12 Winters Blog

Here’s my beef with PARCC and the Common Core

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Equalize funding and increase it.

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

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

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

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

 

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  1. […] the inherent flaws of the Danielson Framework, the way the Framework affects teachers, and my issues with PARCC and the Common Core. My posts have been garnering hundreds of hits, and a few online likes, but many, many private, […]


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