Really!?! You’re Going to Make Me Defend PARCC Again?

I really didn’t want to spend this week defending PARCC tests, but the universe is working against dear ol’ Eduflack. Yet again, I’m forced to take up rhetorical arms against those who either fail to understand, or choose to prey on, concerns regarding the Common Core and the assessments used to measure student progress against those standards.

This week, an Eduflack reader shared a screen shot of a recent web page. The below was created for parents in a highly resourced, high-performing school district. It was shared as one would share promotional materials for the latest summer camp or child social activity. And it preys on the helicopter parents’ worst fears.

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Yep, its time to send your little ones to “PARCC Preparation Camp.” Over the course of a month and a half, your child can spend their summer days in test prep, preparing for an assessment that one is not supposed to do test prep for. You can drill and be told those areas where you need to purchase additional tutoring because the schools clearly aren’t cutting it. And I’m not even sure what you are getting when your 12-year old will receive “all guidance regarding writing PARCC tests,” but clearly that is important (it is the second selling point in a list of just four!).

And one enhances the offerings by highlighting to a STEM-obsessed parent community that additional tutoring in robotics and coding is also available. That makes it a downright party!

This is why we just can’t have nice things in the education community.

One would be hard pressed to find a parent who wouldn’t seek to give his or her child every possible help available when it comes to school. We are constantly inundated with television ads for the latest tutoring services, as for-profit companies pledge to turn the most struggling of learners into a future Nobel laureate. We purchase the latest technology, buy the latest software and apps, all in the name of giving our kids a leg up. As parents, one of our jobs is to ensure our kids are getting the best educations possible. We use the resources we have to do the best we can at that job.

But when companies are taking advantage of that parental concern — and playing up community concerns around a specific test or particular instructional content — it just makes the blood boil.

And it is should come as no surprise that such ads are populating parents’ social media at a time when the local community started to learn that the PARCC test is being used to determine whether middle schoolers get into the gifted math classes sought by so many parents. Now, if your kid doesn’t get into the math class necessary to create the next Google or Bitcoin, it is your fault as a parent for not sending them to PARCC camp when you could. (And don’t even get me started on the PARCC test prep books that are now available. I can even find them that are specific to the “New Jersey PARCC.”)

As parents, we need to do a far better job of educating ourselves on teaching and learning. Assessments like PARCC are not tests that one should be doing test prep for. They are tests meant to serve as a milestone for how the student is doing. Is my kid at a proficient level, compared with other fifth graders across the country? If not, I need to be talking to the teachers and the schools to understand where the deficiencies may be and address them appropriately and in partnership with the teacher. It isn’t a time to enroll my kid in PARCC boot camp or have them take the walk of PARCC shame.

Sadly, a great number of parents will likely sign up for this camp, and others like it across the country. They will believe these strip-mall tutors will have the cryptex necessary to crack the PARCC code, win the game, get into the Ivy League, and become the smartest, most successful person in the history of persons. Even more sad, parents will credit PARCC gains to test prep and their foresight, not to the hard work of the teacher throughout the academic year.

Or they could just have their kids do some independent reading over the summer. And play outside. And identify, develop, and pursue some of their passions during the summer months.

P.T. Barnum allegedly claimed there was a sucker born every minute. Imagine what he would have said seeing test prep outfits take advantage of parent concerns over testing and the school achievement of their kids.

What We Have Here Is a Failure in Parent Communication

Last week, when announcing his incoming secretary of education, new New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy noted his intentions to “stop using PARCC tests.” The statement was hardly controversial. Across the Garden State, parents have spent the past three years voicing frustrations with the student assessment, reading from the talking points of Common Core and testing opponents.

So when the then governor-elect joined with parent advocates and the teachers unions in calling for the state to “create new, more effective and less class time-intrusive means for measuring student assessment,” it was no surprise that social media lit up in celebration.

Outside of Princeton, in my little Mayberry RFD, parents rejoiced. For days, Facebook has lit up with messages of parents bidding the state test adieu. They celebrated the end of PARCC. They applauded that their kids wouldn’t have to take the weeks-long tests this winter. They cheered going back to the good ol’ days. They thanked the incoming governor for finally taking action. And in doing so, their premature jubilation reveals our failures to adequately engage parents in the policy process and communicate with them on important issues.

So dear ol’ Eduflack spent the weekend being the proverbial skunk at the garden party. Pointing out that the governor’s works have to be translated into legislative action by the New Jersey state legislature. Noting that New Jersey must still administer annual assessments on almost all of its K-12 students, and that PARCC has to be replaced with something else. Highlighting that if the state doesn’t use PARCC or Smarter Balanced, then it would need to pay to develop a similar test that would have to be approved by the federal government. And making clear that, even if such actions were taken this spring, it would be years before our kids would be free from PARCC assessments in the classroom.

Yes, parents across the state and throughout the country are well intended. Yes, they are paying enough attention to the issues that they are able to share anti-testing talking points like the length of tests, the use of technology, and the absence of early childhood experts in test development. But we are doing a great disservice when we only share part of the process – and part of the solution – with families.

One can’t throw a rock in education policy discussions without hitting someone speaking of the importance of family involvement and parental voice in the discussion. Just as we like to declare the Simpson-eque, “what about the children?” in such discussion, so too do we ask where the parents are in the debate.

But too many are selective in how they want that parent voice present. We don’t want them involved in curricular discussions because that is the purview of the educators. We don’t want them to have too much power with regard to school choice, for that should be a decision of policymakers. We don’t want them involved in teacher evaluation, for they are unaware of the challenges and nuances of what happens in a school and classroom.

So we largely welcome parents twice a year to short parent-teacher conferences, we applaud when they show up for PTA meetings and school concerts, and we hope we won’t need to see them otherwise for disciplinary actions. We certainly don’t want them showing up on the school doorstep with their concerns regarding what is happening behind those doors.

Years ago, I was fortunate to collaborate with a group of tremendous researchers, scientists, educators, and parents on the book, Why Kids Can’t Read: Continuing to Challenge the Status Quo in Education. The book was designed to serve as a primer for parents to get involved in improving reading instruction in their kids’ classrooms. By focusing on what the research tells us, what is working in schools, what other parents have dealt with, and what tools can make a successful parent advocate, Why Kids Can’t Read was written to empower parents in their quest for a world-class education for their kids, for all kids.

In writing it, and since in dealing with my own struggles as a special education parent, it is clear we largely don’t want empowered parents in the schools. If we look back through history, there are only a handful of moments where education policy truly changed because of the power of parents. Instead, we prefer to keep parents at arm’s length, giving only the illusion of involvement.

If we are serious about parents as partners in the learning process, we need to figure out how to truly educate them on it. It is insufficient to equip them solely with the talking points found on social media, and then expect them to be active partners in improvement. Better, stronger educational opportunities for our children can only come when parents are better educated on the processes and policies themselves.

Otherwise, parents are simply the proverbial dog chasing the squirrel, reacting to the latest buzzwords and urban legends shared on social media with the same buzzwords and urban legends they heard the week or month before. And that’s no way to improve teaching and learning for our children.

Truth Should Not Be Subjective

In an era of “alternative facts” and opinion masquerading as media, the truth can be a hard thing to find. Over at LinkedIn Pulse, dear ol’ Eduflack writes on how New England Patriots QB Tom Brady’s claims that “everyone has different truths” and the recent analysis that President Donald Trump has made more than 2,000 false or misleading claims since assuming office is incredibly dangerous, particularly for the communications profession.

As I write:

No, truth is no longer evident; truth lies in the eye of the beholder. And that should be unacceptable, particularly for communications professionals. For those of us who deal in information, it becomes essential that we prize truth as our most coveted commodity. We should defend our positions and our organizations with all of the zealousness that our positions allow. But we must do so recognizing we can never, ever lie. There may be elasticity in advocacy or in flacking, but there is none in the base truths on which communications and public engagement is based.

Give it a read. I swear it is all true!

 

Let’s Resolve to Improve Edu-Communications in 2018

Speaking at the University of Baltimore’s commencement last month, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reflected that, “we will do well to first listen, study, ponder, then speak genuinely to engage those with whom we disagree.” She continued, “voices that are quiet at first, grow in strength while those who rush to shout are humbled.”

The start of a new year is often viewed a a time to reset and to offer resolutions that result in improvement. Yes, we can spend our time ranting about what was — or was not done — under the first year of DeVos’ leadership at the U.S. Department of Education, but instead we should take this time to reflect on how we can improve public education. We should use this opportunity to highlight the big ideas that we can speak genuinely about, the ideas that, while they may face fierce disagreement, are ideas that could have real impact.

So instead about mocking the threat of bears or wringing hands over the perceived belief that we continue to privatize and profiteer from public education, let’s put forward some educational resolutions in 2018.

Let us resolve to recognize that learning — and learners — are not homogeneous. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to student learning and achievement. All students come to the classroom with varied skills, knowledge, perspectives, and life experiences. They enter the learning process at different points with different abilities and challenges. Because of this, teaching and learning must be personalized. In 2018, we need to seek out far more ways to ensure that learning is matching the needs of the student, and that teachers are empowered to tailor their teaching to meet the needs of the classroom. To do this, and in recognizing it all can’t be done via technology, we must ensure that all teachers are provided the pre-service and in-service education to deliver such differentiated instruction.

Let us also resolve that the learning environment itself is no long homogeneous. The days of the little red schoolhouse are over. Learning today is a 24-7 environment. Just as we must ensure that our traditional schools are properly resourced and supported, so too must we acknowledge the need to support out-of-school-time learning. Be it in a museum, a community center, a place of worship, or an online environment, what happens outside of school is just as important to the academic development of today’s learner as what happens in the traditional classroom.

Let us resolve to transform pre-service teacher education to meet the needs and opportunities of the classrooms of tomorrow. With each passing year, we ask more and more of our teachers. We look to them to educate, guide, assess, and support. We place greater and greater emphasis on the outcomes of their practice. That means ensuring pathways to preparation that emphasize what they will experience in the classroom, that focus on outcomes and demonstrating that they can apply all that they are taught, and that give them every opportunity to succeed as a teacher from day one. We can’t shortchange teacher education, nor can we expect that the preparation pathways of decades past will still meet the needs of classrooms in 2018.

Let us resolve that school choice is not the magic elixir that will solve all that ails k-12 education. Yes, options are important for families. But we cannot overlook that the vast majority of school-aged kids today attend traditional public schools and will continue to attend them. Our attentions and resources – both financial and human – should be directed proportionally, based on where kids are today.

Let us resolve that a college degree in the liberal arts is not the solution for every child. Yes, postsecondary education is a non-negotiable today. But that education can be found at community colleges. It can be discovered in career and technical education programs. It can be found in STEM and computer science. College is just as much about equipping learners with career skills and opportunities as it is helping them become lifelong learners. We mustn’t let our focus linger on the latter, to the detriment of the former.

And most importantly, in the words of Secretary DeVos, we must resolve to engage those with whom we disagree. As we look to 2018, there are many big ideas on which we can and should be focused. Building the schools and classrooms of tomorrow. Personalizing learning for all, based on both learner interests and needs, and doing so beyond just the computer screen. Expanding our worldview of assessment beyond the summative. Strengthening our educational systems to best serve special education and ELL students. Enhancing career/technical education and STEM offerings to keep up with the ever-changing reality of our digital, Information Age. Real investment in these areas only happens when we are able to break down the walls, and engage in tough yet meaningful dialogues on what our schools, our educators, and our learners need to succeed in the future.

Such dialogue on these essential issues is required if we are to look to the bigger, bolder, dream issues that education can face. How do we empower educators to design the right learning opportunities for all those they are teaching? How do we effectively use assisted and augmented reality offerings to improve the learning process? How do we demonstrate that learning is about mastery and doing, and not just about ticking off items on a prescribed checklist? How do we bring educators and parents together as partners in the learning process? How do we enlighten all those in the process to see the value in high-quality assessments? How do we embrace the notion that standards — whether for teachers or learners — are intended to be floors and not ceilings?

When it comes to education, the new year is one chock full of both challenges and opportunities. Yes, we can muddle through another year, making some incremental gains or slippages, based on the perspective. Or we can acknowledge that we, as a community, agree on far more than we disagree with. Even the most hardened status quoer and the most indignant reformer can and should agree on 75 percent of all that faces education today. It is in that remaining 25 percent that we have our most robust discussions and disagreements.

In that 25 percent, we must heed the advice of the EdSec and speak genuinely and engage on those important topics. No, we won’t agree. We probably shouldn’t agree. But we if disagree in a respectful and thoughtful manner, and continue to have those dialogues over the areas of disagreement, we can move toward a better teachers, better learners, and a stronger educational tapestry for virtually all.

It may seem awfully simplistic, but our big idea for education in 2018 should be improved communication. Our resolutions for the new year should focus on how we improve the substance and depth of our conversations. And our engagements should reflect active listening, where we actually hear those we may disagree with, rather than think about what our next dazzling talking point should be. If we are serious about improving education, the simplicity of communication may be our most effective tool.

(A version of this post appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.)

 

 

I Have Some Problems With You Edu-People

In the spirit of the season, sometimes one just has to embrace their inner Festivus and voice some grievances. This is particularly true as we look back at 2017 to consider what was possible in federal education policy and what was actually accomplished.

Over at TrumpED on the BAM! Radio Network, we explore this important topic, and give voice to the problems we’ve had with the past year. Give it a listen.

Because Fed Ed Isn’t Meant to Be Creative

Earlier this month, the good folks over at Bellwether Education Partners released their review of the state implementation plans for the most recent version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ESSA. In its review, Bellwether found that that the states were largely unimaginative in responding to the new federal mandate. The minds at Bellwether were looking for innovation and the unexpected. Instead, they got what was largely expected.

But isn’t that the point? We’ve seen time and again that the feds aren’t looking or the most unique thinking when looking for state responses. Whether it be No Child Left Behind and Reading First or Race to the Top, we want creativity that isn’t too creative. We want unique thoughts that align with the non-unique checklists of reviewers. We want the what we expect.

Over on dear ol’ Eduflack’s BAM! Radio Network, we take a look at the responses to the state ESSA plans, and how the critics are looking for far more from state ESSA than they should expect.

When it comes down to it, state ESSA plans are meant to serve as a floor, not a ceiling. They are intended to make sure that every state is expending the required minimum effort when it comes to ESSA implementation. It now falls to the field to push them harder, to seek ceilings on what is possible that are always beyond reach.

If we look to bureaucratic responses to formulaic funding plans for innovation, we will always be left disappointed. Maybe it is time to read between the lines at what states might now be able to do.

 

If You Can Read This …

Loyal readers of Eduflack know that I have spent far too much time, in far too many battles, over effective reading instruction. It still baffles me that we even need to have this debate, that parents and educators will fight having research-based literacy instruction in the classroom, instead advocating for a philosophy that doesn’t do a lick actually getting struggling readers reading.

But we do. And we regularly debate the merits of research over philosophy, of hard facts versus soft opinion. Then we wonder why our kids aren’t reading and why we aren’t seeing student achievement improve on virtually every literacy benchmark available to modern man.

The latest such benchmark is the PIRLS, which has now shown the United States to slip significantly, falling all the way down to 13th in the latest international measure of reading skills. It doesn’t need to be this way. It shouldn’t be this way. We know better. We just choose not to apply what is proven effective in the classrooms that need it the most, with the kids who would benefit from it the most.

On the latest episode of my program on the BAM! Radio Network, I take a look at our sad position when it comes to PIRLS and literacy instruction, and call on President Donald Trump to focus on teaching our kids reading … at least if he is serious about making America great again. Give it a listen!