The following is a a copy of my testimony from the March 5, 2014, NJ BoE meeting:
My name is Debbie Baer, and I believe the changes the state has made to “improve education” are predicated on the false assumption, that NJ has a failing public school system. Approximately 90% of NJ schools had successful, creative, innovative, and respected teachers and programs in place prior to all of this madness. We showed remarkable results using outside, reliable and tested measures – NAEP results are extremely high year after year, SAT scores are high, students get into the colleges of their choice, and overall, when compared nationally, NJ is always in the top three. Approximately 10% of our schools are struggling with extreme poverty and all of the difficulties that go along with that - hunger, transiency, instability with parenting/supervision, violence, and underlying uncertainty, none of which is addressed in TEACHNJ. So the core problems are not addressed but a mask of accountability covers the real issues.
I represent the 850 teachers working in the West Windsor-Plainsboro Public School System. I am the president of our education association, so I have a unique perspective on the impact of the implementation of TEACHNJ and the looming Common Core Standards testing. I am here to share my viewpoint with you.
I will start by saying that WW-P is a highly successful school system with two high schools where almost every student takes the SAT and our average scores are very high, has access to a wide variety of AP course, has access to a variety of accelerated programs throughout our 13 year system and almost every student goes on to a 4 year college and earns his/her degree. We should not be stressed by tests, measures of our success as teachers, or the implementation of common core standards, but our teachers are cracking under the pressure they feel.
So, what’s different this year? This year all teachers are being scored and assigned a number that will determine how good they are. They are being scored based on at least 3 observations, at least 7 components in 4 domains, by at least 2 different people. So each lesson, whether the observer watches 40 minutes or 20 minutes of a 52 minute class, must illustrate that the teacher is highly effective all 7 components of the 4 domains. Lessons must include the appropriate notation for the new standards that correspond with the materials they will teach. Lesson plans now take at least 4 times as long to create because a standard must be assigned to every aspect of their teaching. Teachers in our k-5 schools teach all the subjects so they spend entire weekend days created lesson plans that directly correspond to CCS. This level of micromanagement is exhausting and does not lead to more effective teaching. The level of monitoring has become unbearable and there is no relief to be had even if students, teachers and schools are proven to be highly successful.
What really makes a teacher highly effective? Think back on your own school experiences – what teacher impacted you most - how or why? Highly effective teachers connect with their students, they engage them in the learning, they love their subject and level, and they convey enthusiasm for learning to their students. This is impossible to measure. Lots of great, highly regarded, often-requested teachers in my district call me to ask if they are still good. Their confidence waivers and they plan their exit from teaching because “it’s not fun” and “we are putting too much pressure on the kids” and “I feel like I am rushing through the material and don’t even really know the kids.” Teachers have always loved to delve into books with their students, conduct science experiments with their students, help them solve tricky math problems, share their love of music, art, physical activity, etc. with their students but now they are so preoccupied with needing to justify everything that they do that they ask me things like, “Are we allowed to sing with the kids?” “Can I still hatch eggs in my class?” “What happens if my principal comes in and I am painting with my first graders?” “Can they fire me if I am not where my plans say I should be?”
To complicate matters, money is scarce because of budget caps and the state’s decision not to fully fund the formula so teachers have been cut, supervisors are strained so that all of the evaluations can be completed. NONE of this benefits students or improves teaching.
In our profession, within the first 5 years of a teacher’s career, over 50% of teachers leave because the work is too hard or not what they expected. There is no need to go through all of the monitoring that has been created by TEACHNJ to determine who is “effective” because teachers know and supervisors’ observations encapsulate what is happening with teachers and incompetence shows itself very early. There is no change in the number of expected non-renewals this year in our district. But, there is a huge increase in the number of experienced teachers who will be leaving the profession. I am sad to report that experienced teachers who provide guidance, share ideas and reassure new teachers, are leaving at a much quicker rate than I can remember in my 8 years as president. Nearly all of them apologize to me when they let me know they are retiring by simply saying something like, “I just can’t take all of this anymore.” Many of them regret not staying longer because they “love the kids” but “it’s all the other stuff” that makes them leave. We must stop this madness. For all the running around everyone is doing in schools – completing evaluations, checking plans for standards, writing intense plans, anticipating unannounced observations, prepping for testing, changing teaching techniques & learning tools in hopes of insuring success on tests – things are not getting better in schools. They are deteriorating quickly and our infrastructures and weakening.
You have the power to slow things down and reevaluate whether all of this is actually helping students in any way. On the ground, we know it is not working, and we are desperate for you to hear us. We want to work hard, we love students and our jobs, but we cannot withstand this level of pressure AND we can no longer shelter the kids from it. Many teachers I talk to find that the most stressful thing about all of these changes is that they are not able to protect their students from the anxiety of the tests, the pressures of learning and they feel they are not doing right by their kids. These teachers are leaving because they “can’t keep doing this to the kids.”
I implore you to slow all of this down and listen to teachers who are the experts at teaching. Teaching is not testing. Teaching is complex because it requires that teachers know their students, design lessons that support their intellectual and personal growth, measure what’s being learned, and inspire students to continue to be curious as they learn at their own pace and as they become intellectually able to grasp complex concepts.
This is a very, very difficult time to be a teacher and it’s not because of the kids, it’s because of the unreasonable pressure put on teachers and the public school system by the government. The NJ public school system is highly effective except in areas where childhood poverty is rampant. I implore you to slow this process down, investigate what parts work and what parts are actually destroying our model public education system.
In closing, I have letters for you are from some of my teachers who were not able to take the day off to come to Trenton. They want you to know exactly what’s going on in schools so that you can lead us out of this burdensome system.
“Union gives strength.” - Aesop