Wednesday, July 02, 2014

My Open Response to Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli's Letter

On June 28th, I received a letter in the mail from Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, representative for Legislative District 16. The letter is dated June 5th, but was mailed to the incorrect address (another young woman with the name Melissa Katz lives only a few minutes away from me, so it was accidentally sent to her. She was so kind to contact me and forward me the letter). Because the letter was sent to the wrong address, I received it in the mail about a week and a half after the full assembly vote on A-3081 (now also S-2154). To me, this was actually meant to be, because I am now viewing and writing about the letter after the full assembly vote.

Oh, and did I mention he voted no?

Assemblyman Ciattarelli was one of four people [DiMaio (23rd district), Bramnick (21st district), O'Scanlon (13th district), and Ciattarelli (16th district)] to vote no on A-3081. This bill would stop the punishments of new reforms and create a task force of experts to explore alternative ways of assessing students. The task force also would examine the new teacher evaluation system and implementation of the Common Core Standards. More specifically, this task force would review the implementation of the Common Core State Standards in English-Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics, the use of the PARCC assessments, and again the implementation and potential effects of the teacher evaluation system under TEACHNJ and AchieveNJ.

“This bill establishes the Education Reform Review Task Force to analyze the implementation and potential effects of the adoption of the common core state standards, the teacher evaluation system, and the use of assessments developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC assessments).

“The bill also stipulates that the student growth percentile, a measure of how much a student’s test score has changed relative to other students who have a similar test score history, may not be used in a teaching staff member’s summative evaluation until the task force submits its final report, or two years after the bill’s effective date, whichever occurs later.  Similarly, the bill also states that the assessments developed by the Partnership for Assessment of College and Career Readiness (PARCC) may not be used for any accountability provisions, including as the high school graduation requirement, until the task force submits its final report, or two years after the bill’s effective date, whichever occurs later. Also under the bill, a school district would have the option of administering the PARCC assessment online, using a pencil and paper format, or a combination of the two, in the two school years following the bill’s enactment.”

Only about a month earlier, myself and another parent from my home district of South Brunswick had a one-on-one meeting with both Assemblyman Ciattarelli and Assemblywoman Donna Simon (also representing District 16) at our public library. We spoke to them for about 20 minutes regarding education reform as a whole, and specifically the importance of A-3081. Simon voted yes in committee, but abstained during the full vote. In an email she wrote the following: "However, there were concerns and questions raised during committee that have not been fully addressed, which is why I abstained during the last meeting of the General Assembly." I emailed her asking what her concerns were, but received no response.

As far as Ciattarelli, he told us in this meeting that he had not made a decision on how he would vote, but would listen to all sides of the argument and then decide from there. While I respect this decision, and agree that it is extremely important to listen to both sides of an argument, I take issue when the information being looked at, and needed to make these kinds of decisions, is factually incorrect - I will break down his letter and share my issues with his statements.

Let me start by adding that I do appreciate the letter I received from Assemblyman Ciattarelli. As I said, although I disagree with his statements, being recognized for the work you're doing is always nice, and it is crucial to have open and honest communication with our legislators.

Now, let's get into the nitty gritty.

“Specific to the Common Core, it has been very interesting watching the debate on the ‘left and right’ of this issue. I remain supportive of national goals, especially as our standing in the world is jeopardized.”

Really? Really? Are we still talking about this? This type of statement emerged after Sputnik in 1957, and was put into the hands of the national media with the publication of “A Nation At Risk” in 1983. This type of language is meant to be used as a scare tactic, the same way “A Nation At Risk” stated, “if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” An act of war? Again, the use of language to instill in people a sense of fear, alarm, and despair. More recently, the results from the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) are being used as the new nation-at-risk.

“Thirty years ago, a federal report called ‘A Nation at Risk’ warned that we were in desperate trouble because of the poor academic performance of our students. The report was written by a distinguished commission, appointed by the Secretary of Education. The commission pointed to those dreadful international test scores and complained that “on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times.” With such terrible outcomes, the commission said, ‘the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.’ Yet we are still here, apparently the world’s most dominant economy. Go figure.
“Despite having been proved wrong for the past half century, the Bad News Industry is in full cry, armed with the PISA scores, expressing alarm, fright, fear, and warnings of imminent economic decline and collapse.
“Never do they explain how it was possible for the U.S. to score so poorly on international tests again and again over the past half century and yet still emerge as the world’s leading economy, with the world’s most vibrant culture, and a highly productive workforce.”
“Daniel Wydo, a teacher in North Carolina, sent this analysis of 2012 PISA:
“Here’s what the mainstream media will NOT tell you about 2012 PISA. When comparing U.S. schools with less than 10% of students qualifying for free/reduced lunch, here’s how U.S. students (of which almost 25% are considered poor by OECD standards and of which nationally on average about 50% qualify for free/reduced lunch) rank compared to all other countries including one I chose to purposely compare – Finland (of which about 5% are considered poor by OECD standards):
*Shanghai is disqualified for obvious reasons.
Science literacy:
  • U.S. schools with less than 10% free/reduced – score=556 [1st in the world]
  • Finland – ranked 4th in the world
Reading literacy:
  • U.S. schools with less than 10% free/reduced – score=559 [1st in the world]
  • Finland – ranked 5th in the world
Mathematics literacy:
  • U.S. schools with less than 10% free/reduced – score=540 [5th in the world]
  • Finland – ranked 11th in the world
“This is not a new phenomenon. For every administration of PISA... when controlling for poverty, U.S. public school students are not only competitive, they downright lead the world. Even at home nationally, when controlling for poverty, public school students compete with private school students in Lutheran, Catholic, and Christian schools when analyzing NAEP data.”
I personally question if these tests and rankings even mean anything. Do we really want to be first in the world in the category of testing? What about creativity, individuality, and outside-of-the-box thinking? Oh wait I forgot - silly me! - those things aren’t quantifiable, so the Department of Education could really care less about those things. Keith Baker, former researcher at the Department of Education wrote an article entitled “Are International Tests Worth Anything,” and Ravitch reports his following conclusion: “What has mattered most for the economic, cultural, and technological success of the U.S., is a certain ‘spirit,’ which he defines as ‘ambition, inquisitiveness, independence, and perhaps most important, the absence of a fixation on testing and test scores.’”

“The Common Core, in my mind, is about establishing those goals and deploying a standardized test to measure whether or not the goals are achieved. In between lies the curriculum, which, despite all the rhetoric, remains a local school district decision subject to state laws.  Said another way, while non-local decision makers establish the goals and tests, local decision makers decide how best to achieve those goals.”

I take a few issues with this statement. First, it makes me go insane when anyone makes statements saying things like “despite all the rhetoric” (rhetoric: language that is intended to influence people and that may not be honest or reasonable) or “despite the misinformation.” As I wrote in my previous piece about JerseyCAN, quoting that there is ‘misinformation’ out in the public is another tactic used by the reformers. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there in the public. Trust us (the reformers), we have the best interest at heart for students, teachers, and schools. Everything we do is for the students.” Translated: you’re colossally stupid and misinformed, so let us reformers make the decisions that impact every student, teacher, and school despite our complete lack of educational experience. ‘Misinformation’ has recently become one of those infamous buzzwords that the reformers seem to love, along with some of my personal favorites like ‘rigor,’ ‘accountability,’ ‘effective,’ and a slew of other words to convince the public that our schools are failing. Our nation needs all of these reforms – more ‘’rigorous’ standards, only the most ‘highly effective’ teachers – to bring our schools to an internationally competitive level because our students, teachers, and schools have been failures up to this point.
Regarding the bulk of this above sentence, his statement pretty much saying that Common Core is not curriculum doesn’t sit well with me either. According to Truth In American Education, in their “Myths vs. Facts About Common Core:”
.  Under Common Core, the states will still control their standards.

Fact.  A state that adopts CC must accept the standards word for word. It may not change or delete anything, and may allow only a small amount of additional content (which won’t be covered on the national tests).
.  Common Core is only a set of standards, not curriculum; states will still control their curriculum.

.  The point of standards is to drive curriculum. Ultimately, all the CC states will be teaching pretty much the same curriculum. In fact, the testing consortia being funded by USED admitted in their grant applications that they would use the money to develop curriculum models.
And as Peter Greene writes in his blog Curmudgucation, which I will once again reference:
“But the Core are copyrighted, and if you want to use them, you must do so as is, with not a single change. States may add up to 15% on top of what's there, but they may not rewrite the CCSS in any way, shape, form, jot, tittle, or squib. States cannot adjust the standards a little to suit themselves. They cannot adapt them to fit local needs. They can't touch them.
Even more importantly (and incredibly) there is NO process for review and revision...
If you found what you considered to be a terrible mistake in the CCSS, there is no place you can call, no office you can contact, no form you can fill out, no appeal process you can appeal to, no meeting of the board you can attend to submit your comment, no set of representatives you can contact with your concern. There is nothing. The CCSS cannot be changed."
Is Assemblyman Ciattarelli bothered by any of this? How about the fact that Pearson won the contract for PARCC testing in a not-so-kosher way? There is a slew of controversy and backlash - serious backlash - over Common Core, PARCC, high-stakes testing, and changes in teacher evaluations. These are just some aspects of the reform movement on the national stage, but locally and statewide there are issues with charters, state-controlled districts (have you been following the disaster in Newark with state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson?), and serious socioeconomic and racial biases as consequences of these reforms (read Bob Braun for more on this in New Jersey).
I don’t know the exact reason Assemblyman Ciattarelli voted no, but it disappoints me that people in positions of authority who are creating education policy continue to ignore hard evidence and testimony from concerned citizens over issues with these reforms. I would hope that eventually Assembly Ciattarelli will give a concrete reason for voting no, and more than that back it up with concrete evidence to support his reasoning and claims.
I’m not holding my breath on that one.    
And more importantly, I will remember this come November.
**Important note: this past Monday, June 30th, the full Senate was set to vote on S-2154, the Senate version of A-3081. At some point during the day, Senate President Steve Sweeney decided to pull the bill, as he is apparently in negotiations with Governor Chris Christie to create a “compromise” (whatever that is going to look like, I imagine it will not do much as Governor Christie is a huge fan of the education reform movement). Governor Christie does not want to sign this bill, but he also does not want to outright veto it because of the overwhelming bipartisan support. Sweeney, on the other hand, is negotiating with the Governor because of his concern that there will not be enough Republican votes to override a veto - you’ve gotta love politics! Governor Christie or Education Commissioner David Hespe will most likely present this compromise at the next State Board of Education meeting on July 9th, and if the State Board of Ed does not agree to slow down, he will apparently put the bill back up for a vote on July 10th. Stay tuned.**


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