Part 1: 50 States, 50 Sets of Standards v. One Country, One Set of Standards

It took a while to get around to it, but I listened to the Hamilton‘s Broadway album last month. I hesitate to say I joined the cult of Hamilton but I’ve no qualms claiming it’s the single best musical every written. Ever. In the history of the world. Forever. And I’m not gonna waste my shot. Part of what makes Hamilton so compelling is the combination of America’s founders’ optimism with the personality, music, and lens of today. There’s also the sheer adoration creator Lin-Manuel Miranda clearly has for the grand experiment that is America and our founders.

The musical 1776, to which Miranda pays homage during his show, had a revival when I was in my musical theater phase in high school and between these two shows, I often have snippets of songs pop into my head when discussions of American history come up. In both shows, disagreements between representatives from different states are made stark. Both stories go back to the concept of “these American states” and the reminder that we are living in one country comprised of 50 states.

Therein lies, I suspect, one of the issues at the heart of the Common Core debate. For the sake of this series, I’m setting aside arguments about compulsory education, sorting children by their birthdate into grades, or how we reduce learning to a number or symbol via grades. I want to wrestle with the question of if it’s better to have one or 50 sets of outcomes for students.

Claim 1: 50 states, each developing their own sets of standards, helps empower the concept of states as laboratories of democracy.

Counterclaim: 50 states, with 50 states of standards, results in silos of innovation as a lack of a shared language makes it difficult to share resources.

Claim 2: One country with one set of learning standards helps reduce teachers’ workload and frees up more time to talk about pedagogy.*

Counterclaim: One country with one set of standards isn’t a problem. The problem is CCSS.

I’m Team Claim 2. In my first “series”, I’m going to share the evidence that got me there and my thinking. Full confirmation bias confession: I haven’t found any compelling evidence to support that claim that “50 states, 50 sets of standards” is better or worse than “one country, one set of standards.” If you’re an advocate of Claim 1, I’d love to hear how you got there and what evidence helped you make up your mind.

*I’m likely going to end up clarifying and re-wording Claim 2 as I write and reflect but the gist will remain the same.

Ready for Part 2? Have at it!


On Being A Non-Parental, Tax-Paying Educator

Real thing said to me on Twitter: “You don’t have kids, do you?”

The first time someone came after me on social media about my parenting status during a discussion about a particular education issue, I laughed it off. The second time, I got angry. Like really angry. I think that particular exchange was what led to me being blocked in some quarters. The last time it happened, I just felt incredibly sad. The speaker picked up on something I said or didn’t say and went for the jugular. I wasn’t empathetic enough. I didn’t communicate that I understood why she* was so angry. I wasn’t able to convey in 140 characters that she was heard. That I recognized she was frustrated and angry and confused about the changes she was seeing. And because I didn’t say what she wanted to hear, she came back at me in a way that was designed to hurt. Her anger doesn’t excuse it. The topic doesn’t make it ok.

Another real thing. Said several times: “You don’t have skin in the game. You don’t have kids.”

I started working at a summer camp for students with special needs when I was 13. I have my BS in Elementary Education, my MEd in Special Education, all of a PhD in Special Education except for that whole dissertation thing. I’ve taught in several grades and levels. I have my permanent certification. I’ve taken courses in psychometrics, statistics, and test design. For the last 10 years, I’ve worked with teachers, schools, and districts around rubrics, quality assessment design, and assessment audits. I’m published in peer review journals, newsletters, and am working on two books related to quality assessment practices. I have to know how quality assessment works because schools and teachers ask me to help them design better ones. Understanding standards, tests, and assessments is mandatory for my chosen career. A career that I adore, am grateful for, thankful for, and cherish. tl;dr My skin is in it. It’s literally my job to understand these issues.

Thing tweeted at me by someone who was, in fact, not my mother: “Once you have children, you’ll understand.”

Each time it’s happened, I’ve been tweeting with a stranger. I don’t recognize the face and I don’t know the name. Had it been a familiar face, they would have known that I don’t have children because I chose not to have children. My friends know I’m at this point in my life because this is where I wanted to be. If they knew me back in college, they likely remember that brief phase I went through where I announced to everyone that I was going to be child-free. It was a bit obnoxious but it was my truth then and it’s my truth now. I become extra familiar with my gynecologist every five years and I live a quiet life with my husband and cats. If this post does wander past the eyeballs of those who’ve used that phrase in discussions, I’d ask them to consider the impact of those words on someone who isn’t child-free, but is childless. Who wants to be a parent, but isn’t or can’t.

“If you had children, you would see why [Common Core, testing, etc. etc.] is a problem.”

I can do my best to empathize. I can my best to understand that there are things about the system of public education that I cannot understand. I will never sit across from a teacher in the parent chair. This, however, does not mean I don’t get a voice or am not allowed to disagree with parents. This does not mean that a parent’s reading of an assessment is more “right” than my reading. It does not mean I have to say, “you’re right. CCSS is forcing teachers to tell children that gay penguins are better parents than a mom and a dad.” There are teachers, doctors, lawyers, psychologists, and others who work with children without being parents. Being a parent isn’t a pre-requisite for understanding an issue or doing one’s job. At the same time, I know parents who support the Common Core or saw no ill effects on their older children when they took the state tests and sent their younger kids to school on testing day without tears or teeth gnashing. Let’s say, though, that the woman who said the quote above was right. Which group of parents should I, a non-parent, trust? What am I to infer around these issues when one group of parents opposes something another group of parents supports?

“Until [State Ed, the feds, the Governer] listens to parents, the opt-out movement will rise.”

Despite the death of NCLB and the birth of ESSA, 3-8 testing remains. Students will still be taking federally-mandated ELA and Math tests. The Opt-Out conversation here in NY isn’t over. It remains to be seen what it will take for white, suburban parents to opt back into the system, if the ESSA changes meet their demands. And make no mistake, I’m not saying parents shouldn’t speak up or are inherently wrong. Rather, I’m wondering about what we mean by “public education” and to whom that system belongs to. Even if I wasn’t immersed in assessment, I would still be a taxpayer who believes in a free quality liberal arts education for all children. What are the implications when one group of taxpayers is told their voice isn’t worthy enough?

There’s a distinct possibility that New York State is going to create a new set of standards, due in part to a backlash from parents about this thing called Common Core. When that happens, it will mean pulling apart and re-doing 3+ years of curriculum and assessment design. It will mean starting over with a new language and a new framework. And it will be exhausting and frustrating and put even more pressure on teachers. My fear is that it still won’t make some parents happy. I’m fairly confident that it’s going to keep us from, yet again, talking about the concept of “good schools” and the decisions parents make about moving into or out of certain districts.

I’m fairly confident that my right to participant in any of those conversations isn’t dependent upon the status of my womb or a signature on adoption papers.

*It’s always a female presenting Twitter user – based on avatar and name. Male-presenting avatars and names that offer a commentary on my comport speak about my tone or the way in which I approached them with a comment.


What We Mean by “Student Voice”

Like most human beings who communicate with other human beings, I have verbal/written tics. My speech and writing is often peppered with phrases like:

  • my hunch is
  • I suspect
  • I wonder
  • it’s likely that
  • patterns suggest
  • invite
  • consider
And make no mistake, it’s not a fear of sharing my opinion, some shrinking violet syndrome, or passive aggressiveness. Rather, I’m working as hard as I can to engage in thoughtful discourse. I often fail. Miserably and in grand, ranty-fashion but, like most, I’m a work in progress. My speech pattern stems from an unwillingness to accept generalities or assume that an anecdote represents the whole. It will likely come as no surprise that I’m agnostic but then again, I’m a registered Democrat. See? #Fail.

Claim: Policymakers must listen to students if they want to help schools get better faster.
Multiple texts expand on and support this idea:
  • Source of claim
  • Alex Wiggins wrote about shadowing a student
  • Students have tried to change the law to get their voices heard.
Counterclaim: Students are as fallible as adults and their voices needed to be treated as such. 
This is an example of student voice near where I live. Pictures from WKBW:
In South Carolina, a white school security officer handled a black child so roughly, she was injured. The officer was fired. White and students of color protested his firing by walking out of school. Add to the challenge of these claims and counterclaims is the tension that we tend to listen to voices that say things we agree with (AKA confirmation bias.) A favorite data point of those in my district who wanted to keep the old mascot was a poll of the student population that said 95% of students were against changing the name. Listen to the students! they said. It’s their school! They know what the want! Except what they wanted was to keep a name that is a racial slur.
A few weeks ago, I listened as a young woman receive praise for her testimony at a recent Common Core hearing in which she presented multiple pieces of misinformation about how Regents exams are graded. After the hearing, she was surrounded by adults wearing STOP COMMON CORE and was told how brave, and truthful, she was. When it comes to the students in my district, I practice a fair amount of adultism. I look at those young faces holding those protest signs and I think, “oh… babies. You sweet children. You’ve so much to learn.” But then, I read the words of Kiana Hernandez on testing and I think, “From the mouth of babes! You go, sweet child, you!”
It seems fairly obvious to me that the first group of students is wrong and misguided. Given that, are there are other things students might be advocating for that are also misguided? This is the question that I tend to circle back to when I see people advocating for completely student-directed, self-guided curriculum. That’s what I wondered as I watched that girl get praised by adults who agreed with the factually inaccurate thing she said.
My hunch is that it’s not so much about student voice as it is about lifting the voices that are often shouted over. My fear is that we elevate those voices we agree with and continue to ignore the younger voices speaking about their lived experiences. My hope is we adults are listening carefully to what students are saying, not just listening to see if we can use their words to further a particular claim.
Rusul Alrubail  wrote a great post on how blogging for self-reflection is over-rated. “It’s time,” she says, “To make [blogging] a tool for empowerment and advocacy.” I suspect the same holds true for elevated student voice and student advocacy. If the things students are saying or asking for isn’t about empowering those who are disempowered or advocating for equity and equality, perhaps the goal should be education, rather than elevating.
Recommended reading: This piece by Melinda Anderson explores recent patterns in student activism, primarily by students of color, that seems like the student voices we’d want to elevate – and learn from.

On Jargon

I’m working up the courage to start my own podcast. As a part of my brainstorming/courage building pre-work, I’ve been listening to podcasts at every possible opportunity. As it so often goes, listening to one leads to another and suddenly I’m binging on a podcast about medical history hosted by a doctor and her husband. It hits all my sweet spots with history, a feminist bent, and goofy humor, but the parts I cheer for the most are when Dr. McElroy, the host, busts out medical jargon – and then repeats herself using a more colloquial term. And she does it a lot. Almost every episode, she refers to the same thing using two different terms – the one the members of her profession use and one that her husband, a layperson as it were, would understand. In one episode, her husband scoffs at an especially complicated term and asks her why doctors don’t just use the more common, less “doctor-y” term. You can almost hear her shrug as she says something to the effect of, “because we’re doctors and that’s what we call it.”

Doctors and Nurses get the Physicians Desk Reference and the Stedman’s Medical Dictionary.
Psychologists get the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).
Lawyers get a government sanctioned Glossary of Legal Terms.
Teachers get the Googles.

And I’m being only mildly snarky. Consider the word “curriculum.” There’s no shortage of exasperated blog posts from educators explaining the flaws of the Common Core Curriculum or explaining why the Common Core Standards aren’t a curriculum and it’s wrong to suggest it is.

How about a word closer to my own heart? Almost daily, there’s a tweet or post proclaiming the virtues of a great rubric. I click and pause. The tool being shared is indeed a great resource but it doesn’t meet the criteria of a rubric. According to whom, one might ask. And it’s a reasonable, frustrating question because it’s 2015 and we don’t have an official definition. Google the word’s etymology and you’ll get a brief history of red ink in manuscripts. We don’t have an AMA or a Judicial Branch saying, “This word? It means this.”

I’ve written before about the challenge of assessment literacy among educators. That challenge, though, extends past just assessment and runs deep into the heart of what it means to be a member of a profession. Education nomenclature is a messy, jumbled, chaotic process that is often dictated by publishers and vendors. (There’s a reason most people refer to scanned answer keys as ScanTron.) How might things be different were there an official education lexicon? If teachers shifted as comfortably between the language of their field and more common terms non-teacher parents and community members could understand?

Different sources have attempted to make the final call.

  • The Glossary of Ed Reform takes a stab at some common terms
  • ASCD focuses on terms relevant to their publications. 
  • EdWeek spent several days trying to define two words: “formative assessment

Meanwhile, Diane Ravitch advocates for EdLingo BINGO as a way to deal with “the useless words that fill the air.” Carol Dweck had to write a lengthy text explaining what “growth mindset” is and isn’t. The tension between these two things would be amusing if we weren’t talking about a profession. On the other hand, there are 3.5 million teachers in this country. Fewer than one million doctors. There are, though, 2.7 million nurses. Those two groups talk to each other in the same cryptic language that is inaccessible to a layperson.

What are the implications when a profession can’t talk to each other? I could easily make the claim that teachers talk just fine to each other. It’s when others take over the conversation that it gets muddled. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be able to link to a teacher blog railing against the federally mandated Common Core Curriculum and one describing how she developed her own curriculum based on the Common Core Standards. Alas, I can. 
So what’s the answer? Do we crowd-source a dictionary of education terms, using researchers in that field as a check and balance? Do nothing? Right now, I just get ranty when reporters call the 3-8 tests “exams” or I see a Likert Scale labeled “rubric.” There isn’t likely to be a voice from on high declaring the final word (pun intended) but in the meantime, in the absence of an official dictionary, consider this a call for more thoughtful word choice. A call which goes hand in hand with a need to consult the experts. Which is, as many like to proclaim, something we don’t exactly have a handle on in education.