Category Archives: Curriculum

Busting Out of the Box

For 11 years, I taught students at this time of year one thing: “The Box.” I emphasized the words, repeated the phrase several times in class, and made a running joke of the whole thing. Why? Well, for one thing, my English, reading, and language arts students needed to be able to answer open-ended (written response) questions in a way that pleased the almighty state scorers. When you’re completing the formulaic writing that these high-stakes tests require, you have to meet the three criteria points: restate the prompt, use evidence from the text, and explain. The prompt and writing space just so happen to appear in an ever-important box. Typically, each reading passage also is preceded by a short blurb written – you guessed it – in a box, and some students skip right over the box on practice tests because they want to get through the stupid things. (Who could blame them?) So, I emphasized “The Box” for both reading and writing during the couple of weeks prior to the testing days.

I, being the diligent teacher whose evaluations were tied to these precious high-stakes standardized assessments, actually gave my students all sorts of tricks for the test. If the federal and state governments and school district were going to require us to jump through the hoops, I was going to make damn sure my kids had all of the necessary training. I knew the one thing that could generally assure even my lowest students a single precious point was to read “The Box.” Plus, the prompt that they had to regurgitate like trained monkeys was in “The Box.” And, we were told time and again by testing officials that anything a student wrote outside of “The Box” would not be scored. “The Box, The Box, The Box…”

Joey in the box by Louish PixelLiterally, we are forcing kids to live, breathe, and think inside “The Box” with state and national high-stakes standardized assessments. Are these the types of tests that result in academic achievement? Certainly not. Can you imagine trying to tell Monet, Van Gogh, or Jackson Pollock to paint inside a box? Can you imagine telling Mozart that he had to compose neatly on a single sheet? We may not be stifling the next great artist or musician. But, we absolutely are stifling our kids’ creativity and critical thinking, reading, and writing abilities when we shove these poorly designed assessments at them and limit their thinking on such a grand scale.

Simply put, we are boxing in our kids. We have limited curricula to the narrowest scope in the name of the tests. Whether we like to admit it or not, we teach to the tests and then wonder why our kids are not prepared for writing research papers, analytical papers, or anything that requires them to draw their own conclusions. After all, the standards and their associated tests often draw the conclusions for the students and then ask them how they got there in a neat little A, B, C, or D format. We prohibit kids who aren’t proficient from taking electives, such as art, music, foreign language, vocational and technical classes, and the like because they need more remediation on thinking inside the box.

Then, we see companies like Google and Apple that require their employees to think outside the box, collaborate, design, and dream. We hear about professors bemoaning the fact that our students cannot think on their feet, participate in debates, or complete papers without an immense amount of handholding. We see more college graduates taking five or more years to complete a typical four-year track, just so they can move back in with mom and dad when nobody will hire them.

Where is the light at the end of this very dark tunnel? Who will let our kids out of the boxes that we have been putting them into for far too long?

Through Rose coloured glasses by pangalactic garglebblasterThere are some rays of light appearing. One is that Pennsylvania’s new governor said that school ratings should be less dependent on standardized test scores. Governor Wolf has been touring the state and visiting schools, and I am encouraged by his statement. I don’t know what he saw in terms of authentic learning, but I hope he saw enough word walls and test prep materials to make him wonder what we are doing in the name of education in this great state of ours. I also hope that some teachers, students, or parents were able to get close enough to tell him about the tests without their messages being filtered through the rose-colored glasses so many administrators are wearing these days.

The opt-out movement is in full swing, and the numbers are growing daily nationwide. In Pennsylvania, the numbers are growing, too. The latest Pearson spying scandal dealt a blow to the PARCC tests. Finally, droves of parents are starting to question the tests, the standards, and the curricula at their students’  schools.

Will high-stakes testing end tomorrow? No. But, we have parents who are questioning the entire system. We have kids who are refusing the tests. We have teachers who are refusing to give the tests. And, we have some lawmakers and leaders who are beginning to truly take a look at the current state of education.

We still have a long way to go. But, we finally are seeing steps in the right direction. Teachers are notorious for saying that the tide has to turn and that the pendulum eventually has to swing the other way. After all, education reform and initiatives seem to go on a cycle and teachers have to ride out the waves or completely bail out, as I did.

The one thing that hasn’t changed after all these years, though, is the fact that students remain at the center of education. These kids need to be prepared for the next step in their journey. If we continue to box them in, if we continue to narrow the scope and follow curricula that follows the tests, we are doing our students an injustice that we cannot easily correct. If Governor Wolf has his eye on testing, if the opt-out movement continues to grow, if people push back against Pearson long enough, things will change.

That means districts need to be ready and willing to view their curricula and programs with a critical eye and get back to the business of educating kids and preparing them for life beyond the boxes. Is your district ready?

Images via Flickr by Louish Pixel and panhgalactic gargle blaster and the heart of gold

It’s Time

It’s that time of year again. Everyone is counting down to the tests or counting down the days until the tests are over. Administrators can tell you how many days until the tests begin without even thinking about it. Teachers have countdowns in their lesson plans and on their boards. egg_timer by openDemocracyParents think about which days they need to be sure to get their children to bed on time and which mornings they need to eat a good breakfast, per the directives they’ve been receiving from the schools once a week since classes resumed after Christmas break. The nurses will tell you that their offices are busier with requests for Tums and Tylenol, from students who have upset stomachs and headaches from the stress of the tests. The secretaries at the secondary level will tell you about the questions they’re already getting from kids who are planning to come to school late on testing days and what their excuses need to say.

But, what about the kids? In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve taken a much longer break than anticipated from this blog (and newsletter – sorry, loyal subscribers) precisely because I’ve been listening to the kids and their parents. I’ve been following opt-out channels to see how the parents are wording their opt out letters and how they are handling pushback from district administrators. I’ve been having Facebook message sessions with parents asking questions about how to opt out, and I’ve been sharing links to resources and information. I have been quiet so that I could listen to the people who are so desperately fighting this fight for wider curriculum, more opportunities for learning and understanding, and fewer tests and test prep lessons.

Yes, the parents are upset about what their kids are missing out on, as they should be. One mother in particular was in tears because her son’s schedule is full of remedial courses because he can’t pass the high-stakes tests; in turn, he cannot take the art class or vocational class that interests him. Other parents at the secondary level worry about what their advanced students are missing out on in the name of test prep and testing. Things like analytical writing, independent reading projects, in-depth research papers and projects, and midterms and finals – the things they worry their children need to be able to do to truly be prepared for college – are put off until AP courses or are not offered at all They, too, have every right to be upset.

But, what about the kids? When you really listen to the students, they are begging for more. Elementary students watch their parents sign checks and ask if they will teach them “how to write like that.” Kids are watching science experiment clips on their tablets and asking teachers when they get to learn “that kind of fun stuff.” Other kids want to know why school is so boring and how long their teachers have to stand at the copier making all of those testing worksheets. Similarly, secondary students ask teachers to stay after class to teach them cursive because they are worried about not being able to write the required SAT paragraph or sign their names. They ask math teachers about creating personal budgets and balancing checkbooks. And, they ask when they will have to take a midterm or a final because they don’t know how to study for “big exams like they will have to do in college.”

Growing by  Strep72This is what happens when you try to standardize the art of teaching and learning. Kids do not come in a one-size-fits-all package. Young students want to explore and learn and talk and share. They want to get their hands dirty and create. Others want to read that book from cover to cover because it sounds like a funny story, not because it’s on someone’s recommended reading list. Still others want to do math in a way that makes sense, and not in the one way that is best for the test because it will get them the  most points. They are sick to death of hearing the word “test,” and they are frustrated that school seems like a months-long marathon to prepare for a test that determines their worth when they’re still dreaming of becoming a superhero, a princess, a chef, or a combination of the three. One thing they don’t want to become is a teacher. Who can blame them?

And, those are just the elementary kids. The secondary students are finding themselves and realizing what their values, beliefs, and interests are. They want to take electives so they have opportunities to learn about various cultures and languages, vocations, art and music, and other programs while they are still students and have time to figure out what they really want to do after those four yeas of high school. Unfortunately, they are told they cannot take those classes until junior or senior year, if at all, because of the testing requirements of the freshman and sophomore years or because those programs have been sacrificed due to the testing requirements and lack of funds.

It’s time to opt out.

It’s time to listen to the teachers, who have been warning of the adverse effects of too many standards and high-stakes tests for years.

It’s time to listen to the kids.

It’s time to listen to the parents.

It’s time to take back public education while we still can.

It’s time.

For further information regarding what the true public education stakeholders – the students, parents, and teachers – have to say about high-stakes testing and opting out, check out these resources:

For more information on how to opt out your child, visit:

Images via Flickr by openDemocracy and Strep72

Resisting Cookie-Cutter Test Prep: #WeKnow

This is the night I used to dread as much as the night before the first student day. It wasn’t going back to work that was the problem. It was knowing what the January on the Drying Rack by alykatweeks after Christmas break meant: test prep and the big push. In my former district, that’s what it was called: “the push.” We were tasked with writing push plans for the number of weeks between the first day back and the first day of the test; my final year of teaching, it was no longer called our “ten-week push plan” because there weren’t even ten full weeks’ worth of instructional days, so administration just called it our “push plan.” The entire district was scheduled for an in-service day because there was a large wrestling tournament held at the high school, and teachers used the day to write ten-week plans incorporating data, best practices, and the standards to get students ready for the tests. (No word on how losing an instructional day to a wrestling tournament helped student achievement, though.) Academic vocabulary and higher-order questions were the emphasis my final year. And, I would spend this night, the night before the first day back, fretting about the kids that I knew would not be ready, the instructional time lost to test prep, and all of the things I wanted to do with my students but was hesitant to do because of the tests.

Here’s the thing: the years that I spent using test prep materials and emphasizing test prep in my push plans turned out to be the lower test score years. In reality, my students’ test scores improved more during the years that I used novels and literature circles and journaling and creative writing and partner/group activities and the things that I wanted to do to inspire and engage students. The years that I made the test a part of our subconscious turned out to be better testing years. I was happier, my students were happier, and it just so happened that my administrators were happier when the numbers jumped. None of this surprised me, but nobody really wanted to hear the truth about what worked in my classroom.

When I taught in spite of the tests, when I had the data and the push plan in a folder on my desk but not in the forefront of my mind, my kids read more, wrote more, learned more, and understood more. The tests were just an afterthought and their higher scores were just one result instead of THE result.

This won’t work for everyone. Teachers have administrators breathing down their necks, asking what they are doing to prepare students and how they are accomplishing the push, and demanding they show data that is aligned to all of the test prep materials and assessments. I didn’t throw my rebellion in anyone’s face; I just quietly did what I knew was best for my students and myself. It kept us sane in the midst of the testing madness.

cookie cutters by scottfiddPledge to break out of the cookie-cutter testing mold this second semester. Dare to use engaging lessons and strategies. Invite creativity back into the classroom. I urge you to opt out of testing and to share opt-out information with parents. The least you can do is opt your students and yourself out of the test prep craziness. Do your students and yourself a favor and do what you know works. You know your students. You know what they need. After all, you are a professional.

Teachers know better than anyone what kids need, despite what many of the headlines and social media chatter have been saying lately. With all of the hashtag backlash after Arne Duncan’s ridiculous tweet and his online education discussion with a pop singer, it is time to start a new trend. What do teachers know? Here are some ideas to get you started:

#WeKnow kids need to be inspired
#WeKnow kids need the arts
#WeKnow kids need foreign language
#WeKnow kids need libraries
#WeKnow kids rely on school breakfast and lunch programs
#WeKnow technology is a tool and not a solution
#WeKnow the toxic effects of high-stakes testing
#WeKnow kids need local public schools
#WeKnow kids rely on school nurses and guidance counselors
#WeKnow education reform is not about kids

You may not keep your New Year’s resolutions. But, you can pledge to take back your classroom, to be the teacher you want to be, and to show everyone what teachers do, in fact, know about teaching. #WeKnow.

Images via Flickr by alykat and scottfidd

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

As our local school district prepares for a school board vote on its new “Core Curriculum,” we can’t help but wonder the cost of writing new curriculum when there are so many questions surrounding the Common Core Standards. All around the country, school districts have been making tough curriculum calls since the Common Core was rolled out five years ago. With the pressure of getting kids ready for the tests and, for some districts, getting teachers and students ready to “Race to the Top,” administrators scrambled to write new curriculum focused on the Common Core. Textbooks, workbooks, novels based on Common Core recommended reading lists, etc. were purchased, and teachers were tasked with learning yet another set of standards and yet another new curriculum.

Fast-forward five years, and school districts around the country have bought into the Bored by Gunnar Þór GunnarssonPearson testing machine: literally buying the state tests from Pearson, and also purchasing the test prep materials that are the bane of so many teachers’ existence. In our local district, the curriculum narrowed to the Common Core to such an extent that science and social studies essentially were tossed to the side in the elementary grades as more hours were devoted to reading and math; teachers were told to do the “fun stuff” after the tests. Secondary students not projected to be proficient were scheduled for double periods of English and math at the expense of art, music, and vocational courses that they wanted to be taking – not to mention the courses that ultimately could lead to their vocation in life.

Thousands of dollars were spent on substitutes so teachers could write curriculum with the Common Core at its center, and countless professional development hours were spent on “rolling it out” to the faculty as a whole and attempting to get buy-in from people who had heard the same old song and dance routine as each new set of standards had been adopted by the state over the years.

Five years ago, I was one of the lead curriculum writers, in my position as a secondary literacy coach. We scoured the standards and attempted to bridge the old curriculum to the new with some of our existing materials and to make connections between the old and new standards. We had to incorporate our administrators’ lists of best practices in instruction while sticking to the budget set by the curriculum director. We were fortunate enough to have teams of teachers helping to write the curriculum, but nobody was quite sure why we were working so hard on the Common Core when our own state had yet to adopt the standards. We were reminded to incorporate higher-level thinking skills, the “new” Common Core vocabulary, as much informational text as possible, and opportunities for practice writing open-ended responses to text. We did what was asked of us because it was a necessary part of our livelihood and because it gave us a tiny place in the decision-making process.

One main problem? There was only so much room for teachers around the table. Not everyone could be involved in writing the curriculum, so there were people who felt left out, who wanted their opinions and voices to be heard, who wanted to be part of the decision-making process before simply being handed the new curriculum binder at the start of the school year. It wasn’t financially feasible to get substitutes for all teachers, but there should have been a way to give them a glimpse at the curriculum prior to its acceptance.

The same hamster wheel was at work this past summer. Teachers were invited to participate in writing yet another set of curriculum, but the emails stressed that participation would be on a first-come, first-served basis and seating was limited. Certain teachers were contacted directly and asked to be a part of the process, which is par for the course in our local district. The administrators tend to pick the least squeaky wheels, and the ones they know will do the job at hand and not complain (at least not publicly) about what they are being asked to do. After the curriculum was completed, teachers presented it at a school board meeting (with extremely little advertisement to the public beforehand).

Before the board so much as votes on the new curriculum, binders full of it were prepared to hand out to all of the classroom teachers. Interestingly enough, itinerants were not given the new curriculum, even though their evaluations are based on students’ scores, just like the classroom teachers’. Also interesting is the fact that the curriculum never was made available for review or discussion prior to its “roll out,” meaning that the majority of the districts’  teachers were not involved in the curriculum writing process and had no idea what the new curriculum looked like until they received it in a binder the first day of school.

News of the teachers’ presentation of the new “Core Curriculum” at the August school board meeting was not well advertised, either. Scores of teachers complained that they had not known about the presentation until they saw a write-up in the local newspaper the day after the meeting. Conveniently enough, the October board meeting will take place at the furthermost high school in the district; it’s not an accident that the board will vote on the “Core Curriculum” at a building 45 minutes away from the central offices and the hub of the community.

The implications of this entire process are astounding. We realize this situation is happening in our local district, but if it can happen here, there is reason to believe it can happen anywhere.

  • The teachers who wrote the curriculum are in the unique position of knowing the curriculum far better than their colleagues. But, they also are the subject of ridicule because they aligned the curriculum with the Common Core when other teachers are standing together to speak out against the Common Core.
  • The district is using the new curriculum before the board approves it; it must be a “given” that it will be adopted, though there has been very little public discourse about it.
  • It appears as though the district wholeheartedly supports the Common Core, since they have written two sets of curriculum with the Core at their foundations. The problem now is, the state may not be continuing its support of the Core. Current Governor Tom Corbett is calling for a “review of the standards” and blames his predecessor for the standards’ very existence in the Commonwealth. Others in the PA legislature are pointing out that the governor “pushed these standards.” The debate, at least in PA, seems to be far from over.
  • School districts are spending millions of dollars on testing and everything that goes along with it, including rewriting their curriculum every time the state changes its mind about the standards. That money could have been very well spent in other places, and it is a huge financial burden that most districts can’t shoulder in the wake of slashed education budgets.
  • The majority of teachers (and parents) do not get to participate in curriculum decisions, yet they are the very people who have to face the reality of the curriculum every day.
  • The teachers who take part in the curriculum writing see it as a choice between the lesser of two evils: on one hand, they don’t necessarily support or agree with the Common Core and its associated tests; on the other hand, if they help write curriculum they at least feel as though they have some say in what they teach in their classrooms.

We feel for the teachers who didn’t get a chance to participate in the process or even see the curriculum prior to having to teach it. We especially feel for the elementary teachers who did participate in the process, only to be hoodwinked by the 17-page lesson plan unveiled at the start of the school year.

The current state of education, not just in our district but across the country, puts millions of teachers in this very same position: either teach the curriculum being handed to you and assess your students on the district’s (and the state’s) time table, or risk losing your job. Continue to jump through the Common Core/Pearson hoops, or take a stand as a group and demand a change? What are teachers to do when they are stuck between this rock and a hard place?

Some teachers are taking a stand. Some join with parent groups as in Lee County, Florida (we regret the fact that Lee County reversed its decision to opt out of all high-#IChooseToRefusestakes testing, after being threatened with losing $280 million in state funding, but the fact that parents and teachers stood together to fight the testing was a victory in itself). Some learn about the options for opting out and share the information with parents. Some refuse to give the tests. The problem is, this is just “some.” Until the majority of teachers band together, real change will not occur. What would happen if EVERY teacher refused to give the test? What would happen if EVERY teacher refused a “Common Core” curriculum? It’s a lot easier for a large group to move the rock than one or two individuals.

Student Image via Flickr by Gunnar Þór Gunnarsson