News and Activism

Big happenings in my world lately, dear friends. I got a new job as a TVI (Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments) for little ones from 0-3 and I couldn’t be more excited. I’ll be working at Perkins School for the Blind, the legendary school of Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller. This means I had to close my day care, which after 12 years was gut-wrenching and difficult. I will miss and think about my kids a lot in the coming months, wondering how they’re doing and if they’re happy in their new “homes.” I trust my local providers knowing how awesome they all are, and that the kids will adjust. Kids are resilient – moreso than their parents sometimes (and that includes me!).

Just because the day care is closed doesn’t mean this blog is shutting down – I’ll still be here writing about parenting, education issues, and even cooking up a few new projects like a podcast with one of my mentors, Pam Clark, who you may have read about on this blog before. I’ll be posting information about that in the coming months (hopefully – as the dust settles!).

My latest bit of activism is a letter to the editor of the NY Times in response to this article about our state’s supposed “rejection” of PARCC. What it really means to those of us fighting common core in MA is that they are going to re-brand PARCC by “combining” it with the MCAS test. Many of us are trying change the testing paradigm by drastically reducing how many times it is taken (students in MA take MCAS EVERY YEAR from 3rd – 11th grade) and removing the connection of test results to teacher performance. (Some of us would like testing eliminated altogether but, baby steps.)

My letter won’t get published because things move fast nowadays – I took a digital break for Thanksgiving and missed the whole comment period. But that’s why I have this blog.

Before I print the letter I want to thank you all for your continued support. Thanks for reading, and please continue to look for more parenting fun and loudly shouted opinions coming from my little corner over here. 🙂

To the Editor:

The article “Massachusetts’s Rejection of Common Core Test Signals Shift in U.S.” (Nov. 21) downplays the narrative of what has really happened to teachers and students in Massachusetts and the stubbornly blind eyes and deaf ears that policymakers have turned to their constituents. It overlooks the fact that there has been a statewide grassroots organization of thousands of parents, grandparents, teachers, aides, and students to create a 2016 ballot issue to remove common core. Our voices have been ignored and downplayed while Mitchell Chester et al inform us that we are too stupid to understand what’s going on in our schools, and what’s really good for our children.

Last April the state rolled out its pilot of the PARCC test. The culture surrounding this issue has been a draconian, keep your mouth shut or lose your job environment. Teachers have been fired for speaking out against the methods prescribed by common core. Though most teachers oppose common core and PARCC tests, they are afraid to speak the truth to the parents in their classrooms because this threat looms heavy.

Some teachers reached out to trusted allies who would be able to speak publicly on the subject. We met in dark restaurants out of our district to avoid being seen. Parents were told we couldn’t opt out, but had to “refuse” the tests. Parents received threatening letters and phone calls from principals, attempting to coerce them to make their children take the test. In some cases, principals did not accept refusals from parents and tried to get the child, while sitting in the classroom preparing to take the test, to tell their teacher that they were refusing. Students were forced to take tests against their parents’ will because seven-year-olds aren’t developmentally capable of looking their teacher in the eye and telling them no. Stories like this in varying degrees happened all across the state, and that doesn’t even cover what happened to children with special needs or IEPs, who are the biggest victims of PARCC testing.

Most of the people making federal policy and commenting in articles on education are not teachers. They haven’t worked in classrooms nor do they understand children and their development. Education is a female-dominated profession under siege by international businesses looking to make money off education budgets. Last April and May our schools had over 30 days of testing. My children sat out because I don’t send them to school to function as guinea pigs for the Pearson corporation.


What is Common Core?

There is so much debate about the common core that we tend to get lost in arguing over the details. I have been researching this topic for several months and have told many friends that I sound like a conspiracy theorist when I discuss it. They often respond, “That’s because it sounds like a conspiracy.” But everything I’m about to tell you is the plain truth – there is evidence for it all over the internet and news. The most important thing you need to know about common core is that is not an education agenda – it’s a business agenda, designed to turn public schools into profit centers.

A Brief History of Common Core

No Child Left Behind, rolled out by President Bush, was the first education package that required school and student “accountability” in the form of testing. When President Obama promised education reform many educators were thrilled to say goodbye to this disastrous legislation. But his Race to the Top program only made things worse. It doubled down on high-stakes testing tied to teacher performance, and promised funding to schools that signed on without having a curriculum in place to review.

At that time, the economy was collapsing and school budgets were already at bare bones, so of course governors around the country said yes to federal funding. But common core wasn’t finished yet.

Meanwhile…savvy businessmen sensed an opportunity. The owners of a curriculum and testing company approached Bill Gates and they began work on the common core (see the link above). They formed two panels, one for math, one for English, each with 15 “experts.” (Because we all know English and math are the only subjects kids need to learn.)

Who were these education experts? Mostly people from the testing industry (College Board and ACT), and politically connected think tanks. None of them were teachers, none had experience with special education, it’s possible none of these people ever stood in front of a classroom full of children. When they showed the outcome of these panels, the common core, to a real math and English teacher, they were horrified.

So thirty people who were not teachers wrote the basis of the nationwide curriculum for school children from grades K-12, without regard for children with special needs or English-language learners. Then required that all children get extremely high results on these tests or their teachers and schools would be in big trouble.

You may have noticed the outcome of common core requirements in our schools already – no recess or study hall, shortened lunch and between-class times, reduced gym time (because kids are awesome at sitting still for six hours a day). Because of common core, every possible minute of the day must be devoted to curriculum, with heavy emphasis on writing and math across the day. Music and art were already in trouble before common core – now kids have to choose them as electives, and art and music teachers are being told that they have to teach English in their curriculum.

But back to history. Bill Gates was meeting with senators, congressmen, and governors to present his education package. In a 2009 speech to senators he was quoted as saying (my emphasis):

“When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well—and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better. Imagine having the people who create great online video games applying their intelligence to online tools that pull kids in and make algebra and other subjects fun. All states and districts should collect common data on teachers and students. We need to define the data in a standardized way, we need to collect all of it for all of our students, and we need to enter it in something cheap and simple that people can share.

There’s so much wrong with that paragraph I don’t even know where to begin. What does he even mean? Gates doesn’t talk about education in terms of students, he talks about it in terms of market value.

And can I point out the irony of giving this speech in Philadelphia? The cradle of democracy? The very process that he completely sidestepped in implementing the common core nationwide, without any voter feedback.

So here’s where we stand:

  • Gates & his partners have created a curriculum, copyrighted it, and now own the rights to all textbooks, software, and materials that go along with it. Remember this curriculum will be required for all schools in every state.
  • Testing companies like Pearson jump in to create (using federal grant money) and sell PARCC tests (using state school budget money).
  • And the PARCC tests will eventually be required to be taken on – COMPUTERS! Which all schools across the country will have to buy. Does anybody know where you can get a computer?

There are many players who have discovered that they can use schools as profit centers. Up front, they receive government money from education budgets to prepare and develop tests. The schools are required to teach to the tests, buying materials developed by these players. The tests require computers bought by towns. I think we just figured out where school budgets have gone over the last decade. It turns out it’s not the bloodsucking teachers after all!

One more thing. After convincing senators and governors that they needed to sign on to common core, Gates and his friends went to the UN to promote it as a global curriculum. Megalomaniacal? Or just really good business sense?

I haven’t even gotten into what happens when kids start failing the tests. (Which if you haven’t looked at you really should.)

So what does happen with the test scores? The healthy schools in wealthy towns, you’re doing fine, here’s some (as little as we can spare) money for you. Middle ground schools, maybe with higher populations of special needs or ESL learners, you’re not doing great, we’re going to come investigate you. Schools in impoverished, diverse, or crime-ridden areas: you failed everything. We’re putting you in receivership. Students fail the tests because they aren’t designed to be fair, teachers lose their jobs because of high-stakes requirements, and the private company Teach Plus (funded by Gates) moves in to take control of the schools. So at the end of this cycle, schools aren’t a government project anymore, they are a business project.

I know, you’re still thinking conspiracy. Here is a recent article from the Washington post:

“At the 2012 education summit sponsored by Jeb Bush…those pushing Common Core reforms bluntly explained their strategy: First, politicians will actually embrace the Common Core assessments and then will use them to set cut scores that suggest huge numbers of suburban schools are failing. Then, parents and community members who previously liked their schools are going to believe the assessment results. Finally, newly convinced that their schools stink, parents and voters will embrace reform.”

The thing that gets me the most about this is that Gates says all children need to have better education because he can’t find skilled workers. If he had invested as much money as he has on Common Core – over $2 billion so far – into his own company he’d be able to hire all kinds of workers. But it is far cheaper to produce computers in China, so that was the choice he made.

A high school blogger sums it up well when he says:

“The testing industry has become larger than the NFL, with over sixteen billion dollars in revenue in a single year. Mega-businesses such as British scoring company Pearson Education have racked up billions in sales while paying their essay scorers close to minimum wage to read over two hundred essays a day. Essays that students have slaved over, reduced to a thirty-second skim through and a snap decision.”

We need to stop haggling over the details of the quality of the common core standards or the merits of high-stakes testing and return the control of public education to the people actually doing the job: teachers. A teacher friend recently told me, “This is the only profession where the person doing the job is not the expert.” The Gateses are not experts. Common core is not about improving education for your children. It is a predatory system designed by for-profit companies who plunder school budgets, require unpassable tests, and blame the kids and teachers for failing.

PARCC and Standardized Tests in Massachusetts

Dear Gov. Baker,

I’m writing to you because I went to one of the forums regarding PARCC testing last night and was unable to testify. At all of the hearings that have been held, the same group of pro-PARCC employees of Teach Plus have arrived early (being paid a stipend to do so) and taken up the first 45 – 60 minutes of the three hours so that community members are not able to speak.

I work until 5:00 (with children, so I know not only that of which I speak, but also provide a community service giving quality child care so parents can work) and the earliest I could arrive was 5:40. We were told that the people “who arrived very late” would not be able to speak because of the long list ahead of us. This was adding insult to injury.

Because I didn’t get to speak my testimony in front of the panel, I am including it below. But right now I just need to speak from the heart. My sons’ educational experience is being ruined because of standardized testing. In Massachusetts, we make students go to school for thirteen years and then tell them they can’t have their diploma because they can’t pass one test. In his testimony a few weeks ago, Mayor Scott Lang of New Bedford had this to say:

The fact is the kids who aren’t passing the bubble test are being left behind and we’re gonna have to support them…we are setting up a caste system…we cannot tell people we will not give you your diploma even though you have earned it…but we will send you a check each month because you’re not gonna get into society…there aren’t enough people to subsidize the people we’re keeping out.

I have been through the process of listening forums before: on child care regulations, the library system takeover, and Holyoke receivership. Sadly we – the boots on the ground – all go and passionately speak our feelings about what’s happening, and the board that we are facing usually goes ahead and does exactly what it planned on anyway. I’m afraid that will happen again in this instance and it’s enough to make me lose faith in public education.

The upshot of this battle, in which I’ve done a lot of research and really thought about the issues at hand, is that I will be refusing all testing – including MCAS – for my sons from here on in. When they get to 10th grade, if it is still required for their diploma, I will have them take the MCAS so they can have the piece of paper that every student has worked their whole life for, and without which their prospects are ridiculously low.

I have been told that my sons should take the tests because its good for their school – that they will score high and the school needs the money. It is not my childrens’ job to make money for their school. This is tantamount to child labor. It is the school system whose job it is to give my children the education they deserve. Please put a moratorium on testing and let our students and teachers show you what they can really do in a healthy learning environment.

Amy Pybus

Testimony for PARCC Hearing

My name is Amy Pybus and I’ve worked with children for fifteen years. I’m here because basing students, schools and teachers performance on standardized test results is wrong. I’d like to tell you about some studies that have been done on standardized tests.

In the first study, a group of students were tested on vocabulary, reading, language, and mathematics. It showed that the girls consistently outscored boys in language, but the boys score was significantly higher than the girls in math. Is anyone surprised by that?

The year was 1977. We knew then that standardized tests were not a fair measurement of boys vs. girls – let alone special ed and second language learners.

In 1983, we heard this result: “Standardized tests are not sufficient to measure the full area of school effectiveness because they rate students on a narrow range of capabilities, only one set of educational goals, and a uniform set of teaching methods.”

Another study involved high school students in a small, working-class town who were drilled and tested over 4 years. The results indicated that a third of the class – which ended up dropping out of school – would have benefited from a vocational curriculum. Their career choices were influenced by socioeconomic status, rural location, and job preference – not by test scores.

That was in 1986.

Here’s another. “Employing standardized tests to ascertain educational quality is like measuring temperature with a tablespoon. Standardized tests have a different mission than indicating how good or bad a school is. They should not be used to judge educational quality.” The year was 1999.

And one final study. “Standardized tests are not objective or unbiased. The misuse of standardized testing and social expectations can affect minority groups. Using test data as an all-purpose solution does more harm than good. Education reform policy should rely predominately on input from teachers.”

That study was done last year.

For forty years we have heard over and over again from actual scientists that standardized tests don’t work. Yet here we are today, basing our entire educational paradigm on standardized testing, and spending $100 million per year in the process.

But then I realized – we don’t listen to scientists and researchers. We listen to businessmen. We listen to Bill Gates and his Teach Plus foundation, who are trying to make all students into computer engineers. It makes me wonder, what does Bill Gates know about education? Has he taught in a classroom or worked with children? Of course not. But we are allowing him and other powerful businessmen to dictate the education our children will receive. Any person who argues passionately in favor of standardized tests is not a teacher.

I know another billionaire computer guy – Steve Jobs. He said, “A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

That is what education is supposed to look like: a broad understanding of the human experience. We need to stop wasting so much time, money, and effort to try to make every child proficient in skills that they will not use again after school. When you universally have parents, teachers, students, and administrators telling you this system doesn’t work, you need to listen.

PS If you want to see another billionaire education guy check out this one: Edutopia. Use the force, George.