Saturday, October 22, 2011

Responding to the PARCC and Common Core (Modified)

Last spring, when I was teaching at a small school in the Bronx, I caused an unnecessary ruckus by posting my thoughts about a presentation my staff received on the looming impacts of PARCC and Common Core implementation. The post was shared by Gotham Schools, in the Digest for Grassroots Education, and was disseminated to many UFT chapter leaders. I discovered soon afterward that my words were seriously concerning to a number of senior DOE employees, including, apparently, Chancellor Walcott and Deputy Chancellor Suransky.

Disciplinary action was taken against me, and I was threatened with a lawsuit if I didn’t take the post down. The reason I believe I ruffled so many feathers was because I was a DOE employee publicly admonishing policies supported by top DOE officials. However, the reason I made myself vulnerable to retaliation was because I inadvertently worded my post as if it were as much of an attack on the presenter (which I certainly did not intend) as it was on the politics that have been driving PARCC and Common Core.

I sent a sincere apology to the presenter (who I certainly did not mean to personally attack) and took the post down.

And now I’m putting it back up.

I have modified the post so that any part that might be misconstrued as an attack against an individual is now clearly framed as an attack against a misguided ideology that acts as if it is hellbent on destroying the public part of public education, which is all I ever meant for it to be.

It is my hope that anyone who was offended by my original post this past spring will appreciate my efforts to make this post obviously solely about fighting policies I vehemently disagree with and respect my right to do so. I believe some people found the content of this post useful and would prefer to keep it available on my blog for anybody who would like to reference or respond to it.

Below is the modified post.

Responding to the PARCC and Common Core (Modified)

This past May, a presentation was given to my small school in the Bronx informing us why and how we would be implementing the Common Core, and how the PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) consortium would hold us accountable for their implementation.

(I admittedly had to leave for a doctor’s appointment after about 40 minutes and did not have the opportunity to hear the end of it.)

The presentation we received began by informing us that research from Columbia University indicates that “the classroom” is responsible for 75% of a student’s achievement.

Next we looked at PISA results from 2003. We were asked to ponder why the United States fared so poorly in comparison with other countries. It was suggested that it was because we weren't yet operating with a common curriculum. The United States and Canada have the same teachers and the same students, so why did Canada perform so much better on the PISA? The answer: they work from the same standards.

Next came the PARCC assessments. We were told the new assessments will help our students think more critically, which, it was concluded, will help them score higher on the PISA (it was easy to get the impression that scoring well on the PISA was the end goal). By 2014 the core subjects (math and reading/writing) will be assessed by four PARCC assessments throughout the year in New York State.

Lastly, right before I left, my staff heard that we were not being rigorous enough with our students. We were told PARCC (through accountability, I suppose) will help us elevate the level of rigor in our classrooms, and apparently prepare our students to be college and career ready.

Many of us have heard all of these talking points before and are used to them. What concerned me was the captive audience the presentation had. Many members of my former staff were either brand new to teaching (in their first three years) or simply unaware of the important facts that the presentation left out. As I left the room for the doctor's office, I vowed, as chapter leader, to write an email to my staff informing them of alternative perspectives. Here is that email.

Dear Colleagues,

During our professional development this past Wednesday, it was explained to us how and why we will be using the Common Core State Standards, and how and why PARCC assessments will help us implement those standards.

For those of you relatively unfamiliar with the Common Core or the PARCC consortium, I'd like to provide you with a little perspective. I don't think the presentation was entirely forthcoming in its rationale for the use of these standards and assessments. While I recognize these are bureaucratic mandates that we'll probably all be required to follow, as your chapter leader, I think it's important you know that there are many respected people in the world of education who would have vehemently disagreed with what we were being told.

Let's start with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). For a few decades now, calls for a set of national standards have been growing, the idea being that if everyone is focusing on the same content and skills across the country, we'll be better able to assure that all students will graduate high school on something of an equal playing field (also - there's a strong argument suggesting that national standards will help prevent massive learning disruption for those students who move from one locale to another). This call for national standards has arisen partially out of a concern that many schools across the country are holding students to inappropriate expectations, which is, in part, a dilemma that has arisen in the way our country initially conceived of education. While every state constitution guarantees access to a public education, the US Constitution never even mentions the word. States have always taken the tenth amendment to signify their right to manage education as they see fit.

However, it hasn't been until recently (the CCSS were only finalized last year) that enough political capital has been accumulated to actually devise and make an attempt at implementing the core standards, much of it done in the wake of shock doctrine rhetoric and the emergence of substantial investment on behalf of private foundations (e.g. Gates, Broad, Walton) in the name of improving public education by imposing business practices - i.e. ultra-standardization and accountability.

(Because of the Constitution, the federal government cannot compel states to comply with its CCSS mission. Instead, as it has done in the past, it's utilized carrots and sticks to move state policy in the direction it sees fit. Race to the Top is exactly that. More money for states willing to fall in line with Common Core and less for those uninterested. This has been particularly powerful given the dreadful fiscal climate of the past few years.)

While national standards undoubtedly have some merits (see my extended discussion and comments on them here), they are certainly not widely agreed upon as a solution to our educational mediocrity. (See Yong Zhao, one of the most outspoken opponents of our current national reform agenda.) What I find to be most worrying about them is the opportunity they provide to for-profit vendors to make millions writing scripted curriculum and tests that we don't need. Would funding more adequate teacher-training programs not be a better investment of our tax money? I'm also worried because a national set of standards invites a national curriculum, which is currently being written by the Gates and Pearson Foundations. Is this who we want deciding how we teach our students?

When the presentation we received pointed to the math results from the 2003 PISA (which I thought was odd since there are more recent results available, and math is not the only thing PISA tests), it was suggested that the reason we, as a country, are doing so poorly is that we do not currently employ a common curriculum across the board. Teachers in different classrooms are all doing different things. We were told that Canada has the same teachers and the same students, but they scored a lot higher than we did. They have a national curriculum and we don't. Therefore, we need a national curriculum.

At this point it seemed appropriate to point out (although I held my tongue) that Finland, which is widely perceived as having one of the best educational systems in the world and consistently fares among the best on the PISA, does not have any standardized tests for all of its students. It also doesn't force teachers to follow its national standards, but rather suggests they be used as a guideline. Rather than impose a national curriculum and test after test after test, Finland has elevated the profession of teaching so that it's highly respected. One Finnish official said that the only point he sees in testing Finnish students is to prove to the business community that lots of testing doesn't improve achievement. See stories here, here, and here.

In regard to Canada, the presentation was not exactly correct in suggesting that the only difference between our two countries is a national curriculum. If you look at UNICEF's report on child poverty in rich countries (page 4), you'll notice that the United States has the highest rate of child poverty in the industrialized world, a rate seven percent higher than that of Canada's. Our students aren't exactly the same.

The presentation went on to imply that the best way for us to ensure this national curriculum is with a battery of tests, four times a year in the core subjects beginning in 2014. The tests are known as the PARCC assessments. For those of you unfamiliar, the PARCC Consortium is the brainchild of the Race to the Top program, designed and implemented by the US Department of Education with Arne Duncan at its head. Duncan, who called the Gates Foundation's The Turnaround Challenge "the bible" to school restructuring, and has always been a supporter of corporate reform (since he was "CEO" of Chicago Public Schools), has long been a believer that the best way toward improved education is through increased accountability. (Note: Duncan was never a teacher.)

What our presentation did not cover is that one of the goals of PARCC is to measure teacher effectiveness with these tests using the value-added model of teacher assessment. For reasons on why the value-added model is an extremely flawed way to measure teacher effectiveness, go here, here, here, here, and here. (For more on why many teachers are upset with Duncan's reform agenda go here, here, and here. Obama, who won a lot of teachers over in his campaign, apparently doesn't quite understand what his own DOE is doing.)

The last point I want to touch on, and, in my view, perhaps the most insidious, is the notion that the "classroom" is responsible for nearly 75% of a student's achievement (whatever that means). This presentation was the first time I'd heard this argument made with the use of the word "classroom" rather than "teacher." While classroom could be taken to include equipment, peers, class size, the teacher, climate, etc... I'm assuming the real argument here is that teachers can make all the difference. The corporate reform movement is fond of claiming that poverty is not an excuse for low-achieving schools (as measured by standardized tests). There is, however, substantial data that suggest otherwise. The Texas Tribune recently put forth some staggering data Michael Marder has collected on poverty and student achievement in Texas. Furthermore, responsible policy analysts and researchers have said time and again that the teacher is only the most important IN-SCHOOL factor impacting a child's achievement (here, here, and here), leaving room for the reality that home life plays the most significant role. Lastly, a PISA report from 2006, along with a number of other studies, have routinely found that parents' educational background, the number of books in the home, parent occupation, and gender routinely rank among the strongest correlatives of student achievement worldwide. It seems absolutely ridiculous to me that what happens in my classroom will somehow overcome the often crippling effects of poverty, and the data agree with me. As much as I believe in the importance in excellent teaching, I refuse to be held accountable for factors I do not control. It's my belief that we overemphasize the efficacy of schools in impoverished communities as a means of deluding ourselves into believing we really can provide equality of opportunity in this country without addressing the the many historical injustices that have persisted in our democracy.

What we saw in our PD on Wednesday was a piece of the manifestation of the corporate reform ideology. It is, regardless of how the presentation may have come off, overtly political, and rooted in the belief that more tests, more standards, and more teacher/school accountability will improve our national test scores, which, in their minds, are linked with educational achievement. I write this email not to convince you that this reform movement is wrong (although I believe strongly that it is), but to ensure that you're aware that what we heard does not enjoy widespread agreement.

The first step toward agency is understanding. If you made it this far, my hope is that this may have provided you with a little more understanding about what's happening in our profession.

Sincerely,

Your Chapter Leader

13 comments:

  1. very astute post, thanks! Yong Zhao points out that the strength of our nation's schooling is its diversity, not its uniformity.

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  2. Good job - we've got the same ideological crap at work here in Los Angeles.

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  3. Bravo and thank you! You are on the mark and courageous.

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  4. This is fantastic, and articulates clearly many of my own objections. I was noticing that the "here" links are broken/not working. Any chance you could restore those? I would love to follow up and read those recommended resources.

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  5. aliciamaud: My apologies! I went back through and fixed that mistake.

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  6. Excellent article. Thank you for sharing!

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  7. Certainly an interesting post. Thank you for sharing. One thing: Canada does not have a national curriculum. Education is a provincial responsibility. Any national standards are guidelines only. What gets taught in a math classroom in Alberta is vastly different from one in Nova Scotia.

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  8. Thank you for reposting this.

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  9. Anon at 626: Thanks. I thought that might be the case.

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  10. I saw a CCSS presentation in January at my NYC school. The presenter is now my AP. Things that make you go "Hmmmm..."

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  11. James: Thanks for taking the time to put this information out there. It doesn't surprise me that the DOE wasn't happy with your truth-telling actions. When I worked as a teacher in San Diego, teachers were threatened with reprisals if they told the media that teachers were being forced to buy their own paper b/c there was no money for supplies (crazy, huh?).

    I especially applaud your statement: "As much as I believe in the importance in excellent teaching, I refuse to be held accountable for factors I do not control. It's my belief that we overemphasize the efficacy of schools in impoverished communities as a means of deluding ourselves into believing we really can provide equality of opportunity in this country without addressing the the many historical injustices that have persisted in our democracy."

    Well said!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for this intelligent, rational response to the difficult issues facing public education.

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    2. As a public school teacher it is nice to read intelligent, rationale responses to the problems of standardized testing and corporate takeover.

      Thanks, Brad

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