First Person

Against PARCC: an argument in response to Elaine Gantz Berman

Proponents of the controversial Common Core aligned PARCC test suggest that it is a “more rigorous” standardized test and will create better students. But a closer look at supporters’ claims raises many questions.

First of all, the “rigor” of the exams has proven difficult to measure, as only samples of the PARCC test questions have been released.

Colorado mandated that all schools administer the PARCC test without knowing exactly what is on the test, as even state officials only have access to sample questions, and not the questions that students themselves will face.

PARCC is a new, unproven, unfunded, state-wide test to be taken on computers, multiple times per year.  The test has been adopted by many states across the nation, thereby rendering it a national test of sorts.  The states that have adopted the Common Core Standards and PARCC, have done so under federal pressure — states could not receive Race To The Top (RTTT) funding without doing so.

Since the inception of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), we have been adding to the pile of standardized tests that our students must hurdle over. We overuse and over-emphasize standardized tests. PARCC adds to the problem, with lost classroom time, exorbitant cost– some districts are spending millions of dollars on the infrastructure and computers necessary to take this PARCC test — and high-stakes pressure on both students and teachers alike.

But where is the evidence that this reliance on standardized tests is producing better outcomes for our students? Despite this increase in the use of standardized tests, postsecondary remediation rates continued to climb from 2012 to 2013.

Colorado began field-testing PARCC last week. Colorado teachers have been leaving feedback on both the PARCC exams and the TCAPS on the website Testing Talk; the reviews are not positive. New York piloted the PARCC field test earlier this year and also found multiple problems; the results there showed that under Common Core-aligned tests, the achievement gap actually widens.

Standardized tests fail to accurately measure knowledge; rather, results can be predicted based on income and race. . The tests are snapshots, and don’t take into account other factors: ability to navigate a computer; having an “off” day, being tired/sick; having issues outside the classroom, etc. High school GPAs are a more reliable predictor of college readiness than the SAT, another prominent standardized text. And, as per American Statistical Association (ASA) findings, evaluating teachers based on students’ standardized test scores is highly questionable.

Coloradans are fed up with standardized testing. Parents are now taking a stand, opting their students out of the exams. They know PARCC tests are predicted to take longer and can be given up to four times per year. By comparison, the TCAPS are administered only once a year.

In a landmark vote, the Colorado State Board of Education (SBE) recently  voted against PARCC testing in our state, and has asked the state legislature to repeal the law requiring PARCC assessments. The board agrees that testing is excessive and has commissioned a study on the amount and types of assessments used in Colorado classrooms. A bill currently in the General Assembly, HB14-1202, which was intended to allow schools alternatives to the PARCC tests, was weakened after political pressure and has morphed into another study on Colorado’s assessments. A similar bill that would have delayed the implementation of PARCC and Common Core, SB14-136, was killed earlier this season by the same political parties. A proposed amendment to HB14-1202 proposes to delay PARCC, keeping TCAPs, for one year. One more year of TCAP would give Colorado educators and families time see what PARCC is and if we want it for our state. This delay would not cost the state additional money.

Common Core and PARCC also help schools and districts collect data, of all sorts — not just academic. This video from the White House Education Datapalooza shows how companies like Pearson (who made the PARCC test) collect “hidden” data on children, “by tagging every sentence, down to the atom.”

The Colorado Department of Education (CDE) captures this data and more from other tests and observations including home life, mental health, behavioral, pictures and videos taken throughout the school year, and packages the data, creating a “single golden record” for each student that combines data from schools and school districts, workforce and social service agencies, and corrections agencies. Watch the CDE video here.

This data collection happens without parents’ approval. Parental consent is not necessary; in fact, parents cannot prohibit their child’s data being collected or shared, often with third party vendors.  A Fordham University study finds “there are serious deficiencies” in student data security; the data is not safe and can be breached. Lawsuits, such as one from the public interest research center EPIC’s, challenge this data collection and the weakened FERPA regulations.

This government document explains that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) laws were changed and can now be bypassed.  You can find the exact words in this clip.

Student profiling often happens in other countries – Singapore, for instance:

“Singapore’s government instituted the practice of streaming (or tracking) students based on their academic ability from elementary school onward. After six years of primary-school education, Singaporean students take a test that determines whether they’ll be placed in a special school for the gifted, a vocational school or a special education program, and another test later determines their higher-ed options.”

This tracking sounds eerily like what CDE and the White House have described as their goals for American children. Obtaining this type of personal and predictive, behavioral data without parental consent is clearly questionable. In fact, Nevada Department of Education allowed parents to opt out of their Common Core-aligned field tests due to concerns over data collection and privacy.

What is the answer to all this testing madness? To stop. Why rush into PARCC? Are there special interests and politics at play? If we feel we need rigorous standardized tests, why not rigorously review them before implementing?

Fordham University’s Chester Finn believes PARCC will wither away and be replaced by something else. In fact, seventeen states have backed out of these Common Core-aligned tests. Colorado could make its own state assessment based on what our teachers actually teach.

Whatever the test, students should take it much less frequently. High performing countries like Finland take only one standardized test in high school. Why not find a balance and test only a portion of students, staggering the tests at different grades? Rather than test every child, every year, we could follow the respected NAEP protocol of random sampling.  Too much classroom time is lost preparing for and taking so many of these high-stakes standardized tests.  Testing is not teaching: let teachers teach.

Allow teacher and parent input, and keep our decisions local. Colorado is a local control state. Give control back to our school boards and teachers, where it belongs. Our state legislators hold this power. We, the taxpayers and voters, hope they will support CDE and the people of Colorado. Repeal or at least delay the PARCC exams, review standards, require parental consent on children’s data.

We also call upon Governor Hickenlooper to sign legislation if sent to him. In a recent interview with Mike Rosen, the Governor, at 27 minutes, agreed that testing is excessive and said he would be willing to help delay PARCC, involving parents in the process. Hickenlooper went on to say, “We can opt out of all kinds of things in Common Core.”

Thank you, Governor. We sincerely hope that the General Assembly will send you such a bill and that you will follow through.

Editor’s Note: This First Person article is in response to a previous First Person article written by State Board of Education member, Elaine Gantz Berman.

This post is endorsed by the following people and organizations:

Cheri Kiesecker, Fort Collins, Colorado

Kristin Tallis, Fort Collins, Colorado

Aimie Randall, Loveland, Colorado

Steve Yon – Castle Rock CO

Kari Newsom – Littleton CO

Adelia Darlene Herrera – Larkspur CO

Eric Lee Herrera – Larkspur CO

Justin Collier Herrera Larkspur CO

Crystal Coleman – Castle Rock CO

Maren Kay Neises – Larkspur, Co

Mary Denise Babcock – Littleton CO

Karla Mount – Castle Rock CO

Matt Wiebe, Fort Collins, Colorado

Deanna Masciantonio-Miller, Kiowa, Colorado

Belinda Seville, Centennial, Colorado

Ryan Smith, Kiowa, Colorado

Courtney Smith, Kiowa, Colorado

Candy Putch, Elizabeth, Colorado

Cameron Rau, Loveland, Colorado

Elodji Means, Elizabeth , Colorado

Kimerly Lutte, Elizabeth , Colorado

William Lutter, Elizabeth , Colorado

Dr. Dave Barton, Castle Rock, Colorad

Kathy Welch,Colorado Springs, Colorado

Connie Miller, Kiowa, Colorado

Matt Kaiser, Elizabeth , Colorado

Kelly Kaiser, Elizabeth , Colorado

John Seville -Elizabeth , Colorado

Kathryn Seville – Loveland, Colorado

Natalie Adams, Littleton, Colorado

John Sampson, Strasburg School Board, Colorado

Julie Williams, Jefferson County School Board, Colorado

Rudy Zitti, Fort Collins, Colorado

Elizabeth McManus, Elbert , Colorado

Judith Casey, retired Elementary Principal, 54 yers public Education, Colorado Springs

Heidi Wolfgang, Canon City, Colorado

Jennifer Raiffie, Denver, Colorado

Toni Walker, Loveland, Colorado

Katrina Kochim, Grand Junction, Colorado

Maureen Sielaff, Littleton, Colorado

Cathy Gardino, Falcon, Colorado

Sheila Brown, Arvada, Colorado

Barb Hulet, Olathe, Colorado

Anita Stapleton, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Mike Stapleton, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Angelique Matthews, Colorado Springs

Jack Matthews, Colorado Springs

Stephanie Engel, Milliken, Colorado

Deborah Scheffel, Colorado Board of Education

Senator Vicki Marble, District 23, Colorado

Representative Chris Holbert, District 44, Colorado

Representative Justin Everett, District 22, Colorado

Representative Dan Nordberg, District 14, Colorado

Core Concerns, Northern Colorado

Stop Common Core Colorado

Coloradoans Against Common Core

Parents’ Voice for JeffCo

Northern Colo. Parents Against Common Core

Fremont County RE-1

SchoolReform.CO

Stop Common Core Colorado

Parent Led Reform National

Parent Led Reform Colorado

United Opt Out National

Uniting4Kids

 

First Person

A Chalkbeat roundtable: The promise and perils of charter networks like Success Academy

When we published an essay about the promise and perils of charter schools by our CEO and editor in chief Elizabeth Green last month, we heard from a lot of readers.

Elizabeth’s piece outlined her conclusions after more than a decade of reporting about charter school networks, and more specifically the Success Academy network in New York City. She wrote that charter school networks offer both great advantages — in their ability to provide rare coherence in what is taught across classrooms — and significant danger. Charter networks, she wrote, have changed public education by “extracting it from democracy as we know it.”

Some of our readers saw their own thinking reflected in her conclusions. Others had a very different take.

What was clear was that Elizabeth had kicked off a conversation that many Chalkbeat readers are ready to have, and that, as always, robust and respectful debate is good for everyone’s thinking.

So we reached out to people who engage with big questions about how schools are structured every single day, in their work or personal lives. Today, we’re sharing what they had to say. But we think this is far from the end of the conversation. If you want to add your voice, let us know.

 
 

 

Charter networks’ needs and goals may not be the community’s

By Tim Ware, former executive director of the Achievement Schools managed by the Tennessee Department of Education and founder of Ware Consulting Group

As the founder and former executive director of a high performing public charter middle school in Memphis, Tennessee, I am a firm believer in the promise of well-run charter schools. I also understand the limits of these schools.

A key aspect of public charter legislation is autonomy. This means that public charters decide how to staff their schools, which curriculum to use, how to allocate resources for student support, and how their daily and summer schedules work. However, this legislated autonomy creates issues that thoughtful policymakers need to address.

For instance, in Memphis, a high-performing public charter network began operating a chronically underperforming middle school as a part of a turnaround intervention effort. Despite significant improvements in learning and school culture, as well as the support of the community, the school grappled with dwindling enrollment and suffocating building maintenance costs. Fewer dollars were available to invest in high quality teaching and learning, social-emotional supports, and extracurricular activities. Ultimately, the charter operator made the difficult decision to cease operating the school.

This example illustrates the limits of public charter schools. The same autonomy that allowed them to create an approach that drove improvement for children also allowed them to decide that they could no longer operate the school. This means that, as long as autonomy exists for public charter schools (and it should), we cannot eliminate traditional districts.

The solution for historically underserved communities will be found by creating strong ecosystems of education. These ecosystems should consist of a healthy mix of traditional schools, optional schools (schools with competitive entry requirements), magnet schools, public charter schools, and private schools. By ensuring that multiple types of schools flourish and are accessible to all, parents will be able to make informed choices and select a school which best meets the needs of their most precious belonging — their child.

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Focusing on charter networks is a mistake. Districts have the same potential

By Josh Thomases, dean of innovation, policy, and research at Bank Street College of Education

Elizabeth Green’s article on Eva Moskowitz misses one important detail – districts have successfully scaled change for students. In this era of attacks on government, it is worth looking closer.

The hundreds of new small high schools opened in New York City between 2000 and 2012 transformed thousands of lives. The research firm MDRC documented that impact, showing a 9.4 percent increased graduation rate and an 8 percent increase in college attendance. Notably, this increase was driven by success with groups that school systems often fail: poorer students, black students, and students with disabilities.

This extraordinary effort happened with district educators and unions, public resources and processes.

I saw this reform inside and out. I helped create a small school in the 1990s and was part of community protests against some of the initial school closures under Chancellor Joel Klein. And, in 2004, I became responsible for the development and support of new schools within the education department.

The new schools work was an example of democracy in action – with all its imperfections. There were legendary protests against the Department of Education and arguments over race, equity and power. And through all of that, the process transformed schools.

Why the success?

  1. The point was to improve teaching and learning. Everything was looked at through this lens.
  2. Educators were the agents of change. The new schools process challenged principals, teachers, community members and parents to reimagine school.
  3. External partners multiplied the power of the changes. These included school development organizations (such as New Visions and CUNY) and local partners ranging from the Brooklyn Cyclones and South Bronx Churches. For the first six years of the reform, the unions were a partner, too.
  4. The district shifted authority towards the principal and school based staff in key areas: hiring, scheduling, budgets, and curriculum.

This is not a story of perfect success; as a district, we made mistakes and they were debated publicly. But the results show that districts can take bold action to change what is happening in schools.

Charters in New York have also demonstrated they can make an important contribution to a district. The task ahead is not to forego government, but to activate its strengths.

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Charter networks are a laboratory for consistent and high-quality instruction

By Seneca Rosenberg, chief academic officer at Valor Collegiate Academies in Nashville, Tennessee

My first year in the classroom, I desperately wanted to be the teacher my fourth graders deserved. A diligent student, I carefully examined California’s standards, the curriculum my district had adopted, new research, and popular trade books. I quickly saw that the approaches they outlined — for how to teach reading, for example — were often in direct conflict.

Veteran teachers advised: have your students fill out the mandated worksheets to avoid scrutiny, then close your door and teach as you want. This would have been good advice if only I had known what to do behind that door to help my students to learn.

Now, as chief academic officer of Valor Collegiate Academies, a small charter school network in Nashville, I reflect daily on how our autonomy and network structure provide crucial, and often unremarked upon, resources for developing coherent systems of teaching and learning.

Like other charter networks, Valor has the flexibility to set our educational vision and then organize our own curriculum, assessments, hiring policies, student and teacher schedules, and culture to realize it. Many of our teachers and school leaders report that our shared systems, while demanding, buffer them from some of the stress that comes with making sense of dissonant policies and practices they more regularly encountered in traditional public schools.

Even more importantly, our infrastructure provides our teachers and leaders with a common framework around which expertise can be developed, shared, and improved.

For example, at Valor, our teaching teams meet frequently to study and plan from our students’ work. We have shared protocols for data analysis and teacher coaching. Each piece has been intentionally developed as part of a system. As a result, teachers have opportunities to learn that far exceed anything I had access to as a teacher — and our students benefit.

I share some of Elizabeth Green’s ambivalence about the potential impact of the rise of charters nationally, though she inflates the extent to which charters “extract” public education from democratic control — at least in states in which authorizing laws are well crafted. I am also skeptical of Moskowitz’s suggestion that perhaps “a public school system consisting principally of charter schools would be an improvement.”

But charter networks’ unique conditions do provide a useful laboratory. Critics who dismiss our high-performing charter networks’ many successes risk missing what we are learning from this critical innovation — coherent instructional systems — and how that might contribute to new possibilities for American education.

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In my city, no schools have it figured out

By Bernita Bradley, parent advocate and blogger at Detroit School Talk (and a Chalkbeat Reader Advisory Board Member)

Take all kids out of charter schools, they say. Close them down and require those students to attend their closest public school, no matter how far, how full the classrooms, and how low-performing. Hop on a bus more than 25 minutes to attend the closest high school near you and sit at the back of the class on the floor. After all, public schools were perfect before charter schools came along, and in order for them to be perfect again, we need everyone on board.

Don’t talk bad about public schools, they say. Don’t draw attention to the fact that we are still figuring out how to improve public schools and need your help. The city of Detroit must unite, be of one mind, and let all charter school leaders know that we are only supporting traditional public schools.

These arguments won’t work. I fight for quality public schools and fought for us to not lose more of them. However, if you strip parents of choice, you prove that you are not committed to providing children with what they need.

To be clear, I am an advocate for both sides. Parents don’t care about this war — we just want good schools that will educate all children equally. Can we have that conversation?

Let’s tell the truth about how, here in Detroit, both sides cherry-pick students and “counsel out” parents. Public schools just suspend students indefinitely until parents leave to find a charter school. Let’s tell the truth about how teaching to the test has affected both charter and public school teachers’ ability to make sure student academic growth is more robust.

Both sides could do better. My children have attended both kinds of schools. I’ve bused my kids 15 miles away. I’ve sent my kids to the top charter and public schools in the city. And no one — including charter schools — has this figured out.

I can’t think of a person would say they are totally happy with their child’s educational experience here in Detroit. We have come to the point where, while we’ve made friends in both charters and public schools, this is a journey full of struggles and broken promises that we would not wish on any parent.

Believe me, if we had our way there would be no need to choose. The school on the corner would be full and alive with students, parents, and teachers who have one common goal, to educate all kids.

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The rise of networks hurts the charter movement

By Steve Zimmerman, Coalition of Community Charter Schools

In the ongoing saga of Eva Moskowitz and her war against the the educational status quo, two key issues are overlooked. The first is that the rise of Success Academy has come at significant cost to the charter school movement and the democratic values that were at its genesis.

The rigidly top-down managerial approach of the Success network is the antithesis of the original idea of chartering: to free schools from district-imposed conformity so they have autonomy to innovate. There is no autonomy or innovation in a franchise. Franchisees follow the script.

The second issue is that Success Academy schools, for all intents and purposes, turn teachers into technicians. They are trained in a rigid model of classroom management with a relentless focus on student outcomes. As Elizabeth Green and others point out, the effectiveness of this system, at least in terms of test scores, is well documented and ostensibly justifies the orthodoxy of “no excuses” education reform.

Relentlessness, however, comes at a cost. Just as legendary as its record-high test scores is Success Academy’s teacher attrition. Success Academy appears to welcome an increasing number of bright young people to learn and execute the scripts, and then watch as they move on to their real careers after they burn out in three years. The consequences of this trend are chilling to imagine.

If we believe the purpose of public education to be the development of exceptional test takers, then Eva Moskowitz has clearly pointed the way to the promised land. If, however, we believe the purpose is the betterment of society and the development of the whole child, there are better models to emulate.

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Coherence is important, but charter networks aren’t necessary to achieve it

Andy Snyder, social studies teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City

Who should decide what students learn in school? Families or individual teachers? District and charter school leaders, elected officials, or panels of professors?

Elizabeth Green’s recent essay focuses our attention on this huge question. She points out that many other countries provide “a clear sense of what students need to learn, the basic materials necessary to help them learn it (such as a curriculum).” And she argues that some charter school networks, enabled by their anti-democratic powers, are developing coherent and meaningful ideas of what to prioritize and how to teach it well.

When I began student teaching, I was shown stacks of textbooks and boxes of transparencies, quizzes, tests, homework — corporate-branded, filled with facts, empty of meaning. I switched to another mentor and recreated the trial of John Brown. Later I left one innovative public school where administrators were attempting to bend my courses into more traditional shapes for another where the interview includes, “Describe a dream course that you would love to teach” and where we teach those courses every day.

But I’ve seen in Germany the effects of a thoughtful curriculum — classes connect between disciplines and spiral powerfully between grades, and teachers adapt rather than invent.  Improvised individual efforts often produce a worse result than a strong system. That’s why I commute in New York by subway, not bicycle.

The systemic approach can break down too. Today we curse the defunding of our transit agency, and we saw what happened to the Common Core. How can charter schools develop truly excellent curriculum when their priority seems to be preparing students to win against bad bubble tests?

Students, no matter what kind of school they attend, deserve lessons crafted by well-trained practitioners who draw from the best ideas of the profession.

In the best future I can imagine, each school or district adapts curriculum from one of several coherent curriculum packages developed over years with millions of dollars and genius and honest sweat. Teachers trained in that tradition lead students in cultivating the deep questions and necessary knowledge, and students graduate with a sense of how it all adds up and what they can bring with them into the world.

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First Person

I’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.