Core Concerns: Activist-turned Teachers Challenge Testing Culture

Fordham University professor Mark Naison is introducing a new school of thought, and so far it is staffed by thousands of like-minded teachers and parents.

It all started with the parent-led test revolt that took place in New York last spring, when 10,000 families opted out of standardized assessments being administered by the state’s public schools, and will end with a shift away from education’s high stakes exam-driven philosophy, he says.

Naison, a speaker at the boycott, considers their efforts a movement-one that, like others before it, evolved from a specific action into a more holistic examination of the system from which the circumstances are allowed to manifest.

The movement is Bad Ass Teachers-or BAT- a nationwide campaign against what is perceived as an overemphasis on standardized testing in public schools and particularly the controversial new Common Core State Standards, the sweeping education reform that touts “college and career readiness” as its brand slogan.

“The Common Core is high stakes testing on steroids, aligned with a curriculum created by a lot of powerful people without teacher input,” said Naison, who teaches African American Studies at Fordham, during a phone interview.

By powerful people, Naison is talking about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Pearson Foundation-the two nonprofits that supplied funding to The National Governors Association and The Council of Chief State School Officers, who authored the Common Core. Not only that, the Pearson Foundation is a branch of the for-profit Pearson test company, which purchased Core-related materials and programs from the two nonprofits for $15.1 million. For that, The Pearson Foundation paid a $7.7 million settlement in the fall for violations of New York State law prohibiting non-profits from aiding in the generation of revenue for businesses.

“These are standards that were established by companies looking to sell a product,” says Central Connecticut State University Literacy Center Director Jesse Turner, who moonlights as an education activist.

Speaking of the holistic, this is a scenario that’s all too familiar, Naison says. Case in point: the influence of corporate interests in, well, everything.

“Occupy Wall Street was right on,” Naison says. “That [BAT] is part of the resistance to that attack. We want student and parent teacher voices heard, and big money to be curtailed.”

How much teacher input was really involved has been a subject of debate, but Turner says that based on his observations, it was token at best.

“When people say teachers were involved, what they mean is it was written by corporate and political entities and brought to the teachers,” Turner said. “If it was a collaborative endeavor from the very beginning, we wouldn’t have this fight right now.”

Sure, there are the outreach conferences-and as a member of organizations such as the National Teachers Association and the National Council of Teachers of English, he has been to some of them-but the solicitation of feedback always seemed insincere, Turner says.

“You’d have a 60-minute segment with 5 minutes of questions and answers,” he says. “They take one question and they run out. Other people feel differently, but I haven’t seen them reach out at all.”

At the National Governor’s Association tables-where Common Core advocates claim teachers also had input-the discourse between educators and the corporate curriculum writers was similar, according to Sandra Stotsky, a former Massachusetts Department of Education Senior Associate Commissioner who served on the NGA’s Validation Committee as an English language arts standards expert.

“All I can guess is that they already knew what they wanted,” Stosky said during a phone conversation. “It was mainly people from the testing industry on the first committee.”

The first committee was the Common Core State Standards Development Work Group-a roster of names from the College Board entrance exam nonprofit, Student Achievement Partners, the group Achieve the Core, and ACT, Inc.

While the 25-member Validation Committee-put in place in 2009 to evaluate and determine whether or not to approve the standards-included college and elementary level educators, Stotsky was troubled by what she says was a lack of representation for high school teachers.

“We’re talking about college readiness,” she said. “I kept asking for one on the committee and they finally put one.”

But if big money is-as critics like Naison claim-amplifying its voice in the education reform discussion, what is it saying? In other words, how do the Gates and Pearson dollar figures translate in the classroom?

“Their [teachers’] autonomy is being taken from them,” Naison said. “They’re being told what to teach and they’re being graded based on test scores, so you’re having a perfect storm in the education system.”

The objective highlighted in the Common Core slogan is “college and career readiness”. On the initiative’s website, areas teachers should cover in math, reading, and writing, are broken down by grade levels with one common thread-an emphasis on critical thought and analysis. In theory, that might sound good, but what happens in practice?

Marla Kilfoyle, a high school history teacher in Long Island who co-founded BAT with Naison, was not too concerned about the Common Core when she first started hearing about it two years ago.

“At my level we sort of just ignored it,” Kilfoyle said during a phone interview. “When you’re in teaching a long time, they’re always bringing in these new gadgets and gizmos, so you pick what works for you.”

Then she started to see how it was being implemented for her son-a fifth grade special education student. One of the fifth grade modules she looked at, for example, seemed to spell out-word for word-how a teacher should communicate the material.

“I started to get really alarmed when I started seeing what my son was bringing home,” Kilfoyle said. “It literally says ‘teacher says’, ‘Student says’. It was scripted, so that was concerning for me.”

This was the push that drove her into education activism-particularly BAT. While the Common Core is rolling out slowly at the high school level, Kilfoyle is already hearing complaints from teachers in elementary education. Colleagues in her building have started experiencing difficulties, particularly in math.

“A lot of math teachers I’ve spoken to are saying this is like the worst thing they’ve ever had,” Kilfoyle said. “Some of them are being asked to teach equations using functions, and their students have no background in functions.”

Kilfoyle herself sees firsthand how proficiency can vary from class to class and student to student each year.

“One year I might have kids that are really high functioning, and another year they might be more immature,” she said.

Kilfoyle says a lot of the apprehension she sees regarding teacher autonomy has to do with a perceived pressure to “teach to the test.” The Common Core calls for a rigorous evaluation of teacher’s as part of its implementation.

“They’ve tied the tests to these standards,” Kilfoyle said. “Anytime you tie a teacher’s job to a test, there’s no flexibility.”

And if there’s no flexibility for teachers, there won’t be for students either, Naison said.

“Common Core takes the creativity, takes the original thought out of education,” he said. “That’s the kind of labor corporations will use.”

What Naison describes as high stakes testing’s “one size fits all” approach carries over to the Core’s “college and career readiness” objectives, he said. With rising tuition costs and the consequential student debt being shouldered by graduates-many of whom face unemployment after leaving school-tying “career readiness” exclusively to higher education is a mistake, Naison said.

“We bought into this ‘everyone has to go to college’ mindset,” Naison said. “There are a whole lot of people graduating from college with a lot of debt and no jobs.”

Sandra Alberti is the Director of State and District Partnerships for Student Achievement Partners, a known recipient of Gates Foundation funds and designer of the Common Core State Standards. Widespread aversion to standardized testing is not a surprise, given its history, she said.

“We do not have a good experience with high stakes testing,” Alberti said during a phone interview. “By nature-whether you’re a teacher or a student-you have a life experience of being distrustful of tests.”

She admits that older assessment methods told educators little regarding relevant student progress. That was all in the design, Alberti said.

“Our state testing has never been aligned to college and career readiness, which the Common Core is,” Alberti said.

But what exactly does “college and career readiness” mean nowadays, and are they, as Naison and others have suggested, being rolled into one?

According to Alberti, they don’t have to be, but many of the math, science, and language proficiency requirements overlap.

“There are a lot of things pertaining to math [and] can you read a passage of text and make a logical argument,” she said. “It’s not the whole picture, but it also doesn’t become irrelevant if you decide to go into a trade after college.”

As for how teachers impart that knowledge, that’s up to them, Alberti said. The standards are only designed to stipulate a result, not the methods by which they are reached, she said.

But with standardized tests as the primary method for measuring whether or not that result has been achieved, some teachers feel like they are spending more time on the ends than the means. Michelle Ramey, a teacher at Brookside Elementary in Washington, never had a problem utilizing creative lesson plans in order to illustrate concepts to her second and third grade students, and have them demonstrate it.

“Yes, kids need to be held accountable for what they’ve learned, but we do that every day,” Ramey said during a phone interview.

There was the unit she taught on Native Americans, in which she had them do presentations and make dioramas. Ramey’s students not only had fun with the diverse range of activities she came up with, but occasionally they would take the initiative to come up with projects of their own. She says the Common Core, and a constant bombardment of test preparation, has changed that atmosphere to one that is more rigid.

“We can’t let kids do those fun activities because we have to do an hour and a half of reading per day and an hour and a half of math,” Ramey said. “They want to go do a research project on the constellations, but there’s no time, because we have to move on to the next topic.”

Ramey’s trying to keep things interesting-a historical figure research project in which students present what they have learned by playing the part of a given person is part of her curriculum for now, but she anticipates having to eliminate that as well.

“I refuse to stop teaching art, because my kids are super creative and they need that outlet,” Ramey said. “I we take out the arts, and PE, and keep kids sitting in their desks all day like robots, it’ll kill them.”

And as for the tests? Well, that’s still a work in progress, but Alberti expects methods such as Connecticut’s Smarter Balanced Assessment to be an improvement. She points to the technology-based administering that allows for students to have questions read to them through headphones and enlarge the font, as well as the adaptive programming that adjusts the test on the fly based on the previous answer given.

“All that being said, not even the best test can stand on its own,” Alberti said. “You need teacher collaboration. You need data. We don’t know what good data is because we’ve never gotten it from testing-it’s never been a good source of data, but what if it could be?”

That’s yet to be seen, and in Connecticut at least, parents are being told that results of a Smarter Balanced Assessment pilot-students will not take the test for real until next year-won’t be coming back to them to review. Meanwhile, districts are scrambling to equip themselves with the technology-laptops and IPads-needed to administer the assessment.

“They don’t have the technology,” Turner said. “I’ve got first grade parents who say their kids don’t even have the skills to type.”

He likens the process to a bad experiment.

“What if I gave you some kind of experimental medicine, and I don’t know if it’s gonna help you?” Turner said.

Speaking of experiments, Naison is proposing one of his own-he wants to see the start of portfolio schools that are exempt of all state tests and governed by their own standards.

“Let’s see whose students are happier, and who does better in the job market,” Naison said.


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