Sochi Olympics = CCSS

A lot has been made this week of the problems surrounding the Olympics in Sochi.  Hotels are incomplete, rooms do not have light bulbs, journalists are bathing without shower curtains, stray dogs roam the city, and athletes have to take care of business in really close quarters. Bf0CHQqCQAAXMFr.jpg_large

Many of these problems are pretty funny from the outside but for the athletes, families, journalists and fans that are dealing with them on a daily basis, they really aren’t funny at all.  If you’ve ever been many miles from home without a place to stay then you know it can be quite unsettling, and its certainly much worse when you are getting ready to go in front of millions to compete and be judged.

But are these problems really all that surprising?  Russia is one of the most corrupt nations in the world and while they spent about $50 billion on preparing for Sochi, it has been reported that $20-30 billion of that went to “embezzlement and kickbacks”.  And the Olympic site selection process reeks of backroom politics, as Sochi is a former Soviet resort town that the Russians hope to revitalize.  What better way to do that then to bring the world for a couple of weeks?

So, it could be argued that the Sochi Olympics are essentially the product of a small group of powerful bureaucrats (the IOC), who created a situation in which a lot of money was going to be made behind the scenes by organizations (Russian Mafia), for the benefit of politicians (Putin) at the expense of those people who actually have to perform (athletes).

Since it’s the Olympics, we laugh, tune in and shake our head at the morons who decided this would be a good idea, the ridiculous lack of planning, the hastily constructed infrastructure, and the collusion between the Russian government and the organizations making money hand over fist.

What’s not so funny is that we have a very similar and distinctly AMERICAN situation happening here at home with the CCSS.  Stay with me here for a minute and I’ll explain.

The CCSS came about when a small group of powerful politicians, bureaucrats and benefactors (the NGA and CCSSO) got together and decided that it would be a good idea to create common national “state” standards.  Working alongside the federal government, this small and powerful group greased the wheels of adoption through bribes to organizations such as AFT and NEA and contributions to politicians.  In Russia they call this corruption, in America we all it “philanthropy”.

And much like Sochi, the CCSS were adopted very quickly, without any field-testing, with a pathetic base of “research” to support them, and really NO IDEA what was going to happen when they were put into practice.

As a result, our American educational system looks a lot like the city of Sochi.  Something was created from nothing at warp speed, no infrastructure existed to actually put the standards (which are really a national curriculum) into place, and the means by which students and teachers were going to be evaluated (new PARCC and SBA national tests) DON’T EVEN EXIST YET.

Here's your new National Curriculum!
Here’s your new National Curriculum!

Meanwhile, the creation of a quasi-national market for educational testing products, curriculum and instructional materials has opened up a $500 Billion dollar “Education Services Sector” that has drawn the attention of “Edupreneurs” who have rushed in to fill the void left by the hasty implementation of CCSS.  These shysters are ready to provide their products and services – for a cost –  to school districts around the country to help them figure out how to actually teach the CCSS and prepare for the test that doesn’t exist.  Take a look around almost any local classroom and you’ll see brand new books, curricula, test-prep materials and other assorted programs that schools have purchased from this Testing Mafia.  Attend a few professional development sessions and you’ll see consultants who are flown in, paid upwards of $10,000 per day, and present the newest “program” or “system” designed to raise test scores.  And the people responsible for creating the standards, now create the materials, are working to create the test, and are making a ton of money in all phases of the process.

Meanwhile, President Obama, our American version of Vladimir Putin minus the gay bashing, stands in front of the nation at the State of the Union and takes credit for this disaster by distracting us with cherry-picked “research” and empty claims of “taking big strides in preparing students with the skills for the new economy” despite the fact that his $5 billion Race to the Top program has been an unmitigated disaster.  President Obama, like President Putin, is all fireworks show and opening ceremony.  Behind the flamboyant distraction is a corrupt and incomplete system of bribery, collusion, and profiteering at the expense of the American taxpayer.

Keep your eyes on the pretty lights please.
Keep your eyes on the pretty lights please.

And who really suffers the most from this situation?  Time will tell what the full effect on our students will be.  Despite the lousy hand they have been dealt, many schools and districts are making the most out of the CCSS, much like the athletes who will still earn gold in Sochi.  These are the schools and teachers the politicians and shysters like Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee will hold up as examples that their racket is “working”.   What they won’t show you are the millions of other students who are suffering because the CCSS has standardized teaching in their classrooms and myopic administrators have kept teachers from meeting individualized needs.  They won’t show you the interminable professional development sessions in which members of the Testing Mafia stand in front of groups of highly educated professionals and present a “system” for raising test scores.  They won’t tell you about the teachers who fear for their jobs because they are going to be evaluated by the test scores of their students – on a test that doesn’t actually exist yet.  They won’t mention the fact that focusing only on test scores means that our kids are pretty much receiving an education in how to take Math and ELA tests at the expense of pretty much everything else.  Perhaps worst of all, they will look at you with a totally straight face when they tell you this is the best way to evaluate our teachers.

So if you find yourself feeling a little superior the next time you are watching the incompetence and corruption of Russia at the Sochi Olympics, try to remember that at least the Russian people are smart enough to recognize the rampant corruption and skullduggery* going on behind the opening ceremony.  When it comes to the Common Core State Standards, most Americans are content to just stare at the fireworks and believe their own hype.

*I have always wanted to use the word “skullduggery” in proper context in my writing.  Mission Accomplished.

Nothing to Worry About?

On Friday of last week I read a story in our local paper about a new system of teacher evaluation the state Board of Education is instituting that “focuses on encouraging teachers to improve knowledge and instructional skills”.  Since sarcasm is my typical response to things that irritate me, my first thought was, “Damn, it is about time somebody told teachers they are supposed to improve knowledge and instructional skills.”  I was reminded of a scene from one of my favorite movies.

Teachers didn’t need the memo either but they are getting a new evaluation system that promises to be more objective. Actually, the new system is partially modeled after a method of teacher evaluation that I have used for a few years and referred to as “pretty good” in an earlier post about evaluating pre-service teachers.  However, that wasn’t the only aspect that the article was referring to when it lauded its objectivity.  The other aspect, only briefly mentioned, was the incorporation of students’ standardized test scores into teachers’ ratings.  This might come as a shock to our readers, but all things being equal, I don’t actually oppose this idea (though my EduSanity colleague does).  Standardized tests are one way in which we can measure our students’ achievement and as such they should be a part of an evaluation system. However, all things are not equal.  Not even close.  I could go on forever about how we have created a system of standardized testing that is plagued with inequities, but others have covered that topic in great detail and for some people the argument will always fall on deaf ears.  Besides, that particular line from the article wasn’t what actually inspired me to write this post.  Instead, what finally got me was this quote towards the end:

“Our current high-performing teachers won’t have anything to worry about in this system.”

Right.

These changes in teacher evaluation are coming at a time in which 45 states are undergoing a monumental shift to the Common Core State Standards for English-Language Arts and Math.  However, while we have new “state” standards for English and Math, we don’t have similar standards for any other content area such as social studies, art, physical education, foreign language… etc.  Yet the CCSS is having an enormous effect on these other subjects because of the resources and time put into bringing ELA and Math online, which means our teachers are being pulled in very different directions in regards to teaching.

It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that one of the schools’ main concerns is a new standardized test lurking on the horizon. This new test is from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and will be used by about half the states to assess student achievement.  However, since we only have CCSS for English and Math, we only have a new test for English and Math.  Many states used to have standardized tests for other subjects, but dropped them because NCLB didn’t care about them.  Now we have a testing system that is heavy on two subjects and almost non-existent on everything else, yet somehow we are going to tie the performance of all of our teachers to standardized test scores? It doesn’t matter if you teach a subject that is tested by PARCC or not, you have a reason to worry.

It gets better.  The new PARCC standardized test I just mentioned DOESN’T EVEN EXIST YET.  Sure, they’re working on it, but meanwhile states are asking teachers to implement the CCSS in their classrooms with hardly any idea what the test that will measure their success is going to look like.  How can you prepare your students for a test that doesn’t exist?  I have yet to find an educator who thinks it is a good idea to say, “Hey, here’s a hundred page list of stuff I’m supposed to teach.  Write a test for my students, but of course you can’t use the whole list because that would be way too much.  Also, don’t tell me what you do decide to pick.  Instead, provide me with really vague charts that say stuff like ‘Type III tasks call for modeling/application in a real-world context or scenario and can also involve other mathematical practice standards.’   That should really nail it down for me. Also, don’t show me the test, or even let me know what it looks like until the day my students take it. I like to teach on the edge.  As the kids would say YOLO.”

Wait, it gets even better. Not only do teachers have to worry about a test that doesn’t exist yet, but in many cases they are also still required to teach their old state standards in addition to the CCSS.  In other words, since there is no new test and there is no possible way that we could survive a year that didn’t include a standardized test, your students are still going to take the old test.  But don’t worry our teachers are told, you are going to be given a “waiver” for this year.  These scores “won’t count”. Right. If the test doesn’t count, then why take it?  Teachers not only have to teach an entirely new set of standards, but they must also teach the old ones for a while just to make sure their students don’t look bad on a test that is wholly unnecessary. Makes sense to me.

You guessed it – It gets better.  Not only are there two sets of standards, a new test that doesn’t exist yet, and an old test that won’t go away, but many states are implementing the new standards at a pace that doesn’t allow enough time for school districts and teachers to properly develop curriculum based on the CCSS.  Why is that a problem?  Primarily because standards are not documents that teachers are actually supposed to teach from.  Standards are written to provide school districts with minimum requirements for developing curricula that provide teachers with a guide for lesson planning.  Standards —> Curriculum —> Lesson Plans – in that order.  Since the CCSS are being adopted at warp factor 5, the development of curriculum is either been skipped entirely or is occurring at a breakneck pace.  Many teachers have no idea what good CCSS instruction looks like because they have been handed the standards and told “good luck”, while in other places, school districts are trying to do right by their teachers by creating curricula for them to follow.  Unfortunately, because this is happening so quickly, many districts are misinterpreting “common standards” for “common teaching”.  In other words they are handing teachers a script instead of a guide, which is actually far worse than just handing them the standards and wishing them luck.

There may be only one way to change the oil on a 1996 Oldsmobile, or fill out the cover page on a TPS report, but when it comes to teaching a room full of students, there is never, ever going to be only one “right” way to get the job done.  Period.  Ever.  Not gonna happen.  And it is the high performing teachers who should worry about these scripts the most.  One reason for scripting lessons for teachers is to make bad teachers better, the theory being that if you can force all teachers to do the same thing, then the bad teachers can only be as bad as the scripted lessons. Okay, but the exact opposite is true for the high performing teachers, who can only be as good as the script.  Taking away the autonomy of many of our highest performing teachers, at a time when their talent and ability has never been needed more, most certainly gives them something to worry about.  This isn’t happening everywhere, but it is happening in enough schools to make it a serious problem.

And perhaps the greatest irony in telling teachers not to worry is that their administrators are currently being trained in a performance evaluation system that hasn’t even been approved yet!  Since the states sold their constitutional souls to Arne Duncan and the federal government in order to get a NCLB waiver, they must now get their plans for teacher evaluation approved by the same people who brought you the epic failure known as “Race to the Top”.  Of the 34 states who are waiting on Big Brother Arne to approve their plans, only 12 have been accepted.  Don’t hold your breath waiting for anything from the federal government.

These are only some of the problems that teachers are rightfully concerned about when it comes to evaluating their performance.  We know they are worried because we asked them.  Over 1,300 of them actually.  Even if increasing accountability will somehow improve teaching, our leaders are also screwing it up so badly that the teachers who have almost no control over the evaluation process are being set up to fail by a system that is incomplete, hastily implemented, and almost laughably unfair. So please don’t tell them not to worry.

My Son is Afraid to Read

My son, who I will call Cooper because that is his name, isn’t really afraid to read. He loves reading. The title of this entry is purposefully over the top because I want you to read it and because I’m willing to bet that there are many kids out there who actually are afraid to read because of the pressures they are under to score well on standardized tests. If you are still reading this after falling for my bait and switch, I hope you ask yourself if your child is one of them.

Cooper is required to bring a book home from his school library in a manilla envelope every night and read it out loud to us twice. This is great, because reading out loud improves fluency. On the outside of this envelope is a place for Cooper to write the name of the book he reads each night and next to that is a blank that says “Score”. The next day, every single day, Cooper takes an Accelerated Reader quiz and his teacher writes his score on the outside of the envelope.

Accelerated Reader (AR) is a program sold to schools and districts around the country by the Renaissance Learning Corporation. AR provides grade level rankings and comprehension level quizzes for those books. Frequently, AR is used as part of an outside reading program that allows teachers to assign reading to students and then check their comprehension with a 5 or 10 question quiz.

Stick to Cheetahs and Turkeys kid.

Normally Cooper scores well on these quizzes and the envelope indicates his 80% or 100% score. However, a few weeks ago Cooper brought home a book on Rainforests that was rated as a 2.6 reading level, which is above his “range” of 1.7-2.0 for non-fiction books. His older brother interrogated him about why he would pick a book outside his range, and I was quite surprised that my sons not only knew their ranges, but could tell me what their ranges were last week, last month and last year. Cooper ended the inquisition by declaring, “I just want to read a book about rainforests.” Satisfied with that answer, we listened to him read it to us and he was able to work his way through the book with some help on the more difficult words.

The next day Cooper brought home the envelope and written next to the rainforest title was a 60% score and a message that read “Pick lower level next”.

Think about this for a second. When kids are required to participate in a read-and-test program such as AR, the books they read are chosen, monitored and limited by a computer. Not only that, but they are also limited by an assessment program that pretty much only measures basic reading comprehension. AR quizzes ask questions such as “What did Baby Bear ask Mother Bear?” (Honey for Baby Bear) and “What did Tom offer to do if Jim would trade jobs with him?” (Tom Sawyer). In other words, AR quizzes check to see if students can remember basic, and often random details of the text. If my son doesn’t remember that Baby Bear asked “Who makes honey?” or that Papa Bear said the forest was too “big” (instead of scary) for baby bears then he obviously shouldn’t be reading Honey for Baby Bear because he clearly does not understand it. Since Cooper did not remember 2 of the relatively random details about rainforests, his score was a 3/5 or 60%.

The next night Cooper brought home a 1.5 level book on Turkeys. It was boring. He didn’t like it. But at least he scored a 100% on it the next day. Upon following up with his teacher, as a concerned parent might do, I had a fantastic conversation about the teaching of reading. She told me about all the ways she teaches reading in her classroom and I loved every second of what I was hearing. Cooper is in good hands. She told me that AR is only used by the school to provide a guide for outside reading and as a means to make kids read. I understand the logic behind this. There simply is no substitute for reading if you want to become a better reader. However, when schools turn reading into a factory-like process of read-test-repeat, our kids are in danger of thinking of books as simply a means to an end, rather than a more meaningful literary experience.

Here’s another totally anecdotal story that illustrates what I mean by that:

This was all that was left in his cubicle.

As an occasional volunteer at my sons’ elementary school one of my duties is listening to students read aloud. Last year I had the chance to read with one young man I’ll call Matt, because that’s not his name. Matt only had about 10 pages left in his book and he wanted to hurry up and finish it because he was going to go down to the computer lab afterward to take the Accelerated Reading quiz for the book. If he scored at least an 8 out of 10 he would get a sticker. It is not unusual for schools to provide incentives for scoring well on AR tests. In the last month alone, my boys have brought home 7 pencils, 3 “Ready Reader” ribbons and a set of Accelerated Reader dog tags that will hopefully allow us to identify Cooper’s body in case he becomes a casualty in the war of College and Career Readiness.

Stephen Krashen, a preeminent scholar on independent reading, analyzed a number of comparison and experimental research studies and concluded in 2003 that,

“research provides inconsistent evidence in support of incentive-based reading management programs”.

He ultimately concluded that providing more access to books and giving students time to read were widely supported by research while incentives for reading may ultimately cause harm. In his words, Krashen lamented that instead of providing students access to high interest reading materials and time to read,

“we rush off to purchase a more expensive, complex package that may have long term harmful effects.”

Back to Matt. We finished the book in the hallway and I’ll admit to becoming more interested in how he was thinking about reading rather than his actual reading. We walked over to the computer lab and he logged on to take the quiz. He agonized over the 10 questions and so did I. He was struggling because the comprehension level questions asked him details about the book that he couldn’t quite recall. The names of characters that were related to the main characters, the reason why the main character lied, the game the children played after school… etc. I was struggling because these questions represented the end of this child’s reading experience with this book.

Under normal circumstances there would be no opportunity for this young man to actually discuss, analyze or evaluate the book he had just read. I personally don’t remember the character’s names, story sequencing, and plot details from the books I read in elementary school. What I do remember about books like The Call of the Wild and Bridge to Terabithia are the lasting themes of survival, strength, and the power of friendship. It saddens me to think that our students may not get a chance to talk about these themes because they will have scored their 8 out of 10 on the quiz, received an honorable discharge from further thought, and moved on to the next book-quiz combo. Coincidentally, one teacher tells me that she is no longer allowed to read Charlotte’s Web to her first grade students after recess because the curriculum overlords have determined that it is too difficult for them to pay attention to longer books while thinking and feeling about enduring themes such as life, death, friendship and sacrifice. It is far better to solve that Honey Bear mystery that has plagued America for generations.

In the end, Matt only managed a 7 out of 10 on his comprehension exam. There was not going to be a sticker in his future. He was visibly disappointed by this and I tried to cheer him up by asking him the questions that a computer is incapable of asking because the answers cannot be measured in multiple-choice format. We talked about the story for a few minutes and I’d like to think he forgot about his missed reward. Either way, he’d have a chance for another one with the next book.

I’ve been stewing about this issue for quite some time, but it was another Cooper experience this past weekend that finally brought me to post this entry. Cooper “accidentally” took a non-fiction 2.7 level book called Henry’s Heart from the book basket in the library that he swears was for books between 1.0-2.0. He is well aware that he is allowed to take fiction books that are in the 2.7 level, but he is only supposed to take non-fiction books that are below 2.0. Somewhere in the bowels of the Renaissance Learning Corporation there is a computer server telling my son what to read. Hopefully it doesn’t become self-aware and morph into the lamest Terminator scenario imaginable.

On 5 separate occasions this weekend Cooper mentioned how worried he was about passing his AR quiz on Monday. He read the book before bed and was fixated on memorizing as many of the details from the text as he could. After he was finished reading he reiterated his concern for passing the quiz and you’d think he was prepping to take the SAT exam or the Bar Exam instead of a 5 question reading comprehension quiz.

This morning I took the AR envelope out of Cooper’s backpack and preempted his anticipated failure by filling in the score blank myself (see picture).

Dad’s Disregard for Cooper’s Career Readiness

Many people might say that this was the wrong thing to do and that I’m sending the wrong message by showing blatant disregard for Cooper’s achievement. I’d prefer to think of it as not allowing a corporate computer that is programmed to see if my 6 year-old can remember cardiovascular anatomy to tell him what to read. My kids, and yours, should not be afraid to read a book they are interested in, regardless of what AR tells them. They shouldn’t have to stammer out excuses when they bring home a 2.7 level book that was accidentally placed in the 2.0 basket. And they sure as hell shouldn’t be held accountable for memorizing the details of a book they chose because they wanted to pursue an interest or because they thought it looked cool.

If we continue down this path, then we shouldn’t be surprised if all of our kids become afraid or resentful of reading. It would be tragically ironic if the long-term effects of a program like Accelerated Reader was an increased ability to comprehend books and a decreased desire to actually read them.

Suggested Reference
Endacott, J. L. (2012, November 6). My Son is Afraid to Read. Retrieved from http://www.edusanity.com/2012/11/06/my-son-is-afraid-to-read/