“McKinsey, Nellie Mae, CBE, Digital Badging, and Us”

Despite spending many years lacking confidence in my ability to write anything of consequence, in the last few years I’ve managed to turn that self-doubt around. The impetus was a profound dismay at the direction that public education has been pushed by neoliberal technocratic/corporatist/elites, a profound respect and gratitude for the many articulate, knowledgeable, dedicated, and compassionate bloggers who have amassed a vast investigative expose of the privatizing neoliberal global workforce soul-sucking agenda, and a newfound receptive audience for my musings on facebook. (A few of my favorite bloggers are Mercedes Schneider, Morna McDermott, Peggy Robertson, Emily Kennedy Talmage, Raschelle Holland, Jo Lieb, Nancy Bailey, Ciedie Aech, Russ Walsh, Peter Greene, and Robert D. Shepherd.) So, for my 4th blog post I set myself the task of illuminating the pernicious effects of the philanthropy pouring from Nellie Mae into New England, and into RI. Unfortunately, I found myself stumped and once again doubting my ability to pull this off. The tentacles are so prolific and so reasonable sounding and so well orchestrated and financed and entangled in public and civic organizations that I feel that I’ve more than met my match.

So what I’m going to endeavor to do is to pull together what I consider to be key information from several sources that hopefully will shed light on the various tentacles that are callously closing in on all of our children, and most particularly on the most vulnerable, whether due to poverty, ethnicity, language status, and/or special education needs.

Let’s start from the top of the RI power establishment, and cast the spotlight on the RI connection to McKinsey, the global consulting company. According to their website, here are their global themes:

  • Digital Disruption
  • Leadership
  • Employment and Growth
  • Long-Term Capitalism

What does this have to do with RI? The First Gentleman, Andy Moffit, has been an employee of McKinsey since 2000. He co-authored a book (Deliverology 101: A Field Guide for Educational Leaders) with Sir Michael Barber. According to Wikipedia, “Barber served as a partner and head of the global education practice at McKinsey, advisor to Prime Minister Tony Blair and a global expert on education reform and implementation of large-scale system change. … [He] is a British educationist and Chief Education Advisor to Pearson and the Managing Partner of Delivery Associates.” See here  As you probably recall, Pearson is the corporation that supplies Common Core aligned curriculum and test prep materials to schools, as well as being responsible for the administration of the PARCC.

By the way, Andy Moffit’s educational background that entitles him to hold such a key current position as Director of Industry Learning at McKinsey is two years as a TFA elementary school teacher in 1991-1993.

So what does McKinsey envision for the future of “corporate academies”? (i.e. continuous training of employees by large corporations). See the graphic here

“The authors [of the accompanying article] wish to thank Jacqueline Brassey, Andy Moffit, Nicolai Nielsen, and Silke-Susann Otto for their contributions to this article.” [emphasis added]

As an aside, Mr. Moffit spent this past spring as an adjunct professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education teaching:

A-610A Workplace Learning and Leadership Development, and Technology. The course description states: “Limited to 25 students to ensure sufficient opportunities for robust engagement and involvement.[but small class size is a luxury that k-12 public schools can’t afford and don’t need, according to Bill Gates and friends]

See here

OK, so maybe online learning, real-time feedback, big data and continually improving learning via analytics is viable for adults working in the corporate world. By what stretch of the imagination does it translate to k-12 education? Hold that thought.

Even for adults, McKinsey cautions: “Similarly, for all of the notable advances that digitization promises, comprehensive learning cannot be based on the cloud alone. Companies still have compelling reasons to locate significant elements of corporate learning in tangible, specialized educational facilities—increasingly, with ergonomically designed furniture, plenty of light, and interior design geared specifically to learning. In our experience, any successful educational program allows employees to unplug and enjoy a respite from an always-on, 24/7 tempo.

“The importance of this physical separation from the daily grind should not be underestimated. If employees have no opportunity to step away from their working environments, the same old behavior, for good and ill, is constantly reinforced, and the chance for more reflective, committed learning is lost.”

See here

[So why did RI parents have to overcome tremendous resistance from the RI Department of Education and Commissioner Wagner, and from the General Assembly to get a bill passed requiring schools to provide a measly 20 minutes of recess for students up through grade 5? FYI—Commissioner Wagner dismissed the need for recess for elementary school students as not worthy of enshrining in regulation, especially considering the poor scores of third graders on the PARCC!]

Now back to the link between the Moffit/McKinsey vision of continuous/digitized training for the corporate work force and k-12 education. For a brilliant expose I highly recommend a full reading of Morna McDermott’s insightful blog post, “CBE and ALEC Preparing Students for the Gig Economy.” I’ll just present her first few paragraphs here to tantalize you. (By the way, ALEC has been a major player in state houses across the country pushing their corporate-friendly anti-union, anti-regulation, anti-humane policies in education as well as other areas necessary for a civil/civic society.) http://www.alecexposed.org/wiki/ALEC_Exposed

From Morna:

Pearson, of course, was ahead of the pack as usual… developing a school- to -labor pipeline that suites [sic] the corporate masters.  As this blog explains, Competency Based Education becomes the framework for “badges” instead of credit hours and prepares students for career and college which is code for the new “gig” economy. According to Pearson: ‘Alternative learning credentials including college coursework, self-directed learning experiences, career training, and continuing education programs can play a powerful role in defining and articulating solo workers’ capabilities. Already badges that represent these credentials are serving an important purpose in fostering trust between solo workers, employers, and project teams because they convey skill transparency and deliver seamless verification of capabilities.’ …

“First, a brief background: Competency based education (or CBE) has been a rapidly developing alternative to traditional public education. While proponents tout it as “disruptive innovation” critics examine how disruptive translates into “dismantle”, meaning that CBE is a system by which public schools can, and will be, dismantled. This is not ancillary. It was designed to create a new privately-run profiteering model by which education can be delivered to “the masses.” Think: Outsourcing.

“CBE delivers curriculum, instruction and assessments through online programming owned by third-party (corporate) organizations that are paid for with your tax dollars. Proponents of CBE use catchy language like “personalized” and “individualized” learning. Translation? Children seated alone interfacing with a computer, which monitors and adjusts the materials according to the inputs keyed in by the child.” [and continuously collects data from these students that goes into “personalized” profiles to profit ??]

See here

Now to more about badges and the link to the Nellie Mae Foundation, which operates in New England and is already here in RI. So who/what is Nellie Mae, where did it come from, and what is its connection to public schooling?

According to Investopedia:

“DEFINITION of ‘Nellie Mae’

“A non-profit organization that provides education loans in the United States. Nellie Mae was founded in Massachusetts and is the largest non-profit provider of student loans in the United States, helping student across the country pay for their education. It has been a wholly owned subsidiary of SLM Corporation, known as Sallie Mae, since 1999.

“Nellie Mae stands for New England Education Loan Marketing Corporation. [more students graduating from high school college ready equals more students  needing more college loans]

“BREAKING DOWN ‘Nellie Mae’

“Nellie Mae was created in order to purchase student loans, securitizing them to be sold off to investors. Student loans were guaranteed by the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP), with further financial backing by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE).”

See here

Despite spending much time going around in circles trying to find out more about Nellie Mae, I haven’t been able to square the above information with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation’s self-description as stated in their white paper on badging:

“The Nellie Mae Education Foundation is the largest philanthropic organization in New England that focuses exclusively on education. The Foundation supports the promotion and integration of student-centered approaches to learning (SCL) at the middle and high school levels across New England—where learning is personalized; learning is competency-based; learning takes place anytime, anywhere; and students exert ownership over their own learning. To elevate student-centered approaches, the Foundation utilizes a four-part strategy that focuses on: building educator ownership, leadership and capacity; advancing quality and rigor of SCL practices; developing effective systems designs; and building public understanding and demand. Since 1998, the Foundation has distributed over $180 million in grants. For more information about the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, visit nmefoundation.org.” (p. 25)

See here

According to Emily Kennedy Talmage, a 4th grade teacher in Maine who writes the powerful and exhaustively researched blog “Save Maine Schools,” which warns against the harm of Competency (Proficiency) Based Education/personalized education/student-centered learning/badging/anywhere, anytime, any pace learning—

“Nellie Mae appears to be behind the “assessment reform” movement that has attempted to attach itself to the Opt Out Movement’s coat tails [against end of the year high stakes standardized assessments such as the PARCC]. With KnowledgeWorks, the Center for Collaborative Education and iNACOL [International Association for k-12 Online Learning] (both Nellie Mae funded) were instrumental in developing ESSA’s “innovative assessment” option that encourages states to shift toward competency-based models.”

See here

Note the extent to which “personalized” learning is enshrined in the RI Strategic Plan for Public Education 2015-2020. See the plan here

Please read Carole Marshall’s jaw-dropping Op-Ed in the Providence Journal from last summer. Carole is an investigative journalist who also taught English for many years at Hope High School, retiring several years ago. Her sleuthing paid off as she exposed the lack of integrity of RIDE and its spokepersons when they declared: “that the Rhode Island Strategic Plan 2015-2020 was created by thousands of Rhode Islanders ‘through a process that is built upon the principles of transparency, engagement, empowerment and respect.’” On the contrary, her investigation turned up this unsavory connection:

“Rhode Island’s Strategic Plan for Education … is the product of a California organization called The Learning Accelerator, founded by a Christiansen devotee, whose sole mission is to promote blended learning through disruptive innovation. The Learning Accelerator has put together a detailed set of steps a state ‘must take’ to promote blended learning.” Voila—the RI Strategic Plan!

See here

The following key points about Nellie Mae, badging, and RI connections are taken from the white paper on digital badging linked here

“In PK-12 settings, students can earn badges by mastering math skills and completing

other badge-worthy challenges with online curriculum providers like Khan Academy or

BuzzMath. Their teacher may issue badges for classroom participation, attendance,

or academic performance using digital badging features integrated into the school’s

learning management system or included in a growing number of products like

ClassDojo or ForAllRubrics. (p. 4) [a data privacy nightmare]

 

“This push for better credentialing systems is coming from forces associated with

workforce development, professional training, and with higher education. People

simply have more choices about where, when and how they learn and employers

generally value current skills over a past degree and an employee’s ability to keep his

or her skillset up-to-date and relevant in a rapidly evolving workplace. Supporters like

EDUCAUSE, the Lumina Foundation, the Gates Foundation, Mozilla and IMS Global, a

technology standards organization focused on higher education interoperability, are

involved and playing important advocacy and convening roles for various projects. (p. 8)

[some info on Lumina: “In order to land a seat on its Education Task Force in 2008, Lumina gave $300,000 to the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC, to kick in gear the complete privatization of state universities across America.”] See here

“Teachers are often required to be continuous learners. In a world

where a Master’s degree and other ‘macro’ credentials don’t

necessarily translate into gains in student achievement and where

educators are frustrated with staid, largely ineffective professional

development methods, micro-credentialing can support teachers

as they create their own personalized, competency-based learning

pathways and get recognition for a wide range of valuable, career significant

learning experiences. Equally important is the belief

that teachers need to experience the power of personalized,

competency-based learning in order to create similar experiences

for their students. (p. 9)

“New England also has an emerging badging and micro-credentialing scene. In fact,

the Providence After School Alliance in Providence, Rhode Island, was among the

first pilots in the country funded by the MacArthur Foundation, and Maine hit the

headlines notably this past year. (p. 13)

Rhode Island: Providence After School Alliance [PASA]

“Providence is home to one of the country’s first badging projects. PASA was

awarded one of the original Digital Media Learning Competition / MacArthur grants

to experiment. Funding for the project ended in 2014 but PASA decided to take a

“second dive” into badging with support from the Noyce Foundation. PASA has issued

STEM badges as part of their middle school AfterZone program, will issue them again

during their summer STEM program for 500 youth, and plans to expand badging to all

of their middle and high school expanded learning programs in fall 2016. (p. 15)

“Alejandro [Molina from PASA] is also incredibly articulate about lessons learned from their first badging pilot and implications for their current effort. The most important adjustment has been to focus on establishing the value and culture of badges, not just building the system (value vs. functionality). Offering badges to middle schoolers that “would be great for college” didn’t hook them. Badges need to have more immediate value to students. He also points out that badges don’t work in a vacuum, and you have to factor this in: “You can ask a student, ‘What do you value more, badges or a caring adult?’ and guess the answer. A better question is, ‘What if the badge is given to you by a caring adult?’” (pp. 15-16)

Rhode Island: Assessment for Learning Project (ALP)

Performance Assessment Micro-Credential System

“Rhode Island will also serve as the proving ground for one of the New England

region’s newest PK-12 badging efforts – the development of a micro-credentialing

system designed to validate teachers who have honed the specialized of skills

it takes to design high quality performance-based assessment tasks and serve

as leaders who embed the practices in districts.” (p. 16)

“Research on the impact of badging and micro-credentialing is

in its infancy, especially for PK-12, and is based on very small

sample sizes. (p. 17) [no evidence it works—no problem!]

“Even the language and positioning of badges in PK-12 seems to have shifted. People often opt not to lead with the word “badge.” Instead they talk about personalized learning, connected learning, project based learning, or credentialing. Badging is still there as a tool and strategy but it isn’t necessarily the headline.” (pp. 19-20)

So there has been a lot going on, and most of us have been in the dark. How do we get the word out, and how do we mobilize to thwart these allegedly good intentions paving the way to hell?

Please leave comments and suggestions!

P.S. Sorry for the formatting irregularities. I’m still new at this!

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Onward to the Brave New World of Competency Based Education–Or Not!”

I’ve been looking through some of the papers that I’ve written to bolster myself when making public comments to the RI Board of Education, the RI Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, and community forums on education. My mind is so full of musings about education issues that I can’t trust myself to speak coherently without a prepared speech, so I’ve inadvertently left myself a written record of my thoughts and judgments. I know that David Coleman won’t possibly be interested in what I think and feel about what is happening to public school children, their families, their teachers, their schools, and their communities. But I’ve decided to plug away anyway and publish my concerns. Please leave feedback in the comments section!

These are the remarks I intended to make to the RI Council on Elementary and Secondary Education on December 9, 2015, regarding Competency/Proficiency Based Education. Unfortunately I was unable to attend the meeting, so I emailed my remarks to the members of the CESE. To my recollection, I received no reply.

Good Evening,

My name is Sheila Resseger, and I retired from 25 years of teaching English Language Arts in the middle school and high school at the RI School for the Deaf in 2011. Since that time I have been researching the education reforms coming down from the federal Department of Education and the RI Department of Education. I am more than concerned—I am dismayed at the technocratic direction of our public education system, and the dismissal of humanistic values embedded in this direction. I have spoken out in public forums against the Common Core State Standards and the PARCC testing. The next stage of the technocratic agenda is now upon us, and it does not bode well for our students, and particularly for the most vulnerable students that everyone is rightly concerned about.

If it seems too good to be true, well, it probably is. No Child Left Behind and Common Core were a boon to the educational testing corporations, Race to the Top was a boon to for-profit charter schools, and the RI Strategic Plan is a boon to ed tech entrepreneurs who, without any training or experience in child development or authentic diagnostic assessment or curriculum design, have the hubris to believe they can provide digital learning tools for an entire generation.

Now that there has been a hue and cry about the over-testing of our students, here comes the antidote: competency/proficiency based education, aka personalization, aka student-centered education, and community partnerships. While this sounds on the surface like a welcome relief from the one-size-fits-all standardization of curricula and high-stakes standardized testing, it comes with its own pitfalls.

A perusal of the new “RI Strategic Plan for Public Education: 2015-2020” turns up a number of appealing-sounding but troubling buzzwords: personalized instruction, one-to-one computer technology, blended learning, online learning, community partners outside of the school, and particularly, proficiency-based instruction and assessment. In an ideal world, these buzzwords could be a refreshing approach to teaching and learning in a dazzling world of opportunity through technological advances. Very unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world.

We need only look as far as the state of Maine to see what the ugly reality of competency/proficiency based education looks like in real schools with real students and teachers. Maine has plunged ahead with this agenda, though there is no research (peer-reviewed or otherwise) that justifies transforming teaching and learning into a digital/online enterprise. My take is that the PR for so-called proficiency based, personalized learning is actually riddled with code words that translate into outsourcing education to ed-tech vendors, marginalizing classroom teachers, holding students accountable to pre-determined, inappropriate standards (Common Core or Core-like), not allowing them to progress until they have achieved “mastery” of these inappropriate standards, feeding them game-like academic programs that foster zombie cognitive processing rather than real learning, and using extrinsic motivation like rewards and badges, all the while scooping up reams of sensitive data that will go who knows where and be used for who knows what.

[Watch this video and be: amazed, horrified, disgusted, or all of the above.]

Is this rush to digital learning truly for the benefit of the overwhelming majority of the children in America who attend public schools? Or is it a bonanza for the hedge funders and edtech entrepreneurs who will rake in an exorbitant amount of money directly or indirectly on learning modules of dubious quality?

Please do your research, and follow the money. I suggest you begin with the blog posts of Emily Kennedy Talmage. She is a teacher in Maine who has researched the roots of the Competency Based Education agenda and written extensively about it–it is unnerving.

For starters, see this post by Emily Kennedy Talmage.

also see

“Testing All The Time” by Morna McDermott, Peggy Robertson, and Stephen Krashen (You’ll need to scroll down the page to find this article.)

Sincerely,

Sheila Resseger, M.A.

 

update:

Not only is this travesty happening here in America, but it’s going on globally. This just in from Knewton and Top Dog Math.  See here
“We understand that students need learning material that addresses each child’s preferences, interests and competencies. To do this, we are using automated algorithms that create bespoke [?] content on demand.”

Is ALL DIGITAL ALL THE TIME really better for children? Investigate! Ask questions of those in power! Find like-minded people who have the courage to resist this high speed, meticulously planned, outrageously funded, technocratic coup that is dismantling public schooling as we have known it, replacing it with disengagement empowered by algorithms. This agenda does not value the uniqueness of individually blossoming human beings.  We must truly put the well being of the children first, not the bottom line of multi-national corporations grooming workers for the global economy.

 

“What does it Take to Teach ALL Children to Read?”

During my teaching career at the RI School for the Deaf, I was very fortunate to be granted a Sabbatical for the 1997-98 school year. My topic was “Reading Comprehension Research and Theory with Application to Hearing-Impaired Students.” I made use of studies that focused on the process of learning to read, and the pedagogy of reading instruction for both hearing and hearing-impaired students. I read the works of a number of well-respected scholars who designed exemplary studies to address these issues. One of the most informative was the work of Sarah Michaels and James Collins. Even though this study was published in 1984, I think it illuminates a key reason that children of color tend to perform more poorly on academic tasks than white children. Children bring their oral tradition with them to school. Literacy is based on the oral tradition, but then expands on it, encompassing new cognitive/grammatical processes beyond sound-symbol correspondence.

The oral tradition of communities of white, middle and upper class children tend to pre-adapt those children to the modes of speaking that will transition easily to academic prose. Since many of the teachers come from the white middle class as well, the white children’s oral expressions match the teachers’ expectations. This is not necessarily true for the children of color. That their mode of oral communication in their community is different, does not mean that it is inferior. However, the lack of awareness of many teachers about this difference, that occurs outside of conscious awareness, is the heart of the problem. I’m going to insert the summary I wrote of the Michaels and Collins study, since they articulate this situation much more expertly than I can.

 

 

Michaels, Sarah and Collins, James. (1984). Oral Discourse Styles: Classroom Interaction and the Acquisition of Literacy. In Deborah Tannen (Ed.), Coherence in Spoken and Written Discourse (pp. 219-244). NJ: ABLEX Publishing Corporation.

 

Summary

 

The authors were interested in investigating aspects of teacher/child interactions during early literacy-promoting activities that facilitate or hamper literacy development. They were also concerned with “the relationship between community-based oral discourse style and the acquisition of literacy.” (p. 220)

To these ends they conducted an ethnographic study of home and school communication during the course of one school year with a class of first grade children, half of whom were white and half of whom were black. During their research they identified classroom “sharing time” (more or less the equivalent of “show and tell”) “as an  activity that provides oral preparation for literacy.” (p. 220)  (It is noteworthy that the teacher herself was unaware that her interactions with the children during these sharing sessions had the effect of providing practice for orally composing decontextualized prose-like narratives: “children were expected to assume a non-face-to-face stance with respect to their audience and incorporate features of discursive prose into their discourse. Hence, nouns were preferred to gestures or deictic pronouns; shifts between topics were to be lexically or syntactically marked; and no background or contextual knowledge was to be assumed on the part of the audience.” (p. 221)   (See pp. 223-4 for teacher’s “sharing schema.” )

 

The researchers’ observations and conversational analyses of many sharing-time interactions revealed that the white children and black children were using two distinct types of discourse style (developed in their respective communities). The style of the white children resembled a literate style, as further elucidated in the follow-up study described below (i.e. signaling of “perspective shifts and logical connections” was done via “a wide range of lexical and syntactic devices such as noun complements, relative clauses, and nominal compounds in signaling agent focus and co-reference relations” (p. 220) ). This style was compatible with the teacher’s expectations, and so these children were able to benefit from the teacher’s comments and questions, which had the effect of facilitating their transition to literacy.

 

On the other hand, the black children’s oral discourse style depended on prosody (“intonation and rhythm” (p. 220) ), rather than lexical and syntactic markers to signal perspective shifts and logical connections. In addition, their narratives (unlike the white children’s “topic-centered” style) exemplified a “topic-associating” style, typical of their community. (p. 224)  The teacher judged their attempts at narrative as rambling and without a point, and would interrupt them, which frustrated them and derailed their train of thought. The black children (in the course of interviews with the authors) expressed their perception of these sharing-time sessions as evidence that their stories and concerns were not valued by the teacher. The mismatching of the teacher’s and black children’s communication during these interactions went on outside of the conscious awareness of the teacher, stemming from differences between the teacher’s and children’s “prosodic signaling system and narrative schemas.” (p. 230)  The cumulative effect of these frustrating sessions, according to the authors, was to deny the black children the practice they needed to bridge the gap between their oral discourse style and the literate style of academic text.

 

The authors also devised a “naturalistic experiment”  (p. 230)  to enable them to further characterize the differences between the discourse styles of the white and black children, and to explore the relationship between these styles of oral narrative and the subsequent ability to produce unambiguous written prose. In analyzing the data from this experiment, the investigators “focused on how thematic cohesion (Bennett 1978) was achieved by children who used different oral discourse styles.” (p. 220)  The experimental task involved having all the first grade children and two fourth-grade children (included so that the researchers could have written narratives to compare to oral ones) view a six-minute film known as “the pear film” that had been “designed to stimulate the production of oral narratives.” (p. 230)  After viewing the (non-verbal) film, the children were asked (individually) to tell the story of the film to an interviewer. The fourth-graders were asked to both tell and write their narratives. The oral narratives of four of the first grade children (two black children and two white children) were analyzed, along with the oral and written narratives of the two fourth-graders. The film had been designed so that the narrators would have to handle perspective shifts (from one character to another) and maintenance of identity of reference of the several male characters from one short episode to another.

 

Results of the analysis showed that the differences found between the black children (who used an “oral” style dependent on prosody) and the white children (who used a more “literate” oral narrative style) corresponded to the differences found during the sharing-time interactions (and described previously). In order to study the effect of discourse style on writing ability, the oral and written narratives of the two fourth-grade students were analyzed and compared. The child who used a more literate discourse style was able to successfully transfer the cohesive devices used orally into the written mode, whereas the child who relied on prosody to signal cohesion (though a high achiever and “fluent reader and writer” (p. 240) ) wrote a narrative “characterized by weakly signaled transitions and ambiguous identity relations. For him, with prosodic options lost, learning to write means learning a new system for signaling thematic cohesion.” (p. 241)

———————————————————————————————————————

Does anyone who has been paying attention to the travesty of the Common Core ELA standards and the PARCC testing believe that those who drafted these misguided, top-down standards had any inkling of the complexity of the problems of truly engaging all children in the process of achieving mastery of reading and writing? The naïve and self-serving, self-flattering belief that cracking the whip with higher standards, more complex texts, and incessant testing will be successful in shaping up ALL students, and closing the “achievement gap”—is not only a fraud, devoid of appreciation for true scholarship, but a crime, depriving children of their birthright to value themselves as unique human beings, belonging to valued communities.

 

 

 

“Some Background on Me”

 

I was a teacher at the RI School for the Deaf for over 25 years. I taught courses that strengthened my students’ capacities for reading and writing in English, a language that for most of them was not their native language, due to their early and severe hearing loss. Many of them also lived in families that did not speak English, which further complicated their progress. I also administered assessments one-on-one to prepare for students’ IEPs (Individualized Education Plans). These were time-consuming to administer and to score, because they included receptive and expressive English, reading comprehension, and writing. But they provided essential diagnostic information that their teachers could use to develop curriculum materials. From time to time I also had to administer the state standardized test, which was the NECAP. For most of my students, this was a futile exercise. Despite their IEP that said they were reading at the 3rd grade level, for example, if they were in the ninth grade, they had to take the 9th grade test. All of my colleagues were aware that this test could not possibly show what the students were capable of, but it did not occur to any of us to refuse to administer it, even if the students expressed distress. Of course, that was before any high stakes were attached to the testing, for students, for teachers, or for schools.

I am also the parent of two young adults who went through the Cranston, RI  Public Schools, graduated, and went on to college and earned degrees. I was not always happy with the textbooks or the uninspired curriculum offerings. In fact, I took my daughter out of public school for two years in high school so that she could get more individual attention and study topics that engaged her as a whole person. Still, it would not have occurred to me to stand up against the school.

I am explaining this because it’s important to understand that I had the luxury to go along with a system that wasn’t quite right but that wasn’t a calamity either. I have been researching what has been happening in education across America, and indeed even globally, since I retired in 2011. The Common Core so-called State Standards and PARCC testing are the tip of the iceberg that is rushing us all along toward the dismantling of public education as we have known it, and the de-professionalizing of teachers. Granted there have been many problems with our system, not the least of which is the lack of proper funding. But these problems can be tackled with knowledge of child development, with content area knowledge, with sensitivity to cultural and language differences, with open-mindedness, and with determination. Despite the rhetoric coming from the education so-called reformers about Children First, the need for rigor, internationally benchmarked standards, the civil rights issue of our time—the reality of their solution is dystopian.

My focus during my teaching career was essentially on English language mastery, reading comprehension, and writing, so I will focus here on English Language Arts and the travesty of what is being foisted on all public schools by the Common Core ELA standards and the PARCC testing.

What does it take to nurture a student’s ability to not only become a competent reader, but to seek to read for information, for knowledge, for introspection, and for enjoyment? It takes human teachers knowledgeable about cognitive development, first and second language development, and literacy development. It takes human teachers who respond to their students with sensitivity, perceptiveness, and acumen. It takes human teachers who provide engaging materials and encourage students to find their own voices. It takes human teachers who empathize with their students. Why am I using the phrase human teachers? Isn’t it obvious? Unfortunately, no, not to those who master-minded the Common Core and its newest iteration: Competency Based Education (more on that in another blog post).

If you have been researching the origins of the Common Core, you may already know that those who developed these standards were professionals who primarily came from the college entrance testing industry—the College Board and the ACT. The small cabal that actually wrote the standards did not include any experienced and credentialed authorities on cognitive development, first and second language development, or literacy development. There were virtually no k-12 classroom teachers involved in the drafting. Nor were there any experts on special needs students. Those who do have expertise in ELA have decried the inappropriateness of the standards, particularly for the youngest students and those with learning challenges, but also for typically developing students.

The fatal flaws inherent in the development of the standards lead to the tragic flaws found in the curricula aligned to them. The push to pressure young students to focus on skills such as compare/contrast and fact vs. opinion does not enhance their reading comprehension. The keys to comprehension are engagement and context. The curricular materials that many school districts have purchased, published by Pearson, the global education company that administers the PARCC, provide neither. These materials are counter-productive, since they convince students that reading is a chore; if students are not good at reading as measured by the worksheets and benchmark testing, then they conclude that they are not good readers, or even decide that they are stupid. This can have devastating consequences for their academic learning going forward, and for their ability to be life-long learners.

Teachers are being forced to teach to these inappropriate standards because students are burdened with taking the PARCC, which was inextricably linked to the Common Core standards from the beginning. This test is counter-productive and wasteful of resources and students’ learning time. When RI Department of Education spokespeople say that there is no test prep possible for the PARCC because it is testing critical thinking skills, they are wrong on several fronts. First of all, they do admit that students need to be familiarized with the format of the online tests—but this is a waste of time and computer resources. Second, the PARCC does not actually test critical thinking skills. Third, the Common Core aligned curricula that school districts are buying into (and spending big bucks on), such as Pearson materials, are actually pure test prep and do not provide the engaging, context-rich materials that students need to truly learn and develop mastery.

Recently there was a brouhaha on social media and in the blogosphere regarding exposure of some of the actual passages and writing prompts on the PARCC, as I mentioned in my previous post. An anonymous 4th grade teacher’s observations were posted on the blog of Celia Oyler, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. That the anonymous teacher included actual passages and prompts from the ELA test she had administered, which is counter to the pledge that PARCC requires all teachers to sign, caused the CEO of PARCC, Inc. to prevail on Twitter to remove links to the post. The teacher went ahead with exposing the material, knowing that there might eventually be legal consequences, but firmly believing that the public had the right to know what 9 year old students were being measured on. Fortunately, many education bloggers continued to repost the teacher’s observations. She found that:

“4th graders are being asked to read and respond to texts that are two grade levels above the recommended benchmark. After they struggle through difficult texts with advanced vocabulary and nuanced sentence structures, they then have to answer multiple choice questions that are, by design, intended to distract students with answers that appear to be correct except for some technicality.

“Finally, students must synthesize two or three of these advanced texts and compose an original essay. The ELA portion of the PARCC takes three days, and each day includes a new essay prompt based on multiple texts. …

ELA 4th Grade Prompt #1

Refer to the passage from “Emergency on the Mountain” and the poem “Mountains.” Then answer question 7.

  1. Think about how the structural elements in the passage from “Emergency on the Mountain” differ from the structural elements in the poem “Mountains.”

Write an essay that explains the differences in the structural elements between the passage and the poem. Be sure to include specific examples from both texts to support your response. …

 “However, the Common Core State Standards for writing do not require students to write essays comparing the text structures of different genres. The Grade 4 CCSS for writing about reading demand that students write about characters, settings, and events in literature, or that they write about how authors support their points in informational texts. Nowhere in the standards are students asked to write comparative essays on the structures of writing.” See more here.

Yet this is being asked of ALL 4th grade students, including most students with special learning challenges, students who struggle with English, and students living in poverty whose schools lack the resources to provide fully for their needs.

The PARCC is flawed on many levels, but one key area that is problematic is that it was designed to be administered online. The Providence Journal recently reported that students’ scores on the PARCC in 2015 were somewhat lower when taken on computers as compared to the paper and pencil version. This was completely predictable, especially for the younger students. The computer skills required may be a piece of cake for the adults who designed the test, but are absurd for young students. Still Commissioner Wagner and the RI Department of Education plan to persevere and double-down—all students will take the PARCC on computers in the near future. I fervently hope that this thinking will not push schools into a frenzy of low-level computer skill drilling for young students. Knowing how to point and click, drag and drop, and type in a small box are the lowest level tech skills, and not suitable for young students. If you want to make use of technology, it can certainly be done with a Smart Board with the whole class learning from videos and interactive lessons that the teacher prepares.

We need more teachers, retired teachers, parents, and concerned community members to advocate for children so that they will all be afforded the true, research-based pedagogy that professional teachers know how to provide. The PARCC is a lose-lose proposition for students, teachers, families, and schools. Parents should Opt Out/Refuse for their children. But Refusing the PARCC is not enough. The goal of education is to nurture self-actualized human beings who participate meaningfully and joyfully in a diverse, equitable, and vibrant civil society. Parents must insist on teaching/learning for their children that encourages rather than disregards imagination, curiosity, creativity, and empowerment.

 

“Story-Telling Species”

“The Hidden Dangers of Blended and Online Learning aka Competency Based Education/Personalized Learning”

 

Homo sapiens is a story-telling species. From time immemorial humans have been composing, elaborating on, and transmitting stories that provide meaning about their place in society and within the universe. Indigenous groups around the world still do this, to the extent that their languages have not become extinct. For centuries societies that have developed a writing system have had the luxury of recording stories for their own and future generations, and even for those living complexly different lives in other parts of the world.

What is happening today threatens this crucially vital, human activity. What we have today is a sinister global invasion by the mind-set of corporate/technocratic elites. Whether driven by a profit motive or delusions of grandeur, their hubris is rushing the rest of us to a dystopian near-future of a callous, mindless, soulless algorithm-directed society. The most despicable application of this heartless agenda is found in the corporate movement to re-imagine public schools, recklessly foisting unproven and obscenely expensive 1:1 digital learning on all children, from the youngest through college and beyond. And the standards to which this digital learning is aligned are the rightfully maligned Common Core State [sic] Standards for English/Language Arts and Mathematics.

The chief architect of the Common Core ELA standards, David Coleman, who is now the head of the College Board, infamously said, “as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think.” How dare he poison the entire public education system with a mind-set that devalues human expression of thinking and feeling, i.e. devalues human story-telling through literature, drama, art, music, dance, philosophy, and spirituality. The math standards are equally warped and ironically, not rigorous enough for students to accomplish the math understanding necessary to go into STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) in college, the trumpeted goal of the standards in the first place.

There are many reasons to resist this juggernaut of digital education. For one thing, one of the hidden agendas is to marginalize and do away with fully trained and experienced human teachers, teachers who relate individually to each student in their charge. Robotized teaching via software programs and algorithms cannot be assumed to meet the needs of living, breathing children.  In schools that have had their arms twisted to engage in digital teaching/learning, teachers are out of the loop in terms of actually interacting with students on the content of the software programs their students are locked into. While the student’s every keystroke, every hesitancy, every incorrect answer is being monitored and vacuumed up as potentially marketable data, the teacher’s role has been morphed into merely a data technician.

For more information on algorithms and on data mining, See

“Algorithms: While the student is learning online, the computer is also learning about the student. 

“The ed-tech industry is calling this  form of student data tracking ‘personalized learning ‘ or adaptive, customized, education because of the algorithms that will be used to discover how a student thinks and feels and learns while online. Personalized learning can collect literally millions of data points per day, per child.”

and here

See here for the Knewton-Education Datapalooza

Unfortunately for us in RI, we have a Strategic Plan for Public Education 2015-2020 that emphasizes “innovative” teaching/learning via digital programming.  In addition, our Commissioner of Education, Ken Wagner, is enthusiastically committed to the full monty of digitized learning, going so far as to praise the use of automated scoring for essay responses on the state assessment, the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers). Commissioner Wagner’s remarks on this topic can be found on the video of the April 5, 2016 meeting of the RI Council on Elementary and Secondary Education. (The link to the video can be found here.)

When Wagner was making his glowing comments about how great automated scoring is, and how fortunate we are in RI to be able to participate in this for scoring the PARCC, he declared that scoring by algorithm is more efficient and just as good as if not better than scoring by teachers. Hasn’t Wagner read the accounts of college graduates without teaching degrees or experience being recruited on Craigslist by Pear$on to score the tests? The quantity of tests they are expected to score and the rigid criteria they are expected to use cannot possibly result in valid scores for students. So maybe, yes, it doesn’t matter if you switch to computer scoring and don’t have to bother with providing low wages and no benefits to temporary workers who have no idea what they’re doing. Please see this post by Leonie Haimson for further insight on automated scoring.

In terms of the actual validity and reliability of the PARCC testing itself—where is the peer-reviewed research that supports this claim? On the contrary, leading literacy experts have shown that the reading passages on the ELA test are typically 2 grade levels above the grade of the students tested. It should be obvious to anyone who knows about child development and literacy development that in order to deeply analyze text, which is what the PARCC purports to do, the reading material has to be within the student’s comfort zone, not at a frustration level where comprehension is sabotaged. For authentic views on the flawed nature of the PARCC ELA tests, See Russ Walsh and  Celia Oyler’s blog post.

There was another comment by the Commissioner that was jaw-dropping. When the high school student on the Council described a loss of instructional time due to insufficient technology in some schools during test administration, so that schedules are interrupted for weeks, Wagner insisted that it’s necessary to get all schools to use the online version, rather than the paper and pencil version of the PARCC, as soon as possible. He insisted that this is important not only for the testing, but for an underlying instructional purpose. He stated:

“We can’t think about student engagement unless we have a serious strategy around digital learning.” (emphasis added) I can’t think of a more misguided understanding of student engagement, can you?

And so the state will magnanimously try its best to ensure that all districts have wireless technology. Apparently neither the Commissioner nor anyone on the Council has become aware of the plethora of scientific studies warning of the harmful biological/neurological/social effects of inordinate amounts of 1:1 digital use/wifi radiation on children. Where is the due diligence to investigate the ramifications of this rush to all digital all the time? It is nowhere among those urgently promoting this technocratic , corporate-led agenda.

So, not only do we need to be concerned about the quality of the digitized materials that students are being fed, and the data that is being siphoned off without the knowledge or consent of the parents, but we also have to be concerned about the potential for serious, negative health effects from the increasing amount of wifi radiation that children are being exposed to in schools. Voluminous scientific research has provided enough evidence to urge caution before installing routers in schools so that every child can be using a digital hand-held device in every classroom every day. Who is paying attention? The World Health Organization has noted this potential threat, and many countries around the world have taken steps to remove wifi from their classrooms, particularly for the youngest children. For information on this potential health catastrophe, a good introduction can be found here.

 

Where was the public discussion of the necessity and urgency of the Knowledge Economy and a technocratic, digitalized global workforce? The general public has essentially been kept in the dark, though the information is available for those with the stamina to pursue it. One immensely capable blogger who has been informing those willing to listen about the dangers of Competency Based Education et al is Maine teacher Emily Kennedy Talmage in her blog Save Maine Schools.

This agenda of privatizing, profiteering, and artificializing education has been in the works for years with organizations such as the International Association for k-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), global corporations such as Microsoft and Pearson, philanthrocapitalists such as Bill and Melinda Gates, the Walton family, and Eli and Edyth Broad, as well as political/lobbying groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). It is a joint neoliberal/neoconservative attack on rational regulation, preservation of public institutions for the public good, and maintenance of the social safety net. If left unchecked, it will destroy not only our democracy, but the fundamental basis for a humane and vibrant civil society. We do give a s**t about what people think and what they feel. We will not allow the technocrats to marginalize and suppress the people’s voice and the people’s stories. The general public needs to wake up to this impending catastrophe before it is too late to derail it.

 

Sheila Resseger, M.A.

Retired teacher, RI School for the Deaf

May 18, 2016