Sunday, October 30, 2016

What are we doing to our youngest students?

I received permission from Robyn, a dedicated educator and parent, to use this heart-felt social media post she made about her daughter's experience in the Common Core Era of academic rigor.  One of the major criticisms of the Common Core is the inappropriate nature of the primary grade level standards.

“She doesn’t fit the mold.”

My soon to be six-year-old daughter is a vivacious ball of energy. In my eyes, she is my diva, and I say this with every ounce of love and adoration possible. She loves to color, draw, create, build, explore and wonder. Hiking, swimming and building fairy houses out of sticks and stones make her happy. Her favorite music is currently the “Hamilton’s America” soundtrack. She asks questions about each song, which character is singing and what is going on. She dresses up as one of the many Disney princesses and has tea parties with her little sister. She makes her own Barbie furniture out of empty shoe and tissue boxes and just created a bee killer out of an empty toilet paper roll. She writes and creates her own stories using invented spelling explaining how a mermaid gets her tail or her writing about her recent field trip to the farm with her class. Her sense of style is eclectic; she prefers to wear brightly colored knee high socks over an entirely different color pair of leggings. At night, after her father and I have read to her, she reads to her sister, with a flashlight in her hand and sings songs until they both fall asleep.
As I look at all that she does and the things that make her who she is, I am surrounded by an overwhelming feeling of guilt.

My daughter does not do well in school. Sure, she is kind to her friends, helpful to her teachers and has a generous, loving personality but she struggles in school. In Kindergarten, she could barely contain herself on the rug as she preferred to roll, fidget and bounce. She doesn’t focus during math lessons and her writing is all over the place. Now, another year deeper into Common Core and we are again getting the same reports. She lacks the stamina to focus for her 30 minutes of independent reading, she must sit with an adult during math to keep her focused and regularly falls off her chair. Even with the fabulous teachers she has been blessed with guiding her on her educational journey and despite coming from a middle-class home with two educated parents, a home with well over 200 books, writing, arts and craft supplies, she is reading below grade level.

Am I a horrible parent for starting my daughter too early? She is, after all, a young first grader, turning 6 in less than two weeks. Am I to be shamed for refusing to push practice work and additional reading when she is tired from a day that is goes too long and too late? Should I be sentenced to mommy jail for letting her color rather than write letters?
As a third-grade teacher with seventeen years of experience, in the same district, I refuse to respond with “Yes” for any of those questions that haunt me on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. If my husband and I could afford a private school for our daughter, so that she could thrive and grow without the constraints of the Common Core and its curriculum, we would. But we can’t. Like many families out there, we have put our faith and trust in public education but right now, the common core curriculum is stagnating the creativity, imagination and curiosity of many young children. I see in my third grade class a dozen students that are exactly like my daughter. As a teacher expected to comply to the local and state mandates, I struggle. I continue to find better ways to do things, despite losing precious planning and prep time due to an extended student day. I spend hours awake while my family sleeps redoing horrendous lessons that expect children to sit for absurd amounts of time because I think of my daughter and many other children out there who “don’t fit the mold”. I wonder when the call will come from the school psychologist requesting testing for ADHD/ADD. I think about the number of children I have taught who have had to be medicated because they lack stamina and the ability to meet the demands of the academic rigor they are faced with.
In my eyes, she doesn’t need to fit the mold.

This morning, as my daughter and I danced in our kitchen to Christina Perry’s “Thousand Years”, I held her tight and made her promise to always be true to herself and to not let anyone tell her how she should be. I whispered in her ear, “You are my dreamer, don’t ever stop dreaming.” She replied, “I won’t mommy, I promise.” I pray that she keeps this promise.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Have you watched the Bald Piano Guy videos?

...if not you need to watch and share his brilliance..

Some of my favorites:

Classic Billy Joel parody!

Hamilton the Musical-- opt out version. WOW!

Green Day!!

More Billy Joel.  (2016 testing errors noted!!)

Channel your inner Journey

Messages to former NYSED Commish and Temp Secretary of Ed John King:

Many more  "Bald Piano Guy" videos here:

Monday, August 29, 2016

2016-17 Refusal Letter

My family has been super busy and why reinvent the wheel, so I am blatantly "stealing" the great opt out letter and information from the amazing Jessica of Opt Out CNY.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Opt Out by Vacation #optout2017

New York State Parents,

If your family is fortunate enough to be able to take a vacation next year, consider the time-frame for the New York State Assessments in ELA and Math for grades 3-8.

If parents are looking for a good time to take a family trip, I recommend during the state testing period.  It is a win-win in many ways:

First of all, this is a stretch of time when the least amount of true learning is happening in classrooms across New York.  The inappropriate length of the exams, combined with the set up and collection times, basically ruins half of our children's school days for each of the exam dates.   Basically very little academic progress will be made over the state assessment time period.

The NYS Assessments are split this year with ELA in late March and math in early May. 

While the March testing period is during a popular spring break period for schools and colleges around the nation, the math assessments will be given after the traditional Spring Break holidays.

Amazing vacation deals are available in early May since most schools are back in session for the rest of the school year.  You can save money, have a great vacation without the crowds, and protest by opting out of the harmful state exams at the same time.  A win-win for your family and public education!

Of course the Florida Theme Parks are a popular family trip that would be much cheaper, but how about Washington, D.C. or the National Parks that would be packed during school holidays or summer? D.C. or the National Parks could provide a great REAL learning opportunity as opposed to being locked down in a classroom with a number two pencil.

Start planning now!

(Also consider making medical appointments during testing as well since your child will not miss class time anyway!!)

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Frequent Changes in State Assessments Create More Problems

I have been fortunate to have had numerous phone and email conversations with Fred Smith, a retired testing expert from NYC schools.  Fred certainly helped me learn some of the insider terminology and methodology of test creation and data.  Here Mr. Smith analyzes release of the 2016 Grades 3-8 Assessment and how NYSED is trying to compare this year's results to recent years.  


Trying to make sense of changes in proficiency from one year to the next should involve careful analysis and cautious interpretation.  This is especially true when there are large differences.  But instead of thoughtful examination of the data and reasonable explanation, the State Education Department's announcement of 2016's test scores provides conjecture and contradiction leading to confusion rather than any understanding of the educational meaning of the results.

Here are three points:

1-SED says the 2016 results are not comparable to 2015's. Yet, slides containing bar graphs of student proficiency levels over the last four years accompany SED's press release and clearly invite comparison. SED fails to explicitly note that the lack of comparability was largely due to Education Commissioner Elia's decision to suspend time limits on all parts of the ELA and math exams--each of which was given over a three-day time period. This ill-conceived concession to criticisms of the exams meant that the time students were allowed to complete the tests could vary widely from class to class, school to school and district to district. Thus, standardized testing conditions ceased to exist in 2016. And without standardization, there can be no meaningful comparisons of growth over time or, for that matter, of achievement between classes, schools and districts within the same year. 

2- By extension, how will it be possible to make true comparisons between the 2016 and 2017 outcomes after next year's tests are given--given the lack of uniform test administration procedures? This portends another year that will be wasted on a testing program that will yield little useful information. Since test publisher Pearson conducted its first New York statewide exams in 2012, SED has now been unable to make legitimate comparisons twice times. Look for that to recur in 2017. What have we been paying Pearson for? And why do we remain on this testing treadmill? 

3- The press release leaves us with a slanted picture of the continued success of the opt-out movement. A close reading of the "test refusal" data indicates that the percentage of opt-out students increased by two percent (2%). SED characterizes this as evidence that the percentage has remained "relatively flat." SED apparently wants to create the impression that opt-out has hit its peak, reached a plateau or, perhaps, run its course. At the same time, a leading point in the 
release is that math proficiency has increased by one percent (1%). So, 1% marks a highlighted gain in math, but 2% more test refusals are minimized as representing no change. 

SED and the Education Commissioner continue to deal in distortion and duplicity. 

Fred Smith

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Opt Out is grassroots, parent led.

There have been several articles in newspapers across NYS that have inaccurately portrayed the opt out movement.  Today, the Buffalo News, which has been completely pro-corporate education reform,had a misleading and inaccurate article painting the parent-led opt out movement as driven and influenced by the state teachers' union NYSUT.   I will not link to that article, but here is my response the reporter and the newspaper editor.

Dear Ms. Lankes,

I have several concerns about your article published in today's Buffalo News.  As someone involved in education policy at several levels I can tell you that two of the four main points contain misleading statements in your piece.  

"Driving the replacement of reform-friendly members of the Board of Regents – including former Chancellor Merryl Tisch and former local representative Robert M. Bennett – and shifting the makeup of the group to one that predominantly favors NYSUT’s agenda."

In third week of January 2016, NYS Allies for Public Education(NYSAPE) crafted a press release calling for parents to contact members of the Board of Regents and to support Betty Rosa for Chancellor.  NYSAPE also encouraged parents to contact their legislators to advocate for several new Regents candidates as well.   It would not be until around February 23rd that NYSUT put out a Member Action Center alert for teachers to contact their legislators.  Parents were far out in front in their advocacy for the  Board of Regents selections resulting in only Rosa submitting her name as a candidate for Chancellor, most likely due to public pressure led by parents. In the replacement of Regent Bennett a year ago, a similar parent-led pressure was far out in front of NYSUT.  

"Fueling a parent-generated opt-out movement that led to 20 percent of New York students sitting out of standardized tests last year, the highest number in the country."

NYSUT President Karent Magee called for parents to opt out at the very end of March 2015, virtually at the midnight hour as the testing started in only two weeks.  The vast majority of families had already made their decision to boycott the assessments by this date.  NYSUT was late to the party and had little influence on the massive boycott.   The term "fueling" is very misleading.  In fact, NYSAPE leaders had been trying for months in 2015, and in 2014 as well, to get NYSUT leadership to support opt out.  It was the families of NYS that "fueled" the opt out movement. To give NYSUT credit for playing a significant role in increasing the number of opt outs is inaccurate.  

"Along with its 600,000 members, NYSUT had access to another key resource – parents. The teachers union and parents led a movement to opt students out of standardized tests.
The union encouraged parents to direct their anger to local state representatives, flooding them with emails, phone calls and letters to show their discontent at the polls."
Again, NYSAPE and parents using social media were far ahead of NYSUT, yet you portray the state-wide union as being the driving force behind the force for change in the Board of Regents that was clearly led by parents.  

How am I aware of this information? I had a front row seat as a co-founder of NYSAPE and a union Executive Board Member of the Hamburg Teachers Association.   Several times over the last year or so, I would share with my fellow Hamburg teachers action alerts from NYSAPE and then follow up weeks later with a similar action that was released by NYSUT.  Many times NYSUT was absent from advocacy related to testing and Common Core while parents in Facebook groups around NYS were organizing their efforts.  Many teacher union members complained on social media about the lack of advocacy on the part of NYSUT leadership to fight testing, Common Core and teacher evaluations.

Your article gives NYSUT far too much credit for the resistance to the Regents Reform Agenda put forth by former Commissioner John King and Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch. You are correct that NYSUT did use its money to influence elections, similar to other employee unions, business associations and big-moneyed advocacy groups but the opt out movement and changes to the Board of Regents were driven by parents.  There are Opt Out Facebook groups both state-wide and regionally that total over 50,000 members.  These social media groups have been the driving force behind education advocacy that has been resisting to harmful education reform movement.

Sadly, in my opinion, this is another article that is part of the continued bashing of teachers and their unions by the Buffalo News.  I also believe there is a concerted effort by state education officials, state and national "AstroTurf" groups, and some individuals locally here in WNY to paint the opt out movement as union controlled or influenced.  A balanced article would have sought out one of the many opt out parents here in WNY to see who influenced their decision to boycott the state assessments and advocate for changes in Albany.  As a parent, educator, and union member, I can tell you that opt out  is a truly grassroots movement free of union influence.  

Chris Cerrone

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

My child is doing fine, why should we opt out?

There are many students who are doing well in school and their families see no need to protest high-stakes testing or the Common Core Standards.

"My child is getting good grades and loves school" certainly can apply to many children in our public schools, but that does not mean your child is free from being impacted by the pressure to raise scores on the state assessments.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Does your child's elementary school focus primarily on the tested subjects of ELA and math?  Are science, history, art, music, physical education, recess and free play reduced or eliminated?  Many elementary schools have double blocks of ELA and math daily while ignoring a well-rounded education.
  • Does your child's classroom focus on skills, worksheets and content that is a preparation for taking standardized tests?  Does this test-prep limit your child's exposure to critical thinking or creativity?  Is your child engaged in fun projects and activities or buried in worksheets and seat-work?
So, while your child could be doing fine academically and be happy in school, could your child's educational opportunities be limited because of the focus on raising test scores?  

How do we fight the pressure to increase test scores that often conflicts with the education our children deserve?  The primary vehicle to raise our collective voices is to refuse or opt out from the state assessments.  The massive opt out movement has made major headlines and is beginning to influence education policy.  If the momentum of the test resistance movement increases, positive change can occur that will help all students receive the well-rounded education they deserve.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Opt In to Testing DEBUNKED!!!

Recently NYSED Commish Elia and some local school officials have been trying to convince families that the NYS 3-8 Assessments have changed and are worth taking again.  The reality is very little has changed.  My friend Jessica McNair, the fireball behind the test refusal explosion in the Mohawk Valley completely debunks the talking points that the tests have improved.

Please share this link widely:

As part of the “tool kit” put together by Commissioner Elia and the NYSED, schools have started to distribute this flyer in an effort to coerce parents into participating in the 2016 Grade 3-8 Math and ELA tests.  Much of the information provided is true: but plenty of information has been conveniently omitted from this flyer as the Commissioner continues to try to deceive the public into thinking that these “changes” will benefit children.  Parents are not appeased because the bottom line is as such: testing still dominates their child’s educational experience.Let’s take a closer look at what NYSED “forgot” to mention and it will be easy to see why parents will continue to opt out of testing this spring.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Everything is Awesome! "So Opt In to Testing"

NYSED Commish Elia is trying to convince families to "OPT IN" to testing this spring.  Part of Mrs. Elia's public relations campaign is claiming NYSED has reduced amount of testing in 2016.  Well, talk is talk, and facts are facts.

Here is the reality:

Are these times age appropriate?
Consider 8 year olds will be tested for over an hour for 3 straight days for ELA and then repeat the next week for math. Students with IEP/504 extended time accommodations could be working twice as long. 
Students who are "working productively" basically have unlimited time until the end of the school day. 
The NYSED document linked here even gives guidelines for a lunch break for students who need more time to complete the test.

Does this information make you want to OPT IN to TESTING?

How about claims that the number of test questions have been reduced?   Do you believe the PR or the facts?  Removing a question or two is not the change New York families want. 

Does this information make you want to OPT IN to TESTING?

Do not let Commish Elia or local school officials convince you otherwise: NOTHING HAS CHANGED! The Refusal movement must continue.  Opting out is the only way to bring about positive education reform and end the harm of the high-stakes testing regime.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Education reform must move in a different direction

I was provided with the opportunity to provide phone testimony with several other parents and educators to Governor Cuomo's Common Core Task Force.  My presentation was focused on alternatives to the current student and educator assessment system.

Here is why a continued boycott of the state assessment system must occur:
"It was my hope that the Common Core Task Force would listen to the voices of students, parents and educators from across New York State. We have reached a precipice that requires serious change in direction in education policy in our state and nation. An unprecedented event took place last spring when over 220,000 students boycotted the grades three through eight state assessments. Small, cosmetic or superficial changes in our education system will not satisfy the families across the Empire State who have brought their concerns to local and state officials. It is time for change in our schools. We are not asking to reverse course, but head in a different direction that will provide a challenging, appropriate education for all children."

Please read the rest of my op-ed here:

Do Not Be Fooled: Opt Out Continues in 2016

Once again my friend Jeanette Deutermann, the leader of Long Island Opt Out, nails it.  The reality is little has changed despite minor tweaks proposed by the Cuomo Common Core Task Force and enacted by the Board of Regents and NYSED.

Parents should continue to boycott the state assessments until all harmful reforms are removed from our children's public schools.

Here is Jeanette's advice:

For those of you new to this page or the opt out movement, first, welcome!! All of the information on here can seem overwhelming and "too much". There are key facts to stay focused on:

1. Opt out has been the ONLY vehicle that has produced change and continues to be the only factor to continue the changes.

2. We are a long way from winning, but we have swung the door wide open to these changes.

3. Your district will NOT lose money if you have high opt out numbers. Threats have been made and uninformed administrators may even tell you this. These are simply empty threats that we have heard every year for four years with no financial loss to any district ANYWHERE. Not a single dollar.

4. Although state test scores will not be calculated in this year's teacher evaluation scores, THE TESTS ARE STILL THE SAME, WRITTEN BY PEARSON, CLOSE TO 9 HOURS LONG, 18 HOURS FOR SPECIAL ED STUDENTS, 6 DAYS, ALMOST 2 WEEKS OF INSTRUCTION LOST, SCHOOLS STILL BEING GRADED, RANKED, AND SORTED BY STATE ASSESSMENTS. In other words, as far as our children are concerned, nothing has changed. As for the State talking shorter tests, they have shaved a few minutes off the 9 hours.

5. The law to make assessments count as 50% of the evaluation score (which encourages test prep and a test focused curriculum) that our legislators pushed through last year is still in place with Cuomo expressing that he will not allow it to be changed. While this law is in place we will always have test focused classrooms.

6. If parents opt back into the state test this year, the changes will stop, and any progress made will most likely reverse course. 

7. Deals will be made for various organizations to convince parents that everything is fine now. We will see commercials, ads, and other marketing strategies to convince parents to comply.