Archive | February 2014

Members of NJ Senate and Assembly: NO TFA!

no tfa

Dear Member of Senate and Assembly,

On February 18th Superintendent Cami Anderson presented another set of revisions to the One Newark Plan. In it, for the first time, is a request for a waiver of seniority rights and to allow evaluations in the process of ‘right-sizing’ the Newark Public Schools workforce. This back door attempt to bypass tenure and seniority rights is in contradiction to the agreements reached in landmark, bipartisan TEACH NJ and runs contrary to the Newark Teacher’s Contract signed last year. Furthermore, the proposal is to use teacher evaluations along with years of service for retention in the midst of the controversy about the implementation of the new evaluation system demonstrates a complete disregard to the current need to slow down the rush for change. Under this proposed waiver, seniority rules would be disregarded, taking away the right of senior teachers to request a different assignment when facing a reduction in workforce. Instead they could face immediate dismissal based on single year evaluations using a new system that has yet to be fully vetted.

The request by Superintendent Anderson to Commissioner of Education to grant “waiver or equivalency” disregards current law and attempts to circumvent the regulations. It is an attack on Newark teachers that cannot be allowed. But the truth is all New Jersey teachers are at risk. The approval of such a waiver would set a precedent undermining the teaching profession of this state. The real possibility exists that other districts will ask for the same waiver once the precedent is established. This is a direct attack on tenure, seniority and the value of experienced teachers in the classroom.

Imagine, if you will, a waiver being used as a way to save money as many districts face the financial burden of PARCC testing,. Experienced, qualified teachers will be sacrificed to pay for the cost of high stakes testing merely because of their higher salary rate. This is something that we cannot allow. We cannot allow our best teachers to be sacrificed for the costs of these tests.

Ultimately, this backdoor ploy to end tenure and seniority rights brings the possibility of an increase in Teach for America (TFA) teachers in Newark. Teach For America is an organization where Cami Anderson worked at Executive Director, and the waiver need to be evaluated in this context. TFA teachers come into districts after a five week training session and virtually no classroom experience. These teachers have a retention rate of only 5% after they fulfill their three-year commitment to the program. This educational revolving door undermines the strength of our excellent teaching core in New Jersey and cannot be tolerated.

As Legislators we urge you to remind the Commissioner of Education and the Superintendent of Newark Schools that there is law on seniority and tenure that should not be bypassed by a waiver. Please defend your hard work of TEACH NJ and protect the most dedicated of our teachers by ensuring this waiver is not granted.

Thank you,

Melissa Tomlinson

NJ BadAss Teachers Association

New Jersey BATS is an organization of over 1000 activist teachers and public education supporters who reject the attempts to blame teachers for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality and we refuse to accept high stakes tests, and evaluations imposed by those who attempt to undermine the profession of teaching. We are part of a national movement of BATS over 38,000 strong and growing every day.  https://www.facebook.com/BadassTeachersAssociation

For more information about Teach for America: http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/teach-for-america

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Ras Baraka: Strong Schools are the Result of Strong Communities and Strong Neighborhoods.

Or maybe Mr. Baraka said “Strong families and strong communities are the result of strong schools.”  Truthfully, he said both.

All week, the original title of this piece (as I was writing it in my head) was going to be “Why I Care About the Mayoral Election in Newark, and Why You Should too.”  This election in Newark has the potential to set a new standard for our state.  A standard that includes education as one of the most, if not THE most, important issue surrounding the vote.

But isn’t that the way all elections should be?  Isn’t education the main vehicle we have for building upon our current situations so that they can be improved upon?  I say this all the time: education is the biggest and most important investment that we can make for our future.  To support our children and our communities now will help bring about the changes in society that we wish to see. Ras Baraka is a man who has a plan about how to do this.  Not only does he have a plan, but this plan was successfully implemented while he was a principal in Newark School District. Go back and read my opening statement.  Can you see the intertwining of the three variables and how they can support each other?  Can you see how strengthening one of those factors leads to strengthening the other factors?  Ras Baraka does. He recognizes that trying to separate these entities will only cause harm to the other.

Ras Baraka made a very strong political move by holding a private session with different educational bloggers of New Jersey.  He recognized the strength of ‘on the street’ reporting and how we helped bringing national attention to the recent suspension of administrators of the Newark School district as well as the banning and arrest of the PTA president, all for speaking out against the One Newark plan. But what is even more impressive is that he open the line of communications between himself and educators; something that is being neglected as an approach on a nation-wide level. His opinions of Cami Anderson were made quite clear.  “She has got to go!” There was no mincing of words here.  He demands for the removal of a superintendent that only recognizes Governor Christie as her boss.  Ras Baraka calls upon the need for a superintendent to answer to the true ‘customers’ of education, the families and the communities.  The importance of a democratic process being used to influence school board elections was stressed and that change should fall into the laps of this elected body of the district.

Being under state control, this is hard for Newark.  But Ras Baraka plans to fight for local control to be given back to the people.  The state has had plenty of opportunity to ‘make things right’ and has spent almost two decades trying.  It is now time to give Newark back to its citizens.  While he did not outline how he was going to wrestle Newark from the hands of the state, he did say that this is going to be accomplished not just by him alone.  He recognizes the need for the organization of community groups, grassroots organizations, teachers, and the union.  He wants to create a collective groundswell movement, and he is just the person that can do that.

When asked what he wants to do about the charter schools of Newark, and if he would support putting a stop to the influx of these outside interests becoming major players in this battle, Ras clearly stated that he would support a moratorium on any more changes to the Newark School system until everything is truly evaluated and community members are allowed to give input.  He recognizes that there are already charter school institutions that have become an integrated part of  Newark.  But he also recognizes that they have not proven to be any more effective at educating the children of Newark.   Ras does not want to take the decision out of the hands of the communities that he is trying to protect.  Once given the true information, he has faith that they will make the right choices.

After leaving this private session, we then joined the community for a public session to introduce The Ras Baraka Blueprint to Achieve Excellence in Newark’s Schools.  In this session I was blown away by the speakers that joined Ras to speak about this plan.  Antionette Baskerville-Richardson, Dr. Lauren Wells, and Dr. Janice Johnson Dias spoke about the values and ideals behind this blueprint. Their speeches alone are worthy of a separate write-up (soon to follow!).  But let me add here, with these women in his corner, Ras Baraka may just be able to make the kinds of changes that education needs in our state.

That is why I am so interested in this election, and why you should be too.

Quick Note – Ras Baraka’s Blueprint will be discussed in a near-future post as I  compare it to the Mastery and Uncommon Charter schools presentations that I attended today in Camden!

baraka mayor

Dear Cami Anderson

The following is my quickly penned reply to the post that was written by Newark’s Superintendent of Schools on 2/5/14.  (found here)    I only addressed a small part of her post.  I could not even get the words out fast enough for my reply.  As it was, my reply had to be separated into two comments.  When I finished, I got a notice that my comment might not appear right away due to the sensitive nature of the article.  I ask you, should not people that wish to publicly speak their version of the truth be required to open themselves up to comments and dialogue?  This is just another example of the sham personality that is Cami.  

“we have not yet succeeded in embedding a systemic demand for change and creating conditions where the majority of families who want options for their children are heard”…your plan for One Newark is NOT something that is going to do this. 

First, the families in the communities have flat out told you that they do NOT want this plan. So how is it that you are now giving them an opportunity to be heard? 

Second, the Charter School program that you intend to subject the students to is a ‘no excuses’ charter school system that soon identifies classified students and students that may not be up to the expected state levels and systematically weeds them back out, often mid-year. This causes a disruption of a child’s school year and in the long run, costs the district more money because the charter school system keeps the tuition for that student for the entire year.

Third, there is no way that any school system is going to be successful in closing any kind of achievement gaps unless the underlying issue of poverty is dealt with. Yes, a school can offer extra services, more classes, more intense instruction…but until the underlying issues that our society are faced and addressed, there will be no allover success in any any school district, urban, suburban, or rural. 

Fourth, while I understand and am aware of the importance math and reading are to the future success of a child, I am also aware that there is more to a child’s lie than just these subject areas. Placing emphasis on the pure academics when dealing with children will leave other areas at a deficit and merely create a bleak future of adults that do not know how to socially or emotionally handle the many different situations that will be faced. 

Cami Anderson, you are not helping Newark any by bringing this corporate agenda of educational reform to Newark. The parents are speaking out loud and clear against these plans. The Newark public schools have been under state control for 18 years. Instead of placing them in an even more stifling and strangling position, it is TIME TO GIVE THE NEWARK SCHOOLS BACK TO THE COMMUNITIES!!! 

 

Letter to the NJSBOE 2/5/14

Dear Members of the New Jersey State Board of Education,

 

As a special education teacher, I have always had concerns with the amount of testing that our students have been subjected to. Within the past few years, this is growing increasingly worse. The rush that New Jersey has created to implement the Common Core State Standards, the PARCC assessment, and the new evaluation procedures, TEACHNJ, is an example for other states to examine about what can go wrong when such enormous mandates are not fully vetted and carefully planned before implementation.

 

To begin with, the Common Core was not a set of standards that we needed. New Jersey has been ranked high in the list of states with top educational programs and results. When I first learned about the pending release of a set of national standards, I considered this to possibly be a good idea. There are a lot of areas in the country that could benefit from a set of nationwide standards, to help improve their educational systems. I also assumed that the standards that were released would be a product of educational excellence that was fully researched according to what has been researched and proven about teaching and learning. I believed that it would align with human brain development and pedagogy.

 

Instead what we got was a set of standards that were developed by a committee that, at first, did not have a single educator on board. They were developed by a committee that was led by a man that has ties to several entities that wish to destroy our public educational system. Eventually, two teachers were added to the committee to give their input about the standards. Not only were their recommendations rejected, but these two have publicly denounced this set of standards as being inappropriate with regards to several learning theories.

 

Personally, the implementation of the standards in my classroom has come about with such a rush that I find that my students are ill-prepared with the background knowledge that is required to teach them the current set of standards. Enough time was not given to allow the student progression towards these standards to occur in such a way that the students would have a chance at understanding some of the material that they are required to learn. Time must be spent teaching these students the concepts that they need to understand in order to progress towards the level they are expected to be at. In the classroom , frustration levels are mounting in a rate that is proportional to the rate that these mandates have been thrust upon our schools.

 

To pile on top of the Common Core State Standards, we also have the new PARCC test. The PARCC is created as an online assessment tool from the same people that had a monopoly on our previous assessment tool, the NJ ASK. One of the first things I was told about the decision to move away from the ASK assessment was to create a separation of the assessment from a company that also mass produces textbooks and curriculum materials. There were concerns being raised about this connection giving an unfair advantage to districts that chose to purchase Pearson material. An additional edge will be given to the districts that can afford to immediately purchase these materials, leaving under-funded districts to fall further behind.

 

There are various issues that can be raised about the use of on-line assessments. The obvious being the cost of such a venture, to purchase the updated technology that will be needed. But there are hidden costs as well. Other things need to be considered, such as the cost of training for the test proctors and the future upkeep and maintenance of this technology. But what about the costs that are not measured by money. To fully implement these tests there are additional supports that need to be put in place. Test proctors need to be trained in how to use the different tools that accompany the tests. Students need to be given time to become familiar with the use of these tools; time that will be taken away from general classroom instruction. Meetings need to be held for any student eligible for testing accommodations need to be held with teachers, parents, and case managers to develop a personal testing plan. School-wide procedures need to be planned, written, and established to facilitate these new tests.

 

In my school district, the MAP testing program was implemented a few years ago. This was done, in part, to get the students acclimated to taking online assessments. As a math teacher, this has turned into a day of horror for me. Students need paper in front of them with the printed text that they can circle and underline important information that they need in order to answer questions and solve problems. They do not have the patience to write everything down on scrap paper. Visual manipulations are need of some drawing that can not be done with a computer, such as turning the paper to help identify geometrical rotations. The students have no concept of how to identify key information from the computer screen and write it down on paper to be able to solve the problem, nor as a participant in a timed assessment, will all of them have the luxury of doing so. An increase in the number of errors can already be predicted as mistakes will be made from the transfer of information from the computer screen to scratch paper.

 

The stress that these students are facing will only increase as these assessments are fully implemented. Added to the pressure that our educational system is putting on the students in the form of new curriculum and new assessments, is the new teacher evaluation system. The implementation of this mandate should not have a direct impact on our students education, except to theoretically improve it. But that is not the case. As the possibility of a teacher’s future career is directly related to how well a student performs, school has become a pressure cooker as the teachers feel that they need to push harder for the students to learn the necessary state mandated curriculum that they will be tested on. Student growth objectives must be ties to these new standard, and mounds of paperwork needs to be compiled to track the progress towards these objectives. Time has been spent in and out of these classrooms to plan for and create this necessary paper trail.

 

In order to track such growth, a creation of a base line data analysis of what levels of understanding the students have when they enter the classroom. To do this, an assessment that includes material that is to be taught that year is given. In the beginning of the school year this is already setting the students up to feel like they are failures. It does not matter that the students are told that they are not expected to understand most of the material on the assessment. It does not matter if you tell then that the grade will not count towards their report card grades. All they understand is that you are asking them to answer questions when they do not have all of the tools and background knowledge to be able to do so. Throughout the year, the students are asked to take additional tests or complete additional tasks that will continue to measure this growth.

 

Overall, these mandates are creating an atmosphere of stress within our school districts that will eventually cause our system to implode. As emphasis is placed upon the understanding of these inappropriate standards, the completion of these online assessments that directly relate to these standards as well as impact the career of a teacher the true purpose of education will be lost. Schools were created to meet the needs of the students and of the communities. Within all of these mandates we do not see one piece of evidence that this is a consideration. Instead, we see our educational system being turned into a data study that does not take into account the one true client of education, our children.

 

I have to ask you, when will we direct our educational system and consolidate our efforts to benefit those that need it the most, our children?

 

Sincerely,

 

Melissa Tomlinson

Special Ed Math Teacher, Buena Regional School District

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