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At the Chalk Face: What to Expect When Your State is Being Run Amok

I had the unique experience of living in several states as the reform onslaught took hold over America’s public schools.  Each state had its nuances, its preferences, its prejudices, and its own structure.  I also had the privilege of living in New York State just as the shit was hitting the fan and parents decided they weren’t going to allow that to happen.

I’ve also followed the plights of several other states while keeping an eye on my homes over the past two years.

Yes, Liverpool was home
Yes, Liverpool was home

What I’ve collected in this article are some trends and some similarities, so that watchdogs can be on the lookout for dirty tricks and sneaky bait-and-switch scenarios in their respective states.  Consider the following as-close-to-chronological-as-possible list of occurences that may be happening, have happened, or will happen in your state.  When you see them, be ready to call them as they are.

  • Someone gets elected because they claim that your state’s education system is totally worthless, stagnant, or responsible for the economic woes everyone is experiencing.  Look for buzzwords like “status quo,” “kids/students first,” “robust,” “higher standards,” “choice,” or “win.”
Our kids is "winning"
Our kids is “winning!” First!
  • The state signed on to the Race to the Top reforms, even if they didn’t win any money.  If they didn’t win the competition, they still were able to get an NCLB Flexibility Waiver, which is basically the state education system’s death sentence. Forty-two states have sold their souls to the devil, and most of those are applying for extensions.  Sure, that gets rid of the requirement to have 100% of students reading “at grade level,” but now you are responsible for a whole new set of unrealistic and punitive measures.  Nice job.
  • The Waiver requires the following: (1) adopt or create (yeah, right) college-and-career-ready standards for K-12 in math and English/language arts (i.e. Common Core), (2) adopt a testing system that is used by a significant number of other states (a consortium), (3) create a teacher and school accountability system that uses that testing system to evaluate teachers and schools, and (4) maintain and expand the statewide longitudinal data systems (collect more data on kids and be willing to sell it to whomever, thanks to Arne’s loosening of FERPA laws).
Join the army of Arne's playthings
Join the army of Arne’s playthings
  • Your state’s schools start to change in weird ways.  Turnaround schools become “standardized,” new textbooks say Common Core all over them, and principals my daughter’s age are being pushed in with instructions to make changes.
  • Common Core test scores plummet.  In Kentucky and New York, parents were outraged when their previously “proficient” students were suddenly not proficient.  Students who worked hard all year failed those tests.  On average, test scores dropped over 30% from the previous year.  My current (and birth) home of New Mexico is expecting the same thing this year.  In both states, these scores conveniently didn’t count for teacher evaluations that one time, since that would’ve likely resulted in mutiny; rather, those scores set a new “baseline.”  New York’s Education Commissioner, John King, famously stated that we must’ve been lying to our kids all this time, telling them that they’re smarter than they really are.  How do you think parents reacted to that gem?

They called for his resignation
They called for his resignation

  • State leaders and corporations will either try to buy or kill the unions.  In New York, the state union was basically paid to do corporate bidding.  In New Mexico (and most other states), the ALEC-driven governors or legislators are looking to end dues collection or collective bargaining.  Once the unions are out of the way, the barrier to corporate buyout weakens.  There still stands a huge and powerful demographic, however.
  • The state will attempt to intimidate, bully, or woo parents.  New York State Education Department’s biggest flaw is that all it did was make fun of and belittle parents.  They forgot to show the love.  Parents got tired of being told they don’t care about their kids and started making John King’s life a special kind of hell.  This type of response means they’re scared of parents and don’t know how to react.  Other states will no doubt learn from New York’s mistakes and will attempt to sound softer and sweeter.  New Mexico’s Hanna Skandera likes to tell sweet stories that she thinks parents will identify with.  Nevermind the fact that they’re goofy and totally irrelevant to a parent’s real concerns.
   I was in track once and came in second place, so I know what's like to be a loser, just like your kids.
I was in track once and came in second place, so I know what it’s like to be a loser, just like your kids.
  • The state will threaten and scare teachers, right before they totally smother them in televised kisses and hugs.  ”Your continued employment as a teacher totally depends on your students’ achievement growth,” will be followed by, “70% of our kids failed the state tests this year, but we’re not pointing any fingers (teachers),” and will end with, “Teacher evaluation data, which doesn’t include test scores, shows that 99% of teachers are effective.”  What they leave out is the part where they’re trying to show the public that principals can’t be trusted with evaluations, and only test scores can possibly work.
  • After lots of opposition from parents, teachers, and lawmakers, the state will miraculously denounce the Common Core State Standards and pass bills to get rid of them.  States like Florida, Colorado, Alabama, Indiana, and others have already “replaced” Common Core with their own state standards.  That’s the magic of the 15% rule.  Any state can add new state-specific standards that account for no more than 15% of the total number of standards, in addition to the Common Core.  We call it bait and switch, because lawmakers will gain popularity when their constituents think they’ve cleaned up their state, when all they’ve really done is changed the name.
  • Around this time, your state will also pull out of its testing consortium, and the cheers will commence.  Florida famously pulled out of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) and sent waves throughout the country as the first big rebel!  Unfortunately, not long after, Florida signed a contract with the American Institutes of Research (the facilitator of the Smarter Balanced field tests–the other consortium) to develop their assessments for the “Florida Standards” (read: Common Core with a Florida flair).
Seriously, can we just call the whole thing off?
Seriously, can we just call the whole thing off?
  • Next, your state’s education budget (if it isn’t already in the hands of those at the top) will start to move funds out of the hands of the districts and schools, and into the coffers of the state department, which will spend all of that money on teacher evaluations, new testing contracts, and stupid things like merit pay and charter expansion.

And that’s pretty much where we’re at now.  The “advanced” states are piloting merit pay, charter expansions, and laws that allow Teach for America scabs to be considered “highly qualified.”  The PARCC and Smarter Balanced field tests are being piloted all over the country this spring, in preparation for full use starting school year 2014-15.

I don’t want to know what happens next if parents, teachers, and students don’t stop this.  Whatever it is, it’s happening next year.  So, we’re kind of working against a deadline here, folks.

Find your friendly, state opt-out person and ask how to get your kids out of taking anymore ridiculous and worthless tests.  Then, find out how you can get involved to create change in anyway possible.  And don’t stop talking!

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Kris Nielsen

Kris Nielsen has been a middle grades educator and instructional leader in New Mexico, Oregon, and North Carolina. Kris is an activist against corporate education...