Posts Tagged 'education policy'

How Computerized PARCC Testing Will Widen the Achievement Gap

6551525739_6b13d4f526_o.jpgBy Nick McDaniels – There are many valid ways to criticize the PARCC test, Common Core, and the Pearson Education Dynasty.  Much of this criticism requires speculation, however.

Well, as we begin to really embark on a new regime of high stakes testing called PARCC, one thing is becoming abundantly clear.  Poorly funded school districts do not have the capacity to implement a computer-based test.  At schools in our poorest urban and rural districts, technology access, broadband capacity, and staff and student technological literacy are real issues that impact teaching and learning every day in a way that staff and students in affluent districts probably cannot even imagine in 2016.

Pearson, of course, wants PARCC testing to be computer-based because they get to maximize profits by cutting the expenses of printing and grading paper-based tests.  And as Pearson said it, so it was done.  Many school systems have begun the new era of high stakes testing, where students strain their eyes in front of computers for hours taking tests that can be graded almost as soon as a student clicks submit.

For districts with one-to-one technology access, high levels of staff and student computer literacy, and strong broadband connectivity, this is an easy, perhaps even welcomed, shift.  But alas, these districts, with their robust budgets, often boast high passage rates on standardized tests regardless of format.

The districts where test scores have been traditionally lowest are the districts that are seeing students sit in front of a computer, taking a very hard test, as servers crash, computers turn off and on without warning, and interactive parts of the test fail to work because of broadband problems.

What the computerized PARCC test has done is take standardized testing, made the test more challenging, and increased the barriers for success for students in areas that have traditionally seen the lowest test scores.  How did the PARCC do this?  They shifted the test from paper to silicon and shifted Pearson’s profits from outstanding to unfathomable.



To Test or Not to Test? That is the Question

5843577306_1a98149efb_o.jpgBy Bill Waychunas – “Because I said so.”  No words that a teacher (or parent) ever wants to utter. That’s how I felt as I pathetically begged my 9th graders to do their best on a recent PARCC test, which is the newer, more rigorous, common core version of standardized state assessments.

My stomach turns thinking about the questions they asked and the half-baked responses I gave as I tried to give them a quick pep talk before settling in for testing.

“Does this count for a grade?” – No, but…

“When will we get our scores back?” – Probably not until next school year…

“What happens if we just go to sleep during the test?” – Nothing really except that I’ll wake you up…

“So, why does this test even matter?” …because I said so?

Inspiring, right?

Generally speaking, I believe in testing and assessment as a way of verifying student understanding and for teacher and school-wide reflection on their effectiveness. After all, every teacher assesses students in some way; informal and formal assessments happen every day in class as students volunteer correct or incorrect answers, complete homework assignments, or do ANY assignment. Show me a teacher who doesn’t assess or test their students in some way, and I’ll show you an ineffective teacher who likely has no end goals for their course or who rambles aimlessly through content assuming that “if I said it, then they learned it.”

Tests are not inherently bad. But, they can certainly be used in a way that is hurtful to our education system. The PARCC and Smarter Balance tests will provide information and insights into teaching and learning that were previously unavailable. Never before have we been able to compare the schools in different states, districts, and cities in such a widespread and consistent manner. The potential to make more informed policy decisions to improve our education system based on such assessments is enormous. But, by not testing smart, we risk wasting everyone’s time in the process.

Here are some questions that schools, district, and state policy-makers should be asking so we can become smarter about standardized testing in our classrooms:

  1. Will this test be useful? If the test doesn’t tell the teacher, student, parent, or school anything that they can use to take action on behalf of a student, then it is probably a waste of time. Tests should show us what students know, as well as where they are struggling so that we can make plans to remediate misconceptions, target instruction towards skills that haven’t been mastered, and push students to new more difficult levels when they’re ready. We cannot keep giving tests just for the sake of giving tests; there should always be a good reason to give them.
  2. When will we get the results? If it takes months, or even weeks, to get the results back from an assessment, then it’s generally too late to do anything with them, making them generally useless to a classroom teacher or parent.
  3. Does this test really matter? I’m not arguing for high-stakes testing, but tests should count for something. There are other ways to make tests matter than giving them a grade or threatening a student with repeating a grade level if they don’t reach a certain cut-score. If no one at the school particularly cares about the results of the test, then we should really be asking ourselves why we are taking the test in the first place.
  4. How much time are we spending on testing? A high-quality and thorough test takes time, but that doesn’t mean that we should be testing all the time. Some schools and districts spend so much time on testing, that they seriously curtail the amount of time spent actually teaching. Lots of people like to blame this on federal or state testing requirements, but the reality is that, in most cases, we are doing this to ourselves through district or school-level decisions. I’m not sure that I have an exact percentage of time that should be spent on testing, but the “law of diminishing returns” is at play here. By only using tests that are actually valuable to instruction, we can avoid hitting the avoidable point of assessment and data overload.

This is by no means a comprehensive, fool-proof formula for solving all of the woes related to standardized testing, but by taking some time to make more thoughtful decisions about what, how often, and why we test, we can perhaps find a fair middle-ground between assessment and instruction. For my sake, I hope that we can find this middle ground soon so that I never again have to utter the words “because I said so” as the empty and hollow reason for taking a test.

Our Schools are Underfunded Because Our Cities are Voluntarily Impoverished

download (50).jpgBy Nick McDaniels – Teachers and teacher salaries are often the scapegoat for school systems not having any money.  To be sure, staff salaries and benefits are a major expense in big urban school districts. And big urban school districts struggle with funding because the cities in which they are situated struggle to generate revenue for schools, which are often based on property taxes.  When teachers want a raise, more resources, or better working conditions, school systems and their defenders can cry poverty and blame the teachers for trying to break an already broke system.  How convenient!

The story that is not told is that many of our cities, which could be giving more money to their school districts to provide better wages, more resources, and better working conditions, squander millions and millions of dollars in annual tax revenue every year to tax breaks for developers.  These developers, armed with the promises of jobs and redevelopment and dreams of conquering America’s urban frontier, enjoy years and years of tax-incentives, but often never deliver on the promises of jobs but rather on the hidden promise of gentrification. In the meantime, schools that could have used the revenue continue to struggle.

It’s hard to blame the developers for taking the hand out.  But, in my mind, it’s even harder to blame the teachers, many of whom do pay property taxes in the jurisdictions where they teach (as I do), for asking for increase wages, more resources, and better working conditions.  So who do we blame?

The corrupt city officials continue to underfund schools so as to provide financial incentives to the developers who donated heavily to their campaigns.  Voluntary impoverishment is never an adequate defense for not paying the bills.  So why do we continue to let cities who do not appropriately fund schools defend themselves; or worse, why do we defend them for passing the blame?

Not Fooled by the Chicago Teachers Union

By Bill Waychunas – It’s not that I’m anti-Union, I’m just against unreasonable people that take advantage of political situations. Trying to fool people into thinking that you’re fighting on behalf of kids when it’s really your own interests at the forefront, frankly, makes me sick.

On April Fool’s Day, the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) held a one-day strike, or walk-out as they’re calling it, to protest “unfair labor practices” at Chicago Public Schools (CPS). What I find unfair about CTU’s protest is their lack of consideration for CPS’s current situation and their actions’ negative impact on the teaching profession’s public perception.

The Chicago Public School district is so short of money that they have taken out massive loans and laid-off thousands of teachers and staff already this year. They’ve even announced that teachers will have to take unpaid furlough days to help make ends meet. This isn’t a new thing either; CPS hasn’t been able to make a payment to the teachers’ pension program in years.

This is all amid a state budget holdout that’s been going on for almost a year and extraordinary pension related debt in Chicago which led to a doubling of property taxes last year and general financial problems in the city.

Don’t get me wrong, the importance of education should cause people to rise up and demand better from their legislators and local leaders. Kids deserve to go to well-funded schools. And if this is what CTU is actually protesting about, then I’m all for it. Unfortunately, this isn’t really their end-goal.

The CTU and their leader, Karen Lewis, have had some very public battles with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, stemming from the teacher’s strike over the summer of 2012, where teachers and the mayor duked it out over teacher evaluations, salary, insurance benefits, and extending the school day and year. Both sides came out of the strike claiming some victories, but the real result was the creation of a political rivalry which is getting in the way of the city and state from finding real solutions to the very real financial problems.

Fast forwarding to the mayor’s race of 2015, and the only thing which prevented Karen Lewis from running against Rahm Emanuel was a bout with brain cancer. Instead, the CTU did the next best thing and anointed a hand-picked candidate for mayor, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, and pumped in record amounts of cash into local elections for alderman and state representatives.

With the election of anti-Union Republican Governor Bruce Rauner in 2014, who is generally a moderate, the CTU have continuously criticized and demanded more from a state and city that are in financial ruin.

This brings us back to the walk-out or strike on April Fool’s Day. What were CTU members really striking about? Money? I’m not sure how their strike could make money appear out of nowhere from a state and city that are frighteningly broke, leaving the CTU looking like a bunch of childish whiners. Their continuous demands are even hurting the teaching professions image, by making CPS teachers seem unrealistic, greedy, and ignorant. Far from acting like the respectable and reasonable professionals which teachers constantly profess to become, they’re acting immaturely by making a thinly-veiled political move for their own personal benefits.

Knowing that there is actually no money currently available that is going to change the situation faced by the district, city, and state, the CTU concocted this event to further crystalize their political image as the anti-Rahm and anti-Rauner brand. This is a move to entrench their political strength with hopes to leverage it in future elections and their on-going contract negotiations with the city. This was not about children or education. It is about adults taking advantage of a political situation, at the expense of children, while offering no real solution or willingness to face financial realities like grown-ups or professionals.

The irony will be if the CTU does win this political battle, then is forced to see their own unreasonableness and deal with the financial woes in ways which they would have previously howled and complained about. With the current politics of the CTU, I hope that day never comes.

Maybe their plan will work and they fooled everybody with their April Fool’s Day strike, but Karen Lewis, you’re not fooling me.

The Identity Transformation of Male First Generational Students

first gender identityBy Nick Rocha – First generation students often face a multitude of academic and social challenges when they are transitioning into the college environment.  A first-generation student is someone whose parents have not completed or obtained a four-year college degree.  There is an increasing amount of research centered on the connection between social class and academic success, but there is a need for research that focuses on how identity formation strategies are challenged or sustained as students transition from high school to college.  How might certain students socialize and form identities based on their experiences on campus? Does the approach students use in high school translate to the approach used in college?

When considering how students formulate identity about themselves, it is important to take into consideration the intersectionality of race, class, gender, and other statuses when attempting to examine patterns and connections.  “Intersectionality thus provides a framework for understanding how multiple dimensions of identities affect experience, opportunities, and outcomes” (Wilkins, 2014).  As we take each category and status into account, we often get different experiences, explanations, and approaches to identity formation.  So for example a white lower-class first generational male will have a different strategy to define themselves as compared to a black lower-class first generational male.

Based on Amy Wilkin’s observations and interviews of first generational white and black men, the white students mentioned that they did not receive proactive support for their parents in regards to attending college.  They were warmly supportive of whatever decision that the students made regarding occupational goals, even it if meant not attending college.  They also employed a “blending in approach” to identity within high school.  This tactic involved glossing over class differences between themselves and middle-class students; white lower-class students would engage in low-cost activities such as video games, playing Frisbee, and hiking in attempts to develop a social network of friends.  They also avoided trouble such as drinking by changing their peer groups and engaging in sports.

This technique of “acting normal and blending in” translated well into the college atmosphere.  The participants mentioned that they opted out of partying due to it feeling “immature” and being contrary to their academic goals.  They mentioned that they were often bored and lonely due to avoiding social parties, but managed to establish alternative strategies for finding friends.  They used their tactic of blending in to develop peer groups that were often academically focused and supportive of their identity as an academic learner.

For the first generation black students, they mentioned that their families’ prioritized education by moving to certain geographical areas in order to attend certain schools, enrolled their students into desegregation programs, or obtained scholarships for private schools.  Of the students who were interviewed, many of them attended high schools that were predominantly white and as a result their identity was tied to their race and their conception of black masculinity.  Sports were a major status indicator for blacks.  “Sports provide an adult-sanctioned way for boys to demonstrate masculine competitiveness, toughness, and physical prowess, without necessarily compromising academic commitment” (Wilkins, 2014, p.181).  Since black masculinity was limited in predominantly white schools, it was considered valuable and rare.  First generation black males utilized the approach of “standing out” within their high schools; they were not coerced by their peers to fit into the black masculinity identity and this allowed them to integrate well within their social network.  This changed drastically when they attended college however.

Both groups experienced social hardships during the transition into college culture.  Black first generation students, however, struggled to implement their strategies to form and sustain their personal identity in college. Black students who do not play sports are often socially invisible as black masculine men.  “They are marginalized because they do not fulfill peer expectations of youthful black masculinity” (Wilkins, 2014, p.183).  Black first generation men struggle to find social spaces in which they can express their own identity without being coerced by their peers to fit into the adolescent black masculinity stereotype and often found managing relationships with their peers to be emotionally exhausting.  Race became a more impactful factor in identity development for black first generation men compared to their white counterpart.  One student mentioned that all of his peers would talk to him about football even though they were in an engineering class and they ignored his attempts to talk about engineering with them.

Examining the characteristics and strategies utilized by both white and black first generation men provides insight into the challenges and experiences that first generation students face when transitioning from the high school environment to the college environment.  More research should be conducted to examine identity strategies when social class is taken into account and when student’s high school environments are primarily minority students.  “Standing out” may not be a tactic used by black students when their school environment is not primarily white.

Additional research should also examine the differences between gender and how identity development might be different.  According to Chambliss and Takacs (2014), student friendships are critical to student retention.  Educators and social scientists should take a closer look into how identities are reinforced and challenged in college and how a student’s peer group might influence the strategies and techniques that first generation students take in developing their own identity.

Schools and the Perpetuation of Trauma

Logo-primary.jpgBy Nick McDaniels – I live and work in a city that has been plagued by violence of historical proportions.  Recently, my school system has made it an initiative to instruct teachers about the effects of trauma resulting from violence on students.  What the school system wants is for teachers to understand that students who witness acts of violence, have violence perpetrated against them or a family member, may exhibit off-task behaviors in class.  What the school system wants teachers to do is to adjust our interactions with students to accommodate their responses to trauma.

Forgive my tone, but thank you for pointing out the obvious.

In this way, Baltimore has a school system not unlike many urban school systems, where a city’s problems with violent crime places limits on classroom learning.  And, Baltimore’s initiative, as patronizing as it may be for those of us who work the day-to-day in the classroom, is a good one.  Honestly, we as teachers need to be reminded that sometimes, or perhaps even often, classroom misbehaviors may be the manifestations of other experiences.  In fact, it registered for me that the other day when a student called me an @$%*&# because I changed the presentation slide too fast, that anger was probably not really directed toward me.  These reminders help.

But what about our role in the perpetuation of this “trauma?”  Gone are the days when schools can be considered the safe-havens away from neighborhood violence.  There are small fractions of many student bodies that perpetrate acts of violence against other students, repeatedly.  These students, due to a drastic reduction in suspension, expulsion, alternative schools, intense intervention services, are often inserted immediately back into the student body where they can repeat offend.  These offenders are often themselves impacted by trauma, but in school, instead of helping them cope, we allow them to inflict similar trauma on others.

As a student, after you have been robbed in school, beat up in school, threatened in school, only to return the next day to see the same perpetrator sitting again next to you in second period, you will undoubtedly feel the perpetuation of the initial trauma.

By allowing students to engage in physical fights with one another and putting the students immediately back into the same classroom, we are letting students know, as they learned long ago in our communities, that if you experience trauma, no one will help you avoid future iterations of the same trauma.  On the contrary, we are going to force you to endure the memory of violence against you through compulsory education.  And so these emotional impacts (fear, hopelessness, etc…) of trauma manifest themselves as anger, and hence, more violence.

Quite frankly, an explanation of misbehavior as a result of trauma is not enough.  If we refuse to isolate students from future trauma in schools, then we are offering no more than insulting lip service to a dire problem.  The answer, as I have said many times, is not to increase suspension rates for violent in-school offenses, but to increase services for students exhibiting violent behaviors and isolate them from students who are not exhibiting such behaviors during treatment.  If we are not protecting the kids who have yet been untouched by trauma from those who have and have failed to cope in a healthy way, then we are ensuring that every student will eventually be impacted by trauma as a result of violence in schools.

When and if to Talk to Student About Politics

3002972826_5f146862c0_o.jpgBy Peggy Wuenstel – As the rhetoric around the upcoming election heats up, conversations in the classroom inevitably are peppered with some of what our students are hearing and seeing on the airwaves. It is always a careful line to walk when kids ask you to participate in this exchange. While it is always our responsibility not to present our political opinions as fact to students, it is also our right to have those same opinions.

One of the most challenging aspects of being a teacher is to be a consistent, appropriate model of participation in our system of government. I proudly wear my “I Voted” sticker back to class after casting my ballot and welcome their questions about the process. I answer factual questions when I can, and when I can’t, make the promise to find out, just as I would in every other area in which they ask for information. I help them to distinguish between fact and opinion and to consider their sources, even as early as kindergarten. I have fielded a lot of questions this year about why anyone would WANT to be president. We are raising a generation of kids who do not see female or candidates of color as historic, unlikely, or impossible. How encouraging is that?

I am also aware of my role as a role model and the necessity not to use that in inappropriate ways. They know which aging blue mini-van in the parking lot is mine. As it is visible from my classroom, my choice of bumper stickers reflects that caution. They are issue-related, not candidate-specific. I am unabashedly pro-public education, anti-money in politics, and pro-income equality.  I am active politically in the community and the political action chair for my local education association. I have promoted local referenda, campaigned for pro-education school board candidates across the spectrum of elected offices, written opinion pieces, and financially supported individuals and causes I believe in.

My selection as one of Wisconsin’s Teachers of the Year in the turbulent year of 2010 presented me with a new set of responsibilities and directives. I must be the kind of teacher who knows what is happening and participates in the decision making at all levels possible. It has changed my life. Being informed, active, and concerned about the welfare of the others is the kind of role model I want to be for my students.

I was providing a reading lesson to two third graders a few weeks back about former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. (This was before the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, so their engagement surprised me even more than if it had followed the media coverage of his death and resulting controversy about a new appointment to the court.) The online article traced her path from student to justice, but did not thoroughly explain how a justice is selected. Much to my delight, they asked, and the process of presidential nomination and senate confirmation came up. I briefly discussed that this is one of the reasons that it is important to choose a president whose values are those we want on the Supreme Court and how the system of checks and balances is outlined in The Constitution.

One of these students is of Hispanic heritage and the other’s background is African American, although he has been raised by loving Caucasian parents who are educators. The only difference this has ever made is in the need to provide reading selections and lessons that are diverse and inclusive. On this day, they gave me the instruction. V, the first student, said vehemently, “We’d better not pick Trump then. He wants to send all Mexicans back to Mexico and I don’t want to go.” V was born here and his parents run a successful local landscaping business. J, his partner in this reading group replied, “Well. I’m black and he doesn’t like me either.” My teacher radar kicked into high gear, realizing that some kind of explanation was going to be needed.

They provided the direction for our conversation, asking me directly, “Are you voting for Donald Trump?” My response, “It is not my place to tell you who to vote for, or to influence your decisions about things like that. What I can tell you is that when I choose who to vote for in a presidential election, I look for the best leader. That, in my view, is someone who tries to bring people together and make everyone feel like they have an important part to play in making our country work well.” They said in reply, almost in unison: “Then you are not voting for Donald Trump.” My smile was my response.

I like to think about a broader definition of politics when I consider whether or not to discuss it directly with students. They need to have a basic understanding of how schools are funded, how elections work, or don’t work, and their eventual place in it. As a mentor of mine once told me, “It is not my job to tell you what to think, it is to give you something to think about.” And these kids are paying attention to some things. We need to make sure that that partial knowledge doesn’t pass for comprehension of the issues and direct the hard choices that have to be made.

This anecdote from back in the recall election days illustrates the point. While helping a fourth grader complete his Wisconsin government test, he had trouble recalling the first name of Governor Walker. I suggested that he remember the signs he had seen in the community and the ads he had seen on television to help him complete his response. What did he write? Recall. It will forever be a reminder to me that if we want kids to look for the whole story, we have to be willing to tell it in a way that inspires them to be an informed participant in democracy.

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