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 (35+8x3)−(7x2−6x3)?
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 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 3rd 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 9th 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.