ATLANTIC CITY — Acting New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe told teachers at the New Jersey Education Association Convention Friday that he wants them to be partners with the Department of Education in improving education for all students in the state.
But many teachers questioning him after his talk said they don’t feel like partners, and that while Hespe’s goals sound ideal, they don’t always relate to what is happening in local classrooms.
“When can you come to a community like ours and see what is going on?” asked Charlene Cheli, a basic skills teacher in Vineland, who got a commitment from Hespe that he would schedule a visit.
Cheli said the district has a very transient population and a high percentage of students who do not speak English as their native language, which creates daily challenges in addition to preparing for a new, more challenging state test.
“I believe he has the children’s interests at heart,” Cheli said after her question. “But I think there is a disconnect between Trenton and the districts, especially those that are not affluent. I believe in raising the bar, but you then also have to raise all the things that come with it.”
Deana Nicosia-Jones, a teacher in Upper Deerfield Township and president of the Cumberland County Council of Education Associations, said poverty is a huge issue that testing will not solve.
“We are a very poor county,” she said.
She questioned Hespe about families choosing to have their children not take the new test. Afterward she talked about the stress both students and teachers are feeling, especially since test results are now linked to teacher evaluations.
“When part of my evaluation is tied to the test results I am going to spend more time on it, so there is no way the students are not affected,” she said.
Many teachers expressed frustration with the amount of time being devoted to testing and preparing for testing, with some saying the feel they do very little actual teaching anymore.
Hespe said the testing opt-out movement in the state is very small, and less than 1 percent of test booklets are returned blank. He said he believes most parents want to get the data the test will provide on how their child is doing in school.
As a former president of Burlington County College, Hespe said seeing students struggle in college has made him more passionate about making sure they graduate from high school prepared for college and careers.
“The most painful conversations I have are with parents of 12th-graders who could not pass the high school graduation test,” he said.
He talked about watching students arrive at the county college in August excited about their futures, then be frustrated in October by having to take remedial courses and desperate in December knowing they can’t start a degree until they pass the remedial program.
“Your mission has not changed,” he told teachers. “But the world has. Getting a job is not just a local issue, it’s national and international.”
He said teachers remain the most important factor to a child’s success in school and he wants to work with them on helping all children succeed. He said once the first PARCC tests are given in 2015 they can review the process and adjust as needed.
“I am committed to understanding your world,” he said.
In a brief discussin before his talk with teachers Hespe said he is concerned about what is happening in Atlantic City, and the impact casino closures might have on schools in both the city and neighboring districts. He said he has been keeping an eye on the area and what the department may be able to do to help.
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