Who Decides? We Decide!
The Common Core testing and assessment regime being pushed on school districts across the country is anti-education and anti-democratic, both in its content and its implementation. New York State, where it is being pushed most rapidly, has seen broad opposition from parents, teachers and students. The testing regime, currently being imposed on 3-8 graders but also in some cases on K-2 graders, has been rightly branded as child abuse. The tests are long, arbitrary and do not in any way assist in evaluating students or teachers. On the contrary they are designed to humiliate students and involve teachers in doing harm. Increasingly there is resistance to the Core and organized efforts to refuse the tests.
The teaching modules being given to teachers are highly detailed, scripted materials that are stifling and actually block teaching and learning. They can be five hundred pages long. A single 5-page story can be given 18 days of teaching, with the first day having 13 pages of script for the teacher. The reading materials are commonly detached from any context with attention focused strictly on the reading alone — which itself might only include a portion of a book, without its conclusion.
It is reported, for example, that there will be a module on Lincoln’s Gettysburg address that includes nothing about the Civil War, what the battle at Gettysburg represented, why Lincoln was speaking there, and so forth. Such an approach does not serve the needs of the students and is not educational. It is a means to force teachers and students both to do what they are told and submit to the humiliation of what they know to be anti-educational activities.
It is clear that teachers and education professors are not the ones developing these materials. On the contrary, private monopoly interests, divorced from the actual work of teaching and learning, are designing and organizing to impose the Common Core.
In addition, the implementation of the Core by government officials shows how thoroughly undemocratic the regime is. In New York, for example, Education Commissioner King initially scheduled public town hall meetings where parents, teachers and students were to have an opportunity to question officials and give views on the Core and its testing and evaluation regime. When faced with broad opposition and anger from the public, King then canceled the meetings. Then he re-scheduled them, but with restrictions on the number of questions asked and the number who could attend.
The audiences have consistently been overwhelmingly against the Common Core, with one speaker after the other presenting serious arguments and concerns, all of which are ignored. Further King and the media have branded the public as “rude” and “rowdy,” for their refusal to quietly accept the dictate of the state. The violence of government officials refusing to in anyway acknowledge the concerns of the public is to be denied, while all are supposed to just accept whatever King says.
Most recently, in Jamestown, New York, parents, teachers and students again came by the hundreds to voice their concerns. But only 30 of those arriving were allowed to speak and ten others were chosen in advance. Strict rules were imposed. Each speaker had only two minutes, after which they would be forced to stop or the microphone would be cut off. There was to be no clapping or cheering and no booing of King. Everyone was warned not to be “rude,” while King was given free reign to openly lie and repeatedly dismiss serious concerns.
Despite these restrictions, the audience again made clear its firm stand against the Common Core and its testing regime. Several people turned their back to King and instead addressed the audience, saying it was teachers, parents and students who were the authority on educational matters and must be the ones to decide. And instead of clapping people stood up in affirmation of the repeated and thoughtful opposition expressed by one speaker after the other.
Now, in coming to Buffalo December 12, King’s anti-democratic regime is dictating an even more restrictions. It is to be an invitation-only meeting, where only three representatives from each area school district will be allowed to attend. Parents and teachers are again rejecting this anti-democratic and anti-public stand by King. They are organizing their own meeting outside of where King will be speaking. And they are organizing it as a public space to be informed, exchange views and strengthen the common thinking not only against the Common Core but for public education that serves the public interests — that serves the needs of the youth for broad knowledge and the ability to investigate and think in a manner that contributes to the advance of their collective and society as a whole. It will be a public meeting, by and for the public, on the vital issue of defending the right to education — something King cannot restrict or block!
Teachers Urging Parents to Refuse the Test
Teachers, principals and parents across the state have continued to oppose the Common Core and its testing and teacher evaluation regime. New York State Education (NYSED) Commissioner King, after first canceling public meetings in the face of stern opposition from parents and teachers in Poughkeepsie, has now re-scheduled what he calls “Community Meetings.” There will not be one in Buffalo however, with the closest one being in Jamestown, December 4, with time and place still to be announced.
At two recent community meetings on Long Island, one meeting required tickets to get in, blocking many from attending. Speakers at both were also limited. Even so, about 1,000 attended one and 800 packed the second meeting, while another 200 demonstrated outside. Inside and out, it was clear that people are stepping up their organized resistance to the Common Core. As Carol Burris, principal at South Side High School in Long Island said, “Despite the efforts to limit the speakers and limit the crowds, I think they are learning that we come here with one voice.”
One woman, who spoke inside, was repeatedly and enthusiastically applauded, as her stand represented those present. She stated she was a teacher and as such she is a mandated reporter of child abuse. And she was here to tell King that she is reporting child abuse. She explained that students are now being diagnosed with “Common Cora” syndrome as a result of the very frustrating, unfair, anxiety-filled experience they are having with the testing regime. She brought 50 letters with her and reported sending NYSED 300 more, all calling for King’s resignation. More importantly, she said the testing regime had “awoken the mommies.” She said King can expect thousands of letters from parents refusing to have their children take the tests. She emphasized. “New York mommies do not abuse their children and they are not going to let bullies abuse them either.”
King remained without emotion or response through out. Those in Buffalo will likely remember this “no response” method as that of the Control Board. Those with power allow a public meeting to take place, stare blankly during the meeting and give no response whatever to the demands made. As the teacher in Long Island put it, they are “listening” but not hearing what parents and teachers have to say. And as occurred in Buffalo, those in Long Island took the opportunity to instead speak to the crowd. Despite King’s arrogance, the public, together developing their public outrage and collective stand and justifications for opposing the Common Core, are using the meetings to further advance their fight for improving public education.
This was further evident outside the second meeting, where scores of protesters, standing across the street from the high school, chanted, “Students are more than tests.” Parent Jeanette Deutermann, of North Bellmore, spoke from a microphone on the back of a black pickup truck, “We will not stand for it. Our children will not take these tests,” she said. Deutermann is among the parents statewide organizing to refuse the test. Hundreds of students on Long Island and in other districts across the state refused the test last year and more are planning to do so this coming April. In the Buffalo area, students and parents in Hamburg, Ken-Ton, West Seneca and Buffalo are among those organizing to refuse the tests. Efforts are going forward to organize collectively, school by school.
New York State Teacher of the Year Does Not Get Highest Rating
In related news, the teacher awarded NYS Teacher of the Year did not receive the highest rating of “highly effective.” Kathleen Ferguson testified November 13 before a state Senate Education Committee that she couldn’t get a “highly effective” rating because she teaches second-graders with special needs, and they do not do well on tests. Ferguson, who teaches in the Schenectady district, also said that all the pre-testing that is done in September to set the “baseline” for student improvement — and teacher evaluations — makes it “incredibly difficult to lay a foundation of comfort and joy in school.” Her students, seven years old, had tests almost every day to establish the “baseline.” Senators report that they have received more calls and emails from parents and teachers opposing the Common Core than they have about any other issue.
Parents at Castle Bridge elementary school in New York City recently organized to block testing of their kindergarten-second grade (K-2) children. New York City, like Buffalo and other districts across the state, are imposing new testing requirements on students. While the majority of testing is currently geared toward 3-8 graders, efforts are now underway to also force K-2 children to take tests. The effort is widely opposed by teachers and the many professionals involved in early childhood development and education. Castle Bridge provides an example for all parents to organize together and refuse the tests.
Castle Bridge parents organized as a group, with the large majority — representing 88 out of 97 students — joining to refuse the test. They informed the principal that their children would not take the test. Given the scope of resistance, the principal then canceled the testing. While the New York Department of Education (NYSED) has informed administrators that all students must take the tests, parents are rejecting this dictate and standing up for their children’s education. The test results for these young children, like that for 3-8, are being used to evaluate students, teachers and principals.
PTA co-chairwoman at Castle Bridge Dao Tran, mother of first-grader Quyen Lamphere, expressed the stand of most when she said, “My feeling about testing kids as young as 4 is it’s inhumane.” She added, “I think it’s developmentally not even just unhelpful but actually destructive.” Parents also spoke to the racism of the state, saying the tests are only given in English even though they are a bi-lingual school (English and Spanish) and have children speaking other languages.
Parents also rejected the use of the tests for assessing their children. As Tran said, “We observe our children in the classroom on a daily basis, and we know and trust that the teachers have the best assessment of them. They actually write these narratives about our kids at report card time. So they don’t get checkboxes. They don’t get grades. We get a story of what they know and where they are at developmentally, which is much more rich and clear than any test could ever be.”
Another parent, Tran’s PTA co-chair Elexis Pujolos, mother of kindergartner Daeja, 4, and first-grader AJ, 6 brought out that the tests are also not a valid means to assess the principal. “Our principal does a good job,” she said. “A test could not possibly measure what she is able to.” The school’s principal, Julie Zuckerman, like many across the state, also expressed her opposition to the tests, saying teachers should not be judged on the basis of a test. “It can’t be used as an evaluation tool of teachers even if it were a valid test — which it’s not,” she said.
Parents brought out that Castle Bridge uses educational methods that are more project-based, with more creative forms of learning that develop thinking skills better than the required tests. They expressed their outrage over testing such young children, with one parent emphasizing, “This school teaches to the child not to the test.”
Teachers Say an iPad on Every Desk
Teachers and students in Los Angeles recently marched against the district’s plan to distribute iPads and the testing regime they will bring. The November 7 protest was part of a coordinated week of actions against the common core and testing that included events in New York City, Chicago, and North Carolina. Teachers, students, parent and various community organizations marched through downtown and rallied in front of district headquarters.
The teachers say the money could be better spent than on other needs. They suspect the iPad plan is a Trojan horse brought in to increase reliance on standardized curriculum and testing. “It strikes all of us as utter nonsense,” said teacher Noah Lippe-Klein from a South LA high school, “at a moment when our schools are being stripped of nurses and college counselors.”
They questioned the iPads as one of many quick fixes pushed onto students and teachers by monopolies Apple, Microsoft and Pearson, all promoters of the Common Core and its testing regime. “This is not technology that helps my classroom,” said high school social studies teacher Rebecca Solomon. They also questioned the program’s cost — which could reach $1 billion.
‘iPrefer SMALLER CLASSES’
Teachers and students from different schools met at central L.A.’s Pershing Square for the protest. They walked over a freeway overpass and held their banners for commuters to see. Students carried giant puppets and homemade signs mocking Apple’s marketing and branding: “iNeed a college counselor” and “iPrefer smaller class sizes.”
The district is hailing the iPad rollout as a technology breakthrough. Distribution began at 47 of LA’s 1,100 schools this fall. Every student will have a tablet by 2014, if the program goes according to plan.
Funding comes from a 25-year construction bond meant for school buildings and infrastructure. Protesters questioned whether voters will endorse future bonds for badly needed classroom repairs and facility improvements if administrators continue to pour the money into botched technology projects.
The L.A. school board made adjustments to the plan after problems sprang up. Within days of the first distribution, students hacked the security, which was supposed to block them from getting on the Internet and using programs like Facebook and YouTube. There was confusion among administrators and parents about who was responsible if iPads were lost, broken, or stolen; 70 were reported missing. Within a week several schools recalled the iPads altogether or suspended their use off-campus.
Other adjustments include more evaluation of the program, slower iPad distribution, and a possible shift to laptops for high school students.
The decision to purchase iPads, one of the most expensive tablets on the market, is puzzling. The iPads cost the district nearly $800 each ($200 more than the store price) because they come pre-programmed with materials from Pearson, an education software and standardized testing company. The district has three-year contracts with both Apple and Pearson, so there will be another round of costs for the district to repair devices past their warranty and to update the software. It is unclear where the additional money will come from. “They are hiring hundreds of people to monitor this rollout, when we still have teachers that have been laid off,” Solomon said.
Solomon said the district is rushing the technology in a frantic attempt to get Race to the Top federal funds, which Los Angeles missed out on in 2012 and 2013, and other education grants. Race to the Top money is tied to implementing technology and Common Core standards, which increasingly require that testing be done on computers using Pearson and Microsoft software. In addition to taking new statewide tests on the iPads, students will be shifted onto preset Pearson lesson plans and assignments. The push for the iPads is part of efforts to force through the Common Core’s testing regime, which is harmful to education.
“Uncomfortable. Impossible. My chest hurts,” says Vincent Pepe, 10, pointing to his t-shirt where he feels his heart rate accelerating. He will not make eye contact. He does not like talking about the state tests he took last year. “There wasn’t enough time,” he says. “It makes you quit.”
His older brother Ryan, 13, looks up from under a pile of homework. Ryan has served as Vincent’s protector since he was born. But Ryan cannot protect him from everything.
Neither will be taking the state tests this year. And they are not alone.
A battle is being waged in New York State with Long Island on the front lines. The warriors come armed with manila folders of research on topics such as Common Core, datamining and a billion-dollar company named Pearson. They have bags under their eyes from long, weary nights in front of sometimes-incomprehensible homework.
The battlegrounds are the classrooms, the kitchen table, and auditoriums packed with parents and teachers who are demanding a three-year moratorium on high-stakes testing, but will settle for the resignation of New York State (NYS) Commissioner of Education John B. King, Jr. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s head. They are an army formed on Facebook, with groups informed by a national movement but concentrated right here, mobilized and motivated by the stress of their children. Their vow is to defeat Common Core, the educational reform so extreme that kids are mutilating themselves in response to the psychological stress that experts are calling “Common Core Syndrome.”
Blogger Diane Ravitch adds, “State officials are intransigent. Despite the near-unanimous condemnation of the state’s high-stakes testing regime, the Regents and the Commissioner of Education have made clear that they have no intention of backing down. The kids will get the tests again and again, no matter how many fail.
“Nearly 20,000 parents have signed petitions against the testing; that number will grow. The Long Island principals have led a statewide rebellion against the untested “education evaluation” tied to the high-stakes test.
“The parents, teachers, and principals of Long Island understand what state officials do not. Education policy cannot be rammed down everyone’s throats. Collaboration and respect are needed, not the power to compel compliance.”
The 2012 results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) are out. To celebrate the failure of public education “PISA Day” has been organized by those now establishing private, centralized executive control over once public institutions. PISA Day is the latest in a string of reality shows to litter our cultural space, the latest salvo of disinformation against public governance and the public purpose of schools and educational processes more generally.
There is plenty of useful things to read regarding what is wrong with the PISA exam and how the results are being manipulated. But, there is a 600 pound gorilla in the room that has not been fully recognized (and it is not poverty I’m referring to…). It is the crisis of authority that is evidenced by the particular character of the present charade. The character is evident in the media reports about PISA and how those reports were orchestrated, and the anti-science that confounds ranking with measurement. Examining each helps us grasp the content and significance of the disinformation itself.
Media and the Crisis of Authority
As is now the norm, monopoly news media outlets have dutifully parroted the views of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the U.S. dominated Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which creates and administers the PISA assessment. These reports of PISA results confirm not a decline in the capacities of American youth but rather a decline in the quality of journalism. Editors seem to have vanquished the idea that one should distinguish fact from opinion, an editorial from a report.
Take for example this news item, titled “PISA test shows ‘stagnation.’ Is US education reform failing?” It relies so heavily on ideologically driven language to report PISA results that one cannot help but for at least a moment accept its social Darwinian view!
• Duncan’s assessment that PISA reveals “educational stagnation” is parroted without even the slightest awareness that the claim is both false and designed to mis-categorize education as an economic institution, subject to the logic of the “boom” and “bust” cycles of capitalism.
• We are told that student performance has “flat lined” — as if resuscitators should now be deployed in districts across the country (if only that healthcare plan actually worked).
• We are told others are “racing past” the U.S., as if human learning and the social responsibility to educate the young is best understood as an Olympic track meet.
• U.S. students are “treading water” — yet Duncan and his clan offer not even a dingy — students must swim harder they say. No wonder they have flat lined!
Thus, assertions, buzz words, and euphemisms occupy the space of analysis that might contribute to informing the public about the subject of education.
The point is this: the very language used to discuss the PISA assessment reveals a complete breakdown in standards of authority and authoritative discourse. Known authorities on the subject of education are disregarded, disparaged or otherwise marginalized and outright ignored. The views of lackeys of Duncan and his clan are mandated. There is actually very little if any real information presented in major news items about PISA.
The original purpose of publicly available news was to form public views as a basis for establishing legitimate actions of public authority. As authority is generally understood as a legitimate form of power — whether in the sphere of science or governance — such moves evidence a crisis of authority. The anti-public education crusaders must attack legitimate authority, as it stands as a block to their quest for power. That is, the usurping power cannot be legitimated. In place of legitimation stands assertion, diversion, non-sequiturs and other means for blocking thoughtful discussion of what such assessments might tell us. The outlook presented in much of the media is both backward and known to be false.
Orchestrating Public Opinion and the Crisis of Authority
Instead of creating a space for serious discussion about what international comparisons can tell us about schools in the U.S., this year’s PISA results were carefully orchestrated such that only pro-failure-of-public-education views would dominate major media outlets. It is worth quoting this piece from the Economic Policy Institute at length:
“It is usual practice for research organizations (and in some cases, the government) to provide advance copies of their reports to objective journalists. That way, journalists have an opportunity to review the data and can write about them in a more informed fashion. Sometimes, journalists are permitted to share this embargoed information with diverse experts who can help the journalists understand possibly alternative interpretations.
“In this case, however, the OECD and U.S. Education Department (ED) have instead given their PISA report to selected advocacy groups that can be counted on, for the most part, to echo official interpretations and participate as a chorus in the official release. These are groups whose interpretation of the data has typically been aligned with that of the OECD and ED — that American schools are in decline and that international test scores portend an economic disaster for the United States, unless the school reform programs favored by the administration are followed.
“The Department’s co-optation of these organizations in its official release is not an attempt to inform but rather to manipulate public opinion. Those with different interpretations of international test scores will see the reports only after the headlines have become history.
“Such manipulation in the release of official government data would never be tolerated in fields where official data are taken seriously. Can you imagine the Census Bureau providing its poverty data in advance only to advocacy groups that supported the administration, and then releasing its report to the public at an event at which these advocacy groups were given slots on a program to praise the administration’s anti-poverty efforts? What if the Bureau of Labor Statistics gave its monthly unemployment report in advance to Democrats, but not to Republicans, and then invited Democratic congressional leaders to participate in the official release?”
Again, the point is this: such orchestrations are frank admissions that what is being pursued cannot be legitimated, they are in fact illegitimate actions in the public eye — and this public eye must be turned against careful and objective analysis and given, instead, the view that hides the real crisis of governance, an act which, ironically, fuels that very crisis.
The Ranking Theory of Measurement is Against Science
In all the discussions about PISA, a key and simple fundamental flaw has gone unnoticed. This flaw appears with all discourse on assessment in the present “era of reform.”
If I take any five persons, I can line them up, from the tallest to the shortest. Even if there is very little difference in height, it is very unlikely any two individuals would be exactly the same height. With this practice, have I measured anything? Indeed not! This rank order presents no concrete information regarding the actual height of any of my participants, only their relative place in a rank order, the nature of which is dependent on the other participants. In fact, knowing the tallest person in this group tells me very little about their height, by itself.
Now take the example of ranking the aggregate performance of students from various countries on say a math test. Certainly, we can rank order these aggregate performances, whether we use raw scores, percentages, or so-called benchmarks.
Increasingly, these rankings are discussed as measures of the quality of a school system, with the system whose students ranked at the top of the distribution deemed “the best” and so on. Thus, we have a measure of school quality! To assert that the rank is, ipso facto, a measure of school quality is an arbitrary move.
Yet, the same problem holds as before. Just as height was never actually measured in the process of ranking by height, so too here we have no measure of school system quality, efficiency, or whatever. The tests are designed to assess student’s knowledge and ability. To rank countries on the basis of their aggregate student performance on tests tells only – you guessed it – which countries out ranked other countries. Even if the distance between means is quite small, as it often is, such rankings can be produced.
But these rankings do not produce any measurement. They may prove useful in stimulating useful debate, or harmful government mandates. But in either case, they most certainly do not measure “school quality” or the “effectiveness of the system” (or whatever buzzword is used) for the simple reason that the act of ranking does not yield a measurement of quality — or anything else.
To measure school quality, one would need to define school quality, demonstrate what its elements are and that these elements vary quantitatively, and on that basis, build a measuring device that yields number results isomorphic with objective changes in the school or school system. One would need a measuring tool that yields outcomes that are not merely a reflection of the tool itself (here, I reference the problem of imposing the assumption of a normal distribution when no evidence for that assumption exists).
Of course, this is a fool’s errand, as “school quality” is, at the end of the day, a value judgment, quite unlike common physical properties we are accustom to measuring. Talk of measurement hides this fact of value judgment, and when one considers that education is a cultural endeavor, this realization has profound consequences.
Thus, the entire practice of publicly presenting international comparisons of test results as league tables and in turn measures of school system quality is arbitrary, and thus properly understood as pseudo-science and ultimately against authoritative knowledge. Arbitrary power is particularly enamored with the impostor of science: a few tables, a bar graph and the headline that drove that data.
In the end, this method gives rise to a crisis of authority not only in the sphere of governance, but in scientific fields as well. It thus is a problem that extends well beyond lies about the test scores themselves.