Are Children Learning

State board chair drops a little PARCC surprise

Paul Lundeen, chair of the State Board of Education, informed his colleagues Tuesday that he plans to ask them to vote next month on a resolution calling on the legislature to repeal a 2012 law that required Colorado to sign up with a multistate testing group.

Lundeen’s surprise (at least to some board members) came at the end of a daylong meeting, “I respectfully call for action by the General Assembly and the governor during this legislative session,” he said. “It is time to demand action from the General Assembly to repeal the statute” that led to Colorado committing to use of language arts and math tests being prepared by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

He said he’d ask the board to consider such a resolution during its April 9-10 meeting.

Lundeen made the announcement near the end of a 10-minute speech in which he criticized the Common Core Standards (“Colorado must remain true to its independent standards”) as “an increasing burden of standardized assessments.”

The 2012 “PARCC law” (only 14 lines of text in an education laws cleanup bill) was controversial then because lawmakers – led by Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver – basically forced the board to join the multistate testing group. Earlier that session lawmakers rejected the board’s request for $26 million to develop new Colorado-only tests.

Testing and the Common Core have become even more controversial since then.

The effect of a board resolution – if Lundeen gets one passed – might be minimal. The board historically doesn’t have a lot of sway with lawmakers, particularly when the board is divided, as it would be on this issue. Johnston would be expected to oppose any change in the state testing system. And lawmakers likely would be reluctant to take up such a controversial issue with less than a month to go in the session. (They have to adjourn by May 7.)

Lundeen, a Republican, is likely a short-timer on the board. He’s a candidate for the state House from a safely GOP seat in El Paso County and has been endorsed by the incumbent.

Testing also came in for criticism at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, when Keith King, a Republican former legislator from Colorado Springs, appeared before the board to complain about testing – “there are just really too many mandated tests” – and warn that new standardized tests are threatening the autonomy of charter schools. King, an influential figure on education issues while in the legislature, operates an early college charter.

At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, the board’s public comment session was taken up by the usual assortment of citizen witnesses complaining about or praising the Common Core. (This has become a fixture at board meetings since last summer.)

Sonja Semion, who heads Stand for Children Colorado, brought along a unique visual aid to show that group’s support for the standards – a printout containing more than 7,000 signatures from citizens who signed a Stand online petition supporting the standards.

Petition submitted to State Board of Education by Stand for Children.
PHOTO: Chalkbeat Colorado
Petition submitted to State Board of Education by Stand for Children.

Detroit Story Booth

Why one woman thinks special education reform can’t happen in isolation

PHOTO: Colin Maloney
Sharon Kelso, student advocate from Detroit

When Sharon Kelso’s kids and grandkids were still in school, they’d come home and hear the same question from her almost every day: “How was your day in school?” One day, a little over a decade ago, Kelso’s grandson gave a troubling answer. He felt violated when security guards at his school conducted a mass search of students’ personal belongings.

Kelso, a Cass Tech grad, felt compelled to act. Eventually, she became the plaintiff in two cases which outlawed unreasonable mass searches of students in Detroit’s main district.

Fast forward to August, when her three great-nephews lost both their mother and father in the space of a week and Kelso became their guardian. Today, she asks them the same question she has asked two generations of Detroit students: “How was your day in school?”

The answers she receives still deeply inform her advocacy work.

Watch the full video here:

– Colin Maloney

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.