Inspired by all of the discussion and controversy over the new PARCC standardized tests for students and as a researcher of people's technology uses, I recently took part of the computerized PARCC fourth-grade math practice test. Even after going through the tutorial explaining the interface, I found myself occasionally as preoccupied with the system as I was with figuring out the math problems.
PARCC, which stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, proposes to test children's knowledge of language arts and mathematics. What its computerized version really does, however, is mix up students' math and language skills with their computer skills.
Parents and teachers across the country have been debating the value of the PARCC tests that children are taking at their schools this month. The heated discussions range from the value of such standardized testing to technical glitches with the computer system. What is often overlooked, however, is an additional important challenge of the computerized test: varying technology skills among students that will likely affect their scores and mix math and literary assessment with technology assessment.
You may be thinking that I just don't get computerized testing because I am an adult and not a tech-savvy child who grew up in the Internet age.
Assuming that children are naturally tech savvy, however, is a mistake. My research over the past decade, along with that of others, suggests that students' family background is very much related to their abilities, with those from less privileged backgrounds less skilled at using the Internet.
Even among more privileged populations, plenty of variation in skills exists. Accordingly, using unfamiliar computer systems has a good chance of negatively influencing test scores measuring students' math and literary skills.
For two decades I have been studying whether people can improve their lives through their use of the Internet. In this case, it may have the opposite effect. As a researcher on the relationship between Web-use skills and socioeconomic status, I have found that the Internet may be perpetuating inequalities as much as it has the potential to alleviate them.
The PARCC Web site offers a tutorial so that users can familiarize themselves with the system. The tutorial was likely compiled with care, but that does not make the system as a whole intuitive.
Presumably one advantage of such a system is to help with automated grading. After solving a few of the grade-four math questions, I decided to see how the system handled my responses. I was told that the system was unable to score my response of 4½ to one particular question. The answer key listed 18/4 as the correct response. While 4½ equals 18/4, the system seemed unable to figure that out immediately. A computer system that cannot figure out that 4½ is the same as 18/4 does not leave much confidence in said system. And it does not leave much confidence in the test that 4½ may not be an acceptable response when nothing from the system suggested that reporting the answer in such a format was a problem.
Of course, being able to translate math and language skills to different media is an important skill itself. But we should test for topical knowledge in a way that does not blend that knowledge with technology skills so that we know specifically where students are excelling and where they may be falling behind.
After all, a poor math score using the computerized version of PARCC could be due to the unfamiliar and at times confusing nature of the computer interface, it could be the result of poor math skills, or perhaps both. By conflating computer skills with math skills, students, parents, teachers and schools are left without knowing whether more resources need to be poured into math training or computer skills support. To know where resources are most needed in the educational system, it is important for assessment tools to test one skill at a time.
If PARCC is the way to move forward, it is imperative that schools offer the option of taking the test on paper, a plan that some districts have implemented. Not only does the computer-based system generally confuse different types of skills, but lack of computer skills are most likely to disadvantage those from already less privileged backgrounds. A system meant to educate all should not be based on tests that disadvantage some children from the get-go.
Eszter Hargittai is the Delaney Family Professor in the Communication Studies Department and faculty associate of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. She is a past fellow of The OpEd Project.
Over the years, we wanted to learn more about why young people who start college don’t earn degrees in greater numbers. We had reams of data on the issue, but we wanted to hear from college leaders — presidents, chancellors, and deans. From their campus-level perspective, what were the biggest barriers preventing students from completing their postsecondary educations?
Time and again higher education leaders answered that question by lamenting the poor academic preparation students received in high school. This complaint was most prevalent at community colleges, where nearly 9 out of 10 leaders said students arrived unprepared for college-level work, but poor high school preparation was also cited by more than a third of four-year college leaders.
So, is this view an attack on high school educators? Not at all. We see this as a reason for K-12 and higher education leaders to work together on behalf of students. It’s exactly why higher education leaders must engage with the Common Core State Standards — the biggest and boldest effort in a generation to ensure every student is prepared to succeed in college and the work force.
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For too long we have taught students to standards that don’t match the knowledge and skills they needed to succeed after high school. The Common Core State Standards were designed to address that by providing rigorous learning goals in English language arts/literacy and mathematics for all students, no matter where they live, or what they plan to do after high school. The standards were adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia, with districts and schools now using them. In too many places, though, districts and states are doing this without the help, guidance or political muscle of higher education leaders.
The new standards move far beyond memorizing facts and figures. They challenge our students to develop a deeper understanding of subject matter, to think critically, and to apply what they are learning to the real world. The goal is to ensure that any student meeting these standards will be prepared to meet the challenges of first-year college courses. This will be a welcome change for higher education leaders, because it will free colleges to focus on, well, college.
Specifically, the full and faithful implementation of the Common Core could all but eliminate the need for colleges to provide academic remediation to students enrolling in college immediately after graduating from high school. Also called “developmental education,” this remediation costs taxpayers $7 billion every year. It’s estimated that only 17 percent of students who take a developmental reading course go on to earn a four-year degree.
In Kentucky, after the state became the first to adopt the Common Core State Standards in 2011, the percent of Kentucky high school graduates ready for college and career increased from 38 percent to 47 percent in a single year, and a year later it hit 54 percent.
Instead of spending the first semester or two in college in developmental education classes, and paying for those non-credit bearing courses, students should be able to immediately start earning credits toward a degree. This is no small thing, as the typical student at a four-year college needs nearly five years to graduate and then leaves with an average of $29,000 in student loan debt.
Reducing the time it takes students to earn a college degree benefits everyone. It saves students money. It makes it more likely that they will graduate. It ensures a better investment for taxpayers, with a higher return on their investment of public funds. It means colleges can reduce the amount of money they spend on students who are now taking five or more years to graduate, and can focus those resources on improving the learning environment and ultimately the completion rates for all students.
Another significant benefit of the new standards is that they present a long-overdue and purposeful link between K-12 and higher education. The standards provide both systems with an opportunity for serious, ongoing collaboration. Right now, that collaboration isn’t happening nearly often enough. Last fall, Hart Research Associates and edBridge Partners surveyed 205 district superintendents and college university system leaders. Only one-third of those surveyed said they collaborate “extremely or very effectively” with each other.
This is a real missed opportunity. Through the work of our grantees and partners, we have seen how close collaboration can yield amazing results. According to Complete College America, the California State University (CSU) system helped add a series of college readiness questions to the state’s 11th-grade exam. After students take the test, they are told whether they are on track for college-level classes in the CSU system. CSU has also designed transitional readiness courses and professional development opportunities that help high school teachers work with unprepared students to get them ready for college. In addition, 10 states and the District of Columbia have aligned their high school graduation requirements with their state university admission requirements.
Higher education leaders and faculty in several institutions are working to align college eligibility and admissions practices and many states are also working to align first-year college courses with the new high school course expectations. But there is a great and urgent need for higher education to do more because the standards are under attack from some quarters.
In many states, some groups are working to purposefully undermine them with misinformation that isn’t about quality. Of great importance to higher education, in particular, is the standards have been designed to ensure young people master the essential skills and knowledge they need in higher education and the workplace. The higher education community is in a unique position to reinforce what matters most, affirming the quality of the Common Core State Standards and attesting that the standards are aligned to better prepare students for credit-bearing courses.
On a more general level, some critics continue to claim that the Common Core State Standards are an improper federal intervention in education; that educators were not sufficiently involved in their development; and that the standards dictate curriculum. Here, too, the members of the higher education community can help to combat misinformation by citing their firsthand evidence to the contrary, or by helping to direct attention to the extensive public evidence and information about the standards’ actual origin, development and content. By engaging actively in the debate around the Common Core, higher education leaders can inform it with their expertise, participate in and ensure the full, faithful and effective implementation of the Common Core, and help supporters of improved education and educational pipelines stay the course.
The Common Core State Standards should be a watershed moment in our nation’s efforts to improve the lives of young people. The new standards will be critical in determining how well our students succeed in K-12, and whether they are ready to succeed in college, the work force, and beyond.
We must ensure this essential work is not derailed. To be successful, we need higher education leaders to engage directly, to learn about the Common Core State Standards, and join the debate. Why? Because they are in the best position to help Americans understand that rigorous standards like these are needed for our students so they succeed in high school, through college, and into their careers.
Dan Greenstein is the director of postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Vicki Phillips is director of education at the foundation.
Here’s a case of synchronicity in the public interest: Jonna Perrillo’s study Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and Race in the Battle for School Equity (University of Chicago Press) is appearing just as the biggest teachers’ strike in a generation is coming to an end.
Despite its title, and its timing, the book is not a polemic but a historical study. Perrillo, an assistant professor of English education at the University of Texas at El Paso, goes through newspapers and union archives to document the clash of values within teachers’ organizations in New York City between the 1930s through the 1980s. The nation’s largest school system was where “two different strands of American liberal thought” emerged with special clarity, and fought it out with lasting consequences. One was “a faith in the power of coalitions of organized individuals to effect change”-- in particular, multiracial coalitions taking on de facto segregation and the unequal distribution of resources throughout the school system. The other was “a belief that institutions were color blind and, therefore, the best medium to promote equality, justice, and social advancement.” The latter perspective was more appealing to educators concerned with defending their status as professionals from demands by administrators or parents.
The conflict came to a head in the New York City teachers’ strike of 1968 (also known as the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis) with aftershocks throughout public education that have still not ended. It’s much too soon to assess the impact of the strike now being suspended by the Chicago Teachers Union, but I got in touch with Perrillo to ask about the context of recent events. A transcript of the e-mail interview follows.
Q: How did you become interested in the history of teacher unionism? Was it your dissertation topic? It’s your first book, so that seems likely, but it doesn’t have that revised-dissertation feel. Either way, why did you stick your head into this particular hornets' nest?
A: You’re absolutely right. My dissertation was a study of a journal written for and by New York City high school teachers. It was published by the Board of Education from 1917 to 1973. What I wanted to do in my dissertation was to think about how teachers conceived of professionalism over time, and I really wanted to capture it in their own words. Examining the journal allowed me to do that, but it was too narrow of a study to work as a book.
When I started research for the book, I did so because I wanted to keep examining teachers’ thoughts on professionalism, and teacher unions offered a more expansive archive. I wasn’t just looking at teachers’ published writing — which comes with all sorts of baggage about who gets published and why — but also reports, minutes, correspondence, and all sorts of raw documents like that. I was interested in the union’s response to race and school quality as an organizing theme, more specifically, because I attended urban schools and because I taught in an all-black high school.
But when I came across some of the pieces I cite about teachers arguing with black mothers in the 1950s over their children’s failure in school, for example, I felt like I had hit a goldmine. Here teachers were talking about professionalism — and race — in ways that felt unedited, to say the least. I thought that I hadn’t just found something that spoke to the most critical issues in public schooling today but that truly captured the thoughts and experiences of many ordinary teachers and the frustrations they felt on the job.
Q: One way to sum up your analysis might be "civil rights and teacher professionalism as zero-sum game," i.e., one side's victory is the other's loss. That's what I jotted down while reading, but it's not quite right. At some point, the interaction between minority communities and teacher unionists became a zero-sum game. Is that closer to your understanding of it?
A: I think it did become a zero-sum game, and by a particular group of teachers. One thing I often have trouble remembering is that teacher unionists at times obstructed the efforts of black parents and activists, but other unionists — members of the Teachers Union, who would in the 1950s be labeled as communists and forced to resign — did as much to advance civil rights in the schools as anyone. They developed the first multicultural curriculums, they passed on easier job assignments to work in Harlem schools, and they publicly and routinely demonstrated against the racism and abuse that black students encountered in public schools.
Hundreds of teachers lost their jobs in the Red Scare waves of the 1950s and they did so, they often said, because they weren’t willing to be quiet about institutionalized racism. This doesn’t mean they were great classroom teachers, necessarily, but I want to remember these teachers because even if their politics weren’t mainstream, they offer a model of teachers using unions to fight for the best interests of children.
This is a different group of teachers than those who ultimately made civil rights and teacher professionalism into a zero-sum game. These teachers belonged to a different union — the Teachers Guild — which in the 1950s grew from a small organization to the basis of the modern United Federation of Teachers (the current teachers union for New York City). My book shows that they did this first by developing campaigns that fought assignments to minority schools for experienced teachers. Later, in the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownville strikes, they fought black parents more directly over teacher assignments.
Between these two events, membership rolls exploded — so while one union was being dismantled, the other was growing. Clearly, these teachers came from a different political orientation that the Teachers Union, but the thing that I also try to capture is that on some level, they had a point: assignments in minority schools guaranteed them larger classes, fewer resources, less support staff, and often more classes than teachers in middle-class white schools. Resisting teacher assignments to struggling schools was ethically problematic, but they made a powerful argument about professionalism and professional agency, one that appealed to thousands of teachers.
This was the beginning of the zero sum game: when they decided that they would not just fight the Board of Education to get what they wanted, but the students’ best interests and the adults who advocated on behalf of their students. The Board of Education often played on this division, antagonizing both unionized teachers and black parents, all the while doing little to improve the schools.
Q: When friends who teach in the public schools vent about their experience, their biggest complaints are about having to “teach to the test,” with overcrowded classrooms and inadequate infrastructure close behind. Evidently the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) did a good job in raising these issues with parents, to judge by interviews and photos in which parents expressed support for the strike. Your book shows similar alliances around quality-of-education problems with Harlem parents in the 1930s. Do you see a parallel between these experiences – or major differences that count more than any similarity?
A: What has struck me as especially noteworthy and important about the strikes is the support that many parents are expressing, either through joining parents in the protests (as you mention) or in testimonies of support that come across in interviews. And of the parents who do register frustration with the union, many are focused, understandably, on the stress and insecurity that comes with suddenly not having childcare means. Again, I completely understand and empathize with this, but I don’t see these parents welcoming any strike over any issue. So, all in all, it really couldn’t be more different from the 1968 New York City teacher strikes, which produced images of teachers and parents visibly angry, heckling each other on the street.
I do think that teachers [in Chicago] made a good case with parents, which begins simply with communicating to parents on the issues, as they had been doing all summer. But as you suggest, this worked because parents were already there. Like in the 1930s, teachers aren’t striking over where to teach but how, and parents and teachers share a lot of wide beliefs here. Small classes are better than large ones. Art, music, and physical education classes are beneficial, not expendable because they aren’t tested. Teachers shouldn’t be encouraged to teach to the test, and they shouldn’t be at greater risk of losing their job because they teach students who face greater economic and social challenges than others. These are easy ideas for parents to get behind because they aren’t just about benefittng teachers, they’re about doing right by children.
Q. People still argue about the New York City teachers’ strike of 1968 – fiercely at times. (If they don’t throw chairs at each other about it, that’s only because of age.) Would you say a little more about it, for anyone who doesn’t know what it was about?
A: The entire nation watched the Ocean Hill-Brownsville strikes, much as we have all noticed what is happening in Chicago, though the 1968 strikes lasted two months. And then to follow that, New York City teachers went on strike again over salary and contract issues in the 1970s as the city was in the midst of a deep fiscal crisis, against [United Federation of Teachers leader] Albert Shanker’s recommendations.
The two strikes were over very different sets of problems, but they both inspired teachers in other cities to protest more, as well. Because of unionists’ effectiveness in getting what they wanted from these strikes, and with the overwhelmingly majority of teachers in the nation belonging to unions by the 1970s, the American Federation of Teachers [which grew out of the UFT] became one of the most important special interest groups to Democratic politicians. But this didn’t mean that teacher unions became more popular as they became more powerful; in fact the opposite was often true.
I think it’s not coincidental that the decades that followed saw the birth of the school choice movement, which is tied to the CTU’s agenda. Even if parents didn’t feel radically different about the individuals who taught their own children, the profession suffered because the public image of the teacher, via the New York strikes and others, had grown so poor. Public school teachers were seen as isolationist, uncooperative, and more concerned about their professional agency than students’ welfare. School choice advocates argued to parents that they could find a more professional and dedicated group of teachers if they left the system. Some parents, fed up with the resistance unions had posed to their local school reform movements, were ready to leave behind schools that they had spent decades trying to reform.
Elected officials were often drawn to school choice for many of the same reasons, and because union officials were often more powerful than they were. And so I think a lot of what has defined education politics and school reform over the last thirty years can be tied to union activism in the 1960s and 1970s.
For this reason, I think the Chicago strikes have marked a powerful change in the public image of the unionized teacher. Some columnists have argued that the strike is a battle of wills between the mayor (and his appointees) and the union, but I don’t think that’s right. A good amount of the reporting has been focused on the issues rather than each side’s representatives and here, again, parental support of the union — and the union’s attention to children’s welfare — has been critical. The CTU has done a good job of presenting themselves as advocates of students and teachers, not isolationists. This isn’t just what the CTU needed to do to get business done; it is what teacher unions need to do to stay relevant in a political landscape in which the education stakeholders and educational institutions have grown increasingly diversified and in which unions have lost many of their traditional sources of influence and authority.
Q: What is your sense of recent developments in Chicago? How do they look, given the history you've studied? [Note: This interview was completed during the final minutes of Monday, Sept. 17th, before the vote to suspend the strike.]
A: If the strike can’t be resolved quickly enough, the CTU runs the risk of parents feeling like any schooling is better than no schooling. It’s difficult for parents to hold fast to long-term goals — such as the far-reaching gains that would result from better teacher evaluation systems — when the immediate situation represents a real crisis for them. So much of what teachers are striking for amounts to a change in education culture and their role in decision-making, and while these aren’t easy decisions to make quickly, that is what needs to happen. It’s a high-stakes, high-pressure situation, and I imagine there are some very heated discussions and disagreements between union delegates behind closed doors.
What is equally if not more threatening, though, is the mayor’s attempt on Monday to seek an injunction based on the rationale that teachers are only legally able to strike over economic issues. While strikes should always be the last effort, it seems clear that in many municipalities, unions -- and teachers on the whole - -really have reached the end of the road. They have been largely ineffective in countering a political movement that has been incredibly punitive towards teachers while doing too little to address the systematic economic and social challenges of many urban areas.
This injunction, if upheld, would relegate teacher union activism strictly to the economic realm, and in the process, would be devastating to the CTU and possibly to unions more largely. For one thing it would give teachers no real means to advocate on issues that are most important to their students and the local communities that their schools serve. For another, it would force unions to become the kind of protectionist, self-serving organizations that their critics already, and incorrectly, claim that they already are. If you read the speeches of Chicago Teachers Federation President Margaret Haley [in the early 20th century] or early New York City unionists, for that matter, you see that they were always interested in much more than bread and butter issues. They fought for improved and more inclusive curriculums, for school integration policies, and for a place at the education-policy making table.
As member of the civic body, we have the right to support or oppose any given strike. But I don’t believe we have the right to tell teacher unions what they should stand for, or that they aren’t allowed to care about education issues with the same passion as salary gains, or that they can’t use the most effective tool at their disposal to fight for what they see as ethical injustices towards the children they serve. To do so would be profoundly undemocratic, not to mention bad for schools.
Talk to personal trainers these days, and they will tell you that while bulging biceps and carved calves are valuable, what really matters is the strength of your core, the central muscles that ensure the body's stability and balance, the platform on which everything depends.
On that word "core" I want to hang an analogy that applies the notion of an indispensable platform to teaching and learning. In 2010 the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers unveiled the Common Core State Standards, adopted now by 46 states and the District of Columbia. The standards represent one of the most promising developments in the decades-long effort to improve our country’s public schools. You may be thinking that you've heard that before. In the 1980s and 90s states throughout the nation adopted curriculum standards that were supposed to transform education. Yet here we are today still struggling with the persistent problem of academic underachievement. Why did our earlier efforts to establish standards not have the intended effect, and how are these new standards different?
Some states developed robust, muscular learning goals; others turned out rather anemic and feeble guidelines. For example, on the vital skill of discerning cause and effect, one state specified three detailed goals: explain how a cause and effect relationship differs from a sequence of events, distinguish between long-term and short-term cause and effect relationships, and show causal connections between particular historical events and ideas and larger trends and developments. In contrast, another state simply asked students to relate the causes and consequences of historical events to subsequent events. Similarly, when it came to student performance assessments, some states adopted evaluations that require students to do heavy lifting; others asked students to do little more than breathe. The state-by-state unevenness of standards and their evaluative instruments rendered them ineffective as engines of coordinated national reform.
The Common Core State Standards are not designed to supplant any of those standards, weak or strong. Instead, they seek to bolster all standards, not by identifying content-specific goals but by promoting an "integrated model of literacy" that encompasses skills in writing, speaking, and listening. At their heart, however, is the skill of “close, attentive reading” that will enable students to “pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally,” a skill as necessary in the workplace as in the classroom.
So how might these standards, based on a "vision of what it means to be a literate person in the 21st century," change teaching? For one thing, they emphasize the close reading of complex, challenging texts in all subjects, including math and science. To illustrate what close reading might look like in a high school class, consider how a teacher might apply it to the Declaration of Independence. After discussing the Declaration’s role in the American Revolution, she might zero in on its structure and language. She might examine the logic of its argument, leading students to discover that it is actually a three-part syllogism with a major premise — when a government destroys the inalienable rights of the people, the people have a right to abolish it — a minor premise — the King of Great Britain is destroying our rights — and an inevitable conclusion — therefore we have a right to abolish his rule.
She might ask students to critique the rhetorical impact of Jefferson’s use of repetition, or she might help them unpack the word "people" to see how Jefferson employs it to suggest unity among thirteen contentious colonies. In keeping with the standards, throughout the discussion she would ask students to support their responses by citing evidence from the Declaration itself.
This sort of teaching would help students understand the structure of a text, assess the logic of an argument, and develop an awareness of how language is consciously deployed to achieve meaning and impact. If students entered college with even a rudimentary grasp of those skills, they would have a substantial head start in mastering college-level writing. Every freshman composition teacher in the nation would rejoice. I know because I taught freshman comp for years. My colleagues and I did not expect to turn out prose stylists in two semesters, but if we inculcated the skills I mentioned, we headed into summer satisfied with job well-done.
The rigorous and sophisticated instruction called for by the new standards will, in many cases, require considerable teacher training, just one of the many expenses involved in implementing them. Indeed, it is fair to wonder if states will spend the millions required at a time when they are cutting education budgets. Evidence suggests that they will and, in fact, are. California is shifting administrative funds to cover some implementation costs, and the Santa Fe school district is devoting federal funds to Common Core teacher training. In Indiana, Governor Mitch Daniels is leading education reform initiatives that include the standards. New York has developed EngageNY, a website that provides implementation resources to teachers, principals, and administrators. Kentucky has aligned its teacher education programs to comport with the standards. The list goes on.
It is important to stress that the Common Core Standards are not mandated by the federal government or anyone else. Moreover, they do not represent an effort to micromanage the classroom or tell teachers what to teach. Focusing on essential skills, they leave plenty of room for teachers and curriculum specialists to develop specific content, those bulging biceps and carved calves. As their name indicates, the Standards concentrate on the core, the sophisticated literacy that prepares students for college and career and that constitutes the indispensable intellectual platform on which everything depends.
Richard R. Schramm is vice president for education programs at the National Humanities Center.