It’s official… well, not really

So I finally found out which kindergarten class my son would be in at our local public school. And I finally called the school to have him removed from the roster. We’re opting out of kindergarten in an effort to preserve the important elements of his childhood. There are no NY state formal requirements for homeschooling until age 6/ first grade so I do not yet have to file a letter of intent with the school. He’ll keep learning, I have no doubts–That is what children do best! He just won’t be forced to learn anything for which he isn’t developmentally ready.

What kind of schooling will his future hold?  I have no idea really. I’ll play each year by ear and follow my son’s lead. If he shows an interest in going back to school, then we will certainly support this and do whatever we have to limit the inappropriate nature of Common Core standards, excessive testing, and unreasonable data collection. But right now, we’re just going to have fun. He learns by doing and by playing. He’s a bright little boy, with normal levels of excessive little boy energy! I don’t want it limited, or kept in check. He needs it. He’s at his best when he’s moving moving moving! I’m also aware of my son’s individual nature. Every time I have tried to force any type of “lesson” on him, he resists, shuts down, becomes obstinate. But when I just offer the ‘tools’ needed to learn, and allow him to discover largely on his own with only slight guidance from me, he tends to absorb what it was I wanted him to learn in the first place. This year will be interesting. And it will be fun. It will be what’s most needed for him right now.

If the latest Welcome Back issue of my school’s newsletter is any indication, we won’t be missing much. In only the second paragraph of our superintendent’s letter on the front page, he praises the positive results on state and local testing, and mentions that the staff are “adapting their curriculum to meet the more rigorous Common Core standards…”  The Principal’s note on page 2 offers five paragraphs devoted to NYSED requirements, and STAR assessments in particular.  Testing, testing, testing– that’s how important it is in a public school education! Or at least, that is what we are led to believe. We can even help by “continuing to encourage your child to do his or her best on the assessment,” by visiting the STAR website to learn more.

Last year, parents focused heavily on refusing the April state tests, with one informal estimate putting the number of refusals at around 10,000. There will be many more this year who will have had enough with the hyperfocus on testing and data. This year too, parents are waking up to many other local and district tests, like STAR, that are used to unfairly evaluate teachers and take away valuable instruction time.

Recently someone asked if there was a list of specific tests to avoid. Some are obvious like the state tests and field tests, that have absolutely no relevance for our children’s learning. The field tests use our children as guinea pigs to try out questions for future tests that generate profits for testmaking companies. The  state tests are poor indicators of our children’s actual performance and are unfair judges of their teachers and their schools, not to mention that the results take so long to come back that they cannot aid teachers in improving instruction.

But what about other tests? My suggestion to parents who are unsure is: Ask questions! Lots of them. Insist to know what tests your child’s school will be administering, what they’re for, if they are used to evaluate teachers, how much time they consume, what they cost (in the case of STAR, which I heard was one of the less expensive state-mandated third-party assessment tools, it still costs our district far more than we received in Race to the Top grant money). Some tests might seem innocent–they might not be used to judge teachers, or you might be told they are used to see if the students are learning what they should. But as a parent, please follow your heart. I, for one, can never support a mandate like STAR, which wastes district money while other valuable things are being cut back or eliminated, even if the teacher’s evaluation isn’t at stake. Part of the reason we are opting out of kindergarten is because I feel there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to even care about a child’s formal academic progress at such a young age. Yet it must be evaluated using STAR pre-and post-tests in both ELA and math. Tests comes in many different forms and there can never be a definitive list for every school or even for every parent. Although I personally believe that assessment does not have to come in the form of a test, I am not against a teacher using tests as a measure of formative or summative assessment for his or her own classroom use.

We as parents must arm ourselves with information. We must do what we feel is in the best interests of our own children. And that does not mean we have to agree on everything. Our actions need to fit within our comfort zones. But if your gut puts you on high alert, don’t be afraid to open up dialogue with your school. And don’t stop until all of your questions are answered. And if something doesn’t feel right, please do exercise your parental right to guide and direct the upbringing of your children, including their experiences at school. Be courteous and communicative. You never know how this might aid you in requesting an alternate form of assessment for your child.

These are just my humble opinions, mind you. The first step–information! Get it where ever/ however you can! And use it to make informed decisions. Most importantly, if you’re sure, don’t back down.

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The Forum on the Common Core with Kris Nielsen

I want to extend my thanks to Kris Nielsen for coming to Morris, NY and speaking to us about the Common Core State Standards Initiative.  His lively presentation summarized his first book, “Children of the Core,” and drew a decent crowd to my one-traffic-light village and the meeting room of our local volunteer fire department. We saw a good number of BATs. There were, of course, parents and grandparents who worry about the future of education for their children and grandchildren. And surprisingly, there was a relative large number of homeschool parents, who share many of the same concerns as public school parents, and wonder what the Common Core will mean for them. It was a wonderful evening and I thank everyone who came.

For a village this size, our local public school services about 500 PK-12 students. Like I said, we have one traffic light, besides the newly placed one outside of the school to allow pedestrians to cross the street to the parking lot. When I planned this gathering, I had no idea who would attend, if anyone. I publicized the event everywhere I could think, and others helped spread the word by posting it on their Facebook pages or hanging a flier in their community. My worries shifted between having nobody show up, to having an overflow of guests coming from neighboring towns and villages. We are a string of small rural places, spread out and isolated in some cases. Some of my guests wrote on the sign-in sheet that they do not have internet or email and they listed their phone numbers instead. We are slow to unite. Many are not yet informed and my hopes were that this forum would help us extend the conversation at least a little bit.

As it turned out, we had about 40 guests, which was a perfect number for our venue. Sadly, only a few were from Morris. Last year, our principal organized some informational events (see here, here, & here) and not more than 8 people attended each one. After the event, I emailed everyone who left an email address to thank them for coming.  I repeated some pertinent information and invited everyone to join our local group, Oneonta Area for Public EducationOne woman wrote back and said this: “Good presentation, but there should have been a lot more attending.  My husband and I are seniors, grand- and great grandparents, and are very concerned about our future generations.”  These are feelings I share.

I know Morris, NY is the last place on earth where anyone would expect to be gathering to discuss education reform. But this is where I live and when I talk to other people about education, it’s clear that many sense a problem… even if they don’t know what to call it yet.  My son is 5 years old and my daughter is not quite 2. When my son started PreK last year, I had no idea that I would come to learn of so many disturbing trends in education. As a parent, I want to be involved in all aspects of my children’s experiences in school, and be able to make informed decisions that are in their best interests.

I suppose it is by luck of nature or nurture that I tend to question authority and the status quo. I ask a lot of questions and demand real answers. I guess the mixed blessing is that my children also possess this same characteristic and give me a hard time every day! My daughter is already deeply involved in her why phase so I can understand how irritating too many questions can be. But trust me on this: When parents like me ask questions, we do it because we care, not out of disrespect for teachers or administrators.

Unfortunately when it comes to knowing and understanding what’s happening in schools, the state has made this very difficult and many parents are in the dark when it comes to not only what is affecting their children, but also why. Our forum on the Common Core State Standards Initiative was for anyone who wanted to learn more. It was a forum for anyone that intuitively knows that these reforms are flawed but might not yet understand them completely, or how everything ties together. It was a forum if you have questions and you’re simply sick and tired of being dispassionately redirected to the EngageNY website for empty answers. And it was also a forum for those that think they support the Common Core but wanted to hear the other side, which is too often neglected by our state leaders and our school administrations.

There are many reasons to be concerned. You might be a parent who is concerned about the changed in curriculum your child is bringing home. Your child might have been one among the majority of NYS students that failed the state tests. You might be a teacher at a school that just adopted modules, and you’re wondering how you can possibly maintain your autonomy. You might feel conflicted as you align your curriculum with the Common Core and know that some of what you must teach is developmentally inappropriate for your students. You might be an administrator who feels caught between a rock and a hard place. Or you might just be a taxpayer watching your school budgets bleed out due to unfunded mandates. There are many reasons to be concerned.

Robert Valiant, of Dump Duncan and a contributing member of the Left-Right Alliance for Public Education described one of the most overlooked flaws of the Common Core as “a monoculture of the mind.”

In agriculture it is recognized that over-reliance on a single crop can have a devastating effect on the human population when problems arise that cannot be quickly resolved. Look at potato blight and Ireland’s potato famine. Crop diversity helps protect against plant disease, pests, climate change, and soil depletion.

Human survival, including adaptation to a changing world, requires diverse ways of looking at problems and the trial of ideas of outliers. Why then would we ever think it was a good idea to have everyone learn the same things at the same time in the same ways? The elite understand the value of diversity of learning–that is why they send their children to prestigious private schools where expanding minds is the norm.

The apple is our contemporary symbol of education. The great American author, Henry David Thoreau, once wrote, “Surely the apple is the noblest of fruits,” in his essay Wild Apples. Apples have been cultivated over the ages for flavor, size, look, uniformity, longevity, and other particular traits. As a result, we have apples available all year round and able to endure transportation of thousands of miles. But Thoreau advocates for the wildest of apples. He wrote:

So much for the more civilized apple trees. I love better to go through the old orchards of ungrafted apple trees, at what ever season of the year, –so irregularly planted: sometimes two trees standing close together; and the rows so devious that you would think that they not only had grown while the owner was sleeping, but had been set out by him in an somnambulic state. The rows of grafted fruit will never tempt me to wander amid them like these. But I now, alas, speak rather from memory than from any recent experience, such ravages have been made!

Thoreau recognizes that although their taste might not “suit the palate of the civilized man,” those wild apples possess qualities not found in the standard retail fruit, some making the best cider in the world, others far too beautiful to eat–hundreds of varieties that are often overlooked, their individual qualities neglected.

A “monoculture of the mind” ignores individual qualities, as well as regional and cultural differences. We must resist a monoculture of the mind and insist on a liberating, mind-expanding education for our children. The Common Core offers a flawed solution to greater social problems that we rural New Yorkers know all too well. Susan Ohanian, the long-time teacher, free-lance writer, and brilliant critic of the Common Core wrote this:

Not everybody can–or wants to be–top banana. Some people will be presidents, others will be custodians. We need both. If our society is to function, we need every manner of worker. The shame is not in being a manual laborer, a waitress, or a health-service aide. The shame is that we refuse to pay these people a lving wage. (“One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards” 1999. pp.15/16)

The United States, New York State, and this area in particular is filled with a diverse population of people. We are caring, creative, and entrepreneurial. In contrast to the monoculture, standardization, and corporate style offered by the Common Core, we wanted thanked Kris Nielsen with a selection of unique and locally-sources products in a gift basket–honey, maple syrup, soap, jam, salsa, and even beer–just a small selection of what individuals in this area have to offer.

What counts

I was recently asked to write something intended for teachers as the target audience. The theme is what counts:

What counts in education? If you had asked me that one year ago, I’m not sure what my answer would have been. Back then my oldest child was only 4 years old and about to start PreK at our local public school. My biggest concerns were if my son would miss me and how he would get along with the other kids at school! I thought he would play and have fun, learn some letters and numbers, and generally enjoy his school experience until the day he graduated. I was wrong. He grew to dread school and I noticed a gradual degradation of his natural curiosity and his passion for discovery.

I am a parent and I am appalled by the devastating reforms that are stifling rich and authentic learning for my child and all children like him who cannot be forced into a mold of precisely what, how, and when. This does not work and this does not count. Education reforms that cater to corporate interests and the will of non-educators must be dismantled. Over the past year I have learned that much occurring in our schools nowadays simply does not count… at least not to me or my children: APPR, SLOs, VAM, state-mandated third-party assessment products, high-stakes testing, developmentally inappropriate curricula, worksheets, modules, scripts, inBloom, and the list goes on and on.

What really counts can come in many forms and can vary all the time. (Yet I suspect that most of us know one true answer to this question). Like the individual qualities that make each and every teacher and student unique, the answers to this question are infinite. I believe that as we ask ourselves what counts, we must also consider a second question: To whom? To whom do these things count? If we believe the reformers, things such as standardized tests and APPR are important. It is to them that these things matter. This is a top-down approach that does not listen to teachers or parents. I am unwilling to accept this! And I ask that you join me in wholly rejecting this manner of education. There are far more important recipients of the to whom question!

There is no doubt that teachers count! I am not a teacher and I cannot speak of tactics or methodology, differences in curricula or lesson plans. But I do recognize that teaching is an experience entirely unique to each teacher and that those experiences are adversely affected by things such as scripted curriculum and unfairly using student test scores to judge teacher effectiveness. Unfortunately, there is much taking over education that undermines teacher creativity and innovation, and devalues your profession. In the words of Susan Ohanian:

It is a very dangerous notion to tell a teacher that the right reading program or the right set of standards is enough. …the best moments in our classrooms come from impulse, not from carefully constructed plans. This is why I am so skeptical about national teaching standards. How do you test for a sense of humor? A good heart? A generous spirit? A tolerance for ambiguity? An ability to step in at the right moment as well as the ability to step back and take the long pause?

Teaching and learning are too complex to be reduced to scripted curriculum and standardized assessments.

A year ago, I did not anticipate that I would opt my son out of his STAR testing and help guide others in a growing grassroots movement to take back public education from the reformers and the ‘standardistos.’ It is to teachers that I say, we are on your side in our actions. As we fight for authentic learning for our children, we fight for teachers’ rights to authentically teach. Excessive testing is a major problem in our schools that knots everything together. We see testing in its various forms as unfair judges of our children’s true abilities, their teachers’ worth, and their schools’ performance. We abhor these tests as they force a narrow curriculum and promote bad teaching practices. Testing is dominating the educational experiences for all and parents across our state are beginning to say ‘No more!’ With the guidance of their parents, students will be refusing these harmful tests. I ask you to do what you can to support students at your school and in your classroom as they refuse state tests, SLOs, or any other state or district mandated testing.

A test-driven education is heartless, passionless, and surely fosters a hatred for learning. As a parent, I want the best for my children—education that encourages child-centered learning, which in turn grants children an empowered sense of ownership over their own education and a sense of self-worth. Limiting education to a system of testing standards does not count. And it is our children that suffer most. Previously, I suggested that there was one answer to the what counts question that matters more than all others. The answer I give is children! My children, our children, your students– they count the most of all! We must never forget for whom we are truly working to provide a meaningful education.

My son should be starting kindergarten this fall, but with his best interests in mind we have decided to keep him home for at least another year. With early childhood education extremely close to my heart, let me end with some more words by Susan Ohanian:

Treating a kindergartner like a robot—or a Wall Street broker-in-training—cannot come to a good end. Standardistos don’t offer a rich garden of delight; instead, they want us to cut down the meddlesome Spanish moss of curriculum, replacing it with astroturf, which knows how to keep its place.

We know, and have always known, what really counts when it comes to education. But now, more than ever, we must keep this knowledge close to our hearts and at the forefront of our minds. This knowledge will fuel the reclaiming of public education. Together we will halt the degradation of our beloved educational system and restore ‘the garden’ with all of its inherent splendor and diversity.

Kindergarten CCSS madness? Buckle up Robin!

Common Core for Kindergarten in particular gets my goat as I have a 5 year old who should be starting K this fall. In NYS however, education is not compulsory until age 6 / 1st grade so we’re opting out of kindergarten. Will my son have his ‘Core Knowledge’ to be ready for first grade? Perhaps not, but he’ll have something better–his childhood! He’ll play and discover. He’ll be curious and creative. He’ll be a good human being, a caring and loving individual. We’re not sacrificing anything by keeping him home.