Mr. President Mark Biedron: Do Our Kids Deserve Less?

Yesterday was the monthly State Board of Education meeting at the New Jersey Department of Education. Around 100 parents, teachers, students, and concerned citizens showed up to testify during the afternoon open-topic session, mostly speaking in regards to concerns over the new state-standardized PARCC testing, and general concerns around high-stakes standardized testing. It was quite sobering to watch a number of school-age kids come and speak about their personal experiences and concerns with PARCC and test-preparation that takes place in the classroom. There are a lot of news reports surrounding the meeting, and they will be linked at the end of this piece. But what caught my attention most, during the meeting and while reflecting afterwards, were the words – and even more interesting profile – of State Board of Education President, Mark Biedron.

As the always incredible Marie Corfield reports:

“‘We know we can’t force any kid to put their hands on a keyboard.’
That quote came from NJ State BOE President Mark Biedron after testimony wrapped in his hearing room and an impromptu Q&A about standardized testing ensued. Susan Cauldwell of Save Our Schools New Jersey was in the room and captured it word-for-word.”

To hear these words from the State Board President was, as Marie put it, “huge.” At the end of October, the Acting Commissioner of Education David Hespe released a memo with the following statement:

“Since the PARCC assessment is part of the State required educational program, schools are not required to provide an alternative educational program for students who do not participate in the statewide assessment. We encourage all chief school administrators to review the district’s discipline and attendance policies to ensure that they address situations that may arise during days that statewide assessments, such as PARCC, are being administered.”

But yesterday, even Hespe said the following, much to the credit (in my personal opinion) due to the massive outcry that followed the release of that memo:

“Every district should apply its own policies. If a student comes in and is disruptive, you should have a disciplinary policy for that. If they’re not disruptive, you should have a policy of what to do with that child. We should not automatically assume that coming to school and not wanting to take the test is a disciplinary problem” (emphasis mine).

Going from schools are not required to provide an alternative educational program for students who do not participate in the statewide assessment” to finally acknowledging that “If they’re not disruptive, you should have a policy of what to do with that child” is an important step in beginning to *finally* have an honest discussion about refusing the test, the rights of parents, and how individual schools are to handle those who do exercise their constitutional right to refuse the test. The also incredible Ani McHugh just released a piece discussing “New Jersey Superintendents are Allowed to Accommodate PARCC Refusals,” which addresses this exact point.

But back to Mark Biedron.

NJ Spotlight published a timely profile of State Board of Education President Mark Biedron yesterday, January 7th, 2015. The piece, titled, “Profile: State Board of Education President Brings Unique Pedigree to Post” is followed by a telling subtitle: “Mark Biedron co-founded a progressive private school that’s a far cry from the testing-centric culture of public schools” (emphasis mine).

The piece, which is worth looking over in its entirety, is quoted with the following:

Where he comes from: The board president is a cofounder of the Willow School in Gladstone, a small independent school that focuses on ethics and language as the cornerstones of its curriculum. Founded with his former wife in 2002, the school’s progressive model is quite a bit different from the testing-focused culture of the public education system that Biedron is now charged with overseeing.

You can read more about the Willow School here. As NJ Spotlight discusses, Biedron “said he was looking for a school for his children that would address both personal virtues and academic rigor, and finding none, he and his former wife were left with the decision to either move or start their own school. They decided on the latter.” The school began in a church basement in 2002, and now educates around 130 kindergarten to eighth grader students.
The piece continues on to say:

Not incongruous: Biedron maintains that for all the evident differences, he feels that public schools are moving toward a more holistic approach to education via the new Common Core State Standards and the advent of PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) testing.

I have nothing against President Mark Biedron. He engaged in a *surprising* open dialogue with the public after all testimony was finished in his testimony room, and he continually offers to have meetings, listen to the public, speak with individuals whenever they desire, etc. – and all of that is much appreciated.
There are a lot of amazing things happening at the Willow School – it is an environmentally friendly, or “green” school that is the first in the nation that is fully certified by the U.S. Green Building Council. According to part of its mission statement/philosophy:


The Willow School is a place where children experience the joy of learning in an environment rich in challenging academic programs and active community involvement.  While upholding high standards for personal responsibility, students are encouraged to explore the world around them and to have the courage to take risks. The Willow community nurtures each child’s innate inquisitiveness and ingenuity, while ensuring that their confidence keeps pace with their capabilities. The setting is designed for children to investigate, explore, and discover. The Willow School develops intellectual, artistic, social, and personal potential through a comprehensive interdisciplinary curriculum grounded in an ethical framework as preparation for full participation in the 21st century. Knowledgeable and wise, curious and creative, responsible and confident, The Willow School students of today are the leaders of tomorrow.

I’m struggling to see how Biedron could feel “public schools are moving toward a more holistic approach to education via the new Common Core State Standards and the advent of PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) testing” while also being the owner of the private Willow School – one with the complete opposite model in comparison to the mandates of public schools.

This leaves me with one question: Mr. President Mark Biedron: do our kids deserve less?

Why are we implementing the exact opposite model for our public school students? Don’t they deserve everything this school has to offer?

Do our kids who attend public school not deserve to experience the joy of learning in an environment rich in challenging academic programs and active community involvement? How can this happen when neighborhood schools, especially in our more struggling districts, are continually being closed or turned into charter schools? How can our students be active in the community when they are glued to their desks for hours and hours at home practicing for the PARCC test? When did rich in challenging academic programs become the same as making school so hard and insufferable that students come home and cry to their parents night after night?

Do our kids who attend public school not deserve to be encouraged to explore the world around them and have the courage to take risks?
How can we expect our students to have the courage to take risks when everything in school matters on such a high-stakes level? How can we encourage our students to take risks when they can be punished by failing high-stakes, standardized exams?

Do our kids who attend public schools not deserve the nurturing of their innate inquisitiveness and ingenuity, while ensuring that their confidence keeps pace with their capabilities?
How can we expect our kids to be nurtured and boost their confidence when they are continually boiled down to one test score that determines so much? How can we expect this when students are told they are ‘failing’ or their schools are ‘failing’ off of one test? Have we ensured that each of these students is properly fed, clothed, housed, and loved, before we go and place all of the blame on the ‘failing student’? How can our students take the time to be inquisitive when the only accepted answers are A, B, C, or D?

Do our kids who attend public school not deserve to develop their intellectual, artistic, social, and personal potential through a comprehensive interdisciplinary curriculum grounded in an ethical framework as preparation for full participation in the 21st century?
How can we expect this for and of our kids when we see these exact subjects – art, science, social studies, recess – being cut in favor of test preparation blocks? How can this happen where there is such an emphasis on tested subjects that all other areas of study – many of which students thrive in – are being put on the chopping block?

If we want our students of today to be the leaders of tomorrow, beating them down with endless testing, test-preparation, and high-stakes pressure is only going to do the exact opposite. Hint: again, Biedron’s own school doesn’t even follow this model of constant, high-stakes testing.

A vision is great. A vision is needed. But we need a vision for ALL of our students.

Read more here:
http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/15/01/07/anti-testing-turnout-puts-state-board-of-education-to-the-test/

http://www.njea.org/news/2015-01-07/steinhauer-njea-far-from-alone-on-parcc-concerns

http://www.app.com/story/news/education/in-our-schools/2015/01/07/nj-parents-teachers-urge-state-abandon-parcc/21419487/

http://www.nj.com/education/2015/01/parcc_exams_blasted_by_parents_teacher_students_at_open_forum.html



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