Children Will Learn What We Teach Them

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”

-Albert Einstein

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

-Maya Angelou

I know, without a doubt, that years after being in my class that my students don’t remember the themes of the novels I so diligently taught. They don’t remember the exact words of the comments I wrote obsessively in purple pen all over their essays. But I know they remember feeling like my class was more than just reading and writing some words.

Standards.

Objectives.

Assessments

Data.

Evaluations.

Education in this country has become obsessed with trying to quantify learning. But learning is not an a+b=c kind of endeavor. The answer is not a formula to be derived.

The PARCC test has been heralded as being able to determine if a child is on the track to career and college readiness in as early as the third grade. This test, though abandoned by many states, is driving education in the state of NJ and a few other states late to the discovery that it is actually a poorly designed assessment.

Elementary curriculum continues to be narrowed (since NCLB) to focus solely on reading and math. Math is being narrowed to focus on one methodology of teaching (whether it is right or wrong is not the point). Reading is being narrowed by a focus on informational texts (despite cuts to time spent on history and science) and by an obsession with technology (to simulate the test, students are assigned keyboarding practice and shown video clips daily in lieu of being read to by their teachers).

These shifts may seem minor to the untrained eye, or even a sign of the times where the digital age now rules. But, this cannot be further from the truth.

If all we teach our children in school is to do math a specific way, read certain types of texts and answer certain types of questions, and a handful of technology “skills” like drag and drop, scroll and how to type quickly, then that is what our children will learn. If we drill these things hard enough and long enough, then test them on it….they will pass with flying colors. The problem is that we will be patting ourselves on the back with the same hand that has robbed a generation of a true education.

Training is not education.

Education is imitation borne of admiration.

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Education is exploration.

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Kids doing archaeology in the backyard to find buried objects.

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Kids exploring the Metropolitan Museum of Art after learning about Ancient Egypt.

Education is experience and explanation.

Kids learning about irrigation from a friend who is a farmer.

Kids learning about irrigation from a friend who is a farmer.

Learning about evolution from his Daddy.

Learning about evolution from his Daddy, who is a physician.

Education is hands-on and often messy.

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Education is best shared with a smile.

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When we teach children, we are teaching much more than how to read or write or compute.

We are teaching them how to think, to live, and to love…

Or else we are teaching them not to.

Who Isn’t Refusing the PARCC?

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This image might look familiar to you. Many have been changing their profile picture to show solidarity in the grassroots movement to refuse the high stakes PARCC test. This simple act will empower many to have the courage to compose and submit their refusal letter, even if they feel like they are the only ones in their town. There is power in numbers . This is an easy way to visually show the number of supporters and to increase their reach and power.

The refusal movement is growing and with the PARCC set to start tomorrow, the numbers will only rise. Though many of us have been working tirelessly to get the word out, many parents remain uninformed. Of course there are some who are informed and will choose not to refuse the test for their children.Perhaps they feel that the test is just another test. Or maybe they know their child will do well, and therefore it doesn’t bother them. Or even they may think the test is good practice for life. My goal is not to diminish their reasons, but to point out that their choice is an informed choice.

What about the overwhelming number of parents out there who are just simply not informed or misinformed?

Many school districts across the state have held information nights to present the parents with all of the wonderful benefits of the revolutionary PARCC test. If a parent does not have an education background and has faith in their schools, it would be easy after sitting through such a presentation to feel good about this new test. Who wouldn’t want a test that can really help the teachers and parents understand the needs of their children and get every child to be career and college read? Sounds great! And what’s more modern than a Chromebook? Technology is the way of the future, so why not prepare students for the future?

But let’s face it, the PARCC test, or any test standardized or not, does not have the power to do what supporters claim it can do.

Tests don’t level playing fields. Tests don’t make anyone ready for any career or college. Tests don’t tell parents or teachers what a child needs or doesn’t need. To achieve those goals you need human interaction by way of teaching, listening, conversing, and working.

However the PARCC test has:

  • reduced the amount of time and resources spent on science and social studies in the elementary school.
  • strained local school budgets to allow for the purchase of technology (namely Chromebooks) and PARCC-related training.
  • caused physical damage by requiring students as young as 8 years old to type and stare into computer screens for extended amounts of time.
  • caused anxiety in students and teachers by placing increased stress on testing.
  • caused schools to cancel meaningful and relevant assessments such as midterms and finals in high school and authentic assessments in lower grades.
  • reduced the time teachers have to teach yet increased the amount and pace of learning.
  • given many students an unwarranted feeling of failure.
  • caused schools to cancel field trips.

I could go on, but I won’t. Instead consider that if even half of this is true, then why aren’t droves of parents refusing? Well, if you set aside those who truly are informed and have decided to push ahead with the test, there are many others to consider.

Let’s face it. The most parent participation in school happens at the kindergarten level. Then it slowly tapers off until junior year of high school when parents become worried about the college application process. Perhaps one problem this whole mess has revealed is that the days of just blindly trusting schools to do what is right for our children are over. We all need to be active, informed participants in our schools, even if that means giving up some of the time suckers that we all know and love (Netflix, stupid video games on our phones, Facebook, Pintrest, Instagram, etc.)  Because a distracted populace is one that is easily manipulated.

Secondly, consider the fact that the obsession with high stakes testing started way back in 2001 with the inception of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The majority of schools escaped feeling any pressure because the threshold for achieving Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) was so low. What this means is that if a school had a subgroup population such as special education or Hispanic not meet the required mark, all the school had to do was show that group improved marginally the next year. It became okay that they failed, so long as they just failed a little less. I have sat through presentations where our principal broke down exactly how many kids had to pass to make AYP, and it was shocking how few.

Schools even went so far as to cater to kids who fit into more than one subgroup population (African-American and special education, or low-income and Hispanic) and make sure that they had priority for any special extra help classes.

However, schools in high poverty areas were hit the hardest. They were threatened by state takeovers. Administrators were afraid to lose their jobs, which too often came with lucrative opportunities for easy corruption. Inner city children have been suffering in schools dominated by test preparation for years. Sure the PARCC test takes it to a new level, but the damaging effects of high stakes testing have a long track record in this country.

Where was this movement in 2001, 2005, 2008?

One teacher reached out to me and asked me to write about the kids whose parents have no idea that they can refuse the test. In her diverse elementary class, the kids refusing come from affluent, educated families.The kids in her class from families with low socioeconomic status, uneducated parents, or recent immigrants are left to suffer through the test, while the other half of the class gets to go hang out in the library and read books. The worst part is that the teacher feels pressure not to encourage test refusal, so when the test begins she will have to bite her tongue and watch her lowest performing students suffer through a test that many believe has been proven developmentally inappropriate.

So while we celebrate the success of this grassroots movement, we should remember those children who must suffer through this test not because their parents chose for them to take it or because their teacher thinks it is a good idea. They will do so because their parents are uninformed or misinformed, and once again they will be left behind.

Testing: You Can Refuse, But You Can’t Hide

Reading and math have had a long history of being tested with standardized tests. The classic notion of reading, writing, and arithmetic has been the center of people’s perception of what kids learn at school. But this idea represents a very narrow understanding of what really goes on at school.

Standardized testing usually starts in the third grade. When I first started teaching in Baltimore City, it was a big deal if you were assigned to one of the testing grades (grades 3 and 5 in that K-5 school). If you taught in a tested grade, the pressure for your kids to perform was much greater, especially if your school, like mine, was drastically under-performing and in danger of being taken over by the state.

Also, the more your test scores improved, the more funding the school would receive. (This is particularly important if your principal, like mine, was misusing thousands of state funds for her own personal gain in the form of lavish “professional development” trips and paying friends’ salaries for positions they didn’t actually hold or qualify for.)

But this added pressure of testing was reserved for those teachers teaching the third or fifth grades. The other teachers were left out of the test prep activities and the proctoring of tests. They weren’t held accountable for the test scores at all, as if the third graders hadn’t had to go through K, 1st, and and 2nd grades or the 5th graders hadn’t had a teacher for 4th grade that contributed to their learning as well.

In the middle school, this inequality in testing is even more pronounced. Since teachers teach specific subject areas, even if they switch grades, they can still remain teacher untested students for their entire career. Yet math and reading teachers are doomed to a career dominated by standardized testing. In NJ and many other states, social studies has never had a standardized test and that has led to it being marginalized, particularly in the elementary school.

The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) is increasingly alarmed by the erosion of the importance of social studies in the United States. This erosion, in large part, is a consequence of the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Since the introduction of NCLB, there has been a steady reduction in the amount of time spent in the teaching of social studies, with the most profound decline noticed in the elementary grades. 1In addition, anecdotal information indicates that many American children are receiving little or no formal education in the core social studies disciplines: civics, economics, geography, and history. That such a situation has evolved is untenable in a nation that prides itself on its history, its system of government and its place as a leader in the global community.

By requiring states to measure student achievement in language arts and mathematics and tying school performance reports and financial incentives to testing results, NCLB resulted in the diversion of both funding and class-time away from social studies and other non-tested subjects. The phrase “if it isn’t tested, it isn’t taught” resonates in the American educational community, with significant implications for educational practices and outcomes.

http://www.socialstudies.org/positions/nclbera

A few years ago, science was added to the NJ ASK and science teachers began to feel the pressure that reading and math teachers had been feeling for an eternity. But with the push to tie teacher evaluations to test scores, the standardized testing machine couldn’t stop at adding science. What about social studies, physical education, health, art, music, family and consumer science, keyboarding, and industrial arts? Those subjects had teachers too, and they needed to be evaluated. But how without creating a standardized test for every single subject?

The answer was Student Growth Objectives or SGO’s. SGO’s were based on these teachers making standardized tests of sorts. These tests were developed collaboratively by teachers in the same subject area and/or grade. Benchmark tests are now given twice a year, once in September and again in May or June. They are written, administered, and graded by the teacher. The SGO is based on a goal set by the teacher as to what level of growth they hope to achieve that school year.

So this means that your children are now tested in all areas by test standardized across every discipline taught in school. And it doesn’t even end there.

Teachers of the PARCC tested areas (elementary grades 3-5 and reading and math teachers from then on) are evaluated based on Student Growth Percentiles, which will be calculated using the PARCC data from this year. However those teachers must also develop their own benchmark tests (one or two) to determine an SGO as well. (Where I taught, this was a 200 question multiple choice test developed by teachers.)  So, in reading and math, many students face four tests a year that are not directly tied to their current lessons but rather overall academic achievement goals.

When do the teachers have time to teach? 

Right now, tying teacher evaluations to test scores is new so the percentages may change down the road. But here is the breakdown of how teacher evaluations will be calculated this school year of 2014-2015.

Teachers of PARCC tested areas: 

Teacher Practice 55%  SGO: 15%   mSGP(mean Student Growth Percentile): 30%

Teachers of non PARCC tested areas: 

Teacher Practice 85%  SGO: 15%   mSGP(mean Student Growth Percentile): none

So teachers of students that do not take the PARCC will have 85% of their evaluation based on their lessons and observations. And, the “standardized test” that they give allows them some really nice advantages. They create the test. They administer the test (with none of the oversight and regulations that come with the PARCC test) . They grade the test. They even get to set their own goals for what they want to achieve. Pretty good deal.

Teachers of students who take the PARCC have just barely over half of their effectiveness based on their lessons. 85% vs. 55% is a HUGE difference. Plus they have even less time to teach, because they have to give benchmarks for their SGO’s and take 2 weeks out of instructional time to give the PARCC.

Who in their right mind would want to be a math or reading teacher under these circumstances? If teachers fare poorly under this system, will they be able to find enough desperate, young or naive suckers or altruistic saints to fill their shoes? 

This system is unequal and guarantees a school curriculum dominated by testing. So, send in your refusal letters, I know I will. But don’t fool yourselves. Even if we “Take the PARCC” and it goes down in flames, our children’s education will not be saved.

Testing: You can run, but you can’t hide.

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Common Core Commercials: Who Pays?

A firm believer in limiting screen time, I try my best to follow through. But I do recognize that it is not the root of all evil.

I DVR DWTS and Chopped to indulge on nights when I am not blogging, reading,  or passing out from exhaustion. But all day, I keep the TV off the vast majority of the time. However, my youngest boy is almost 4 and loves the shows Rescue Bots and How It’s Made. How It’s Made is educational, but the Rescue Bot obsession drives me nuts.

The Rescue Bots is a cute show, don’t get me wrong. Not much violence, no guns really, and some funny irony for the parents stuck watching. But my issue isn’t with the show. We can’t get the show On Demand, so we have to DVR it.  That means commercials. I try my best to fast forward, but sometimes it just isn’t possible.

Well today I was in the kitchen washing dishes and heard a commercial for the Common Core. I shut the water off and walked in just in time to see it was sponsored by the Urban League, Comcast and NBCUniversal. I rewatched it, and was so angry by what I saw.

Here are links link to the two ads that ran during that television show:

Put Our Children 1st PSA – Everybody Wins

Put Our Children 1st PSA – Full Potential

The president of the urban league, Marc H. Morial, has an impressive resume as an entrepreneur, lawyer, professor, mayor, CEO…yet he has no experience as a teacher. Having taught for 5 years in the ghettos of Baltimore, Brooklyn, and Newark, I can, without reservation, tell you that he was either paid a whole lot or just simply never stepped foot in an inner city classroom. Even in the suburbs, there is a pervasive divide when it comes to race and socioeconomic status. This divide was not remedied by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and it won’t be by the Common Core either.

How will Common Core be equally implemented in schools overrun by violence, drugs, and gangs? How will Common Core feed all of the children who come to school hungry, sad, angry, or all of the above? How will it fix the segregation in our nation’s schools? Before I taught in the suburbs of NJ, I taught in 3 schools in 3 different states where poverty reigned, and I did not have a single white student.  How will Common Core fix the inequality, corruption, complacency?

Not to mention that when money is tied to test scores, people will cheat. I am not saying they might, I am saying that they WILL. How do I know? Because I have witnessed it with my own eyes. In Baltimore, I had a principal come into MY 3rd grade classroom and make kids erase the wrong answers and fill in the right ones.

In Brooklyn, I had a test booklet from the previous year slipped onto my desk after school hours with instructions for me to review it with my students days before the test. That test booklet had more than 50% of the same questions on the test my students took. The testing companies repeat questions from year to year, therefore usually they only release tests that are already 5 years old. I never found out where that test booklet came from, but all of the teachers in the grade received one on the same day in the same way. Thankfully and by sheer luck, I ignored the note and decided that my kids did not need anymore practice. But during the test my classroom phone rang and a fellow colleague was terrified because his students recognized the questions and accused him of cheating.

This is the dirty side of education. The one most people don’t hear about. But I can assure you, that I have no hidden agenda. I just want the empty promises that these commercials promise to be true. That’s why they make me so angry.

Comcast and NBCUniversal won’t sponsor my message….because the truths I speak simply don’t make anyone money.