The public portion of our local school board meeting ran from 7:40 p.m. until 12:40 a.m. last night. Included on the agenda was a first reading of a policy (a copy is attached below) to require the district to provide educationally appropriate and non-punitive alternatives for kids whose parents refuse to allow them to take the PARCC tests. The policy will not be voted on until the next meeting, which is not until January 26, 2015. My 10 year old 4th grader attended the meeting with me, and was the first speaker when public comment began around 9:45 p.m. (She waited patiently and listened intently to a good chunk of the prior two hours of the meeting — and when she got bored, she read her book.)
Please watch the VIDEO of her describing her experience with PARCC preparation. She speaks for herself quite eloquently, if I do say so myself!
1. I want to thank our local micronews blog, Baristanet, for promptly covering last night’s meeting, with its article comprehensively describing the Board meeting live on its site by this morning. I’m glad that there was real — and relatively real-time — press coverage of last night’s meeting. We can’t be an informed community without reliable journalists to report the news. The Montclair Times and The Alternative Press -Montclair have now filed stories as well. I am really hopeful that given this prompt response last month’s lack of full coverage was an aberration. Thank you to our local press — your job is critical.
2. This morning Elizabeth’s story appeared on Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post education blog, The Answer Sheet. I want to give Valerie the credit she deserves for this piece. In early November, we took a family trip to Washington, D.C. As some regular readers of this blog know, Valerie, who is a super-hero in the movement to push back against the current so-called “education reform” movement, published my second blog post ever — and a bunch of my blog posts since that time — on The Answer Sheet. Coincidentally, it turned out that The Washington Post was on the route from our DC hotel to our nearest Metro stop. I sent Valerie an email saying that it was a thrill to see the HQ of the newspaper that had published some of my work, and she graciously offered to give us a tour of the newsroom. She came in on a Sunday and met us to give us our tour (my youngest adores her because she suckered Valerie into letting her abscond with a pink flamingo ornament from Valerie’s desk) and, as you can imagine, we talked education, teaching, policy, and politics.
Elizabeth was an active participant in that conversation. I think Valerie was blown away when, after she’d told a story about using her role as a journalist to expose an inequitable situation faced by a boy with a physical disability in the DC schools, Elizabeth asked, “Do you think that the DC or the Philadelphia schools are worse these days?” So Valerie encouraged Elizabeth to write about PARCC and PARCC test prep from a student’s perspective. On our way home, Elizabeth was composing the first paragraph of what eventually became last night’s public comment to the Board. She’s been working on it on and off ever since. But when we learned this weekend that the Board had placed the PARCC parental refusal on its agenda, Elizabeth buckled down and finished the last bits of her piece. My involvement was to add the explanatory note that appears in the WaPo piece, to fix about 3 typos, and to give Elizabeth a brief mini-lesson on embedded quotation marks.
After she finished, she read it aloud a few times, and we timed her and discussed some tips for public speaking. I honestly wasn’t sure whether she would actually speak or not until she went up there. And I couldn’t be prouder of my kid! I think that last night demonstrated, far more comprehensively and concretely than any standardized test possible could, that Elizabeth is on track for college, career, and, most importantly, active and thoughtful participation in civic life. I cannot begin to thank her teachers enough for their role in helping her to grow into the amazing little girl she is and continues to become. I don’t need a standardized test to tell me that they’re doing wonderful work — but I can and will continue to do what’s within my power to ensure that they can do their work as unfettered as possible by mandates from those, such as Arne Duncan, David Hespe, and Penny MacCormack, with little or no classroom teaching experience.
Instead, Petrilli’s saying that the fact that tax-dollar-funded charter schools kick out large numbers of students is “a feature, not a bug.” And that when it comes to discipline, “[t]raditional public schools that serve all comers have to find a middle ground, as best they can, which often pleases no one.”
And this guy is a thought-leader for the education reform movement. His institute’s tagline is “Advancing Educational Excellence.” I guess a more accurate version would read, “Advancing Education Excellent For Some.”
Judge for yourself. Here are the money paragraphs from Petrilli:
Because [charter schools] are schools of choice, they have many advantages, including that everyone is there voluntarily. Thus they can make their discipline codes clear to incoming families (and teachers); those who find the approach too strict can go elsewhere.
This is a good compromise to a difficult problem: Not all parents (or educators) agree on how strict is too strict. Traditional public schools that serve all comers have to find a middle ground, as best they can, which often pleases no one. Schools of choice, including charters, need not make such compromises. That’s a feature, not a bug.
It’s not too strong to say that disruption is classroom cancer. It depresses achievement and makes schools unpleasant, unsafe and unconducive to learning. We need to think long and hard about taking tools away from schools — especially schools of choice — that allow their students to flourish.
In other words, we should divide students into those who care and those who don’t. We should provide resources to those who care, and warehouse the rest. And when our public schools actually attempt to meet kids where they are and to reach all kids, they’re engaged in compromises that “please no one.”
Of course Petrilli eliminated two key words from his last sentence. It should read: “We need to think long and hard about taking tools away from schools — especially schools of choice — that allow [some of] their students to flourish.”
Is it really okay to openly advocate for charter school discipline policies that weed out a significant portion of the student body (without, in most cases, replacing those expelled or “counseled out” students, of course)?
Is it really okay to say that our public schools are places of compromises that please no one?
Is it really okay to imply that public schools truly are the schools of last resort, that their highest and best purpose is to serve as dumping grounds for those students who are not good enough (or malleable enough, or terrified enough, or controllable enough) to succeed in charters?
On Twitter, Petrilli argued that he’s saying that public schools should be able to kick kids out with impunity as well, as if that somehow makes his proposal okay. I asked him what he suggests doing with all of the kids he suggests kicking out. His response was that we can send those kids to “alternative schools.” In other words, we’re supposed to warehouse “those kids” in faux-schools until they drop out or end up in prison, but there’s no point in trying to motivate them, reach them, or educate them. We should just separate them from the rest of us. We should just face facts and write them off. Because they don’t care. They are ungovernable. Unteachable. And so we owe “those children” nothing. Despite the fact that they are children.
According to Petrilli, apparently the fundamental problem with traditional public schools is that they don’t kick out more kids. If only the public schools expelled more children, then they’d be “advancing educational excellence.” The real problem with American education is that we just don’t have enough high school drop-outs, I guess. It’s not inequitable allocation of resources. It’s not failing to combat poverty and inequality. It’s really just the low school expulsion rate that’s to blame.
Presumably in an all-charter system this will mean dumping the unwanted students into low-performing charters until those charters either kick them out or are closed and a new batch of substandard charters arise to take them on. In a mixed public/charter district, this will mean dumping those kids back into the traditional public schools, further damaged by the alienation, sense of failure, and disruption that go along with getting kicked or counseled out of a charter school. But according to Petrilli, there is no need to worry about that, since bringing stability to the lives of students with anger or behavior issues is apparently not a priority. And stratification of students in publicly funded schools is apparently “a feature, not a bug.”
I am just amazed that someone who is, for better or for worse, a leading voice in education policy setting will openly come out and state that some kids just suck, and the best thing we can do is to just weed them out and get rid of them.
“Those kids” are apparently not worth educating.
“Those kids” are apparently not worth reaching.
“Those kids” apparently don’t belong in classrooms with the rest of our kids.
So, here’s my question: at what age do we write kids off?
When is a child old enough to be thrown away?
When does a child go from being a cute little boy or girl to becoming one of “those kids”?
And how do we distinguish kids worth educating from kids who should be warehoused in alternative environments? Are we weeding out the rebels? The creative thinkers? Those who question authority? Are we rewarding malleability, conformity, and keeping your head down?
This isn’t even code for active advocacy of re-segregation of schools. It’s a blatant statement that we should re-segregate schools. With impunity. As we cloak ourselves in righteousness. Because you know, there are kids who matter, and kids who don’t. And if socio-economic factors happen to determine who belongs in which category for the vast majority of those kids, who cares? Because why care about a kid who doesn’t care, regardless of why that kid appears to “not care”?
I’m still trying to figure out why my tax dollars are supporting quasi-“public” charter schools that their own proponents encourage to refuse to serve certain kids. Their own proponents agree that the charter schools do — and agree that they should — weed out “those kids” with impunity. Can someone please explain to me how that is preparing kids for citizenship in a democratic society? Unless, of course, the goal is to create a permanent underclass of citizens who are uneducated, easily manipulated, and disenfranchised.
Why don’t we just kill two birds with one stone? We can expel students who have problems with authority from school and just send them directly to prison. After all, justice and equity are irrelevant to Petrilli’s vision. And why bother with trials if we’re not going to be judged by jurors with access to basic education?
In Petrilli’s world, order is apparently the order of the day. Children don’t deserve second chances. Late bloomers have no opportunities to turn themselves around. Troublemakers should be warehoused. And public education with public funds owes nothing to the public.
Perhaps I’m just naive, but I, for one, am outraged. You should be too. Even — and perhaps especially — if you support charter schools.
I have a fourth grade daughter. She was first identified for our district’s gifted and talented program for English Language Arts in kindergarten, as she came into kindergarten reading chapter books. Her vocabulary and analysis skills remain quite advanced for a child of her age. And I can tell you that she retains the ability to imagine. Do you remember that, the ability to imagine with ease? Do you remember your childhood, when you could create imaginary worlds and people them with imaginary characters just by wishing them into existence? Do you remember building forts and castles that were as real to you as could be? For a moment, for just a moment, I ask you to call upon what is likely your long-stagnated power of imagination. Imagine yourself at nine or ten years old. Imagine your room, imagine your friends, and imagine your school work.
Then sit down. Keep yourself in your nine or ten year old mindset. Boot up your desktop, or power up your laptop, or unlock your iPad. Navigate to the PARCC website, at parcconline.org. Navigate to the 4th grade English Language Arts PARCC practice test. Open it in front of you, right now, as you read this comment. If you refuse to sit down to take the sample tests yourself, then with all due respect I submit that farcical as this task force — with its 6 week window to issue recommendations — might be, you are not meeting you obligation as member of this task force. Remember as you work through the 4th grade PARCC practice test that you are not your current self — you are still your nine or ten year old self.
As you take the 4th grade English Language Arts PARCC test, stay in the head of nine or ten year old you. Imagine your nine or ten year old self reading the first story and the first poem. Imagine your nine or ten year old self trying to answer the questions regarding what evidence supports the meaning of certain words. I bet your nine or ten year old self can probably figure out the first answer. Your nine or ten year old self might even be about to figure out what evidence from the text supports that first answer.
Now move on to the setting question. Imagine your nine or ten year old self attempting to distinguish which choices describe the setting. Remember that this is a “gotcha” question, as all five possibilities are described in the story, but the answer key states that the “correct” answers are only those that pertain to the settings in Priya’s present, and not to those settings that form the background for her memories. Did your nine or ten year old self know that without me first revealing the answer? Does your nine or ten year old self think it’s fair or appropriate to expect our nine and ten year olds to intuit that distinction? If your nine or ten year old self thinks this is unfair, do you think your nine or ten year old self is going to keep devoting his or her best efforts to completing this test?
But keep imagining. Imagine, as you progress through the multiple choice questions, your nine or ten year old self constantly having to try to scroll up and down to get to the proper portion of the story that relates to the question. As you imagine, remember, as my ten year old daughter reported to me from one of her class’s PARCC practice sessions, that if you accidentally click outside the testing box as you scroll, you will be locked out of the remainder of the test. Imagine the anxiety you feel that you might accidentally mis-click.
Now imagine your nine or ten year old self attempting to distinguish the structural elements that delineate the poem versus those that delineate the short story. Imagine your nine or ten year old self trying to relate to and analyze Maya Angelou’s poetry. Imagine your nine or ten year old self trying to figure out if “descriptions” applies to both.
Finally, you’re up to the first essay. Now imagine your nine or ten year old self, hunting and pecking for each letter on the keyboard, trying to draft an essay in which you identify the theme of the poem and the theme of the story, and then to show how the characters in the story and the speaker in the poem “show” the theme. What themes did your nine or ten year old self pick? What does your nine or ten year old self think it means for the themes to be “shown through the characters”? Did your nine or ten year old self truly sit down and try to type out a well-written and intelligent answer to this essay? Did your nine or ten year old self remember to do this one finger at a time, laboriously hunting and pecking around the keyboard, now looking for a “c,” and later looking for an “f”? Did your nine or ten year old self write to the best of his or her ability, or did your nine or ten year old self just push to put something — anything — down on the screen as his or her frustration grew with the infernally slow progress of his or her typewritten thoughts? Does your adult self remember the frustration of trying to get your thoughts out on paper before your fingers could keep up with your brain?
Now, can you truly look me in the eye and tell me with a straight face that this is an appropriate task for our children?
Now, can you truly look me in the eye and tell me in all honesty that a child who cannot succeed on this task is not on track for college or a career?
Now, can you truly look me in the eye and tell me as if you mean it that preparing our children for this work is what their teachers should be spending the year doing?
Now, can you truly look me in the eye and tell me that your child self would believe that this test was fair, and would not give up before the end?
Now, can you truly look me in the eye and tell me with sincerity that years spent preparing for tests like these aren’t going to suck the joy, imagination, love of learning, and creativity out of children — and their teachers?
Can you truly?
My large extended family gathered this Thanksgiving for turkey and togetherness. At our gathering, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I spoke with my retired elementary school librarian aunt, with my aunt who works for a private tutoring center, with my college freshman cousin, and with my cousins whose kids are in third and fifth grade. They like my writing and they’re impressed by my activism, but none of them had really made the leap to think that my education activism is something that is really about them and their kids or their grandkids. They thought that their kids — like mine — are privileged enough to be good students in good public schools, and that these tests were really about the other kids, the kids without privileges and advantages, and that this fight had nothing to do with them.
But then I opened up my iPad. And I navigated to the PARCC fourth grade ELA sample test. And I made them try to take it. Each of them was appalled. Outraged. Infuriated.
So this is my request to this task force. Don’t issue a report or make recommendations until you sit down — publicly so that we know that you did it — and actually try taking these sample tests. That is, to maintain any credibility at all, the task force must host — and participate in — Take the PARCC events across the state.
After that, you can move on to the other issues. After that, you can make recommendations.
After that, you can look at how often Pearson makes mistakes in its textbooks, and whether it’s reasonable to trust a company that makes such mistakes to design high-stakes tests that will eventually determine our students’ class placement and/or college graduation.
After that, you can look why it is categorically unfair — not to mention demoralizing — to have teachers’ performance reviews dependent on the outcomes of these tests.
After that, you can look at whether these tests improve children’s educational outcomes.
After that, you can look at whether the high-stakes nature of these tests encourages widespread cheating.
After that, you can look at whether failures on these tests contributes to destabilizing schools and communities that serve our most challenged children.
After that, you can look at whether the high-stakes testing culture discourages highly qualified teachers from entering (or, as I can tell you in my case, from returning to) the teaching profession.
After that, you can look at what portions of our high local property taxes and precious school budgets are now paid to the for-profit industry that has sprung up around these tests.
After that, you can look at whether these tests are doing more harm than good.
After that, you can look at whether these tests are forcing schools to narrow the curriculum, as the requirement to devote school hours and resources to teaching to these tests means that those school hours and resources are not being used for other, more precious, lessons.
After that, you can look at whether these tests are stamping out our children’s imaginations even earlier than we lost the abilities to easily access our own imaginations.
After that, you can look at whether — assuming we agree that this is the purpose of public school, which we don’t — student performance on these tests will tell teachers, parents, and members of the community anything whatsoever about whether these 9 and 10 year olds are on-track for college and careers.
But first — first — you need to take the tests.
Sarah Blaine, B.A. in English (Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT), M.A.T. in Secondary English (University of Maine, Orono, ME), J.D. (Rutgers University School of Law–Newark, Newark, NJ)
Peter Greene’s recent blog post “Meaning and Standardized Writing” is spot on. As Greene writes, the problem with a great deal of student writing is that it’s motivated by the need to complete the assignment and be graded, rather than by addressing the problem that all good writing seeks to solve, which Greene conceptualizes as: “How can I communicate what I want to communicate in a meaningful way?”
Greene then juxtaposes good writing with standardized-test writing:
The standardized testing approach to writing, both in “writing” assessments and in the open-ended response format now creeping into other tests, gets virtually nothing right at all. Nothing. The goal is itself a meager one– let’s just measure student technical skill– and even that is not measured particularly well. Test writing is the opposite of good writing. The problem the student is trying to solve is not “How do I create a meaningful expression” but “How do I provide what the test scorer wants to see” or “What words can I use to fill up this space.”
Tonight, my 4th grader brought me her ELA (English Language Arts) homework to review. Here’s the prompt (or, as Greene rightly notes, the “stimulus”):
First of all, I’m not sure why it’s the “SEEC” method rather than the SEEEEECC method, but hey, what do I know? Now I am a lawyer, and the SEEC (“SEEEEECC”) method reminds me very much of the law school writing formula, IRAC (Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion). I don’t think that rules of thumb for structuring writing are terrible for writers embarking on their first efforts at a new kind of analytical or expository task, but writing teachers must ensure that their students understand that writing rules are made to be broken, and that slavish adherence to writing rules will lead to kludgy, painful-to-read prose.
The problems with standardized writing assessments, however, are two-fold. First, many writers never make that leap away from the SEEC or IRAC rules, so that their writing is so rule-oriented that it’s boring, inflexible, and painful to read (trust me, I’ve read my share of painful legal briefs, although I’ve also read some really outstanding — and engaging — legal prose). Second, the rubrics (or scoring matrices) reward strict adherence to the rule, which again reinforces the problematic idea that good writing is writing that adheres to rules.
Here’s my fourth grader’s response to the SEEC-based writing prompt (used with her permission):
It’s fine and it’s technically correct, but Greene’s point shines through: there is no question that this paragraph is not a paragraph in which my 10 year old is communicating what she wants to communicate in a meaningful way. Rather, she is — as Greene predicts — writing to answer the wrong questions. Her writing is dull and lifeless because she is asking herself “what can I write to satisfy this assignment” or “how can I fill up this piece of paper” or “what can I use to fill in five paragraph-sized blanks,” and, as Greene notes, “these are all the wrong question to start with.”
On the other hand, there has been a lot of “authentic” writing — i.e., writing that answers the “correct” question of how can I communicate what I want to communicate — going on in my house recently (and I don’t mean my blogging, although of course that’s exactly what my blogging is — my attempt to communicate to the world my point of view regarding the “reforms” to our education system).
The weekend before Thanksgiving, my daughters started playing “The Letter Game.” My oldest daughter started writing letters to my younger daughter. My younger daughter kept bringing them to me to help her read them, but what I didn’t realize at the time (I might have been busy blogging) was that my kindergartener was writing decipherable notes (full of invented spellings, of course) back in response to her sister. For about two hours, the two of them were communicating through the written word. As they were wrapping up their game, I realized what had been going on, and was amazed by the little one’s notes. (Unfortunately, the big one managed to throw them away while she was on a cleanup frenzy the following day, so I can’t show them to you here.)
To me, that was an extraordinary breakthrough. It was my little one’s first authentic experience with using written language to express what she wanted to communicate. Over the long weekend, a lot more authentic writing happened in my house. The girls (my daughters and their close friend) began writing “newspapers” documenting happenings in the imaginary world they’d conjured up. Here are a few examples:
And my little one decided to start “blogging.” Here are some of her “Blog Posts”:
The newspapers and the “blog posts” are writing that these kids generated for themselves, to communicate what they want to say in a meaningful way.
Do you see the difference between writing that is authentic, or, as Greene says, between writing that communicates what the author wants to communicate in a meaningful way and writing that attempts to do nothing more than fill the page, follow a formula, or give the exam-reader what the exam-reader is looking to find? A writing teacher who knows his students (like Greene), is best situated to design writing assignments that will facilitate an environment in which students learn to effectively communicate what they want to communicate in a meaningful way. But when the stimuli-drafters are far removed from the classroom, the students, and their teachers, and when the stimuli ask students to react formulaically to the prompt, we suck the joy out of writing, out of school, and out of teaching.
I don’t blame my daughter’s ELA teacher. I’ve spoken with her in detail, and I know how much she tries to slip authentic and joyful assignments between the inevitable test prep. I know how much more she wants for the kids, but how hamstrung she is by the district’s (and PARCC’s) demands. But to me, the juxtaposition of the joyful, authentic writing happening without adult intervention in my house against the dry and lifeless writing my daughter did for school tonight illustrate better than anything I can write exactly what’s wrong with our high-stakes test driven culture, and the all-business ELA Common Core State Standards that accompany that test-driven, automaton-producing educational ideal.
I know detractors might argue that these are two different types of writing: analytical writing versus creative writing. But that’s exactly my — and I believe Greene’s — point. When writing is authentic and meaningful, expository and analytical writing is both intellectually meaningful and creative (check out your average New Yorker article). But when formulas and mnemonics rule, writing becomes about spitting words out onto paper, and not about contributing meaning to our human endeavor on this lonely little planet. Why on earth are we allowing test-driven school culture (especially one that attempts to standardize and test writing, of all things) to squelch the meaning out of our kids’ words?