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.

From Proficiency to Mastery

Earlier this year, EdSec Betsy DeVos caught a great deal of flak for not acknowledging the difference between proficiency and progress when it comes to student learning. But with her remarks earlier this month, she may have changed the discussion by shifting the debate to one on mastery. 

Over on BAM! Radio Network, we examine this development on the latest edition of #TrumpED. Give it a listen!

A Few Future-Looking Qs for DeVos

As Washington and the education community gear up for Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearings to become the next EdSec, over at BAM Radio Network I explore a few areas we really should look into, but likely won’t.

Sure, we could spend the entire hearing discussion past actions on charter schools, vouchers, reform advocacy, and reform dollars. But rather than just talking the past, what if we actually explored the future and how the U.S. Department of Education can impact the entire education community.

The nation needs a clear vision of accountability, teacher preparation, modes of learning and expectations for all. Now seems like as good a time as any to start asking. Give it a listen here. You won’t be disappointed.

Revisiting Four Key EduConcerns for a New Presidential Administration

Back in January, Eduflack wrote for Education Post on the four key education concerns the few dozen folks seeking the presidency need to consider. More than 10 months later, these four issues were barely touched in the 2016 campaign at almost every level. But they remain essential, particularly as President-elect Trump begins to shape his education policy and chooses a leader to head his U.S. Department of Education.

The four areas I continue to hope we focus on include:

  1. The proper federal/state role when it comes to education policy;
  2. 21st century education and real 21st century learning;
  3. Accountability, and how to effectively hold education institutions, particularly colleges and universities, accountable; and
  4. The future of teacher education.

In each of these areas, I pose a number of questions that we must consider. Each question was relevant at the start of the calendar year. Each is relevant today. And each will be even more relevant at the start of a new administration and a new Congress.

I just hope someone (or someones) is starting to explore answers and responses.

 

 

Finding Value in VAM 2.0

Sure, we’ve all heard about the shortcomings in teacher evaluation systems, particularly when it comes to using value-added measures in the mix. Some states have pulled back fro using VAM for the time being, while others are exploring excluding the process for the long term.

But there is real value in factoring in VAM scores … if we improve the methods by which we collect and apply those VAM numbers, writes Woodrow Wilson Foundation President Arthur Levine in a new commentary for Education Post. As Levine, the president emeritus of Teachers College Columbia University, notes:

In order to determine teacher effectiveness in the years ahead, we need to supplement VAM scores with other measures of student growth, further develop state data systems on student achievement, and create more advanced and sensitive 2.0 versions of VAM assessment.

We need to apply what has been learned and develop a next-generation VAM that will help strengthen teaching and learning for the nation’s children.

In pointing out some of the specific problems with VAM 1.0 — lessons Levine learned by using it to evaluate the success of his own Teaching Fellowship program at the Woodrow Wilson Foundation — he offers some specific lessons for both why and how VAM can be improved to be useful and fair.

It’s definitely worth the read. While some are quick to get rid of VAM entirely, we know that it will ultimately be replaced by something else. It makes far more sense to take the lessons learned today to improve the existing model for tomorrow, rather than repeating current mistakes.

Give the piece a read. You won’t be disappointed.

 

 

On #EdData, It Is Time to Act

I’ll proudly admit it. Eduflack is a strong advocate for data in the learning process. I make no apologies for believing that we need good research and data to determine how effective teaching and learning actually is. Without such data, we are just wishin’, hopin’, and prayin’ that we are getting it right.

Our kids deserve more than just a wish and a prayer. When it comes to their educations, we need to both trust and verify. And education data is the only way to do that.

Of course, that means educators, parents, policymakers, and others in the mix must be able to distinguish between good data collection and lousy. It means ensuring that, if data is collected, it is promptly provided to teachers so they can use it to improve teaching and learning in their classrooms. And it means eliminating those tests that are simply done to check a box, without linking back to our students and their demonstrated knowledge.

The topic of #eddata is usually (one of) the third rails of education policy. For many, assessment is the third circle of Dante’s inferno. They preach of how testing (and the data coming from it) is destroying our schools, stressing out our kids, and stripping the joy of learning from our classrooms. It is also seen as the guillotine in a results-oriented system, used to punish schools, teachers, and kids who are not where we want them to be.

In the battle for edu-hearts and minds, such a false narrative can be incredibly powerful. It can lead parents and educators to forget that data has always been an important part of our K-12 system, and that while specific tests may come and go, not testing our kids just isn’t an option. And it ignores the truth that teachers speak each and every day, that they need data to effectively lead their classrooms, and the question should be what data is collected and how are we assessing student learning (not if we assess it at all).

For the past decade, the Data Quality Campaign has worked across the country to address the false narrative and help policymakers and educators see the importance of educational data quality (thus the name). Because of their work, we see states that have created incredibly strong data systems focused on the learner. We are seeing policymakers and leaders asking the right questions when it comes to data and accountability. And we are seeing where good data is improving instruction, particularly for those communities that need it the most.

Earlier this week, DQC launched an important new report and all to action, Time to Act: Making Data Work for Students. In Time to Act, DQC lays out four key priorities when it comes to ed data:

  • Measure What Matters: Be clear about what students must achieve and have the data to ensure that all students are on track to succeed.
  • „ Make Data Use Possible: Provide teachers and leaders the flexibility, training, and support they need to answer their questions and take action.
  • „ Be Transparent and Earn Trust: Ensure that every community understands how its schools and students are doing, why data is valuable, and how it is protected and used.
  • „ Guarantee Access and Protect Privacy: Provide teachers and parents timely information on their students and make sure it is kept safe.

In issuing this important call, DQC President Aimee Guidera noted that education data should be seen as a flashlight to guide teaching and learning, not as a punitive hammer for teachers and students. As correct as Guidera is, I propose we take it a step further. Ultimately, ed data needs to be our Bat signal (of course the good, Michael Keaton kind, not the Ben Affleck model), one that we signals when we need help and one that makes clear to the community at large that we are watching over those who need our help. That even in dark hours, there is an incredible collection of tools and data and commitment available on the edu-utility belt to help all those who need it.

No, are schools are no longer waiting for Superman. Batman has taught us the right tools can turn a regular guy into a superhero. When that ed data light is shown in the right way, it can illuminate the path to help all educators and kids succeed. We need to make sure that that light is as strong as possible, equipping all educators with the tools to be the superheroes they are.