I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Saturday, February 21, 2015

If You Don't Want Civil Disobedience, Stop Politicizing Our Schools

We had yet another interesting juxtaposition of events in education "reform" this week. As most of you know by now, the Newark Students Union staged another protest, this time occupying State Superintendent Cami Anderson's office. Bob Braun, as usual, had the best coverage and analysis of the event.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Essex County, a different superintendent made waves with an op-ed in NJ Spotlight (I write regularly for them as well: here's my latest piece). Jim Crisfield, departing superintendent of Millburn's schools, objects to the grassroots movement to opt out of the PARCC:
I do understand the concerns people have with the PARCC tests, and I in fact share some of them. I feel the PARCC tests as currently configured take too much time to administer, and I strongly object to how they are used to compare districts (or schools) to one another. And worse yet, very few educators, anywhere, will agree with the notion that standardized test results are either a valid or a reliable way to evaluate teachers. 
Having said that, assessment is a natural and necessary component of the education process. Great teachers deploy assessment techniques all the time to help shed light on both their students' needs and the efficacy of their teaching. PARCC results, we are told and we hope, will provide us with valuable insights into our students' needs and how we can meet them, so I am willing to give PARCC the benefit of the doubt to see if that promise will be fulfilled. After all, it's not like we haven't had standardized testing for, well, decades (if by a different name -- Iowa, Early Warning Test, NJASK, and the like).
What distinguishes PARCC from these prior versions, among other things, is the highly charged political climate of 2015. It seems as if everything now needs to be viewed (and acted upon) through a political lens. PARCC is linked to the Common Core, which in turn elicits angry, visceral reactions from several different quarters. And we then start down the road of letting politics interfere with the educational process. Politics, especially the partisan variety, has no place in the classroom and can in fact be quite distracting.
Coming out of all this political hysteria is a fast-brewing notion that it is a right to opt out of things happening at school with which one doesn't agree. [emphasis mine]
Let's stop here for a second to get a few things out of the way:

First, I know Jim Crisfield; in fact, he hired me for my current job when our family moved back to New Jersey. I didn't always agree with Jim (does anyone ever agree with their boss all the time?), but I respected and liked him. To be clear, the headline of this post has nothing to do with Jim: he's a real educator, and Pennsylvania is lucky to have him.

Second: yes, Crisfield is leaving New Jersey. Why? Because the Christie administration's truly stupid superintendent pay cap would have required him to take a huge cut in pay this year, and Crisfield wasn't willing to subject his family to that.

Yes, reformy New Jersey, this is what your beloved, teacher-bashing governor has wrought: you're losing school leaders who actually agree with you on particular education policies. And now you're stuck with superintendents who spend their days checking to see if teachers have rivets on their pants pockets (I swear I'm not making that up). Nice work...

Third: as Sarah Blaine points out in her eloquent response to Crisfield, his use of the word "hysterical" is very unfortunate. I can confirm Blaine's suspicions: I'm certain Jim didn't mean to give insult to the mothers who object to the PARCC and are opting their children out. I know this from having watched him work for years: I know he respects teachers, and I know he respects women. But that doesn't excuse his unintentional slight; I'd like to see him apologize for that.

Now on to Crisfield's argument:
Herein lies the danger. True, there is precedent for telling the school that your child will not participate in things ("family life" and "sex education" classes are the most salient example, and probably the old fashioned way of dissecting things in biology class can be included as well, and of course there is also the vaccination requirement that has been an opt-out candidate for years). 
Those topics (which often center on religious objections, by the way) notwithstanding, very few public school things have been candidates over the years for opting out. If a parent didn't like the way the local public school was approaching a given topic, they could find another way to educate his or her child (private, parochial, or even home-schooling options).
But opting out of things with such broad brush strokes is different, and taken to its extreme, this new version of opting out will destroy public education as we know it today. If we don’t stop facilitating and/or encouraging all this "opting out" or "refusing" (or whatever it's called), we might as well set up a la carte public schools. Opting out of Common Core? There go all of the child's language arts and math-class activities. Every. Single. One. Everything we do in language arts and math is aligned to the common core!
Further, what's to stop a parent of a high school student in 2015 from opting out of a bunch of other things that school does, too. What's the difference? Why not opt out of having one's child take that nasty calculus exam that she didn't study for because she was out of town over the weekend? Why not opt out of her having to go outside for PE during first period because she doesn't like the cold, and then opt her out of having first lunch, because she is way too cranky in the afternoon if she eats lunch at 10:30 a.m. [emphasis mine]
As Blaine points out in her post, this is a slippery slope argument and, as such, quite weak. Not one person I've heard or read who supports opting out of the PARCC has ever suggested parents should be able to pull their children out of any exam at any time.

Further, I disagree with Crisfield's analysis that the anti-PARCC movement is "letting politics interfere with the educational process." And this is where the protests against Anderson in Newark and the opt-out movement intersect.

It would be lovely if politics was banned from our schools, and policy was created solely through evidence-based processes that rationally balanced the interests of all stakeholders. But we live in America, and that's not how anything works, let alone education.

The imposition of the PARCC on this state is a political act. Neo-liberals like Andrew Cuomo and Barack Obama have found common cause with conservatives like Chris Christie to push the idea that American schools are failing. This allows them the space to claim they are really interested in addressing economic inequality without having to promote any policies that actually redistribute wealth. Nearly the entirety of their program to address chronic poverty and the erosion of the middle- and working-classes is to be found in education "reform."

Standardized tests are a critical component to making this political case: when you can show that schools in impoverished communities are "failing," you can flip cause and effect and declare: "If only test scores would go up, everyone would be 'ready' to move into a high-paying job!" It never dawns on reformy folks that this country needs millions of workers to do hard, often dirty, often dangerous jobs that do not require college "readiness," and that the people who do these jobs deserve living wages and lives of dignity.

Opting out of the PARCC is an act that calls b.s. on the claim that standardized testing is necessary to inform student instruction; this testing is, in fact, almost completely useless for that purpose. If anything, standardized tests are only useful as accountability measures. But if that's true, it's a waste of time and money to test every child in nearly every grade in multiple subjects; we'd be much better off using appropriate sampling methodologies to get the data we need to hold schools and systems accountable.

No, the current testing regime is really in place to create a narrative*: American schools suck, and fixing them will fix poverty (and, presumably, racism). Same with the loss of democratic, local control of urban schools: these districts are "broken," and only the subversion of democracy can save them.

As I've noted time and again, the districts in New Jersey that do not allow their citizens any say over their schools are the districts full of people of color and people in economic disadvantage.

Again, this has nothing to do with educational outcomes: it is a political reality. No one has ever shown that districts that lose local control achieve better learning outcomes for their students. Certainly, two decades of state control in Newark hasn't resulted in schools that get test scores equivalent to those in Millburn.

Cami Anderson is a political appointee. She was installed by a governor who overwhelmingly lost in Newark, but garnered enough votes in the white suburbs to win re-election. Does anyone think it's a coincidence, then, that suburban school districts whose leaders have engaged in corruption at least as bad -- arguably far worse -- as that found in Newark 20 years ago retain local control, while Newark and Paterson and Camden and Jersey City do not?

Again: it would be lovely to have a world where students don't have to resort to actions like occupying offices in order to gain agency for themselves, their families, and their neighbors. But state control is a political act; it requires a political response.

Now, some of you are probably thinking that I'm being unfair. After all, don't we all just want what's best for our students? Can't people have legitimate differences on testing and state control? Isn't it poisonous -- and unnecessarily political -- to suggest that this debate isn't taking place in good faith?

Certainly, I'm not going to tar everyone who sees value in the PARCC or isn't for the immediate return of local control of schools in Newark with the same brush. Again, I think Jim Crisfield, for example, is sincere in his willingness to give PARCC a try. I can tell this because he's willing to acknowledge the arguments of the anti-PARCC side and express his own reservations about the test.

But there are others far more vocal than Crisfield, and far less willing to acknowledge any doubts about things like PARCC and state control. Their certainty annoys and troubles me; in addition, I'd be far more willing to accept that these people's intentions were sincere were it not for two troubling facts:

1) There is no evidence reformy policies work. Again, where is any evidence state control makes urban schools better? Where is any evidence the PARCC is a "better" test than the NJASK, or any other test? Where is any evidence "college and career readiness" is an appropriate goal, or that it is the sole responsibility of the K-12 school system?

For that matter, where is the evidence in favor of vouchers and charters and test-based teacher evaluations and all the other reformy stuff we are told will fix our schools? The burden of proof is on the reformies, but they haven't shown what they want will actually work.

2) Why aren't the reformies also advocating for things like school funding reform and reduced class sizes, which have tons of evidence to support them? The fine, reformy folks keep telling us that these new tests are so wonderful -- but where are they when it comes time to stand up for adequate school funding? They tell us that state control is necessary in Newark -- but where are they when it comes time to demand that class sizes in the city should be reduced?

It's hard to accept the sincerity of the arguments in favor of PARCC and state control when the same folks making those arguments are silent (and sometimes openly hostile) on the issues of school funding and class size reduction. Could it possibly be that reformy folks only want to advocate for "reforms" that are cheap, while dumping the problems of income inequity, racism, and a lack of social mobility almost entirely on our nation's schools?

Until the reformies are willing to have this debate, I really don't want to hear from anyone about how we need to keep politics out of our schools. Our schools are already politicized -- the reformies made sure of that. If they don't like the civil disobedience that has sprung up in resistance to their political acts, they should stop engaging in them.

This blog remains a proud supporter of the Newark Students Union.

*It's also in place to make some companies money -- a lot of money. Anyone who denies this is being willingly naive.


P. Grunther said...

This is such an excellent analysis of the situation and exactly what I'm constantly trying to remind people of when I engage in (frustrating) discussions with those who are misinformed or just plain ignorant of the facts.
Full support of the Newark Student Union! You go kids...and thanks JJ, as usual

Seth Kahn said...

"Why aren't the reformies also advocating for things like school funding reform and reduced class sizes, which have tons of evidence to support them? "

Because technology will solve it all for cheapcheapcheap! And what technology doesn't solve, prefab curriculum from our friends at Pearson will!

See, that was easy.

Dienne said...

"and then opt her out of having first lunch, because she is way too cranky in the afternoon if she eats lunch at 10:30 a.m."

I'm sorry, but is making kids each lunch at 10:30 actually considered a reasonable thing for schools to do? Hell yes I'd opt my kid out of that! What employer could get away with telling employees that they have to eat lunch at 10:30?

And I'm sorry because I know that particular line has almost nothing to do with what you wrote about, but it is yet another symptom of the unreasonable top-down, anti-child approach that has increasingly taken hold of public education and which, even aside from the whole testing/Common Core thing, has parents frustrated with public schools and looking to leave if they have any escape hatch at all.

The best way to get rid of the rephormers is to make public schools places where reasonable human beings would actually want to be. How about if we start focusing on what children actually need rather than what's convenient for the school? This is how charter schools attract parental interest.

Duke said...

Dienne, you make a very good point. We talk all the time about child-centered education, but then we make them get up way before their biology says they should get up, and eat lunch at silly times.

Whether charters run counter to this, however, is an open question...

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