A Tale of Two School Systems: The Impact of NYS Testing on NYC Public Schools


Here is my testimony from last night’s CEC 15/CEC 13 joint meeting about state testing. 

I am here tonight as both a District 15 parent of a third grader and as a District 15 ENL/ESL elementary school teacher.  Luckily as a parent, my daughter is in a school where the vast majority of students opt out and there is no test prep. However, as a teacher this is the hardest time of year for me. One reason I speak out against the Common Core-aligned state testing program is because it helps me to live with myself as a teacher who is forced to administer the math, English-language arts (ELA) and NYSESLAT (New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test) assessments each spring- one after the other.  I watch kids suffer and shut down, and there’s nothing I can do about it. As a veteran teacher, I feel like a fraud, complicit in perpetuating an educationally unsound and racist testing program that is designed to harm, not help, our public schools. Common Core state testing is at the heart of corporate education reform. It’s the tool, the weapon, being used to privatize public education and dismantle teacher unions.  

To me, the test scores aren’t legitimate because they come from highly flawed assessments.  Any feedback I get from the testing company is unreliable because of the tests’ poor design, developmentally inappropriate content and ever-changing cut scores. However, authentic and meaningful classroom work, created by educators, not testing companies, paints a much more accurate picture of student progress. Furthermore, Common Core curriculum that prepares students for these tests is not innovative or transformative.  Its pedagogy is anti-democratic (see Nicholas Tampio’s critique of Common Core), and it’s highly scripted and formulaic. Context and real critical thinking are lacking, and the work itself is tedious. English-language arts, for example, relies heavily on excessive close reading.

Test scores also hinder school integration efforts.  Real estate agents use schools with high test scores to lure buyers and renters to certain neighborhoods.  Some affluent families in gentrifying neighborhoods use test scores to justify their rejection of schools whose students are largely Black, Brown and poor.  By design, test scores are used to unfairly label schools, students and teachers as “failing,” and they are used to close local schools in Black, Brown and poor neighborhoods.  This destabilizes communities and adds stress to the lives of families living there. This focus on raising test scores also takes us away from the messy – but URGENT – work we must do to address school inequity and segregation.  According to civil rights investigative journalist and District 13 parent, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the thinking is: “if we can just get the test scores up we don’t have to do anything about the fundamental inequality of segregated schools.” She also shared that her daughter is doing great in her low test score District 13 public school arguing that, “the scores aren’t even reflecting what’s being taught in that school.”  Nikole Hannah-Jones spoke at the Network for Public Education’s annual conference in Oakland, CA last October.  I encourage you to listen to her entire speech.

As we all know, there are two school systems in New York City.  Hannah-Jones calls this disparity “desperate,” and she’s cried over it.  So have I. So educationally unsound is Common Core test-centric schooling that I felt like I had no choice but to leave my beloved Title I school in East New York, my second home where I spent my first nine years as a teacher.  I am now in a District 15 school with high test scores and the differences between the two are striking.

NYC schools with low test scores face immense pressure to raise scores and therefore most decision-making revolves around this goal. No one wants to be on a focus school list, which results in greater scrutiny. Teacher morale in these schools is low and this trickles down to students.  Ask your child’s teachers how truly happy they are. The schools are top-down and undemocratic and the staff is micromanaged. There is little to no freedom to teach and learn in schools with low test scores. Schools with low test scores are constantly changing reading, writing and math programs, and they aren’t teacher-created or even teacher-selected.  Schools with low test scores are pressured by districts to adopt developmentally inappropriate and uninspiring test prep curriculum such as Pearson’s ReadyGEN. Pearson, as you may know, created the first batch of Common Core-aligned ELA and math assessments. In schools with low test scores, skills-based test prep begins in kindergarten, which completely disregards early childhood studies showing that “the average age at which children learn to read independently is 6.5 years” (Defending the Early Years).

In many schools with low test scores, there’s an almost heart-stopping sense of urgency to improve students’ performance in math, reading and writing.  As a result, these schools have limited choice time and no free play in the lower grades. Any type of play must have a literacy skill attached to it. There are fewer field trips, fewer enrichment programs and fewer (if any at all) school performances.  An inordinate amount of planning and organizing time is devoted to preparing for the state tests. Out-of-classroom teachers are pulled from their regular teaching program to administer and score the tests. Countless hours are spent bubbling testing grids.  In 2013, as an out-of-classroom ESL teacher, I lost 40 days of teaching to support this massive testing operation.

English-language learners (ELLs) are the most over-tested students in New York State and very few people – including educators – ever set eyes on the NYSESLAT, the annual ESL assessment given to English-language learners every spring following the state ELA and math tests. In fact, many parents of ELLs don’t even know their child is taking it. The NYSESLAT is arguably worse than the ELA test, and it is comprised of four testing sessions, which means four days of testing.  The kindergarten NYSESLAT has 57 questions.  The reading passages are largely non-fiction, and some of the topics are obscure, outside of the students’ everyday life experiences.  The NYSESLAT is more of a content assessment rather than a true language test. It’s also excessive in its use of close reading. The listening section, for example, requires students to listen to passage excerpts over and over again.  Testing at the proficiency level is the primary way an ELL can exit the ESL program. I have students, already overburdened by state testing, that will remain at the advanced (expanding) level on the NYSESLAT because they don’t score well on standardized tests.  Like the Common Core ELA test, the results of the NYSESLAT tell me nothing about what my students know.

Is this the type of schooling our communities want? I can tell you that educators by and large reject this top-down, one-size-fits-all, corporatization of public education. Shouldn’t community input be taken seriously? What is OUR definition of equity and excellence? Does it include high-stakes testing? The Journey for Justice Alliance offers a vision for sustainable community schools in low-income, Black and Brown neighborhoods throughout the United States: relevant, rigorous and engaging curriculum that allows students to learn in different ways, project-based assessments, supports for high quality teachers, smaller class sizes and teacher aides, appropriate wraparound support for students, including opportunities for inspiration and access to things students care about, a student-centered school climate, quality restorative practices and student leadership opportunities, transformative parent engagement, and inclusive school leadership which considers content knowledge and community knowledge (Jitu Brown, North Dakota Study Group’s annual conference, Tougaloo College, Jackson, MS, 2/16/18). As Camden, NJ organizer Ronsha Dickerson put it, “We want what we need, not what you want to give us.” This, to her, is real equity.   



NYC Parents: Here’s the TRUTH about the 2016 NYS Tests

New York City parents may be hearing that the New York State (NYS) Common Core math and ELA (English-language arts) tests will be better this year and are of value to educators and students.

This does not tell the whole story.  Here’s the truth about the 2016 NYS tests. 


  • Pearson created the 2016 tests.  Questar Assessment Inc., which, in 2015, was awarded a $44 million, five-year contract by the New York State Education Department (NYSED), is in the process of developing test questions for future tests.  However, their tests won’t be used until 2018. According to a January 2016 NYSED memo,”Questar Assessment, Inc. has replaced Pearson and is responsible for the construction of this year’s test forms and guidance materials.” Questar did not create the actual 2016 tests and test questions. 
  • The shortening of the 2016 NYS Common Core tests is insignificant. Students will still spend a total of six days taking the math and ELA tests (three days each).  The tests are untimed this year so students could potentially sit for an even longer period of time to complete the assessments.  The below comparison charts show how minimal the changes to the tests are.  Also, shaving off a few questions does nothing to improve the quality of the test questions.  The tests are still bad.
  • Using NYSED’s online test archive, Kemala Karmen, a NYC parent and co-founder of NYCpublic.org, “calculated how many more test items a NYS student in 2016 will be required to answer than a NYS student in the same grade had to answer in 2010” (Karmen, 2016).  In an email, Karmen wrote, “A 5th grader this April will be faced with 117 questions (combined math and ELA).  2010’s 5th grader? 61.  That’s 56 more questions, or an increase of 92%.”

In addition to illustrating the sharp increase of test questions since 2010, this graph, created by NYC parent Amy Gropp Forbes, shows how insignificant the shortening of the 2016 is. 

  • The NYS Common Core ELA and math tests are not the only assessments administered this spring.  NYSED recently released the 2016 field test assignments for NYS schools.  Please click on this NYSED link to see if your school has been signed up to field test future math, science or ELA test questions.  The June 2016 administration of the field tests is of no value to teachers or students, the latter of which are being used as guinea pigs.
  • Similarly, many NYC parents are unaware of the excessive and developmentally inappropriate testing our English-language learners (ELLs) are subjected to. After only 12 months in the system, all ELLs in NYS must take the ELA test (ELLs are not exempt from the math test in their first year because translated versions of the assessment are available).  During the recent parent-teacher conferences, it pained me to share with parents my goal for second graders who were at the expanding (advanced) English-proficiency level: to test proficient on this year’s NYSESLAT (New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test). Administered each spring, the NYSESLAT is a grueling four-part test, now aligned to the Common Core, which assesses ELLs’ speaking, listening, reading and writing proficiency levels in English. It is a content-based assessment, not a true language test, and, in my professional opinion, it is wholly inappropriate to administer to ELLs at any grade level. Sentence writing, for example, is expected of ELLs in kindergarten. Spending my precious minutes discussing this highly flawed standardized test was bad enough, but my rationale for getting students to test out (test proficient or pass) tightened the knot in my stomach. If my expanding (advanced) ELLs do not pass the NYSESLAT this school year, in third grade they will have to take it again right after the widely discredited NYS Common Core ELA and math tests.  I signed up to be a teacher, not a tester.  
  • I can’t think of a single working NYC teacher who finds the NYS Common Core tests to be a “valuable experience for our students” (as per New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) chancellor Carmen Fariña’s 3/15/16 letter to parents). Pearson’s NYS Common Core tests are not teacher-created, nor do they accurately reflect the contextualized skills and knowledge that students gain in the classroom. The tests are developmentally inappropriate, poorly constructed and contain ambiguous questions. In 2014, 557 New York State principals signed this letter denouncing the tests. Despite the so-called changes to the 2016 tests, the content and the skills that are tested remain the same.

In painting a broader picture of the impact of NYS’s Common Core testing program on public education, it’s important to highlight that everything revolves around the highly flawed NYS Common Core tests.  Despite the NYCDOE’s argument that multiple measures are used to determine a child’s promotion to the next grade, the testing program is the sun around which all other aspects of public education orbit.  Schools with low test scores – due to poverty, high numbers of English-language learners and/or students with disabilities – are particularly vulnerable to scrutiny, micromanagement and excessive testing.  These schools face state reviews and pressure to adopt Common Core test prep curricula (ReadyGEN, GO Math! and Expeditionary Learning, for example), all at the expense of offering students an authentic and inspiring education that truly meets their social, emotional and academic needs.

I have spent the past 10 years in Title I elementary schools in New York City.  Our students go on fewer field trips, are exposed to a narrower range of books, and participate less in the arts.   In Title I schools, beginning in kindergarten, there exists such a strong sense of urgency to prepare students for the skills they will need in order to do well on the state tests that not a moment is to be “wasted.” Cutting and pasting in first grade is wrongly viewed as lacking rigor.  As a result, it’s not uncommon to find a second grader struggling to use glue and scissors.  Folding paper, I’m discovering, is an undeveloped skill nowadays.

In schools with low test scores, there is no free play and, for the most part, recess only happens at lunchtime (weather permitting).  Any classroom “play” must reinforce academic skills.  School days can be suffocating for students and teachers alike.  Curriculum pacing guides must be followed faithfully, which has killed spontaneity and deprives students of opportunities to learn about topics outside of the curriculum. I’ve even had to sneak in Martin Luther King, Jr. and Chinese New Year.  My rich author study units highlighting the important works of Ezra Jack Keats and Leo Lionni, among others, are collecting dust.  I mourn this loss of freedom every day I go to work.  Forget about using students’ interests to shape instruction.  “Choice” is only offered to students within the confines of the Common Core-aligned curricula.


Andy Yung, a talented pre-K teacher in Queens, presented this slide at last weekend’s Jackson Heights People for Public Schools event. 

What is of chief importance to “struggling” schools is the raising of scores on poor quality tests that do not reflect how each student has grown in his or her own way.  As part of their test preparation program this year, a Bronx elementary school has already administered two NYS ELA and math test simulations: one in December 2015 and the other in March 2016.  Each simulation lasted six days (3 periods each day) and was harder than the real tests, according to a teacher.  While this is an extreme case – and arguably abusive – test prep is still occurring citywide even at schools with high test scores.

The organized opt-out movement here in NYC is led by local parents and educators who spend an inordinate amount of time researching the NYS Common Core testing program and educating themselves on developmentally appropriate pedagogy.  Change the Stakes and NYC Opt Out, among others, report the truth through social media and through testing meetings that are being held all over NYC.  While some NYC parents may have initially gravitated to this movement in order to protect their own children from educational malpractice, a growing number of opponents of the state testing program are opting-out for justice.  Boycotting the tests and depriving the state of data is seen as the only way to effect change in our schools, and to curb the further privatization of public education (see what’s happening right now in the United Kingdom).


These parents and educators envision a different educational experience for all children of New York State.  Bronx principal Jamaal Bowman  speaks out against the current NYS Common Core testing program.  As reported in this November 2015 Huffington Post article, “Jamaal Bowman knows his kids and with the research to back up his approach, he makes it clear that by empowering teachers and inspiring children toward their passions, in an atmosphere that embraces our diversity, we have the capacity to realize the goals that the current reforms are failing to produce.”  I also appreciate Brooklyn New School principal Anna Allanbrook’s weekly letters to parents , which showcase her school’s whole child approach and contrast sharply with NYS’s test-based education reform initiatives.  In Allanbrook’s March 7 letter, she links to a speech delivered by principal Bowman and writes, “Jamaal suggests that all parents exercise their right to opt out of high stakes testing, advising parents to demand more holistic assessment of their children. Jamaal’s words remind us of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” These are brave, ethical NYC school leaders whom I greatly admire.

What about all the thoughtful and experienced NYC classroom teachers who find fault with these tests and don’t view them as a valuable teaching tool?  The teachers of the MORE caucus of the UFT (United Federation of Teachers) support opt-out and oppose Common Core, Danielson teacher evaluations and high-stakes testing. MORE candidates, such as Jia Lee, who testified against high-stakes testing in a U.S. senate hearing last year, are running in this year’s UFT election. Teachers of Conscience refuse to administer both state and local standardized assessments.  Teachers’ legitimate concerns, based on years of experience and knowledge of developmentally appropriate pedagogy, are absent from the official story that’s being told to NYC parents. In fact, NYC educators are being silenced and, as a result, are afraid to speak out.  This is an attack on our democracy and goes against the so-called critical thinking that the NYCDOE purports to be promoting through Common Core.


This is just a glimpse of what’s really going on in NYC public schools.  There is, of course, more to the story.   Here is a link to view the March 2016 NYCDOE’s Student Participation in Grades 3-8 New York State Tests Parent Guide.  Regardless of your child’s performance level, it is a parent’s right to opt out.


The NYCDOE 2016 guide states, if, after consulting with the principal, the parents still want to opt their child out of the exams, the principal should respect the parents’ decision and let them know that the school will work to the best of their ability to provide the child with an alternate educational activity (e.g., reading) during testing times.”  

For more information about opting out, please visit these sites:

Ten Reasons Why NO Child Should Take the NYS Common Core Tests




NYS Allies for Public Education 

Long Island Opt-Out Info


Defending the Early Years – deyproject.org












Ten Reasons Why NO Child Should Take the NYS Common Core Tests

Dear parents and educators of New York,

I teach elementary school in the East New York section of Brooklyn, New York.  In 2013 and 2014, I administered Pearson’s New York State Common Core tests to English-language learners (ELLs). There is nothing meaningful about these assessments; no teacher I know supports them and I will not allow my child to take the tests when she enters third grade (even if the high-stakes are removed).  Here are ten reasons why Pearson’s NYS Common Core tests should never see the light of day.

1.) They are too long, especially for students in grades 3-5.  Over the course of six days, my 5th grade ELLs spent a total 13.5 hours sitting for the ELA (English-language arts) and math assessments. Here is what the 5th grade ELA assessment looked like last year (2014):

Day ONE: 27 pages long, 6 unrelated reading passages, 42 multiple choice questions

Day TWO: 3 unrelated reading passages, 7 multiple choice questions, 3 short response questions (written), 1 extended response question (written)

Day THREE: 3 reading passages, 5 short response questions (written), 1 extended response question (written)

Additionally, the below graph – created by Lace to the Top – shows that the third grade Common Core tests are twice as time-consuming as the SAT.

1521228_10202796253365339_1970773454_n2.) They are developmentally inappropriate.  Lace to the Top recently analyzed third grade Common Core test samples and determined that Pearson’s NYS Common Core test questions are 2-3 grade levels above the grade being tested.  The reading passage used for third grade was shown to have a readability average of 7.3 (7th grade)!

3.) Pearson’s NYS Common Core standardized tests, which are costing the state $32 million, are not teacher-created, nor do they accurately reflect the contextualized skills and knowledge that students gain in the classroom.  The tests are poorly constructed and uninspiring, and they contain ambiguous questions.  557 New York State principals signed this letter denouncing the tests.

4.) With Pearson’s Common Core state tests at the center of K-8 education in New York State, curriculum has narrowed, particularly in schools in low-income areas whose test scores tend to be low.  Fearing increased scrutiny and potential closure, raising test scores has become the main focus in many schools.  Some schools are little more than test prep factories with diminishing enrichment and project-based learning opportunities. Beginning in kindergarten, students are being taught test-taking strategies, most notably through the context-lacking close reading technique used in Common Core-aligned English-language arts.  Pearson’s developmentally inappropriate and poorly constructed scripted reading program – ReadyGEN – is test prep for the NYS Common Core ELA test.

5.) The Common Core’s testing program encourages standardized testing in grades K-2. Title I schools in particular feel pressured to show – through periodic data collection – that students are learning the skills needed to perform well on the grades 3-8 Common Core state tests. This is what the standardized testing program looks like in my Title I first grade classroom this school year:

  • Sept/Oct 2014 Common Core-aligned NYC Baseline Performance Tasks in ELA and Math (MOSLs used for teacher evaluation purposes only).
  • Running Records administered one-on-one 4-5 times per year (they test reading levels).
  • 12 Common Core-aligned end-of-unit GO Math! assessments (each comprised of 24 multiple choice questions and a multi-step extended response question).
  • Monthly Common Core-aligned ReadyGEN writing assessments testing students’ understanding of narrative, persuasive and informative writing.
  • Mid-year benchmark assessment in ELA – End of unit 2 ReadyGEN test comprised of 5 multiple choice comprehension questions, 5 multiple choice vocabulary questions and 1 written response.
  • Mid-year benchmark assessment in Math – GO Math! test comprised on 40 multiple choice questions; 15 questions on skills not yet learned.
  • May/June 2015 Common Core-aligned NYC Performance Tasks in ELA and Math (MOSLs used for teacher evaluation purposes only).

6.) The New York State Education Department (NYSED) lacks transparency and ethics.  In upholding the corporate education reform agenda, which seeks to privatize public education, the NYSED’s intention is to perpetuate the false narrative that our schools are failing.  Fred Smith, a NYS testing expert and statistician, and Lace to the Top have reported at length about Pearson’s poor quality tests and the NYSED’s unreliable test data, specifically its delayed release of technical reports, which evaluate the Common Core tests, missing test questions and predetermined test scores.  The NYSED manipulates cut scores in order to legitimize its above-mentioned agenda; not only are cut scores constantly changing but the NYSED sets them AFTER the tests have been scored. Thus, the NYSED’s claim that 70% of our students are failing is invalid.  

7.) An inordinate amount of planning and organizing time is devoted to preparing for the state tests. Giving the state tests is an administrative and logistical nightmare at the school level. Out-of-classroom teachers are pulled from their regular teaching program to administer and score the tests. Countless hours are spent bubbling testing grids and organizing them alphabetically by class. IEPs (individualized education program) are examined closely to ensure that students with special needs receive the correct testing accommodation(s). These include directions read and re-read, extended time, separate location, on-task focusing prompts, revised test directions, questions read and re-read. ELLs and some former ELLs are pulled from their regular classrooms for testing because they are entitled to extended time in a separate location. Also, there is professional development for teachers on testing policies and procedures including “reporting prohibited conduct by adults, student cheating, and other testing irregularities.”

8.) English-language learners (ELLs) must take Pearson’s NYS Common Core ELA test after just one year in the system.  Students with IEPs are also required to take the tests unless they qualify for the New York State Alternate Assessment (NYSAA), which too is flawed. For a variety of reasons, it is misleading, insulting and grossly irresponsible of the NYSED to claim that 97% of ELLs and 95% of students with IEPs in grades 3-8 are “failures” in ELA.  These figures completely disregard the growth students make in our classrooms.

9.) Our students are suffering. I’ve heard countless stories of kids who are sickened – both physically and emotionally – from New York State’s toxic Common Core testing program. I’ve personally witnessed students’ tears, anger and despair, and it’s heartbreaking. There is nothing humane, nothing redeeming about these tests.  Morale is plummeting as teachers and administrators feel complicit in the state’s abuse of our children.

10.) Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed basing 50% of a teacher’s evaluation on test scores from these highly flawed Common Core state assessments.  Not only are these test scores unreliable but the American Statistical Association has warned against using the value-added model (VAM) to rate teachers and schools.

As you can see, the negative impact of NYSED’s punitive Common Core testing program is far-reaching. But we – as parents and educators working together – can take back power by refusing these tests.  In order to save public education, a cornerstone of democracy in the United States, we must start thinking communally rather than individually.

Taking these tests is not “good practice” for our young learners; in fact, administering the tests is bad pedagogical practice.  In addition, high test scores do not guarantee admission to selective NYC middle schools.  Contrary to popular belief, opting-out does not hurt schools.  With regards to opt-out’s impact on teachers, Change the Stakes, a NYC-based organization that opposes the NYSED’s testing program, writes,

It is not helpful to speculate about which students should or should not opt out in order to protect teachers’ evaluations. The bottom line is that the current teacher evaluation system is flawed. Opting out in large numbers is the most powerful way for parents to let policymakers know that we do not want our children, teachers and schools evaluated based on standardized test scores.

Our students and teachers are not failures; rather the NYSED has failed us.

– Katie

Here are some useful resources about the Common Core testing program:


Excessive Standardized Testing in New York City is No Fairy Tale – Living in Dialogue

On 2/21/15, Anthony Cody published my latest post on his new blog, Living in Dialogue. In it, I detailed the mid-term GO Math! and ReadyGEN ELA benchmark assessments that I reluctantly and heavy-heartedly had to administer to my first grade students the week of February 9, 2015.  Not only are our youngest learners being subjected to excessive standardized testing, but they are also missing out on meaningful learning experiences.

Please read the piece here:


Thank you,


On Depression & Anxiety and the Hell That Was My First Month of Teaching


This photograph is significant to me. My first three years of teaching were spent working with the same group of students, most of whom were Dominican. They all have a special place in my heart as they (unknowingly) helped me get through my first year of teaching, my father’s death and other personal struggles that they were not aware of. I was pregnant for most of our third year together and they delighted in watching my belly grow, guessing the baby’s gender and offering me name suggestions (as well as parenting tips). We were a family. They are now going into 10th grade and I am about to begin my ninth year teaching at the same school. 

This is an essay I wrote exactly two years ago but I’ve not shared it publicly until now. As vulnerable as it makes me feel to post it, I thought it might be helpful to teachers who, like me, suffer from depression and anxiety. This was my first and only brush with suicide so it may also shed light on what causes people to want to end their lives. There has been much discussion of this topic on social media as a result of Robin Williams’ tragic end earlier this week.

On reflection, I realize that this essay might contradict my current disdain for scripted curriculum, particularly Pearson’s Ready GEN for ELA and Go Math. As a new teacher, I may have been comforted by being told what to teach – from what materials to use to what performance tasks to give.  Unlike now, I did not possess a broad knowledge of children’s literature and how to effectively use it in the classroom. What is clear to me, though, is the critical importance of teacher collaboration. Our school has improved greatly in this area since I first started teaching. I would not still be in this profession were it not for my colleagues’ selflessness and empathy, particularly ML.  However, these are somewhat separate issues, and I’ll continue to explore them in forthcoming posts.

-KL, August 2014


August 22, 2012

It’s a long-held belief that teachers tend to be a little crazy. And indeed I’ve been known to exhibit my eccentricities in the classroom (through “break dancing,” speaking with a British accent and so on) in the interest of captivating an audience of jaded ten-year-olds. What I didn’t consider as I entered the profession was the thin line between sanity and madness that an anxiety-prone new teacher navigates during those first months of teaching.  In 2006, despairing of ever experiencing job satisfaction and inspiration in the dull world of book publishing, I joined the New York City Teaching Fellows and became a 2nd grade bilingual teacher at a public elementary school in East New York, Brooklyn. I was 32-years-old and already had a wide variety of work experience.  This was not my first major job change.

I felt pretty strong and energetic the day I met my new students. I had lesson plans and was nervous but not yet panicky. However, when outspoken Alberto*, whom I would go on to instruct for two more years, asked me, “What are we going to do today?” I lost all faith in myself as a teacher. A sea change of feelings took hold of me and set in motion an emotional derailment that would ultimately lead to a full-blown panic attack and thoughts of suicide. For the first few days after Alberto’s innocuous question, I was able to complete a series of activities and keep the kids engaged and relatively controlled, but in my mind they were learning nothing and were unmanageable. And with no curriculum to follow – aside from Everyday Math and the vague Balanced Literacy model for English-language arts instruction – I was running out of ideas.

Then the sleep stopped for seven consecutive nights. I obsessively created lessons plans to fill my plan book and my brain would not turn off. My principal at the time had recited to me “a failure to plan is a plan to fail”, and being a dutiful employee, I viewed this edict as a teacher’s biggest sin; a sign of incompetence. I couldn’t fathom being placed in that category. But, as a new teacher, there were not enough hours in the day for such thorough planning. At one point – in a manic state – I dashed off to a dollar store in downtown Brooklyn, convinced that buying 24 brand new marble notebooks for my students would be the answer to my problems. It wasn’t. My husband tried to help by giving me massages and turning on relaxing music at night. I drank red wine – lots of it – and took Tylenol PM, but a switch had been flipped and I couldn’t let go of my thoughts long enough to slumber. The only relief I got was physical. In the middle of the night, I used nail scissors to dig into the sides of my big toe, obsessively trying to remove an ingrown nail. The instantaneous, spreading pain and subsequent release of blood were the only sensations that comforted me during this time.

I soon also started obsessing about the non-academic and administrative aspects of the job that weren’t touched upon during my intensive summer training. Keeping track of the blue cards containing the kids’ emergency contact information was a seemingly life or death task. What if a student disappeared and we didn’t have her number to call home? I don’t remember seeing José at dismissal. What if he was abducted, his broken body to be discovered days later on Conduit Boulevard’s grassy median? I began imagining myself behind bars or living out of a trash can in a stinky back alley.  I had no problem giving parents my cell phone number. In fact, that first year I would sometimes call home under the pretense of clarifying a homework assignment, but my real mission was to ensure that my students had made it home safely.

After a girl calmly approached me with a bloody nose, to which I reacted with panic, as if I was expected to perform emergency heart surgery on her, I concluded that I was not mentally fit to be in charge of a group of second graders for eight hours a day. My anxious mind, compromised by an extreme lack of sleep, could not hold all the potential calamities I felt could occur due to my perceived lack of control. My eyes stung and my thinking was myopic. I felt stoned all the time. I could hear sounds and see objects but my brain wasn’t processing the information, at least not in a “normal” way. I could not make decisions, even little ones, like what drink to buy at the bodega. I walked in circles around my classroom dabbling in a bit of everything but never completing a single task. I could only be reactive. I remember clutching a clipboard at all times as if it served to keep me grounded. I was so lost mentally, so deeply lodged in some dark, sticky part of my brain, with no way out. My former self had been replaced by someone so sleep-deprived and irrational that the prospect of being struck down by a city bus while crossing the street was welcoming. It would provide instant and permanent relief from unbearable feelings. Resisting the urge to end my life was a daily struggle. 

I decided to tell on myself. During a prep period, I walked into my principal’s office and confessed to her that I was a horrible teacher and a danger to my students (citing the nose bleed incident). I begged her to come watch me to see for herself. My new colleagues were stunned by my lack of filter.  I, in turn, was dumbstruck by how at ease some of the teachers appeared to be. How is it possible to feel calm enough to actually laugh with students? Equally baffling was the idea that you could leave at 3:00 pm right after dismissal. Overhearing teachers talk about weekend plans, dinner menus and their own children simply confirmed that something was seriously wrong with me. My entire day was consumed by my constant thinking about teaching. I didn’t cook (or even eat much) during that time. Showering infrequently, I didn’t care about my appearance. Every aspect of my life – from my relationships to my sleep – was held hostage by my obsession about the new job. A friend loaned me episodes of Lost on DVD, hoping it would distract me and help sever the chains that bonded me to my overactive brain. I couldn’t even make it through half an episode. If I wasn’t constantly thinking about teaching – even at 3:00 am – I felt like my world would implode. In a new job where I had little control and success, this, in my mind, was the only way I could hang on.

Around mid-September, my principal suggested that I resign. This was exactly what I wanted to hear. Being a perfectionist and possessing an irrational fear of failure, I didn’t want to be the one to make that decision. I immediately started to feel relief and my limbs lightened. But it didn’t last. A close friend intervened, arguing that I would regret this decision. She and my principal brokered a deal in which I would take five days off in order to see a doctor and to sleep. Working in the medical field, my friend made an appointment for me to see a psychiatrist that day. However, unable to fully let go, I also saw the hiatus as an opportunity to return to school in order to devote hours to selecting teaching materials. When my principal found me rummaging through a book closet one day, she sent me home claiming that it would be confusing for my students, who were being instructed by a substitute teacher, to see me wandering the halls of the school.

At the psychiatrist’s office, I unclenched and cried for the first time. I even admitted out loud that I had had suicidal thoughts during my descent into madness. The doctor diagnosed me with panic disorder and prescribed Klonopin, which I took until the end of the school year, as well as an anti-depressant**. That evening my closest New York City friends came over. No one wanted me to be alone for fear I’d slit my wrists with a kitchen knife. I also think they were curious to see for themselves just how unhinged I’d become. I have such a sharp picture in my head of my crazy self, propped up in bed, taking that first Klonopin. The effects seemed to be immediate. My whole body relaxed and I felt hopeful. I even re-discovered my self-deprecating humor. I heard one friend say, “Katie’s back” and I knew I was going to make it, perhaps not in teaching, but I was going to sleep and function again as a human being.

I am now about to begin my seventh year of teaching*** at the same school, although the principal has changed. No one remembers my rough start and I try not to think about it, out of both shame and fear that I’ll go back to that awful place. My life is now more balanced. I am motivated by my job and inspired by the connections I make with my students. I continue to struggle with feelings of anxiety and despair, but I have found community, in both my personal life and at work, and I no longer feel as disconnected and isolated. Although I remain stubborn and proud, I am learning how and when to ask for help. I am learning how to reassure myself that it’s going to be okay.

*name changed

**I haven’t taken Klonopin since 2007 but I’m still on anti-depressants.

***I wrote this two years ago so I’m now starting my ninth year at the same school.

Dear Carmen Fariña: NYC Schools Need Joy and Democracy

Dear Chancellor Fariña,

Welcome back! I am encouraged by your message of bringing back joy into the classrooms. But what about democracy? Here in New York City, curriculum and pedagogy are narrowing in order to prepare students for high-stakes tests that, in my professional opinion, are invalid. The Common Core (CCSS) state tests do not accurately measure what students know and how they have grown both academically and socially/emotionally. In my opinion, the corporate education reform agenda, together with its Common Core package of standards, curriculum and testing, is whittling down the purpose of public education to “college and career readiness,” with a focus on English-language arts and math instruction. At the NYS Senate’s January 23, 2014 Common Core hearing, NYSED Commissioner John King reiterated that the Common Core is needed for the US economy, arguing that it’s what US corporations want. However, any teacher will tell you that they are in this job to make a difference in the lives of children, to show students how to avoid the mistakes made by our predecessors in the hopes of improving the state of the world. We see the critical importance of helping students develop life skills, such as civic-mindedness, empathy and resilience, in addition to teaching them reading, writing and arithmetic.

I wish to draw your attention to the issues in our public schools that currently are most troubling to me. I am a push-in ESL teacher at a Title I elementary school in East New York, Brooklyn, however I started out, in 2006, as a bilingual classroom teacher.

1.) Over-testing – English-language learners (ELLs) in grades 3-8 are particularly encumbered with standardized testing. The NYSESLAT (NYS English as a Second Language Achievement Test) is administered to ELLs right after the grueling Common Core ELA and math state assessments. The NYSESLAT is a lengthy, four-part assessment that tests students’ proficiency levels in the speaking, reading, writing and listening of English. Contrary to what the NYS Board of Regents says, students in grades K-2 are indeed taking standardized tests. For the listening, reading and writing sections of the NYSESLAT, ELLs in grades K-2 are required to answer multiple choice questions by bubbling their answers directly into student test booklets. As an out-of-classroom ESL teacher, my instructional program is, for the most part, cancelled for two months in the spring. From April to June, my days are spent preparing, administering and scoring state assessments.


In addition to April’s Common Core ELA and math high-stakes tests, NYC students are currently taking ELA and math baseline assessments that resemble the content and format of the actual CCSS state tests. Two weeks ago, my 5th grade English-language learners (ELLs) used over four class periods to complete the math baseline. One boy shut down in the middle of the assessment and a girl broke down in tears and ended up in the nurse’s office. While change must occur at both the federal and state levels, you and Bill de Blasio have the power to lower the stakes of these burdensome tests in New York City. A recent Teachers Talk Testing petition asked the mayor to:

1. End promotion tied to test scores.
2. End middle and high school admissions tied exclusively to test scores.
3. End school report cards based primarily on student test scores.

In fact, on December 10, 2013, the City Council unanimously passed Resolution 1394, which calls upon the state of New York to replace high-stakes testing with multiple forms of assessment. Fred Smith, a statistician who worked for the NYC Board of Education as an administrative staff analyst until 2001, is a wealth of knowledge on NYS’s flawed standardized testing program. In a letter to Diane Ravitch, Smith called the 2013 NYS Common Core assessments “…failed, unreliable instruments incapable of serving as a baseline or foundation.” Smith currently advises Change the Stakes, a local group that opposes high-stakes testing, and is an excellent resource.

2.) Undemocratic learning climate – Our freedom to teach is eroding. Teachers had little (if any) meaningful participation in the development and review of the Common Core State Standards. The Common Core package was imposed on us in top-down fashion, and in many NYC public schools, particularly those receiving Title I funding, there’s little wiggle room in applying the standards to learning. In other words, we cannot simply use the standards as we see fit. They are tied to an accountability system (testing) and scripted curricula that ostensibly address the so-called instructional shifts. Teachers increasingly lament that they feel they aren’t giving students what they really need and deserve.

Similarly, many NYC teachers feel they had little input in selecting the new Common Core-aligned curriculum. Pearson’s ReadyGEN ELA Core Curriculum program is particularly unpopular, not because of its disastrous rollout, but because it’s an uninspiring and developmentally inappropriate test prep program. While I mostly like the 5th grade anchor texts – the only part of the program my 5th grade co-teacher and I currently use – I had no say in choosing the books. When will my co-teacher and I squeeze in Rickshaw Girl, a culturally relevant chapter book we read every year that explores the struggles of a young girl in Bangladesh? Also, the ReadyGEN-selected texts are challenging for my ESL students, and from what I can tell the program offers no differentiation in terms of materials. Pearson instructs teachers to expose all students, regardless of reading level and English-language proficiency, to the same rigorous text.

Here’s a sample page from Coming to America: The Story of Immigration, a text that’s being used in the ReadyGEN ELA first grade program.


First grade close reading – ReadyGEN

Will a first grader find joy in closely reading this text and in answering questions in ReadyGEN’s bland Reader’s and Writer’s Journal which, to me, is nothing more than a test prep workbook? What about my special needs ELL who still doesn’t know all of his sounds and letters but is expected to follow along in the text while the teacher reads it aloud? The ReadyGEN first grade journal asks students to write sentences using vocabulary such as gazes, barrier, blended and unique. It also instructs students to explain in writing why America is called a “melting pot” and to rewrite sentences from the text in order to replace proper nouns and nouns with pronouns. In a reading analysis lesson, the written response directions in the first grade journal are worded as follows: What is the central message of A Picnic in October? and Retell three details that teach the central message.

The ReadyGEN ELA program has yielded so few moments of joy in our first grade ESL class that my co-teacher and I have decided to take a break from it during our literacy block. We are currently teaching an ELA unit on monsters, and the classroom has come alive. We selected a variety of engaging monster books, and each day students complete a writing and/or art activity. Why are the monsters called Wild Things? What does it mean to be ‘wild’? Describe the setting of the book. Describe the nightmare in your closet. What makes it scary? How does the mouse trick the forest animals in The Gruffalo? Are all monsters bad? What are the different names (synonyms) for monsters in the books we’ve read? Create your own monster and use adjectives to describe its features. From this, I envision a social emotional learning unit in which we discuss our fears and students describe a time when they were brave. I’m doing something similar with my 5th grade newcomer ELLs who are currently studying the Underground Railroad.

3.) Misuse of funds and inequity– While we are using what we can of ReadyGEN, the student journals are largely being unused. How much money did the NYCDOE spend on this program? NYC Title I public schools, in particular, feel they have no choice but to adopt the subsidized NYCDOE Core Curriculum programs and “free” NYSED engageny.org lessons. Doing so spares them from having to use their limited funds to create and/or to justify the use of alternative Common Core-aligned programs. Also, schools with low test scores find comfort in reasoning that the content and tasks in these programs might appear on the actual CCSS tests. It should be noted that Pearson is the publisher of both ReadyGEN and the NYS ELA CCSS assessment.

Harris Lirtzman recently penned an eye-opening opinion piece on NYCDOE spending for WNYC’s SchoolBook. He called the DOE under Michael Bloomberg “a sinkhole of wasted money.” My understanding of the NYCDOE’s budget is not as deep as Lirtzman’s, but I can think of so many other ways to use the funds. Class sizes are rising, AIS services are being cut and after school test prep sessions have replaced enrichment programs. Wraparound services are also in demand. We need more initiatives to genuinely fight poverty and to provide students who are hurting with counseling. So many of our kids don’t have a safety net and look to school for emotional support. With the emphasis currently on addressing  “instructional shifts” and on preparing students for high-stakes testing, the needs of at-risk students are not being met.

4.) Lack of meaningful professional development (PD)Why is Pearson telling us how to teach? Teachers report that the ReadyGEN PD sessions they regularly attend are ineffective. In addition, teachers are being asked to analyze tests that they themselves didn’t create, and collaborative planning time is being sacrificed so that teachers in grades 3-5 can score the above-mentioned baseline assessments using a non-teacher created rubric. I have lost count of the number of PD sessions I’ve attended on Danielson’s Framework and on the Common Core State Standards.

Teachers would rather spend time working together to create lessons, gather materials and share resources. We learn best from one another. Outside of my school, I look at Boston’s Mission Hill School, which was founded by Deborah Meier in 1997, for alternative techniques to the ones imposed on us. After watching the inspirational video series A Year at Mission Hill, I started writing a column on teachersletterstobillgates.com in which I showcase the school’s rich project-based, collaborative curriculum and inclusive community-building practices. I call my project Freedom to Teach, Freedom to Learn: A Year at Mission Hill.

Here in New York City, I recently attended the More than a Score: Talk back to Testing forum that was organized by Change the Stakes and the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) of the UFT. I left feeling inspired and hopeful. Participants feeling demoralized by high-stakes testing found the day to be soul-cleansing; one even declared that we should “…walk out of here and start a new school system.” Jia Lee, a teacher/parent at Manhattan’s Earth School, shared with us the 4th/5th grade immigrant study curriculum that she and her colleagues designed. I learned from Jia that through socially and culturally relevant pedagogy, her school, which is part of the Children First Network 102, creates their own project-based curricula and portfolio-based assessments. The Earth School has also effectively eliminated the ranking and sorting of kids by using written narrative reports to convey student performance rather than traditional report cards.


Those of us saddled with test prep curriculum, like ReadyGEN, and the NYC Performance Assessments, which exist solely to satisfy the Measures of Student Learning (MOSL) component of the new teacher evaluation system, do not have sufficient space in which to collaborate in authentic, meaningful ways. We have fewer opportunities to put our own stamp on the learning taking place in our classrooms. It breaks my heart that students in my district are not getting the same kinds of educational experiences that have existed long before the reign of the Common Core era at the Earth School and at other CFN 102 schools like the Brooklyn New School (P.S. 146) and Park Slope’s P.S. 321.  Many NYC educators are unaware of the autonomy that these NYC public elementary schools enjoy.  In designing quality curriculum and assessments that address the whole child, we should reject what corporate education reform is peddling and instead draw from our most valuable resource: our schools.

Kind regards,

Katie Lapham, NYC public school teacher

Doin’ Core Curriculum Our Way (cue the Laverne & Shirley theme song)


The purpose of this reflection (Danielson 4a) is to further highlight the maddening waste of resources and lack of common sense that I’m seeing on a daily basis as a result of corporate education reform and its Common Core troika of nationalized learning standards, scripted curriculum and high-stakes testing.  Last week, Pearson’s ReadyGEN program, a “recommended” NYC Department of Education ELA (English-language arts) curriculum, particularly irked me.

In complying with the ReadyGEN script, my 5th grade co-teacher and I were instructed to read to students chapter seven of Rachel Carson: Pioneer of Ecology. I am an ESL (English as a Second Language) instructor and push-in to my colleague’s class during the literacy block.  The chapter’s title – Fourteen Dead Robins – intrigued me. Rubbing my hands together in excitement, I imagined a powerful, real world conversation we’d have with our students about the health effects of DDT and people’s unwillingness – due to fear – to speak out against injustices.

Instead, the ReadyGEN reading skill assigned to chapter seven was craft and structure, specifically analyzing figurative language and word choice.  We did attempt to practice this skill with our students using the ReadyGEN Student Materials workbook, but quickly decided to pull the plug on the task because we found few examples of figurative language, and we felt that the chosen ReadyGEN skill was ill-fitting in light of the chapter’s content.  It was as if the people who created ReadyGEN had randomly selected reading skills without first considering the content of the individual chapters. Chapter four’s reading skill was main idea and details while in chapter six – the previous day’s lesson – the students practiced cause and effect. Shockingly – given the NYC DOE’s constant use of Common Core-aligned – the standards themselves are not even cited in the ReadyGEN Teacher’s Guide, which is still in the pre-publication stage.

Below are the alternative questions that my colleague created midway into ReadyGEN’s chapter seven lesson. The students first discussed the questions in small groups, while we circulated, and then worked individually to respond to them in writing. We felt that this was a more suitable (and more meaningful) task that better reflected the main idea of chapter seven.


The next day, ReadyGEN never saw the light of day.  Instead, I led a lesson about cancer clusters that are appearing in farming regions of Argentina as a result of the country’s increased use of pesticides and herbicides.  I was inspired by a Mother Jones article I saw recently on Twitter.  The high-interest, real world content in this article tied in nicely with Rachel’s reaction to the effects of DDT as seen in chapter seven. The SmartBoard presentation I created included many visuals – photographs, graphs, charts – to aide students in digesting the challenging content. Genetically-modified and Monsanto’s Roundup Ready were among the vocabulary terms in the lesson.  Students were engaged and moved by the topic.  Below is one English-language learner’s wondering about pesticides.


I know of no teacher – including one in Ohio – who is satisfied with ReadyGEN’s ELA program.  The anchor texts (literature) may be authentic, but the reading and writing tasks are not.  Pearson’s ReadyGEN is a poorly and hastily designed test prep program to get students ready for next year’s high-stakes Common Core ELA assessment.  The NYC DOE could have saved a lot of money if they had instead provided schools with just the copies of the anchor texts, class sets of titles such as Rachel Carson: Pioneer of Ecology. Sample reading and writing questions and suggested performance tasks could have been posted online. From what I’ve observed, the Student Materials workbook (see below photo) is being used minimally.

I don’t know how much the NYC DOE has spent on producing this program and on providing professional development to teachers.  However, I’m outraged that ReadyGEN has priority over other, more pressing initiatives like ensuring smaller class sizes and providing AIS services to students. The Common Core standards, unfortunately, do not stand alone. As I am experiencing, they are not an innocuous set of student learning objectives that teachers can use to shape their own instruction.  Here in New York State, the adoption of the Common Core has led to the wasteful spending of millions of dollars on the development of inferior math and ELA programs that are scripted and threaten teacher autonomy.  The overarching goal of such curricula is not to inspire students or to address their individual needs, but instead to train them for meaningless high-stakes tests.