schools are reassured that testing is considered integral to college & career readiness for all.

Outside of the Education Department, it seems like many politicians don’t really know what’s going on.  They don’t know until we tell them!  I know that many of you have already written to your legislators, and I thank you.  But if you haven’t, will you do me a favor and write a letter now?  You can find your New York State Senator here and your Assembly-member here.

Your letter doesn’t have to be long and you don’t have to cover every single atrocity you see happening to our educational system. But it should be personal! Remember, your legislators are people too. They have families and people that they care about. You need to push that ‘personal’ button and make them take off their politician hats for a moment. You need to make them imagine what it might be like for their loved ones to experience your story. Just be honest and give them at least one example of how you or someone you love is being negatively affected by what’s going on in education today, and what you think should be done about it. The more personal stories they hear, the less likely they will be able to ignore the situation or pass the buck onto the next office or committee. Whether you are a parent, a student, a teacher, a grandparent… whoever you are… you have a story to tell!

I sent my letters via snail mail. This is just my personal opinion, but I figured emails are too easy to send and to receive an actual letter meant that someone really took the time to think about what they were writing. I also sent my letters to their district offices, NOT Albany. I imagined that the mentality of working in Albany would be far more bureaucratic than working in one’s home town. I figured they would be more inclined to sit back and really read my letter in the more relaxed environment of the region we both share.

CCSS Garbage

This is the garbage that I’m scared of… has it already made it’s way into my school? And if not, how long before it takes over real teaching? A nearby school district has fully aligned itself with the Common Core and is totally on board with CC modules. This to me is scripted curriculum. I mentioned my fears to my school board and administration… and all I got was one sentence in the following board’s minutes, “our curriculum is not scripted.” Well, judging by the number of Pearson worksheets that I saw even in PreK, it’s only a matter of time.

To Refuse It All?

When teachers publicly resign, we take note and listen. I began crafting this post after Deborah S. Howard touched our hearts with her moving letter of resignation. And now, Ellie Rubenstein joins the growing ranks of teachers who can bear it no longer. Her public resignation is powerful and emotional. Her well-delivered and poignant video essay describes how her profession is being destroyed and she states that “unless you are a ‘yes’ man, you soon find out that your only choice is to become one or leave.”

We are forced to confront the terrible realities of what public education has become and how committed educators are being driven away from a once beloved profession. I think we all understand their decisions. We mourn their leaving, yet wish them well and hold no animosity toward them for freeing themselves from the ever deadening and increasingly numbing experience that teaching has become. The reality is that education has been transformed over the past few years by the overkill of mandates, excessive testing, and standardization–a reality that suffocates many.

We often look to teachers like Ms. Howard and Ms. Rubenstein as heroes and leaders. Many teachers dreamt of teaching since they were children themselves. To abandon a dream is a difficult thing to do. But for those who choose to leave, it is because the dream has become a nightmare. On many levels, uncertainty awaits them. For most, there will be financial challenges without a regular paycheck. So, when teachers like Ms. Howard and Ms. Rubenstein leave the profession, we are starkly reminded that, YES it is that bad. As we applaud their decisions to refuse (and I do applaud it), let us not lose sight of the many teachers for whom this action is just not an option. They too are our heroes, still deep in the trenches, not just watching but experiencing their profession being continually dismantled around them. I know that many wish they too could leave, but for most this is just not possible.

Recently, I made a decision to withdraw my son from PreK and I have no intentions of sending him to kindergarten next year. I do not know what the future holds for us, but like Ms. Howard, Ms. Rubenstein and the many other teachers who left the profession, my son was suffocating in his school experience and I couldn’t allow it to continue. As a parent, I want the best for my children, and sometimes I must make difficult decisions–decisions that are in my kids’ best interests for I am their strongest and most sincere advocate.

This post is about refusing.  Call it resigning, quitting, moving on, freeing one’s self… call it what you want. It can mean different things to different people, and that’s ok. I began crafting this post, after noticing a sort of hypocrisy when it comes to our reactions when teachers quit versus when parents decide to do the same. Over the past half year or so, there have been several public teacher resignations before Ms. Howard and Ms. Rubenstein.  In each case, the news of their departure has been similar: it saddens us that the state of education has turned this course, and at the same time we heroize these individuals for their brave decisions. But why do we feel that the terrorists will win when a parent choses to refuse the system? I have witnessed numerous Facebook and blog conversations about education when the mention of removing children from the system entirely in reaction to the current state of education has incited a barrage of comments suggesting it would be giving up, playing into the reformers’ hands, retreating, abandoning ship, or not fighting back.

The truth is that the current environment in our public schools is a suffocating one, not just for teachers, but for students and their parents as well.  And if one can’t breathe, one cannot fight. Like the oxgen bags in the airplanes, one must first save one’s self before attending to the welfare of others. I think every parent would agree that a parent’s primary concern is their own children’s well-being. I cannot justify the suffering of my child when I don’t have to just to prove a point. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care about public education anymore. I FULLY understand that refusing the entire system is NOT a luxury available to everyone. It is for those that remain that I continue to advocate for a quality education for all. Let me just state for the record that I have every intention of remaining in this fight for public education. Yes, there will be those that leave and never look back. Yes, this is unfortunate. But let us not forget the many teachers and parents who either willingly or blindly comply and conform with that which is eating away at REAL education. They are no more in this fight than the individuals who jump ship and steal the life raft.

Prior to my decision to homeschool (at least temporarily), I had always known I would send my children to our local public school; Homeschooling never occurred to me, private school did not interest me. Education in public school today is not as I had naively assumed less than a year ago, and it certainly doesn’t resemble my own public school experience.  So, I have chosen homeschooling for the time being. But, I firmly believe that quality public education is in everyone’s best interest and I have many reasons to fight.  My children might find themselves there one day.  This is my community.  The derailing of public education is happening to people I care about and it is happening to people in communities all across the United States! I understand that most do not have the option to homeschool or send their kids to private school. I do NOT want to see the future divided by those who received a quality education and those that did not.

To be sure there will be those, both teachers and parents, that will wipe their hands of this dirty mess, never to look back. But some of the most outspoken and well-versed critics are teachers, retired or resigned, who are no longer under the thumb of those that control the system. And the thing to remember is that there are many strong advocates of public education that do not teach and do not have children in public school. There are allies in all walks of life. The resistance to ed. reform comes in all forms. Some are more outspoken than others, but we are all players and we are all important and we all have our own voice to lend to the conversation. And I believe that as the voices vary, and even when we disagree, the conversation becomes more nuanced and more meaningful.

I do not write this in the spirit of elevating myself to some kind of heroic status like the teachers who say NO MORE–not at all! It write it simply to clear the air and say we are all in the same fight, and we can all be valuable allies. We all have something unique to offer, I believe. And we all fight the fight in different ways, both big and small.

Growing Seeds & Smiling Faces

Today was a fun morning.  My son and I helped the Pre-K class at our school start seeds!

Back when my son was still enrolled, I had offered to do a mini workshop with the kids.  Just because he no longer attends doesn’t mean that my interest to be involved in our school has suddenly waned.  So, his former teacher and I made arrangements.

The kids were so excited to see their former classmate and were very enthusiastic about the project with positive YESes when I asked if they liked to eat vegetables, and mostly YEAHs when I asked if they had a vegetable garden at home and if they liked to help out in it.  And an astounding YAY when I asked if they wanted to grow their own seeds today!

First I read them a book.  It was called From Seed to Pumpkin by Wendy Pfeffer.  I didn’t mind the many interjections as they responded to different parts of the story!  Then they divided up at two tables and my son helped pass out supplies.  They each had a paper cup with drainage holes already poked into the bottom.  They filled up their cups with potting soil using spoons. Then my son gave each child two seeds (to insure that at least one germinated– would be so sad if someone didn’t produce a plant!), and they poked them down through the soil.  Finally, we passed around a spray bottle so that each child could water their seeds.

The seeds will grow into California Red Kidney Beans.  Once the seedlings grow big enough, they will be transplanted into the school’s greenhouse garden.  If all goes well, the 18 plants will thrive and produce enough kidney beans so the kids can make chile next year in Kindergarten! (That would be my long-term plan anyway!)

I know all of these kids by name.  I know many of their families in this community.  It was good to see them again, and although my son will not be attending school, these curious faces remind me that there is so much worth fighting for.  These kids deserve the best education.

On a different note, my family recently returned from a San Francisco vacation.  While we were there we visited Alcatraz.  Today, while my son and I were walking down the hall of the school on our way out, he remarked out of the blue, “This kind of reminds me of Alcatraz.”  I assure you this was completely unprompted; We hadn’t even discussed San Francisco or Alcatraz this day nor in the past week.  Just something to think about. 🙂

IEPs, STAR testing, and a Culture of Fear

Does your child have an IEP (Individual Education Plan/ Program)? Do you know what happens at your school? Is your child’s IEP being followed? Students with learning disabilities are being disadvantaged when their IEPs are not being followed! Here’s a quick story, and I’ll try to be brief.

A special education teacher at one school came forward with frustrations one day during his lunch break. He approached a parent of a student with a learning disability and told her that her son’s IEP was being ignored. In fact, many students’ special needs at this school are not being met when they are given STAR Assessments. And apparently, the director of special education was made aware of this and doesn’t think it matters. The teacher asked how the school would respond if parents made formal complaints. The director said she didn’t know of any parents who would complain. I wonder why she doesn’t seem to think IEPs are necessary for STAR testing. Perhaps she doesn’t think parents know much about STAR anyway and wouldn’t question. Or perhaps she’s like me and considers these mandated forms of progress-monitoring completely worthless and she (not me) doesn’t feel its worth the bother.  In any case, this director did not side with the special education teacher to do anything about this.

If you needed another reason to opt out of STAR testing, here it is: The purpose of these third-party computer-based assessments (STAR is one of many products on the list of state-approved progress-monitoring systems, which our schools are required to purchase) is supposedly to provide teachers with valuable feedback on their students’ performance and academic development. When students with disabilities are given STAR tests without following their Individual Education Plans, the results of the tests are highly unreliable. When a student, whose IEP states that the student must be tested alone and free of distraction, is not given those accommodations, their tests scores will be low. When the IEP is followed, the test scores jump up drastically. How is a teacher supposed to use data from STAR if it is flawed data to begin with? And how much uneccessary extra testing is going on with these kids to get it right?

The parent in which the special education teacher confided called someone from BOCES who is in charge of quality control for special education. This person absolutely confirmed that IEPs must be followed for the STAR testing and that the school was in violation of the law for not doing this.  This person even spoke with the school’s director of special education, who still didn’t agree that there was a problem.

Nobody was listening to the special education teacher, not the classroom teachers or administration. He spoke to the parent during his lunch break–made a special trip to her door–because he felt compelled to act in these students’ best interest, and he felt powerless to do his job.

When it became know that he was talking to a parent (imagine that!) he was called into the superintendent’s office. He was asked if he liked his current job because he could be placed somewhere else— less desirable!?!?  He was accused of insubordination for going against the other teachers and for speaking about school happenings outside the school (to the parent).  He has tenure so they can’t fire him.  But as he later told the parent, “they can make my life miserable.”  He also told the parent that there was nothing more he could do.

This teacher is very frustrated because he takes his job seriously and truly wants to do all that he can for his students so that they can succeed.  He knows what works and what doesn’t.  He believes in personalized education and in the past has used this successfully.  IEPs for students with disabilities are crucial parts of this type of education and when they are ignored, the achievement gap widens.

Let’s Hear it for New York State’s 2013 Teacher of the Year

Greg Ahlquist is New York State’s Teacher of the year, 2013.  Let’s have a big round of applause! This man must really be special.  His teaching methods must be unique and innovative.  He must be incredibly creative in the classroom.  He must be a one-of-a-kind hero.  Surely, inspiring his students must come naturally.  Certainly, his methods are his own, and other teachers can only aspire to be as effective as he must be.

In Ahlquist’s essay, How Greg Got HIs Groove Back, we get a formulaic and artificial sense of modesty as he describes how the Common Core State Standards revolutionized his teaching practices.  The Common Core encourages an emphasis on a close reading of the texts to gain a deeper understanding–or an ‘unpacking’ of the texts as Common Core junkies too often state.

If we do a close reading of Greg Ahlquist’s essay we can unpack his text and dig deeply to discover the true meaning and a deep understanding of what this is really all about– that this man is a true ass-kisser.  ‘College and career readiness’ is a phrase thrown around in any Common Core propaganda you’ll read and Ahlquist’s essay is no different in this false reassurance.  He goes on to declare, “Standing at the intersection of these two storylines is David Coleman, one of the architects of the Common Core and newly appointed president of the College Board.  In a video on the EngageNY website (http://goo.gl/Zf5lm), you can see him suggest ways to teach the Gettysburg Address. After viewing this video and seeing one of my administrators brilliantly model Coleman’s suggestions in a close reading of that text, I realized that Coleman understands teaching and learning profoundly. His lesson on the Gettysburg Address provided me with the kind of hope and reassurance that many teachers need as we seek better ways to prepare our students to think critically and become engaged citizens.”

As I give Ahlquist’s proclamation a close read, I naturally long for a text-based question which would obviously come in the form of a multiple-choice high-stakes test.  I’m sure the answer would be (C) as in, Oh oh, pick me pick me, I love Common Core!

You see, Ahlquist is a CC man and although he has loads of praise for the Common Core State Standards, the type of CC to which I am referring is actually Carbon Copy.  Whereas Ahlquist sees the Common Core as “a way out of that professional crisis of conscience,” most teachers out there are being confronted with one as their freedom to teach creatively and independently is being stripped away.  More and more teachers in the profession are expected to mirror one another in what and how they teach.  Unique approaches are replaced with a ‘yes-men’ mentality and this goes against most teachers’ moral consciences.  Too much standardization will most definitely create more and more carbon copies–in our teachers and our students.

When one declares that it’s a good thing to read texts with more depth and gain a true understanding, I do not disagree.  And everybody wants high standards (as long as they are realistic and developmentally appropriate).  Most teachers are adept enough at realizing this and don’t need standardization to let them in on this little secret.  But, what bothers me most about those gushing mindless praise for the Common Core is that for these particular teachers, it’s like meaningful teaching never occurred to them before the Common Core told them how to do it!  Ahlquist states, “my classes revolved around facts and minutia, rather than around my craft as a historian. There was a disconnect between my sincere desire to prepare my high school students for college and the actual work they did in my class.”

Good teachers, which there are many, are belittled and patronized by such standardization that is largely created and peddled by non-educators.  And teachers like Greg Ahlquist only corroborate the myth that teachers were randomly successful at their jobs and needed someone to step in and solve the problem.

So if you too want to “discover content and meaning that a casual reader can easily miss,” dig deep…. wait never mind, fall in line and do as you’re told.  Then you too might have a chance at being named next year’s Teacher of the Year.