Utopian Rhetoric vs. Dystopian Reality in the Draft RI ESSA Plan

The RI Department of Education has been working hard to comply with the federal Department of Education’s guidelines for submitting a plan for implementation of the 2015 iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, previously revised and enshrined into law as No Child Left Behind in 2002. The federal DoE has strict parameters that must be met by the states, and this understandably constrained what RIDE needed to submit. The plan has supposedly been informed by stake-holder input, and is now provided to the public for comment, until June 30.

“The law gives an opportunity for us to further develop our work and our resourcing plan for Rhode Island’s Strategic Plan for PK-12 Education, completed in 2015, using ESSA as a lever to achieve our state-developed vision.  The U.S. Department of Education has asked all states to submit a plan for transition to ESSA, and our goal at the R.I. Department of Education (RIDE) is to complete our plan and submit it by September 2017. Over the course of the 2016-2017 school year, RIDE will be engaging with the greater education community with critical questions surrounding our state plan through multiple channels.”

See here for info from RIDE and option for public feedback.

Obviously, RIDE is enthusiastic about the Strategic Plan, which also was supposedly developed with stakeholder input. That is debatable. (See this Op-Ed in the Providence Journal by Carole Marshall, a retired teacher from Hope High School in Providence: Marshall’s Op-Ed

More about The Learning Accelerator as mentioned in Marshall’s Op-Ed: “The Learning Accelerator is the catalyst to transform American K-12 education through blended learning at scale. TLA accelerates system-wide learning around the practices, conditions, human capital supports, and measurement needed to create highly personalized, data-rich, mastery-based schooling.

“Follow us @LearningAccel”

For more on The Learning Accelerator in RI see pages 13-16 of this post.

I consider myself a master reader, having enjoyed and benefited from reading a multitude of both fiction and non-fiction works since about age 9. I spent my professional career as an English Language Arts teacher in the middle school and high school at the RI School for the Deaf. I also administered English language, reading, and writing assessments to students in preparation for their IEPs. (Individual Education Plans) With this as background, I must confess that I could not tolerate reading through the entire draft plan. Why? In substance and format, this plan for education does not resonate with the human spirit. It’s mainly about measurement, accountability, and ranking and sorting of students, teachers, and schools. It occurred to me that persistence in reading this type of mind-numbing informational text is what the Common Core ELA Standards expect. For the potential dystopian result of this focus, see the February 2013 draft report by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century, especially page 44 for examples of “affective sensors used while a student is engaged in Wayang Outpost, an online tutoring system” Report found here. I doubt I would fare very well if my affect were assessed while reading this RIDE ESSA plan.

So, is this the type of reading that we want to force-feed our children, as the Common Core State (sic) Standards promotes (informational text—not even expository text, which includes personal memoir, essays, history, and philosophy—to the exclusion of novels and plays)? Have we come so far down a technocratic path that educators no longer communicate their shared vision for educating our nation’s children with prose at a human scale, reflecting human aspirations, human capacities, and human needs? Still, I read enough to get the gist of the proposal.

I have objections to the premises on which the RI Strategic Plan for Public Education 2015-2020 is based. You can read the full plan here Therefore I have objections to the draft ESSA plan, which is largely based on the Strategic Plan, as noted above.

A major problem in my opinion is the stealth assumption that the Common Core State Standards are a valid and effective set of standards in English Language Arts and Math on which to base curricula. I have written about this before, as have many others who are actually knowledgeable about child development, literacy development, second language acquisition, math proficiency, and the education of children with significant cognitive, perceptual, sensory, behavioral, and emotional difficulties. See here. The Common Core standards are fatally flawed. Many authentic educators and curriculum developers have also written extensively about the flaws of the PARCC testing, the standardized assessment that has been administered in RI in ELA and Math for the past few years to measure student proficiency according to the Common Core standards. (Here is one of many posts, this one by an experienced ELA curriculum developer, Robert D. Shepherd,

quoted on Diane Ravitch’s blog

Despite several years of RIDE’s aggressive promotion of the PARCC as a necessary improvement over the NECAP, the previous state assessment system, we are now told that:

“We’re always looking for ways to improve teaching and learning, and that includes our state assessments. This shift from PARCC to the RICAS [RI Comprehensive Assessment System, supposedly aligned with the MCAS—Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System] and PSAT/SAT is responsive to feedback we have received from educators, students, and families. Massachusetts has a long history as a leader in education, and adopting the RICAS ensures long-term sustainability with a reliable neighboring state partner. The PSAT and SAT are well-respected and accepted by U.S. colleges and universities.” See here. (RI Statewide Assessment Transition)

What RIDE leaves out of this enthusiastic shift to the RICAS is that the highly respected MCAS is no longer the same assessment system as the one that was developed back in 1993 by actual experts and with stake-holder input. (See any of the multitude of writings by Dr. Sandra Stotsky, an ELA expert who was key to the original MA standards and assessments, was a member of the validation committee for the Common Core State Standards, and refused to sign off on them because of their deficiencies.) The new, improved MCAS is now aligned with the Common Core State Standards, as are the PSAT and SAT. (David Coleman, one of the architects of the CCSS for ELA, became the CEO of the College Board in 2012. The College Board produces the PSAT/SAT as well as AP (Advanced Placement) exams and the Accuplacer.) See the results of his “beautiful vision” here.

Each of these highly touted assessments—the new MCAS, the PSAT, and the SAT–has its own problems that have been exposed by knowledgeable educators. (See for example this blog post by Mercedes Schneider. )

RIDE’s laboriously crafted ESSA plan is fatally flawed because it does not question the assumption that the CCSS and accompanying assessments are valid for measuring students, teachers, schools, and districts. (Other flaws in the plan, including rhapsodic promotion of blended/so-called personalized learning in the Strategic Plan, deserve their own blog post.) Who will step up to bring sanity and humanity back to our vitally important public education system, and reject the hyper-focus on acCOUNTability via a technocratically narrowed vision of human potentiality? Time is running out.





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