Response to 2016 MDE Assessment Survey

The Michigan Department of Education has issued a “2016 Assessment Survey” that I encourage every teacher and parent in our state to reply to ASAP.

There is a public hearing on the future of assessment in Michigan that will be held in Lansing on July 30th, but I can’t attend in person… so, I am sharing my thoughts here: Response to MDE 2016 Assessment Survey (PDF).

Please take time to do the same. The future of education in our state could change if we take this opportunity to break out of the stranglehold of standardized testing and, instead, move toward authentic assessment.


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Connected Learning Webinar

Today, I enjoyed a conversation with a number of colleagues about the “The Digital Influence on Looking Closely at Student Work.” Definitely worth a listen, and be prepared to write down lots of ideas about how to engage deeply with students’ work as a tool for assessment and professional development.

  • Andrew Sliwinski – Co-Founder of DIY.org; designer and engineer focused on improving how we play and learn
  • Kylie Peppler – Assistant Professor in the Learning Sciences Program at Indiana University; Director at Creativity Labs
  • Tina Blythe – Co-author of “Looking Together at Student Work”; Learning Group Leader at Project Zero

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Tracing the Common Core in Michigan

Students writing
Image from Flickr, some rights reserved by calmenda

My colleague Robert Rozema has asked me to speak at the Michigan Council of Teachers of English annual conference later this week about where the “common core conversation” is at in Michigan.

So, I have gathered a few resources that trace CCSS implementation in our state, and across the nation, including the current debate.

This is not meant to be exhaustive, but instead to be a set of resources that can inform our critical, careful conversations about what we, as English teachers, can do moving forward in an era of CCSS. Interestingly enough, not much of this conversation involves actual students, a point I will return to at the end of this post.

CCSS Origin(s)

Like all origin stories, the CCSS’s is a bit murky, depending on who you ask. The “official” story, as reported on the CCSS website (emphasis is mine) is that:

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state-led effort that established a single set of clear educational standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts and mathematics that states voluntarily adopt.

and

The nation’s governors and education commissioners, through their representative organizations the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) led the development of the Common Core State Standards and continue to lead the initiative. Teachers, parents, school administrators and experts from across the country together with state leaders provided input into the development of the standards.

and

States across the country collaborated with teachers, researchers, and leading experts to design and develop the Common Core State Standards. Each state independently made the decision to adopt the Common Core State Standards, beginning in 2010. The federal government was NOT involved in the development of the standards. Local teachers, principals, and superintendents lead the implementation of the Common Core.

A critique of this official narrative is that, because of the timing of the Race to the Top competition and the actual date the standards were finished, most states signed on to the standards without really knowing what they were or would be. I could say quite a bit, but will refer you to NCTE’s “An Open Letter to NCTE Members about the Common Core State Standards” and the edited collection by Patrick Shannon, Closer Readings of the Common Core. These pretty much debunk the myth of the CCSS as an educator- and parent-led initiative. In short, this was NOT a teacher-led initiative, and David Coleman (among others) have had a heavy hand in the highly-corporatized effort.

Race to the Top and the States’ “Choice” to Sign on to CCSS

Still, the CSSS was introduced to the states as a part of the US DOE’s Race to the Top program in 2009. The Wikipedia entry on all this is pretty good, so I will just get to the details. In order for states to be eligible for RTTT money, they had to have legislation in place that adopted more rigorous standards. Page 17 in this official document for RTTT application says:

Under criterion (B)(1)(ii), Phase 1 applicants will earn points based on the extent to which they demonstrate commitment to and progress toward adopting a common set of K-12 standards by August 2, 2010. Phase 2 applicants will earn points based on whether they have adopted a common set of K-12 standards by August 2, 2010.

In short, Michigan (like other states wanting to “compete” for federal money) had to adopt CCSS, even though it is labeled as a “state” initiative. The legislation went into effect on January 4, 2010. Again, it is interesting to note that the CCSS, in its final form, wasn’t introduced until June 2, 2010. And, of course, hindsight shows us that Michigan failed to win the race, because we did not earn federal dollars in either our phase one or subsequent applications. However, we did sign on to the CCSS, eliminated teacher tenure, raised the cap on charter schools, introduced more virtual schools, and created the Educational Achievement Authority. Stay tough, nerd! So, what a deal we got in the RTTT bargain, one that Granholm has now used to describe how we can reach energy independence, too. We’ll see how that goes.

Up to Now: The Current CCSS Controversy

Fast forward three years, with the new SBAC and PARCC assessments on the horizon for 2014-15. Besides the glaring infrastructure problems brought on by the digital divide that will still make all this testing impossible, there is a renewed (or, is it just new?) controversy about the CCSS. Why now, you ask? Well, this piece in Slate, “Common What?” by Alexander Russo, does a pretty good job of bringing us right up to the moment about the debate surrounding the CCSS.  In short, the reasons for hating the CCSS are quite different. For the right, according to Russo,

“… while it’s not a federal program, it certainly has strong federal support, enough to make it a controversial program that some Republican politicians have felt the need to back away from.”

For the left, he summarizes by stating that

“[l]iberal opponents describe Common Core as a crude mandate that’s going to push arts and science even further out of schools, limit the teaching of literature and creative writing in classrooms, and end up being used to rate schools and teachers unfairly.”

And, for those of us caught in the middle, it has led to some confusion, frustration, and anger. In Michigan, it appears (for the moment) that the state will allow education funding for CCSS initiatives. We have the Michigan Coalition for High Student Standards — including partners such as varied as Dow Chemical and Steelcase to the MEA and AFT — advocating for the CCSS and, in turn, the federal money and testing that comes with them. On the other side, we have local, grassroots groups like Save Michigan’s Public Schools and the broader coalition formed by Diane Ravitch, the Network for Public Education.

As of the time of this blog post (September 30, 2013), the latest news I can get from MLive reports that:

Despite an Oct. 1 deadline that would stop funding for the Common Core State Standards in Michigan, lawmakers in the Michigan Senate are not going to rush to approve a concurrent resolution approved Thursday by the state House of Representatives.

Interestingly enough, the House stripped out an “amendment which would have required state lawmakers to also take the same exams as students” because “the cost for test materials and scoring for the entire Michigan Legislature alone would have exceeded $3,300.” Really? I bet that we could pass the hat and come up with that much money so our legislators could have the same pleasure as our students.

Another element that is particularly disheartening, especially given this essay by Benjamin Winterhalter in Salon, is that our legislature is considering “a contractor that  provides electronically-scored essays with the ability to score constructed response feedback in multiple languages and provide ongoing instruction and feedback” (Bottom of page 1503). Apparently, they missed the memo from NCTE about machine scoring.

What’s Next

As Alfie Kohn has recently stated,

One of the key features of the conventional wisdom, the dominant ideology, is that we no longer recognize it as such because we hear it so often.  There’s no food for thought here; everyone just knows that our students are lousy, or that raising test scores would improve our economy, or that grit is good; there’s no need to defend these propositions.

Groups like the Badass Teachers Association, FairTest, United OptOut, Ravitch’s Network for Public Education are trying to push against the dominant narrative. We have collected some other resources on our SchoolTM wiki that may be useful in addition to the ones provided by those groups. Moreover, this is about kids. While test scores may be rising, slightly, the fact is that EAA schools are not at the center of their communities. They are test prep factories. What kind of future are we creating for kids who fail to find interest in learning?

I doubt that we will solve any of these problems in our conversation later this week, but I hope that we might continue to move forward with our efforts to help teachers and students in the small ways that we still can despite the overwhelming forces that are against us.


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“Tech Goes Home” Goes National

Tech Goes Home LogoYesterday, I had the opportunity to speak with Deb Socia, executive director of Tech Goes Home, a non-profit based Boston that has recently launched a national portal with resources for parents, teachers, and community members interested in connecting families with technology. (Quick disclaimer: I was contacted by Intel with an initial press release, but followed up with Deb in an interview.) Here is part of the press release shared by Intel:

Founded in 2000, Tech Goes Home has trained more than 10,000 residents in Boston since 2010 alone, with more than 4,000 individuals now participating in the program each year. Through its impactful and cost-effective model to help families gain access to the skills and tools needed for 21st century success, Tech Goes Home has been committed to tackling the entrenched barriers to technology adoption and Internet access in Boston, and it will now spread this work across the country.

“The success of Tech Goes Home is the result of the amazing partnerships we have with Mayor Menino’s office and our Boston partners,” said Deb Socia, executive director of Tech Goes Home. “Thanks to the support of Intel, Tech Goes Home can now improve the lives of unconnected people across the country.”

The Tech Goes Home national program will virtualize materials so parents, students and teachers can take advantage of technology and learning no matter where they are. The program offers free resources categorized by work, school, finance, personal wellness, and cultural and recreational opportunities that help people make the most of their increased access to technology. The nonprofit also offers training toolkits to support formal and informal education settings, as well as virtual training groups where trainers can upload their own recommended resources.

More importantly, Deb and I had a chance to talk about many issues related to education, including her career as a teacher and principal, her efforts to bring a 1:1 program to her school, and how the resources from Tech Goes Home could be used to offer digital literacy programs for families. She described to me how families in Boston were provided with 15 hours of training in local schools and community centers, and then were provided a netbook or tablet for just a $50 co-pay. The TGH team then helps them get online with Connect2Compete and using ISP’s such as FreedomPop, which offers 1GB of 4G LTE each month for most low income families for, yes, free. Also, there is 500 MB for those who do not live in low income census tracks.

Deb clearly has higher aspirations than just getting everyone online. Her goal is to provide a three-pronged approach to improving digital literacy. “There is training, hardware, and access,” she explains. “With all three we can anticipate more success [for families].”

For me, I am trying to figure out a way that I can work with local schools and other community partners to make use of the resources provided by Tech Goes Home for parents, students, and teachers. I encourage you to do the same, and to share your stories so we can figure out how to make training, hardware, and access available for as many families as possible. I’ve already sent an email to our local library’s technology program director and a community organization focusing on technology skill development for adults.

What’s your first step?

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Is There (Finally) a New Paradigm for “Teacher Accountability?”

Two compelling events happened yesterday, each raising the possibility of a new paradigm for teacher accountability and each important in its own way.

First, Bill Gates published an op-ed in the Washington Post, “A fairer way to evaluate teachers.” Here is the heart of the piece:

This is one reason there is a backlash against standardized tests — in particular, using student test scores as the primary basis for making decisions about firing, promoting and compensating teachers. I’m all for accountability, but I understand teachers’ concerns and frustrations.

Even in subjects where the assessments have been validated, such as literacy and math, test scores don’t show a teacher areas in which they need to improve.

If we aren’t careful to build a system that provides feedback and that teachers trust, this opportunity to dramatically improve the U.S. education system will be wasted.

This comes from the man, through his foundation and reputation, who has been one of the most influential educational “reformers” in the past decade. And even he is cautioning us about the ways in which the current push to tie test scores to teacher accountability is wrong-headed. Finally.

NCLE Report: Remodeling Literacy Learning
NCLE Report: Remodeling Literacy Learning

On another front, the National Center for Literacy Education shared a new report, “Remodeling Literacy Learning: Making Room for What Works” on Capitol Hill. The main findings include:

  1. Literacy is not just the English teacher’s job anymore.
  2. Working together is working smarter.
  3. But schools aren’t structured to facilitate educators working together.
  4. Many of the building blocks for remodeling literacy learning are in place.
  5. Effective collaboration needs systemic support.

This morning, I participated with colleagues on the NCTE Task Force about computerized scoring and the PARC and SBAC assessments. We have a plan for a white paper, and hope to have it done next week.

So, is there maybe, just maybe, a bit of hope for a new paradigm in teacher accountability dawning on this fine spring day? With the complete lunacy of our current accountability system now exposed for the racket that it is, my hope is that we are turning a new page for students, parents, teachers, and our nation.

Update: April 5, 2013

In addition to correcting a grammar error, a colleague has also suggested that I add a link to Peter Smagorinsky’s op-ed from April 3rd, “Seeing teachers as technicians ignores what else they give students: confidence, moral support and inspiration.” Here is a brief segment from his post that highlights his main ideas for rethinking teacher evaluation:

In order for a teacher evaluation system to be legitimate, it should have a related set of qualities that go well beyond the simplistic approach imposed by the U.S. Department of Education. A credible evaluation system is valid (it has buy-in from multiple stakeholders’ perspectives, including the teachers for whom it is developed); it is reliable (similar results would be available from different assessors); it has utility for all participants regardless of the outcome of the evaluation (including those who are found deficient); it fosters the development of better teachers; it provides data that contribute to this development by attending to multiple facets of faculty performance; and it is conducted respectfully in terms of the magnitude of the job and the resources provided to undertake it.

I look forward to hearing more about his proposal at the CEE conference later this summer and when it is published in English Education later this year.

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A Few Thoughts for Pre-Service Teachers on Standards and Standardized Tests

This week, a colleague invited me to share some brief thoughts about standards and standardized testing with her preservice teachers in a private discussion forum for her class. I composed this quickly, but I hope that it has something to say for those of us who are interested in teaching writing, authentic writing, and substantive and reflective ways.

Hello All,

Prof V. invited me to join in this conversation last week, and I apologize for getting here a bit late. You all certainly hit on a number of the major pros and cons related to standardized testing and I don’t have too much more to say about what you have already covered. I do, however, want to raise two important points about how standardized tests have come to be used and what the implications are for the PARCC and SMARTER Balanced assessments that will be coming out in the near future.

First, it is fairly well documented that standardized tests have little to do with student achievement and much more to with poverty levels, social class, and the ways in which our children are conditioned for school. One outspoken critic of standardized tests, Alfie Kohn, offers a variety of examples of how more privileged and, for the most part, white students perform much better on these tests than their minority counterparts. This allows politicians and corporate education reformers to keep pushing for “higher standards” and “market-based reforms.” Other critics, such as Diane Ravitch, have been able to clearly make the case for how such reforms are thinly veiled attempt to keep the status quo in place. In other words, standardized tests help perpetuate social inequality.

Second, in relation to the new writing standards that are in the common core and the computer adaptive testing that will be a part of PARCC and SMARTER Balanced, you need to understand that these tests are not about writing. Again, in their efforts to find a scientifically based way to judge students’ performance, writing ability will be measured by an elaborate grammar checker, otherwise known as “computerized scoring.” This is big business for both corporations and politicians, and will have detrimental effects on schools and, more importantly, on the students who are trying to learn how to write.

I was on a panel last fall where we talked about a number of issues related to corporate style reform, and I encourage you to check out our wiki to find more resources that can help you better understand the effects of standardized testing and how you might offer alternative types of assessments for your students. In fact, that’s the conversation I would encourage you to have now. What are our other options? How might we use assessment in thoughtful, productive ways to encourage our students to reflect on their work and set higher goals? How can we get out of the debate about standardized testing and move into a conversation about authentic assessment?

Dr. Troy Hicks

Central Michigan University

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What Have We Learned from Digital Learning Day

The tweets have slowed to a trickle.

The webcasts are all archived.

And the proclamations about the power of digital learning are a distant memory in our multi-tasked lives.

Digital Learning Day 2013 is in the books.

The post that follows is, really, in two distinct parts. First, I summarize my cynical vision of what DLDay was designed for as a front for the corporate education machine trying to sell software and computerized assessments.

Then, I summarize just a few of the thoughtful, engaging, and useful ideas from teachers. If you want to skip the sarcasm, then scroll down to “What Really Matters about DLDay.”

What Really Bothers Me about DLDay

Although, it’s important to note that Karen Cator — director of the Office of Educational Technology — would have us believe that “Every day should be Digital Learning Day.” In fact, ““Access to technology has become as important to learning as access to a library, yet teachers remain the critical link between students and the content.” (eSchool News, 2/8/13)

Indeed.

Any chance that teachers will remain the critical link, or — as I have posed before — is there another underlying agenda related to technology and its place in corporate education reform?

I am, at the very least, quite concerned about the implications of Digital Learning Day, because we are now left with Project 24, “an urgent call to action for systemic planning around the effective use of technology and digital learning to achieve the goal of “career and college readiness” for all students.” It’s terrible that no one has thought that technology could change education in powerful ways before, especially our government officials, in recent memory. Another unfunded initiative is bound to help.

And, if the call to action itself isn’t enough, there is now a law introduced to Congress to make sure that this happens. Thank goodness that H.R. 521: Transforming Education Through Technology Act will, among other things allow for:

  • purchasing hardware, software, or computer devices that improve learning
  • creating or upgrading to online assessments
  • improving technology readiness and online assessments

Ugh. I won’t elaborate much more here.

As a side note, how is it that George Miller funded his way into Congress? Mostly with the support of organized labor, including teachers unions whose members will likely have their jobs outsourced to automated curriculum and assessment “solutions.” Thanks for nothing.

All of this, sadly, simply reinforces the idea that corporate education reform is the new norm. Somehow, this is not very reassuring at all, especially knowing that students and teachers are more valuable as data points then they are as people. If this is the only lesson we take away from Digital Learning Day — and it certainly is one of the lessons — then it was a sad day to think about the future of digital learning.

What Really Matters about DLDay

On the other hand, there were truly innovative things that happened with and for teachers and students on DLDay. Teachers and students doing great work together, which we would believe that Karen Cator is all in favor of, right?

I’ve culled through many tweets, colleagues’ blogs, and other links that people have shared to come up with a list of alternatives to the corporate style of ed tech reform that has been proffered in the official news media. I don’t even pretend to believe that this list is complete, and anyone who has others to add to it would help me out a great deal by sharing them. I will keep updating this post as long as I need to.

So, here are a number of posts from and about teachers that demonstrate the true power of digital learning:

I’m sure that there are more out there, as this is what I came up with from scanning my own PLN and some basic searching on Twitter and Google. I wish I had more of these specific, creative ideas, but I need to call it a night. The individualized, creative, and contextual applications of technology in each of these above examples shows me the power and possibility of digital learning, each and every day.

Most of these examples were free, or at least very low cost. Few required massive infrastructure upgrades, integrated assessment systems, or other new software or hardware purchases. We have a great number of tools that we can use for digital writing and digital teaching. We simply need to respect the voices and professionalism of teachers so that they can use technology in these smart ways.

Let’s hope that we can bring more of these teachers — and their students — to the fore in our celebration of next year’s DLDay.

Update: February 9, 2013: Wording change for clarity.

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