[title size=”2″]Better Assessment[/title]

For a printable (PDF) version of this document, click here,

“Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn’t a high-stakes test. It wasn’t a test where they had to panic. I mean, they didn’t even really know that they were going to take it ahead of time. They didn’t study for it, they just went ahead and took it. And it was a tool to diagnose where they were strong, where they were weak, and what the teachers needed to emphasize.

“Too often what we’ve been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we’ve said is let’s find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let’s apply it in a less pressured-packed atmosphere; let’s figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let’s make sure that that’s not the only way we’re judging whether a school is doing well.

“Because there are other criteria: What’s the attendance rate? How are young people performing in terms of basic competency on projects? There are other ways of us measuring whether students are doing well or not.” ~ President Barack Obama

It’s clear there are many problems with our current assessment-for-accountability regime. Even our president– whose administration’s policies have encouraged a huge increase in the amount of testing students experience– has said that we need to rethink how we approach assessment and accountability.

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How should we approach the assessment of student learning in our schools?

As teachers and parents, we care very much what our children are learning. Good assessments can tell us this in ways that guide our instruction, and provide feedback that can help shape our lessons to respond to student’s needs. Teachers also use this information to give feedback and guidance to students, and this is a powerful way to promote their growth. We also need end-of-unit or end-of-course assessments when a lesson is complete in order to see what students have learned.

When these assessments are based in the classroom, they have tremendous power to guide and improve instruction. When teachers are given the responsibility to design assessments, they can discover how much students have learned. Skilled teachers can perform much of this assessment informally, as instruction unfolds. All sorts of student work can provide a teacher with this sort of information – verbal responses to questions, “exit slips” done at the end of a class period, and more formal quizzes and tests.

Teachers are able to assess learning in multiple dimensions. Students can express what they have learned in many ways – through projects, presentations to peers or the public, written essays, or digital presentations. We value learning in all these dimensions – so we must acknowledge, celebrate and assess it. We want to promote creativity and innovation, so we must have ways to assess these qualities that go far beyond the bubble tests.

Our standards for learning have been “dumbed down” to that which can be measured by a standardized test. Our students are capable of learning far more than these narrow measurements reveal. Classroom-based authentic assessments, portfolios and other public displays of student learning are ways we can make learning visible, and schools accountable to parents and the community at large. Let’s raise the bar on the way we assess student learning!

For more information about this issue, check out:

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[title size=”2″]Curriculum[/title]

For a printable (PDF) version of this statement, click here: Curriculum

One question, THE question, which has yet to be asked by Congress, is this: What are the goals of education in America? In other words, what do we wish to accomplish? That question should have been asked before Congress reauthorized ESEA as No Child Left Behind in 2001. Until Congress asks that question — and answers it – NCLB should not be reauthorized. President Bush and Congress did not ask THE question in 2001, and that is why NCLB has turned out to be such poor legislation.

Curriculum is the road map we use after we have answered the question: What are our goals? Curriculum tells us what our children should learn in order to achieve our goals. What should they know and be able to do by the time they graduate?

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Because Congress failed to ask and get answers to THE question when it reauthorized ESEA in 2001, one unintended consequence of NCLB has been a narrowing of curriculum throughout the country. Because of NCLB, according to Diane Ravitch, we actually now have a national curriculum. Our national curriculum? Improve last year’s standardized test results in reading, math, and writing. Because geography, history, current events, the arts, science, technology, and physical education are not included in the standardized tests required by NCLB, teachers in every subject area are directed to spend unusual amounts of time preparing their students for their states’ reading, math and writing tests.

To get ourselves out of this mess, let’s look at THE question: What should be the goals of America’s education system? Surely the answer is not: America must be able to compete in a global economy. If parents and educators were to brainstorm answers to this question, we would hear goals such as:

Students should

  • graduate prepared to be responsible citizens in a democratic society
  • be able to read critically and think critically – and think for themselves
  • leave school with a life-time love of learning
  • be creative problem-solvers
  • learn how to ask questions, because questions can be more important than the answers
  • develop their unique gifts and talents and be prepared to fulfill their potential
  • And so much more

William Butler Yeats once famously noted thatEducation is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” But for the last decade under No Child Left Behind the mandate has been clear: fill that pail. And if our political leaders want our country to continue to compete on a global scale, then their wishes will most assuredly be fulfilled when we put into place such goals as those in that little brainstorming session above.

So what about curriculum? Once we have our goals what should the curriculum be? Curriculum decisions must be tied to research-based best practices. One of the reasons that NCLB has had so many negative consequences is that its mandates are not based on proven research.

Whether or not our country will one day have a national curriculum is unknown. By law, Congress is forbidden to mandate a national curriculum. In the meantime, under the aegis of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, about 40 states have voluntarily* signed on to the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI). It is a work in progress. We are not taking a stand against CCSSI. Given the problems with centrally-endorsed/mandated educational initiatives, we remain skeptical– but at present we are taking a wait and see approach.

The question for you is this: are you satisfied with the input your state gave educators and parents when it signed on to CCSSI? Reform fails when it does not obtain broad general consensus from its stakeholders. It is inevitable that the Common Core Standards will be revisited and revised over the next decade or so. The initiative’s success and continued acceptance will be determined by the assessments that are written to go along with the standards. As of this date, the assessments are a work in progress.

In the meantime, today’s curriculum, which is the result of the unintended consequences of NCLB, has diverted America’s schools from their mission of providing children with a good and meaningful education. In a country as diverse as our fifty states are it stands to reason that local communities can best decide the curriculum that their own students need.

*Many states signed on to the initiative because they wanted to be eligible for Race to the Top funding.

For more resources and information about this issue, we recommend:

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[title size=”2″]Equitable Funding[/title]

For a printable version of this statement, click here: Equitable Funding

With the creation of No Child Left Behind in 2003, the United States Department of Education has inserted itself into across-the-board education policy creation and even into individual classrooms. The role of the federal government in education should be limited to two things: economies of scale, and assuring equity for all American children.

Our schools are the stages where the real values and goals of America are played out every day. True democracy and equality under the law are meaningless unless we provide our children with the tools to participate fully in American life and citizenship.

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Equitable funding does not mean “equal” funding–or even “adequate” funding. It represents something far more important in a nation where the divide between haves and have-nots has grown to shameful and dangerous proportions: a fair shake, equitable opportunity for all children to receive a free, high-quality public education. A genuine chance to learn–no matter the circumstances of their birth, the town where they reside or the school they attend.

We envision a comprehensive system of supports, beginning with our traditional public schools which serve the overwhelming majority of students, including those most impacted by poverty. Well over 20% of our public school students live in poverty–and the number is growing. The only way to reverse this trend is investing now in the overall well-being of these children, which cannot happen exclusively in the classroom. Pay now–or pay later.

The market-based policies now advanced by the U.S. Department of Education, in their Blueprint (PDF) for re-authorizing No Child Left Behind do not address inequities of funding or opportunity for American children. They will take us in the wrong direction:

  • Competitive grants for federal dollars under Race to the Top reward states with the means to hire professional grant-writers.
  • Merit pay schemes lead to a narrowing of curriculum and are often based on faulty measurement.
  • Encouraging the growth of public school academies builds in further inequity, as children whose parents have the means to provide transportation, uniforms and the all-important home academic support withdraw their human capital from struggling public systems, leaving traditional public schools worse off.

We do not support the “comparable” or “adequate” funding language in the Blueprint, which we see as a means to justify providing our poorest children new, inexperienced–and cheap–teachers. We stand strong in support of full investment in a system that serves all children, preparing them for life in the 21st century, not compliance, being funneled into low-skill, dead-end jobs–or worse, the school-to-prison pipeline.

Nor do we accept the media-fed cliché’ that investing in our public education system is throwing money at a systemic problem. We know that plenty of money has been thrown in the wrong direction: creation of still more tests, mandated federal reporting requirements, blue-ribbon committees to take teacher evaluation out of the hands of districts where those teachers work–and other market-based federal policies.

We know better. The best schools are well-funded and surrounded by community supports. Our children deserve no less.

For more information and resources on this issue, check out:

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[title size=”2″]Family Involvement[/title]

For a printable version of this statement, click on the title: Family Involvement

When parents, teachers, students, and others view one another as knowledgeable partners in education, a caring community forms around students. ~Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

We’ve all heard it before — “parents are important,” “parents make a difference.” Parental involvement or engagement, pick your terms, it doesn’t matter. For too many of us, these are just words strung together making empty statements. And lawmakers set the phrases down in law, as if that will reform dysfunctional districts.

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Successful school districts are the rule in this country. Those districts have similar characteristics that include individually tailored learning with effective teachers and an appropriate curriculum with instruction taking place in an inviting, caring environment. These schools don’t just happen. They are guided by leaders with the knowledge and experience to fully understand the importance and complexities of inclusion plus they possess the skills and desire to overcome barriers to cooperation. That cooperation extends to the greater community to ensure support for their youngest citizens. These are not only successful schools, they are successful communities.

In dysfunctional school districts, the governing structure and leadership have not been held accountable for the underperformance of their schools. To meet the parental involvement requirements of No Child Left Behind, they pick the most easily co-opted parents and community members to put down on paper to be on their school improvement committees, effectively being exclusive. Without a broader view of children’s learning needs, those needs will not be met. These schools are not successful and their communities fail to see raising children as a shared responsibility.

When parents fail to do justice to the importance of education, great communities step up to support the children that are least fortunate. They see raising educated children to become informed and responsible citizens as essential for the greater good of society. We would all be better off to look at education this way if for no other reason than the cost of not properly educating every student. The school-to-prison pipeline is real.

So, what makes the statements of the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action organizing committee any different?

Answer: There are parents on the organizing committee ready to take the problems surrounding family and community involvement / engagement to the mat. They can’t do it alone. They, and the children that will benefit, need your help NOW.

Solutions: Each community must have their own unique solutions but the country as a whole must change the direction of the national law No Child Left Behind. We must make it right so we can get on with making all schools better for kids.

Resources:

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