Imagine you’re a track coach and the event you are coaching
is the high jump. The lowest bar that
the high jump can be set is 5 feet, something easily attained by even a
beginning highly athletic kid. You see
these kids coming up who want to try the event.
There are heavy-set, short kids who is not at all athletic who show
up. They are slow and ungainly. Unfortunately, they are also not terribly
motivated, seeming unwilling to push their limits at all. You work with these kids all season. You get them to shed pounds and you get them
to significantly improve their speed. By
the end of the season, you get many of them, seemingly for the first time ever,
to truly dedicate themselves to the goal of trying to clear that bar. By the end of the season, there was a real
transformation for all of the kids. You
have made a profound change in the lives of these students.

Then the bad news comes.
All the kids are not allowed to continue on the track team and
eventually earn a varsity letter, because none had actually cleared the minimum
height and you are let go as track coach because you are judged a failure: none of your students ever met the minimum
standard of getting over the 5 foot bar.

If you’re a classroom teacher in New Jersey, this is a
familiar experience. Say you are an
Algebra I teacher. Your kids come in
with incredible deficits. They can’t add
fractions, do percentages, or even understand negative numbers. Even worse, they don’t know understand how to
use math to solve everyday problems. You
spend the first few months getting to get them some math comfort. You get them to understand how to use a
variable to find something unknown, you get them to see how to compound
interest can affect them and to estimate how long it will take for them to take
a bus to Philly. You have heard that the
PARCC was about reasoning, so you felt you were on the mark. By the middle of the year, your kids were
ready to really begin learning algebra. By the end of the year, your kids were able to
really understand how to use as algebra as a tool that they really could use in
understanding the world around them to solve problems they may have.

Then your kids take the PARCC. The kids come back and say that it was too
hard and you look at the first and easiest question:

Which expression is
equivalent to (3

^{5}+8*x*^{3})−(7*x*^{2}−6*x*^{3})?
You feel as defeated as your kids do. This test is not about reasoning, the kind
of math that you were teaching these kids.
It is not about how to use math in a way that a majority of these kids
will use math in their life. Andrew
Hacker, author of

__The Math Myth and Other Stem Delusions__wrote in an op-ed piece in the NY Times[1] that consistent studies have “found that advanced training in mathematics does not necessarily ensure high levels of quantitative literacy.’ Perhaps this is because in the real world, we constantly settle for estimates, whereas mathematics — see the SAT — demands that you get the answer precisely right.”
Some of
the kids in your class had the interest in potential to become future
scientists or engineers or doctors, so this kind of question might have been
appropriate for them. But for others,
teaching math to solve these kinds of questions was not only useless, it was
counterproductive. Not only that, you
were rated as a failure as was your school, because your kids could not answer
the easiest question correctly. They
were wholly changed from the beginning of the year. They were comfortable with math, could now
use it to apply to all kinds of problems and could quickly do math for almost
any everyday problem. They also had
algebra skills that were the highest in your school. But none of the questions was about how to
use math, it was just like all the other tests, how to get answers.

You
started with kids who were reluctant learners and ended the year with students
who were confident math students who reached their maximum potential for the
year. You had some ELL students in class
who had come to the country as unaccompanied minors and due to gangs in their
home country, had not been to school since 3

^{rd}grade. You had kids who had exposure to lead or had fetal alcohol syndrome. You had kids who wanted to learn in younger grades, but there were so many kids with behavior problems that the teacher was constantly trying to just keep the kids on task. You had kids who were never in the same school for two years. You had kids who were in foster care, others whose parents were drug addicts, others who had undiagnosed learning disabilities. Despite this, you ended the year with kids who loved and understood math.
But you
were a failure, for, like the track coach, your kids could not clear the
bar. And the bar in this case, this
first question in the easiest question in the easiest high school subject, was
unreachable for many of these kids.

Have you
ever had a hangover? You decide to pass
the time doing a crossword puzzle, but it’s a Thursday puzzle and you remember
that the puzzles later in the week get harder.
The first question literally hurts your brain, and you decide you’ll
tackle this when you no longer have a hangover.
Just imagine if that part of your brain that ached when you tried this
problem was simply inaccessible. That’s
the situation for many of these students.
Without the enrichment of pre-school or ambient learning at home or due
to a poor pre-and post-natal environment, there are limits to how much progress
that can be made.

Think it is any better for the English
teachers? Think about getting a kid who
is just learning English or who can barely read to answer the second question
of the 9^{th}grade PARCC test, which, referring to a 42 paragraph essay that student had to read first: “What does the term

**endless drudgeries**mean as it is used in paragraph 37.”

But
“standards” movements ignores the reality that is a psychometric fact: there is a bell curve of intellect and there
will always be a bell curve. Can you
skew the curve or move it slightly?
Yes. But can you take everyone on
the bottom half of the curve and move them all to the top half? That is not only impossible, it is
ridiculous.

So what
is the real motivation behind the PARCC and the standards movement? Is it really about getting all kids to
achieve at a high level? Or is it really
about Social Darwinism run amok. Is it
about denying a high school diploma to those who will not be college
bound? Is it about devaluing the
teachers who work with the most challenging students?

There
was a new superintendent who came to my previous school who was a graduate of
the unaccredited Broad Superintendent’s Academy, the same program completed by
Cami Anderson, the previous superintendent of Newark Schools. Upon first meeting the high school staff, one
of the teachers asked “are we going to put more resources to train students in
the trades?” The answer was “those jobs
are gone. Even a PSE&G lineman needs
to know advanced math.” There was so
much on display in that answer. Those
jobs are not gone. We still need
barbers, landscapers, plumbers, house painters, secretaries, delivery persons,
cooks, cleaners, home health care aides, etc.
But what she did not really believe that those jobs were gone. What she was saying was those jobs were not
of any value and that high school should not be the place to train anyone for
those jobs.

The
false premise of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top that all one must do
is raise standards (and punish those who do not achieve them) is dangerous and
misguided. Good education is about hard
work. It is about finding those teachers
who are passionate and creative, observing them daily and mentoring them to
success. Management and control are poor
substitutes for creativity and team building and mentoring. And it is about realizing that it treating
every student as an individual and meeting them where they are and taking them
where they can go. The best teachers are
magicians at this.

Joe K
once told me how the principal, after four years, didn’t even seem to know who
he was. No one had ever observed his
class, and none of the administrators seemed to even acknowledge his
presence. I always wondered how Joe K
could get classes of almost 30 kids to almost all pass the HSPA test, what was
an appropriate test of skills. These
kids had all previously failed the test and most hated math. But then I saw how.

This 33
year old man, lets call him Isaac, called me one day saying he never passed the
old graduation test, the HSPT and wanted to get a diploma. I suggested that maybe Joe K could help him
and gave him Joe’s contact information.
One day I happened to be in the school on an early Saturday morning. There was Joe sitting in an otherwise empty
classroom working with Isaac. I later
found out that they had been doing this every Saturday morning for many weeks. I asked Joe about it and he said not to tell
anyone for he might get in trouble. Isaac
passed the test and marched in graduation with the 18-year-olds from our
school.

Joe is a
true hero, but to those who only focus on standards and control, he is not
valued. Joe and Isaac put in the hard
work for Isaac to demonstrate the skills expected of a high school
graduate. Did he have the reasoning skills
needed for the PARCC test? No, but he
never would, never could and never should.
Devaluing Isaac and Joe is devaluing what education should be
about.