A Failure to CCSS Communicate?

The Eduflack family lives in a PARCC state. For months, we have heard from our school district about preparing for the upcoming PARCC assessment. This has been a particularly “interesting” time for our house, as it will be the first time one of the edu-kiddos is slated to take a state exam.

In recent weeks, the talk shifted to the edu-son and his plans to take two rounds of PARCC tests this spring. The first will begin in just a few short weeks, and will run through much of March. The second round will come a month or so after completing the first round.

When dear ol’ Eduflack inquired about why the two rounds for a third-grader, he got the most curious of answers. Yes, I am aware that the PARCC test is intended to be offered in two parts, the first being the performance-based component and the second being the end-of-year component. As I understand it, it is two parts to the same exam. Part one looks at “critical-thinking, reasoning and application skills through extended tasks such as reading an excerpt from a book and writing about it.” Part two is designed to “measure concepts and skills.”

But that wasn’t the explanation we received, and I’m guessing it isn’t what our district is telling other parents who may not know better. Instead, the line was “PARCC is both a formative and summative test, so we offer the formative in March and then the summative in late April.”

Granted, I’m no psychometrician, but I’m not quite sure that’s how formative and summative assessments are supposed to work, at least not in the primary grades. And if it is, I don’t see how any schools or classes are going to show student learning outcome gains on a summative test just a few weeks after benchmarking with the formative.

And it should be no surprise that, as we have these confusions on assessment types, that the state teachers’ union is running TV spots on how horrible testing is and how there is nothing a test can tell a parent that a teacher can’t already relay.

To borrow from Cool Hand Luke, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate. Earlier this week, The Washington Post reported on significant parent misperceptions about Common Core State Standards, particularly with regard to the content and subjects covered by the standards. But we have also seen a major assault against the standards because of the tests, with attacks coming on amount of testing time, stress of the test, technology issues, and all points in between. And it is the assault on assessment that has really chipped away at CCSS over the past several years.

Today’s example is just another one of how misperceptions–or lack of understanding–continue to hurt what are intended to be standard instructional guidelines in English and math. It gives one more thing to blame CCSS for, and one more reason to buy into the “over tested, over stressed” argument.

Instead, we should be taking opportunities to educate parents (and teachers and policymakers and just about everyone) on the different types of tests. What are the benefits of a formative assessment versus an interim versus a summative? How are they different? How can we tell when any one of the three is of high quality (as PARCC seems to be) and how can we decide when a test is just crap? And how do we ensure teachers and parents get test data in quick turnaround so it can be used to improve the teaching and learning process?

Until we address these types of questions, it will remain open season on testing in general, and CCSS assessments in particular. And until we ensure high-quality assessments focused on student learning, real efforts to improve public schools and ensure students are college and career ready will struggle to gain the hold they need to succeed.

How About Those Edu-Elections?

If anything, yesterday’s midterm elections were entertaining. We saw incumbents defeated. We saw incumbents previously left for dead winning big. We saw darkhorses win in the end. We races long written off come in within recount range. For those without a vested interest in a specific candidate, it was a heckuva night.

While yesterday’s results will be deconstructed ad naseum in the coming days and weeks, let’s take a look at some of the edu-implications.

The Power of Teachers’ Unions

It was the best of times and worst of times for the teachers’ unions. Teachers were able to start the night by crowing loudly about Tom Wolf’s win for the Pennsylvania governorship, knocking off an incumbent Republican governor who had slashed state education spending and sought to cancel out teacher contracts in Philadelphia. The unions also got to wrap up Election Day wit a big win, as Tom Torlakson was re-elected as state superintendent for public instruction in California, turning back reformer-backed Marshall Tuck. (And we will set aside the fact that the job has very little actual power in California education, with the real strength lying with the state board of education).

But what happened in between will have many people questioning the political power of the teachers’ unions. AFT and NEA put major dollars and major GOTV muscle into taking the governorships in states like Wisconsin, Illinois, Florida, Georgia, and Colorado. All went Republican. Strong union support couldn’t even help true-blue states like Massachusetts and Maryland elect Democratic (presumably pro-union, pro-teacher) governors.

Those Dems that did win the big chairs have some “history” with the teachers’ unions. In Connecticut, Dannel Malloy barely won re-election, and likely owes his win to teachers after just two years seeking to eliminate teacher tenure. In Rhode Island, Dem Gina Raimondo won the race, largely because she took on unions as part of a pension reform push she led.

Put all together, and the unions had limited impact in statewide elections, particularly in those states they targeted.

The Role of Ed Reformers

Yes, the AFT and NEA had a rough night. But it wasn’t all rainbows and lollipops for education reformers either. They lost their biggest prize of the evening when Torlakson beat Tuck in Cali. Reformers only won half the prize they sought with a big spend in the Minneapolis school board race.

Ed reform Dem governors like CT’s Malloy and NY’s Andrew Cuomo only won by seeking to reframe or rewrite their past support for reforms, as Cuomo practically came out as anti-CCSS.

In fact, reformers seemed most proud by Raimondo’s win, believing pension reform is a sure path to more education reform.

While much of the edreform community tends to focus on Democratic reformers, it was a good night for GOP edreformers. NM Gov. Susana Martinez., MA Gov.-elect Charlie Baker, and GA Gov. Nathan Deal to name but a few.

Common Core Impact

When it comes to the political impact of Common Core, support of opposition seemed to be neither help nor hindrance. The Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli says that half the Republican governors are pro-Common Core. For those like Ohio’s John Kasich, such support didn’t hurt him at all. School Reform News reported that nine of the 10 GOP govs up for re-elect yesterday were against Common Core. For those like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker or Florida’s Rick Scott, opposition to the Core helped. (Though I have to question School Reform News’ math, as with OH’s Kasich and NM’s Martinez, I already have two of the 10 GOP govs pro-CCSS, without adding voices like NV’s Sandoval and GA’s Deal.)

Those Pesky Statehouses

Over the weekend, John Oliver ranted about how few were paying attention to state legislature elections. And he is absolutely right. For education, that’s where the action will be, from CCSS to testing, from teacher evaluations to school funding. We still need to wait for the dust to settle, but the initial returns seem to show that GOP governors will have more supportive legislatures behind them, while Dem governors will have a few less supporters on their benches. Issue coalitions may very well win the day in state capitals, particularly on issues such as education.

No doubt there is more to come. The one thing we know with certainty? With Sen. Lamar Alexander taking over as chairman of the Senate Education Committee, it is safe to say we have a Senate chairman who, as a former gov, former EdSec and former university president, knows a thing or two about the issue of education.

The New PDK Survey Is Here, The New PDK Survey Is Here

In the immortal words of Steve Martin from the movie, The Jerk, “The new phone books are here! The new phone books are here!” Only instead of talking the latest white and yellow pages, where the inclusion of our name shows we are somebody, we are talking about this year’s PDK/Gallup Poll, which validates all we’ve been thinking, hearing, and saying these past 12 months on the shifts in public education.

What do this year’s results tell us? A quick sampling:

  • Overall, only slightly more than a quarter surveyed (27%) give President Obama a grade of “A” or “B” for his performance in support of public schools. That’s down nearly 15 points from three years ago.
  • We have more fait in our local school systems. Half gave their local schools an “A” or a “B.” But when asked about our nation’s schools as a whole, only 17% give similar grades to ‘Merica.
  • As we hear more about the “federal role” in education, the public is starting to absorb it. More than half (56%) said their local school board should have the greatest influence on what is being taught (a big surprise to this former school board chairman who found that the vast majority wanted the school board out of such decisions, and to just focus on the basics like funding). Only 15% though the federal government should have the most influence (and we would ask who actually thinks the feds have much influence at all, let alone the most, on what happens in our local schools.)
  • More than half (54%) do not think standardized tests are helpful to teachers (though I am guessing they are talking about high-stakes, summative tests, and not the formative or interim assessments that even teachers say they want).
  • On the controversial issue of Common Core State Standards, 81% of those surveyed have heard of CCSS, up from about two-thirds last year. And six in 10 say they oppose CCSS. The biggest reason? Standards limit the flexibility of teachers ot teach what they think is best (not the testing issue we hear so much about).
  • And in those further depressing stats, only 30% were familiar with PISA. Only half believe that American students perform below the level of other students around the globe.

What do we take away from all of this? To be kind, we don’t know what we don’t know. Public school performance and President Obama’s education positions have been relatively unchanged in recent years, yet we see huge swings in what we think of both of those today. At a time when most school board meetings go unattended and few can even name who sits on their local board of ed, we now place the greatest trust (and presumed power) in the hands of those unsung officials. We lack an understanding of assessment literacy, and are now equating everything we’ve heard about “high-stakes testing” to anything that bears the name “test.”

And let’s not forget that, while we may have these positions, they still aren’t strong enough for us to act on them. Education policy remains one of those issues that we are all concerned with, until it is time to head into the voting places. We may believe our nation’s schools are headed into the crapper, but we still elect the same federal, state, and local policymakers to oversee those schools. And while we may be concerned about teachers not being able to teach what they think is best under CCSS, other surveys show we are enthusiastic in taking away their tenure and job protections, the very things that may allow them the power to actually do what they think is best in the classroom.

Yet the PDK poll is an important measure for understanding the populace’s temperature on these issues. While we are unlikely to act on them, we are seeing a steady shift that shows we are more cynical when it comes to public education in the United States. We are lest trusting. We remain fairly uninformed. And we seem content in carrying on as is.

Sigh …


Is Education a “Top” U.S. Issue?

Today, Gallup came out with its latest public opinion poll on the top problems in the United States. It should come as no surprise that dissatisfaction with government was at the top of the list. Whether frustrated with a do-nothing Congress, an overreaching president, or general frustration with Big Brother telling us what to do, Americans speak loud and clear that they are frustrated with government. (Of course, they are coming at it from all sides, so there is no clear fix.)

Immigration is a close second, with the economy coming in third. All of the issues we would expect to see at the top of the list for our citizenry’s general frustration.

So where is education on the list? Surely with all of the national fights over testing and Common Core and teacher tenure and everything else that is keeping edu-minded Americans up at night, concerns about our educational systems must be right up there, right?

Uh, not quite. Education comes in with a thud at number nine. It follows poverty and comes in just above the national debt. Where 18 percent of Americans say government is our top concern, and 15 percent say it is immigration, a whopping 4 percent say it is education. And that is now down a percentage point (or 20%) from last month.

Should this surprise us? No. For decades now, we’ve long realized that education is not a ballot box issue. Sure, we are all concerned about education, but it isn’t an issue that is make/break for us. We care, but not before we care about six or eight other issues first.

What do we do about this? First, we need to recognize that while many of us live in the edu-bubble, the vast majority of Americans do not.

Second, we need to be mindful of how education ties into the topics that are driving concern. Concerns about government? We see that extended in frustrations with everyone from EdSec Arne Duncan to local superintendents and principals. Immigration a concern? Especially as it relates to those kids who are stuck at the border, looking for a better life and opportunity that begins with access to our public schools. Economy a worry? How does that crosswalk with grad rates and STEM and higher education in general?

The short story is that education does not live in its own silo. It permeates each and every topic of discussion and concern that we have. If we treat “education” solely with a neat little k-12 or higher education label, we miss the bigger picture. And we lose the opportunity to draw attention to both the concerns and the solutions.

I yield the soapbox …


Parent Survey (or Statistics are Dangerous)

We began the week reflecting on an AP poll on parent sentiments about public education.  As we roll into hump day, we now have the 2013 edition of the Gallup/PDK poll of “what Americans said about the public schools.

This year’s Gallup/PDK highlights:
* As we’ve heard for decades, most Americans give the public schools a “C” grade, but give their own schools an “A” or “B”
* 62 percent of parents have never heard of Common Core State Standards
* 36 percent believe increased testing has hurt school performance, 22 percent say it has helped, and 41 percent said it makes no diff at all
* 58 percent oppose using standardized test scores in teacher evals, up from 47 percent in last year’s survey
* 52 percent said teachers have a right to strike (yes, that really is a question PDK asked)
* 88 percent say their child is safe when they are in school
* 66 percent favor educating children whose parents are in the United States illegally
* Only 29 percent favor sending kids to private schools at public school expense
Overall, the survey results aren’t that big a surprise.  They seem to jive with what PDK reports annually in this survey, and they aren’t too big a deviation from what AP released earlier in the week.
What’s disappointing is how PDK decided to present this year.  One would think that a semi-intelligent human being could take a look at polling toplines and understand that when only 22 percent say high stakes testing helps school performance, the majority doesn’t believe it to be so.  Unfortunately, PDK dumbed it down a step further, putting out a “highlights” document that makes sweeping statements without providing any statistical backup,  While one can track down the supports, it is definitely a dangerous document in the hands of the wrong folks.
Some of these self-proclaimed “highlights include:
  • Common Core – “Most Americans don’t know about the Common Core and those who do don’t understand it.”
  • Standardized Tests – “The significant increase in testing in the past decade has either hurt or made no difference in improving schools.”
  • Charter Schools – “Charter schools probably offer a better education than traditional schools.”
  • Online Learning – “High school students should be able to earn college credits via the Internet while attending high school.”
  • Biggest Problem – “Lack of financial support continues to be the biggest problem facing public schools.”
Let’s just take the last item.  Per-pupil public school funding is at its highest rates ever in the history of United States public education.  Do we honestly believe that is the biggest problem facing the schools?  More so than the obscene achievement gap?  More so than a third of all fourth graders unable to read on grade level?  More so than our inability to address the needs of a growing ELL population in our classrooms?  More so than ensuring that good teachers remain in the classroom and get the support and respect they need?
They again, sometimes poll results are just poll results.  But looking at the latest PDK release, Eduflack is left with two thoughts.
“A little information is a dangerous thing.” Albert Einstein
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Mark Twain

High Stakes? We Laugh at High Stakes

Despite the tall tales told by some about parents opting their children out of standardized tests en masse and folks marching by the millions against “high-stakes tests,” it appears that the average American parent is just fine with the amount of summative tests given to their sons and daughters.

According to a new Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll, we all seem to be OK with those high-stakes tests and the frequency with which they are offered.  According to the survey:
  • 61% of parents think their children “take an appropriate number of tests,” compared to 26% who think there are too many
  • 72% want to make it easier to fire teachers who aren’t performing (with 56% saying classroom observation should be part of teacher evals)
  • 75% believe standardized tests are a solid measure of student abilities, with 69% saying it is a good measure of schools’ quality
  • 93% say standardized tests should be used to identify where students need extra help
And interestingly, for all of our hand-wringing over Common Core State Standards, more than half of parents say they have heard little or nothing about CCSS.  When told about what CCSS was, half said it would improve things, 27% said it would have no effect, and only 11% said it would make things worse.
Such findings definitely don’t align with the tales being spun about the state of public education and our growing resistance to testing and CCSS, for instance.  But then feeling fine about the current state of assessment just doesn’t make for a good story line or dozens of angry posters to a blog.
On Wednesday, PDK and Gallup will release their annual survey on public attitudes toward public education.  Let’s see if they match up, or if we are telling AP one thing and PDK another.
UPDATE: This poll was actually sponsored by the Joyce Foundation, which now has the whole survey available up on its website.  

Education: At Least We Aren’t the Oil Industry?

We regularly hear about what a noble profession education is.  We all can tell stories of those teachers who inspired us and those educators who placed us on the the paths of success.  We talk about how education is a top three policy issue, with voters making decisions based on education policy.

And then some new data comes out to throw that conventional thinking off kilter.  Two weeks ago, the latest Gallup/PDK Poll reported that only 17 percent of Americans give our public schools either an A or a B.  Yesterday, Gallup released its survey on how business sectors rate (either positive or negative).  And the results were a little startling.
The industry with the most positive view, according to the more than 1,000 surveyed, was the computer industry, followed by the restaurant industry.  The oil and gas industry had the largest negative opinion, beating out the federal government by just one percentage point (64% negative to 63% negative), though the feds had the largest gap between positive view and negative view (a 46-point spread).
And how did the education sector do?  Of the 25 sectors surveyed, education placed 19th, with Americans having a more negative opinion about education than they do about accountants, pharmaceuticals, the airlines, and even PR flacks.  Education posted a 35-percent positive/47-percent negative rating, placing it slightly above industries such as lawyers, bankers, and big oil. 
What’s more troubling, though, is the trend.  According to Gallup, in the last decade, education’s positive ranking have fell by 15 points.  In 2001, half of all Americans had a positive view of the education sector.  Today, it is down to a third.  Only three industries (banking, real estate, and the federal government) had larger declines in that period, and all three are seen as the major actors for our current economic problems.
Are our growing negative opinions of public schools, illustrated by both the PDK poll and Gallup industry survey, a result of declining test scores?  Of recent criticisms of teachers and the call for performance-based evaluations?  Of drum beats of dropout factories and sliding graduation rates?  Of ongoing stories of lowered state standards and rising numbers of schools failing to make AYP?  Of a head-in-the-sand mentality that our schools have never been better and resistance (or outright assault) on school improvement efforts is necessary? 
One thing is clear.  When only one-third of your potential customers have a positive view of your industry, you have a problem.  And when less than 20 percent of those you serve believe they are getting a good product (A or B level), you have a serious problem.  These trends are not a blip, nor are they something one can ride out.  
And let’s be clear about it.  This is not an NCLB problem, an AYP problem, a Race to the Top problem, or a teacher quality problem.  This is a public education problem.