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Hoping for Superman

November 26, 2013

My daughter, who lives in Brooklyn, posted two links on Facebook regarding the urgent need for Mayor-elect diBlasio to appoint someone to Chancellor of NYC schools who will abandon the testing regimen. One link, from ParentvoicesNY includes a well produced video featuring faces and voices of parents and students decrying the time wasted on test preparation, time that diminishes the chance for students to pursue their favorite subjects in order to keep their schools open. The other link was to a New York magazine article titled “The Opt-Outers”,  describing parent groups who are mounting a movement against the standardized tests that involves keeping students home on days that the city administers its tests. One paragraph in the article gives a sense of how intense the testing regimen is in NYC:

From the third through eighth grade, two major state tests loom large every spring—the ELA and math. Formal preparation takes weeks, and informal preparation, as Oscar learned, begins as early as the second grade. For kids just trying to stay at grade level, New York City is unique in how it ties promotion to those state scores. Anything less than a “proficient” rating of two on a scale of one to four, and you’re held back. For children hoping to excel, the fourth-grade ELA and math tests have become a sort of SAT—a do-or-die score that many of the selective, ­application-only middle schools use to screen kids.

As readers of this blog realize, my biggest concern with schooling today is the retention of the age-based grade-level grouping of students that implicitly assumes that all children grow at the same rate intellectually… an absurd notion on its face but one that persists because it has been inlace for three or more generations. With today’s technological advances it is possible to tailor schooling to meet the unique individual needs of each child, but instead we are using technology to monitor student performance against a mythical “standard” that expects linear and orderly intellectual development.

The New York article does an excellent job of using personal anecdotes of parents to illustrate the consequences of adopting the testing regimen and in explaining the derivation of the Common Core State Standards that are the basis for the grade-level outcomes:

….David Coleman (now president of the College Board), is an educational consultant who worked out a set of standards based on an elegant, seemingly unimpeachable methodology: to reverse-engineer the test results of high-performing college students by raising primary-school standards to be more in line with what prepares them for college-level work. For example, the Common Core’s elementary-school math standards focus tightly on the building blocks of algebra—addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and fractions. Traditional curricula are more varied and, in Coleman’s view, “a mile wide and an inch deep,” clogged with superfluous drills about patterns and combinations. “Imagine you have an assessment system where you can pass a fourth- or fifth-grade math test without knowing fractions ’cause you’re covering so many topics?” Coleman said at a Harvard conference last spring. “If you pass that test, are you on your way to success?”

So… the Common Core is based on reverse-engineering of college entrance exams with no thought of developmental realities or the number of hours that might be required for some children to attain those standards and with no thought to the reality that we don’t need to have all students entering college. Sure enough, complaints starting rolling in from respected educators and teachers unions:

Carol Burris, a high-school principal in Rockville Centre, has noted how it expects first-graders to know the meaning of words beyond their reading level, like cuneiform, sarcophagus, and ziggurat. ­Standards like that, critics say, will lead to the exact drill-and-kill problem the Common Core is trying to avoid.

Established educators complained that the standards weren’t created with enough of their input—not one of the 135 people on the Common Core panels was a K-3 classroom teacher or early-childhood professional. The unions turned on it, too: American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten recently quipped, “You think the Obamacare implementation is bad? The implementation of the Common Core is far worse.”

The fallout from the testing may well have been the difference between diBlasio and his opponents in the recent mayoral race… and from all evidence the momentum to have students opt out is increasing. But I fear diBlasio’s new chancellor will need more that the mayor’s support: both Governor Cuomo and President Obama are heavily invested in the grade-level high stakes testing accountability model and neither seems inclined to cede ground… and if a high profile mayor like diBlasio wants to appoint and support a chancellor who wants to opt out of the Regents and the Race to the Top… NYC could be in for interesting times and possibly less State and Federal aid. I hope diBlasio finds the Superman (or Superwoman) the parents desire, and I hope the lack of State or Federal funds are not the kryptonite that brings the new leader down.

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