Sunday, January 31, 2016

New Jersey's Former Standards Are Better Than Common Core State Standards

Drs. Chris Tienken and Eunyoung Kim from Seton Hall University and Dr. Dario Sforza, a high school principal in East Rutherford, NJ, recently published, “A Comparison of Higher-Order Thinking Between the Common Core State Standards and the 2009 New Jersey Content Standards in High School”. You can read their article in AASA Journal of Scholarship and Practice here. There has been "no qualitative analytical research…done to test the assumption that the CCSS are superior to previous state standards in the development of higher order thinking and creativity at the high school level.” 

For those of you unfamiliar with the history of the development of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and why we and many other states bothered to adopt them has been written about by many people. Among the most in-depth research has been from Louisiana teacher and education researcher, Mercedes Schneider. Read here, here, here, here, and here.   

The basics of the Why are simple. Under NCLB, all students (yes, really, ALL) were required to be proficient in grade level reading and math by 2014. Of course, that’s not possible. It never should have been put into law. Congress should have fixed that long before the looming deadline for compliance. Epic failures all around. 

Essentially circumventing federal requirements, USDOE introduced waivers to NCLB. In exchange for adopting the Common Core State Standards, having testing aligned to those standards, and development of teacher evaluations based on those standardized test scores, states could avoid NCLB penalties. New Jersey signed on, sight unseen. Feeling sick yet?  

Let's be really clear about this. The development of the standards was NOT driven by educational need. It was driven by political need. 

If you take a look at the composition of the work groups who developed the standards, you’ll find only five K-12 teachers out of 101 participants. You will find NOT ONE early childhood development or special education specialist either. You will find lots of people who worked for testing and publishing companies. The final insult was when Sandra Stotsky and James Milgram, both, served on the Validation Committee and are content experts in ELA and math respectively, refused to sign off on the final product. Read about them and their objections here, and listen here.

NJDOE has invested a lot of time and money into pushing CCSS. They have made incredible claims about their value and how much it would propel the children of New Jersey to “college and career readiness,” a term that is still without definition. PARCC, the CCSS-aligned test, was allegedly so good, that when Dr. Tienken asked Bari Erlichson from NJDOE, "Is the test worth teaching to?" Ms. Erlichson replied, "Yes...How many days does it take to get ready for the PARCC exam? 180. That is the length of the school year." This exchange happened at an event in Ridgewood, NJ, in November 2014, hosted by The League of Women Voters. See the entire panel discussion here, their exchange begins at 1:18:34.  

That was incredibly high praise for the assumption of good curricula based on standards that still hadn't been vetted and for a test that NO ONE had seen. 

Last year, Governor Christie announced the creation of a task force to study the Common Core State Standards. They were given a very short period of time to take public input, review each standard, and return recommendations for change. The end result was, as expected, a sham. It’s not a reflection of the time parents and teachers on the task force spent reviewing and revising the standards. It certainly was not a reflection of the testimony provided to the task force, but rather the insufficient time frame for producing standards, a report, and the Commissioner's insistence that it would likely be a just a "tweak." The task force came back with a 15% change in the standards, which, magically, coincides with the requirements of PARCC…anything more than a 15% change in standards would require dropping PARCC assessments. 

I wrote about the composition of the task force here. I still have not gotten an answer to my question regarding PTO participation, in spite of help from State Board of Education President, Mark Biedron. So much for transparency from NJDOE.

So, how did Tienken, Kim, and Sforza evaluate and compare the standards? They used Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK) and you can find an in-depth description of their methodology beginning on page 14, and a description of the four levels of DOK on page 10. Link to their article, again, is here.

DOK levels are described in the article as:
Level 1 Recall: requires “recall a simple definition, term, or fact, or replicate procedure, or algorithm. 
Level 2 Skill/Concepts: students develop some mental connections and make decisions about how to set up to approach a problem or activity to produce a response, apply a recalled skill, or engage in literal comprehension. 
Level 3 Strategic Thinking: engage in planning, reasoning, constructing arguments,making conjectures, and/or providing evidence when producing a response and require students to do some original concepts or draw conclusions. 
Level 4 Extended Thinking: engage in complex planning, reasoning, and conjecturing, and to develop lines of argumentation. Items at this level require students to make multiple connections between several different key and complex concepts, inferencing, or connecting the dots to create a big picture generalization. 

What did the study show? Hope the reformy cheerleaders are sitting down. Keep in mind, they only compared the high school level standards: CCSSe vs. NJCCCS. Are you ready? From page 18:
"Overall, the high school Common Core State Standards in ELA and M contained fewer standards rated at DOK Levels 3 and 4 than the 2009 New Jersey high school standards in ELA and math. That is, the standards that NJ had in place prior to adopting the Common Core provided more of the Level 3 and 4 higher order skills cited in mainstream business and education publication as necessary capabilities for competing in a global economy."
To summarize their findings, pages 18-23:

Level 1
Level 2
Level 3
Level 4


Hmmm...those numbers hardly suggest the far superior product we've been sold. Perhaps most damning in the article is this paragraph on page 26. 
"The results suggest that the previous versions of the NJ high school ELA and math standards included more complex, higher-order thinking and provided more opportunities to practice the types of thinking valued in the mainstream education reform literature as necessary to compete in the global economy. Although some have noted the CCSS as being more difficult than some previous states’ standards, difficulty is not a proxy for creativity and strategic thinking (e.g. Porter, McMaken, & Hwang, 2011). Convoluted prompts and questions and unclear portions of some standards do nothing to foster creative or strategic thinking (Wiggins, 2014)." 
Hard to say where I feel most disappointed. At the local level, I'm really tired of the Kool-Aid laden pep talks from supposed "experts" and "coaches". At the state level, NJDOE and State Board of Education, I'm tired of the gerbil wheel of spin that constantly comes out of their building. I'm tired of them having no accountability. I'm tired of parents and students having no voice. At the federal level, I'm tired of pretty much the same thing as the local and state levels. At state and federal levels I'm appalled at the amount of "philanthropic" money being tossed around and its influence on public policy, none of which addresses the most basic needs of many students.

In March 2014, Kevin Welner from the National Education Policy Center, had this to say about the adoption of CCSS in an article, The Lost Opportunity of the Common Core State Standards: 
"But the unfortunate reality is that whatever its potential benefits, the actual Common Core package will almost certainly exacerbate the policy failures of the past decade. Further, the linking of the Common Core to accountability regimes is a feature, not a bug. It is what was intended from the outset.
Importantly, the status quo approach involves a choice of one set of policies to the exclusion of another. When politicians opt for accountability and market-based privatization policies, they supersede policies that are grounded in best practices — evidence-based reforms that have succeeded in enhancing opportunities to learn.
In doing so, politicians seem willfully ignorant of the direct connection between opportunity and achievement. Our national opportunity gaps lead inexorably to our achievement gaps. Yet the test-based accountability policies still advocated by politicians disregard the opportunity side of the equation. Capacity building and supports are relegated to a small footnote within a long diatribe about mandated performance. The Marie Antoinettes of today proclaim, “Let them take tests,” callously brushing aside the needs of our children for intellectual nourishment."

The machine that churns out the This Is The Best Thing Ever! has to be stopped. Some really basic questions have to be answered. Maybe most important for parents is, at what point did you cede your voice and reason to the snake oil salesmen of college and career readiness? And then, what are you going to do about it? 

Those will be difficult questions for some. I can help with the second question. That one is easy. Opt Out of standardized testing. Stop feeding the machine. Force our legislators and departments of education, and our local districts, to truly create environments where our children can thrive. Please. Our children deserve so much better than this.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Julie Goes to Washington Part 2

Otherwise known as, It Was Supposed To Be Testimony on ESSA, But Really Was Testimony To The Influence of Gates Money. How's that for a title? Perhaps it's a bit wordy. However, it is how it felt walking into that conference room at USDOE on January 11th. If you missed watching the testimony on their livestream, I've posted a link to the day's testimony at the bottom of this post.

The synopsis of most of the testimony was, not surprisingly, test so there is equity, test so students with disabilities and English language learners have their civil rights upheld, test because we need accountability and without testing we won't have accountability, test so we have more data, test so we know which teachers suck, and when all else fails, what the heck, just test some more.

That's your plan? Testing, pseudo-accountability, and test some more? Could anything possibly be lazier? 

I'm going to piss off a few people by what I say next, but here's the deal, standardized tests are not going close educational gaps. It's not a civil right to be tested. If anything, it is a violation of your child's rights to be subjected to these tests especially if they are a student with a disability or/and English language learner. Tests that have not be validated, that are developmentally inappropriate, that serve no purpose other than to rank and sort them, their teachers, and their schools, are certainly not an example of a civil right. It’s more like a violation of FAPE.

It was appalling to listen to the policy directors from The Leadership Conference, La Raza, and MALDEF talk about testing, data, more testing, accountability by using the data collected from the tests. That's the best you can do for your constituents? It is LAZY.

It makes no sense until you look at who contributes money to them. We’re talking about tens of millions of dollars donated to them from The Gates Foundation to specifically push Common Core State Standards and the accompanying tests. I understand they need the money for all the really good work they do for the communities they serve. To say the least, it’s a shame their education policy flies in the face of all that other work.

When it comes to the National Urban League and Business Roundtable, I expect to see the business push. I expect them to be inappropriately forceful about testing and accountability because they very wrongly think they should have a say in P-12 education. Unsurprisingly, National Urban League has taken about $6.5 million from Gates to push their education policy agenda.

Are you seeing the pattern here? Lots and lots of money in exchange for influencing education policy at the highest level. They could have swapped their testimony it was that close in language and nature.

The majority of testimony ignored the very people these educational policies will influence – the children. It was shocking to listen a policy maker from the National Association of Charter Authorizers glibly tell all of us that if a charter school is failing to just close it. That’s it. Don’t have the charter participate in whatever the state’s version of a turnaround program is. Just close the school. I have no particular love of charters, but that statement lacked any recognition of the harm it would bring to the children in that school. This was about a business transaction, not about education, and certainly not about the negative impact of “just close the school”.

So where were the representative voices for the students? The parents? The teachers in the classrooms? Three teacher and two parents are certainly not enough. However, as far as I could tell, we were the only ones not being paid to be there.

When asked what I’d like to see in education policy, I say this, I want policy that is not LAZY. What we have had for 15 years is lazy. Shaping 13 years of a child’s education around standardized tests is lazy. I want to see joy in learning. I want students to be the center of education policy. I want teachers leading the way – they are after all, the people who are the experts. I want to see programs that look like the NY Performance Standards Consortium. I want students to be engaged, love to learn, love to share and demonstrate what they’ve learned. I want existing laws pertaining to special education to be enforced. I want school environments to be inclusive, to the largest extent possible, for all students. I don't think I'm asking for too much.  
See the full day's testimony hereMe at 55:00, Jamy Brice Hyde 1:16:23, Marla Kilfoyle 3:20:18, Melissa Tomlinson 4:55:32

Monday, January 18, 2016

Julie Goes to Washington with Jamy, Marla, and Melissa

Last Monday, the US Department of Education held the first of two public testimony hearings on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This hearing was held in Washington DC. The next will be in California. Short notice, with release just before the holidays, felt like timing was meant for parents and teachers to miss it. I was not off to a warm and fuzzy feeling about it. 

I didn't see the agenda for the day until after I checked in at USDOE. The speaking order and the approximate times for each of the three sessions were listed. The list of speakers was, predictably, the who's who of education reform -- just off the top of my head, several hundred million dollars or so in Gates funded associations. Disheartening to say the least. From what I can gather, only one other "just a parent" spoke that day and three actual teachers, two from New York (Jamy Brice-Hyde and Marla Kilfoyle) and one from New Jersey (Melissa Tomlinson). 


It really was difficult to decide what aspect of ESSA to discuss. From a special ed point a view, ESSA makes NCLB look lenient. The 1% cap on alternate assessments for students with disabilities is particularly cruel. It's also the fuel needed to continue to encourage opting out of these stupid tests. 

I decided, though, to talk about Social Impact Bonds. Sorry if you're getting bored with this topic, but I don't think it can be argued against enough. An experiment, which requires a negative outcome (NOT classifying students) to be considered a success, has no business sitting in the middle of a federal education law. 

Here is my testimony: 
11 January 2016

Testimony on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to US Department of Education  
My name is Julie Borst and I’m resident of Bergen County, New Jersey. I am a mother to a 17-year-old student with a disability. I am a parent advocate and an organizer for Save Our Schools New Jersey, Opt Out NJ, and for BATs in Special Education. My comments today are my own. 
I have to admit, it was difficult deciding which section of ESSA to address today. While many are cheering the change from No Child Left Behind (NCLB), I’m feeling much more cautious. As a family, we have not had good experiences under NCLB. It was clearly in serious need of revision, and I don’t believe that ESSA really aleviates the myriad problems with NCLB, particularly for students with disabilities. 
Among the worst, the onerous standardized testing continues. More students with disabilities will be required to take irrelevant, developmentally inappropriate tests. Local districts will continue to waste precious dollars on infrastructure to support these tests, and for what? That’s a conversation that could go on for weeks. Let’s just say, that from where I sit, as a parent and advocate, the tests are a waste of time and money. Well trained, dedicated professional educators are what’s needed. Not more tests. 
However, the reason I’ve come here today is to talk about Social Impact Bonds, otherwise known as Pay For Success (PFS)1, ESSA page 797, line 17. The current landscape in special education is a dire one. In states like New Jersey, it has become increasingly difficult for parents to get appropriate identification, classification, and services for their children. OSEP and OCR have become yet another roadblock to appropriate services.
I believe the root of that difficulty is money. IDEA is poorly funded, as it has been since its inception. Money now is spent on everything related to high stakes testing – prep, massive curricula changes, computers, infrastructure, and teacher professional development geared to use of that technology instead of honing the skills of their profession.

In New Jersey, there is a more formalized process, Response to Intervention (RtI), on the horizon. A program that will make it even less likely for a student with a disability to get timely identification, classification, and services. There appears to be little, actual focus on identifying learning disabled students as early as possible and doing something about it. 
Preschool, “high quality” preschool, has become the new mantra in that vein. Studies show that high quality preschool can reduce the percentage of the students who go on to kindergarten and are then classified for special education. Those percentages are anywhere from a reduction of 10% to 50% of students who would have otherwise needed special education services. The impact is clearly a positive one. 
It does makes sense to support high quality preschool. What doesn't make sense is for private investors or Wall St. to fund those preschool programs with the aim of making money off students NOT being classified. 
Pay For Success is use of private money invested into public programs, in this case public preschool. The program, first tested in Utah and now in Chicago, was funded by Goldman Sachs. The program in Utah was claimed to have a 99% “success” rate. 109 of the 110 students identified as “at risk” or possibly needing special education, out of a group of 600 preschoolers, did NOT require special education. Goldman Sachs received money back for every one of those 109 students and will continue to do so for every year those 109 students are NOT classified for special education, through 6th grade. 
To be perfectly frank, this raises a lot of questions. What was the starting criteria for those students? What diagnostic tests did they use? Medical history? Demographics? How many students would have likely had to have special education if they didn't have the "high quality" preschool experience? How many would they expect to classify even with the experience? What is "high quality" preschool? What does "high quality" preschool cost? How much does Utah spend on preschool? What is the threshold that has to be met for Goldman Sachs to earn its money back? Who would have covered the costs is the program “failed”? 
In Utah’s case, only one test, PVVT, was used. It’s not normally used, especially by itself, to identify students for learning disabilities. English language learners typically do not do well on this test because it is vocabulary based. It doesn’t necessarily mean they have a disability. From the outset, the criteria presumed all 110 “at risk”-identified children were going into special education without the high quality preschool. That is not a valid presumption.
There is also the issue of cost. High quality preschool costs are general 3-4 times what Goldman Sachs invested per student. It’s still not clear how the “high quality” label was actually executed, as some of the students were apparently placed in daycare.  
Utah set the rubric, but they also would have had no preschool at all without the program. Why were they allowed to set the bar so low and so obviously skewed to have this as a win for Goldman Sachs? Perhaps more importantly, what is Utah doing to ensure those “success” students were, in fact, properly NOT identified for special education? 
I understand that on the surface Pay For Success sounds wonderful. Public money, that is already so lacking, will not have to be used to fund preschool programs. However, “success” based on a negative outcome of our most vulnerable students demonstrates the loss of our moral compass. 
Pay For Success has no business being in a federal education law. There are too many unanswered questions. Too many ways for this program to go very wrong for our most vulnerable students – especially in the current environment. There is no magic pill to cure learning disabilities, but there are many well-documented, teacher-driven practices to address identification, classification, and delivery of services. We should be concentrating on those, not on making Goldman Sachs richer at our children’s expense. 
1 p. 797
18 term ‘pay for success initiative’ means a perform-
19 ance-based grant, contract, or cooperative agreement
20 awarded by a public entity in which a commitment
21 is made to pay for improved outcomes that result in
22 social benefit and direct cost savings or cost avoid-
23 ance to the public sector. Such an initiative shall in-
24 clude—
p.7981 ‘‘(A) a feasibility study on the initiative de-
2 scribing how the proposed intervention is based
3 on evidence of effectiveness;
4 ‘‘(B) a rigorous, third-party evaluation
5 that uses experimental or quasi-experimental
6 design or other research methodologies that
7 allow for the strongest possible causal infer-
8 ences to determine whether the initiative has
9 met its proposed outcomes;
10 ‘‘(C) an annual, publicly available report
11 on the progress of the initiative; and
12 ‘‘(D) a requirement that payments are
13 made to the recipient of a grant, contract, or
14 cooperative agreement only when agreed upon
15 outcomes are achieved, except that the entity
16 may make payments to the third party con-
17 ducting the evaluation described in subpara-
18 graph (B).’’;

Marla's Testimony:
Testimony of Marla Kilfoyle
Thank you for allowing me to offer my recommendations and advice on Title 1 of ESSA
My name is Marla Kilfoyle.  I have been a public school teacher for 29 years.  I have taught in Rural, Urban, and Suburban school districts.  I have a Masters in Education and am National Board Certified.  My proudest role, however, is  that I am a mother of a child with disabilities enrolled in public school in New York. 
Here are my recommendations and advice:#1 We need to fund Title 1 with more money.  We have seen, over the last decade, more and more of our children living in poverty.  I applaud that the bill increases funding for key formula grant programs. The increases overall of funding by 2 percent each year in 2018-2020 is hopeful. Increases in Title I ($1.2 billion over the 4 years of the authorization), a more than a 20 percent increase. We applaud the increase in authorizations for Title III (English Language learners), Title VI, American Indian and Alaska Native programs and Impact Aid are excellent. Increases in the Mckinney Vento leave us hopeful that our homeless children will be serviced and supported but we will need more.
#2 I have concerns that “personalized learning “ will be a vehicle for students to be placed in front of a computer screen all day or have them moved out of their public school to a school that is not housed in their community.  This school could be an online learning center or a charter school; both which have been proven not to be beneficial over a strong public neighborhood school.    Why should children have to move out of their community school to be educated?  We need to support strong sustainable public schools in the communities that our children live.
#3 I  am vehemently opposed to testing children each year in grades 3-8 and once in high school.  We are the only nation that demands this of our children.  Grade span testing by random sampling will allow more time for learning.  We have done this successfully using NAEP.  Testing has depleted much needed funds for our children in need.  The only people that testing every year benefits are the testing companies.
#4 I also do not agree that our ENL/ELL populations should be subject to multiple statewide interim assessments during the academic year.  This, once again, results in more testing and less learning for our non-English speakers.  What we are seeing for our ELL students is less time with their ELL teachers in instruction to teach them to speak/acquire the language.  The drive to get them ready for a test at the end of the year that they are not yet ready to take, due to lack of language, is abusive and inappropriate.  Although pushing them into classes with their English speaking peers is excellent, there must also be a balance of making sure that we are giving them the instruction that they need to acquire the English language.  This has been taken away from them in many districts across the nation.
#5 I am opposed to computer adaptive assessments listed in the Act.  I feel that testing and technology companies put together inferior products, sell them to districts to make money and now districts are left with inferior assessments and no money.  I am also opposed to the idea of  ‘innovative assessment system', as outlined in Part B Title 1, that could be used as assessments in school districts.  As educators, we have seen technology companies and testing companies pillage the coffers of public education with products that are inferior and do not enhance teaching and learning.  This is not what America wants for its children.  We do not want our classrooms to become places in which children sit in front of a computer for several hours a day and the teacher becomes just a facilitator.  We see a need for technology and to make sure that our students are using it to enhance learning but it should not replace the human interactions that they need in the classrooms to become productive global citizens.  
 #6  Finally from Part A of Title 1 I feel that allowing alternative routes to certification will only guarantee that our neediest children will get the least trained, for example, Teach for America.  We should require every teacher, in every classroom to be fully licensed and accredited from a strong college education program. 
In closing I would like to take a few moments to also address the letter that the USDOE sent on Dec. 22nd  to the Chief School Officers in states that had high test refusal rates.  The letter, which threatened to withhold Title 1 money for states with high test refusal rates, was absolutely deplorable.  As Mr. King knows from his tenure in NYS, standing between a parent and the decisions that they choose to make for their children is not a good idea.   To create conditions where a local school district must pressure parents into making decisions they do not want for their child is not good for the positive relationships that school districts need to create in order to work cooperatively with parents. 
Thank you again for your time and consideration.