A Teacher’s Dilemma: Take a Stand Against Testing or Keep Abusing Children

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What am I?

 

Seriously. What is it I do for a living?

 

When I wake up to go to work in the morning, am I preparing to be a teacher or a test proctor?

 

Am I engaged in the practice of nurturing young minds or am I a tool of the establishment?

 

Should I be held accountable to the dozens of students in my classroom, their parents and the community – or to my administrators, the bureaucrats and moneyed interests ordering us around?

 

I ask these questions not as a rhetorical device. I really don’t know the answers. Because the solution begins with me.

 

Today was not a banner day in my classroom, and I can honestly say it was not my fault.

 

I had to give my 7th grade students the Classroom Diagnostic Tools assessment in Reading/Lit for grades 6-high school.

 

If you’re not familiar with the CDT, this is an optional test offered by Data Recognition Corporation for students in Pennsylvania’s public schools. It’s a way to assess student learning to predict whether they’ll pass there annual federally mandated standardized tests (also created by Data Recognition Corp. in the Keystone State). In addition, it offers example questions of the type that students struggled to answer correctly on the diagnostic.

 

It’s very helpful if you want to print out a buttload of test prep, give it to students and then read the paper quietly at your desk – something I never do.

 

For the second straight year, I’ve been forced to give it to my students three times annually – twice before the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests and once after.

 

I am not a fan.

 

Students hate it. It does not return valuable data. And it takes precious time that I could be using to actually teach something.

 

When I told my kids they were going to have to take the assessment this morning, one girl said, “I hate the CDTs. It stands for I Can’t Do This.”

 

Another girl had a more visceral reaction. When she saw the letters “CDT” on the board, she literally began rolling around on the floor and groaning.

 

These are the kinds of students I have – victims of generational poverty, malnutrition, childhood trauma, violence, drug abuse and systemic racism and prejudice. Strong-arming them into another standardized test isn’t doing them any favors.

 

Compare their reaction this morning to yesterday’s lesson.

 

We had just finished a unit on plot using Dr. Seuss stories and cartoons to illustrate complex concepts like exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, resolution, theme, etc.

 

I made a competitive review game through a program called Kahoot, and kids were out of their seats, jumping around, squealing with delight as they demonstrated their knowledge of what they’d learned. It got so loud one of the principals came running over from the office to make sure things weren’t getting out of hand. But what he found were students so engaged by the work they could barely contain themselves.

 

Heck! I even gave them a test of my own creation right afterward. There were no groans. There were no protests.

 

They sat at their seats like grown adults, concentrated and answered the questions to the best of their abilities.

 

Compare that with today’s assessment.

 

Behaviors off the hook. Sullen looks. Demands to use the restroom, go to their lockers, visit the nurse – ANYTHING but be here in class and do this test.

 

Why the difference?

 

Because they knew what was expected on MY test, and they knew they could meet my expectations. I was there for the lesson. I made the test. I would grade it. I have a relationship with these kids and they know I will assess them fairly.

 

But not on this standardized CDT nonsense!

 

Data Recognition Corp isn’t there for the lesson. It has no rapport with students. Kids don’t know what the expectations are and don’t think they can meet them. And they have no sense that this multi-billion dollar corporation will grade them fairly for their efforts.

 

So they act out.

 

They throw wads of paper or airdrop pictures to each others’ iPads.

 

And here I am in front of this room of unruly children forced to have to defend the bullcrap garbage that I’m being coerced to do to them.

 

I want to apologize. I want to tell them this is not my idea. And after a while, I even DID that. But it’s no use.

 

It matters little whether the executioner does his job with reluctance or not. He’s still here to end your life. And I was still cast in the role of ending their education for the day and replacing it with “proof” that they aren’t good enough.

 

When the test was over, so many children showed me their scores with hurt faces.

 

“Mr. Singer, I really tried!” one boy said.

 

“This is rigged!” another said.

 

And what am I supposed to say to that? Should I explain how they’re right – how standardized tests have always been culturally and economically biased? Why would they care!? What kind of teacher would that make me!?

 

I know this is wrong, but I still do it!?

 

What use am I?

 

What purpose do I serve enforcing policies I know to be detrimental?

 

I went through five years of college to become a teacher – not a prison guard. But on days like today that’s what I am. I’ve devoted over a decade of my life to nourishing children, not ordering them all to march in line single file.

 

But here I am, a paid thug who browbeats and coerces innocents into doing things they don’t want to do for purposes that won’t benefit them and will in fact be used against them.

 

I wonder what the school board would say if I had the guts to stand in front of them at a public meeting and tell them.

 

I guess I’ll just have to keep wondering because the last time I tried to address that august body without an explicit invitation, I was told I wasn’t allowed to do so since I don’t live in the district where I teach.

 

But sometimes I question whether the elected representatives of my district even understand what I’m being bulldozed into doing in their name.

 

Do you know I am abusing your children? I am crushing their creativity, their self-respect, their curiosity. Is that really what you want of me? Is that what you hired me for?

 

Don’t get me wrong.

 

It’s not really anything new. I’ve been doing this for almost 15 years. It’s just harder every year.

 

I heap on justifications – you have to do the bad stuff so you can do the good stuff. You have to enforce the testing so you can do authentic teaching.

 

And every year the mandates get more restrictive, the teaching gets a little less and the testing a bit more.

 

Meanwhile, politicians pretend like they’re doing something to fix it. Gov. Tom Wolf (whom I generally like) cuts off a few days from the PSSA tests this year. But he keeps the recommendation that we take the CDTs. He keeps the entire test-and-punish framework in place. Like most Democrats, he’s willing to twiddle around the edges but has no guts to do away with what’s wrong and replace it with what’s right.

 

Meanwhile, parents in my state are generally clueless.

 

You have some strong advocates here and there. Some moms and dads who understand what’s going on. But most are either oblivious, too busy putting food on the table, in jail or dead.

 

I used to send home a letter to parents reminding them of their right to opt out of standardized tests. It almost got me fired.

 

And for my efforts, I think maybe one or two parents over five years actually took me up on it.

 

I go to my local union and tell them my concerns. They nod and ask for more information and then quietly forget it.

 

Meanwhile, the national unions are behind the testocracy 100%. They’ll wag their fingers and complain about testing, but they’re too busy making sure the teaching profession even exists tomorrow to stop for small potatoes like bad practices.

 

I feel so alone here.

 

I’m pulling my hair out and the only response I get is from the choir (Hallelujah!) and the corporate education reformers (How dare you!?).

 

The majority stays silent. And complicit.

 

I’m just not sure I can do it anymore.

 

I’ve thought about calling in sick whenever I have to give a standardized test. It would be a lot of days, but I could do it.

 

That might be safe, but it would be cowardly.

 

I’d just be saving myself the pain and humiliation of giving the tests. My students would still be forced to take them.

 

So what do I do?

 

I write.

 

I write blogs like this one.

 

I pound out my cares and reservations, put them in a virtual bottle and set it adrift on the seas of the Internet.

 

It’s a constant gamble.

 

Someday someone may read them who can end my career.

 

Or maybe someone with the power to make a difference will read them.

 

Maybe that’s you.

 

Maybe it’s all of us.

 

I don’t know.

 

I have no solutions today. Just shame and regrets.

 

A dilemma that I cannot solve.

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Why Won’t Republicans Repeal Common Core?

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It was a constant refrain from Donald Trump on the stump.

 

 

He was going to repeal Common Core. How did we know? He kept repeating it over-and-over.

 

 

“We’re cutting Common Core. We’re getting rid of Common Core,” he said during a debate in Detroit.

 

 

“Common Core is a total disaster. We can’t let it continue,” he said in a campaign ad.

 

 

But then, he did a complete 180:

 

 

“We are going to do some things special. Okay. Are you ready? Common Core we’re going to keep.”

 

 

What!?

 

 

It didn’t go down so well with his supporters. He was literally booed. So he took to Twitter with the following:

 

 

“I was referring to the fact that Jeb Bush wants to keep common core.”

 

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Uh, okay?

 

 

So what’s his position now? Someone asked him about it in New Hampshire. His response:

 

 

“I didn’t know Common Core was so complicated. Isn’t this ridiculous?”

 

 

On that we can agree.

 

 

But it really doesn’t matter.

 

 

POWER TO THE STATES

 

 

Whether Trump supports Common Core or not, he’s actually kind of powerless to do anything about it.

 

 

Republicans have been arguing for years that the federal government can’t tell the states what they should be teaching. That’s the crux of opposition, and the newly reauthorized federal law governing K-12 schools, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), underlines it.

 

 

The power is unequivocally in the hands of governors and state legislatures.

 

 

The states control which academic standards their public schools are supposed to subscribe to or not. And since the beginning of 2017, the states are overwhelmingly in Republican control.

 

There are 98 partisan state legislative chambers in the United States. Republicans dominate 67 of them. In fact, the GOP controls both legislative chambers in 32 states – the most it has in the party’s history! And in 24 of those states, Republicans also run the show in the Governor’s mansion – the trifecta!

 

In short, despite any limits on Presidential power, the GOP has never been in a better position to get rid of Common Core.

 

If Republicans truly wanted to repeal it, they could do so tomorrow, and there’s zero Democrats could do about it in almost half of the country.

 

Yet, Republicans don’t.

 

They haven’t.

 

And they don’t seem in any rush to put it on their agenda in the future.

 

Which brings me to a serious question any critic of Common Core has to answer: WHY!?

 

Republicans say they hate Common Core.

 

They have the power to get rid of it.

 

Why don’t they do it?

 

 

THE STATE OF COMMON CORE

 

 

Despite any comments to the contrary, any blathering talking head nonsense from media pundits, the facts remain the same.

 

Common Core is still the law of the land in 36 states and the District of Columbia.

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Sure, some legislatures have changed the name and made nominal revisions (Hello, Pennsylvania!) but they’re still essentially the same standards applied in the same way. The Common Core’s own Website doesn’t distinguish between states that have the standards outright and those where they have been slightly revised or renamed.

 

Specifically, nine states have announced plans to rewrite or replace the standards, but in the majority of these cases, they have resulted merely in slight revisions. Only Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee appear to have created significantly different standards, according to Education Week.

 

So what’s the hold up?

 

 

MAIN OBJECTIONS TO THE CORE

 

 

Full disclosure: I am not a Republican. I am the farthest thing you could find to a Republican. But on this one issue we agree.

 

No, I don’t think Common Core will make your child gay or indoctrinate kids into a far left worldview or any of a number of bizarre, crackpot criticisms you might hear from mentally ill pundits being exploited by far right media conglomerates. Nor am I opposed simply to undo any signature legislative achievements of our first black President.

 

But I do think there are several rational reasons to be against Common Core. The standards were written almost exclusively by representatives of the standardized testing industry with input from very few practicing classroom teachers and zero child psychologists. They have never been tested and proven effective. In many cases, they are developmentally inappropriate. They were adopted non-democratically. And – perhaps worst of all – they commit schools to the failed educational management technique of test-and-punish.

 

THAT’S why I’m against Common Core.

 

But it really doesn’t matter.

 

Even if people like Glenn Beck and I disagree on the reasons why, we both agree on the course of action – repeal Common Core.

 

Yet the incumbent batch of GOP lawmakers across the country are letting us both down.

 

If one has to be beaten by Republicans, at least let them accomplish the things that have bipartisan support. That includes repealing Common Core.

 

Though the media likes to characterize this as a conservative issue, it’s not just Republicans who want to get rid of the Core. Regardless of politics, most people dislike the standards. They aren’t popular with adults. They aren’t popular with children. And most tellingly, they aren’t popular with classroom teachers.

 

According to the most recent Education Next poll, less than half of all Americans, 49%, favor the policy. In partisan terms, that’s 37% of Republicans and 57% of Democrats. And that support has been steadily dropping every year – by 20 points for Republicans and seven for Democrats since 2013.

 

And among teachers, the drop is even more dramatic. Only 40% now favor the Core. That’s a drop of 36 points among those who know the standards best!

 

 

POLITICAL PARALLELS

 

 

So let’s get rid of them.

 

For once I’m with Trump.

 

But the legislatures just won’t do it.

 

In some ways, this shares parallels with the healthcare debate.

 

Before going forward, let me just say that I am NOT in favor of repealing Obamacare and going back to the previous system. Nor am I in favor of repealing without a replacement or any of the so-called “skinny” plans put forth by the GOP.

 

I think we need single payer healthcare. Medicare for all.

 

But be that as it may. The debate offers us a similar example from the federal level.

 

Republicans say they hate Obamacare yet despite the fact that Democrats can do nothing to stop them, they refuse to repeal it.

 

In this case, the reason is obvious – they have nothing with which to replace it.

 

After all these years, they can’t come up with a plan that will improve upon the one already in place.

 

But this isn’t the case at the state level when it comes to Common Core.

 

Each and every state had a set of academic standards before Common Core. In most cases, these standards were actually far superior.

 

All the legislatures would have to do is reinstate them.

 

Pennsylvania’s standards were particularly reasonable, flexible yet grade appropriate and comprehensive.

 

We could go back to them tomorrow.

 

But we don’t.

 

Why?

 

It’s that same question again.

 

What is holding us back?

 

 

STANDARDIZED TESTING

 

 

Here’s my theory: it’s the testing.

 

One of the most frustrating things for Common Core critics is when apologists say they hate standardized testing but love Common Core.

 

The two are inextricably interlinked. You can’t have Common Core without the testing. That is the whole point of the standards – to tell districts what to focus on because those things will be on the federally mandated high stakes standardized tests.

 

If states repeal Common Core, what happens to these tests?

 

Before adopting the Core, each state had a test aligned to its own specific standards. Even where some states had the same tests, their standards were significantly similar to allow this. In any case, most states that have adopted the Core have had to buy new, more difficult tests.

 

Sure, we could all go back to the tests we used to give, but this would present certain problems.

 

First, many states were taking tests that were already being aligned with Common Core before they officially adopted it. If they got rid of the standards, they couldn’t go back to the old tests because they’re already Common Core specific.

 

In theory, they could ask to reinstate older versions of the test that aren’t Common Core aligned. However, in practice for some states, this might necessitate the creation of yet another batch of new tests.

 

However, in many states like Pennsylvania, this wouldn’t be an issue. Before the Core, they had their own tests based on state specific standards. There’s really no reason why they couldn’t dust off these old tests and put them back into circulation.

 

The problem is that this would require politicians to justify the millions of dollars (at least $7 billion nationally) they wasted on the new tests, new workbooks, new textbooks, etc.

 

Lawmakers would have to own their mistakes.

 

They’d have to say, “My bad!”

 

And most of them aren’t about to do that.

 

Of course, there is a third option: they could undo the high stakes testing altogether. They could characterize this not as a misstep but a reform.

 

According to the ESSA, all states have to give federally mandated standardized tests from grades 3-8 and once in high school.

 

But what exactly those tests look like is debatable.

 

The federal government is supposed to give them leeway in this matter. What better way for the Trump administration and Betsy DeVos to demonstrate their commitment to local control than by approving accountability plans that don’t include standardized testing?

 

States could substitute student projects, classroom grades, internships, even community service for this mandate.

 

I’m sure if lawmakers were really serious about getting rid of Common Core, they could figure out a way to make this work. It would just require a commitment to patching up the massive hole in our school funding system where the standardized testing industry has been sucking away tax dollars that could be better used elsewhere – like in the actual act of teaching students!

 

 

THE CYNICAL INTERPRETATION

 

 

Which brings me to perhaps the most cynical interpretation of the data.

 

Republicans may be avoiding the Common Core issue because their opposition up to now was simply disingenuous partisan infighting. They could be craven servants to the testing industry. Or – and this is the worst case scenario – they could have another endgame in mind entirely.

 

Whenever the issue is brought up these days – whenever ANY educational issue is brought up – the Trump administration almost always pivots to school choice.

 

For instance, here’s Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway during an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN.

 

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos “will get on with the business of executing on the president’s vision for education,” Conway said. “He’s made very clear all throughout the campaign and as president he wants to repeal Common Core, he doesn’t think that federal standards are better than local and parental control…And that children should not be restricted in terms of education opportunities just by their ZIP code, just by where they live. We’ve got to look at homeschooling, and charter schools, and school choice and other alternatives for certain students.”

 

It’s possible that today’s Republicans at both the state and federal level aren’t concerned with repealing Common Core because it’s irrelevant to their ultimate goal – repealing the very notion of public education.

 

If every school or almost every school was a charter, voucher or homeschool, Common Core would be a moot point.

 

After all, choice schools don’t have to follow most regulations. That could include using the Core.

 

This is especially true at voucher schools and homeschools. They can do pretty much whatever they please in most states. If they don’t want to use Common Core, the states have little power (as yet) to force them to do so. Of course accepting tax-payer funding does open them up to being regulated in the future if the political winds change.

 

On the other hand, charter schools often allegedly do use Common Core, but regulations are so lax with so few measures to hold them accountable for anything in most states that whether they’re actually using the standards and to what extent is anyone’s guess. Unscrupulous charter operators could conceivably forgo the standards regardless of state mandates with little fear of being found out or contradicted.

 

This may be the ultimate selling point for school choice. Almost anything goes. It could certainly allow schools to circumvent Common Core, just as it allows them to circumvent civil rights protections, fiscal responsibility, democratic local control – really any kind of protections to ensure taxpayer money is being spent responsibly and kids are actually being educated.

 

In short, it hammers a nail with a bazooka. Yet conservative lawmakers may only be concerned with who’s selling the bazooka and not who gets hit by the shrapnel.

 

For a long time now, education policy has been about where the money is, and that is unequivocally behind school choice. What these policies lack in public support they make up for in sugar daddies. Billionaires on both sides of the aisle have been pouring cash into these efforts for years.

 

Just imagine! Anyone with the backing can start a school and pocket as much of the tax dollars originally meant to educate kids but now transformed into sweet, sweet profit!

 

In fact, the point behind high stakes testing was primarily to undercut support for public schools. It was to “prove” our schools were failing and needed to be replaced with charter and voucher schools. But once we’ve gotten rid of public schools, the testing won’t be as necessary.

 

It will become just another revenue stream in a multitudinous school system where education only has meaning in how much it can profitize students and enrich investors.

 

That may be the true endgame for policymakers.

 

Common Core is just one of a number of schemes they’re pushing to take advantage of the country’s fastest growing revenue stream: our children.

 

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

 

THIS is why lawmakers – both Republican and Democrat – won’t get rid of Common Core.

 

They are bought and sold employees of Wall Street and Corporate America.

 

Too many people are making a fortune off the backs of our children – charter and voucher school investors, book publishers, software companies, test manufacturers, private prison corporations! They aren’t about to let their profits take a nosedive by allowing their paid agents in the legislature to turn off the gravy train.

 

THAT’S why Republicans haven’t ended Common Core.

 

That’s why they never will.

PA: Want to Get Rid of Keystone Exams? Then Let Us Evaluate Teachers More Unfairly

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It’s the classic Harrisburg switch.

 

Want something good passed by the legislature? Then let us pass something terrible – something you would never even consider unless something you cared about was on the table.

 

That appears to be the game being played by the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee today as they consider SB 756.

 

On the one hand, the proposed bill would eliminate the state’s terrible Keystone Exams. On the other, it would force a new teacher evaluation system that is tremendously unfair.

 

Which one is more important?

 

The answer: both.

 

If lawmakers had any moral courage – and most don’t because they’re lawmakers after all – they would consider each of these measures one at a time on their own merits.

 

But if they did that, conservatives wouldn’t vote to help students by getting rid of unfair tests, and progressives wouldn’t vote to help corporations by installing unfair teacher evaluations. So they’ve apparently decided to compromise behind closed doors by putting both together in a huge omnibus bill.

 

Who knows what other treasures lurk in its pages!? Well if you have a limitless amount of time and energy, go ahead and read it!

 

THE GOOD

 

The bill would put an end to our costly, cruel and dishonest Keystone Exams. Not only would we no longer threaten to require these tests in Literature, Algebra and Biology as graduation requirements, but we would stop giving them altogether.

 

In their place to meet federal accountability regulations, the state would substitute the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT), Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), armed forces exam, competency assessment or certificate for technical students, or Pennsylvania Alternative Assessment for students with special needs.

 

But perhaps the best part is that the bill makes explicit and generous provisions for parents to opt their children out of high school standardized tests altogether. In this case, students would NOT be required to take a substitute assessment.

 

Here is the exact language from the bill:

 

“A school entity’s governing board shall adopt a policy that provides that the parent or guardian of a student may request that the student be exempt from taking an assessment that is required for the purpose of Federal accountability as permitted under ESSA [Every Student Succeeds Act]. The policy shall provide that parents and guardians of students receive written notice of the option for a student to be exempt from taking the assessment and that the exemption shall be permitted upon the school entity’s receipt of a written request from the parent or guardian of the student. A substitute assessment or an alternative assessment, course or program may not be required of a student exempted under this section. Grounds for exemption in the school entity’s policy shall include, but not be limited to:
(1) Religious grounds.
(2) The basis of a strong moral or ethical conviction
similar to a religious belief.
(3) Philosophical grounds.
(4) Privacy concerns.
(5) Health concerns for the child, which may include stress and anxiety in preparation for the assessment.”

 

This is a huge improvement over our current opt out policy. At present, parents can opt out their children from the Keystone Exams but students must take an alternate assessment. This could include a project based assessment and not merely a standardized test. Also, it only allows these exemptions based on religious convictions. Parents needn’t explain these convictions in any detail, but this is the only option they are given with which to opt out.

 

The proposed legislation would go into effect during the 2018-19 school year, when the Keystone Exams would otherwise become a graduation requirement. Students would take the SAT or other assessment in 10th grade.

 

However, students in 3-8th grade would still be subjected to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) tests. I assume parents could still opt out their children from these exams, but the wording is a bit murky there.

 

In addition, the law would require the state to establish a task force to reevaluate whether the Commonwealth should use the PSSA in the future and how to reduce the time it takes to give the assessment. If the task force concludes the PSSA is inappropriate, they must look for an alternative exam. They are required to issue a report in 6 months from passage of the bill.

 

This is particularly important since the PSSA has been rewritten to be closer to the Keystone Exam. It is Keystone Exam-lite. If the legislature is against the high school test, one would imagine they should be against a very similar test being given in elementary and middle school.

 

THE BAD

 

Despite all the good this proposed bill would do for our school children, it would drastically worsen the situation for our classroom teachers.

 

Half of a teacher’s current evaluation is based on classroom observations by district administrators. That just makes sense. The best way to tell if an educator is doing a good job is to observe what he/she is actually doing in the classroom.

 

This new system would reduce classroom observations to only 30% of a teacher’s annual score.

 

This would allow 10% to come from a “parental” score and 10% to come from “peer evaluation.” In a non-high stakes environment, input from both of these stakeholders is vital to a teacher’s success. But when you add that high stakes component, you pervert both relationships.

 

Having parents evaluate teachers puts them in kind of a touchy place. Teachers are required to push students to do their best. This requires them to often make calls home and ask for help from parents. If parents control a portion of a teacher’s evaluation, it incentivizes educators not to bother them with student misbehavior or failing grades. Instead teachers could be pressured to unfairly increase students grades or ignore misbehavior so as to better parental evaluations.

 

Moreover, peer observations can be extremely subjective when tied to teacher assessment. Administrators are discouraged from giving out distinguished evaluations to more than a handful of teachers. This incentivizes peers who are forced to compete for these few plum scores to unfairly suppress positive evaluations from their fellows.

 

But the worst is still to come.

The new evaluations require 50% of teachers’ evaluations to come from student growth and achievement measures. For math and English teachers, this largely means using standardized test scores to assess educators.

 

It’s a terrible practice that has been shown to be ineffective and downright damaging to student learning time and again. But it does help testing corporations by discouraging opt outs. Just imagine. If you have students who you think will score well on the tests but who may opt out, you are incentivized to discourage them from doing so. Otherwise, your teacher evaluation will drop.

 

This makes teachers the testing policemen. Learning doesn’t matter, only how well your students do on the tests. It dramatically tips the scale away from things the teacher has any control over. As such, it would cause serious harm to the quality of education students receive across the state.

 

CONCLUSION

We cannot support this bill in its present form. It should not go on to consideration by the full House and/or Senate. And if it somehow is passed by these Republican-controlled bodies, our Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf should not sign it.

 

This is unfortunate because there is much to like about it. However, you can’t save students from unfair assessments by forcing teachers to be evaluated by – drum roll please – unfair assessments.

 

This sets up an unsustainable and unfair relationship between students and teachers. It puts educators in the position of having to look out for their own interests and not those of their students. The interests of both should be interlinked, not separated. Teachers get into the profession to help kids learn – not to have to look out for an arbitrary score from their administrators that may require them to act against their students needs.

 

If legislators had any ethical fortitude, they would propose both of these measures in separate bills where they could be examined on merit. But I long ago gave up expecting such qualities from our politicians.

 

In my book, they almost all deserve a failing grade.

PA Legislature Plans Taking Away Teachers’ Sick Days

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Dear Pennsylvania legislators:

So now you want to take away teachers’ sick days.

Sabbatical, sick days, bereavement leaves – the Senate Education Committee voted 7-5 to strip them from the law and make teachers bargain for them with their districts.

So the next time I get sick, you don’t want to guarantee I can take the day off. If my mother dies, you don’t want to protect my right to attend her funeral.

The full legislature still has to vote on it, but that’s pretty cold.

Which brings me to my first question: Why do you hate public school teachers so much?

Seriously. What did teachers ever do to you? Did we give you a bad grade when you were kids? Did we give you detention? What did we ever do to earn such animosity?

You obviously must have something personal against teachers.

It’s understandable. Even though the majority of Pennsylvanians voted for Democrats, most of you are Republicans. You have gerrymandered the state so that you artificially have the majority, and as such you must espouse the most radical positions possible. Otherwise, you’ll be primaried by someone even farther right – a Tea Partier, a plutocrat, an anarcho-capitalist, a fascist.

We see the same thing playing out nationally. Hello, Donald Trump!

So it’s no surprise that after stripping public schools of almost $1 billion every year for the past five years, after tens of thousands of teachers have been laid off, after you’ve given away millions of dollars to private corporations to run fly-by-night charter schools or through tax credits to religious schools – well, it’s no surprise that you feel the need to continue the war on teachers.

It’s paying off for you big time.

Not so much for our school children. They have had to deal with increases in class size, narrowing of the curriculum, reductions in extra-curriculars, cuts in tutoring – just about every deprivation imaginable.

I wonder – do you realize that every attack against teachers is also an attack against students? Making sick teachers come to school won’t improve kids’ educations. Forcing educators to choose between work or seeing their loved ones off to their final resting places won’t boost test scores. Do you understand that or do you just not care?

Follow-up, if I may: do you realize that most public school teachers are women? Does that factor in at all? Which do you hate more, the gender of most teachers or the fact that we are unionized?

Oh, and Pennsylvania School Boards Association, don’t think we’ve forgotten you. We know you requested this mess, Senate Bill 229. Instead of standing with your teachers to fight for fair, equitable, sustainable funding, you’ve decided to ask the legislature if you can stiff teachers to make ends meet. We’re there for your kids everyday, and this is how you thank us. That’s gratitude.

It’s what we get for being one of the last workforces to be unionized. We have the temerity to demand fair treatment. You can’t just do whatever you like with us, you have to actually sit down with us at the bargaining table and talk.

Legislators, we know it’s something that infuriates your base. No, I don’t mean the people who vote for you. I mean your real base – the corporations, millionaires and billionaires who pay your real salaries – the unlimited and shadowy campaign contributions that, let’s be honest, are really nothing less than legal bribes.

We shouldn’t be surprised that you have prioritized taking away legal protections for teachers’ sick days. It is quite in line with what you want to do to the profession. You no longer want highly qualified teachers making a middle class income who then can stay in our schools for their entire careers. You want lightly trained temps who use teaching as a stepping stone to a job that pays enough to live.

After all, if we afford teachers the status of professionals, they might actually be able to jump all the other hurdles we’ve put in front of them and educate the poor.

That would be terrible.

Despite all the standardized testing, Common Core, value-added measures, budget cuts, and constant propaganda about “failing schools,” they might actually teach these kids to think. That’s the last thing you want.

A thinking public might see how much you’re screwing them over. They might actually rise up and fight. They might refuse to accept the status quo that you are so desperately trying to protect.

That’s your real endgame. And though it makes me sick, I suppose I will no longer be able to take off.

I’ll just spend the day, coughing and wheezing with the children.

Yours,

Steven Singer

The Gadfly on the Wall

Pittsburgh Public Schools Advised to Repeat Same Mistakes Over and Over and Over…

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“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

-Albert Einstein (attributed)


“AAAUUURGH!”

-Charlie Brown

 

 

If I crash my car right into a wall, the worst thing to do would be to get into another car and crash it right into the same wall!

 

But that’s what the Pittsburgh Post Gazette thinks city school administrators should do.

 

A new comprehensive report about Pittsburgh Public Schools concludes that standardization and Common Core have produced zero progress in the district over the last decade.

 

And the editorial board of the city’s largest remaining newspaper says this means administrators should stay the course – indeed, double down on test prep and uniformity.

 

The 175-page report by The Council of the Great City Schools affirms that the district showed little to no improvement in the last 10 years.

 

“In fact, analysis of student achievement trends shows little to no improvements since 2007,” the report went on. “Although some scores went up and others went down over the period, achievement gaps are about the same — if not wider — than they were when the work started.”

 

You would think this would be a scathing indictment of administrators during this time who focused on test prep and uniformity to the exclusion of more student-centered reforms. In particular, during the same time covered in the report, administrators paid for new curriculum designed to standardize instruction across schools and grade levels. They instituted a value-added bonus system rewarding principals who run the schools with the highest test scores. They even increased the length of the school day to drive achievement.

 

They did all this, and it didn’t help a bit.

 

Some might see that as proof of the error of past ways.

 

But not the Post Gazette.

 

In the minds of the editorial board, this is a ringing endorsement of those policies that got us nowhere.

 

Mark Roosevelt, superintendent from 2005 to 2010, and Linda Lane, superintendent from 2010 to 2016, are actually singled out by the paper as heroes of reform!

 

Wait a minute. These are the people in charge when the district apparently was stalled. If anything, these functionaries should bear the blame, not get a pat on the back. We should do anything BUT continuing their work which lead to this dismal report.

 

But instead, the editorial board writes, “[T]he work of Mr. Roosevelt and Ms. Lane was not in vain. They inaugurated a coherent system of reforms, made the federal benchmark known as ‘adequate yearly progress’ twice in three years, restored the district’s credibility with the foundation community, forged a closer relationship with the teachers union and generated a new sense of optimism. The course they charted is worth revisiting.”

 

What!?

 

Voters are fed up with number-worshipping flunkies who don’t see kids as anything but data points. That’s why the community has consistently replaced number crunching school directors and administrators with people who have a new vision of education – a community schools approach.

 

The editorial board may look down their noses at current Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet who took over just this summer and the positive changes he’s been making with the new progressive school board, but he’s only doing what the public wants. And given this new report, a new direction is exactly what Pittsburgh Public Schools needs!

 

In the ivory tower of big media, they don’t see it this way.

 

In fact, the PG goes so far as to imply that Dr. Hamlet and the new board are somehow responsible for Roosevelt and Lane’s failures.

 

“It may be that they [Roosevelt and Lane] did not stay long enough for their efforts to take root,” writes the Post Gazette, “that the reforms became too cumbersome to manage or that they were unable to fully impose their will on a sprawling school district with many constituencies.”

 

Please. Dr. Hamlet’s presence has not halted Roosevelt and Lane’s march toward progress. This report demonstrates that they achieved very little. Moreover, Dr. Hamlet has only been in office since June. He hasn’t been in the district long enough to flush student test scores down the toilet – especially when for more than nine of those years he was working in Florida.

 

Neither can you blame the community for being fed up with corporate education reforms that apparently don’t work.

 

No. If this report by a consortium of the nation’s 70 largest urban school districts shows failure in ‘burgh schools, that belongs to the bosses at the top during the last 10 years. If this is a failure, it is Roosevelt’s and Lane’s, not Dr. Hamlet’s. Nor can you place it at the feet of school directors, most of whom are new to the board.

 

But the media mavens can be forgiven slightly for coming to such an odd conclusion, because it’s supported by the organization that wrote the report – the Council of the Great City Schools. After all, the Council suggested this push toward standardization in the first place.

 

 

In February 2006, this same Council advised Pittsburgh to “recommit to a standardized, districtwide curriculum to ensure that every classroom is focused on a common set of rigorous expectations for student learning.”

 

And now that same Council is saying that doing so resulted in a fat goose egg.

 

Great advice, Guys!

 

Pittsburgh residents spent $156,545 of taxpayer money to find that out.

 

Still, it’s not a total waste. It’s probably the most comprehensive look at the district in recent history and drew expertise from two dozen executives from eight different city school systems. It also included interviews with 170 staff and community members.

 

The third-party review was part of Dr. Hamlet’s transition plan and “acts as a blueprint” to transform the district, he said. It includes a detailed review of the district’s organization structure, staffing levels, instructional programs, financial operations, business services, disciplinary policies, and research and data functions.

 

Of particular interest is school discipline data showing that the district has an “extraordinarily high” suspension rate compared with other cities and that its disciplinary actions disproportionately affect students of color. In fact, this seems to justify moves by Dr. Hamlet to enact a restorative justice disciplinary program instead of a strict zero tolerance policy.

The report includes numerous suggestions for improvements across the board including revamping the district’s central office structure and updating the district’s outdated PreK-5 literary curriculum – initiatives that are already underway.

 

But when it comes to a repeated call for standardization and canned curriculum across the district, it should be ignored.

 

Put simply, we’ve tried that crap. It doesn’t help.

 

We’ve got to get beyond our love for standardized tests. We know that poor students don’t do as well on these types of assessments as middle class or wealthy students. It should be no surprise, then, that an urban district like Pittsburgh with a high percentage of impoverished students will also have low test scores.

 

It’s the poverty, stupid!

 

We need to do something to address that directly, not attack a district that’s lost almost $1 billion annually in state funding for the last five years.

 

Moreover, this obsession with Common Core is completely unfounded. It has never been demonstrated that aligning curriculum to the Core will increase test scores or increase learning. In fact, there is mounting research to show that these academic standards are developmentally inappropriate and actually prevent authentic learning – especially in reluctant learners.

 

The Council of the Great City Schools is enamored with these policies because the organization has taken millions of dollars in donations from the Gates Foundation and other organizations connected with the testing industry. Even many charitable foundations have aligned themselves with this lucrative business model where corporations cash in when students fail and then cash in again by selling them the remediation and Common Core texts they convince us we need to pass the tests.

 

The editorial board of the Post Gazette is likewise blinded by dollar signs and data.

 

Like far too many non-educators, they give far too much credence to a person’s bank account than her expertise. The same people pushing testing and new academic standards also benefit financially from them. They have created at least one PAC in the city with deep pockets looking to unseat unsympathetic board members and discredit Dr. Hamlet so that they can install their own representatives.

 

This is a battle with plain sense and logic. It’s also a battle for control of Pittsburgh Public Schools.

The Measure of Citizenship isn’t an Exit Exam – It’s Participating in Our Democracy

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Pennsylvania legislators just flunked civics – big time.

Once again, instead of offering real solutions to eradicate the ignorance of the coming generation, they clothed themselves in their own.

A bi-partisan group of 47 state lawmakers is proposing forcing all public school students to pass a test on citizenship in order to qualify for a diploma.

House Bill 1858 would require all K-12 schools receiving tax dollars — including charters schools and cybercharters — to give their students the same 100-question test that immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship will have to pass starting in 2020. Any student who doesn’t get a sufficient score will not receive a diploma or GED equivalency.

While it is admirable that legislators are concerned that high school students don’t know enough about civics, it’s unfortunate that they think the solution is another standardized test.

After all, what does being a good citizen have to do with a multiple choice exam?

Citizenship is about political independence. It’s about exercising your rights, not memorizing them. It’s about engaging in the political process, not spitting back facts about what kind of tree George Washington chopped down. It’s about using the principals of self-determination to rise up to the level of personal and community involvement, of individual sovereignty and home rule.

This involves actually teaching civics, a subject that has been cut to the quick in our schools to make room for an increasing amount of test-prep in math and reading. It used to be common for American high schools to offer three civics and government courses. Two of them – “Civics” and “Problems of Democracy” – defined the role of a citizen in relation to current events and issues. However, in most districts now these have been condensed into one “American Government” course that spends hardly any time on how students can and should participate in their government. Moreover, this course isn’t even offered until junior or senior year – far too late to make much of a difference.

Maybe instead of  putting a metaphorical gun to kids heads and demanding they care about civics, you could actually provide some resources so teachers could… I don’t know… teach it!

How about actually funding our public schools? You well-meaning dunderheads slashed school budgets by almost $1 billion a year for the last six years, and your only solution to helping kids learn has been to put more hurdles in their way without offering anything to help them achieve.

That is a losing strategy. If you want to have a winning race horse, at some point you have to feed the freakin’ horse!

If lawmakers really want kids in the Keystone state to know something about civics, why not start by making it easier for schools to broaden the curriculum to include robust civics courses?

This means REDUCING the number of standardized tests, not increasing them. Inject some money into the system so schools can hire back some of the 25,000 teachers who have been furloughed. You want kids to learn how to be citizens? Provide them with excellent teachers who actually get to experience some meaningful professional development, teachers not overburdened with meaningless paperwork to justify their jobs at every turn, teachers encouraged with rewards for seeking National Board Certification, etc. And let’s reduce class size so kids actually have the chance to be heard by their teachers and might actually learn something.

Moreover, if you really want to assess if these lessons have been learned, assess whether students are actually participating in their Democracy.

That’s the thing about citizenship. It looks like a noun, but it’s really a verb. It only has meaning if you do it.

Have high school kids registered to vote? Have they volunteered to take part in the political process, to canvass or phone bank for a candidate they believe in? Have they attended a session of the state House or Senate? (Have you provided the funding for appropriate field trips?) Have they attended a rally or protest for a cause close to their hearts?

THESE are the measures of true citizenship. And there are things you can do to make it easier for students to take part.

But no one really wants that. Come on. This is still essentially the same legislature that passed a Voter ID bill a few years back to make it harder for people to participate in our Democracy. And it would still be on the books if the state Supreme Court hadn’t struck it down as Unconstitutional.

Citizenship!? This is the same legislature that redrew state districts to be so incredibly gerrymandered that the most radical factions of both parties are unchallenged each election cycle!

You know why children don’t know more about civics? Because they’re so disgusted and demoralized by the example you’ve shown them. When politics is nothing but a show, when hardly anything ever changes or actually gets accomplished in Harrisburg, you expect kids to get excited by citizenship!? HA!

All you know how to do is pretend. That’s what this is. Just throw another standardized test on the fire of our children’s education and you can act like you’ve done something.

May I remind you we’re still dealing with the last smoldering exit exam disaster you fostered on us – the Keystone Exams?

You spent $1.1 billion on these tests since 2008, and they’re a statewide joke! You required all students to pass these assessments in Literature, Algebra and Biology, but they’re so poorly constructed and confusing that only half of our students can pass all three. So you put them on hold for two years until you could decide what to do.

And before you even fix that mess, you actually have the gall to say, “Hey! Let’s make kids take ANOTHER test!?”

I know some of you mean well, but this suggestion is a disgrace.

It’s style over substance.

This isn’t a measure to reduce ignorance. It’s a measure conceived in ignorance that’s guaranteed to proliferate it.

Instead of Nixing the Keystone Exams, PDE Recommends a Cornucopia of Tests

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The answer is in.

After a summer of intense study, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has a solution to our exit exam problem.

Last year we almost failed half of our high school seniors state wide because they couldn’t pass all three of our poorly constructed Keystone Exams. So we decided not to count the scores for two years in order to find a way to fix the problem.

And now PDE has a recommendation for the legislature.

Drop the Keystone Exams? Base graduation on the completion of high school classwork?

NOPE.

PDE still loves standardized testing. It just wants to give kids more choice about which standardized tests they can take.

Instead of having to pass the Keystone Exams in Algebra I, Literature and Biology, state policy-makers suggest a veritable Whitman’s Sampler of test-heavy paths to graduation.

Four choices.

Four paths to a diploma.

And they all involve lots and lots of multiple choice, sharpen-your-number-two-pencil, standardized tests.

PDE suggests that students can:

1)         Achieve scores on all three Keystone Exams that when averaged out produce a passing score. So maybe you fail the Biology test but your Algebra I and Literature scores are high enough to even out to a passing score.

2)         Achieve a passing score on some other standardized test approved by the state – SAT, ACT, etc. So maybe you take the Keystone Biology exam and the SAT for English and Math.

3)         For vocational students only – get passing grades in your high school classes, and pass a standardized assessment made for vocational students or otherwise provide evidence of success in that field of study.

4)         Get passing grades in your high school courses and provide at least three pieces of evidence of postsecondary success. More on what counts as evidence later.

PDE estimates these new alternative graduation requirements will be much more effective than the old ones.

The first option of allowing an average score on all three Keystone Exams, for instance, would mean that 72% of Pennsylvania students would thus be eligible for graduation vs. 51% under the old requirement.

The remaining 28% of high schoolers could then meet the graduation requirement by following one of the other three paths.

In most cases, this means more standardized testing – you just get to choose which test to take.

Under the fourth option, students only need to pass their courses and provide three pieces of evidence that they deserve to graduate. But what counts as evidence?
Please pick three from the following menu:

1)         Earn a passing grade in a dual enrollment course. In other words, pass a class in high school that will count as a college credit – maybe an advanced foreign language or math.

2)         Pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) – the entrance exam to qualify for military service. I don’t think you have to actually enlist, but you have to take and pass the test.

3)         Get a letter from an employer guaranteeing you have full-time employment after high school.

4)         Attain a high value industry credential.

5)         Get a certificate that you successfully  completed an internship related to your career goals.

6)         Pass a standardized test such as the PA Career Academic Work Standards assessment and/or SAT.

One notable absence from these choices is a Project Based Assessment (PBA).

Previous legislation allowed students who failed the Keystones to complete PBAs in place of one or more tests. Students would research a specific topic with a trained tutor who would evaluate students’ work and provide feedback. It was designed for students unable or unwilling to pass specific Keystone Exams.

However, this was extremely expensive.

Over the past year, approximately 6,700 students throughout the state completed 15,700 PBAs. In many cases, it took them more than 30 hours to finish each assessment. This put a tremendous burden on local school districts to hire additional staff and remediate students from missed coursework. It also cost the state more money to hire additional people to score the PBAs.

According to the report, an unnamed suburban southeastern district told PDE it had to hire nine specialists at a cost of $900,000. A large unnamed urban district estimated PBAs would cost it an additional $4.1 million. PDE, itself, would need an additional $7 million to grade these assessments.

There were also concerns of whether the PBAs could be completed in a secure fashion to make sure students weren’t cheating. However, the majority of concerns were financial.

As a result, PDE recommended doing away with PBAs.

This leaves the question of what to do with students whose parents opt them out of standardized testing. Under previous legislation, these kids could take PBAs. It is unclear what they could do now to achieve the graduation requirement since so many of the options suggested by PDE involve taking some form of standardized test.

It remains to be seen if lawmakers decide to trample on parents rights in this way.

So that’s it. Four paths to graduation.

There are many ways in which these alternatives are an improvement to the old pass-the-Keystones-or-else requirement.

First, the new plan acknowledges that students don’t need to be equally strong in all academic areas. Someone going into technical school has less reason to demonstrate skill in Biology than someone entering the medical field, for instance.

Also, this provides different options to qualify for a diploma instead of different kinds of diplomas. It had been suggested that students who don’t pass all tests might get a second tier diploma, perhaps even one of several tiers of diploma. So a blue diploma might mean you did pretty good, but not as good as a gold diploma, etc. We can be thankful PDE nixed that terrible idea.

Another positive is that PDE acknowledges standardized tests are not the only possible measure of success. Moreover, some measures of that success can be fairly determined at the district level.

Personally, I wish they went further with this. The authors of the report admit that colleges and employers rarely look at standardized test scores. Report card grades are a much better predictor of future success at both the college and career level. PDE cites three different peer-reviewed academic studies that come to this conclusion, but state education officials don’t have the bravery to likewise conclude that standardized assessments are unnecessary. Instead they play around at the edges, allow choice among standardized assessments and a complicated metric relying heavily on these assessments.

Moreover, as refreshing as it is to have state government admit that we can trust our local school districts to make some decisions about their students, why can’t we go one step further and say local districts can determine who deserves a diploma, in the first place? For centuries this is exactly what our schools did. In fact, the majority of people currently holding down jobs were determined to be ready for those jobs or their college experiences by just those same local school districts. Is America so incompetent that it needs standardized test corporations to bless everyone before being allowed to graduate? Would we be a better nation if everyone had to pass a standardized test to qualify for the workforce?

In short, the report from PDE certainly represents an improvement on the current Keystone Exam graduation requirement. However, it shows a real lack of courage and conviction by state functionaries.

There is no academic reason to have a graduation requirement beyond traditional coursework. It will only suppress the graduation rate as it has in other states in which it has been enacted. If we really wanted to increase the quality of high school graduates, we’d invest in them. We’d lower class size. We’d provide a wide curriculum. We’d provide equitable funding for children at different points on the socioeconomic scale. We’d provide services and tutoring for our most disadvantaged students.

Instead, we’re still just putting up more hurdles and demanding kids pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Something clearly must be done.

If the legislature doesn’t make changes, the requirement to pass all three Keystone Exams will apply to current high school freshman and sophomores.

There’s never been an exit exam like this in Pennsylvania before – in fact, almost the entire workforce, business community and state leadership somehow managed to get by without one. But whatever; these children today need to prove themselves.

Kids, passing your courses isn’t enough anymore. You’ve got to pass a test. Several of them in fact.

Never mind that you have to pass tests to succeed in your courses. THOSE tests are designed by teachers. You have to pass a real test – something designed by a corporation.

As big business continues to floods our lawmakers with campaign cash, somewhere along the way our representatives decided to spend a truckload of our tax dollars on big business – to make tests. Can’t imagine why.

In 2014, the legislature decided you’d have to pass a series of 10 Keystone Exams in core subjects. Fail even one of them and you’d get nothing but a certificate of attendance. So 12-13 years of schooling and you get this:

“Hey! Remember Paulie?”
 
 
“Yeah?”
 
 
“He was here.”

However, creating 10 brand new tests costs an awful lot of money. Pennsylvania shelled out more than $200 million before lawmakers said, “Okay, that’s enough,” and stopped with just the three we have. But before even these could be made permanent prerequisites of graduation, the scores came in.

It wasn’t good. About half of all students in both traditional public schools and charter schools couldn’t pass them all.

Why?

Well, the Common Core aligned tests were of dubious quality and zero validity based on actual educational research. Also, we cut off educational supports by slashing school budgets by almost $1 billion a year. Oh, and we spent way more money on rich students than poor students earning us the dubious distinction of having the most inequitable school funding in the nation.

Not exactly a recipe for success.

So what was the state to do – move forward and withhold diplomas for half of all students? Or Toss out the tests and move on?

Instead, lawmakers came up with a unanimous compromise – more time. The legislature decided to pause the Keystone requirement for two years in order to better study what could be done.

And now PDE has it’s test heavy solution to move forward.

People of conscience need to stand up and oppose any kind of additional exit exam in Pennsylvania. Parents, teachers and students need to band together. School board directors need to pass resolutions. Thoughtful lawmakers need to put forward progressive legislation.
The resistance has already begun.