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Elisabeth Ginsburg, Executive Director
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2-25-15 Educators Talk: Positives and Issues re PARRC

Washington Post - A superintendent responds to a critic 

By Valerie Strauss February 24 at 3:30 PM


Superintendent James A. Crisfield of Millburn Public Schools in New Jersey recently wrote an opinion piece in the NJ Spotlight that criticized the “opt-out” movement, in which tens of thousands of parents around the country are choosing not to allow their children to take high-stakes standardized Common Core tests. Crisfield argued that underpinning the opt-out movement is a belief “that it is a right to opt out of things happening at school with which one doesn’t agree,” and he said this was taking public education down a dangerous path. He was challenged in this post by Sarah Blaine, a mom, former teacher and lawyer who wrote an open letter to Crisfield saying that his editorial “boils down to a slippery slope argument that misses the larger point of what the high-stakes standardized test movement is about.” Blaine, who went to Millburn schools, wrote in part:

Your concern stems from refusal letters penned by some of your parents that not only refuse the PARCC test itself, but also refuse “anything to do with the Common Core.” I agree: that’s a silly position for a parent to take. But you are your community’s educational leader. To a large degree I’d posit that the blame for those inartful letters lies with you, as their leader, for not leading your community through conversation and consensus-building around community reaction to the PARCC tests and how Millburn could push back against state and federal edicts, especially considering that its reliance on state and federal dollars is relatively minimal.

Instead, what I’ve been hearing is that at Millburn High School, your administration has been using Common Core to enforce lock-step curriculum on your highly-skilled and professional teachers. For instance, I’ve gotten confirmation from multiple sources that your high school English department now requires all teachers of the same course to teach the same lesson plans on the same day, which, to be frank, I find anathema to everything I valued about my own Millburn education.


Now here is a response to Blaine from Crisfield: 

An Open Letter to Ms. Sarah Blaine
From:  Dr. James A. Crisfield, Ed.D., Superintendent, Millburn NJ Public Schools
Date:  February 23, 2015

Dear Ms. Blaine,

Thank you for your thoughtful and well-written blog entry that responded to some points I made in a recent NJ Spotlight Op-Ed piece and for continuing what is a very important discussion.  I can tell you are passionate about this topic.  I, too, am passionate about public education and about helping kids, so I am confident we can work together on this rather than apart.

My point was narrowly confined to the notion that it is not a “right” to opt out of things in the public school environment.  It can’t work logistically, and it’s not fair to students who would end up with inconsistent experiences and levels of preparation.  I was not saying, “If we allow opting out of PARCC, then X or Y will happen.”  I was simply asking a question to explore the notion of opting out of things, generally, and then pointing out that such a concept won’t work in a public education setting.  As a political science major at Stanford University and a former high school history teacher, I am well versed in the flaws of a “slippery slope” argument, and I was not making one in the least.

Before I respond to some specific points you made and (hopefully) find some common ground, I’d like to apologize for my use of the word “hysteria.”  I was actually NOT aware of the word’s origins or of its anti-female connotations.  Anybody who knows me would confirm that I’m anything but “patriarchal” so that was hardly my intent.  I might suggest that your use of the phrase “largely women-driven movement” when describing the current conversations about testing has a similarly polarizing effect (at least it did on me), and I am guessing that was not your intent, either.  But let’s not dwell on word choice, other than to say that I promise to be more careful with mine moving forward.

I’d like to break down the substance of the current conversation into three parts, because it was not my intent to address the merits of Common Core or of PARCC in my original piece.  I was only looking at the opt-out concept.  But I do see the point that the three are intertwined, so I wanted to offer up some additional thoughts on each as we move forward.

  1. COMMON CORE:  We are probably going to have to respectfully (I hope) agree to disagree on this one.  In my professional opinion, the Common Core is a helpful set of very high standards.  It is not a curriculum.  It does not dictate what is taught or how things are taught–rather, it sets out high standards for what our students should know or be able to do.  Yes, the standards seem daunting in places and can possibly use some tweaking here and there, but let’s not wholesale junk them.  I know there are objections to how the Common Core was developed, and I am not dismissing them as meaningless or unfounded.  I’m just saying that I embrace the high standards embedded in the Common Core.  As an aside, it is NOT true that Millburn High School English teachers are now forced to teach the same lesson on the same day.  We have highly skilled teachers in that department who enjoy and exercise the same creativity and intellectual freedom that existed when you were a student in Millburn.  The creative inspiration that you note had such a positive impact on you when you were in Millburn absolutely still exists today.
  1. PARCC:  Here we have some common ground!  The amount of time PARCC is taking to administer is too much, in my opinion, and if its intended uses continue to be to compare schools against one another or to evaluate teachers, then I will continue to object.  But whereas I object strenuously to those aspects of PARCC, I do not dismiss it entirely as something that has no value.  The phrase “high stakes test” is used often and it probably needs some further, common definition, but to the extent PARCC can help us gain insights into student needs, and how we can meet them, then those are “stakes” that I support.  The minute we find out those aspects, for some reason (e.g., time delay of getting the results back or insufficiently detailed reports), don’t apply and that we cannot use it as a “formative” assessment (i.e., one that informs our instruction), then I will be all-in with the repeal movement.  But for now, I am willing to give PARCC a chance.  You are absolutely correct when you say “assessment does not require testing,” but it is also the case that, eventually, there needs to be some form of testing as part of an overall assessment effort.  Maybe PARCC is not part of the solution, or maybe it can actually be a helpful part of it.  How can we know until we try it?
  1. OPT OUT:  Now we come full circle back to the main point of my original piece.  That is, the education experience your local public school offers is a package deal.  I’ll use Millburn, again, as an example.  Here, we have highly skilled educational leaders and teachers, teaming up with service-minded community volunteers (Board of Education members) who work to put together a world-class educational experience for our students.  Do we nail it perfectly?  Absolutely not.  Can we get better at what we already do well?  Absolutely.  But what we can’t do is allow for our parents to pick and choose which parts of the “package” they want to access and which they choose for “opt out” candidates.  It just can’t work logistically.  It won’t be helpful or fair to students, either.  We need to know that our students have had a consistent preparation for the next level (be that the next grade in school or the next stage in life).  Otherwise, their experiences at that next level will be inconsistent and, quite possibly, unfair.

Thank you again for continuing the conversation.  Your blog, NJ Spotlight and The Washington Post are all excellent sources for high-quality education conversations.  I still think we’re in this for the same reasons.  I was struck by your objection to what I thought was a harmless and “given” statement when I suggested parents who are joining this conversation are motivated by what is in the best interest of their child.  That was hardly intended to be an offensive assertion!  Why would it be?  We are ALL in this, be it education or parenthood, because we care about children and what happens to them and we all want to provide them with the very best education possible.  And I believe we can come together to be as good at that as we possibly can be.


NJ Spotlight - Just When NJ Students Are Making Progress, Some Folks Want to Slow Them Down…A quick look at the past decade demonstrates that kids who aren’t tested are kids who don’t count

Kati Haycock | February 25, 2015 - Kati Haycock is one of the nation’s leading advocates in the field of education. She currently serves as president of The Education Trust

This month, intense conversations about testing are underway in both Washington, D.C., and New Jersey. While each is being stoked by a relentless attack on testing from teachers unions, those conversations otherwise couldn’t be more different.

Why? Because in Washington, those of us in the civil rights and disabilities communities know from long experience that children who are not tested don’t count. So we are standing united with others -- including the two major national business organizations -- in support of annual testing of every child.

Nobody has to tell us that standardized tests can be misused. We know that. Many of our coalition partners have fought in courts all over the country against such misuse.

Nobody has to tell us, either, that many state tests have focused primarily on low-level skills and that many schools spend countless hours drilling kids for those fill-in-the-bubble tests. That’s why we have worked so hard in support of the much more rigorous Common Core State Standards, and applaud the new assessments that require our children to do more than fill in a bubble.

Yes, the results from this first round of Common Core-aligned testing will be sobering. But to toss these assessments aside just when they promise, finally, to give parents and teachers honest information on how well their children are prepared for college and careers, seems just crazy.

We get why parents and teachers are sometimes frustrated by the number of tests that schools are giving. Over the years, many school districts piled on lots of extra tests -- many of them not so good --for a variety of purposes. The answer to that problem, though, is not to throw out the best tests we have ever had -- the new Common Core Tests like PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) and Smarter Balanced -- but to demand that school districts stop requiring excessive numbers of other, lower-quality assessments.

We also understand why some parents are tempted just to opt their children out of the assessments. But all of our experience tells us that is a dangerous road to travel, for kids who aren’t tested simply don’t matter to schools nearly as much as those who are.

For many years, black and Latino children -- along with children who have disabilities and English learners -- were frequently excluded when schools administered standardized tests, mostly for fear that they would bring down school averages. Instead of working to improve the achievement of these children, they were just “disappeared”: sent down to the gym, encouraged to stay home, or otherwise kept away from the rooms where the tests were being administered. Not surprisingly, their achievement languished.

That changed when the federal government told schools they could no longer do that. At least 95 percent of all groups of children had to be assessed every year, and the achievement of all groups of children mattered in school-accountability systems. Since that time, not surprisingly, achievement among black and Latino children has increased faster than at any time since 1980. And children whose disabilities many thought would prevent them from learning much are achieving at higher levels than ever before.

New Jersey’s data tell much the same story. In the 10 years since all children had to be tested and all schools were accountable for improving the achievement of all groups of children, performance on national assessments among the state’s eighth-graders has improved in both reading and math. In mathematics, improvements among the state’s white eighth-graders have been healthy -- up 12 points, or more than a year’s worth of learning. But even these gains are dwarfed by the 21-point gains among the state’s black and Latino eighth-graders. In fact, Latino eighth-graders in New Jersey now perform higher than Latinos anywhere else in the country. The state’s black students rank second, just behind Massachusetts.

Yes, we still have a long way to go in New Jersey and nationally -- before all of our children are on the path to be ready for college and careers after high school. Yet just when we are finally making progress, some folks want to give all this up?

Kati Haycock is one of the nation’s leading advocates in the field of education. She currently serves as president of The Education Trust

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