Sunset Park Fifth Graders Hold a Human Rights Fundraiser

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“I have been through a lot in my life. This painting represents a time in my life when I changed and became a new person…It also represents when you are in your deepest pain you still have that place in your heart that tells you there is still HOPE and NEVER GIVE UP.”

As the 2015-2016 school year comes to a close, many students and educators nervously await the release of scores that, according to state and local education departments, tell us our worth as teachers and learners.

But these numbers do not rate us on our humanity and on our ability to love and add beauty to our troubled world.  Official data such as test scores and teacher evaluation ratings cannot capture the spirit of our classrooms. 

In celebrating our meaningful – and largely unsung – work, I wish to highlight an amazing project conceived by a fifth grade class in a Title I public elementary school in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.  Inspiration for the project, which is called From Artistic Inspiration to Education, came from two main sources: the students’ study of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and stories told to them by their teacher, Maria Diaz, who recently visited an impoverished village in the Dominican Republic.  In promoting Article 26 of the UDHR, which states that “everyone has the right to education,” Class 5-502 decided to raise money for the school in the village their teacher visited.

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Here’s what the students of class 502 wrote on their fundraising webpage:

We are so lucky to have a school that provides us with all the educational supplies we need. Buying school supplies and uniforms is a challenge for all of the 13 kids that attend that school and we want to be able to provide those basic supplies for them. 

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To date, the students have raised a little more than $1,375.00.  This week, class 502 is inviting the school community to visit their classroom, which they’ve converted into an art gallery to showcase their UDHR-inspired artwork as well as to provide more information about the school they are supporting.  On Thursday, June 16, the students of class 502 will auction off their paintings.  The silent auction will take place at P.S. 24 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn from 3:30 – 7:00 pm (427 38th Street between 4th and 5th Aves.).  Please come (or donate online).  Witnessing the students’ enthusiasm and empathy will give you hope for the future.  Their words of wisdom – whether intentional or not – will also move you.  One student wrote this about her painting: “I enjoyed creating it even though it looks messy and a bunch of curvy lines.  That is what art is all about.  That is what education is all about.”

Here is a sampling of their creations.

house

“I am from the Dominican Republic. A lot of people there are really poor. Ms. Diaz showed us a village called El Aguacate, there are mountains there. Article 25 states that you and your family are entitled to having basic necessities, like a house. This is why I chose to draw a house.”

math

“I was inspired to paint Divided Colors because of my love for division in math. It represents how unfair life could be and how some people are divided. For example, children’s education is divided. In the Dominican Republic and in other parts of the world like Yemen kids don’t have the right to a proper education.”

horse

“My piece represents equality for all human beings and animals. If you only have an eye, you can still be friends with someone who has two eyes.”

flowers

“These flowers represent us helping a school in the Dominican Republic. I put the flowers far from each other because the Dominican Republic is another country.”

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bomb

“What inspired me to paint this is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because Article 3 says “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” In a lot of places people don’t have that. Also a lot of people suffer so much. BOOM represents the evils that destroy things and harm innocent people.”

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—”To me a parrot represents all the languages spoken in the world. The colors represent happiness and freedom. In Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it says that, “Everyone should live life with freedom.” Some people see a bird as a sign of freedom and we can all believe that someday we will all have world freedom.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Who’s Afraid of the Project Kids?: The Struggle to Integrate NYC Public Schools

In March, I wrote a blog post that detailed 10 reasons why no student in New York State should take the Common Core English-language arts (ELA) and math tests.  On reflection, I should have added that so-called low test scores are being used by many to label largely minority and Title I schools* as “failing” and therefore undesirable.  Some of these schools are located in gentrifying areas and a number of white and/or relatively affluent, professional parents are rejecting them.  The proposed rezoning of schools in the Brooklyn Heights/Dumbo area has been in the local news lately.  Here’s what one parent at P.S. 8, with a 15% poverty rate, had to say about P.S. 307 (85% poverty rate), which is located across the street from the Farragut Houses public housing complex in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood.  This quote is from an article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal on 9/22/15.

People who moved into Dumbo and Vinegar Hill “trusted they had an education strategy at least through primary school,” said Teresa Hohl, a P.S. 8 parent. “All of a sudden…they’re now going to be pushed into 307, which is completely underperforming in comparison.” “Rezoning Plan for Two Brooklyn Schools Riles Up Parents,” The Wall Street Journal, 9/22/15.

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IMG_9015Top left photograph is of P.S. 307.  The top right photograph is of the Farragut Houses opposite P.S. 307. The bottom photo shows P.S. 8’s main entrance.  All photos were taken by me. 

I know that not all Brooklyn Heights/Dumbo parents feel this way.  However, quite a few do and it’s problematic for area schools.  Not only does it hinder efforts to desegregate our schools but such comments imply that the lives of black, brown and low-income students hold less value.  They perpetuate a socioeconomic hierarchy in which white and/or affluent and professional individuals put themselves at the top.  Do they not think that their children could learn from black and Hispanic students? Did this parent ever visit P.S. 307? Did she talk with P.S. 307 parents and educators? Is her assessment of the school based solely on NYS Common Core ELA and math scores, which – as we know – come from highly flawed, unreliable tests that do not come close to painting an accurate picture of how a school functions.  What’s even more troubling is that some of these parents support the opt-out movement.  Yet, they are using the very same test scores they denounce to justify not wanting to send their kids to a school with a large number of low-income students of color.

I know teachers at P.S. 307 and have visited the school. I have heard great things about it under the strong leadership of the former principal, Roberta Davenport. A teacher not affiliated with the school recently told me that she would work for Davenport in a heartbeat.  P.S. 307 is an innovative STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) magnet school.  Each classroom has a living environment, and discovery learning is stressed through hands-on experiences.  Additionally, P.S. 307 has partnered with reputable organizations such as the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility and Lutheran Hospital.  SEL (social and emotional learning) topics are included in the school’s curriculum, and a school-based health center is available for students in need of counseling and other services.  P.S. 307 also offers instruction in Mandarin, and violin classes.

As a NYC public school teacher who has only worked in Title I schools, I can tell you that the vast majority of teachers try their best to give each student what he or she needs to grow academically and emotionally. It is not an easy job, and we face many hurdles, but we want to challenge each student at his or her own level regardless of the school’s status (Title I or otherwise).  In my 10 years in the system, I have not witnessed this so-called culture of low expectations.  Therefore, I don’t buy this argument that by enrolling in P.S. 307, which offers a wide range of quality programs and opportunities, the children of white and/or affluent, professional parents will receive a compromised education. Indeed the school’s test scores will remain lower than those at P.S. 8, but didn’t we already establish that the scores are meaningless? In no way should these Common Core test scores be used to judge a school.  Parents need to visit the school, observe the teaching going on in the classroom, talk to parents, and find out how the principal runs the school.

Resistance to the city’s rezoning plan for this part of Brooklyn also include some current P.S. 307 parents who – among other concerns – express fear that the school’s Title I funding will vanish as more higher-income students enroll in the school.  This happened at P.S. 9 in Prospect Heights.  No longer a Title I school, the PTO (parent teacher organization), which is comprised largely of white, professional parents, has developed an ambitious fundraising plan to make up for the loss of this funding source.  Initiatives such as the annual fall carnival and Friday movie nights also help to bring the community together.

The tragic ordeal that Manhattan’s P.S. 191 faced over the summer is another example of flawed official data being used by white and/or affluent, professional parents to argue against enrolling in a neighborhood Title I school.  On August 20, Emily Frost of DNAinfo reported that this Upper West Side school was mislabeled “persistently dangerous” by the New York State Education Department.  The story is complex; incident reports were miscoded, for example, and the case was mishandled by the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE).  You can read more about it here. In fact, the most egregious incident – involving rape and sexual assault by a 22-year-old after-school program staffer- occurred after hours at P.S. 191’s middle school.  For the purposes of this piece, however, I wish to point out that P.S. 191, which draws many low-income students of color from the Amsterdam Houses public housing complex, has been fighting a reputation stigma for years and this recent mislabeling adds another roadblock to filling seats at this dynamic elementary school.

I have visited P.S. 191 and know teachers there.  They are dedicated and hard-working and some have enrolled their own kids in the school.  P.S. 191 is a museum magnet school.  It boasts a new technology lab and strong partnerships with local museums.  The arts are prioritized as is project-based learning.  Like P.S. 307, there’s a lot of good things happening at P.S. 191 and official data falls short of telling the whole story.

What I predict will happen in the Brooklyn Height/Dumbo area is that a larger number of white and/or affluent, professional parents will choose to send their children to area charter schools like the International Charter School of New York in downtown Brooklyn and nearby Success Academy Fort Greene.  While minority students attend these charter schools, the perception is that unruly and undesirable behavior that might be exhibited by project kids at local public schools is not an issue at schools like Success Academy that also boast high test scores.  At P.S. 191, for example, there has been a white flight to  Success Academy Upper West.  If, over the next few years, P.S. 307 experiences an influx of higher income students due to the rezoning of Brooklyn Heights/Dumbo, what will happen to the kids who live at the Farragut Houses directly across the street? Will they be rezoned to nearby P.S. 287, which is 90% Hispanic and black? Will the under-enrolled P.S. 287 be seen as a dumping ground for poor students of color while P.S. 307 turns into a largely white, affluent P.S. 8-type school?

School segregation has been a hot topic not just here in New York City, but nationally too.  There has been much discussion of This American Life’s episode 562: The Problem We All Live With (July 31, 2015) in which Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for the New York Times Magazine, argues that integration is the key to closing the achieving gap but since 1988, re-segregation has been the trend in U.S. public schools.  In fleshing this out, Hannah-Jones details the accidental and short-lasting integration of Francis Howell High School, a mostly white public school in St. Charles, Missouri.  When Francis Howell parents found out that black students from Normandy High School in St. Louis would be allowed to transfer to their school, they were upset.  Thousands packed into Francis Howell’s gym to hear arguments against the plan.  Francis Howell parents argued that Normandy kids were dangerous and would make the school unsafe and drug-infested. They worried that Normandy kids would lower Francis Howell’s test scores. Had any of these parents been to Normandy High School? Did they know any Normandy parents or teachers? If the Francis Howell parents had gotten to know the Normandy community, would they have been welcoming? Their fears, not surprisingly, proved unwarranted. I wonder how many affluent Brooklyn and Manhattan parents listened to this public radio program and called into question their own prejudices?

Here in New York City, Hannah-Jones – together with Brad Lander, NYC councilman – appeared on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on August 20 to discuss school integration initiatives, specifically “controlled choice,” which is detailed in this New York City Council School Diversity Accountability Act.  More recently, on September 16, Hannah-Jones participated in a panel on school diversity at the Brooklyn Historical Society.  Unfortunately, I was unable to attend but I look forward to watching the video of the discussion, which will be posted soon on the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Vimeo page.

Education, especially at the elementary school level, is not just about academics.  It is irresponsible of policymakers to distill it down to data such as ELA and math scores and flawed school safety reports.  The goal of educators is to make the world a better place, which includes heightening students’ awareness of the injustices of life. Segregation does a disservice to our students.  Despite growing up in diverse New York City, how many white and/or affluent kids truly know and appreciate what it’s like to live in poverty and to face racism on a daily basis? We live in silos and fail to deeply get to know one another.  How can we create innovative, effective strategies to solve societal ills if we rely on superficial data, preconceived notions and our own self-interests to drive our decision-making?

*Title I, Part A (Title I) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended (ESEA) provides financial assistance to local educational agencies (LEAs) and schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards. -U.S. Department of Education

Forbes’ 30 Under 30: A Showcase of Corporate Ed Reformers, not Education Stars

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In its third annual 30 Under 30 special report (1/20/14), which celebrates the professional achievements of a diverse group of 20-something game changers, Forbes Magazine refers to the young, ambitious entrepreneurs in the education field as “stars.” This is a misnomer. They are not education stars for not a single one is a working classroom teacher.  As a business publication, Forbes should have instead referred to them as stars of corporate education reform.  28-year-old Dan Berkowitz, of Youth Orchestra LA, may be the only exception.

Here’s some telling data that I extracted from the information presented in the report. 15 attended Ivy League universities (five Harvard grads are among the bunch), two went to Stanford and one is employed by MIT. Of those boasting classroom teaching experience, five are Teach for America alumni. If I were to conduct extensive research on each organization on the list, I’m sure these numbers would be significantly higher.  To me, 30 Under 30 smacks of privilege and self-righteousness and lacks empathy.  Unlike working educators, who are the real experts, the men and women on the list do not spend 40+ hours a week in a school building teaching diverse learners. These “stars” lack the experience and knowledge needed in order to fully grasp the complexities of public education today. Thus, how viable are their products?

Forbes refers these entrepreneurs as “prodigies reinventing the world right now.” But is it for the better? And whose world are they reinventing anyway? Who is truly benefiting from their innovations? Are their offerings going to give our kids what they really need in order to become healthy adults? As a teacher in a Title I elementary school in Brooklyn, many of these so-called solutions seem gimmicky – “easy” fixes – and fail to get to the heart of the fundamental problems in our society that are negatively impacting social/emotional and cognitive learning: namely poverty and inequity.

27-year-old Caryn Voskuil of Rocketship Education, a controversial charter school network, is among those listed.  Forbes writes that “she began her career as an English teacher in Washington, D.C. public schools, but swiftly became a trainer of teachers.” So with just two or so years of teaching experience, she is deemed expert enough to train teachers? Forbes continues by saying, “She is charged with managing all digital curriculum and instructional technology that appears on more than 5,000 student screens, including replacing old hardware with over 3,500 Chromebooks.” Ok, that makes sense now.  She’s not instructing teachers on how to teach; rather, she’s training them to use computers to teach students.  In my opinion, Ms. Voskuil is missing out on the best part of teaching, which is forming relationships with students.  At my school, located in a low-income neighborhood of Brooklyn, some kids could care less about online instruction. Instead, they crave meaningful interactions with caring adults.  They want to be heard, and they benefit from connections made with both their peers and with the adults in the building. Excessive online learning is isolating and interferes with community-building. Darcy Bedortha describes this disengagement in her recent exposé on K12 Inc., a corporation that operates online schools.

In terms of instruction, can the new educational sites profiled in 30 Under 30Khan AcademyInstaEDU, mSchool and Udemy, for example – glean what motivates and inspires a struggling and/or reluctant student? Do they know that M, who “failed” both the math and ELA 2013 Common Core state tests, offers insightful commentary during class discussions on topics related to social inequality? It was M’s teacher, not an online program, who thought to assign him a research project on homelessness.  Today M is an expert on the Coalition for the Homeless and even persuaded my school’s Penny Harvest committee to donate money to the charity.  And when M, who is restless and impulsive, becomes disruptive in class, does the computer think to send him to a lower grade to tutor newcomer Spanish-speaking ELLs (English-language learners)? Experiencing these kinds of real life – not virtual – successes can be empowering for angry students with low self-esteem.  Recently a 40-year veteran teacher who subs at my school shared with me a new strategy he came up with to get M, who hates math, to do his work. His technique may or may not work again with the capricious M.  As every teacher knows, some days are better than others (today was exasperating with M), and what works for one child may not be appropriate for another.  Even with decades of teaching experience under his belt, Mr. D acknowledges that everyday is a learning experience and that he doesn’t have it all figured out.

What I’ve described here are just a few examples of authentic personalized instruction that address the needs of the whole child, not just a student’s “academic deficits” that ed reformers argue hinder “college and career readiness.”  Software programs do not offer social and emotional intervention strategies that teachers develop through experience and intuition. Learning is a process that ebbs and flows.  Some moments are ugly; others poignant.

I wonder how M would do with ClassDojo’s software, which tracks student behavior and boasts “45%-90% increases in positive behavior and 50-85% decreases in negative behavior”? The company was founded by Sam Chaudhary and Liam Don, both 27.  How do they define negative behavior? Do they, or their software, know what drives students to misbehave?  Jeff Bryant recently described disturbing discipline practices in charter schools in this Salon article.  Are these charters among ClassDojo’s clients?  I haven’t seen the product, but like the Common Core package of scripted curricula, standards and testing, I am skeptical.  I’m picturing a one-size-fits-all, prescribed solution that fails to take into consideration human vagaries.  Students are sentient beings, not outputs.

According to this CB Insights graphic, which appears in Forbes’ special report, in a single year, 2012 – 2013, ed tech startups received $1.1 billion in funding.

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If Forbes’ article listed the real stars of education, working educators, the ideas put forth would be far different.  Imagine if that money had been used towards lowering class sizes or to hire educated adults to work with individual or small groups of students in a classroom? Both M’s teacher and I agree that M would benefit from a one-to-one paraprofessional. What if that money paid for much needed social services and counseling that students like M are not getting?  What if that money funded inspiring social emotional curricula that schools either don’t have the money for or reject because they are seen as not preparing kids for the state tests?  With $1 billion, I would make sure that every teacher had a working printer and extra toner cartridges. I would also ensure a robust supply of SmartBoard bulbs, which cost around $200 each.  Every school would have multiple copy machines that work. Teachers would be given the freedom to choose their own books and supplies, and quality after-school enrichment programs – not test prep – would be available to all students. I would also invest more money in healthy school lunch programs.

Teachers aren’t miracle workers; neither are virtual academies.  Yes, teachers make a difference in the lives of children, but some things – like home life factors – are beyond our control.   Until we properly address the socioeconomic factors that affect learning, the problems facing our public schools will continue.

Floundering at the Forums: John King faces more Common Core critics

photo courtesy of WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show

Live streaming the Common Core forums taking place throughout New York state has become a type of spectator sport for me. While chopping vegetables for dinner, I cheer on my fellow advocates as they speak the truth about corporate education reform to a panel of policymakers that include Commissioner John King and Merryl Tisch, NYS Board of Regents chancellor.

On Monday, October 28, 2013, around 70 parents and educators spoke to the panel at Port Chester Middle School in Westchester County, New York. There are thousands more of us in social media, in classrooms, in offices, and in homes who share these speakers’ sentiments. We are organized and unwavering in our mission to protect our “special interests”: the children of New York state. The next forum will take place in Suffolk County, Long Island on November 6, 2013.  Here is a complete list of scheduled forums.

For those of you unable to watch the video of the Port Chester forum, I share with you two powerful testimonials.

Susan Polos:

“Dr. King, I’m Susan Polos, resident of Katonah-Lewisboro district. I am a National Board certified school librarian in the Bedford Central district.

I was appointed by Regent Cohen as a practitioner to review and revise the ELA/ESL Standards, work that was close to finished when NY accepted the Common Core Standards as a requirement for Race to the Top money. The district where I work was at first glad to accept the funds but soon realized that the costs were greater than the reward. I am talking about more than monetary costs.

In the race to ensure “college and career readiness” (as though there is one path, one type of college, one type of career), we have sacrificed the arts, music, librarians, time for interdisciplinary connections, project-based learning, experiential opportunities – all diminished or disappeared as time, money and human resources have been redirected to data collection and data analysis. In the eyes of the state, our children are numbers, our teachers are numbers, and the numbers have been clearly sorted and cut to achieve a talking point. Then those numbers – attached to names – are sold to the highest bidder.

The national obsession with competition hurts our most vulnerable children. Our children deserve play, time to grow, school librarians and much more. They are more than numbers. They are writers (and not to the test, which is how they are now taught), they are builders, they are dancers, they are dreamers. Our teachers are living through a nightmare, following directives they deplore while trying to make each day the best for every child, knowing they are the convenient scapegoat for poverty, racism, and equitable access to resources.

You would not subject your children to what you subject the masses to. We all know that powerful forces are buying our politicians and thus education “reform” has become the bipartisan gift that keeps on lining the pockets of the rich while destroying the middle class and poor and threatening Democracy itself.

Please stop this train. Not by eliminating one or two tests as appeasement, but by listening to teachers, parents and students, and by ending corporate profit’s vise on our most precious resource: our children.”

Bianca Tanis:

“This is my son and your reforms have hurt him. You mandate schools to share sensitive student data. You force students with disabilities to submit to inappropriate and humiliating testing. Only now, 5 months later, after you have had to endure public outcry, are you willing to consider changes. Where was common sense and decency 5 months ago when parents begged to for their children to be exempt and when children with disabilities were being tortured. You should be ashamed.

These reforms are not about education. They are about the agenda of billionaires with no teaching experience. The fact that your close advisors are the mysterious Regents Fellows, individuals with little to no teaching experience, who are paid 6 figure salaries with private donations by Bill Gates and Chancellor Merryl Tisch, speaks volumes. Private money comes with a price tag and that price tag is influence. We reject leadership that allows public education to be bought. That is not democracy. By the way, the Regents Fellow job description does not mention teaching experience as a requirement.

It has been said that parent opposition is typical when change is introduced. There is nothing typical about the present response. The incompetent roll out of the common core and the naked disregard that has been shown for developmentally appropriate and educationally sound practice is unacceptable. Your recent concessions are disingenuous and a case of too little too late. They do nothing to reduce the hours of testing or the inappropriate level of test difficulty. They do nothing to make cut scores reasonable or address serious problems associated with high stakes testing.

In addition to hurting children, your policies promote social inequality. Private school parents, such as your self have the opportunity to say to no to harmful testing and data sharing while public school parents are not afforded the same rights. Are you afraid of what would happen if you gave all parents a choice?

The inadequacy of our schools is a manufactured crisis. Poverty is the number one indicator of student achievement. When you factor in poverty, US schools are at the top. New York deserves real leadership that addresses real issues. If you won’t provide that leadership, we need someone who will.”

Here is the video of the Port Chester forum: http://www.lohud.com/article/20131029/NEWS08/131029001/Common-Core-Watch-a-replay-of-the-forum-in-Port-Chester

Here are blog posts about the Port Chester forums:

http://nyceducator.com/2013/10/reformy-king-john-pretends-to-listen.html

http://dianeravitch.net/2013/10/29/parent-these-reforms-are-not-about-education/

http://perdidostreetschool.blogspot.com/2013/10/not-one-speaker-supported-common-core.html

http://truthinamericaneducation.com/common-core-state-standards/stop-common-core-in-new-york-state-calls-for-john-kings-resignation/

My response to Arne Duncan’s Common Core speech

July 1, 2013

Dear Mr. Duncan,

It was disheartening to read your remarks about the Common Core that you made at the American Society of News Editors Annual Convention on June 25, 2013. I am an ESL teacher at a Title I public elementary school in Brooklyn, NY and wish to share with you some of my reactions.

1.) You said, “I’d like to make the case that these standards have the capacity to change education in the best of ways—setting loose the creativity and innovation of educators at the local level, raising the bar for students, strengthening our economy and building a clearer path to the middle class. But for these new standards to succeed, Americans will need to be clear on what’s true and what’s false.”

What is true and clear to me as a working teacher is that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) do not stand alone. They are not just a set of standards as you claim they are. In New York, they are attached to an educationally unsound, high-stakes testing program. Have you seen the tests? I am not at liberty to discuss the content, however I do wish to share with you an excerpt from a letter I wrote to Dr. John King – with a copy to you – after the administration of the ELA Common Core test in April.

Here’s what I wrote: I administered the grade 5 Common Core English Language Arts (ELA) test to a group of 10-year-old former English Language Learners (ELLs). Over the course of three consecutive days, they were asked to answer a total of 63 multiple-choice questions on two different answer grids, and eight short-response questions and two extended-response questions in two different booklets. In order to do this, they had to first carefully read and re-read a large number of reading passages.

Most of the grade 5 students throughout New York State received 90 minutes each day (a total of four and a half hours) to complete the tests. As former ELLs, the students I tested received an additional 45 minutes of testing time each day. Thus, they sat in a testing environment for a total of six hours and 45 minutes. If they had not received extended time, most of the students would not have finished any of the exams at the conclusion of the standard allotted time of 90 minutes. While I was impressed by the students’ stamina, resilience and overall positive attitude, by the end of day two their test fatigue and frustration were visible. This week, they will receive the same amount of time as the state administers to them the 2013 Common Core Mathematics test. By the end of Friday, April 26, this group of former ELLs – fifth graders – will have tested for a whopping total of 13.5 hours.

I ask you to picture your own children – even your 10-year-old self – sitting for that long to complete such lengthy standardized tests. I have a three-year-old daughter and my stomach tightens at the thought of her being subjected to such excessive testing. This brings me to my next point. The 2013 Common Core ELA and Math tests come at the culmination of months-long test preparation in our public schools that include four Acuity Benchmark Assessments (two for each subject area) and countless hours of teacher-created test prep practice. This egregious amount of classroom time devoted to standardized tests is robbing our students of their right to a meaningful education.

Common Core test prep (teaching to the test) and standardized tests – which together consume a great deal of the school year – do not foster creativity and innovation.

2.) You also stated, “Curriculum —on the other hand—is what teachers teach to help students meet those standards. Curriculum is generally chosen at the district or even the school level—and in many cases individual teachers actually decide on the curriculum and classroom content.”

Have you visited any New York City public schools recently? The NYC Department of Education has selected and recommends new math and ELA Core Curriculum options for grades K through 8 that are aligned to the CCSS. While terms such as ‘options’ and ‘recommended’ are used by the NYC DOE in promoting their CCSS curriculum, schools feel pressured to adopt them, and as an incentive, the options are being subsidized by the NYC DOE (a comparison could arguably be made to Race to the Top money being contingent upon a state’s adoption of the Common Core).

These options bother me because the so-called flexibility of the CCSS that was promised to us is compromised. Contrary to your speech, I do not feel free to educate “creatively and innovatively” in terms of math and ELA instruction. Remember, a huge chunk of class time is devoted to CCSS state tests and now we feel compelled to use the NYC DOE’s CCSS Core Curriculum.

I wish to note that two of the NYC Core Curriculum options – ReadyGen for ELA and Connected Math Program 3 – are published by Pearson, the publishing giant that creates New York State’s ELA and math assessments as well as the Next Generation Assessments. ReadyGen is not yet ready, and New York City schools that have signed onto the program are expected to start using it in September. While the NYC DOE is offering summer professional development on these new CCSS programs, schools cannot afford to send even half of their staff to the trainings. Also, NYC schools have already begun using NYC DOE Common Core performance tasks. Some are developmentally inappropriate and frustrate both teachers and students. For example, kindergarteners who don’t yet know all their letters and sounds are expected to write multiple drafts of a persuasive essay, and an 8-page multiple choice assessment is administered to them in October.

It is appalling to me how much money is being spent – wasted – on yet another ‘solution’ to closing the achievement gap. At a time of deep budget cuts – my school is having to excess teachers – it is unconscionable that financing the CCSS assessments and the CCSS curriculum, the latter of which, to me, is essentially a re-wording and re-packaging of what many of us already do, are prioritized over what I believe could be much more effective ways to raise student achievement: smaller class sizes, collaborative team teaching, especially in kindergarten, and more small group and one-on-one instruction. In other words, invest in teachers instead.

3.) Your remarks included, “Some of the hostility to Common Core also comes from critics who conflate standards with curriculum, assessments and accountability. They oppose mandated testing and they oppose using student achievement growth and gain as one of multiple measures to evaluate principals and teachers. They also oppose intervention in chronically low-performing schools. Some seem to feel that poverty is destiny.”

In your speech, you don’t mention parent responsibility as a contributing factor to the achievement gap. This, to me, is where we should begin in raising student performance, and I don’t believe it’s a novel idea. In 1935, Gandhi said, “There is no school equal to a decent home and no teachers equal to honest, virtuous parents.” I commend you for prioritizing early childhood education for all, but without continued parental support and involvement students, particularly those living in poverty, are much more at risk for academic failure. How will the CCSS help my student who missed 50 days of school in first grade and lags behind his classmates? How will the CCSS benefit my non-reading second grader whose mom ignores our persistent requests to get her daughter evaluated? Even with the best teachers, this child will slip through the cracks if she remains in a mainstream class with 25 -30 students.

Your speech indicates to me that you are not fully aware of the realities of our public schools. The impression I get is that you’ve primarily made only pre-arranged visits to model schools that boast high test scores. Please correct me if I am mistaken. For a more accurate picture, I suggest the following. Without consulting your advisors, pick a Common Core public school (in New York, for example) at random and make an unannounced visit. See firsthand – without all the fanfare of a pre-scheduled visit – how the CCSS package – and it indisputably is a package – is impacting our students, teachers and administrators. In fact, you are welcome to observe me at any time. I also suggest that meeting with a wide range of working teachers should be your priority. Again, for the most accurate results, select the teachers at random. Teachers know better than anyone else what students really need. If you make the teachers feel comfortable, safe and valued, it is more likely that they will speak candidly with you.

Kind regards,
Katie Lapham