Friday, December 14, 2012

Speaking Up For Children: A Conversation With Academic Administrators

Me and my son Gianni, who is a 6th grade student
 On Wednesday 12-12-12, I met with Chief Academic Officer Dr. Tina Belardi, and Carol Hagenbuch, Director of Literacy for the Allentown School District. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss my concerns regarding the new integrated language arts curriculum in 6th grade, which has embedded social studies into language arts, instead of teaching it as a separate subject. I used this topic as a springboard to discuss some of my other concerns about school. I approached the meeting in a warm and open manner, and decided to be myself, and not try to be overly formal or analytical. These are human issues that impact my child's well being. We must be open and honest.

The administrators agreed with me on several education reform issues. Because I am a teacher who taught in the district pre-NCLB, I framed my concerns within the context of how much better school was before high stakes testing and data drove the curriculum. They seemed to be in agreement, and said that now they are constricted by state mandates, and are operating under budget restraints. Dr. Belardi said they are not "taking away" any subjects. They explained the integrated language arts curriculum, and answered all of my questions below. I showed them all of my research, and we covered most topics I wanted to cover (including unreliability of VAM, excessive testing, cuts to specials, importance of social studies, inappropriate double math period of seat work). 

Dr. Belardi told me that  that double math in 6th grade  should NOT be seat work for 90 minutes, but blocked like "guided math" in elementary school, and that she will be looking into that. Teachers are trained to teach blocked lessons. Also, they explained the new 6th grade SS integration with language arts, how it aligns (hate that word) with new common core standards, and that is the direction we are headed- a more integrated language arts. She said it's more "applications oriented", mostly informational text, but it's supposed to be more in depth, to develop critical thinking skills. I am skeptical of new standards that have not even been field tested, and are being imposed under Obama's Race to the Top. I am afraid these new standards may be developmentally inappropriate, and too advanced, (what they call "rigorous") and will set our students up for failure on new state exit exams (Keystone exams). I despise the words "rigor" and "aligned." Teachers must teach to the student's strengths, not to the unrealistic expectations of a "standards aligned system." 

Mrs. Hagenbuch explained how the social studies standards are taught.  She provided an example of the integrated language arts curriculum for the month of October. She said teachers enjoyed collaborating to write the new integrated language arts curriculum. I still disapprove of the plan and said I still think SS should  be taught as a separate subject because it is such a broad, essential subject that should be studied in-depth. And the study of SS is vital in promoting an engaged citizenry. It specifically prepares students for life in a democracy.  I told them I will continue to fight for full restoration of specials taught by certified specialists, and social studies as a separate subject. They did not convince me that the integrated language arts course is best for students.

One thing that was a bit disturbing was Dr. Belardi's reaction when I told her that I believe teachers can conduct their own assessments on students, and that they don't need to be bogged down with all the data  collecting. Her reaction was "well, not really." Why doesn't she have more confidence in teachers? She believes that the test score data is necessary, and should be included with other data like teacher's formative assessments, behavior, etc. But I believe that the test score data is given too much weight and drives all decision making. I told her about how my son's interim test scores and PSSA test scores never made any sense or showed growth, and are inconsistent. And I expressed my disgust with the test score data charts displayed in the hallways of Muhlenberg Elementary School. They view those charts as a positive, because it motivates children to do better. I strongly disagreed and told them that those charts are demoralizing to children, and student work should be displayed, not test score data. 

I told them about a superintendent from Maryland who is resisting the testing mandates, and that there is a growing movement across the country of resistance to education reform (NCLB and Race to the Top). I encouraged them to resist, and told them I will continue to inform parents about the harms of high stakes testing and narrowing of curricula. And I will continue to fight against harmful and ineffective state and federal mandates. I used strong words like "abusive" and "educational malpractice" to describe high stakes testing, test prep, and narrowing of curricula. I mentioned the national movement to opt children out of useless state testing. (See I mentioned Parents Across America. I think it's good that we had this conversation, I hope it encourages these administrators to think about pushing back against bad policy, instead of just following orders. I know we need a massive grass roots resistance, and acts of civil disobedience (opting out of testing) to really make a difference. They told me to feel free to contact them in the future.

I feel good about the meeting, and that we had the conversation. I think more parents and teachers need to start being less fearful of school district administrators, because fighting for children must be a priority. My son has been experiencing severe headaches during the double math period of seat work and worksheets. He's afraid to speak up out of fear of getting detention. I know that it's too much for him, and it's harmful, and it's not developmentally appropriate for children to do seat work for 90 minutes in one place. The teachers must change the way they are teaching math. The amount of boring math drilling that these kids endure every day amounts to child abuse. And sometimes the entire class is punished with more worksheets if they talk too much in class. Enough is enough. Math is not that important. And 11 year olds do not need to be ready for college.  

Read this study on impact of double math period in an urban middle school
"As the data shows, boredom in the classroom led many Romero students to question whether they wanted to attend college. Future research should examine the extent to which boredom in the era of high-stakes testing curtails students’ college aspirations and perhaps even results in a peer culture that rejects the pursuit of higher education."

“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” 
― Martin Luther King Jr.

Breaking News: The principal at Trexler Middle School, Mr. Serensits, would like to meet with me next Tuesday. The supervisor of instruction, Mr. May will be there as well. I am going to demand some changes, and make sure they are implemented. And I will ask these administrators to join me in a resistance against bad education reform policies! I hope this motivates other parents to do something! What could be more important than our children?

My Questions: 
1. According to the Pennsylvania Standards Aligned System, there are 93 standards for 6th grade social studies. Those standards are divided into the following categories: history, civics and government, economics, geography, and common core standards.

a. How are these standards implemented within the language arts classroom? 
b. Will all 93 standards be taught? 
c. For example, how is this standard "Explain the social, political, cultural and economic contributions of individuals and groups from Pennsylvania" taught? 

3. How will students be prepared for the Keystone State Exams if they were not taught a comprehensive social studies curriculum in grades K-6? 

4. Please provide an example of how the 6th grade Math teachers are implementing blocked lessons (similar to "guided math" in the elementary schools) into the 90 minute Math period? 

5. How much time during the 90 minute math period is spent doing seat work and worksheets? 

6. Why are students completing Math homework during the 90 minute Math period, and why isn't that time used for hands on Math activities? 

7. Have 6th grade teachers been trained in teaching blocked lessons in Math?