Why We Chose to Opt Out

Thousands of children in our state are headed into schools today to take standardized tests mandated by the federal government under No Child Left Behind.  Our fourth grade son won’t be one of them.

opt-out5Opting your children out of standardized tests is a very personal decision, and one that has been far more difficult to make than we originally thought it would be.  There has been a lot of attention given in the media lately to children who won’t be taking standardized tests and the parents who have chosen to opt them out.  In response to this attention, those who have the most to gain from high stakes testing have begun to push back, even chastising parents for their personal choices.

Today’s post is dedicated to explaining the personal decision we made to opt our son out of standardized testing.  In writing this I don’t hope to convince you to opt your own children out of future testing.  In fact, that’s why I waited until today to post this, to provide some food for future thought.

I’m an educator, an academic and a parent. In the current climate of education in the US I have very little power over my kids’ education in any of these three roles.  As an educator I have watched politicians, corporations and wealthy philanthropists take more and more control over K-12 schools.  No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core State Standards are all examples of how education is guided by those with wealth and power rather than those with wealth of knowledge.

No Child Left Behind started us down this path in 2002 by tying federal money to standardized tests.  Give the tests or lose out on millions in Title I funds that go to schools with the neediest children.  President Obama used the billions of dollars that were part of his Race to the Top to program to double down on NCLB by enticing states to compete for grants.  In return, states were expected to adopt a common set of college and career ready standards (CCSS) and institute teacher evaluation systems that used test scores to measure teacher performance.

In the future, these test scores will be based on the Common Core State Standards, a set of de facto national standards that were created undemocratically, were not written by single classroom teacher, endured absolutely no field testing, suffer from dubious developmental appropriateness, and were forced down the necks of states by the federal government during the worst economic recession since the Great Depression.

So its no wonder that we sometimes see schools and teachers losing their minds in order to make sure that their students do well on these tests.  They are required to administer them, federal monies are attached to them, their performance evaluations depend on them, and the legislatures of some states are already looking for ways to make it easier to fire them.  Standardized tests are a gun that is being held to the livelihood of every public school teacher in the United States. Knowing all this makes it easier to understand why some schools have turned to disturbing practices like DATA WALLS, forcing teachers to teach from scripted lesson plans that don’t allow for differentiation, narrowing the curriculum to focus on tested subjects rather than a well-rounded education, and judging students by the numbers they produce.

Meanwhile, a $500 billion dollar national market has been created in education thanks to Common Core and the endless tests our states and schools purchase.  The Education sector is now 9% of G.D.P in the United States.  That. Is. A. Lot. Of. Money.  And there is no shortage of “edupreneurs” who are jumping into that market to get their share of the pot.  As a nation we have been convinced that our public schools are failing, that the “status quo” is unacceptable, that schools need standards and testing in order to succeed, and that market based reforms such as privatization, charter schools, vouchers and “dumping the losers” are the way to get it done.  The only problem is that none of this is true.  None of it. Don’t believe me?  Read this.  Or this.  Or this.  Good old common sense says these reforms will work.  High quality research says they don’t.  In fact, we have been trying to “save” our public schools with standards, testing and reforms for so long that they’ve actually become the “status quo”.

It is the test that binds all of this insanity together.  Without the tests, the reformers have nothing to threaten schools with.  Without the tests, the federal government loses power over states.  Without the tests, schools would be able to stop assigning multiple choice tests to kindergarteners.  Without the tests, there would be no way for education reformers to convince you that your schools are much worse than they really are.  Without the tests, there wouldn’t be a target on our teachers.

But tests aren’t really the problem, the real problem is how the tests are used.  Tests are an important form of data that can help educators determine how students are doing and how they need to improve.  When used for that purpose, tests are great.  Still limited, but great.  However, when used as a tool for propaganda, profit and pressure, tests are more punitive than positive.  As long as high stakes standardized tests – despite their limitations – are used as the primary means for evaluating schools, they will continue to be far more valuable for punishing states, schools and teachers than for evaluating student achievement.

There isn’t much I can do about this as an educator and an academic other than write and speak when I’m allowed.  But as a parent I have the power to take control over the education of my child, and that’s exactly what my wife and I have decided to do.  Federal laws clearly give us the right as parents to guide the education of our children.  While the Secretary of Education has recently pushed for changes to  those laws in order to give corporations as much access to your child’s data as any teacher or administrator has, he hasn’t been able to take away our right to decide what’s best for our child.  Not yet anyway.

So we’re exercising that right.  We’re taking one bullet out of the standardized test gun that is being held to the heads of our nation’s schools and teachers.  It’s only one bullet, and there’s millions more left in the chamber, but it is OUR bullet so that’s what we’re going to do.

Some would say that our decision actually hurts our child’s school because they NEED those test scores in order to stave off the federal government’s punishments under NCLB.  Schools automatically “fail” under NCLB if schools don’t test at least 95% of their students each year.  We prefer to take the long view on that issue.  Educators have become so concerned with meeting short term testing goals in order to avoid punishment that many of them have lost perspective and a vision for the big picture.  We are far more concerned about what will happen if the status quo is allowed to continue unchallenged.  We will not allow our child’s test score to be used to punish schools or teachers.

Others ask, “How will you know what your child is capable of if you don’t have test scores?”  The answer to that is pretty simple.  We trust our son’s teachers.  The privileging of standardized test score data above all other forms of information regarding a student’s progress is a relatively recent phenomenon.  There was a time when we trusted teachers to teach, assess, and evaluate the progress of our students.  We believe this should still be the case.  We don’t need standardized tests to tell us what our kids are capable of.  Our sons’ teachers are more than capable of evaluating and communicating our son’s capabilities in the class using the data they collect through classwork, teacher created assessments and other formative data points that aren’t mandated by the federal government.  Did you know that the new assessments for CCSS will be graded completely by a computer?  Even students’ writing will be scored by a computer.  They’ll tell you that algorithms can be constructed to evaluate a human’s writing capacity.  As an expert in how kids think and learn, I’ll tell you that’s ridiculous.  Testing is one of the least authentic ways to determine  what any child is capable of. Nowhere else in life do we try to determine what somebody is capable of by putting them in front of a test and asking them to fill in bubbles.  Yet in in American public education, that’s quickly becoming the ONLY way we determine what students are capable of.

These are only a few reasons why we have decided to opt our son out of high-stakes and punitive standardized tests.  We don’t expect everybody who reads this to agree with us.  As I mentioned at the outset of this post, opting out is a very personal decision.  In fact, it is the personal nature of the decision that makes it a legitimate one in our eyes.  We just hope that reading this will give you something to think about as you make your own decision about your own child.

The No Number Parent-Teacher Conference Challenge

I met with my sons’ teachers yesterday for parent teacher conferences.  Both of their teachers are amazing in their own unique ways, but they share a common love for young people that long ago convinced me that my boys were in good hands.

I started with Cooper’s second grade teacher and after exchanging the usual pleasantries, we sat down at the little table where my adult knees didn’t quite fit and I told her I wanted to issue a friendly challenge.

“Let’s discuss Cooper’s progress in your class without using a single number that you did not generate.”

She was clearly surprised by my challenge but quickly recovered and we discussed Coop’s social developments, his leadership qualities and how much he likes to learn.   He especially loves to read.   She showed me sophotome of his writing and I found out that he loves his mommy, his family, and his teacher.  Actually, I just had my previous suspicions confirmed.  He’s been pretty clear about these matters in the past.

We eventually got to the point where I was discussing how we were trying to limit the amount of time our kids spend on their electronic devices.  Did she have any suggestions for how he could spend some time productively with academic enrichment?  She told me about a math enrichment program the district had purchased that could help students with things they specifically needed to improve.  Then her look of uncertainty returned as she pulled out a page of his test scores generated by a computer-based testing program and said,  “I didn’t generate this number but…”

We had failed our challenge but I was okay with that because I had actually achieved the challenge’s purpose.  To understand what I mean we have to go back in time a bit.

I’ve noticed a drastic change in parent teacher conferences over the past 15 years.  Back in the late 90′s when I first began teaching, parent conferences were often unstructured conversations in which we would talk about grades, homework completion, social development, and just “how they were doing”.  These conversations were helpful, but when parents asked me what their sons or daughters could do in order to improve in class, my responses were usually informed only by the data I had at hand, which consisted of my grade book and some examples of work.  I didn’t have the data to provide a really good answer beyond “make sure he does his homework” or “study for tests”.

Now we have the data.  A lot of data.  It’s a veritable DATAPALOOZA in schools today.   So much data that I’ve found that parent conferences are now mostly guided by stacks of test score data.  I only experience parent-teacher conferences from the other side of the table now, and in those meetings I’ve seen State test scores, MAPS test scores, Accelerated Reader test scores, District created benchmark test scores…etc.  Data driven indeed.   Sometimes the discussion of test scores would take up the entire 15 minutes I had been allotted.  Eventually, my wife and I would just politely tell the teacher that we both had statistical training and could decipher the pages on our own.  Could we discuss “how he’s doing” instead?

Not having solid data back in the “old days” wasn’t ideal, but neither is the data avalanche that turns conferences about kids into a blur of numbers.

Thus the challenge.

I wanted to start the conversation with “How’s he doing?” because I believe that’s the most important question.  Does he work hard?  Does he get along with others? Does he have friends?  Does he like to read as much as he tells us he does?  These are questions that only a caring adult who is paying attention like a teacher does can answer, so that’s where we started.  There isn’t a test score in the world that can answer these questions.

But then we came to the question that I didn’t always answer very well back when I was a classroom teacher working from just a grade book.  “How can I help him improve?”  Fortunately, since she is the “smartiest and niciest teacher ever”, she knew just where to look.  Whipping out a single page of data, she was able to circle the aspects of math that Cooper scores well on, and the aspects he can improve upon.  Then she told us how he can use the district’s program at home for some enrichment in that area.  That was the only test score we talked about.

I felt like I had accomplished my goal as a parent because together we had achieved what I had sometimes failed as a teacher.  I had talked about my child’s progress with his teacher for 15 minutes, found out a lot about “how he’s doing” and left with a concrete suggestion for how I can help him improve a specific area of relative weakness in math.

I won’t presume to know how his teacher felt about my challenge.  I know that she has to explain test scores to many parents because they may not understand them otherwise.  I also know that explaining data over and over again to different people can feel very impersonal.  I couldn’t help but notice that she looks a lot happier when talking about children than she does when she’s talking about data.

My challenge to the readers of EduSanity is to try to make sure that you have both parts of this discussion at your next parent-teacher conference.  Learn how to read standardized test scores if you don’t already know how so that you can spend more time talking about “how your child is doing” and less time deciphering graphs and percentiles.  Most modern test score printouts contain an explanation of what the numbers mean.

At the very least make sure the discussion starts with anything but a number.

Talk Back, Push Back, Hold On: ATE Returns to St. Louis in Search of Positive Solutions for a Profession Under Attack by Private Interests

Our dear colleague, Dr. Freddie Bowles, posted this piece over at www.corndancer.com, and we thought it was very worthy of reprinting in this space. She’s a foreign language educator and national board member, conference co-chair for the Association of Teacher Educators. To see the full version with more images and graphics, link over to the original

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Talk Back, Push Back, Hold On: ATE Returns to St. Louis in Search of Positive Solutions for a Profession Under Attack by Private Interests 

by Freddie Bowles

I recently returned from the 94th annual meeting of the Association of Teacher Educators in St. Louis, Missouri, where over 900 teaching professionals gathered to discuss, share, and learn about the theme “Advancing Teacher Education that Matters in Teaching, Learning, and Schooling.”

As co-chair for the conference, I felt like a conductor of a collaborative work, holding high hopes that our magnum opus might receive a standing ovation.  Orchestrating such a large event requires the combined efforts of all players, so I must applaud the team effort of a magnificent group of professionals.  President Nancy Gallavan chose an outstanding trio of keynote speakers to support her theme:  Dr. Marilyn Cochran-Smith, Dr. Diana Hess, and National Teacher of the Year Jeff Charbonneau.

While St. Louis was celebrating its 250th birthday in February, ATE was celebrating the 25th anniversary of our first meeting in St. Louis.  As a special treat for conference attendees, President Gallavan invited all former ATE presidents to speak about their own legacies as association leaders, a choice befitting these historical connections and President Gallavan’s background as a social studies teacher.  Moreover, we honored our Meetings Director, Dr. Billy G. Dixon, who served ATE as president at the St. Louis meeting in 1989.

The Cynical Corporate Move
Toward Profit-Driven Schools

“Advancing Teacher Education that Matters” resonates with those of us in teacher education programs, given the recent campaign to demonize our work as arcane and inept by a host of entities, ranging from corporate sponsors to consortia of privately funded think tanks.  The most recent attack is led by a quasi-professional education group funded by foundations such as Gates, Walton, Carnegie, Gleason, and Joyce.

At the forefront of this coordinated, profit-driven attack on public education is the National Center for Teacher Quality (NCTQ), a political lobby based in Washington D.C. and founded in 2000 by supporters who “believe the teaching profession is way overdue for significant reform in how we recruit, prepare, retain, and compensate teachers” (2014, retrieved from website).  NCTQ pursues a “case for a comprehensive reform agenda that would challenge the current structure and regulation of the profession.”

At the heart of the NCTQ agenda, though unstated, is the cynical mission to privatize public education and shift state and federal funding from the public sector to the private sector, transforming our schools into profit centers for big business.

Dabblers and Busy-Bodies
Undermine Democratic Ideals.

While those of us in teacher education programs welcome constructive feedback as we strive to prepare our teachers for 21st century classrooms, we do take offense when busy-bodies outside the profession deem themselves saviors for our public education system.  (Yes, busy-bodies: a quaint term but appropriate nonetheless.)  It is especially alarming when a large number of the reformers have only dabbled in teaching and hold a surface-skimmer’s view of teachers as babysitters with long summer vacations.

Immense amounts of money and time are poured into criticizing our public education system, which, despite the assault against it, remains a hallmark of long-cherished democratic ideals.  Public schools offer citizens of all hue and home the tuition-free opportunity to become literate, productive members of society.  It’s that simple — and it works much better than critics want the public to know.  However, the stranglehold of faux accountability and punitive intrusions exercised by so-called reformers on state and federal agencies is undermining our best efforts to succeed.

If an equal amount of time and money were invested in improving the infrastructure of urban and rural schools, providing early childhood programs, and supporting curricula that addresses the cognitive, creative, and kinesthetic domains of all children rather than testing them ‘til the cows come home, then perhaps, yes perhaps the corporate meddlers and fast–track teacher-prep programs would fade back into the trendy shadows from whence they came.  But with so much public money at stake, and so many mega-corporations eager to gain a foothold in the revenue stream, that’s highly unlikely.  So we deal with it.

But I digress, I suppose.  I came here tell about the ATE conference in St. Louis.

Propaganda

Dr. Cochran-Smith Deconstructs
The Hidden Agenda of Reform.

Dr. Marilyn Cochran-Smith, former elementary school teacher and now the Cawthorne Professor of Teacher Education for Urban Schools and Director of the Doctoral Program in Curriculum and Instruction at Boston College, opened the conference with her astute deconstruction of Education Reform’s hidden agenda.  Dr. Cochran-Smith urged us to “talk back, push back, and hold on to what we do well.”

Using the metaphor of an alphabet soup, Dr. Cochran-Smith chose five acronyms that pervade the conversation regarding school reform.

1. ATCP
Alternative Teacher Certification Programs.
Forty-four states have approved programs for some rather unconventional approaches to teacher preparation.  Some require no apprenticeship or internship experiences.  Some are delivered solely through online programs, and others simply ask that your child’s future teacher have a bachelors degree.  I guess that’s better than it was back in the day when the only requirement to be an elementary school teacher was a high school diploma.

2. RRTG
Race to the Top.
RRTG is a federal pilot program, floated much like a carrot leading a cash-hungry donkey, that became de facto education policy.  Dr. Cochran-Smith views RRTG as part of the greater issue of accountability, where learning is equated with test scores.  She reminds the audience that teaching and learning are akin to complex brain functions and cognition.  According to the ED.gov website Race to the Top Fund, “Awards in Race to the Top will go to States that are leading the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reform.”

3. NCTQ
National Council on Teacher Quality
A research and policy group, it is privately funded by an A-list of corporate players (see the web About NCTQ and then ask yourself where their children go to school).  While the organization purports to “provide an alternative national voice to existing teacher organizations and to build the case for a comprehensive reform agenda that would challenge the current structure and regulation of the profession,” the methods utilized to accomplish this disregard all standards of valid and reliable data collection.

4. EdTPA
Education Teacher Performance Assessment
It’s one more assessment — and costly, too, at almost $300.00 per test — for students who go through traditional teacher preparation programs.  Incredibly, students who opt for ATCP programs and other fast-track teacher prep options would not be required to take this test.  However, students in a traditional teacher education program already have Praxis Core, Praxis Pedagogy, and other Praxis subject-specific tests to “prove” they are qualified to teach.  They are regularly observed and assessed using any number of observation protocols such as The Framework for Teaching by the Danielson Group.  Note that on the web edTPA, the goals include “Improve the information base guiding improvement of teacher preparation programs.”  No mention is made regarding improvement of programs such as Teach for America.

5. CCSS
Common Core State Standards
CCSS is a successful effort begun in 2010 by a group — most are non-educators — to fast-track a national set of standards into implementation by 45 states.  The website prides itself on the fact that “The federal government was NOT involved in the development of the standards.  Local teachers, principals, and superintendents lead the implementation of the Common Core.” (See the webState Standards Initiative | Frequently Asked Questions.)  The quoted text does not say that local teachers, principals, and superintendents created CCSS.  They were only involved after the fact.

Dr. Cochran-Smith

Dr. Marilyn Cochran-Smith

Dr. Cochran-Smith’s articulated presentation of the reform juggernaut reinforced the sobering understanding of the combined effort by reformists and capitalists to paint for public consumption a propagandist’s picture of a failing democratic institution.  Once the public believes that our public schools are awful and desperately in need of redemption, these investors and reformers can “come to the rescue” and create the right kind of training program for the right kind of teacher for the right kind of school using programs and products created by their own publishing arm, Pearson — for the right price, of course!

Alternative Routes ‘Churn Out’
An Unstable Cadre of Teachers.

The second keynote speaker, Dr. Diana Hess, Senior Vice-President of the Spencer Foundation and professor of Curriculum and Instruction at University of Wisconsin-Madison, focused on the issue of “short term teachers” as it relates to teacher quality.  Her presentation, “Beyond Churning: How to Keep Strong Teachers in the Classroom,” was a startling reminder of how detrimental it is to our learners when the cadre of teachers becomes an unstable force beset by high attrition and frequent movement from school to school and district to district.

She pointed out a number of factors that pull teachers away from the classroom:  the public’s lack of confidence in public schools, a bi-modal teaching force (younger and older), a loss of teacher leaders, non-competitive salaries, and a lack of retention initiatives.  Dr. Hess also emphasized that the teaching profession is booming with over 3.3 million teachers.  However, many of these teachers enter through an alternative route with little preparation and experience in the classroom, often leaving after their commitment to their program has been fulfilled.  They most often “churn out” after a two or three year obligation.  Public discourse and private disinformation also lead to disenchantment of newly-minted teachers, who face top-down directives and instructional changes initiated from private groups (NCTQ and CCSS) and adopted by state departments of education.

Dr. Diana Hess

Dr. Diana Hess
Photo by David McCarthy

These phenomenal speakers provided a somewhat dire picture of teacher education, but many conference participants chose to counter with a proactive stance, looking for avenues of inspiration and turning the conversation around to positive solutions of support for our professional teachers.  At several committee meetings I heard a familiar and resounding theme in the discussion, focusing on talking back, pushing back, and holding on to what we do best.

Humor, Passion, Enthusiasm
From the Teacher of the Year.

The third keynote speaker, National Teacher of the Year Jeff Charbonneau, engaged the audience with humor, passion, and an enthusiasm for the profession that roused a standing ovation.  His presentation was especially appreciated by a number of pre-service teachers in attendance for the special annual one-day conference offered by ATE just for them.

Mr. Charbonneau teaches at his alma mater, a small school in Zillah, Washington.  He teaches chemistry, physics, and engineering — and then he enters stage right to teach drama, and then finds time to guide journalism students on the yearbook — and like many rural teachers, takes on a number of extra-curricular activities in school and in the community.

His goals for students are “to understand a challenge and learn the method of accomplishing something, and then to be a problem solver.”  His motto is “What if?”  Jeff shared a “what if” story of how he modeled problem solving with his students.  First they raised enough money from the town’s people to buy 100 robots and start a robotics program at Zillah.  Then they shared the finished products, the robots, with other underfunded schools, giving the machines away each year after the annual robotics competition.

Jeff Charbonneau with President Obama

Jeff Charbonneau with President Obama
Image from a Video by Tch, the Teaching Channel

Making Standards Work

Mr. Charbonneau listed five attributes of success he teaches to his “kids.”

  • Confidence…. Teach them to be self-sufficient so they can become group sufficient
  • Courage…. Teach them to stand firm and make good choices so they are good PR Professionals.
  • Legacy…. Teach them the history of their school and community.  He led the yearbook staff in a project to scan every yearbook from 1919 to the present and make the scans available to the school.
  • Citizenship…. Teach them to be good citizens.  He tells his students that when they see a job that needs doing, make it happen.
  • Overcoming obstacles…. He asks us to help every child figure out what the obstacles are and give them the tools to overcome them.

Mr. Charbonneau disagrees with critics who say our public school system is broken.  The real problem, he said, is that teachers are just really bad at PR.  He encourages us to turn our strengths into a stronger system that values experience, gives support to students and administrators, remains flexible and teacher driven, and showcases the many accomplishments of our kids and the schools that nurture them.  He added that the real impact of great systems is giving students HOPE!

He finished by asking, “What do we teach?”  His answer?  Success!  “All students of all backgrounds and abilities need to be successful no matter what the circumstances.”  And why teach, he asked.  “I do this because I am creating the NEW US.”  How?  “By creating relationships first.”

With over 900 in attendance and 400 plus sessions and presentations, the 94th ATE Annual Meeting offered everyone an opportunity to create and solidify professional relationships, share their own teaching successes, and build a community of learners to support our efforts in creating the NEW US.

Should parents opt their students out of the 11th grade literacy exam?

Reposted from the Arkansas Times this morning:

There’s a dirty secret in the hallways of all public high schools in Arkansas this week—the state is giving a bogus test to all eleventh graders on Tuesday and Wednesday: The Arkansas Grade 11 Literacy Exam. That’s right, for parts of the day on Tuesday and Wednesday, your 11th grader is going to spend time under high stakes testing pressure, chained to a chair, unable to so much as use the bathroom for large chunks of time all for no good earthly reason. Subjecting your students—who by the way have been tested more than any students in American history—to another test is asinine and here’s why.

What’s transpired is that the state of Arkansas adopted Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in 2010 and the teachers in the state are teaching to those standards. CCSS has replaced the previous standards, the Arkansas Frameworks, but there are holdover tests from the previous testing regime brought to us by No Child Left Behind (or untested). Rather than take a year off from testing until the new tests aligned with CCSS are introduced, the state is making its juniors first and then grades 3-8 later take batteries of meaningless tests. This is wrong.

I’d love to tell you more about why all of these tests are actually an awful idea, about the adverse physical and emotional reactions that students have to them, the mountains of research demonstrating that our culture’s obsession with testing is netting us next to nothing, and the fact that standardized tests have and are being used to punish schools and districts where economically disadvantaged and racially diverse students live. I could share with you the analysis I completed with a colleague in 2008 about how the Grade 11 Literacy Exam itself was and is actually a bogus test prior to this clear mismatch between standards and assessment. In short, about 60% of the Literacy Exam is made up of questions that are simple while the ACT, a much better test, is all about questions that require critical thinking. In other words, Arkansas’ own test—if we are to believe that teachers were or are teaching to it—could be holding back students who want to go to college.

Nonsense.

If your child’s math teacher made your son study for a math test and then when he arrived, gave the class a test on an obscure detail of US History, wouldn’t you—dear parent– make that math teacher’s email, cell phone, and ears ring like Saturday night in Las Vegas?

Testing math students on their knowledge of history wouldn’t be fair. Giving an old test to students learning in new ways isn’t fair either. And if you agree with me, contact all of the 11th grade parents you know and share these simple steps to opt their daughter or son out of the Grade 11 Literacy Exam. Civil disobedience and challenging clear and unjust wrongdoings needs to be a lesson that the students in Arkansas learn firsthand this Tuesday and Wednesday.

I urge you to take a stand on behalf of your student but more importantly, on behalf of all students in this state and send a clear message to Little Rock and Washington D.C. that their obsession with testing, while wrongheaded, does not override your parental rights. Regardless of how you feel about this or any standardized test, I feel 100% confidence in saying that you, as a parent, should and do have the right to hold your students out of things at school that you deem to be inappropriate or harmful.

Act now by following these five steps:

  1. Talk to your student and ask whether or not this test is something meaningful to them.
  2. Familiarize yourself with resources available at Edusanity (: http://www.edusanity.com/2013/04/26/does-educational-testing-interfere-with-parental-rights/) and the United Opt-Out movement (http://unitedoptout.com)
  3. Discuss this with other parents of students at your local school; there is power in numbers.
  4. Contact the school and tell them that you plan to opt your student out of the exam.
  5. Complete the following form letter and send it, along with your 11th grade student, to school tomorrow.

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Dear teacher, principal, or other test-administrator, please release my son/daughter from the Grade 11 Literacy Exam being given at __________________ school this week. It is my parental right to protect my child from dangerous, harmful, and senseless behavior and from my perspective, this test is not the best use of my child’s time. The U.S. Supreme Court supports a parent’s right to guide their child’s education as an ‘unwritten liberty’ protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. 

Student Name _______________

Parent/Guardian Signature ___________

During the time that other less fortunate students are taking this test, please allow my daughter/son to perform any or all of the below-listed activities, any of which would be more educationally beneficial than sitting through another standardized test, especially this bogus assessment tied to old frameworks.

  • Doodle on a piece of paper for the two days. One never knows, a new pattern or perspective might be gained free of the limits of bubble sheets.
  • Read a book or two or three. Research actually supports this as educationally valuable as opposed to what the state is attempting to do to my son/daughter.
  • Write a story about their friends whose parents didn’t get the message and are suffering through a pointless test. Creative, meaningful writing has been all but lost from the curriculum.
  • Play video games on a phone or personal electronic device. Even that would be more educationally beneficial than taking this test.
  • Help the secretarial or custodial staff complete safe tasks around the office or building.
  • Be released to attend a lower grade and provide free tutoring for students.
  • Catch up on homework.
  • Shoot baskets in the gym.
  • Nap.

 If you attempt to use scare tactics to threaten my child, I’ve instructed him/her to audio record anything and everything you say to be used at a later date. Thank you for  respecting my wishes for the well-being of my child.

Repost: Does Educational Testing Interfere with Parental Rights?

Originally appeared at EduSanity on April 26, 2013.

I write today to express my deep concerns that you, parents of Arkansas and America, have unknowingly lost your rights. Specifically, you have lost the right to make a decision about what is best for your child when it comes to standardized tests, a fact I believe requires your immediate attention, ire, and action.

I started thinking about this issue two months ago, immediately in advance of my state’s benchmark examinations mandated by the No Child Left Behind (or untested) act of 2002. Because America is a big believer in the power of tests, students not only have benchmark examinations in the spring but also endure End of Course examinations in Biology, Geometry, and Algebra, the Grade 11 Literacy Exam, and in many cases, individual schools have signed up for outside, for-profit companies to come in and test the students as many as twenty additional days each year. Since we have new standards and new tests on the way, I asked myself why in the world we were still taking tests written to now outdated standards/frameworks. It seems ironic that over-testing and standardization is blamed for the failing of No Child Left Behind so our national response is to replace the old with new standards and tests.

What?

Whether or not you’ve turned on the news in the last couple of years, you’ve probably heard about Common Core Standards. These are different than the previous standards and have setup a most unfortunate situation for your students this year: students in Arkansas and across the country were forced to take standardized tests over old standards while being led towards new ones. In Arkansas, third through eighth grade and eleventh grade students in the state were unfairly and unjustly tied to a desk (not really but sort of) for five straight days on April 8-12, taking tests that absolutely, positively no longer matter: the Arkansas benchmark exams.</p>
<p>Next year, we are told that the brand spanking new and improved tests will be here—I can’t wait.

Our country’s obsession with standardized tests is unhealthy and what I’ll shout from the rooftops is the fact that continuing to test students over something to which they are not being taught makes about as much sense as building boots with spoons. It is nothing short of educational malpractice to continue to test students with a test created under old standards while many/most teachers are teaching to new standards.

Given this deplorable situation, I started wondering what could be done about it and if I recommended parents remove their students from this nonsense, just what would happen to the students, parents, or schools (or me). Being conscientious objectors to things, after all, is the very foundation on which America was built. For example, if you, dear parents, don’t want your student to read a certain novel in eleventh grade English class, you have every right to remove your student from what you perceive as harmful or objectionable. The same goes for other subjects in school and aspects of content in social studies, science, etc. I submit that the battery of tests could hurt your student far more than Holden Caulfield.

If the parents of Arkansas—or any state—all stood up to the big bad testing bully in the room and said, “ENOUGH,” the students involved would learn many good lessons about being American: the importance of standing up to senselessness, the power of protest, and the responsibility as students—with your assistance—to take charge and advocate for their own learning. What did your student gain from sitting and taking that test for five straight days? A sore rear end and an increasing distaste for school?

But can the tests be stopped?

There is an organization that supports this general idea called United Opt Out, a group opposed to all corporate education reforms (corporate education reform—think standardize, drill, test, quantify, repeat). In digging around their site, I’ve found that there is a multi-family complaint issued with the ACLU about testing and opting out of testing. Arkansas and other states seemed to think of people like me—status quo disturbers—when they crafted a policy delineating punishments for those students who opt out of the standardized tests in the state.

From Arkansas:

If you decide to opt out, there are consequences for Benchmarks, End of Course Geometry and Biology and Grade 11 Literacy – student will need to have Academic Improvement Plan and be remediated under the law. (the reason is that the student will have no test to show s/he scored proficient.)  With End of Course Algebra a student must pass the examination in order to get credit for the course (must have passing grade too).  Algebra 1 is REQUIRED to graduate.  So, without it, you can’t graduate.

If remediation (sic) does not occur child can be retained.

As I read this and thought about the ramifications of it, the skin on my face and ears started to burn. Seriously? Parents can and should have the right to pull their students out of this or any kind of testing. Groups in other states are starting to wake up to this chilly reality.
Whether you agree or disagree with the current testing, you probably agree that you—as a parent—should have the ability to remove your student from a harmful situation at school. Let’s say the tests were great, transformational learning experiences for students, parents should still be able to say, “no thank you,” when it comes to their child.

Let’s stop this nonsense and I need you, dear parents of Arkansas and America, to help in this action. Let’s contact state legislators immediately and demand a bill that returns these rights to the parents. And if they don’t follow through (insert joke here about the inability for any legislative body to accomplish something), let’s all simply pull students out of the standardized tests for the 2013-2014 school year. We could save the states a coal car full of money, perhaps money they could put to positive uses in education. Burn the cash in the schoolhouse chimney for all I care but give parents back their rights.

To let the lawmakers of the state know we are serious, here’s a release letter we’ll use next year.

****
March 10, 2014

Dear teacher, principal, or other test-administrator, please release my son/daughter from the ___________________ (standardized test) being given at __________________ school this week. It is my parental right to protect my child from dangerous, harmful, and senseless behavior and from my perspective, this test is not the best use of my child’s time.

Student Name _______________
Parent/Guardian Signature ___________

During the time that other less fortunate students are taking this test, please allow my son/daughter to perform any or all of the below-listed activities, any of which would be more educationally beneficial than sitting through another standardized test.

*Doodle on a piece of paper for the week. One never knows, a new pattern or perspective might be gained free of the limits of bubble sheets.

*Read a book or two or three. Research actually supports this as educationally valuable as opposed to what the state is attempting to do to my son/daughter.

*Write a story about their friends whose parents didn’t get the message and are suffering through a pointless test. Creative, meaningful writing has been all but lost from the curriculum.

*Play video games on a phone or personal electronic device. Even that would be more educationally beneficial than taking this test.

*Help the secretarial or custodial staff complete safe tasks around the office or building.

*Be released to attend a lower grade and provide free tutoring for students.

*Catch up on homework.

*Shoot baskets in the gym.

*Nap. Seriously.

Whatever you, dear parents, decide to do, I encourage you to take back your rights from the policy makers in this state/country. I took the Iowa Basic Skills test twice and the ACT twice in my 12-year educational career. That’s right, four standardized tests in 12 years. Your student may take four standardized tests in three weeks and what are they really learning? Checking in on students a bit more often isn’t a horrible idea, but I honestly think students are learning less today because of the unhealthy focus on tests in this country.

It is time that the parents of Arkansas and states around the country see these issues for what they are and to take back the schools. Testing, testing, and more testing will lead to unhealthy competitiveness, public shaming of school, students, and teachers, and a narrowed curriculum that won’t benefit anyone but those interested in destroying public education. The time to act is now. Contact your legislators. Contact me. I’d love to support you in these efforts. Report your experiences and the experiences of your son or daughter in the comments section attached to this article.

Your parental rights were taken away by failing educational policy and there isn’t a single good reason we can’t take them back.

My Child Is Not a #

I slumped out of school Monday at 5:30, feeling discouraged. The warning was still in my ears, “If a kid is walking down the hall, and I stop and ask him his current MAP scores in reading, language, and math, he better know them, or the teacher will answer why she hasn’t discussed the scores with her students.”

As I read these words recently on a middle school teacher’s blog  I found myself feeling profoundly sad and very angry.  I was sad that this is how far some of the people in charge of our childrens’ education have drifted from caring about kids instead of numbers.  I was angry at the thought that this “educator” was actually THREATENING teachers with consequences if they didn’t follow in his or her same misguided footsteps.  Most importantly, I was ticked at the idea that somebody would treat my child as a number.

You know this popped into your mind when you read this...

You know this popped into your mind when you read this…

Middle school is one of the worst times in anybody’s life. In fact, I tend to immediately distrust anybody who says that they actually liked middle school, because I taught middle school, and I saw the angst and confusion of early adolescence on a daily basis.

So imagine how AWESOME it would be one day to throw up on the bus, have your girlfriend Shauna Wenger break up with you for the 4th time, and lose your new sunglasses, only to have a school administrator stalk up to you and demand to know your numbers.   All of those things happened to me once, except for the last one because in 1987 we hadn’t lost our damn minds yet in pursuit of just one more point.  I wasn’t just a number.

Last week I wrote about DATA WALLS, an unfortunate example of how the number-obsessed mindset has managed to infiltrate the ranks of teachers in some places.  These walls not only tell our children they are numbers, they stick it right in front of their faces so they can be reminded every time they look up from their test preparation worksheet.  They’re all numbers.

Earlier this week I met with a parent who told me that her child was not going to be allowed to enter an advanced math class because he didn’t score well on a timed exam, despite the fact that the school recognizes that he didn’t score well because he is a deliberate worker who checks and rechecks his work to avoid mistakes.  They commended the ability he demonstrates in class, exceptional coursework, and very high scores on classroom tests, but have decided instead to allow this one test score to define him as a math student.  He’s a number.

The other day, this message from a teacher popped up in my inbox:

Since our scores didn’t improve enough, all teachers are going to a meeting for a whole day to discuss what we will do to improve scores… I had one kid with an absurdly high score for a 7th grader, he’s in the 99th percentile, who went down a few points.  Despite the fact that he’s still in the 99th percentile and on a college level in everything as a 7th grader, I have to set a growth plan with him… He struggles socially, and I need to focus on his social emotional growth, not more literary analysis. We’ve had a 2.5 hour staff meeting on reading the data, individual meetings with facilitators about scores, and department meetings about scores. Next step is goal setting and growth plans with kids… I’m scared of what it’s going to look like in the next couple years.

And it is OUR kids who are being affected.  Some of it is fairly harmless, like my son’s friend who was over the other day showing me the house he built using the Minecraft app on his iPad.  As he gave me the tour, we eventually arrived at the “libeary” which he had built complete with bookshelves and books – all organized by Accelerated Reading (AR) level.  He proceeded to tell me about the 2.4’s, 2.5’s, and 2.6’s that he hoped to read soon.  This sounded really familiar as my own son has had his struggles with being defined by an AR score in the past.

These are all anecdotal stories of course, and the Lords of Accountability such as Secretary of Education Bill Gates and his assistant Arne Duncan would tell you that we are the exception and not the rule.

But I don’t think that’s the case.  When stories pop up all over the country of kids pooping their pants and puking because of CCSS tests  and pictures show up on Twitter of kids crying because of test preparation for CCSS, one feels the humanity of education slip further and further from our grasp.

CCSS kid crying

No Caption Necessary

In fact, I bet that every person reading this post has a very similar story they can share about their child or a child they know who is being treated like a number instead of a person.  I encourage you to share one if you have it in the comments section below.

What can we do about it?  For starters, the Network for Public Education (of which EduSanity is a proud member) has recently called for congressional hearings into standardized testing.   Let your congressperson know that this issue matters to you.

Secondly, you can make it clear to your child’s school that you don’t IMG_0983give a damn what their numbers are, because you trust their teachers to evaluate their progress without a standardized test.  Ironically, “educators” who have sold their souls to the Gods of Testing are actually helping to make their jobs obsolete.  Why bother with teachers if all we need are numbers?

We also plan to make this issue a central theme in upcoming EduSanity posts, so please stay tuned.

And as for the “educator” referenced at the beginning of this post, if my child is ever stopped in the hallway and asked what his test score numbers are, I’ve told him to respond, “My name is Jackson Endacott and I’m not a number.”  If he doesn’t like that answer, he can take it up with me.

Coming to A School Near You: DATA WALLS!

When I was a newly minted teacher in 1998 the public display of our students’ capabilities was limited to posting grade sheets that included complex student ID numbers but no names. The notion of posting the test scores or specific skills of our students was not even a twinkle in the most cold-hearted education reformer’s eye. Then in 2002 after the passage of NCLB the word “accountability” took on new meaning. The frequency of testing increased overall from every three years to every single year while the number of tested subjects actually dropped (politicians don’t care about Social Studies).

This was also the beginning of using data to hold schools and teachers “accountable” for achievement. The test scores for schools were printed in the newspaper.  Schools were given “grades” based on how well their students tested.  These grades pretty much ignored every other facet of educating a child. This oversimplification was insulting but was tolerated.

Next was the comparison of test scores by teacher. I had one particularly myopic assistant principal who would bring our test scores to faculty meetings and rank us by achievement. She completely ignored factors such as # of students with special needs, English language learners, and the unequal distribution of students in advanced classes, but we had already gotten in the habit of ignoring mitigating factors so continuing in that tradition was business as usual.

Now, we have finally progressed to the point where we get to humiliate our 5 year-olds in the same simplistic and public manner that we have been shaming schools and students for over a decade.  Schools around the country have started posting “data walls” in classrooms where children who have not managed to learn the alphabet get to have their names posted for all to see. Those students in first grade who can memorize single digit math facts FINALLY have a public space to separate themselves from the other losers in their class who haven’t mastered that task.

I found this on Pinterest.  Clearly, this teacher is proud of how colorful her wall of failure is.

I found this on Pinterest. This teacher must be  proud of how creatively colorful her wall of failure is.

Decades of research that does not exist clearly indicates that the best way to get  kids to achieve is to motivate them through humiliation. It has worked so well in the past for schools and teachers, that it only seems natural to extend the power of public accountability to kids as well.  Education reformers have long held the position that the main reason schools are “failing” is because their failures have not been made public so that we can hold them accountable.  Why shouldn’t that apply to preschoolers as well?

What possible harm could come from moving kids from one side of the data wall to the other after they master a skill until only one child is left on the side of failure?  Surely, the desire to avoid humiliation will be the final piece of the puzzle that these kids needed to get their acts together and ACHIEVE.  I mean, there’s no way that a child who struggles to learn will notice that he or she is usually one of the last to make it on the Data Tree of College and Career Readiness, right?  Take a look at the picture below.  You think that every kid in this class doesn’t know who #2 and #15 are and that they rank at the bottom on both lists?  If you do then you’ve never set foot in a classroom.

#2 and #15 please step forward.  You have been deemed FAR BELOW BASIC by the Lords of Accountability.

#2 and #15 please step forward. You have been deemed FAR BELOW BASIC by the Lords of Accountability.

In fact, why stop there? Why don’t we go ahead and print them in the newspaper too so that their neighbors and community can hold them accountable?  Maybe they can wear scarlet “F’s” on their shirts at recess so the other kids can peg dodge balls at them until these little slouches finally buckle down and use a capital letter properly.  The list should probably go to the North Pole as well so Santa knows which kids deserve to have candy in their stockings and which kids obviously need some flash cards.  We can even make up folk songs for John Mayer to sing about the Data Wall Boogieman who comes to steal kids who are on the wrong side of the line between “basic” and “proficient”.

#5 - How can we make sure everybody else knows who they are by name and how they are responding?

#5 – How can we make sure everybody else knows who they are by name and how they are responding?

What really makes me sad about all of this is that some TEACHERS have bought into this idea.  There are Pinterest boards dedicated to making nifty data walls (please don’t go look those up).

These teachers  have forgotten the difference between data “informed” and data “driven”.  Educators have been data informed for decades.  Data is collected in multiple forms, used to guide instruction and then used for remediation or enrichment.  Education reformers would have you believe they were the first to think of using data in the classroom.  As far as I’m concerned they can have credit for that as long as they also take responsibility for this abomination.

What’s it going to take America?  If protecting the hearts and feelings of a little kids isn’t enough to get you to stand up and do something about the direction that education reformers are taking us, then I don’t know what is.

Bill Gates Wants You to Believe His Lies About CCSS

 ”Don’t believe the Devil
I don’t believe his book
But the truth is not the same
Without the lies he made up

Don’t believe in excess
Success is to give
Don’t believe in riches
But you should see where I live”

-U2 “God Part II”

The other day one of my colleagues gave me a hard time about referring to Bill Gates as a “shyster”.  Fortunately, only a couple of days after I wrote that post, Mr. Gates has presented me with a perfect opportunity to demonstrate why I believe he deserves the “shyster” label.  Gates recently wrote an op ed piece for USA Today in which he “dispels” three common myths about theMjAxMy0yZjRlNDU4YWFhZmY4Nzll Common Core State Standards.  Here I take a look at Gates’ arguments and explain why they are lies of omission.

Gates Myth #1: Common Core was created without involving parents, teachers or state and local governments.

In fact, the standards were sponsored by organizations made up of governors and school officials. The major teacher unions and 48 states sent teams, including teachers, to participate. The Gates Foundation helped fund this process because we believe that stronger standards will help more students live up to their potential. More than 10,000 members of the general public commented on the standards during drafting. Each of the 45 states that have adopted them used the same process used to adopt previous standards.

What Gates Conveniently Left Out:

While the initiative originated with the National Governors Association, a ridiculous amount of private money used to create and influence the adoption of CCSS, especially funds originating from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation granted millions of dollars to the American Federation of Teachers and the national Parent Teacher Association, two groups that would have been the most likely opponents of national standards. The largest recipients of Gates’ money were the organizations primarily involved in the creation of the CCSS, including Achieve, Inc., The Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices.  Simply put, these monies amount to little more than bribes for buying into the new standards.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s education policies for Race to the Top (RTTT) monies and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers left states without a REAL choice when it came to adopting CCSS.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the federal government limited eligibility for RTTT awards and NCLB waivers to states that adopted a common set of “college and career ready standards”.  In other words, if states wanted to avoid the penalties of NCLB and keep the federal pipeline of education dollars flowing they had no choice but to adopt the CCSS or create their own “college and career ready” standards.

What Mr. Gates won’t tell you about the process of creating the CCSS is that the two primary writing teams for the standards included only 25 members, a pathetically small number of people for a task of this magnitude. Even worse, membership in the working groups included six test-makers from the College Board, five from test publisher ACT, and four from Achieve Inc., but did not include any classroom teachers.  Teachers were allowed to “provide feedback” on the draft of the standards.  10,000 responses did indeed flow in, and the CCSS authors somehow managed to read and give thorough attention to all of them in the TWO MONTHS between draft and final copy. Right.

The CCSS did not undergo extensive field-testing or validation, and in some cases the CCSS are actually inferior to the existing state standards they replaced.  In fact some state education officials were actually urged to adopt the CCSS before they had even been written.

That’s not exactly “the same process used to adopt previous standards”.

Gates Myth #2: Common Core State Standards means students will have to take even more high-stakes tests.

Common Core won’t necessarily add to the number of annual state tests students take. States will introduce new math and language arts tests based on the standards to replace tests they give now. Most states are taking a cautious approach to implementing the new tests, giving teachers and students time to adapt before scores lead to serious consequences. What’s more, unlike some of today’s tests, the new tests will help teachers and students improve by providing an ongoing diagnosis of whether students are mastering what they need to know for success after graduation.

What Mr. Gates Conveniently Left Out:

The PARCC and Smarter Balance tests do not actually exist yetThey are being created and tested on kids while states continue to have students take the existing state tests.  Heaven forbid we have a year without a standardized test.

There may not be an increase in the number of federally mandated standardized tests students take, but there is no question that the overall number of tests students take is increasing at a dizzying pace.  In order to prepare students for the tests that don’t exist, schools have been ramping up their test preparation with – you guessed it – more tests.  The same testing companies that benefit from the creation of the CCSS are selling school districts any number of CCSS “pre-tests” designed to give these anxious school officials an idea of how their students will perform on the “test to be created later”.  As if that’s not enough, school districts are also creating an avalanche of new “benchmark exams” that they give across the school district – sometimes on a weekly basis.  If you doubt it, call or email your child’s teacher today and ask them about “benchmark” tests.

As for Mr. Gates’ claim that these new tests will prepare students for what they “need to know for success after graduation” – you have to keep in mind that this magical body of knowledge is only what Gates and his corporate cronies BELIEVE students should be able to know after graduation.  In fact, the CCSS don’t actually place any premium on knowledge at all.  The CCSS are a skill/aptitude set of standards, and it is entirely possible to master tasks under the CCSS without learning a bit of knowledge.  I’ll have an example of what I mean by that next week (stay tuned).  The bottom line is that the CCSS and its tests are only based on the “knowledge students need for the world after graduation” because rich white guys tell you they are.  Of course, they’ve pretty much been running things for a while, so maybe they’re right.

Gates Myth #3: Common Core standards will limit teachers’ creativity and flexibility.

These are standards, just like the ones schools have always had; they are not a curriculum. They are a blueprint of what students need to know, but they have nothing to say about how teachers teach that information. It’s still up to local educators to select the curriculum.

In fact, the standards will give teachers more choices. When every state had its own standards, innovators making new educational software or cutting-edge lesson plans had to make many versions to reach all students. Now, consistent standards will allow more competition and innovation to help teachers do their best work.

What Mr. Gates Conveniently Left Out:

This one is almost laughable.  I won’t bore you with the details of the differences between standards and curriculum, but here Gates is either lying or is just plain ignorant.  In this case, it really could be the latter.  Even if the CCSS were not intended to be a written curriculum for schools that’s exactly what is happening in classrooms all across the country.  It is really simple to understand.  The tests I mentioned earlier will be the measure by which the government hands out “serious consequences” (Bill’s words, not mine) for failure.  Schools and teachers will be judged primarily on the basis of their success or failure on these tests.  The tests are based directly on the Common Core State Standards.

So, the rational individual says to themselves, “Well if that’s the case, and if I want to feed my family next year, then I better make sure that my teaching prepares students to take these tests.”  And that’s exactly what’s happening.  Teachers read the standards and make lesson plans directly from them.  In other places, school districts get together to create lessons from the standards and force every teacher in the district to teach them verbatim.  When these things happen then the national standards are very much a national curriculum.

As to the innovation Mr. Gates is talking about?  Please.  With a proverbial gun at their heads to have high test scores no matter what, schools and teachers aren’t looking for innovation, they are looking for safety.  Nothing is safer in a climate of high stakes accountability than doing EXACTLY what somebody in power tells you.  Lessons are being scripted for teachers all across the country by companies selling packaged CCSS units and some school administrators are actually punishing teachers for deviating from scripted lessons.  This is hardly “innovation”.

As one teacher who took part in our recent research study put it,

“I feel as though I am simply a placeholder.  My individual worth and creativity has no value in this climate of “teach-by-numbers.”

Think about it for a minute.  It makes sense.  If somebody tells you that your job is on the line,  you are going to make sure that you do exactly what you are supposed to do in order to survive.  If you are in competition with your peers (such as being compared to other schools and teachers) then why would you actually want to HELP them?  If anything, this atmosphere stifles innovation.  The irony is that you’d think that Gates would know this since his former empire Microsoft actually abandoned his system of accountability because it inhibited innovation and teamwork.  Let’s not forget that Microsoft under Bill Gates was responsible for the Zune.

Innovation! CCSS style.

Innovation! CCSS style.

Bill Gates may be a lying shyster, or maybe he’s just ignorant.  Either way, he’s hardly qualified to tell you or me anything about teaching and learning.

Sochi Olympics = CCSS

A lot has been made this week of the problems surrounding the Olympics in Sochi.  Hotels are incomplete, rooms do not have light bulbs, journalists are bathing without shower curtains, stray dogs roam the city, and athletes have to take care of business in really close quarters. Bf0CHQqCQAAXMFr.jpg_large

Many of these problems are pretty funny from the outside but for the athletes, families, journalists and fans that are dealing with them on a daily basis, they really aren’t funny at all.  If you’ve ever been many miles from home without a place to stay then you know it can be quite unsettling, and its certainly much worse when you are getting ready to go in front of millions to compete and be judged.

But are these problems really all that surprising?  Russia is one of the most corrupt nations in the world and while they spent about $50 billion on preparing for Sochi, it has been reported that $20-30 billion of that went to “embezzlement and kickbacks”.  And the Olympic site selection process reeks of backroom politics, as Sochi is a former Soviet resort town that the Russians hope to revitalize.  What better way to do that then to bring the world for a couple of weeks?

So, it could be argued that the Sochi Olympics are essentially the product of a small group of powerful bureaucrats (the IOC), who created a situation in which a lot of money was going to be made behind the scenes by organizations (Russian Mafia), for the benefit of politicians (Putin) at the expense of those people who actually have to perform (athletes).

Since it’s the Olympics, we laugh, tune in and shake our head at the morons who decided this would be a good idea, the ridiculous lack of planning, the hastily constructed infrastructure, and the collusion between the Russian government and the organizations making money hand over fist.

What’s not so funny is that we have a very similar and distinctly AMERICAN situation happening here at home with the CCSS.  Stay with me here for a minute and I’ll explain.

The CCSS came about when a small group of powerful politicians, bureaucrats and benefactors (the NGA and CCSSO) got together and decided that it would be a good idea to create common national “state” standards.  Working alongside the federal government, this small and powerful group greased the wheels of adoption through bribes to organizations such as AFT and NEA and contributions to politicians.  In Russia they call this corruption, in America we all it “philanthropy”.

And much like Sochi, the CCSS were adopted very quickly, without any field-testing, with a pathetic base of “research” to support them, and really NO IDEA what was going to happen when they were put into practice.

As a result, our American educational system looks a lot like the city of Sochi.  Something was created from nothing at warp speed, no infrastructure existed to actually put the standards (which are really a national curriculum) into place, and the means by which students and teachers were going to be evaluated (new PARCC and SBA national tests) DON’T EVEN EXIST YET.

Here's your new National Curriculum!

Here’s your new National Curriculum!

Meanwhile, the creation of a quasi-national market for educational testing products, curriculum and instructional materials has opened up a $500 Billion dollar “Education Services Sector” that has drawn the attention of “Edupreneurs” who have rushed in to fill the void left by the hasty implementation of CCSS.  These shysters are ready to provide their products and services – for a cost -  to school districts around the country to help them figure out how to actually teach the CCSS and prepare for the test that doesn’t exist.  Take a look around almost any local classroom and you’ll see brand new books, curricula, test-prep materials and other assorted programs that schools have purchased from this Testing Mafia.  Attend a few professional development sessions and you’ll see consultants who are flown in, paid upwards of $10,000 per day, and present the newest “program” or “system” designed to raise test scores.  And the people responsible for creating the standards, now create the materials, are working to create the test, and are making a ton of money in all phases of the process.

Meanwhile, President Obama, our American version of Vladimir Putin minus the gay bashing, stands in front of the nation at the State of the Union and takes credit for this disaster by distracting us with cherry-picked “research” and empty claims of “taking big strides in preparing students with the skills for the new economy” despite the fact that his $5 billion Race to the Top program has been an unmitigated disaster.  President Obama, like President Putin, is all fireworks show and opening ceremony.  Behind the flamboyant distraction is a corrupt and incomplete system of bribery, collusion, and profiteering at the expense of the American taxpayer.

Keep your eyes on the pretty lights please.

Keep your eyes on the pretty lights please.

And who really suffers the most from this situation?  Time will tell what the full effect on our students will be.  Despite the lousy hand they have been dealt, many schools and districts are making the most out of the CCSS, much like the athletes who will still earn gold in Sochi.  These are the schools and teachers the politicians and shysters like Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee will hold up as examples that their racket is “working”.   What they won’t show you are the millions of other students who are suffering because the CCSS has standardized teaching in their classrooms and myopic administrators have kept teachers from meeting individualized needs.  They won’t show you the interminable professional development sessions in which members of the Testing Mafia stand in front of groups of highly educated professionals and present a “system” for raising test scores.  They won’t tell you about the teachers who fear for their jobs because they are going to be evaluated by the test scores of their students – on a test that doesn’t actually exist yet.  They won’t mention the fact that focusing only on test scores means that our kids are pretty much receiving an education in how to take Math and ELA tests at the expense of pretty much everything else.  Perhaps worst of all, they will look at you with a totally straight face when they tell you this is the best way to evaluate our teachers.

So if you find yourself feeling a little superior the next time you are watching the incompetence and corruption of Russia at the Sochi Olympics, try to remember that at least the Russian people are smart enough to recognize the rampant corruption and skullduggery* going on behind the opening ceremony.  When it comes to the Common Core State Standards, most Americans are content to just stare at the fireworks and believe their own hype.

*I have always wanted to use the word “skullduggery” in proper context in my writing.  Mission Accomplished.

Standing Back-to-Back with Teachers

It was one of those Saturday nights growing up in small town Kansas, USA when I probably should have stayed home. Instead, I traveled ten miles to Sharon (population 189) to a Catholic wedding dance. I was a 9th grader and in way over my head, but I was big for a 9th grader which apparently led to one of the 25 year-old locals, more than a little inebriated, to try to pick a fight with me.

Main Street

We were toe-to-toe, mono y’ mono and if I could go back there now, I would have told me to run out of that whiskey scarred air.

But I didn’t. I stayed and faced the opposition and tried to talk my way out of it. While I was standing there apologizing for something I hadn’t done, I’d sensed a presence behind me. Years earlier, when beating me up in 5th grade was the favored national pastime of my classmates, I remembered a similar presence. It was the sinking feeling right before someone–or two or three someones–grabbed my arms and held me while one of the other someones whaled on me.

Sharon

Flashing forward to the really small town Saturday night, as I walked away from the would-be assailant, my friends gathered round and asked me if I’d seen Kyle Thomas behind me. I had but didn’t know why he was there or why his back was turned to me. At one point his shoulders had bumped into me.

“That meant he had your back, man. Kevin wouldn’t have stood a chance against Kyle.”

Everyone in that entire reception hall, especially Kevin, knew of his chances. Kyle was inarguably the toughest dude in five counties (coincidentally, these fellas are not Kevin and Kyle Fowler, my best friend and his little brother who lived across the street–the Fowler brothers were not harmed in the writing of this post).

Being a teacher and teacher educator naturally connects me with teachers from around the area and beyond. I count myself lucky to hear stories about their classrooms and about their students. I listen to teacher stories, the good ones and the bad ones, and the ones in between.

The concerning stories are the ones that I hear over and over (and over) again, the ones that almost take on a life of their own from their pervasiveness. Two such stories have become ingrained in almost every conversation I’ve had with teachers over the past two or three years.

1) We don’t feel like we can speak out against bogus policies or ideas for fear of retribution. This story circled around so much that a local newspaper reporter picked up on it and called me  to give her names of teachers to contact. I politely declined her request (and not-so-politely wondered what she was thinking). It isn’t that these teachers fear a slap on the wrist or loss of some magical privilege, they literally fear that their jobs or careers will be taken away, frequently pointing to some local cases as examples of that very thing.

2)  We feel like we have less control over what we teach than ever and we don’t like it. In the area where I live and work there is a curriculum mapping phenomenon that, so far as I can tell, came to northwest Arkansas courtesy of some administrators who moved here from another state. The concept of every 8th grade teacher covering the same material is puzzling, and the most egregious example I’ve encountered to date occurred in the requirement that teachers post identical lesson plans on classroom doors across an entire district. Someone would be by to check, they were told.

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These two stories take me back to that wedding dance in Sharon, KS from way-back-when because they both convey the idea of teachers being embroiled in conflict they didn’t provoke. The bully’s sour breathed accusations seem especially pertinent to the educational discourse of 2014, much of which is rank with misinformation and misinformed zealots.

I thought of that situation again when I was recently directed to Forbes.com (admittedly not a place I frequent) to a report from the Center for American Progress (think Fox News of think tanks) about how teachers who responded to a survey felt like they had more autonomy today than they did five years ago, I immediately raised an eyebrow of suspicion. A Huff Post (MSNBC of e-news outlets) piece published about the same time discusses, this time from the perspective of parents, how teachers in New York are being provided a teaching script, an act that would cause many to have thoughts of altercations and most certainly discredits teachers and teaching.

From the article, here’s a brief excerpt from the script:

Minutes 0-10: The teacher reads the first learning target aloud: “I can follow our class norms when I participate in a conversation.” Then, the teacher asks students to provide synonyms of the words follow and participate. Next, the teacher tells a student to read the learning target: “I can define human rights.” For the remainder of the time, students discuss the meaning of the words human and rights in small groups.

“The script continues with this kind of detail for the rest of the year in a sequence of lessons, units, modules, and assessments. Teachers are not allowed to use their own methods to introduce the material, manage the classroom, or share their own wisdom. Students are not encouraged to connect the material to their own lives, events in the world, or things that may interest them. The script tell the teachers and students, at all times, what to say and do. The Common Core ELA curriculum does not treat teachers or students with dignity.”

But if one listens to the CAP, they seem to believe that this kind of control is precisely what is needed in public education, a fairly telling sentiment:

“The bigger problem in public education, however, might not be too little autonomy but rather too much. This makes it hard to create a true profession, which requires having a clear adherence to a common body of knowledge.” (source)

Now let’s be clear, the Common Core State Standards are many things but are not a script for teachers. What New York–and soon the rest of the country–is experiencing is the idea that once the assessment is in place, standards and assessment combine to create a curriculum, one that can be over-simplified by profiteers, one that in New York’s case most definitely strips teachers of autonomy and professionalism.

What all of this really means is that teachers continue to be trashed in our society and one doesn’t have to look to carefully at the picture of education to see that grand–anti-teacher–narrative (kids don’t know anything, teachers are bad, must raise standards) in action. When teachers speak out about an issue at school, there is this backdrop of educational fisticuffs flying in the periphery, effectively undermining anything said.  When I think about those teachers both afraid to speak out and the ones who have,  I think immediately of the story of Kyle Thomas and how it felt to know that he had my back those years ago. I was invincible but if he hadn’t been there, I’m sure that my words would have been rendered pointless, my face left rearranged.

I assert that some teachers may feel like I felt in that almost fight–nerves, adrenaline, fear–when thinking about our profession or simply carrying out their work. Fortunately, we have colleagues in the support of public education across the country who stand back-to-back with us too. From Diane Ravitch to the Public Education Shakedown to the Bad Ass Teacher Association to Chicago to the MAP-defeating teachers in Seattle from last year, we must stand together. Let’s find inspiration from writers like Alfie Kohn and Paul Thomas and share those readings with parents and colleagues alike. The proverbial Kyle Thomas’ can be in the classroom next door or across the country.

I hope my fist-fighting days are over and don’t confuse the metaphor here as one that advocates for physical intimidation or violence, but it does feel very much like fight or flight time in American public education.

I lament the fact that many teachers feel they cannot use their own names to ask serious and level-headed questions of school or district leaders or the education status quo. A democracy–most certainly a public school–should encourage that type of activity, encourage free and open dialogue without the fear of retribution if for no other reason than to offer a model of America for students.

Colleagues who agree with and support these questions should feel that it wouldn’t endanger their jobs to raise questions too. Unfortunately, in many schools across the country, the current culture and climate is one that values and respects compliance versus conversation, quiet versus questioning, and discipline versus dialogue.

Make no mistake about it, we are in a fight for the rights of teachers to teach and students to learn. Together, with a definite presence behind us, we can back down the foul-mouthed educational bullies we face today.

 

 

 

 

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