Category Archives: Opt Out!

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

The Double-Edged Sword of College and Career Readiness

Let’s get one thing clear immediately. District and state officials always have a choice when it comes to testing and education. Florida is rolling back assessments in grade K-2, while other districts require more practice assessments. Some school districts support teachers who refuse to administer the high-stakes tests, while others threaten and suspend teachers who do so. Some of the more courageous states and districts are opting out of high-stakes testing, while others are swallowing PARCC and the Smarter Balanced assessments, among others, hook, line, and sinker.

Bad Grade by Robert HruzekThat’s why I had to chuckle when Glen Ridge High School, in New Jersey, recently made the news for cutting midterms and finals to prepare for the new PARCC test. Our school district revamped its secondary grading policy and did away with midterms and finals nearly ten years ago and adopted a retest policy to mirror that of the Pennsylvania Keystone Exams. The grading policy still is a point of contention in the district, as is the elimination of midterms and finals.

The problem with high schools moving in this direction is the mixed message that it sends. On one hand, we have schools adopting the Common Core State Standards that assert the “college and career readiness” mantra. If students are to be ready for college and a career, so the thinking goes, they need to demonstrate proficiency on a slew of standards. Yet, the first round of Smarter Balanced cut scores shows that a mere 11% of students will score at a Level 4 in either ELA or math and be ready for college. The very tests that are supposed to prepare students for college project that the vast majority won’t be ready.

Along with the Common Core come the high-stakes assessments – PARCC, Smarter Balanced, MAP, and so on. Schools lose weeks of instruction in the name of test preparation and administration. Teachers lose the ability to teach curriculum ripe with collaboration, meaningful activities, and real-world application as they are handed packaged materials from big-money companies like Pearson or their own district officials. Secondary students lose out on electives and vocational/technical classes as they are scheduled for more math and ELA classes to get them ready for the test. Let’s be honest: the standards and tests do nothing other than prepare students for the test, not for college and their career.

On the other hand, college is synonymous with midterms and finals. Students from our local high schools, Glen Ridge High School, and other schools that have eliminated midterms and finals will enter these institutions of higher learning unprepared to tackle midterms and finals. One argument is that high schools should not follow what colleges do, just because colleges do it. Admittedly, there is some validity to that argument. But, until colleges make a drastic change and overhaul their own assessment systems (which doesn’t seem likely in the near future), school districts are doing a disservice to their students when they say they are taking part in “college and career readiness” but are not providing the study skills and experience necessary to prepare students for midterms and finals.

School districts cannot have it both ways. They cannot adopt the Common Core State Standards and claim to be moving students toward “college and career readiness” when the standards and tests aimed at doing just that are failing students. Districts also cannot tout “college and career readiness” when they eliminate midterms and finals.

Glen Ridge board member Michael de Leeuw was wrong when he said, “We don’t have a choice – that’s just the way it is.” Districts always have a choice. They need to choose to do what’s right for students.

Image via Flickr by Robert Hruz

TRUTHful Parent-Teacher Conferences

‘Tis the season for parent-teacher conferences. I always looked forward to meeting parents that I only had communicated with over the phone or through email, to sharing students’ progress, and to determining ways in which to support students at school and at home. But, I always dreaded the part where I had to share information about students’ standardized test scores, diagnostic test scores, and predicted test scores.

When Pennsylvania decided to include the Keystone Exams as part of the state’s graduation requirements, I told parents that I would do everything I could to help their students meet benchmarks, make progress, and “beat the test.” I never gave up on any of my kids, but I knew that some of them just wouldn’t make it, regardless of the extra time we spent working before and after school, the time they spent in tutoring sessions with other teachers, and the time they spent on extra practice activities at home. These were kids who hadn’t “grown up” with the Common Core State Standards; they had been in classes covering the CCSS for only one or two years, but the state decided they had to pass the Keystone Exams in order to graduate. It was unfair, and I knew that.

Parent teacher conference by Innovation SchoolAnd so, I had to look parents in the eye and tell them that even though I saw their students working unbelievably hard in my class and making growth in their reading and writing skills, they were not on track to score in the proficient range on the tests. Parents worried. Sometimes, students cried. And every conference night, I went home feeling happy about seeing so many parents but incredibly defeated because of the news I had just shared with them. I felt even more disgusted by the fact that the tests and the scores became the focal point of the conferences, when I knew that they should not have been.

Now, there is news about students opting out in record numbers in Colorado and Florida. There also is news about PA superintendents, school boards, and legislators who want to cut the cord between the tests and graduation status. Finally, people other than teachers are beginning to realize that one test should not determine a student’s future, especially when that test is grounded in standards that are under such scrutiny.

If I were still in the classroom, my parent-teacher conferences this year would be so much simpler. I’d share information on how to opt out. I’d tell parents about students’ rights and their own rights. I’d tell them that the scores really don’t mean much of anything for their students’ actual life goals or chances of getting into college or a branch of the armed services. I’d tell them the TRUTH about the standardized tests.

Wouldn’t it be something if Pennsylvania would make the news, like Colorado and Florida, for the numbers of students opting out? Wouldn’t it send quite a message if not one of the state’s districts met the participation rate for taking the tests?

But, it’s going to take effort and courage on the part of the teachers to communicate with parents. Parents may not have access to the information they need to opt out their children. They also may be getting the wrong message from administration or central offices when they ask about opting out. Parent-teacher conferences are the prime time for teachers to share information with parents. Who better to have the students’ best interests at heart?

For more information on opting out, visit http://unitedoptout.com and http://nopacommoncore.com/opt-info/, or follow Pennsylvanians Against Common Core on Facebook and Twitter.

Image via Flickr by Innovation School

Bad Grade by Robert Hruzek

Robo-Graders: One more reason to end the testing madness

The school year is gaining steam and the testing madness is getting under way again. All across the country, districts already are assessing students, using both practice assessments to get them ready for the “real” tests this spring, and district assessments to see if they are on track for the practice assessments to get ready for the “real” tests this spring. I can’t help but think about the April 2014 Boston Globe article “Flunk the robo-graders” by Les Perelman and wish, once again, it would stop.

Bad Grade by Robert HruzekThe issue? Robo-graders fail to score student essays proficiently; yet, the scores determine student’ proficiency levels and teachers’ evaluation scores and, in some states, teachers’ merit pay. If the robo-graders cannot score the tests properly, the test scores should not be used to evaluate anyone or anything. And, if Pearson and the other testing companies will not even allow access or “open-ended demonstrations of their robo-graders,” states should not award them contracts. Period.

One month into my first teaching job 12 years ago, my district sent me to a conference led by a state trainer; she had been scoring PSSAs (the Pennsylvania assessments at the time), and Intermediate Units brought her in to lead conferences on scoring for new teachers, teachers in grades just beginning to be assessed, and so on. I guess the thinking was, if teachers learned what the scorers were looking for, they could teach their students to write proficient responses. And, if teachers knew what the scorers were looking for, they could score district and practice assessments more effectively. All of this meant that we were teaching to the test, of course, but nobody mentioned that.

Now, 12 years later, humans are being taken out of the grading equation, as Pearson and other testing companies roll out their robo-graders to remove one of the two human essay scorers. We already have taken good writing and grammar instruction out of schools and curriculum and replaced it with “formula writing” as we are pressured to teach kids to “beat the tests.” Now we are taking people who can read and communicate coherently out of scoring essays. In what world does any of this make sense?

Get Ready, Get Set, Write by Melanie HoltsmanIn truth, the robo-graders are scoring student essays on length and word usage most of the time. No English teacher worth his salt will tell students that it’s “quantity over quality” or to “just use a lot of big words,” and yet that is exactly what students are going to have to do in order to score well: “Robo-graders do not score by understanding meaning but almost solely by use of gross measures, especially length and the presence of pretentious language.” Perelman goes on to say, “Papers written under time pressure often have a significant correlation between length and score. Robo-graders are able to match human scores simply by over-valuing length compared to human readers. A much publicized study claimed that machines could match human readers. However, the machines accomplished this feat primarily by simply counting words.”

Need an example? Perelman gives a fantastic one in his opening: “‘According to professor of theory of knowledge Leon Trotsky, privacy is the most fundamental report of humankind. Radiation on advocates to an orator transmits gamma rays of parsimony to implode.'” Confused? So was I. That’s the point. This is gibberish. Yet, the robo-graders from Pearson would consider this “exceptionally good prose.”

But, the problem isn’t just with Pearson. When three computer science students, two from MIT and one from Harvard, developed an app that generates gibberish, “one of the major robo-graders, IntelliMetric, has consistently scored above the 90th percentile overall. In fact, IntelliMetric scored most of the incoherent essays they generated as ‘advanced’ in focus and meaning as well as in language use and style.” What are teachers, students, and districts to do, when states are contracting with these companies and expecting students to score well?

The answer is the one I have been advocating for quite some time: Stop the tests. The list of reasons to discontinue the use of these high-stakes tests is growing (I can think of about a million), as researchers begin to determine the invalidity of the tests and the processes associated with them:

  1. The robo-graders are not at all capable of scoring the student essays.
  2. Dr. Walter Stroup determined, after analyzing every Texas student’s math score, that 72% of the test scores remained the same, regardless of the student’s grade or the subject being tested. He concluded that the tests do not actually measure what the kids learn in the classroom; rather, they test how well kids can take a test.
  3. Dr. Denny Way, senior vice president for measurement services at Pearson, made a public statement, after Stroup’s determination, confessing that the tests are only 50% “insensitive” to instruction, so Pearson sells products knowing full well that they don’t measure half of what goes on in a classroom.
  4. In April 2014, the American Statistical Association condemned the use of student test scores to rate teacher performance because teachers account for only 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores

No other industry continues to use products knowing that they are ineffective and flawed. No other professionals are measured using such flawed testing materials and processes. No parent uses a product to measure any aspect of her child if she knows the results are unreliable. Would you use a set of bathroom scales or a thermometer if you knew it was broken?

#IChooseToRefuseSo, why are we doing this to our students and our teachers? Why do states and districts continue to hand out money to Pearson and other testing companies when it is becoming all too clear that not one of their products is up to snuff?

The testing madness has to stop. Go to school board meetings. Email or call your state leaders. Email or call your national leaders. Visit UNITED OPT OUT. Vote for education this November. Stand up for our students and teachers.

Still not convinced? Read “More incoherent babble: Rating a generated essay

Images via Flickr by Robert Hruzek and Melanie Holtsman

The Tide Is Turning

Teachers are notorious for being the ones who don’t want to rock the boat. They are hesitant to speak up and speak out, fearing backlash from administrators, parents, the community, and other stakeholders.

But, we teach the First Amendment in our classrooms. We teach our students to stand up for themselves and to support their ideas and opinions with what they learn. So, we must practice what we preach, if we are to be the role models and teachers that we strive to be. We are the ones who know what will and will not work in our classrooms. If people don’t hear from us, they won’t know what things are really like. If people don’t hear from us, they won’t know that we see an urgent need for change. If people don’t hear from us, they won’t know the TRUTH.

The First Amendment by Ed Uthman

Yet, the current system places “gag orders” on teachers. Yes, even in a country where ALL of its citizens are protected by the First Amendment in the United States Constitution, teachers do not have the right to free speech. As Franchesca Warren points out in “The Deafening Silence of Teachers,” the teachers do not feel that they have the ability to speak without fear of retribution: “Somewhere between the United States Constitution and modern day education reform in America, teachers have lost their ability to speak up about injustices without fear of retribution.” And, she questions why teaching is the only profession where this seems to be the case.

Warren points out what we have seen since August, when I wrote my letter to Campbell Brown about her group’s attack on teacher tenure in New York. The emails, messages, and phone calls have been pouring in ever since from teachers across the country – teachers who thank us for speaking out when they cannot. We have provided a space for anonymous submissions simply because teachers have expressed a desire to speak out without fearing for their jobs. But, we still hear from teachers who want to talk “off the record,” who don’t want to share their names, and who only want to interact with us privately because they are afraid, are being intimidated, or both.

Warren perfectly captures what we are experiencing with our followers: “there are educators who are petrified of speaking out against the wrongs we are currently witnessing in education today. To demonstrate how freedom of speech is nonexistent in some schools, walk into any school and ask a teacher to go on record to discuss the ills in public education. Instead of getting an abundance of answers you will be met with a deafening silence. Silence not because teachers don’t have an opinion, but silence because their words many times are used to hurt them professionally. Apparently, the First Amendment does not apply to teachers.” Warren describes the same problems we are seeing with TRUTH In Teaching.

She approached teachers to write about their classroom experiences, only to be told that they were too scared about upsetting their principals if they did. Her reaction? “I was floored. When did it become okay for administrators, school boards and district offices to decide what OUR truths were?” We want to know the same thing.

But, in the past few weeks, we have seen the power of teachers speaking up. Publicly. Loudly. Warren points to district administrators like John Kuhn who have had enough: read his “Exhaustion of the American Teacher.”

We at TRUTH In Teaching have been bringing you the stories of teachers like Susan Bowles and Peggy Robertson, both currently teaching while refusing to administer assessments and using social media to explain themselves.

We also have been sharing blog posts and updates from York City Public Schools, where teachers, community members, and now education activists are fighting back against Governor Tom Corbett’s appointee’s attempted corporate takeover of York City schools.

Free speech = reason = progress by Simon GibbsAnd, we have been sharing news out of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, where teachers are receiving overwhelming support from the parents, students, and community as they strike to make their voices heard.

Even more encouraging is the fact that students are taking up the charge against unfair practices and changes in the classroom. Not only are students supporting teachers in Reynoldsburg, but students in Denver walked out to protest the new AP U.S. History curriculum.

Look. Listen. Teachers are not just beginning to rock the boat. They are starting a tidal wave, along with parents, students, and community supporters. The more voices that join in, the louder we will get. There are more teachers than there are opponents.

Speak up. Join in. Send education reform, Common Core, and the people trying to silence us out to sea. It’s time.

Images via Flickr by Ed Uthman and Simon Gibbs

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

Our Kids Are Not For Sale: The Danger in Challenging Pearson

This is the first of many in our new Our Kids Are Not For Sale series. It is a sad day, indeed, when we need to come together to figure out a way to let our administrators, state and federal leaders, ed reformers, and big business CEOs know that we are not going to sell our kids to the highest bidder, in the name of education.

The Backstory

Dr. Walter Stroup is more than likely a name you’ve never heard, but it should be. In a September 3 Observer article, Jason Stanford brought Stroup’s story to light. A tenured associate professor in the University of Texas College of Education, who earned his doctorate in education from Harvard University, Stroup was celebrated by Texas lawmakers and earned a National Science Foundation grant for his work with a cloud-computing simulation designed to teach kids math. His work with the program, called the Algebra Project, was the reason UT recruited him initially. And, Texas Instruments asked him to use its TI Navigator calculator to work with the younger students who had failed the state math tests.

By 2006, he had implemented the math curriculum at a Dallas-area middle school with “impressive results.” The lawmakers and teachers were happy. But, Stroup knew that he needed to measure the improvements to show just how successful his methods had been. He used the tests available to him, the state’s math tests, but when the scores came back, the kids’ scores Math Fact Test by Judy Baxterhad risen a mere 10%. The test results certainly didn’t match what he had observed in the classrooms, or what the teachers’ expectations were.

Stroup decided to put the tests to the test. He determined, after entering every Texas student’s math score, that 72% of the test scores remained the same, regardless of the student’s grade or the subject being tested. In fact, if a math question were replaced with a science question, a student’s score wouldn’t be affected. Stroup concluded that the tests do not actually measure what the kids learn in the classroom; rather, they test how well kids can take the tests. Stroup went to the hearings before the Texas legislature in June of 2012 prepared to share his results and to testify that the state had signed a $468 million contract with Pearson to deliver the tests when all they were getting was the wrong testing tool.

As Diane Ravitch points out in her blog post, Stroup did the unimaginable. He challenged Pearson publicly, before its financial supporters and the world. Even though, two months earlier, in April, the American Statistical Association had condemned the use of student test scores to rate teacher performance because teachers account for only 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, Pearson worked behind the scenes and out of the public’s eye to discredit Stroup. According to Pearson, Stroup mislabeled a column on his spreadsheet. Stanford’s article points to a public statement by Dr. Walter “Denny” Way, senior vice president for measurement services at Pearson, that states the tests are only 50% “insensitive” to instruction. This was a glaring confession by Pearson; essentially, Dr. Way admitted that Pearson sells products knowing they don’t measure half of what goes on in a classroom.

The Aftermath

Stanford reports that Dr. Stroup’s tenure now is in jeopardy. During his Post-Tenure Review Report, Stroup was given an unsatisfactory rating. He was accused of publishing too little and presenting too seldom, but he had conducted four conference presentations, and he had done the cloud-computing work. Eventually, UT changed his rating to “does not meet expectations,” put him on an aggressive publishing schedule, and forced him to move his office three times. This all should be alarming, because the University of Texas recruited him for the very work he presented before the legislature.

The problem is, Pearson is a benefactor of UT College of Education. The Pearson Foundation created a $1 million endowment at the College of Education, which resulted in the Pearson Center for Applied Psychometric Research. Their endowment funded an endowed professorship and an endowed faculty fellowship, and Pearson seems to be funding itsMoney by 401kcalculator nonprofit through its parent company at the University of Texas, as it did in New York (and for which it was fined $7.7 million, according to Ravitch).

Meanwhile, Dr. Sharon Vaughn, the H. E. Hartfelder/Southland Corp. Regents Chair and executive director of The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at the University of Texas College of Education simultaneously is consulting for Pearson Learning. Pearson also published an e-textbook written by Vaughn. Now, she’s presenting Pearson’s iLit. A webinar featuring Vaughn was moderated by John Guild, senior product and marketing manager for Pearson Lit. It appears as though UT’s Pearson Center is doing quite a bit of promotional work for Pearson, while Dr. Stroup is being pushed out of the University.

The Takeaways

I am appalled by this news both as a parent and as a teacher. At TRUTH In Teaching, we keep reading and sharing articles about how much money Pearson is making, about how politicians are getting involved in the “business of school,” about how ed reformers want to privatize public education in this country to make even more money, and the news just keeps getting worse and worse for our kids. I don’t even know where to begin with my outrage. There are so many things these articles tell me…

  • Pearson may stop at nothing to grow its profits
  • When colleges of education are in bed with Pearson, future generations of teachers already are buying into the testing culture and data reporting on which Pearson relies
  • Higher-ed institutions are under the control of big business
  • Pearson’s nonprofits and for-profits are one in the same entity
  • Pearson will admit that its tests do not test children’s knowledge, yet they continue to peddle to states and schools – worse yet, the states and schools continue to buy into the Pearson machine
  • Because Pearson knows that it is testing how well kids take a test, they sell more materials to states and schools to prepare kids to take their tests – can you say, “Monopoly”?
  • Teachers, under fire for their kids’ test scores, cancel field trips and engaging learning activities and replace them with Pearson-produced worksheets and test prep books to get them ready to take the tests
  • Teachers have to teach a whole new set of vocabulary to get kids ready for the test (conclude, passage, analyze, argument paper, etc.)

This era of business-dominated politics and education must come to an end. The days of subjecting students to testing that does not measure anything of value must stop. Pearson is attempting to buy education, and state legislatures are allowing it to happen.

Go to school board meetings. Talk to other teachers. Learn about opting out. No matter how we do it, we need to let all of the decision makers know Our Kids Are Not For Sale!

Test Image via Flickr by Judy Baxter
Money Image via Flickr by 401kcalculator

An Important Lesson Out of Ohio: Don’t Let Your School District “Sell” Your Kids

When I first read “The quote that reveals how at least one corporate school reformer really views students” on Valerie Strauss’ blog The Answer Sheet a few days ago, I was outraged. I immediately contacted my TRUTH partner, Angela, and told her that my blood was boiling and that I was not sure how to proceed. Originally, I thought we should attack the post using Angela’s parent perspective – and, we still may. But, I had to respond first, because I couldn’t forget about the quotation that got me so riled up in the first place:

“The business community is the consumer of the educational product. Students are the educational product. They are going through the education system so that they can be an attractive product for business to consume and hire as a workforce in the future.”

Money by 401kcalculatorBefore I get accused of taking them out of context, I want you to see the words. Please, read them a few times. If you were students in my classroom, I’d ask you to highlight the key words to help you summarize the quotation. Then, I’d ask you to “peel the onion” and get to the heart of the author’s words. Can you summarize it in a short statement? I can: “Corporate ed reformers are using our children (from the time they hit kindergarten) as pawns in a moneymaking scheme.” Put even more simply: “Kids can make businesses wealthy if ed reformers complete the takeover of America’s public schools.”

Now, for the context. Ohio House Bill 597 seeks to repeal the adoption of the Common Core Standards, and business executives were testifying, beginning the week of August 25, in support of the Common Core. Among business organizations supporting the Common Core are the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce and Chris Kershner, who is “with the chamber.” The sickening statement above is attributed to Kershner. The quotation first appeared in a WOSU News report, and Strauss’ blog post is a scathing review of Kershner and other business-minded individuals who are trying to privatize education and eliminate public schools in this country forever. Strauss ends her post with these words:

“And there you have it. Education isn’t so much about exploration of the world or learning how to be a knowledgeable citizen who can participate in  American democracy, but rather to serve the economy. If you didn’t know before, now you do.”

I agree with Strauss 100%. That’s her summary statement not just of Kershner’s words but of education reform as a whole. All of the reasons that education in this country is important – building better citizens, fostering curiosity and empathy and citizenship, encouraging and praising, guiding and nurturing – become moot points for the ed reformers who see education as the final frontier in mass marketing. Conquer the public school system and get pockets lined with gold.

Teachers have seen the writing on the wall for years. The ed reformers come after our unions, our seniority, our tenure, our pensions, our evaluations, our autonomy, our voices… They want to take the teachers who talk about “our kids” out of the equation because they want robots and technology to further their business model. They want to remove our experienced ranks because they know that we always try to do what’s right for kids, even if it means defying directives from administrators and hiding the test-prep materials in a closet to make room for the materials we know will engage and inspire learners and thinkers in our classrooms instead of result in kids who know all of the hints and tricks for passing the test.

So, if you’re not sure how the companies make money off our students, consider the exponential growth of high-stakes testing in this country over the past few years. Companies like Pearson and ETS, two national private testing companies, are contracted to create the new Ohio tests as well as those for 12 other states, according to the WOSU News report.

But, those are just the tests. Pearson also, quite conveniently, offers materials and curriculum items to school districts to help prepare students for – you guessed it – the tests they have written. So, states need to provide assessments because the legislators adopt the standards, states pay Pearson to create the assessments, and districts pay Pearson to provide materials to help their students pass the (Pearson) assessments. Don’t believe it yet? One educator decided to follow the trail of money and found that it almost always leads to Pearson; one example is Pearson’s  enVisionMATH curriculum that it’s peddling to districts as we speak.

People like Kershner have no interest in students. They have no idea what students need or how to get them to learn and thrive. You have to ask yourself why businesses care so damn much about the tests. Well, what do most businesses care about more than anything? Money. Strauss is right. If you didn’t know that ed reform is about money, you cannot deny it now. And, until we can figure out a way to stop the big-business takeover of public education, we need to protect our children from the teachers and school districts that are “selling” them to Pearson and other companies associated with the Common Core in any way.

Image via Flickr by 401kcalculator.org

The Times, They Are A-Changin’: Lee County, Florida, Opts Out!

WOW! The news out of Florida is historic! In a vote of 3-2 last night, the Lee County School Board voted to opt out of ALL statewide standardized tests, including the Common Core. This is the first school district in the state to vote to opt out. Parents and community supporters attended Lee County Opts Outthe meeting en masse, donning red shirts in a show of solidarity and cheering as the board’s motion passed. Parents spoke during their one-minute time limit to urge the board to put their students first and shared personal stories of the testing nightmares their students have had to endure. More than 30 people spoke during the 3-hour meeting.

THIS is the step toward taking back education and putting kids and learning first that we advocate. THIS is “civil disobedience” in the name of breaking the testing cycle that cripples teachers. THIS is why we started TRUTH In Teaching: to bring teachers together to start sharing stories from the trenches to open people’s eyes about what it’s really like to try to teach during these trying times.

Subscribe to our newsletter. Sign up to receive email every time we post to this blog. Send us your personal stories of TRUTH In Teaching from your classroom to Bailey at bailey@truthinteaching.com or Angela at angela@truthinteaching.com. If a district in Florida (a state that has a statute requiring ALL students – including kindergarteners – to take up to seven end-of-course exams that affect teachers’ pay and evaluations, beginning this school year) can vote to opt out, there is hope for all of us. But, it’s going to take solidarity. It’s going to take teachers raising our voices, parents joining our ranks, and everyone working together for the students if we hope to make a national change. Share your TRUTH and teach on!