PARCC vs. Real Learning

This morning I sent both of my boys off to the same school, but they had two very different days ahead of them. Younger was packing up his bag with quiet activities – a book to read, a notebook to scribble in – because he would be refusing his PARCC test. This is the third day in two weeks that he would have to sit for the first 90 minutes of his school day twiddling his thumbs.

Older Son, on the other hand, had his 8th grade science project presentation today. A huge day – one that has been a benchmark since his first year of middle school. He was packing his bag with reports, models, and items he had used in his experiment. He was practicing his speech and worrying that he would forget all the tests he’d done. His excitement and nervousness were palpable. I was teary and bursting with pride as I watched this handsome young man head to the bus stop.

When Older first got to middle school we went to the 8th grade science fair. Judging from that night, I thought I’d be working on this project with him for weeks. They looked so elaborate, so detailed and involved, I imagined how complicated going through this process would be. I expected nagging, tearing around town for last-minute supplies, lots of tears and drama as I painfully forced calmly helped him get it done.

The truth was completely the opposite. Older Son worked on this project with his partner for weeks. They got together after school, made their own schedule, urged me to get on board when I wasn’t paying enough attention to their needs, and generally handled everything themselves. They spent one easy afternoon doing their tests and then invited friends over to run a second round. The result was good data, an amazing looking display, and a great experience with project planning and organization.

This is real education. The kids were allowed to choose their own experiment or project based on their interests. They were given a timeline and guided on how to plan and achieve all the steps they needed to finish. They had to write a theory and use scientific method to prove or disprove it. They experimented and then evaluated their data so it could be presented in a clear and attractive way. They had unexpected results that led them to ask more questions.

The learning from the science project will remain with my son because, among other things, it taught him a valuable skill in life: think for yourself. My other son was enduring the polar opposite through his experience with the PARCC test.

As I’ve become more involved in fighting PARCC, I’ve heard horror stories from parents. Kids who were forced by teachers and administrators to take tests even after their parents refused. Kids coming home in tears after being told they didn’t have to take the tests and then being coerced them to take them after all. Kids who normally receive classroom support on a special education plan taking tests – that are completely beyond their capability – without the help of their paraprofessional. Parents being lied to about the legality of what’s happening in their childrens’ schools. Teachers whose right to free speech has been essentially revoked by corporate interests. The testing companies are counting on parents to continue not thinking for themselves.

IMG_0464My sons get a good education when their teachers are in charge of what they’re learning. I was crowing last week when Younger Son came home with a permission slip for a field trip to the symphony to see Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” Sure, the kids won’t get it. They’ll spend more time jostling around in their seats than listening to the music. But maybe they’ll remember something. The form came with a flyer explaining how revolutionary the ballet was and how people almost rioted during its first performance. The conductor explained that “this is one of the most important pieces of music ever written” and how Stravinsky was a rebel. I feel like my children today are having to continue that tradition just by refusing to take a test in their school.

The tale of my two kids on this beautiful spring day was the difference between real education and corporate education. Our obsession with applying a business model to our schools strips teachers of their credibility and turns our kids into child labor for testing companies. Even in the face of everything we know about brain science, and more and more real evidence that our children need variety and spontaneity to learn, we are still quietly accepting that businesses know more about education than our teachers do. This is wrong, and it has to stop.

I urge anyone in MA to write to their house representative in support of the bills listed on this page: Mass Teachers and Parents United

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Pawns in the Game of Common Core Chess

Here’s something new. Louis CK has a new season of his show starting tonight, and while on the press tour he has decided to start a battle against common core standards. Just when I thought I couldn’t love him anymore.

I came across this information in this month’s New Yorker blog, which mentions US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s battle FOR common core and support of standardized testing. In Arne’s opinion, opposition to the Common Core State Standards has come from “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were. You’ve bet your house and where you live and everything on, ‘My child’s going to be prepared.’ That can be a punch in the gut.'”

Wow. There are so many things wrong with that statement I don’t even know where to begin. Let’s just start with my rage. My privileged, white suburban mom rage.

I happen to know my kids pretty well. I know they’re not Einstein, and I know they’re also pretty damn smart. I also knew what I was getting into when I made the choice to live in my town, all by my big grownup girl self (and I managed to make these life decisions without the benefits of MCAS, PARCC, or Common Core in my public school education!).

I know that my kids aren’t stressed out because they’re over-scheduled privileged white suburban youths. Their weekend soccer games are their outlet, the place they get to shine, as opposed to the school system that tells them they are built wrong (but perhaps I’m just an overwrought soccer mom whose priorities are in the wrong place).

My kids are stressed out because every day they are made to feel there is something wrong with them if they can’t easily understand the work they’re supposed to be breezing through and producing results on. They’re stressed out because every night we struggle through homework for hours and spend most of that time with nobody in the house, including mom and dad, understanding the meaning of the questions or the point of the exercise.

My kids are stressed out because they hear that their teachers are doing a shoddy job when everyone in the class hasn’t gotten stellar ratings on a test that shows absolutely nothing about their abilities or chances for future success in the real world, where people’s talents and performance aren’t based on filling in bubbles on a page.

As to Arne’s opinion on us suburban moms and how we feel about our schools: my kids have had what I feel to be the best education they could in this day and age, and that is in spite of testing, not because of. They’re getting a good education because of their TEACHERS, who are outrageously dedicated and caring despite the ridiculousness of the situation they’ve been put in, and the incredible (and unnecessary) amount of stress they have to shoulder on a daily basis.

That the head of the education department in this country considers parents to be whiners because their kids aren’t successful is telling. It shows the true depth of his ignorance regarding the people he’s serving.

The Washington Post further states that “when confronted with the truth through lower test scores and other indicators, the unhelpful response, in Arne’s view, is to say, ‘Let’s lower standards and go back to lying to ourselves and our children, so that our community can feel better.’ The more productive response for a community or a state is to ask, ‘What can we do to get better, so our students can graduate from high school, succeed in college and be competitive for good jobs?’”

I’d say the most productive response would be to say, why don’t we ask the experts what children need to succeed in school? And why don’t we leave that schooling in the hands of the educators who actually have experience, knowledge, education, and wisdom in the area of working with children? And why don’t we take some of the billions of dollars we’ve spent on testing and put that back towards education?

Aye, there’s the rub (Hamlet reference. I know that from my public school education). Far too many people are making far too much profit off our children. That’s why they are no more important than numbers on a graph, and their mothers are marginalized as hysterical, spoiled, over-reacting princesses when we question why our kids, teachers, and schools are suffering.

I have to fight the battle every day to convince my kids that school is important and homework is important even when I don’t believe in the system. It can be easy for people like Arne Duncan to confuse my frustration with white suburban privilege. I do believe in my schools and teachers. I believe in my kids. And I’m bright enough to be able to see when they are being used as pawns in a political game, and then blamed for not knowing how to play.

This year I let my kids choose if they wanted to opt out of their standardized testing. They wanted to do it, if only because of the candy and free time at the end of the day. Next year I don’t think they get the choice. They will not be subject to this madness any more. As a parent, it is my job to protect my children from those that would abuse them, and that includes the unskilled, ill-informed politicians who are wrongly in charge of their education. Arne, we’re not playing your game anymore.