Mmmm… a slice of heaven!

Everyone should have homemade pie for dinner every now and again–no appetizers, no entrees, no sides… just pie (naturally à la mode & whipped cream are acceptable additions). It makes life worth living! What a surprise yesterday at Frog Pond, when they were giving blueberries away by the case. Apparently they were too ripe to sell. But the 36 pints we took had lots of useable berries which were quickly converted into the most delicious 26 half-pints of jam, and two amazing blueberry pies with spelt-flour crust. I don’t like to brag but… YUM! Try a pie for dinner one night. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed!

Homemade blueberry pie served a la mode with whipped cream. The butter crust made with 100% spelt flour is divine--with a toasty, nutty flavor, and the flakiest texture.

Homemade blueberry pie served a la mode with whipped cream. The butter crust made with 100% spelt flour is divine–with a toasty, nutty flavor, and the flakiest texture.

I couldn’t find Bob Dylan’s amazing original but here’s a pretty good cover:

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Left-Right Alliance for Education

We oppose the CCSSI because it continues the failed education reforms of the past and violates privacy rights as it builds a system for centrally managed student training for the future workforce of the “Global Economy.” This central goal will dismantle liberal arts education, which most contributes to the development of mature thinkers who are prepared to thrive in any chosen life path and sustain a free civilization.

In a top-down structure of power, the apex wants nothing more than unquestioning compliance. Things run smoother that way. If people can be kept busy with various vices and the illusion of irreconcilable differences, decisions can be made that maintain the status quo and benefit the people already on top. But weeks ago a discussion began amongst various advocates for education across the country and we determined that a strong foundation exists for multi-partisan opposition to the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

It is with great pleasure that I would like to introduce the Left-Right Alliance for Education. With opposition to the CCSSI often mischaracterized as coming from only one side of the political spectrum, the Left-Right Alliance for Education bridges the divide and finds common ground in a multi-partisan opposition to the CCSSI. Please visit the site and read our statement!

The Right to Opt Out

There are many different things going on in education today, and they have raised concerns by a growing number of people from across the country. The dialogue has been heated as we grapple to understand the logic in things like the new Common Core State Standards, APPR, inBloom, corporate profiteering, and excessive testing. These things are all worthy of discussion and in my opinion work in unison to destroy an environment of authentic learning. They are all connected and the results have been disastrous with school closings, low teacher morale, kids dreading the school day, and parents kept purposely in the dark about the whole mess. But the latter is starting to change.

I’d like to focus this post on testing and your right to opt out or refuse these tests in New York State. As excessive testing and related pointless and time-consuming activities like test prep can consume up to 25% of our children’s academic year, it’s time for parents to rise up and say NO MORE! We cannot stand by and watch our kids disengage from learning, losing any deep and meaningful connection to their education. We cannot allow qualities like creativity and innovation to be replaced with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to learning and a ‘teach-to-the-test’ mentality driving the curriculum. Curriculum itself is being narrowed to cover only what is on the test and is largely concerned with areas of ELA and math, giving less importance to other subjects. It fosters superficial learning and rote memorization; Test prep* drives kids to retain information just long enough to pass the test, and then that information is easily forgotten and replaced with the next round of tested material. It does not foster deep thinking and creative problem solving skills. It also teaches kids that there is only one correct answer to a question in academics and in life, when we know that in real life this is rarely the case. It fosters a deeply seated fear of failure, when in fact making mistakes is a normal part of any learning process. We see kids with high levels of stress, reporting stomach- and headaches as a result. All of this together is a large reason why so many kids hate school these days. Standardized tests do nothing to foster a child’s natural love of learning. In fact, it does the opposite. Furthermore, these tests cost tens of millions in taxpayer money in New York state alone, and the additional mandates associated with them cut into our districts’ budgets and force us to make cuts to faculty & staff and other valuable programs. These tests use our children as pawns to judge their teachers and their schools, and they promote the idea that tests scores and data charts are more important than the individual student. Let us not forget that test scores are an unreliable way to judge students, teachers, or schools. And tests contain cultural biases that are generally unfair to students of color or non-English-language students. The list goes on and on.

There are so many different tests out there and the regime can vary from state to state and district to district. The majority of these are administered unbeknownst to most parents. The only ones that are widely publicized are the so-called state tests, which are administered in grades 3-8 in the spring over the course of 12 days. To be sure, these are the beasts that dominate education, causing chaos and fear among the school population and disrupting learning in many ways from endless test prep, to the tests themselves, to the time and money invested in grading them, paying for substitute teachers, etc. These tests are high-stakes tests that can make or break students, teachers, and their schools.

But what about field tests? Many parents don’t even know what they are or that their children are being subjected to them. Field tests use our children as guinea pigs so that testing companies can try out new test questions before marketing them on the ‘real’ tests. Certain grades/ subjects are chosen at certain schools and the children there are given an extra test. Field tests are even embedded in the spring state tests. Corporations like Pearson Education stand to make a fortune selling tests to states like New York, with whom it has a $32 million contract.

With New York state’s controversial APPR plan, schools must submit a detailed plan on how teachers and administrators will be evaluated. This plan, which must be approved by the state, includes SLOs (student learning objectives). At EngageNY, we learn that a Student Learning Objective is “an academic goal for a teacher’s students that is set at the start of a course. It represents the most important learning for the year…. It must be specific and measurable, based on available prior student learning data, and aligned to the Common Core… Teachers’ scores are based upon the degree to which their goals were attained.” If, as a parent yet unfamiliar with the all of these terms and going-ons, you find this hard to understand, you are not alone. Just look at the litany of links, videos, and how-to’s offered by NYSED (New York state education department) so that teachers can familiarize themselves with the concept. SLOs can be teacher-created, they can be part of the state tests, or they can come in the form of state-approved third party assessments. In many cases, our children are subjected to yet more testing to rate their teachers. And in most every case, you as a parent will be completely unaware that any of this extra testing is taking place. You might even find your child coming home one day saying they just took a test in gym class!

I mentioned state approved third-party assessments. These are computer-based tests that our schools must purchase. My school uses STAR, a product by Renaissance Learning. Often times these assessments are part of the SLOs in the APPR plan, but sometimes they are just part of the mandate that schools must administer a pre-test, post-test, and various benchmarks along the way to judge student progress. I am not opposed to teacher-created methods of assessment–authentic assessment–for their own use, but I have many reason to oppose third-party assessment tools for use in SLOs and progress-monitoring. You can read those here.

And there is more testing to come, with PARCC assessments for K-12 slated to roll out for the 2014-15 school year. This is going to affect our schools and our children.

*Test prep is big business, considered a commonplace key to success. It reinforces the concept that the test is the main goal, and with the right test prep anyone can succeed.  Not only is test prep replacing real learning in our children’s classrooms, it is being marketed to us as an ‘aid’ to help our kids ‘succeed.’ Take this site, where we are asked if our kids are “preparing for the New York State Testing Program, also known as NYSTP?” Or this one, where we are told that “some races are worth the extra effort” so you’d better get “the Kaplan edge.”

A Unified New York

It’s no secret that New Yorkers–I’m talking the whole state here–are not going to just sit back and watch their children’s education being destroyed by current ed. reforms. We are a passionate lot of people, and we are diverse in our upbringing, our socio-economic positions, our lifestyles, and our paths in life.  We represent the entire political spectrum. We live in the one of biggest cities in the world. We live outside of small villages with no traffic lights. We work and we stay at home. We have years of life experience and we are just finding our way. We are black and we are white. We are many things and the entire gamut in between.

Yet we find ourselves on the same turf, in the same fight for a real education for our children. We want authentic teaching, free of the confines of excessive testing, scripted curricula, and unfair evaluations tied to testing. We want enriching learning experiences (also free of the before mentioned nuisances), that include a wide range of disciplines, a variety of methods, and respect for each individual child. We want schools that support teacher freedom and parent involvement. We want children that love to go to school and love to learn. We want teachers that feel professional once again and we want them to love the important work they’re doing. It sounds like we want a lot. But is it too much to ask? It seems to me that these are the fundamental requirements for any type of education– and right now they are largely missing! If this logic follows true, then we really don’t have education, at least not the type of real education that I want for my children. We must keep fighting and New York State will lead the way.

We already have many tens of thousands of committed individuals who are members of many unique and important regional groups. On Long Island alone, the many thousands of parents who guided their children to refuse the state tests this past April, has gotten the attention of the nation. A majority of school districts there, as well as various others across the state, did not meet AYP (adequate yearly progress). I think we will soon see how empty the state’s threats have been. We are moving forward and making change.

I am excited and inspired to announce that I met with leaders from each region of New York State in a Wegman’s marketplace in Liverpool, NY this past Sunday. We exchanged ideas. We shared concerns. And we left energized, knowing that soon we will have one ‘location’ where ideas can be shared and utilized from region to region. We will construct a NYS website that will be a common place for all of our regional groups to come together as allies, house documents, tools, kits, ideas, contact info, etc. We hope that this project will grow and unite us across the state and help us to accomplish our goals more quickly.

None of this is intended to replace or change anything that current groups are already doing, but rather to assist and unite all of our groups together. But this ‘location’ is particularly relevant and needed for rural communities like mine. We obviously do not share as many socio-economic similarities with a region like Long Island. Progress is slower here as our numbers are lower and our day-to-day concerns about life much more real. Our communities are smaller and much more spread out. There is still much work to be done informing both parents and teachers in my region about current ed. reforms. This is not to say that there aren’t many outspoken individuals around here, but often times we don’t even know that we’re working side by side on the same mission as I learned on Sunday when I met a woman who lives in the next town over! It is my hope that individual groups will continue to do the great work that they have been doing, share their accomplishments, and inspire other groups to do the same. It is my hope that as our regional identities remain intact, we can come together and understand each other more under a greater umbrella.

Valedictorian calls for action during graduation speech.

In North Tonawanda, NY the valedictorian spoke for almost 10 minutes at her 2013 high school graduation, coming out heavily against the detrimental effects of focusing too much on testing in school rather than real learning.

This young woman sums it up poignantly and perfectly, with the courage to tell it like it is. We spend so much time talking and looking to ‘experts’ for their insight. We can learn a lot by listening to our young people more often. Their voices are just as valid, perhaps even more so as they are the ones most manipulated under education reforms. The title of her speech was her state assemblyman’s phone number. Let us follow this valedictorian’s lead and have the courage to speak out. Call you legislators today and tell them what you think.

Whether you are for or against the state assessments, let your voice be heard and hopefully someday education will once against be about the joy of learning and discovery.

NY Assembly
NY Senate

If you’re in the area…

…save the date, invite your friends, post around your neighborhood/ town, invite your school administration and school boards, and share widely! KrisNielsenForum