12 Winters Blog

Here’s my beef with PARCC and the Common Core

Posted in August 2014, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on August 9, 2014

Beginning this school year students in Illinois will be taking the new assessment known as PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), which is also an accountability measure — meaning that it will be used to identify the schools (and therefore teachers) who are doing well and the ones who are not, based on their students’ scores. In this post I will be drawing from a document released this month by the Illinois State Board of Education, “The top 10 things teachers need to know about the new Illinois assessments.” PARCC is intended to align with the Common Core, which around here has been rebranded as the New Illinois Learning Standards Incorporating the Common Core (clearly a Madison Avenue PR firm wasn’t involved in selecting that name — though I’m surprised funds weren’t allocated for it).

This could be a very long post, but I’ll limit myself to my main issues with PARCC and the Common Core. The introduction to “The top 10 things” document raises some of the most fundamental problems with the revised approach. It begins, “Illinois has implemented new, higher standards for student learning in all schools across the state.” Let’s stop right there. I’m dubious that rewording the standards makes them “higher,” and from an English/language arts teacher perspective, the Common Core standards aren’t asking us to do anything different from what we’ve been doing since I started teaching in 1984. There’s an implied indictment in the opening sentence, suggesting that until now, the Common Core era, teachers haven’t been holding students to particularly high standards. I mean, logically, if there was space into which the standards could be raised, then they had to be lower before Common Core. It’s yet another iteration of the war-cry: Teachers, lazy dogs that they are, have been sandbagging all these years, and now they’re going to have to up their game — finally!

Then there’s the phrase “in all schools across the state,” that is, from the wealthiest Chicago suburb to the poorest downstate school district, and this idea gets at one of the biggest problems — if not the biggest — in education: grossly inequitable funding. We know that kids from well-to-do homes attending well-to-do schools do significantly better in school — and on assessments! — than kids who are battling poverty and all of its ill-effects. Teachers associations (aka, unions) have been among the many groups advocating to equalize school funding via changes to the tax code and other laws, but money buys power and powerful interests block funding reform again and again. So until the money being spent on every student’s education is the same, no assessment can hope to provide data that isn’t more about economic circumstances than student ability.

As if this disparity in funding weren’t problematic enough, school districts have been suffering cutbacks in state funding year after year, resulting in growing deficits, teacher layoffs (or non-replacement of retirees), and other direct hits to instruction.

According to the “The top 10 things” document, “[a] large number of Illinois educators have been involved in the development of the assessment.” I have no idea how large a “large number” is, but I know there’s a big difference between involvement and influence. From my experience over the last 31 years, it’s quite common for people to present proposals to school boards and the public clothed in the mantle of “teacher input,” but they fail to mention that the input was diametrically opposed to the proposal.

The very fact that the document says in talking point #1 that a large number of educators (who, by the way, are not necessarily the same as teachers) were involved in PARCC’s development tells us that PARCC was not developed by educators, and particularly not by classroom teachers. In other words, this reform movement was neither initiated nor orchestrated by educators. Some undefined number of undefined “educators” were brought on board, but there’s no guarantee that they had any substantive input into the assessment’s final form, or even endorsed it. I would hope that the teachers who were involved were vocal about the pointlessness of a revised assessment when the core problems (pun intended), like inadequate funding, are not being addressed. At all.

“The top 10 things” introduction ends with “Because teachers are at the center of these changes and directly contribute to student success, the Illinois State Board of Education has compiled a list of the ten most important things for teachers to know about the new tests.” In a better world, the sentence would be Because teachers are at the center of these changes and directly contribute to student success … the Illinois State Board of Education has tasked teachers with determining the best way to assess student performance. Instead, teachers are being given a two-page handout, which is heavy in snazzy graphics, two to three weeks before the start of the school year. In my district, we’ve had several inservices over the past two years regarding Common Core and PARCC, but our presenters had practically no concrete information to share with us because everything was in such a state of flux; as a consequence, we left meeting after meeting no better informed than we were after the previous one. Often the new possible developments revised or even replaced the old possible developments.

The second paragraph of the introduction claims that PARCC will “provide educators with reliable data that will help guide instruction … [more so] than the current tests required by the state.” I’ve already spoken to that so-called reliable data above, but a larger issue is that this statement assumes teachers are able to analyze all that data provided by previous tests in an attempt to guide instruction. It happens, and perhaps it happens in younger grades more so than in junior high and high school, but by and large teachers are so overwhelmed with the day-to-day — minute-to-minute! — demands of the job that there’s hardly time to pore through stacks of data and develop strategies based on what they appear to be saying about each student. Teachers generally have one prep or planning period per day, less than an hour in length. The rest of the time they’re up to their dry-erase boards in kids (25 to 30 or more per class is common). In that meager prep time and whatever time they can manage beyond that, they’re writing lesson plans; grading papers; developing worksheets, activities, tests, etc.; photocopying worksheets, activities, tests, etc.; contacting or responding to parents or administrators; filling out paperwork for students with IEPs or 504s; accommodating students’ individual needs, those with documented needs and those with undocumented ones; entering grades and updating their school websites; supervising hallways, cafeterias and parking lots; coaching, advising, sponsoring, chaperoning. . . .

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a scholar as well as a teacher. I believe in analyzing data. I’d love to have a better handle on what my students’ specific abilities are and how I might best deliver instruction to meet their needs. But the reality is that that isn’t a reasonable expectation given the traditional educational model — and it’s only getting worse in terms of time demands on teachers, with larger class sizes, ever-changing technology, and — now — allegedly higher standards.

Educational reformers are so light on classroom experience they haven’t a clue how demanding a teacher’s job is at its most fundamental level. In this regard I think education suffers from the fact that so many of its practitioners are so masterful at their job that their students and parents and board members and even administrators get the impression that it must be easy. Anyone who is excellent at what she or he does makes it look easy to the uninitiated observer.

I touched on ever-changing technology a moment ago; let me return to it. PARCC is intended to be an online assessment, but, as the document points out, having it online in all schools is unrealistic, and that “goal will take a few more years, as schools continue to update their equipment and infrastructure.” The goal of its being online is highly questionable in the first place. The more complicated one makes the assessment tool, the less cognitive processing space the student has to devote to the given question or task. Remember when you started driving a car? Just keeping the darn thing on the road was more than enough to think about. In those first few hours it was difficult to imagine that driving would become so effortless that one day you’d be able to drive, eat a cheeseburger, sing along with your favorite song, and argue with your cousin in the backseat, all simultaneously. At first, the demands of driving the car dominated your cognitive processing space. When students have to use an unfamiliar online environment to demonstrate their abilities to read, write, calculate and so on, how much will the online environment itself compromise the cognitive space they can devote to the reading, writing and calculating processes?

What is more, PARCC implies that schools, which are already financially strapped and overspending on technology (technology that has never been shown to improve student learning and may very well impede it), must channel dwindling resources — whether local, state or federal — to “update their equipment and infrastructure.” These are resources that could, if allowed, be used to lower class sizes, re-staff libraries and learning centers, and offer more diverse educational experiences to students via the fine arts and other non-core components of the curriculum. While PARCC may not require, per se, schools to spend money they don’t have on technology, it certainly encourages it.

What is even more, the online nature of PARCC introduces all kinds of variables into the testing situation that are greatly minimized by the paper-and-pencil tests it is supplanting. Students will need to take the test in computer labs, classrooms and other environments that may or may not be isolated and insulated from other parts of the school, or off-site setting. Granted, the sites of traditional testing have varied somewhat — you can’t make every setting precisely equal to every other setting — but it’s much, much easier to come much, much closer than when trying to do the test online. Desktop versus laptop computers (in myriad models), proximity to Wi-Fi, speed of connection (which may vary minute from minute), how much physical space can be inserted between test-takers — all of these are issues specific to online assessments, and they all will affect the results of the assessment.

So my beef comes down to this about PARCC and the Common Core: Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent rewording standards and developing a new assessment that won’t actually help improve education. Here’s what would help teachers teach kids:

1. Equalize funding and increase it.

2. Lower class sizes, kindergarten through 12th grade, significantly — maximum fifteen per class, except for subjects that benefit from larger classes, like music courses.

3. Treat teachers better. Stop gunning for their jobs. Stop dismantling their unions. Stop driving them from the profession with onerous evaluation tools, low pay and benefits, underfunded pensions, too many students to teach to do their job well, and ridiculous mandates that make it harder to educate kids. Just stop it.

But these common sense suggestions will never fly because no one will make any money off of them, let alone get filthy rich, and education reform is big business — the test developers, textbook companies, technology companies, and high-priced consultants will make sure the gravy train of “reform” never gets derailed. In fact, the more they can make it look like kids are underachieving and teachers are underperforming, the more secure and more lucrative their scam is.

Thus PARCC and Common Core … let the good times roll.

 

Lowered teacher evaluations of Danielson Framework require special training

Posted in June 2014, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on June 12, 2014

In an earlier post I analyzed the “Danielson Framework for Teacher Evaluation,” which has become the adopted model in numerous states, including Illinois, and I pointed out some of its many flaws. One of the aspects of Danielson that has been troubling to teachers from the beginning is its insistence that virtually no teacher is excellent (distinguished, outstanding). When the Framework was designed in 1996 it was intended to rate first-year teachers, so it made sense that very, very few would be rated in the top category. The Framework was revised three times (2007, 2011 and 2013) in an effort to be an evaluation tool for all educators and even non-classroom professionals (like librarians and school nurses). Nevertheless, the idea that virtually no teacher is capable of achieving the top echelon (however it may be labeled in a district’s specific evaluation instrument) has clung to the Framework.

In my district, we were told of the Danielson Framework a full two years before it was implemented, and from the start we were informed that it was all but impossible to achieve an “excellent” rating, even for teachers who have consistently been rated at the top level for several evaluation cycles (pre-Danielson era). After a full year of its being used, it seems that administrators’ predictions were true (or made to be true), and almost no one (or literally no one) received an excellent rating. We were encouraged to compile a substantial portfolio of evidence or artifacts to help insure that our assessment would be more comprehensive than the previous evaluation approach. I foolishly (in retrospect) spent approximately six hours pulling together my portfolio and writing a narrative to accompany it. A portfolio, as it turned out, we never discussed and could only have been glanced at given the timing of its being retrieved and the appointed hour of my conference.

As predicted, I was deemed “proficient.” It was a nearly surreal experience to be complimented again and again only to be informed at the end that I didn’t rate as “excellent” because the Danielson Framework makes it exceptionally difficult for a teacher to receive a top rating. There were literally no weaknesses noted — well, there were comments in the “weakness” areas of the domains, but they were phrased as “continue to …” In other words, I should improve by continuing to do what I’ve been doing all along. In fairness, I should note that the evaluator had numerous teachers to evaluate, therefore observations to record, portfolios to read, summative evaluations to write — so I’m certain the pressure of deadlines figured into the process. Nevertheless, it’s the system that’s in place, and my rating stands as a reflection of my merits as a teacher and my value to the district and the profession — there’s no recourse for appeal, nor, I suppose, purpose in it.

I was feeling a lot of things when I left my evaluation conference: angry, humiliated, defeated, underappreciated, naive, deceived (to list a few). And, moreover, I had zero respect for the Danielson Framework and (to be honest) little remained for my evaluator — though it seems that from the very beginning evaluators are trained (programmed) to give “proficient” as the top mark. After a year of pop-in observations in addition to the scheduled observation, the preparation of a portfolio based on the four domains, a conference, and the delivery of my official evaluation, I literally have no idea how to be a better teacher. Apparently, according to the Framework, I’m not excellent, and entering my fourth decade in the classroom I’m clueless how to be excellent in the World According to Charlotte Danielson (who, by the way, has very little classroom experience).

If the psychological strategy at work is that by denying veteran teachers a top rating, they will strive even harder to achieve the top next time around, it’s an inherently flawed concept, especially when there are no concrete directions for doing things differently. As I said in my previous post on Danielson, it would be like teachers telling their students that they should all strive for an “A” and do “A”-quality work — even though in the end the best they can get on their report card is a “B.” Or business owners telling their salespeople  to strive for through-the-roof commissions, even though no matter how many sales they make, they’re all going to get the same modest paycheck. In the classroom, students would quickly realize that the person doing slightly above average work and the person doing exceptional work are both going to get a “B” … so there’s no point in doing exceptional work. On the job, salespeople would opt for the easiest path to the same result.

Under Danielson, it will take great personal and professional integrity to resist the common-sense urge to be the teacher that one’s evaluation says one is —  to resist being merely proficient if that, in practice, is the best ranking that is available.

My experience regarding the Danielson Framework is not unique in my school, and clearly it’s not unique in Illinois as a whole. Each year administrators must participate in an Administrators Academy workshop, and one workshop being offered by the Sangamon County Regional Office of Education caught my eye in particular: “Communicating with Staff Regarding Performance Assessment,” presented by Dr. Susan Baker and Anita Plautz. The workshop description says,

“My rating has always been “excellent” [sic] and now it’s “basic”. [sic] Why are you doing this to me?” When a subordinate’s performance rating declines from the previous year, how do you prepare to deliver that difficult message? How do you effectively respond to a negative reaction from a staff member when they [sic] receive a lower performance rating? This course takes proven ideas from research and weaves them into practical activities that provide administrators with the tools needed to successfully communicate with others in difficult situations. (Sangamon Schools’ News, 11.3, spring 2014, p. 11; see here to download)

Apparently, then, school administrators are giving so many reduced ratings to teachers that they could benefit from special coaching on how to deliver the bad news so that the teacher doesn’t go postal right there in their office (I was tempted). In other words, the problem isn’t an instrument and an approach that consistently undervalues and humiliates experienced staff members; the problem, rather, is rhetorical — how do you structure the message to make it as palatable as possible?

While I’m at it, I have to point out the fallacious saw of citing “research,” and in this description even “proven ideas,” which is so common in education. The situation that this workshop speaks to, with its myriad dynamics, is unique and only recently a pervasive phenomenon. Therefore, if there have been studies that attempt to replicate the situation created by the Danielson Framework, they must be recent ones and could at best suggest some preliminary findings — they certainly couldn’t prove anything. If the research is older, it must be regarding some other communication situation which the workshop presenters are using to extrapolate strategies regarding the Danielson situation, and they shouldn’t be trying to pass it off as proof. As a literature person, I’m also amused by the word “weaves” in the description as it is often a metaphor for fanciful storytelling — and the contents of the alluded to research must be fanciful indeed. (By the way, I don’t mean to imply that Dr. Baker and Ms. Plautz are trying to deliberately mislead — they no doubt intend to offer a valuable experience to their participants.)

What is more, a lowered evaluation is not just a matter of hurting one’s pride. With recent changes in tenure and seniority laws in Illinois (and likely other states), evaluations could be manipulated to supersede seniority and remove more experienced teachers in favor of less experienced ones — which is why speaking out carries a certain amount of professional risk even for seasoned teachers.

My belief is that the Danielson Framework and the way that it’s being used are part of a calculated effort to cast teachers as expendable cogs in a broken wheel. Education reform is a billions-of-dollars-a-year industry — between textbook publishers, software and hardware developers, testing companies, and high-priced consultants (like Charlotte Danielson) — and how can cash-strapped states justify spending all those tax dollars on reform products if teachers are doing a damn fine job in the first place? It would make no sense.

It would make no sense.

tedmorrissey.com

Notes from the Illinois Education and Technology Conference 2012

Posted in December 2012, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on December 2, 2012

(It’s been several months since my last post.  I’ve been writing a monograph on the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, and it’s soaked up a lot of my time and writing energy.  In particular, Sunday mornings have been my preferred blogging time, but that has also been the best hours to work on my Beowulf project, which is now far enough along that I can start to devote some thinking-writing time to other pursuits, like this blog.  I know:  Hooray!)

I’ve deliberately restricted the subject matter of this blog to my reading and writing life, which means I’ve deliberately avoided writing about other things that are important to me, like education.  But I’ve been a public schoolteacher for 29 years, plus I’ve also been an adjunct instructor at two universities, one public, one Catholic, for 15 years — so I have a lot of opinions about education (informed opinions, I like to believe).  I’ve avoided blogging about education-related issues for a couple of reasons, most likely.  One, so much of my life and my being are devoted to teaching, it’s a pleasant break to blog about other pats of my life that are important to me.  Two — and no. 2 is the more practical matter — to write about education is to, inevitably, critique education, and since my experiences are limited to specific faculties and specific superiors, that means I must at times critique my colleagues, my administrators, and my school board members.

I believe no. 2 is the reason that one hears so little (i.e., reads or sees via interviews, etc.) from actual practicing teachers:  all the power and authority flow in one direction, from the top down.  Quite frankly, a school board or an administration that decides it wants to make a teacher’s life miserable can quite easily do so.  I know that the media makes it sound like “teacher unions” are these all-powerful entities, but the truth is there’s very little associations can do to shield teachers from their superiors’ day-to-day ire.  New tenure/seniority and evaluation laws in Illinois make it fairly easy for administrations to circumvent tenure protection — but even before such laws were adopted, administrations could always rely on the oldest trick in the book:  perhaps they couldn’t very easily out and out fire a teacher they didn’t like, but there was nothing preventing them from making his life so miserable that he opted to resign or retire ahead of schedule.

Consequently, the ones who know education best — the classroom teachers who are in the trenches day in and day out — are left standing silently on the sidelines of debates, allowing their associations to speak for them en masse (associations, a.k.a, unions that have been demonized in the media as all that is wrong with education in the United States).

In my long layoff from blogging, while the presidential campaigns burned with rhetorical fury, often misrepresenting teachers and their collective mission, I decided to lift my own ban on writing about education … and I’ll begin by writing  about the 19th annual Illinois Education & Technology Conference that I attended in Springfield November 29 and 30.  To set the stage, I have been a long-time critic of technology’s powerful role in education.  I’m not a Luddite, not by any means.  I love technology.  I maintain multiple websites, I write two different blogs, I’m on Facebook (too much), I began tweeting before 90% of the world had heard of Twitter, I Skype, I have a smart phone, a netbook, a school-purchased iPad, and this desktop on which I’m writing this post; I love Netflix and Hulu, I have a YouTube channel, I’m on Vimeo, I’ve been into desktop publishing since the mid 80s. . . .

But at the same time, I believe our society and our schools have gone overboard with their worshiping of technology and their advocacy of its use in all circumstances.  Quite simply, when it comes to developing the mind via reading, writing and thinking skills, ancient, time-tested (non-computer-technological) ways are still the best — by far.  (Now that I’ve lifted my moratorium on discussing education-related issues I’m sure I’ll post more on these specific issues in the coming months.)

So I went to the conference as a devout skeptic, but I was truly hoping to find some reason for hope:  some concrete method for employing technology with my students that seemed to be beneficial, or at least some sense that technology would one day be viewed as a tool to be used when circumstances warranted, and not an idol who required daily pacification.

In a word, after two full days of conferencing, I was disappointed.

First of all, there were very few sessions that even pretended to offer practical advice on classroom pedagogy.  Many, if not most, of the sessions were conducted by school IT people, the people who bring technology into their districts then keep it running (and expanding). It’s not universal of course, but many IT people seem to view teachers as impediments to their getting the coolest technology into the hands of students.  One presenter (who I’m sure is a nice guy in the regular part of his life) even complained about teachers who have the audacity to ask “Why?” — that is, teachers who aren’t willing to embrace every piece of hardware and software that appears at their classroom door, but, rather, they respond critically (as in critically thinking) by asking what the potential benefits and drawbacks are.  (One notable exception was Jon Orech, of Downers Grove South High School, who said that asking why is, in fact, the most vital question when it comes to new technology, not what and how as so many seem to think.)

Another IT-person presenter referred to some teachers in his district as being “rock stars,” that is, teachers who use a lot of technology with their students — which of course suggests that more circumspect and more traditional teachers are, sadly, what, Fred Rogers-like? This presenter’s co-presenter expressed what also seems to be a common theme among the pro-tech folks:  That if all teachers would simply embrace all that the newest technologies have to offer, then students could finally reach their full potential.  Sounds great, except I don’t know what it means, in a practical sense, to embrace the newest technologies.  What would that look like in the classroom on a daily basis?  How would teachers have to change their approaches to unleash this revolution?  No one can seem to say.  For that matter, what sorts of potentials in students are we talking about?  It seems to have something to do with making them more creative.  Achievement is a popular concept; students using technology will achieve more or higher … or something.

Although, the gentleman who made the “rock star” comment also stressed to his fellow IT-ers in the audience, do not — repeat, do not — tell your administration that students will do better on achievement tests, because they probably won’t and then what do you do?  He was specifically referring to the concept of one-to-one computing, a trend in education that features giving each student a device of some sort (usually a laptop or a tablet, especially these days an iPad) and having them do just about everything via the device, avoiding traditional textbooks, and paper-based exams and projects, etc.  “Rock-star” man also advised his fellows not to count on saving some money in the budget by reducing the amount of paper being used, because this, in essence, “paperless” approach seems to use just as much paper as always.

One-to-one computing, or at least the idea of it, is big right now, especially in the Chicago suburbs it would seem.  Schools on the east coast started the trend several years ago, and most have already abandoned it — which isn’t stopping us Midwesterners from giving it a spin around the dancefloor.  “Rock star” guy’s co-presenter — both of whom, by the way, seem like very decent and funny human beings — said that their administrator wanted to go to one-to-one because neighboring superintendents were doing it, and he didn’t want to seem out of step.  This is another problem in education:  many school boards and administrators make decisions out of, basically, peer pressure, and not because of solid research results that support the approach, whichever one we’re talking about.

My final observation:  The iPad is extraordinarily popular right now in education — in spite of the fact no one seems to know how to use it in a classroom setting very effectively.  It doesn’t easily integrate with existing equipment, like other non-Mac computers, projectors and printers; plus its on-screen keyboard is awkward to use.  Teachers really, really like it, but they appreciate what it does for their professional and private lives, not for what it can do in the classroom, which doesn’t seem to be much.  I count myself among them.  I like my school-purchased iPad a lot and use it every day … at home.  I’ve found almost nothing that I can do with it in the classroom, in spite of wanting to find useful applications, which was one of the reasons I attended the conference.

Don’t get me wrong:  There were several sessions focused on using the iPad in the classroom, and I of course couldn’t attend all of them — so maybe I just missed the best of the best (my life can be like that) — but based on their descriptions and the sessions I did attend, the suggestions are pretty elementary, and consist of using the iPad in lieu of something else that’s more traditional and more common.  For example, use the iPad to make pictures, well, cave children made pictures on their school-cave walls; or use the iPad to make music, well, … you get it.  In other words, it seems like a lot of the pedagogical suggestions for the iPad are about playing.  And playing, I agree, can be very beneficial and even very educational, but since when did every kid need an iPad to play?

Let me just end by saying that I know tech people are good people, and teachers and administrators who fervently promote technology are good people — it’s just that too many people in education in general are working under the assumption that society has sold them:  that technology is inherently positive, and the more schools use it, the better those schools will be at teaching students.  We used to think smoking was healthy, too, and that asbestos was a wonderful, life-saving product.  Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, we’re wrong; and we have to acknowledge it, and re-think and re-shape what we’re doing.  I’d like to believe that time is coming soon in education, but I suspect we’ll be lounging in our asbestos-tiled rooms  taking drags on our unfiltered Camels for decades to come.

tedmorrissey.com