In honor of the announcement by Merriam Webster Dictionary that “surreal” was the word of 2016 I am re-posting a older piece I wrote for United Opt Out almost one year ago. Now… more relevant than ever. Annual standardized testing has given way to Competency Based online delivery systems, all…the…time. Race to the Top has been replaced with ESSA.

And the socio-political climate against which we are fighting? Well…it speaks for itself.

Merriam Webster site states: “Surreal is often looked up spontaneously in moments of both tragedy and surprise, whether or not it is used in speech or writing. This is not surprising: we often search for just the right word to help us bring order to abstract thoughts, emotions, or reactions. Surreal seems to be, for 2016, such a word.”


“Struggle is par for the course when our dreams go into action. But unless we have the space to imagine and a vision for what it means to fully realize our humanity, all the protests and demonstrations in the world won’t bring about our liberation” (Robin D. G. Kelley)

Let me begin with an important premise. Education reform is:

  • Carceral (feeds the school to prison pipeline). The fear and punish surveillance systems we have in place in the name of “accountability” would impress even Jeremy Bentham.
  • Corporeal (regulation and ownership of the body). Visit page 44 of this document to understand how grit and tenacity will be measured on our children’s bodies.
  • Colonizing (through global outsourcing of PUBLIC education products and services to PRIVATE interests). Most notably but not limited to, charter schools.
  • With Citizens United and ALEC, we have private/corporate control of every facet teaching and learning: curricula, materials, assessment, and staffing.

I have to situate myself in this struggle as a white middle class mother and teacher who cannot claim to have lived or experienced the inequities and violence faced by so many others. I, with many others of racial and economic privilege have been asking, “How can we bring communities of color and indigenous peoples into the opt out revolution? What are the connections we need to make? What are we missing?” There are a lot of critical and complex ways we must deconstruct those questions and tirelessly examine responses from multiple perspectives.

Ceresta Smith’s “Why People of Color Must Reject Market-based Reforms  provides a compelling argument supported by factual evidence why organizing resistance and ultimately effecting change from the standpoint of people of color is necessary. No doubt they must take a militant stance and become full participants in the resistance movement to end corporate reform; but to expand further on her argument, I present the following.

We must re-frame the opt out revolution as a global effort- with our brothers and sisters in other counties like Spain, Mexico, Liberia, Puerto Rico. Colonization, neo-colonization, and neo-liberal economic policies have impacted the way educators teach and children learn. The history of the Black Radical Imagination emanates from those places; spaces where ultimate dreams, visions, and end goals of freedom are articulated, visualized and specified via artistic mediums, inspirational dialogues, and theatrical resistance.

I am thinking of notable artists and art theorists such as bell hooks, David Stovall, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and the surrealist artist Aimee Cesare (and a thanks to Bettina Love whose 2016 AERA conference presentation snapped this into focus for me). They argue for a radical imagining of “the possibilities of relational, transitive, and creative solidarity as a strategy for recasting not only human relations but also the very notion of what it means to be human” which is “crucial for decolonization” (Gatzambide-Fernandez, 2012). Also, see P.L. Thomas notable scholarship on James Baldwin. These artists created, and stemmed from, the surrealist movement which was largely a radical and political response to fascism and colonialism of the 19th century.

Why the framing of the radical (surrealist) black imagination for the future of the opt out movement? Because “surrealism is not an aesthetic doctrine but an international revolutionary movement concerned with the emancipation of thought” (Kelley, p. 5).

Resistance requires application of the radical black imagination and indigenous people’s frameworks for radical democracy—resistance MUST draw from historical narratives that are rooted in their understandings of freedom and opposition to oppression and spring forth visions of where we want to be. The surrealists’ art of this movement spoke to the idea that, “it is not enough to imagine what kind of world we would like; we have to do the work to make it happen” (Kelley, p. 187). Resistance to oppression is something that marginalized (and enslaved) communities have lived for centuries, and therefore their imaginations, their wisdom, their lived experiences told through works of art allow us to imagine actions that will open “new possibilities in unlikely places” (Kelley, p. 189). This way forward has a long rich history of resistance rooted in the imagination and in love—two things indispensable to our movement. Kelley writes, “(R) enegade black intellectuals/activists/artists challenged and reshaped communism, surrealism, and radical feminism, and in doing so produced brilliant theoretical insights” … which can and must push our movement in new directions.

Through the critical imagination, we can find the language for systemic freedom and equitable alternatives. “Surrealists have consistently opposed capitalism and white supremacy” (Kelley, p. 192). While the resistance to privatization  has been framed as a “white middle class thing” (a paradoxical statement both sort of true…and largely manufactured), we can concede that to some extent we have been using middle class tactics and grounding our message in “indignation” (such as, “How dare you treat my kid this way!”), which is a White person’s version of experiencing injustice. Honestly, it amazes me that more parents of color, who have lived centuries of damage done to their children at the hands of the racist system, don’t look at us, roll their eyes and yell, “Well, duh!” … because they have lived it globally and systemically in ways that parents of White and middle class privilege are only recently beginning to get a glimpse. Garon (quoted in Kelley) says, “Human freedom depends not only on the destruction and restructuring of the economic system, but on the restructuring of the mind” (p. 192).

While racial and class privilege enables some of us to work more easily within the existing system of power, the radical imagination shows us how to shatter that system and imagine a new one. Kelley says: “Without new visions, we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics, but a process that can and must transform us.” And he adds, when we talk about structural change, we’re not tweaking a system, but completely destroying it and replacing it with something new.” (see Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.)

If we find the power to imagine new schools that represent us: schools of anti-racism, equity, democracy, and love (where there is no space for billionaire control), we might get bold and imagine new societies in that same image (and where there is no space for billionaire control).

Our solidarity must come from the guidance of the radical black and brown artists who knew that imagination was the core of revolutionary action. “The idea of revolution of the mind has always been central to surrealism as well as to black conceptions of liberation” (Kelley, p. 191). When we, all of us, embrace radical black voices of imagination as the guiding principles for the opt out movement and create real solidarity, it will be “game, set, match, OVER” for the corporate elites. And they know it! To water down – or de-fang – the this revolution  mirrors the historical recasting of the Middle Passage as the Triangular Trade Agreement or Rosa Parks as little more than a sweet middle aged lady who was “just tired.”

What does the education revolution using radical imagination as its center look like? It could be surrealistic “Revolutionary graffiti painted in bold strokes across the great tests of Western civilization” (or Pearson tests) … “it is a hand grenade tossed with deadly accuracy, clearing the field” of the neo-liberal takeover of public education … “so we might write a new history with what’s left standing” (p. 181). This effort must be nothing short of this. And, if it is, then it needs to re-route to the right direction. Our resistance and transformation  (RBI style), “is the exhalation of freedom, revolt, imagination and love …. (I)t is above all a revolutionary movement ….Beginning with the abolition of slavery, it advances to the creation of a free society in which everyone will be a poet—a society in which everyone will be able to develop his or her potentiality fully and freely” (Chicago Surrealist Group, 1976). And isn’t this what we WANT for ALL children?

“Surrealism recognizes that any revolution must begin with thought, with how we imagine a New World, with how we reconstruct our social and individual relationships” (Kelley, p. 193). True solidarity in this movement as an effort of social justice will be evidenced not when white middle class moms go to jail to protect their own children, but when they (we) go to jail to protect other people’s children too.


Kelley, R.D.G. (2002). Freedom dreams: The black radical imagination. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Featured (top) image by Tom Feelings

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In May of 2016 I officially resigned as an administrator for United Opt Out a group I help create in 2011 along with Peggy Robertson, Tim Slekar, Ceresta Smith, Shaun Johnson, and Laurie Murphy. Since then, Shaun and Laurie rolled off, and we added new admins like Michael Pena, Rosemarie Jensen, Ruth Rodruigez and Denisha Jones.  Very recently, other admins rolled off as well. There’s been a lot of myth-making and rumor-milling about the roll off of admins and the UOO event taking place this fall in Houston.

People keep asking me “What happened?” To quote a scene from a Northern Exposure episode entitled Burning Down the House in which one character -a famous golfer- attempts to explain how or why it was he “blew the Masters” because of a simple putt, he says, “You want to know what happened? ….  I don’t know what happened.” In other words, perhaps some things cannot be reduced to simple answers even though such oversimplification might suit the self- serving motives of others. If you want to know why anyone one admin decided to retire from UOO, the best course of action is to ask them directly, because there are five different people and five different sets of personal and/or political reasons anyone might have for stepping down. There is no “one” reason. Yet the responses within the movement to the changes in UOO has created a dangerous space (within our movement) which French philosopher Jaques Daignault refers to as being “between murder and suicide”. And that is what this post attempt to respond to. Why? Let me explain. According to Pinar et al (1995):

Daignault argues that to know is to kill (1992a, p. 199), that running after rigorous demonstrations and after confirmations is a hunt:  literally (1992a, p. 100) … To know is to put to death….To know is to kill, to rely on death….The reason of the strongest is reason by itself.  Western man is a wolf of science (1992a, p. 198).  Knowledge — understood poststructurally as the reduction of difference to identity, the many to the one, heterogeneity to homogeneity — is violence.  This violence results from competition between ideologies or doctrines, and from the radical transformation of what exists in conformity with what we believe it ought to be (quoted in Hwu, 1993, p. 132).  For Daignault, as for Serres, to know is to commit murder, to terrorize.  Nihilism refers to the abandonment of any attempt to know.  It is the attitude which says anything goes or things are what they are.  It is to give up, to turn ones ideals into empty fictions or memories, to have no hope.  Daignault (1983) calls for us to live in the middle, in spaces that are neither terroristic or nihilistic, neither exclusively political nor exclusively technological.

We are experiencing the contested terrain of the in-between where we need to consider that taking a stand does require taking “a side”— nor does taking sides mean you are taking a stand.

I am choosing to take a stand by not taking sides.

Again Daignault suggests:

The only way to avoid this fate is to allow thought to think itself, to go beyond or to disrupt dualism, and to think the difference between them.  It is to introduce paradox.  It is not to stop defining, but to multiply the definitions.  It is to invite a plural spelling, to experiment, to problematize. 

Call me milquetoast if you must –but I believe in Guevara’s idea that the “true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love” (not self righteousness, not anger, not fear, not ego….love). This love requires empathy and forgiveness- and a capacity to see things from perspectives we might not fully understand ourselves but are willing to concede are real and matter to others.

Sometimes the “truth” of any course of events is simply too complex…because it just is. It is possible in deep and genuine relationships between spouses, friends, and colleagues to have wildly different understandings of a shared event. These are opportunities to learn more than we think we already know about ourselves and each other.

I am not declaring kumbaya and asking for group hugs.

I have all the sentimental qualities of a rock.

I thought The Notebook was stupid.

But I am a pragmatist. I want this movement to succeed. We face global annihilation of democracy at the hands of corporate privatization otherwise. We are up against something awful and enormous. I want to do what’s right for others more than doing what’s right “for me.” Because that is what we stand for.

In difficult moments I try to ask myself, when engaging in an argument or “calling someone out”: does this serve the greater good for the movement? What will change for the better as a result of my engaging in this disagreement? How much of this is my own fear? My own ego? My own desire to create a certain appearance to others? Or a fear of what others might think of me? How much of these negative interactions are a waste of our time?

In this movement we do experiences differences and disagreements that are very real and necessary. For example I adamantly and publicly opposed support of ESSA, while many other in the resistance did not.  UOO many years ago was one of the first groups willing to launch vigorous critique of the national unions and demand they take a real stand against reform (and at the time we were roundly criticized for doing so.) There are necessary spaces and times for disagreement within the movement. However, social media character attacks and cannibalism that I witness at times would do the reformers proud. I’m not sure this behavior is what Guevara had in mind.

It’s easy for any of us to proclaim what we believe others “ought” to do, or not to do…it’s easy to reframe one another’s identities (or motives) according to our own interpretation and pronounce the failings we see in others as true. How many of us are willing to turn the mirror on ourselves?

Maybe we’d be better off spending more time looking at our own roles in the problems this movement is facing and less on the roles of others. That’s what I am trying to do at least. Because if we are looking for “blame” as to how and why things happen (for good or for ill) there’s always a heaping scoop of blame to go in everyone’s bowl.

There have been, and continue to be, incidents of hijacking and co-opting of our movement by various forces, especially more notably now with the authorization of ESSA.

We have become a wary, weary, and angry group of people.

However, because of our heightened emotions, sometimes we lose the grey line between courageous critique and a Salem Witch trial. Do the leaders of national unions warrant our critique and mistrust? Hell, yeah. But we also have members of unions who are vigilant leaders who earn nothing but our trust and respect such as Karen Lewis, Michelle Gunderson, Gus Morales, and Barbara Madaloni. So…where is the truth about unions? Somewhere on the in-between. Between murder and suicide.

How do we move forward in times of profound disagreement? What is the way out? We must avoid murder on the one hand and suicide on the other. Are we willing to move forward and remain in a complex in-between space that necessitates discomfort because it asks of us generosity, empathy and humility while also maintaining critical vigilance to our refusal to negotiate or compromise or sell ourselves out? I think we can.

I conclude with Daignault:

Do not expect me to know what I am talking about here; I am trying to think.  That is my best contribution to the composers creativity (p. 4).

“Career and College Ready?”

(image link)

Pearson, of course, was ahead of the pack as usual… developing a school- to -labor pipeline that suites the corporate masters.  As this blog explains, Competency Based Education becomes the framework for “badges” instead of credit hours and prepares students for career and college which is code for the new “gig” economy. According to Pearson: “Alternative learning credentials including college coursework, self-directed learning experiences, career training, and continuing education programs can play a powerful role in defining and articulating solo workers’ capabilities. Already badges that represent these credentials are serving an important purpose in fostering trust between solo workers, employers, and project teams because they convey skill transparency and deliver seamless verification of capabilities.”

I could -at this point -just say ’nuff said.

But I won’t.

CBE 101

First, a brief background: Competency based education (or CBE) has been a rapidly developing alternative to traditional public education. While proponents tout it as “disruptive innovation” critics examine how disruptive translates into “dismantle”, meaning that CBE is a system by which public schools can, and will be, dismantled. This is not ancillary. It was designed to create a new privately-run profiteering model by which education can be delivered to “the masses.” Think: Outsourcing.

CBE delivers curriculum, instruction and assessments through online programming owned by third-party (corporate) organizations that are paid for with your tax dollars. Proponents of CBE use catchy language like “personalized” and “individualized” learning. Translation? Children seated alone interfacing with a computer, which monitors and adjusts the materials according to the inputs keyed in by the child. See Newton’s Datapalooza here.

So gone are the days of “credit hours” earned by spending a certain amount of hours in a classroom. Instead, children move at an individual pace detached from the larger group or collaborative learning experiences which CBE pimps try to warn us are ‘keeping certain kids back” from their “true potential.”

The immediate advantages of control and profits for the neoliberal privatizers is quite evident and well documented. See Talmage for more on CBE history and my own summary here.

Let’s summarize what the outcomes of the CBE paradigm of public schools will be:

  • Disenfranchises teachers who are replaced by computers and third party providers (now LEA’s with access to student private data). This erodes a unionized teacher workforce.
  • Eliminates collaborative interactive learning activities in favor of individualized one-on-one learning with a computer program
  • Course credit will no longer be counted by credit hour but by completion of a series of exercises, tasks or data driven curriculum which provides the student with a “badge of completion” (see Pearson).  The amount of time spent in a classroom experience is no longer a determining factor in evaluating success.

In their own words, The Business Round Table explained how Career and College ready objectives are designed in the likeness of their corporate sponsors. The Common Employability Skills paper states: “Educators and other learning providers will also have an industry-defined road map for what foundational skills to teach, providing individuals the added benefit of being able to evaluate educational programs to ensure they will in fact learn skills that employers value.”


The industry road map today in 2016 leads to a gig economy.

What’s a Gig?

Meet the gig economy. What exactly is a gig economy? It’s what CBE becomes when it’s all grown up and graduated. According to gig economy critic Stephen Hill: The gig economy is “….a weird yet historic mash-up of Silicon Valley technology and Wall Street greed”  which is being thrust  “upon us (as) the latest economic fraud: the so-called ‘sharing economy,’ with companies like Uber, Airbnb and TaskRabbit allegedly ‘liberating workers’ ’to become ‘independent’ and ‘their own CEOs,’ hiring themselves out for ever-smaller jobs and wages while the companies profit”.

If the history of public schools in America is the history of labor production and preparation (i.e. 19th c factory model schools for a factory society) it holds true that we are now trying to create gig-driven schools to prepare children for the new gig economy. Just as factory model schools prepared children for factory jobs, it’s no coincidence that the CBE framework is a “mini me” of the gig economy itself. And the CBE framework was developed and is funded by the same corporations and organizations like iNACOL and ALEC who are the profiteers of a new gig economy. Just think of how the gig-driven culture reflects the long awaited goals of ALEC model legislation which dismantle collective bargaining, living wages, and other labor rights.

In 2015 the ALEC Commerce Task Force “Celebrated the ‘Gig’ Economy” at an event in which they held workshops on the “Gig Economy” and “What’s Next for the ‘Sharing Economy’–A Discussion on Principles on Best Practices,” which will likely lay the groundwork for further efforts to undermine worker protections. Naturally, their model bills sponsored by the Education task force members directly intersect with the model bills put forth by the Labor task force as well.

In response to this 2015 event, ALEC bragged in their own website that, “With new policies ranging from reducing the income tax burden, to deregulating the ‘gig economy,’ to pension reform, good news in Arizona is plentiful.”

The National Network of Business and Industry Associations, calls itself “an innovative partnership that joins 25 organizations focused on better connecting learning and work.” Their goal is to develop tools that:

  • articulate the common employability skills required for workers across all career fields;
  • rethink how various professional organizations build credentials to help workers move easily between professions (think: Open Badges); and
  • increase the use of competency-based hiring practices across the entire economy (Pay for Success).

One can begin to see how easily CBE fits in with the BRT goal in their Common Employability Skills document where they write: “This model can take its place as the foundation for all industries to map skill requirements to credentials and to career paths.” They add that educational institutions will be EVALUATED based on their ability “to ensure students will in fact learn skills that employers value.”

So let’s summarize ….

In a gig economy, gone is the routine 9-5 work hours by which traditional salaries are determined. Instead gig jobs are paid by the completion of tasks regardless of the hours.

In a freelance world, where jobs are merely a series of gigs strung together, the new ESSA “pay for success” framework fits right in.

Pay for Success is a gig framework for education.

So when jobs are free lanced there is little opportunity for a unionized workforce and there are no benefits (thanks ALEC). There is no collective work space or shared workforce experience. Most work can be done independently, online, and from home. After 12 years of schooling under this framework the future workers of America will be primed to fall right into their pre-ordained place in the gig economy, where they will now feel right at home.

Just as “manufacturing companies and Silicon Valley have begun increasingly to rely on private contractors to hire temps and freelancers” (Hill, 2016)  so have public schools, with the advent of the new ESSA bill, increasingly use private contractors to provide public education (temps being TFA and freelancers represented by Pearson, K12 Inc and the like).

Gig proponents might call it “independent” labor which “frees” workers from the messy attachment to brick and mortar workplaces and money tied to work hours. It’s the mirror image of CBE proponents advocating for students to be “freed” of credit hours tied to hours spent in brick and mortar classrooms.

The gig advocates mantra of “We don’t have to hold on to the model of the 40-hour workweek for a corporate employer” eerily reflects the CBE reform mantra of “students should not have to hold on to credit hours for a traditional model of education.”

Just as CBE has become the bastion of cost-effectiveness in education for profits to CBE delivery systems in a world of austerity (neoliberal capitalism on steroids), so the gig economy streamlines the costs to corporations- who can now eliminate messy expenses like your 401k, health insurance, unemployment insurance.

This project-to-project freelance society (as opposed to long term consistent employment within one organization) will not trouble a student who has freelanced their way through school, from Open badge to Open badge, with no sense of collaborative or collective sensibilities in their learning experiences, or familiarity with relationships between time and place representative of stability or community. In this freelance society and freelance education system, people cobble together a string of independent “gigs” in which they work independently at their own pace. Gig workers are never really “on the clock” because they are never “really off the clock” either–just as CBE students are never focused on time in learning, but are focused on pushing through each module of the CBE framework in order to accumulate “credits” as quickly as possible.

Another way of conceiving of Pay for Success is the “Learning is Earning” framework, which outlines how CBE and the gig economy work together.

According to Pearson:

“A decade from now, when solo workers comprise the majority of the American workforce, I think it will be common for all of us to point to digital credentials and badges as a better way to talk about our own expertise and the know-how of others. Trusted digital credentials will strengthen the new economy by removing some of the high-frequency friction and inefficiencies of project work. Digital, verifiable credentials owned by each worker will ease employer uncertainty while forming project teams. And at the same time, badges will help each of us to identify relevant new work projects and navigate toward just-in-time (aka “gig”) learning opportunities.

Also read about LinkedIn, CBE and gig economics here.

Gig employers and CBE policy makers tout this  as “freedom”—freedom from stability and security, for sure.

Nunberg, in his NPR commentary suggests, “If “gig” suggests the independence you get when you’re not tied down to a steady lifetime job, then just think of the freedom we’ll all enjoy when the traditional job is consigned to the scrap heap of history, and the economy is just gigs all the way down.”  I fear that public education, no longer tied down to time or place, like stable jobs, will too be consigned to the scrap heap of history.

“Venture philanthropists have transformed the educational terrain, significantly tilting it in a neoliberal direction, often using their expressed desire to help hard-hit communities to support their interests in changing the face of public education” (Spence, 2016, p. 96).

There exist many powerful organizations and leaders who, while they claim to want education change, will avoid any effort which actually disrupts the existing power structure. No plea to legislation, petition, or review panels on testing or equity will do much of anything except expend another decade of energy while the push to privatize rolls forward. We do not have that kind of time. Decades of neoliberal polciies like ESEA since 1965 (NCLB, RtTT, now ESSA) pay lip service to change, equity and quality, while doing the precise opposite behind closed curtains and beyond the eye of public scrutiny. Legislation of ESSA is directly manipulated by corporate interests and it’s going to serve the free market ideology before it serves the common good.

My task here is not to claim to have created some new idea…but to draw together shared ideas of three brilliant radical authors (and a specific book from each). Together they create a triumvirate case for the necessity of systemic and wholesale collective ideological shifts in thinking and behavior in order to fight for ourselves, our schools and our planet.

Chris Hedges (2015): Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt

Naomi Klein (2015): This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate

Lester K. Spence (2016): Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics

I hope to distill their ideas in juxtaposition with one another, making a case for the necessity of their suggestions. You might read each of their books for yourself, but here I summarize key points, arguing that these three great authors are all saying similsr things though separate from one another, and that what they have to say warrants our attention.

What they (and I) argue for is a complete transformation of the existing system if we are to truly develop sustainable equitable and democratic public schools. They, like I, believe that anything short of that is merely rearranging the furniture on the Titanic. This is because we are up against something deeply insidious; global, systemic and nearly invisible in its reach and influence: a global neoliberal paradigm which pervades every institution, as well as our social behaviors and understanding of what is “ethical.” The mechanism of control for a neoliberal paradigm is centered on the control of ideas — making public education the Ground Zero of the neoliberal agenda.

What sets their solutions (to racism, capitalism and climate change) apart and what they share in common is that each has the notion that in order to have real sustainable alternatives, the existing systems of power cannot be negotiated with anymore; we must have an entire systemic/paradigmatic shift that is economic, political, cultural and social. Hedges reminds us that we “live in a system that is incapable of reforming itself” (p. 87).  We therefore must reject its continued legitimacy in favor of largescale seismic change.

Rather than continuing with strategies like “Tell you state representative you oppose XYZ” or, “Sign this petition to ask your state representative to do XYZ,” the ONLY thing we should be telling our state representative is to “GET THE F)$& OUT OF OUR WAY before we run them over” (merely as a common courtesy really) because THEIR days in power are numbered.

This is a people’s movement, not a “mother may I” movement.

There exist many powerful organizations and leaders who, while they claim to want education change, will avoid any effort which actually disrupts the existing power structure. No plea to legislation, petition, or review panels on testing or equity will do much of anything except expend another decade of energy while the push to privatize rolls forward. We do not have that kind of time. Decades of neoliberal policies  like ESEA since 1965 (NCLB, RtTT, now ESSA) pay lip service to change, equity and quality, while doing the precise opposite behind closed curtains and beyond the eye of public scrutiny. Legislation of ESSA is directly manipulated by corporate interests and it’s going to serve the free market ideology before it serves the common good.

Currently we rely on others with power and money to change things. We appeal to our legislators. We advocate for piecemeal adjustments to existing laws (ESSA) and tell ourselves compromise is necessary, that change is slow, and that we can’t expect too much. It’s time to discredit these power dynamics. We don’t have time to be polite. Let’s stop bringing a dust broom to do battle with zombies. The neoliberal paradigm influences not only how we do business but how we perceive ourselves and the world, and “replaces the democratic with the free-market, assuming that individuals making market-oriented rational decisions generates better decisions (and individuals) than individuals engaged in politics-voting, debating, protesting, collectively acting in the public” (Spence, 2016, p. 114).

Why do we pay credence to Relay Graduate School “trainers” who come into our schools and tell us how to teach? Why do we follow Pearson scripted lesson plans even when they suck? Why do we administer meaningless tests that bring children to tears? Somewhere along the lines we forgot about our OWN power. Reclaim it.

Klein says it best: “The process of taking on the corporate-state power nexus that underpins the extractive economy is leading a great many people to face up to the underlying democratic crisis that has allowed multinationals to be the authors of the laws under which they operate …. What is a democracy if it doesn’t encompass the capacity to decide, collectively, to protect something that no one can live without?” (p. 361). But how might we begin? With the help of these three radical notable scholars, I will attempt to outline a way out of our MC Escher-like dilemma.

Here are some “take aways” I found consistent across each book

Reject a Seat at the Table: Nothing renders a radical movement less radical than by giving it a seat at the table of existing power. It is clear to many of us that organizations (even who may support a radical grass-roots democratic ideal), find themselves subsumed by the system of powerful elite and therefore are often at best rendered toothless. Hedges referring to environmental issues says “The Big Green environmental groups that worked within the legal parameters were largely ineffectual and often complicit in the destruction of ecosystems they claimed to protect.” Klein states this same thing. This is true of educational systems as well. Whether we are referring to the NEA or the NAACP, power can be attractive and can be a seductive way to silence real dissent when a seat at the table is promised.  Hedges, citing Camus, writes, “every revolutionary (who achieves power) ends up becoming either an oppressor or a heretic” (p. 93).

As with environmental policy, education laws such as ESSA, “are not designed to protect (students). The laws are designed to, at best, regulate (educations) continued exploitation” (Klein) at the hands of the edu-tech and data mining industries. The national leadership of large education institutions, like the Big Greens have, “entered partnerships with fossil fuel companies (never mind The Nature Conservancy, with its’ own Texas oil and gas operation” and this eerily reflects AFT and NEA partnerships with efforts funded by Eli Broad and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations (or Weingarten’s buddy buddy relationship with Hillary Clinton). National union leadership (like the Big Greens) can bought off and influenced by large donations to look and sound as if they are doing something to help address the problems but in fact do very little to disrupt the power structure driving those very problems.

Connect the Dots: IT’S ALL CONNECTED: The corporate interests that are driving privatization and global control of health services, access to food and water, and management of other public institutions (i.e. prisons) are the SAME corporations, using the same playbook, to dismantle public education.  And this issue is GLOBAL.  The existing structure is, as Klein illustrates (p. 48), hierarchical (top down) whether by government or by corporations (since the latter owns the former), and highly “individualistic” (think, CBE as the new model for individualized learning at one’s own pace and interests, aka computer-based learning).  The same ideological interests in big coal and oil support the ALEC agenda to eliminate public education. Think-tanks and corporate sponsored researchers work diligently to influence public education policy with questionable data.

Labor rights and ecological issues are deeply tied with education issues. We need to reach beyond our silos and work together across issues. Also realize that WE are connected to each other.  Many of us might still enjoy good quality public schools. But we should care nonetheless. Klein sites Thomas Paine who wrote, “It is the good fortune of many to live distant from the scene of sorrow.” We must start caring about Others because the pillaging usually reserved only for the marginalized and poor (closing schools in NOLA for example) is coming home to roost in increasingly privileged communities and schools. This affects ALL of us.

Make strategic distinctions: The difference between the neoliberal “progressives” and the radical left is not in identifying the concerns (hunger, poverty, opportunity, equity)….one of the hallmarks of neoliberalism is how it hijacked the narrative about concern for humanity. So we cannot fight neoliberalism on that front. Socially leaning corporations can easily state that they “are fighting the causes of hunger” or “seeking solutions to create a more just peaceful and verdant world” (to quote an ad from NPR).

Where the radical can distinguish itself from neoliberal progressive rhetoric is in identifying the causes and solutions to these concerns. We need to publicly highlight these arenas as well to generate public awareness. Whenever we say “We are for equity” or “we are for ending poverty” the neoliberal philanthropic billionaires can simply point out “We are too! And we have the money to make it happen.” Our strategy must focus on PROCESS of change (who are the decisions makers) and what will change look like once it’s happened? Neoliberal efforts force all thinking and behavior in public institutions towards market ideals.

A radical people’s movement dismantles market values in public spaces in favor of humanistic and shared values rather than competitive human capital. Such change (unlike that framed by neoliberal philanthropists) rests on an idea of public good or public space as “the idea that there is a community interest that benefits all of its individual members and with ‘the commons’ or the idea that shared community resources which cannot and should not be hoarded or made private” (Spence, p. 7).

 Change the language: Try using the word “neoliberalism” in line at the grocery store and see how far that gets you. Even medical professionals try to use non-medical terms like Lou Gehrig’s Disease instead of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis when speaking to non-medical people. So can we call neoliberalism something else? The influence of Occupy was effective in coining the term “the 99%” or “the 1%”. Most people now understand what is meant by those terms. The effects of neoliberalism are certainly real enough. People feel it every day. They see it. But we need a way to articulate it so as to develop an education/awareness framework that people can grab on to. Even “privatizers” is too erudite. But if we refer to the neoliberal agenda as “corporate greed” or how reform puts CEO interests before those of children or communities…those are ideas most people can wrap their heads around.

One of the most powerful tools of the neoliberal arsenal is their ability to hijack language. For example, a favorite term du jour is personalized learning which in reality is little more than a strategy of maximizing Human Capital.  Spence illustrates, “These neoliberal ideas radically change what it means to be human, as the perfect human being now becomes an entrepreneur of his own capital, responsible for his personal development. These ideas also radically change what it means to be free-freedom is redefined as the ability to participate in the market unfettered” (p. 113). Wolin (2008) echoes this statement saying:

“The achievement represents the removal of the barriers that make Superpower’s empire possible: the conquest of space and the compression of time …the tyranny of efficiency and the subversion of democracy’s requirement that time be defined by the requirements for deliberation, discussion, reconciliation of opposing viewpoints, all of which suddenly seen ‘time consuming’” (p. 233).

Personalized learning is sold on the idea that siting is a room learning with others in a waste of time and a waste of money. Personalized learning pits learner against learner, seeing who can garner greater personal human capital through badges or certificate earned in the quickest amount of time. If we though grades and test scores were malignant motives which turned children into little more than letters or numbers, wait until they are earning badges.

Neoliberalism hinges on a distorted narrative of “personal freedom” really embodied by little more than consumer choice. Hedges points out that “the vast distance between perceived reality and the official version of reality is characteristic of totalitarian systems” (p. 55). Gone is a narrative (and reality) of shared public responsibility or freedom of thought or behavior outside the bounds of what can quantified as a form of capital gain or loss. Technology is spun as a necessary fundamental component of 21st century learning despite the lack of ANY evidence to suggest it actually promotes greater or richer or deeper learning for children. The push for technology to wholly replace public schools as we know them exemplifies the power of global corporations (free market on steroids) to “continuously innovate and expand” (Wolin, p. 138) [1].

In contrast to this, Hedges suggests that resistance “is first about learning to speak differently and abandoning the vocabulary of the ‘rational’ technocrats who rule” (p. 70).

Short and Long range: How do you get people to operate against their own short-term interests in favor of their long-term interests? This is a struggle against human nature. We struggle with the idea of pain now for benefit later (which we may never see) such as saving money for retirement or eating for long-range health benefits (instead of that plate of fries). But this was what Montgomery bus boycotters did in the 1960’s. The majority of boycotters were those most affected by the boycott—those who relied on the buses to get to work and thus were risking loss of employment (more so than those boycotters who owned cars or had alternatives). Similarly, in the testing refusal movement, students of color in lower-income urban communities may face greater consequences from refusing the tests than do their white suburban peers, but it is equally true that they suffer more greatly at the hands of reform if and when they DON’T refuse.  We must frame what we do as civil disobedience and nothing less. We must examine long-range change versus short-range consequences.

Focus on the Local Common Spaces: We need to move forward “bird by bird” as Anne Lamott [2] would say. Change must be local if it is meet the criteria of the other items listed above in any genuine or viable sense. “Sustainable organizing is more likely to occur in response to a local issue” (Spence, p. 143); one that affects people directly. When we talk about making long-range goals, the next question should be: who is defining those goals?  Spence also writes that, “It requires a politics attuned to the type of long-term institution building that builds the capacity of individuals to govern and devise alternatives themselves.” (p. 146). This speaks back to the idea of long-range versus short-range visions. If our efforts are dedicated to communities, then action and solutions must be generated on a local level as well. What is needed in Baltimore will not be the same as what is needed in Detroit when it comes down to specific action plans.

Corporate and state ownership have ceased to be viable options that benefit the average human being (the 99%). We must re imagine ways to provide public services as a common good. As Klein says, “All of this is why any attempt to rise to the climate challenge (I add, education challenge) will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of world views, a process of rebuilding and reinventing the very idea of the collective, the communal, the commons, the civil, and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect” (p. 460).

Hope is Possible. Are we Ready for It?

“The only route left to us, as Artistotle knew, is either submission or revolt” (Hedges, p. 66).

We cannot rely on the powers, institutions, and organizations that brought us this neoliberal jumping off point to pull us back from the cliff of extinction. We must look toward more radical notions of local, collective and rhizomatic democratic practices that allow us to look toward each other, rather than at power brokers, for solutions that serve us. We must create new alternative systems of economic and social justice that move beyond the reach of the existing system. We must think subversive and radically about how to protect education as a public good that provides for the needs of all our children. Don’t think for one minute that legislative or institutional adjustments within the existing framework will do this. Think of how “less testing” in ESSA was a Trojan Horse for Competency Based Education.

How do you know if an education reformer is lying? His or her lips are moving.

I’ll conclude with the authors own conclusions to their books (with my own insertions in italics):

Klein: Because these moments… (of crisis which create opportunities to seize change)… when the impossible seems suddenly possible are excruciatingly rare and precious. This means we must make more of them. The next time one arises, it must be harnessed not only to denounce the world as it is, and build fleeting pockets of liberated space. It must be the catalyst to actually build the world (…and public education) that will keep us all safe. The stakes are simply too high, and the time too short (…and our children and democracy matter too much), to settle for anything less.

Spence: “We already have the seeds for a new institutional framework that re-roots the economy in politics and in the public interest. To show that we are not alone, and that a number of people recognize another way of life is possible. There aren’t as many of us as we’d like, but there are far more of us than we think” (p. 147).

Hedges: “The fight for life goes somewhere—the Buddhists call it karma—and in these acts we make possible a better world, even if we cannot see one emerging around us” (p. 226).

[1] Wolin, S. (2008). Democracy Inc: Managed democracy and the spectre of inverted totalitarianism. Princeton, NJ; Princeton Press.
[2]  “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my  brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.'”  (Lamott, A. [1995] Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life)



Social impact bond projects are very definitely privatisation. PFI/PPP projects have effectively privatised the design, finance, construction and maintenance of much public infrastructure. Now social impact bond projects potentially privatise the design, finance, service delivery, management, monitoring and evaluation of early intervention and prevention policies.”

Step One- Curriculum: Common Core standards created one set of standards (modules) (originating from a global agenda circa 1985) For a full history of support for this outline click the link.

According to a promotional flyer created by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:

“Education leaders have long talked about setting rigorous standards and allowing students more or less time as needed to demonstrate mastery of subjects and skills. This has been more a promise than a reality, but we believe it’s possible with the convergence of the Common Core State Standards, the work on new standards-based assessments, the development of new data systems, and the rapid growth of technology-enabled learning experiences.” 

So that…

Step Two-Testing: There can be one consistent numerical metric by which to measure student outcomes (PARCC)

So that…

Step Three- We can have modularized Competency Based Assessment: Instruction and ongoing testing can be delivered via technology ….

Competency-based education has been part of Achieve’s strategic plan for a few years, … states and national organizations that have made this topic a priority: Nellie Mae Education Foundation, iNACOL, Digital Learning Now, CCSSO and NGA.”

Pearson. “With competency-based education, institutions can help students complete credentials in less time, at lower cost.”

So that…

Step Four– We can have Pay for Success (or) Social Impact Bonds (evaluated for their “success” via the competency/outcomes based model) replace the funding infrastructure of public schools….

CTAC, the Boston-based Institute for Compensation Reform and Student Learning at the Community Training and Assistance Center partners with departments of education to develop and promote student learning outcomes (SLO’s). William Slotnik is executive director of CTAC. He advocates for VAM and merit pay schemes. “William Slotnik,… has argued that performance-based compensation tied directly to the educational mission of a school district can be a lever to transform schools.”

According the National Governors Association (NGA): “CBE can be a way for states to pay for the outcomes they want if supported by a funding formula that allocates dollars based on student learning, not simply time spent in a classroom or full-time equivalency”

ESSA was designed to open the flood gates for neoliberal profiteers to not only profit from public educations services (I,e. tests or curriculum) but to completely own it. See Fred Klonsky who concurs with Mercedes Schneider that “these bonds are an open door for the exploitation of children who do not score well on tests.” Social Impact Bonds have been criticized as a central piece of ESSA as noted by BATS: “‘Pay for Success’ from Every Student Succeeds Act  as it is located in Title 1, Part D, Section 4108, page 485. Social Impact Bonds favor financial investors and NOT KIDS! In Title IV, A in the section titled Safety and Healthy Students, page 797, Social Impact Bonds are defined as ‘Pay for Success.’ Investors are paid off when a student IS NOT referred to special education. ”

The entire system of reforms over the last three decades have been a step by step sequence of actions designed to privatize public education as a for- profit enterprise of Wall Street investments.

Social impact bonds are a development in the mutation of privatization … The new emphasis on financialising and personalising services to create new pathways for the mutation of privatisation recognised that health, education and social services could not be sold off in the same way as state owned corporations. It ensured marketisation and privatisation were permanent and not dependent on outsourcing, which could be reversed by terminating or not renewing contracts (Whitfield, 2012a and 2012b).”

Again, the NGA: “In addition, leadership, promotion, and pay structures might look different in a CBE system that asks educators to take on new, specialized roles. Underpinning many current policies are labor contracts, which specify the educator’s role based on specified amounts of class time. Such policies would not only be unnecessary in a CBE system but would significantly impede the adoption of such a system.”

You dismantle labor unions on a global scale, which was, the goal of ALEC and the World Bank back when they began devising these policies. The following is an outline from the World Bank link on Global Education Reform,  summarizing what they think are key issues:

      • Decentralization & School-Based Management Resource Kit
        Directions in Development: Decentralization Series
    • Financing Reform
      • Vouchers
      • Contracting
      • Private Sector
      • Charter Schools
      • Privatization
      • Private Delivery of Services
    • Teacher Reform
      • On-line resources related to teacher career development
      • Teacher Evaluation as part of Quality Assurance
    • Curriculum Reform
      • Country Examples of Curriculum Reforms
      • Accountability in Education
      • Standard in Education

Does any of this sound familiar to you?

One report I found by Pauline Lipman (2012)  summarizes all of this quite nicely:

 “Under the Global Agreement on Trade in Services, all aspects of education and education services are subject to global trade. The result is the global marketing of schooling from primary school through higher education. Schools, education management organizations, tutoring services, teacher training, tests, curricula online classes, and franchises of branded universities are now part of a global education market. Education markets are one facet of the neoliberal strategy to manage the structural crisis of capitalism by opening the public sector to capital accumulation. The roughly $2.5 trillion global market in education is a rich new arena for capital investment …and testing is a prominent mechanism to steer curriculum and instruction to meet these goals efficiently and effectively.”

The 2011 ALEC Annual Conference Substantive Agenda on Education shows their current interests:

“…the Task Force voted on several proposed bills and resolutions, with topics including: digital learning, the Common Core State Standards, charter schools, curriculum on free enterprise, taxpayers’ savings grants, amendments to the existing model legislation on higher education accountability, and a comprehensive bill that incorporates many components of the landmark school reforms Indiana passed this legislative session. Attendees will hear a presentation on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ initiative to grow great schools, as well as one on innovations in higher education.”

According to one European white paper: “Philanthrocapitalism is the embedding of neoliberalism into the activities of foundations and trusts. It is a means of marketising and privatising social development aid in the global south. It has also been described as Philanthropic Colonialism … It’s what I would call ‘conscience laundering’ — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity. But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The replacement of public finance and grants from public/foundations/trusts to community organisations, voluntary organisations and social enterprises with ‘social investment’, requiring a return on investment, means that all activities must be profitable. This will have a profound impact on the ability to regenerate to meet social and community needs. The merging of PPPs, impacting investing and philanthrocapitalism would be complete!”


The proponents of 21st Century Learning (aka digital learning, aka competency-based education, aka personalized learning) claim that those of us who stand up for public education are little more than fossils clinging to the status quo. Further, through slick bait-and-switch advertising techniques the proponents of “innovation” disguise the facts that they are profiteering and privatizing education; using clever language to cast anyone NOT on board with their agenda, as being stuck in the past. Worse yet, we (anyone opposed to their 21st C framework) apparently want to trap kids in existing “divides” of race, culture, economics and geography, divides which they, the benevolent technologies of 21st century policy makers, will remediate.

Yeah. Sure.

So here’s something to consider. 21st century reformers are NOT new. They are NOT cutting-edge. They are nothing they propose to be. In a world dominated by digital services and programs, and in a time in which Silicon Valley is home to the new robber barons, how can selling our education system out to their corporate interests really be “cutting edge”? It’s what we have always done.

Let me explain:

Public schools (since their inception in the United States) have been a mirror reflection of the historical moment in which they are created. Really, we could argue this has ALWAYS been true of education going back to the Greeks and Plato, and the Monastic influences of literacy during the control of Europe by the Pope.

But let’s fast-forward a little bit. During the 1800’s when the United States was still largely made of agrarian communities, our schools reflected the agrarian lifestyle (think Little House on the Prairie). This is why we created summers off; so that (“back in the day”) children could work the family farms during the months when crops were ready to be harvested.

Then, during the early 1900’s we evolved from an agrarian society to an industrial society. The industrial paradigm pervaded not only the modes of economic production but also reflected the manner in which we developed social systems including hospitals, prisons and yes…schools. It was the era of mass production and institutionalization. The effects of the industrial model of schooling are still felt today (ringing bells, lining kids up, standardized testing).

And now, the 21st Century reformers want to claim that THEY are the solution to our industrialized woes.  I am sure that the proponents of factory model school had as much to say to the agrarian model as well.

So really there’s nothing new to see here, folks, move along.

It’s merely one era mimicking the behavior of the one that preceded it. And the one before that. What’s new? Nothing. It’s a scientific and economic framework for a “new” world imprinting itself upon the existing social systems, most notably of course: education. Digital shopping, digital economy, digital….everything, is merely a new version of industrial-everything. So naturally the digital paradigm imprints itself upon the models of schooling which claim this time to REALLY will be solution to all our world’s problems. Except that…it won’t.

Why? Because this process is merely Groundhog Day. The same narrative. The same arguments. The same patterns. The same methods of using schools to merely REFLECT societal shifts…not to CHANGE them. Oh sure, they claim to be change agents: through disruptive innovation. But it’s not innovative or disruptive to merely usher in digital learning in a digital age any more than it was “radical” to usher in factory models of schools in an age of factories. Such models of schooling (all that have preceded us and including the current paradigm) are framed NOT to serve the children but the rulers of the economic empire of their times. This time around its 1) global 2) private (free market), 3) corporate 4) CEO’s.

What WOULD be disruptive?

Disentangling schools and education from profiteering. That would certainly disrupt the cash flow to corporate interests.

What would be radical?

Putting CHILDREN’S needs first. Why? Because that is not something we have ever tried in this country, on a large scale and in earnest. Sure we’ve been doing it for centuries for the children of the elite. But children in public schools have always been fodder for larger social and economic designs crafted by others for others. Despite the promises made by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s and Brown v Board, we have never truly provided equitable funding to all children and desegregated schools.

Let’s try designing schools to benefit the developmental and social and emotional needs of the children they serve. This would mean using real research that shows what works for children: culturally relevant curriculum, small class size, positive relationships WITH TEACHERS (not computers), wrap around services, ameliorating the effects of poverty, and arts/music/library (as a few examples). Now THAT would be something NEW we have never tried.

Dismantling public schools and eliminating teachers in favor of “digital services” is merely exemplifying what some of us call the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Given who is crafting our current education policies one can only conclude that that is precisely what they want: the same old, same old. The rich get richer, the poor stay poor, de facto segregation carries on its legacy…and the corporations laugh all the way to the bank.

Let’s break the cycle: WE DEMAND MORE FOR OUR COMMUNITIES AND CHILDREN THAN THIS. Let’s be more than consumers of someone else’s narrative of school reform and become creators of our own images of the real changes we believe can be possible.
also read “Changing the Status of the Status”


The PARCC Test: Exposed

Posted: May 14, 2016 in Uncategorized

The PARCC Test: Exposed

the corporatizing of public education?

Original blog post can be found here.

The author of this blog posting is a public school teacher who will remain anonymous.

I will not reveal my district or my role due to the intense legal ramifications for exercising my Constitutional First Amendment rights in a public forum. I was compelled to sign a security form that stated I would not be “Revealing or discussing passages or test items with anyone, including students and school staff, through verbal exchange, email, social media, or any other form of communication” as this would be considered a “Security Breach.” In response to this demand, I can only ask—whom are we protecting?

There are layers of not-so-subtle issues that need to be aired as a result of national and state testing policies that are dominating children’s lives in America. As any well prepared educator knows, curriculum planning and teaching requires knowing how you will assess your students and planning backwards from that knowledge. If teachers are unable to examine and discuss the summative assessment for their students, how can they plan their instruction? Yet, that very question assumes that this test is something worth planning for. The fact is that schools that try to plan their curriculum exclusively to prepare students for this test are ignoring the body of educational research that tells us how children learn, and how to create developmentally appropriate activities to engage students in the act of learning. This article will attempt to provide evidence for these claims as a snapshot of what is happening as a result of current policies.

The PARCC test is developmentally inappropriate

In order to discuss the claim that the PARCC test is “developmentally inappropriate,” examine three of the most recent PARCC 4th grade items.

A book leveling system, designed by Fountas and Pinnell, was made “more rigorous” in order to match the Common Core State Standards. These newly updated benchmarks state that 4th Graders should be reading at a Level S by the end of the year in order to be considered reading “on grade level.” [Celia’s note: I do not endorse leveling books or readers, nor do I think it appropriate that all 9 year olds should be reading a Level S book to be thought of as making good progress.]

The PARCC, which is supposedly a test of the Common Core State Standards, appears to have taken liberties with regard to grade level texts. For example, on the Spring 2016 PARCC for 4th Graders, students were expected to read an excerpt from Shark Life: True Stories about Sharks and the Sea by Peter Benchley and Karen Wojtyla. According to Scholastic, this text is at an interest level for Grades 9-12, and at a 7th Grade reading level. The Lexile measure is 1020L, which is most often found in texts that are written for middle school, and according to Scholastic’s own conversion chart would be equivalent to a 6th grade benchmark around W, X, or Y (using the same Fountas and Pinnell scale).

Even by the reform movement’s own standards, according to MetaMetrics’ reference material on Text Complexity Grade Bands and Lexile Bands, the newly CCSS aligned “Stretch” lexile level of 1020 falls in the 6-8 grade range. This begs the question, what is the purpose of standardizing text complexity bands if testing companies do not have to adhere to them? Also, what is the purpose of a standardized test that surpasses agreed-upon lexile levels?

So, right out of the gate, 4th graders are being asked to read and respond to texts that are two grade levels above the recommended benchmark. After they struggle through difficult texts with advanced vocabulary and nuanced sentence structures, they then have to answer multiple choice questions that are, by design, intended to distract students with answers that appear to be correct except for some technicality.

Finally, students must synthesize two or three of these advanced texts and compose an original essay. The ELA portion of the PARCC takes three days, and each day includes a new essay prompt based on multiple texts. These are the prompts from the 2016 Spring PARCC exam for 4th Graders along with my analysis of why these prompts do not reflect the true intention of the Common Core State Standards.

ELA 4th Grade Prompt #1

Refer to the passage from “Emergency on the Mountain” and the poem “Mountains.” Then answer question 7.

  1. Think about how the structural elements in the passage from “Emergency on the Mountain” differ from the structural elements in the poem “Mountains.”

Write an essay that explains the differences in the structural elements between the passage and the poem. Be sure to include specific examples from both texts to support your response.

The above prompt probably attempts to assess the Common Core standard RL.4.5: “Explain major differences between poems, drama, and prose, and refer to the structural elements of poems (e.g., verse, rhythm, meter) and drama (e.g., casts of characters, settings, descriptions, dialogue, stage directions) when writing or speaking about a text.”

However, the Common Core State Standards for writing do not require students to write essays comparing the text structures of different genres. The Grade 4 CCSS for writing about reading demand that students write about characters, settings, and events in literature, or that they write about how authors support their points in informational texts. Nowhere in the standards are students asked to write comparative essays on the structures of writing. The reading standards ask students to “explain” structural elements, but not in writing. There is a huge developmental leap between explaining something and writing an analytical essay about it. [Celia’s note: The entire enterprise of analyzing text structures in elementary school – a 1940’s and 50’s college English approach called “New Criticism” — is ridiculous for 9 year olds anyway.]

The PARCC does not assess what it attempts to assess

ELA 4th Grade Prompt #2

Refer to the passages from “Great White Shark” and Face the Sharks. Then answer question 20.

 Using details and images in the passages from “Great White Sharks” and Face to Face with Sharks, write an essay that describes the characteristics of white sharks.

It would be a stretch to say that this question assesses CCSS W.4.9.B: “Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text.”

In fact, this prompt assesses a student’s ability to research a topic across sources and write a research-based essay that synthesizes facts from both articles. Even CCSS W.4.7, “Conduct research projects that build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic,” does not demand that students compile information from different sources to create an essay. The closest the standards come to demanding this sort of work is in the reading standards; CCSS RI.4.9 says: “Integrate information from two texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.” Fine. One could argue that this PARCC prompt assesses CCSS RI.4.9.

However, the fact that the texts presented for students to “use” for the essay are at a middle school reading level automatically disqualifies this essay prompt from being able to assess what it attempts to assess. (It is like trying to assess children’s math computational skills by embedding them in a word problem with words that the child cannot read.)

ELA 4th Grade Prompt #3

  1. In “Sadako’s Secret,” the narrator reveals Sadako’s thoughts and feelings while telling the story. The narrator also includes dialogue and actions between Sadako and her family. Using these details, write a story about what happens next year when Sadako tries out for the junior high track team. Include not only Sadako’s actions and feelings but also her family’s reaction and feelings in your story.

Nowhere, and I mean nowhere in the Common Core State Standards is there a demand for students to read a narrative and then use the details from that text to write a new story based on a prompt. That is a new pseudo-genre called “Prose Constructed Response” by the PARCC creators, and it is 100% not aligned to the CCSS. Not to mention, why are 4th Graders being asked to write about trying out for the junior high track team? This demand defies their experiences and asks them to imagine a scenario that is well beyond their scope.

Clearly, these questions are poorly designed assessments of 4th graders CCSS learning. (We are setting aside the disagreements we have with those standards in the first place, and simply assessing the PARCC on its utility for measuring what it was intended to measure.)

Rather than debate the CCSS we instead want to expose the tragic reality of the countless public schools organizing their entire instruction around trying to raise students’ PARCC scores.

Without naming any names, I can tell you that schools are disregarding research-proven methods of literacy learning. The “wisdom” coming “down the pipeline” is that children need to be exposed to more complex texts because that is what PARCC demands of them. So children are being denied independent and guided reading time with texts of high interest and potential access and instead are handed texts that are much too hard (frustration level) all year long without ever being given the chance to grow as readers in their Zone of Proximal Development (pardon my reference to those pesky educational researchers like Vygotsky.)

So not only are students who are reading “on grade level” going to be frustrated by these so-called “complex texts,” but newcomers to the U.S. and English Language Learners and any student reading below the proficiency line will never learn the foundational skills they need, will never know the enjoyment of reading and writing from intrinsic motivation, and will, sadly, be denied the opportunity to become a critical reader and writer of media. Critical literacies are foundational for active participation in a democracy.

We can look carefully at one sample to examine the health of the entire system– such as testing a drop of water to assess the ocean. So too, we can use these three PARCC prompts to glimpse how the high stakes accountability system has deformed teaching and warped learning in many public schools across the United States.

In this sample, the system is pathetically failing a generation of children who deserve better, and when they are adults, they may not have the skills needed to engage as citizens and problem-solvers. So it is up to us, those of us who remember a better way and can imagine a way out, to make the case for stopping standardized tests like PARCC from corrupting the educational opportunities of so many of our children.