Friday, May 8, 2015

Pitchman Fails To Extinguish Pearson's PR Fire

If corporations really are people then Pearson must be crying in his coffee right about now.

First, Pearson received a thorough skewering at the hands of John Oliver.

As one might expect, the Oliver bit went viral on social media. On the Last Week Tonight Facebook page, the video has been viewed almost 3.5 million times, and has been shared 56,000 times. To date, it's the most viewed video of the season. The only video that has come remotely close to the same number of views was a segment on government surveillance where Oliver interviewed Edward Snowden. The Snowden segment has been watched a little more than 2.6 million times, and shared 37,000 times.

Congratulations, Pearson!! You're more frightening to the American public than their own government spying on them.

What even I didn't expect however was that the segment went viral in the main stream media. It's been covered by Time, Rolling Stone, the Wall Street Journal and even EdWeek among a host of other major media outlets.

Then the brilliant Valerie Strauss reached out to Pearson and asked if they wanted to respond to the segment. Seems they thought this would be a good opportunity to do some Crisis Communications.

Pearson's chosen Pitchman is a fellow by the name of Alfred Binford. Pearson sent Alfred out to fight their five alarm PR Fire.

Alfred was described in the post as the "managing director of assessment and direct delivery." Whatever the heck that means.

A quick perusal of his LinkedIn account shows Alfred's only been on the job for 6 months. 
Before releasing his missive, Pearson may have wanted to make sure the job description on his LinkedIn account matched what they were sending to the Washington Post, since LinkedIn says he "Directs North American Sales and GTM operations across major units for global market leader."

His letter sure reads like a sales pitch, and not only is Pearson selling us their test, they're trying to sell us Alfred himself.
The best things that have happened in my life are because of my family and education. A single mom made schooling a top priority for my siblings and me, and I am a proud product of the Bronx Public Schools in New York City. Education has always been “access to opportunity” for me and has helped shape me as a husband, dad, neighbor, employee, and citizen.
My wife and I want our three boys to get great educations that prepare them to earn good-paying jobs and to find fulfillment in life. Just about every parent knows that so much of future success depends on access to the best education possible. 
It sure seems like Pearson's PR flacks are putting Alfred out there as the new, fresh, family friendly face of Pearson. And what a coincidence, I found reference to Alfred on the Facebook page of L. Wolfe Communications.

And of course, Pearson is listed as a client of L. Wolfe Communications.

The article L. Wolfe was hawking goes even further to sell us on the Cult of Alfred.
My family is no different.  In my new role at Pearson, I am busy with the development and distribution of our assessment and virtual learning solutions, and supporting our dedicated team of professionals who work with educators throughout North America. My wife, Jackie, is putting her undergraduate degree and master’s in business administration to work as a part-time substitute teacher in Georgia. When traveling for work, I am so grateful for her shouldering much of the responsibility for managing the busy lives of our three boys—everything from shuttling them to and from basketball practice and taking them to the latest action movie sequel (that I think are way too violent) to helping with their homework projects.
In the midst of our hectic lives, we find one activity that really unites us is family dinner. In the Binford household, we make an effort for the five of us to sit down at the table together every chance we get. Whether at home, or at our favorite local restaurants, this precious time together provides us with a break from our busy lives, and time to talk, laugh (mostly at me) and re-connect.
Note to Pearson (and I know you are reading this):


Parents want an honest conversation about your tests and your role in our kids' schools. We are far too smart for you to prop up someone like Alfred and attempt to have him woo us with flowery language about the importance of family and public education. We already know how important these things are, and that is precisely why we want you out of our schools and off of our kids' social media accounts.

Here is the press release that was sent out when Alfred took his previous job as President and CEO of MYCOM, "a leading provider of innovative engineering services and carrier grade software solutions". Give it a nice long read. (Go ahead and have it taken down Pearson, I have it saved as a pdf.)

Meet the real Alfred "Industry Leader" Binford.
Alfred Binford: Binford has more than 25 years of experience in the communications industry and has worked across a broad range of major markets. Prior to joining MYCOM North America, Binford led the Amdocs Consulting Division to significant growth on a worldwide basis, joining the company in 2010. Before joining Amdocs, he was a senior executive at Vodafone, leading its Global Enterprise business in the Americas. Prior to working at Vodafone, Binford led the Managed Services and Outsourcing businesses for Unisys and, earlier, at EDS. Binford began his career in telecommunications with AT&T where, over the course of eleven years, he held assignments of increasing responsibility across sales, marketing, network operations, and product management. Binford went on to work at Verizon, where he was initially Vice President of Corporate Marketing and Advertising, and later the President and CEO of its long‐distance subsidiary during the startup phase.
Communications Industry... Major Markets... Corporate Marketing... Consulting Division... Business... Sales... Operations... Product Management... Advertising...

Hmmm, see EDUCATION in there anywhere? No? Well, I'll be darned.

Pearson, your attempt to humanize your company is as big of a disaster as your test.

I beg you. On behalf of parents everywhere.


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

NJ Mom To The Leadership Conference: Let's Talk About Testing

The guest post below by Julie Larrea Borst needs little introduction, as the author of the letter tells us everything we need to know about why she is so passionate about the testing revolt currently captivating the nation. I will tell you though that Julie recently helped pen an opinion piece for NJ Spotlight, and she also wrote a guest post for this blog two years ago when she opted her daughter out of the NJASK. It is called Why On Earth Does My Daughter Have To Take This Test, and it's a heart wrenching reminder of how inappropriate standardized tests truly are for many disabled children, not just Julie's. 

A little background on what got Julie riled up enough to write the letter I have posted below. Earlier today The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights released a statement titled Civil Rights Groups: “We Oppose Anti-Testing Efforts”. 

And Julie is not alone in feeling the need to respond to this statement. The Leadership Conference statement also elicited a response from Jesse Hagopian and the Network for Public Education challenging the notion that standardized testing is the correct path to educational equity. Here's a snippet:
Yet we know that high-stakes standardized tests, rather than reducing the opportunity gap, have been used to rank, sort, label, and punish students of color.  This fact has been amply demonstrated through the experience of the past thirteen years of NCLB’s mandate of national testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school. The outcomes of the NCLB policy shows that test score achievement gaps between African American and white students have only increased, not decreased. If the point of the testing is to highlight inequality and fix it, so far it has only increased inequality.
You can read the entire statement here, and the press release here

Without further ado, here is the bold letter to The Leadership Conference's President and CEO, Wade Henderson, written by Allendale, NJ parent Julie Larrea Borst.

5 May 2015
Wade Henderson, Esq.
President and CEO
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
1629 K Street NW, 10th Floor
Washington, DC 20006

Dear Mr. Henderson, 
 I very rarely take the time to respond to press releases by organizations such as yours. However, the release dated today, 5th May, has left me wondering who exactly you’re representing, because it certainly is not me or my disabled daughter. 
 Please allow me to explain why the current testing, and its abysmal 14-year track record, are not in the best interests of students with disabilities (SWD), for persons of colors, or those who are economically disadvantaged. 
As a parent and a parent advocate, I am in a position to see, on the ground, how the effects of NCLB, and now the implementation of Bill Gates’ vision of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the accompanying tests, have grossly underserved those The Leadership Conference represents. 
It’s easy to understand the draw of the notion that a student’s progress or a teacher’s effectiveness can be quantified. I have a corporate background. I get it. But, this is people we are talking about, and more specifically, people who for whatever reason have challenges that deserve much more than the idea that a test score will help them overcome those challenges. 
NCLB did not close achievement gaps. It did not lead to better and innovative curriculum. It did not improve US scores on PISA. 
What NCLB did do is create a really clear map of where the deepest pockets of poverty are in this country. It did demonstrate that attaching “high stakes” (someone’s profession, their livelihood) to a number made for a narrowing of curriculum as everyone was forced to teach to a test. Race to the Top is that program on steroids. 
For the last 14 years, tax-payer money has been going to support a program that is not focused on raising up students, no matter what their situation. Special education, as I have lived it, in some of the wealthiest areas of this country, has been cut short by the insipid notion that having “higher expectations” and doing well on a test that takes none of my daughter’s disabilities into account, will somehow, magically produce better students, now called “college and career ready.” Anyone with the most basic background or exposure to SWD’s knows this is not true. We also know that all the money spent on testing and on remediation because a single test reported that students are “failing,” has resulted in desperately needed funding not reaching the populations most in need – students with disabilities, students of color, and students who are economically disadvantaged. 
Those scoring low on tests were labeled “failing” and punished with the loss of funds! Those “failing” scores translated into “failing schools” that were then closed and/or sold off to charter school companies. Imagine the very heart of your neighborhood being cut out. The effects are devastating – on the fired teachers, on the displaced school children, on loss of neighborhoods. This method is called “test and punish.” 
Now, with the onset of CCSS testing -- here in New Jersey it is PARCC -- we have had to deal not only with the complete overhaul of CCSS-aligned curriculum, but also with whatever districts have had to purchase in order to administer this fully online test – infrastructure, hardware (laptops, tablets, etc.), new technology staff to manage all of this, professional development to administer the test, and so on. Districts, already strapped for money, have still had to find it somewhere. There has been no accountability for the money spent on CCSS or the testing. Do you think special ed programs didn’t suffer because of this? Do you think in areas with poverty that money could not have been spent on more meaningful things such as - textbooks, art supplies, and afterschool programs? What exactly was wrong with the grade span testing pre-NCLB? And why are you not advocating alternative assessments, such as NYC’s Performance Standards Consortium, which allow students like my daughter to show what they can do rather than simply fail a standardized test. 
It is disheartening to hear organizations like yours, and the ones that comprise your membership, speak out against the one action that has actually gotten attention after years of parents being ignored. It is astonishing that your civil rights group doesn’t recognize civil disobedience when you see it, and what’s more, you condemn it! 
Please, I implore you, take the time to understand what these standardized tests provide in terms of usable data. Receiving a “not proficient at grade level” designation is not even remotely helpful, especially when true diagnostic tests are available. Speak to parents. Speak to teachers. 
I would be happy to have a discussion with you about testing, about special education, and how organizations like yours can help those of us living through this morass called public education. 

Julie Larrea Borst

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Ready Or Not, Here Comes The 2nd Grade PARCC

The 2nd grade PARCC test has come out of hiding.

This image has been making the rounds on social media. It seems a K-2 school in Lake Hopatcong, NJ has already field tested PARCC for 2nd graders. And a quick google search reveals they are not the only district. Pleasantville Public School's April calendar shows 4 days of grade 2 field testing starting tomorrow.

If you jump on over to the PARCC website, here is what they have to say about their K-2 Formative Assessments.

To help states measure student knowledge and skills at the lower grades, the Partnership will develop an array of assessment resources for teachers of grades K–2 that are aligned to the Common Core State Standards, and vertically aligned to the PARCC assessment system. The tasks will consist of developmentally-appropriate assessment types, such as observations, checklists, classroom activities, and protocols, which reflect foundational aspects of the Common Core State Standards. The K-2 formative assessment tools aim to help create a foundation for students and put them on the track to college and career readiness in the early years.
These K-2 assessment tools will help educators prepare students for later grades and provide information for educators about the knowledge and skills of the students entering third grade, allowing classroom teachers and administrators to adjust instruction as necessary. These tools also will help states fully utilize the Common Core State Standards across the entire K-12 spectrum. (emphasis mine)
What I find most peculiar is that the Lake Hopatcong principal sold the field test to parents as a benefit to the students. But if you read the passage above from the PARCC website, it is clear that the test is still under development, which means these children are being used as PARCC product testers. Here are a couple of definitions of "field test". First, from Mirriam Webster:

verb \-ˌtest\
: to test (something, such as a product) by using it in the actual conditions it was designed for

And also from Business Dictionary:

field test

Experimentresearch, or trial conducted under actual use conditions, instead of under controlled conditions in a laboratory. Also called field experiment.

I post these definitions to make it clear that a field test is little more than an experiment; an experiment being conducted on public school children by a for-profit company using tax payer resources and your children. Pearson conducting field tests on 7 year olds is not for the benefit of the children, it is for the benefit of Pearson

Here is PARCC's report from their 2014 field test. Please, try to find some reference to the field test being beneficial to student participants.

Field testing is actually to the detriment of students who are missing instructional time to help Pearson refine their product. Last year sixth graders in Massachusetts were smart enough to realize that they were being used as guinea pigs for Pearson's profits, and they asked for payment for the time they spent field testing Pearson's product.
One student, Brett Beaulieu, drafted a letter asking that he and his classmates be paid for their time and even calculated how much they should receive if they were paid the minimum wage for 330 minutes of testing : a total of $1,628 to be divided among the kids.
The Lake Hopatcong principal admits in her letter that "students will not be scored on their responses and the school will not receive the results of the testing" while making a feeble attempt to claim students will benefit solely by being forced to sit for a standardized test at the age of 7 to prepare them for the test when they are 8. That's a pretty hard sell.

If NJ districts implement Pearson K-2 tests, will 5-7 year olds be forced to agree to the same code of silence that students in grades 3-11 must abide by? If you are still not sure that it is a bad idea to allow a for-profit behemoth like Pearson to write tests for children as young as 5, please read this post now.

And since all of these assessments are purchased from private corporations, the testing material is ideological property. The students taking these exams – regardless of age – are no longer treated as children. They are clients entering into a contract.
At the start of these tests, students are warned of the legal consequences of violating the terms of this agreement.
In particular, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests require students to read the following warning on the first day of the assessment:
DO NOT PHOTOGRAPH, COPY OR REPRODUCE MATERIALS FROM THIS ASSESSMENT IN ANY MANNER. All material contained in this assessment is secure and copyrighted material owned by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Copying of material in any manner, including the taking of a photograph, is a violation of the federal Copyright Act. Penalties for violations of the Copyright Act may include the cost of replacing the compromised test item(s) or a fine of no less than $750 up to $30,000 for a single violation. 17 U.S.C. $ 101 et seq
So the first act of testing is a threat of legal consequences and possible fines. (emphasis mine)
There is no way that young children can possibly understand the consequences of such agreements, and far too many parents are unaware of what their children are being forced to agree to just to sit and take a test.

And there's more:

In addition, they are told NOT to:
-talk with others about questions on the test during or after the test.
-take notes about the test to share with others.
Sure kids shouldn’t talk about the test with classmates DURING the testing session. Obviously! But why can’t they discuss it after the test is over!?

Can 5 - 7 year olds even be asked to agree to such terms? We saw what happened to older students that made the mistake of mentioning PARCC on social media. What will happen to a 7 year old who's caught talking to the kid at the next lunch table? Will there be disciplinary consequences if a 2nd grader talks to a 1st grader about the test questions? Will the student get detention? Suspension?

To be clear, assessments in grades 1 and 2 are not new. The NJASK had 1st and 2nd grade tests, called the NJPASS, which were not state mandated and were not reported to the state, but districts could choose to administer. My own district administered NJPASS, and two years ago I opted my daughters out of the test. Last year the district decided not to administer the test, and I was told by an administrator that they "never got very good data" from the test anyway.

The major difference here, as I see it, is that the state of NJ is potentially allowing Pearson, a multi national, multi billion dollar company, to have a monopoly, not only on testing our children in grades K-11 but also in preparing them for the tests and offering remediation products based on test results.

Politico's Stephanie Simon recently wrote a blockbuster expose on Pearson, in which she stated:
To prepare their students for Pearson exams, districts can buy Pearson textbooks, Pearson workbooks and Pearson test prep, such as a suite of software that includes 60,000 sample exam questions. They can connect kids to Pearson’s online tutoring service or hire Pearson consultants to coach their teachers. Pearson also sells software to evaluate teachers and recommend Pearson professional development classes to those who rate poorly — perhaps because their students aren’t faring well on Pearson tests. 
The New Jersey Assembly has already passed a bill that would prohibit the administration of non-diagnostic standardized tests prior to 3rd grade. The Senate needs to act now. They have the power to keep Pearson away from our youngest students. If Pearson's grade 3-11 tests were field tested in NJ in the 2013-14 school year and implemented in the 2014-15 school year, it stands to reason that a Grade 2 field test this year means the introduction of a Grade 2 PARCC test next year. 

So what is the NJ Senate waiting for?

Friday, April 17, 2015

Annual Testing Is For Taxpayers, Not For Students Or Teachers

I've noticed a new and interesting kind of honesty in recent debates about testing and accountability. As lawmakers and education leaders try to sell the merits of the current testing regime and respond to the testing revolution that is sweeping the nation, a very telling narrative has emerged. 

Here are three instances that have jumped out at me in 2015.

Example 1:

This was an exchange on January 21st between Senator Elizabeth Warren and Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference, at the first Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on the reauthorization of NCLB. The title of the hearing was Fixing No Child Left Behind: Testing and Accountability.

You can watch the exchange here starting at the 1:37:30 mark. (I have truncated questions and responses to emphasize my point.)

Warren to Henderson: Do you see anything in this proposal that would make sure that the states that take this money actually end up helping the kids who need it the most? 

Henderson: Interestingly enough, your point about taxpayer accountability was just reinforced in the last several days by the George W. Bush Institute which issued a report under the authorship of Margaret Spellings that talks about the importance of annual accountability for purposes of ensuring that dollars and tax dollars indeed are well spent. 

Warren: I understand the need for flexibility but if the only principal here is that states can do whatever they want then they should raise their own taxes to pay for it. Throwing billions of dollars at the states with no accountability for the states for how they spend the taxpayer money is not what we were sent here to do. 

(emphasis mine)

So, what does that Bush Institute report say?

Responsible Taxpayer Policy: We believe in accountability for results for taxpayer dollars. The federal government’s role should be discrete and judicious, allowing state and local policymakers to make day to day classroom decisions about the education students are receiving.  However, in exchange for the nearly $15 billion in federal education funding that states and districts receive (and the over $1.3 billion that Texas alone receives) to improve education for poor and minority students, it is right and reasonable to expect states to test annually in order to know how every school and every student is performing every year. (emphasis mine)

Example 2:

This past Tuesday Diane Ravitch was on All In with Chris Hayes. She was the counterpoint to Merryl Tisch, the Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents. The topic was the testing revolt currently happening across New York state where refusal rates in some districts are approaching 90%.

You can watch the video here, the relevant exchange between Ravitch and Tisch starts at the 5:20 mark.

The face Tisch made when Ravitch says the
tests provide no instructional gain.
Ravitch: Now, when we talk about the results of the tests, they come back 4-6 months later, the kids already have a different teacher, and all they get is a score and a ranking. The teachers can't see an item analysis, they can't see what the kids got wrong, they're getting no instructional gain, no possibility of improvement for the kids because there is no value to the test. They have no diagnostic value. If you go to the doctor and you say, "I have a pain" and the doctor says, "I'll get back to you in six months" and then he gets back to you and tells you how you compare to everyone else in the state but he doesn't have any medicine for you.

Hayes to Tisch: How do you respond to that?

The face Ravitch made when Tisch started talking
about the $54 billion taxpayers spend on schools 
Tisch: Well, I would say the tests are really a diagnostic tool that are used to inform instruction and curriculum development throughout the state. New York State spends $54 billion a year on educating 3.2 million school children. For $54 billion a year I think New Yorkers deserve a snapshot of how our kids are doing, how our schools are doing, how our systems are doingThere's a really important data point...

Hayes has a hard time jumping in to make his point
Hayes: Wait, let me just say this though, I just want to point out something. That was interestingly non responsive to what she said, right? She's saying this doesn't work as a diagnostic tool for the child or the teacher, you're saying this is a diagnostic tool for the taxpayer who's funding the system to see if the system is working(emphasis mine)

Example 3: 

At a Town Hall meeting yesterday another NJ citizen confronted Governor Christie about PARCC. Here's what happened.

Later, Marlene Burton, 77, of Ridgewood, called the Common Core educational standards "shoddy" and the new standardized tests known as PARCC "a waste of time." What, she asked, was Christie going to do about that?

Christie, who once declared that he and other governors were "leading the way" on Common Core, said he had "concerns" about how the standards had been implemented and was awaiting a report he commissioned to study them.

The report, he suggested, would provide guidance as to how to "amend or abandon" Common Core, Christie said.
Conservatives have denounced the standards as federal encroachment on the classroom, though they were developed by the National Governors Association and education experts.

Christie said he wasn't wedded to the PARCC exam specifically but was committed to testing, saying, "Every taxpayer has the right to know: Are those children getting what they're paying for?" 
(emphasis mine)
To me, the "aha moment" Chris Hayes had in the interview with Ravitch and Tisch perfectly exemplifies the awakening parents across the country are experiencing. There is a dawning awareness that these tests are not for the benefit of our kids, their teachers or their schools. The true purpose of these tests is finally being revealed - they are a measure used to hold the public school system accountable for the tax dollars they receive.

I find the honesty of these statements refreshing. Let's be direct and open about this. 

The tests are not for the benefit of students or teachers, they're for the benefit of taxpayers. 

Lawmakers and education leaders like Tisch need to be direct and honest about this. Let them try to explain to parents that the test has no value for children, but they will lose arts programing, recess, librarians, guidance counselors and nurses so that tax payers can be sure their tax dollars are being well spent. Let them explain to parents that their kids won't get any anything out of it, but at 8 years old they will to be subjected to 8 hours of high stakes standardized testing and countless hours of test prep so adults can justify spending tax dollars to foot the bill for public education for all kids. 

Those are pretty hard messages to deliver - no wonder they've been trying to convince parents the tests are good for kids. 

Problem is, every year less and less parents buy it.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

GUEST POST: So, Does The Opt-Out Movement REALLY Have A Race Problem?

I could not be more thrilled to host a guest post from the amazing Sue Altman. Fans of Jennifer Berkshire's may recall Sue's guest posts over at Jennifer's blog, Edushyster. (see here and here)

When Robert Pondiscio asked, "So, does the opt-out movement have a race problem?" and used New Jersey's exploding opt-out movement as his exemplar, he awoke the Jersey Girl in Sue. She just had to respond, and I just had to give her a place to do so.

Follow along as Sue masterfully flips the script back on Pondiscio.

Robert Pondiscio's article, Opting Out, Race and Reform, is another example that tried and true practice of lumping people into a group and discounting what they say because of who they are. And worse, Pondiscio has not done his research. For an opt-out movement to catch on, certain criteria must be in place— things like democratically elected school boards, open-minded and respectful superintendents, and teachers with job security. But, by design, these things have been removed, systematically, from urban communities, so that policies can be put in place that community members (mostly African-American or Hispanic) have no say in. So, I have news for Pondiscio— it’s not the opt out movement who has a race problem.

In New Jersey, unfortunately, discounting people based on a gender or racial stereotype is always easy money. A total layup. The Star Ledger did it back in 2013 in an editorial about protests in Newark:

Cami Anderson, the superintendent of schools in Newark... is facing the predictable shrieks of protest from the defenders of the status quo.
And, later:
much of ​(Cami Anderson's) opposition is shrill and unreasonable.
​And, still:​
None of these reforms is guaranteed to succeed. But it is sensible to lean on the best charter schools for help, give principals control over their staffs and make sure each ward has plenty of school choices. If that stirs up a bees nest, then so be it.
As both Jersey Jazzman and Bob Braun ​have ​pointed out, the language here— Shrieks, shrill, unreasonable, bees nest—have uncomfortably racist undertones. The strength of these words for those who wield them is that it means that whatever these “shrill, shriek” protestors say is not to be taken seriously.

While Pondiscio’s article is commenting on the relative privilege of an entire group of organized, committed and well-informed parents (and this is a far cry from the much worse crime of racist language), he shrugs off their message because they are “white surburban moms” whose own selfishness is preventing poor and minority children of “benefiting” from testing. If you disagree with ed reform, you are either a shrill and shriek uneducated minority, or a whiny, selfish, white woman. When it comes to criticizing ed reform, you can’t win.

But, even more frustrating and misleading, he bases this conclusion on assumptions that are patently false, skewed, and ignore reality. People of all shades, genders and economic status have participated in these protests, whether they are opt-outs or other forms of civil disobedience. As Belinda Edmondson ​writes:

I thought Montclair was full of black people. Active, vocal, black people. Brown people too. I thought I was black. So did my children, who had no idea they are white—or rich (yay!). But these are the facts about New Jersey, according to the reformers: only wealthy white liberals are opting out of PARCC. 

The reformers should have notified the large multiracial group of opting-out students who crowded into Montclair school auditoriums during PARCC testing that opting-out is a whites-only privilege. They should have informed the protesting black and brown students who took over the Newark schools superintendent’s office that they are the wrong color. They should take aside those outspoken black parents at the Newark Board of Education meetings and minority anti-reform groups like the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice, and let them know: these are not the actions of black people. Stay in your lane, already
Further, if we look at the individual cities Pondiscio mentions, we see that, in fact, plenty of protests have occurred by community members in those communities. They might always not be opt-outs, but urban communities have made their disgust with these policies known.​

To pretend otherwise is blatantly dishonest.​

As someone who has studied the opt-out movement in New York, I believe that opt-outs have a place in the protestor's toolbox; but so do old fashioned walk-outs, demonstrations and sit-ins.

This past year, many urban communities in NJ have come together to protest with great voracity. Ms. Edmondson mentions the student protests in Newark. A shining example. She could have also mentioned this notable opt-out in Paterson, these protests in Newark over privatization, or the student-walk outs in Camden. If the community in these cities chooses other forms of protests instead of opt-outs, let’s believe that they have assessed the situation and executed their best strategy.

​Foundations of the Opt Out Movement​

Opt-outers everywhere feel they are taking a risk in order to participate in this form of protest- it is stressful, it feels risky, it involves their child, and there are a lot of unknowns around punitive measures that might be taken against them. So, often, a strong opt-out movement requires a certain pre-existing set of community criteria that must be met so that those risks are mitigated. Only then do people feel comfortable joining, and only then can the opt-out movement spread in an area. So what, then, helps an opt out movement prosper? And why would an opt-out movement struggle to gain a foothold in an urban city in NJ? I’ll use Camden as an example since it is the city I am most familiar with.

First, the opt-out movement is boosted tremendously in an area if the district superintendent is supportive. Long Island superintendent Dr. Joseph Rella was an early supporter of the opt-out in his home district. Dr. Rella stands firm in his support of the choices of parents in his community, even as he is pressured by the NYS DOE to do otherwise. Accordingly, his district had a high opt-out rate. Other superintendents have followed his lead in New York, and recently over 100 superintendents have signed a letter of protest against high-stakes testing. When superintendents speak out, parents are empowered to actively refuse tests.

​And of course, in Camden, Superintendent support will never happen.

Superintendent Paymon​ Rouhanifard is in the “in crowd;" handpicked by Cerf and Christie to run this state-controlled district in an area known for its Democratic boss control. Rouhanifard would never bite the hand that feeds him. Unless he was abudcted by aliens and given a brain transplant, there is no way Rouhanifard would ever, ever be supportive of any kind of testing boycott in his district. In fact, all signs point to his taking punitive action against residents. Faux-Choice in Camden exists only in the form of closing neighborhood and forcing charter schools down residents’ throats-- not actual, messy democracy​.​

Second, teacher support and teacher connection to community is key— and these are precisely the relationships most disrupted by ed reform policies in Camden. Many members of the opt-out leadership team on Long Island have close friends or family members who are teachers. Many “white surburban moms” in Long Island first found out about the testing madness informally, while chatting with teachers who are also members of their community. In Long Island this winter, Beth Diminio, a brave teacher from Comsewogue announced she would be the first teacher to opt-out of administering tests, bringing additional energy to the movement. When trusted, highly-respected teachers say that the tests have little value, parents listen.

Meanwhile in Camden… teaching is already very much a tenuous job, with layoffs, cuts, and school closures happening right on schedule. And, in New Jersey, the people who are hurt most by the closings are, overwhelmingly, educators of color. As Jersey Jazzman put it, "There is a history of discrimination against teachers of color in "choice" plans, and NPS, if it goes through with One Newark, may be susceptible to a legal challenge under civil rights laws.” When teachers are being fired in droves, it becomes pretty difficult to speak up- another good reason opting out ​feels like a more risky path for urban residents​

If you were a teacher in Camden or Newark and you felt the target on your back, would you stick your neck out to support an opt-out movement? I would sure think twice.

Third, local town Board of Educations have been powerful supporters of opt-out policies at the district level in New York, something that is made nearly impossible in Camden. Many districts in NY have passed “testing resolutions” as a way to legitimize opting out, and groups have pushed for anti sit-and-stare policies in their individual districts. Further, opt-out grassroots groups in NY have organized to elect sympathetic Board of Education candidates in districts in order to have these voices heard on the BOE level. Then, when opt-out supportive resolutions pass, people in those communities feel comfortable that their Board of Education supports them in philosophy. In Camden, however, the BOE is not elected and is a puppet of the district, which is controlled by the State.​

It is highly unlikely they would ever pass a resolution that stands in opposition to the party line. Fortunately, in New Jersey, Save our Schools NJ is working to pass anti-sit and stare resolution at the state level, the first step of which has just passed unanimously.

And finally, the closing of schools and the reshuffling of residents creates an environment that makes it very, very difficult to organize. If you sent your child to a school for six years, and then that school closed and you were forcibly moved to a different school in a different neighborhood— it would be much more difficult to forge the type of relationships that lubricate community organizing efforts. I hope that outcome is not one that is part of the grand ed reform plan, but if closing schools and shuffling families around makes it harder for them to organize against the reforms, I’m sure that will suit the district just fine.

So, before Pondiscio criticizes residents of Camden and other urban areas for not being part of the opt-out movement (or, criticizes the opt-out movement for not including the urban districts) it might be wise of him do a little research, and think more broadly, more contextually about why opt-out might have trouble gaining traction in an urban area in NJ, in favor of other forms of protest​. 

Opting out is perceived as a personal risk, requires strength in numbers, and a great deal of mechanisms in place— most of which are extremely difficult to obtain in these cities. Difficult because of policies that have been put in place by a state government that seems to care very little about the choices of urban residents, despite their hypocritical rhetoric. Difficult because schools have closed and churn has occurred, and difficult because trusted teachers have and will be fired.

To accuse the opt-out movement of having a race problem is to miss the issue entirely, and to discount all other forms of protest in urban areas
 is dishonest and inaccurate.

Sue Altman is a proud product of New Jersey's public schools. At the University of Oxford, UK, Sue received a dual degree in International and Comparative Education and her MBA. Her MBA thesis focused on evaluating the the opt-out movement as a market-response boycott.  She is currently an administrator at an independent school.  

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

PARCC Social Media PR Stunt Backfires On Maryland DOE

The "new generation" of standardized testing has arrived, and seems to have triggered a "new generation" of incentives as well. Districts are coming up with all sorts of ways to coerce children to take the tests and convince parents to let them. 

On her Answer Sheet blog Valerie Strauss highlighted some bizarre incentive programs intended to "bribe" students to take Common Core tests. The programs have cropped up from all over the country, and have included gift cards, iPads, “bonus points” for the next marking period, skipping English and math final exams, elective credits, extra recess and "free dress" days for schools with uniforms.

An ill conceived Maryland Department of Education PR campaign directed at parents may however win the award for most distasteful. It claimed to be letters from 4th graders to "Mom and Dad" telling them not "worry" or "be stressed out" about the "big test" because it's "just a little reading and math" and the teacher knows the kids will "do fine." 

Hayden wants his parents to know he "might have a little headache from working hard on the computer" but Kara says that if her parents will just "feed her a good breakfast" and let her "wear the same clothes all week" it will help her do her best on the PARCC. (I'm not going to touch how odd it is for a state agency to suggest it's OK to let a kid wear the same clothes five days in a row, or to make light of a kid coming home from school with a headache from too much screen time, let alone to ignore that not all kids have a "Mom and Dad")

Not only did the Maryland State DOE display the bad judgement to create and post these supposed letters from 9 and 10 year olds, the DOE's Chief of Staff, John White, shared it on Facebook with the statement "Truth from the mouths of babes..."

What I find particularly offensive is that the DOE is arrogant enough to presume they can hijack the voices of children, and use them to sell their own agenda. If a random sampling of 9-10 year olds were asked what they truly think of taking a 10 hour math and english test, it's hard to imagine there wouldn't be a very wide range of responses. How completely disingenuous and arrogant to cherry pick only the rosy cheeked "everything's going to be just fine!" responses.

Here is just a few of the comments on the post, but it is a pretty representative sample of the reaction the post elicited from people that don't work for the Maryland DOE.

It didn't take a degree in PR to know that this train wreck of a post was going to be removed, and fast. Sure enough, by this morning - *POOF* - it was gone, with nary a word about the ruckus it had caused the day before. This tactical error on the part of the Maryland DOE will no doubt become a powerful recruitment tool for Maryland opt-out organizers. 

But what does it say when a state department resorts to this kind of emotional manipulation to try to sell the PARCC? 

Here's what I think. If educationally sound, rational arguments about the need for high-stakes annual standardized tests resonated with parents and students, DOE's wouldn't need to rely on this kind of coercion and propaganda. It seems the opt out movement's message is resonating so strongly that it is drowning out the talking points, incentives and PR tricks of those desperately trying to stay in charge and in control of the narrative. 

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.