Editing & Revising with Peers

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IMG_0200As a writer and, as a teacher, I value collaboration with peers. I know that my writing is made more clear, more interesting, and more precise when I rely on a trusted “critical friend” to offer constructive feedback. And so, when the Commonwealth’s writing standards included peer revising as well as adult conferring, the inclusion of critical friends in the Writing Process made sense. Beginning in Grade 2, Writing Standard 5 includes this important progression of peer revision and peer editing. [Refer to the Writing Standards (“Code W”) by grade level beginning on page 26 of the 2011 Frameworks.]

From my experience, elementary students must be taught explicitly how to do this. They need good models of what peer conferring looks like. As a proponent of the Daily Five, I found the 10 Steps to Independence model to be an ideal teaching method for introducing peer editing and revising to my students.

Students at the elementary level need some structure for learning how to be a helpful peer editor or revisor; and to this end, I was fortunate to get an offer for some coaching from our former Literacy Coach, Patricia Sweeney.  Pat provided a structure for the students: 2 compliments and a suggestion. Here were the guidelines:

  • The author reads the piece from beginning to end without interruption
  • The revisor/editor offers 2 compliments. Personal references (“I like...”) were excluded; more constructive/objective language included (“When you wrote…, your writing was… (very clear, powerful, descriptive, etc.”).
  • No “buts” – one of my 3rd and 4th graders favorites, because what 9-year old can resist telling another to get their “but” out of writing. (When you wrote …., your description was very clear, BUT…)
  • The revisor/editor can offer 1 suggestion (so not to overwhelm the author all at once), jotting on a stick-on note. (You might want to …. or Your writing might be more powerful if …). The author can agree or disagree with the suggestion, but listens and takes it “under advisement”.

This structure provided the students with two things: a language framework for offering constructive feedback and an opportunity to apply grade-level writing skills as the “student” become the “teacher”.

These peer-led conferences always took place prior to conferring with an adult and prior to producing a final version of the writing.  Peers did not assess another student’s writing, but offered constructive criticism for the purpose of helping the author improve upon the writing.

Exactly what my adult peer editor and revisor does for me.

 

 

School Committee Meeting, 03 February 2016

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School Committee Meeting: Wednesday, February 3, 2016

All members present.

Subcommittees

2013fieldday3legsThe Subcommittee on Policy, chaired by Mr. Hoey, met on January 27th. The report from the meeting suggested a change to the LPSD school purchasing policy so that LPSD purchasing aligns with the City of Lowell purchasing policy.  Much discussion about the threshold of a requests (currently $5,000; proposed $35,000) that would trigger a Permission to Enter.  While the full committee supports the editorial changes (see meeting packet), there is a larger discussion about retaining the $5,000 threshold for a variety of reasons, number one being to keep a handle on how the school budget is being spent. This discussion will continue at the next school committee meeting.

Reports of the Superintendent

Three agenda items (2016/43, 2016/50 and 2016/44) addressed school year and School Committee calendars.  The Calendar for the upcoming school year was approved after Ms. Martin received clarification that the Massachusetts State Primary date was indeed a Thursday (9/8) and not a Tuesday (9/6).  The reason for the move to a Thursday election day is explained here, but in simple terms, the change is necessary to comply with Federal regulations for the distribution of absentee ballots to overseas voters.

The new calendar is posted here.

As several Lowell schools are used as polling sites, the reality of post-Newtown building safety is that schools are closed for students during election days. This policy also necessitated a revision to the 2015-2016 calendar to accommodate the Primary Election on Tuesday, March 1, 2016. The revision means that the end of school dates on the posted calendar need to be revised to comply with the mandated 180-day school year for students.  The new end dates (pending any snow days) are: June 16 (180th day with no snow days) or June 23 (185 days with 5-day snow allowance). And of course if there are more than 5 snow days between now and June 23, the school year extends further. [Revision 05 February 2016: New last date is June 17 due to snow cancellation today.]

Agenda Item 2016/44, a request to reschedule February and April School Committee dates so that meetings are not taking place during school vacation weeks when interested parents or community members may wish to take part was amended. The meetings are now cancelled with the possibility of a Special Meeting of the School Committee scheduled if the need for such a meeting arises.

Agenda Item 2016/58 addressed the need to hire an additional teacher and paraprofessional at the Bartlett School for students enrolled in a Life Skills program. The requested funding was $64,789. Currently, the number of students enrolled in the program exceeds the compliance number by 3 students.  After some discussion about funding (Ms. Martin points out this is the second meeting in a row that a request for a position was made) and what compliance for the program is, the item is approved.

While on the surface, three students does not seem like it would be a significant number of children to accommodate, the Special Education Department must ensure compliance with regulations in order to adhere to state and federal laws. All students need to have access to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment (LRE). If you are unfamiliar with what LRE means, this link provides good summary information.

In order to be compliant with special education regulations, the ratio of students to teacher & paraprofessional in the Life Skills program should be no more than 12:1 (note that preschool ratios are 9:1).  As Ms. McCrystal (Special Education Director) explained, to achieve the compliant ratio, three students would need to be sent to an outside-of-district placement for their education, a decision that would not be necessitated by need but by number.  Cost estimates for placing for one student out-of-district would be about $50,000 not including transportation. 

Three additional agenda Items address:

  • athletic participation at Lowell High,
  • an update on engaging the legislative delegation and Lowell’s concerns regarding Newcomer programs (and the difference between reimbursement and program costs which are significant), and
  • an update for Community Service Day in the Lowell Schools.

The biggest discussion of the meeting was in response to the LHS Investigation Report (Agenda Item 2016/65).  The report has been made public and can be found here.

Among the many suggestions and discussions regarding information and suggestions in the report is one complicated question: Do Lowell School staff members – in all schools, not just the high school – mirror the diversity in the schools? And if not, how can the schools achieve greater diversity among staff?

The redacted report has been the subject of much discussion throughout the community; there are of course, privacy and personnel matters that impact the release of the redacted information. The Superintendent appears to be following the advice of counsel, and I would like to allow him the opportunity to follow-through. The suggestions that were made public seem minimal and should be acted on immediately. When an event this important happens to make our students and families feel unsafe, looking back at what happened and where breaks in protocol occurred are important. Ensuring that staff at all levels understand and comply with procedures no matter who is involved and increasing sensitivity and awareness to cultural differences and issues of race are imperative to school culture and the safety of all families and students.

One important suggestion in the report is to engage in more diverse hiring practices. Changing to a more culturally and ethnically inclusive faculty and staff is not necessarily something that happens overnight. Engaging in more inclusive recruiting and hiring from a more diverse field of candidates is just the first step, in my opinion. 

A more complex question might be how to encourage potential education majors from a wider cultural and ethnically diverse population. Do all students see a college education and a career in education as something within reach, something attainable? Or has the high cost of higher education coupled with the toxic public education environment turned potential educators away to other careers or fields of study? 

Last night, one of the comments was that diveristy in hiring is not simple; the corporate world is grappling with this issue as well. However, this does not mean we do nothing. I would agree with that. 

The incident at Lowell High has brought an ugly undercurrent to light. Looking at what has occurred in the past is a necessity, but the actionable items should not stop there. Looking at school department policies, sensitivity toward an incredibly diverse family population, and diversifying the school staff from top to bottom are all part of this larger conversation and effort.

The meeting packet can be found here.

PARCC Week Day 4: Time Matters

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IMG_0021If you haven’t yet looked at the PARCC sample tests available, you should (link here). It doesn’t matter what your connection might be to education – parent, teacher, child – take a look. The practice tests are available in both paper-pencil and computer form, but if you can, try out the computer based test (CBT) because that is the direction that high-stakes tests are headed by 2019. And as you work through the practice test, imagine yourself as a student taking these assessments.

The test administrator’s manuals gives some insight into how our students will experience paper-and-pencil version of PARCC this spring.  First of all, the tests which are now called units have time limits. This is a big deal and here’s why.

Prior testing using the MCAS assessment was untimed, meaning that a student could work for as long as needed to complete the exam as long as school was in session. The only limit to testing time was that the test had to be turned in at the end of the school day. I was a test administrator for MCAS for the 9 years I taught Grades 3 and 4. My students always needed additional time over the suggestions from MCAS to complete each test. Each year, the students used the time to work carefully.

Students who are designated as English Language Learners and/or have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or 504 Plan may have additional time to work on tests, just as allowed on the MCAS test. This is clearly outlined in PARCC’s Accommodations Manuals (see Appendix E here). That is good news for those students; however, there are many students without such plans for whom a timed test will not be beneficial.

The majority of my fourth grade students needed 3 1/2 or more hours as they carefully read, reread/reworked passages and problems, checked and transferred answers diligently to bubble (answer) sheets. They worked carefully and diligently to check and re-check questions and answers, going back into texts often to make sure they had made their best answer choice based on evidence from texts or had calculated a mathematical problem correctly. We ask our students to slow down, understand the task, and take apart the text or problem carefully to arrive at an answer. Now they need to hurry up.

Using information posted on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) website, click the following link to see the number of “units” and test times for Grades 3 through 8 this year. PARCC Times

This schedule will be challenging for many. The PARCC administration “window” (time schools may schedule the tests) is April 25 – May 27.  April 25 is the first Monday after returning from school vacation and unlikely to be a test date. If the scheduled Early Release on May 4 remains, that would probably not be a test date either since the students needing additional time would have their available test time cut short. For this same reason, schools correctly will hesitate to schedule more than one “unit” in a school day. For a classroom teacher, moving ahead with new topics of instruction when ELLs or students on IEPs are still testing and out of the room makes the balance of a test day difficult to plan for.  Here’s hoping that temperatures during the four weeks of the test window are not extremely hot.

Even without a move to computer based testing this year, new test times will most likely make an impact on our students. Will students react to this more compact test window or new time limits during standardized testing?

PARCC Week, Day 3: Dangerous Liaisons

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Who is this Mitchell Chester and why is he so invested in PARCC testing?

IMG_0021Mitchell Chester is the current Commissioner of Education in Massachusetts. Think of that as a district superintendency, but on a state level. He was unanimously selected to be Massachusetts Commissioner of Education in 2008, following a 7-year stint in Ohio as Senior Associate Superintendent for Policy and Accountability in Ohio’s Department of Education.  His career path began as an elementary teacher in Connecticut and progressed through various administrative positions at school, district, and state levels. All of which makes for an impressive resume.

However, here is where I think Dr. Chester has gone off the rails: PARCC.

Mitchell Chester currently serves on the PARCC governing board. Up until November 2015 when he was quietly replaced by the Governing Board Member from New Mexico (Hanna Skandera), he was the Chair of this group whose responsibilities include the following, to quote PARCC.org website:

The PARCC consortium Governing Board makes major policy and operational decisions, including decisions related to the overall design of the assessment system, adoption of performance levels for the assessments, and modifications to PARCC’s governance structure and decision-making process, as necessary.

The Commonwealth’s Board of Education was determining whether or not to mandate PARCC as the replacement for MCAS at the same time that Mitchell Chester was seated on the PARCC Governing Board.

Interestingly, Dr. Chester was replaced as Chair of the PARCC Governing Board shortly after Massachusetts declined to use PARCC assessments state-wide.

At the same time Dr. Chester was Chair of the Governing Board at PARCC – the assessment test proposed as the accountability assessment for the Commonwealth. The Pioneer Institute, an independent think tank, outlines reasons that Dr. Chester’s connections to the PARCC Governing Board were problematic in this post from July 2015.

Move forward to November 2015 when the Commonwealth’s Board of Education was to vote on whether or not to commit to PARCC. By this time, it was clear that the public was not in favor of being railroaded into a PARCC commitment. However, miraculously, just as the Board was meeting to make this decision, Dr. Chester was able to come up with a compromise: Massachusetts would create its own assessment to replace MCAS. The new assessment would be called MCAS 2.0 and would be a hybrid of PARCC and MCAS.

Gradually over the next weeks, the independence of MCAS 2.0 from PARCC was whittled away. At first, the new assessment would only have the look and feel of PARCC; the new hybrid assessment would be developed just for Massachusetts.  Next came the news that PARCC decided states could purchases/contract some of the PARCC test if the whole was not desired. The decision to allow a la carte test items suspiciously coincided with Massachusetts’ rejection of PARCC as their state-wide assessment.

Questions remain concerning the percentage of PARCC test items to be inserted into PARCC, but I have read percentages ranging from 70% to 90% PARCC.   Could MCAS 2.0 just be PARCC with a new name?

For the life of me, I cannot understand how this is not called out as a blatant conflict of interest. While Dr. Chester’s boss, Governor Baker, doesn’t seem to think there is a problem (see WBUR interview and report), the Commissioner’s connections to the PARCC Governing Board seem just a little too cozy.

Here are some weblinks for further reading:

PARCC Week, Part 2: Pearson

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IMG_0021If you’re inside Education, you’ve probably got a good idea or at least name recognition for Pearson Education. And if not, well to paraphrase Lowell’s own Bette Davis, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

Pearson is a prime example of the corporate take-over culture that infects business today.  Corporate giants adhere to a business model in which companies bid and buy smaller companies or competitors, mostly to get an already successful product developed by the second company. In lieu of development, one enterprise simply raids the pantry of another company, usually keeping the piece that they want to profit from and getting rid of most everything else.

Pearson has raided many of the educational publishing houses such as Addison-Wesley, Allyn & Bacon, Heinemann, Scott Foresman, and Ginn. Sadly now that Pearson owns them, many have ceased to exist as independent imprints.

Once Pearson obtained the lion’s share of the textbook publishing market, they moved on to the next great profit center: assessments. Pearson owns and manages the rights to several assessments that should be familiar territory to educators, such as DRA2 . Not surprising, Pearson has the rights to PARCC. Pearson was the successful bidder to the multi-year multi-million-dollar PARCC test. PARCC Inc. or PARCC Org. – Pearson has their hand in both.

When the PARCC Consortium, the group banding together to use PARCC as the required standardized assessment, began, there were 26 states committed to using this test.  As State Departments of Educations got a good look at test administration, the costs, the technology requirements, and experienced the delays in score reporting, many dropped out of the PARCC Consortium. At this writing, there are SIX remaining commited to administering PARCC (Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, plus D.C). Whether this is a factor or not, layoffs were announced this past week at Pearson.

Not to worry! States can also contract for parts of the PARCC test. Offering individual test items or parts of subtests seems to be a recent development to respond to states who are, shall we say, “uncomfortable” with the PARCC test in its entirety. States like Louisiana and now Massachusetts, have floated the idea that their replacement hybrid assessment, named MCAS 2.0 in Massachusetts, may contain a significant proportion of PARCC test items.

Pearson may be disappointed that the gravy train is not stopping at their corporate headquarters. However, it appears that they will manage to make a profit on PARCC one way or another.

Link to next post here.

 

 

 

 

 

PARCC Week, Day 1: Intro to Standardized Testing

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As I sat down to write about my personal opinions about PARCC and standardized testing in general, I came to the realization that a single post might not be enough. Over the course of the next week, I’ll be posting about PARCC and some of the reasons it merits the attention of anyone connected to students – parents, teachers, and community members. This is the first entry of this series.

IMG_0021This week our local School Committee voted to change the Spring 2016 assessment tool from the previously approved (October 2015) Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) to Parternship for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC). The deed is done, but that doesn’t mean it has to stand forever.

As a third-grade and fourth-grade teacher for the last 9 years before I retired in June, I had quite a bit of experience with MCAS. My students were never part of the PARCC pilot, or try-out tests, but I have taken a good, long look at what PARCC releases on their website (parcc.org). I reviewed test items as part of my personal work as educator as well as when I was a part of the team re-writing math curriculum to align with Common Core Standards.

Preparing students who are barely 9 years old for hours-long testing involves teaching test taking strategies. This does not mean teaching to the test. It means basic skills such as teaching students to scan questions prior to reading a passage, reading the italicized introduction to a reading passage, highlighting using allowable tools, staying within boundaries of open response question/answer areas, erasing bubble sheets, and making only one answer choice, ensuring that the whole test has been answered and no items left skipped, reading test items and dealing with tricky and subtle changes in wording, and it means preparing to focus and concentrate for long periods of time. Some may think that those listed strategies should be assumed; I would remind you of that old saying: ” when you assume….”. None of this is second nature to a 9-year-old.

Each year that I administered MCAS, I kept a notecard inside one of my desk drawers. On that card, I noted some factors of a students’ life that might negatively impact test performance. Why? Because invariably when the results of testing were released, teachers are rightly asked to look closely at the results and make instructional decisions to improve.  And now, in a more toxic environment, those test scores can become part of an evaluation of my teaching.

I don’t think my instruction was perfect and there are/were plenty of standards on which I could have done a more effective job. My notes, however, contained items such as “no glasses, broken and not replaced”, “arrived 2 hours after test began” and “upset and crying due to fight at home”. This is the reality of teaching in schools where trauma is high. To disregard the impact of such things on a child tasked with performing on a one-shot high-stakes test is foolish.

I dislike and distrust most high stakes testing. My English Language Learners (ELLs) – some years that population made up 75% of the classroom – are smart and funny and wonderful learners who easily misunderstood some of the subtleties of test language.  They’ll make sense of these tests and learn to deal with them, of course, but it will take more than a few years. Yet the Commonwealth punishes them by designating their test scores “needs improvement” or “warning”. What must that do to a child’s psyche? My students were always more than a number to me, but the Commonwealth doesn’t see it that way.

So through the lense of someone who has been in the room during testing, who has witnessed extraordinary effort of students to try to show their best performance on a snap-shot of their learning, over the next several posts, I will try to explain what it is that makes me even more apprehensive about this new assessment, the PARCC tests.

Next topic: The Corporate Connection

School Committee Meeting, 20 January 2016

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School Committee Meeting: Wednesday, January 20, 2016

All members present.

DSC_0162Twenty-seven items were posted on this agenda which included an Executive Session to discuss contract negotiations and consideration of contract extensions for two Assistant Superintendents. Although most of the meeting was routine, there were two points that caused longer discussion: STEM at Lowell High and a move to use the PARCC test this Spring.

There appeared to be a glitch posting the packet and agenda on the LPS website for this meeting as it did not appear on the School Committee website until a day before the meeting. While this was resolved in time for the meeting, there is interest from the community in the agenda; it would be beneficial to also see the agenda in time for people to consider the issues being discussed.  By also publishing minutes for the Subcommittees, more citizens who are interested in the Lowell School System can better understand the issues facing the schools and understand and even contribute meanfully to the decision-making process.

Unfinished Business

The Establishment of Subcommittees and the members assigned to each committee was approved without discussion at tonight’s meeting.

The packet posted on the City of Lowell website and on the LPS School Committee page did not include this information. The Subcommittee webpage has not be updated since last year. So, at this point, the subcommittee member assignments are unknown. 

Motions

Agenda Item 10 (2016/12) made by Connie Martin formally invited the administration and students from Generation Citizen who presented their findings regarding Financial Literacy courses to the Curriculum Subcommittee meeting for further discussion of such a program. This action was a follow-up to last school committee meeting when the LHS group made a presentation of their project to the whole committee.

Agenda Item 13 (2016/13) made by Ms. Martin requested the Superintendent develop a comprehensive plan to restructure the district and accommodate the imminent increases in student population. This motion is very loosely tied to the request for modular classrooms for the Wang School (see Reports of the Superintendent).

Agenda Item 14 (2016/29) made by Mayor Kennedy requests the administration establish a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) curriculum at Lowell High and received more in-depth discussion. Mr. Kennedy reminds the committee that he initiated this requests last year from the City Council; the motion was referred to Subcommittee. The Mayor feels that such a curriculum will make Lowell and LPS more attractive to parents and students and cites US News & World Report ranking of STEM High School programs; Massachusetts has 15 recognized programs, Lexington High School being one of them. A suggestion that Lexington’s program might provide Lowell with at least a starting point. One suggestion was to structure STEM at the High School similar to the Latin Lyceum.

Mayor Kennedy feels referring this back to Curriculum Subcommittee will only cause implementation of the program, something he would like to see start in September 2016, to be delayed. There had been some discussion with Headmaster Martin who compared a STEM curriculum to what is already in place. That programs is referred to as Pathways. Quoting from the Lowell High website:

Our Pathway Programs provide opportunities for all students and their different abilities, interests and talents. Whether a student is planning to work immediately after high school, or will continue learning by attending a training program, a technical institute, a college or university, there are courses in our Pathway Programs that are right for every student.

Link here for more information.

In further discussion, Mr. Hoey would like to hear from Mr. Martin that implementing a STEM program is feasible. Mr. Gendron would also like to hear from the Headmaster; however he notes that STEM is already part of the district and wonders about the transition from Middle School STEM programs. In the end, the committee votes to support the original motion that directs the LPS to begin development of a STEM program.

My understanding of the Lyceum is that students must apply to participate in this four-year program or Pathway (we used to call this a “track”). This would be a question for the Committee – is the envisioned STEM High School program going to be for students who apply, or is it a choice in the track of coursework?  What would be the expectation or end-result of a student successfully completing the four year course of study? Parents will want to keep an eye on this as an opportunity for their students.

Reports of the Superintendent

  • Knowledge Bowl update: dates to note are March 7 – March 24, 2016.
  • Quarterly Financials: Amounts spent are consistent with previous years. Some amount encumbered to anticipate spending through rest of fiscal year.
    • Transportation is running a deficit ancitipated to be $179,000 (attributed to increase in transportation needs of SpED students);
    • Insurance account anticipated to have $300,000 shortfall (attributed to employee insurance status changes)
    • Grant funds – 8 new grants since last report resulting in an increase of funding close to $400,000
    • Revolving Account (milk/lunch) has about $2.8 million in account. Ms. Martin inquires about refunds due to parents who had prepaid lunch accounts prior to the free lunch program starting. Those amounts are still due parents, but as reported previously, this presents a logistical problem for City accounting. Mr. Antonelli is working with City to get refunds to parents.
  • Modular Classrooms: As a response to the population bubble anticipated for the Middle Schools in 2016, the District is requesting 2 modular classrooms to be installed at the Wang Middle School. Each classroom ($36,000) plus anticipated design (approximately $10,000) needed as the Wang has no room for additional students. Other middle schools throughout the city will also be taking in students of course (anticipated additional students anicipated for 2016-17 school year alone are 200 plus), but have some way to accommodate them. Students are assigned to Middle Schools from Grade 4 according to Zones, so that the population increase will be felt by all Middle Schools, not just the Wang. By requesting modulars for this year only, the Superintendent will have some time to look at a more comprehensive way to accommodate increasing Middle School student populations, anticipated to continue for the next 4 years.

I’m making an assumption/interpretation that the other schools have some ability to include more students with some scheduling or repurposed classrooms. For example, at the Lincoln School, there are 5, not 4 Fourth Grade classrooms this year accommodating an increased bubble class that has been making its way through the Lincoln School since Kindergarten. The “extra” classroom was originally a faculty meeting space; and had several other purposes since the building was constructed; once the bubble class “graduates”, a new program will be housed in that classroom space.

  • Project LEARN and Grant Updates. District continues to work in partnership with UML and MCC. Project LEARN has been very active thus far in helping schools to raise funds.
  • Personnel Report accepted as a report of progress.

New Business

Item 18 (2016/31) requested permission to post the position of Part-Time Office of Accountability Developer. The funding for this position is available through the end of the fiscal year (June 2016) using Title I funds. There is a lot of confusion about what funds are available for (student programs?, teaching staff?, consultants?); Dr. Khelfaoui is looking for someone with experience in Accountability to assist with rolling the currently organized accountability endeavors into the new strategic plan. Passes 6 to 1 (Ms. Martin votes no). Request for an organizational chart to help Committee Members understand realignment of duties and responsibilities.

After approving the request to post Accountability Developer and a transfer of funds to Teacher Academy, the big ticket discussion came up: Adoption of PARCC test for this spring (Agenda Item 2016/36). 

Superintendent Khelfaoui is requesting that the School Committee, which had previously rejected PARCC test in October 2015, now approve administration of PARCC in the Spring. Originally against using the PARCC test in Lowell, but now making the request to move to PARCC, Dr. Kehlfaoui cited the following:

  • While the online test administration for the pilot program in Lowell was disasterous (expensive, infrastructure demands), Commissioner Chester now allows that test can be administered in pencil/paper format. The Commissioner had visited Lowell on January 6, 2016.
  • Although we have great schools (shout-out to Bartlett for attaining Level 1 status), some schools are at Level 3 and preciptiously close to Level 4 even though the teachers are working hard to prevent this. Just one Level 4 school means the entire district will be designated Level 4; negating the extraordinary good work of schools at Levels 1 and 2 as well as any progress being made by Level 3 schools. It also will mean that, as a Level 4 District, there will be consequences impacting how the schools are managed (see the Commonwealth’s takeover of Lawrence and Springfield as examples).
  • Commissioner Chester has offered that any Massachusetts school district using PARCC this year will be held harmless. Meaning that test scores that go up will count toward moving a district UP, test scores that go down will not impact the school by moving it toward a lower level or designation. Note that while the school district is going to enjoy this breather, teachers may or may not – test scores are under discussion for consideration in teacher evaluation.

Mr. Gignac opened discussion by expressing concerns about PARCC and the lack of information available in the packet. He expresses his concern that there has been virtually no discussion or public input, and that there is pressure to make the decision (PARCC or MCAS) now. Mr. Gignac learned that some accommodations for IEPs are still disallowed. He has also discovered each test is to be completed within a specified amount of time where MCAS was not. Mr. Gignac says our students deserve the best education NOW; does holding the results harmless negate thorough analysis of data? He is puzzled that the deadline for making the decision to test using PARCC has passed, yet the School Committee is being asked to approve PARCC use tonight.

Discussion continued with school building administrators expressing that PARCC was enthusiastically being embraced by their building teachers. Jennifer McCrystal had spoken with DESE (Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) to clarify the use of accommodations that were previously available in MCAS, and she had answers to many questions. Ms. McCrystal has committed to explaining this fully to interested parents and anyone else at the upcoming SpED Parent Advisory Meeting.

Paul Schlictman spoke about test from his vantage point as a district administrator and school committee member (Arlington). As the pool of schools taking MCAS shrinks, if Lowell continued to administer MCAS this school year, the probability of more Level 4 designated schools will likely increase (fewer schools taking MCAS will mean that Lowell Schools will be compared to a small subset of Massachusetts schools which increases the odds that any struggling school may find themselves with a Level 4 status). Ms. Abrams, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, states that while MCAS had served us well over nearly 20 years, students are ready for the rigors of PARCC because teachers teach to standards not to test.

Paul Georges, UTL president, spoke about the Union’s objection to all high-stakes tests and the punitive nature of tests like PARCC. While understanding that this is a difficult choice, he states that tests like this are punitive.  State Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester has recently been quietly removed as PARCC Board chair (link) and seems to have a ulterior motive in pushing PARCC. Corporations standing to make money on the change (Pearson Education) are pushing out this test and the high-stakes test agenda with little or no regard to expertise of educators.

Mr. Gendron says adopting PARCC, especially since the online requirement is removed, will buy time to find out about resources. (The Commonwealth is only offering E-rate which pays for infrastructure and not for hardware) Mr. Hoey echoes the sentiment that testing is punitive and states that having been on the School Committee when MCAS testing first began, he feels that children are being damaged by testing. Connie Martin also expresses reservations; however, will support adoption of PARCC as it appears as the District’s “only choice”. She is not enthusiastic.

In the end, the move toward PARCC was approved 5 yes, 2 no (Mr. Gignac and Mr. Hoey).

As this is mainly a report, I have tried to restrict my commentary in this post. However, it is clear to see that this is a decision that will cause our students – all of them, a great deal of stress. It is also clear that the PARCC issue really puts our school system in a difficult position. 

The Commissioner of Education’s recent visit to Lowell seems to indicate that he has put Lowell in his sites. Readers may recall that during his recent visit with the Murkland School, on one hand he was complimentary about their phenomenal success and with his next breath advocated a move toward PARCC and “encouraged the district to re-think its decision to stick with the MCAS state test this spring.”  Amelia Pak-Harvey’s story covering this visit can be found here.

I have many concerns about the PARCC test, or any high stakes tests actually, and our students, primarily English Language Learners (30% first language not English, 25% English language learners in district from Massachusetts DESE website). After having looked at the PARCC consortium and the web-based test samples for the last 3 years. I have concerns about this test when states that used to be part of the PARCC consortium leave it, sometimes after administering the test one time (Washington Post).

I have concerns when I hear that there are set limits on the amount of time for each subtest. I have reservation that fitting 7-8 test periods into a short test window (April 25-May 27 per DESE) will lead to test fatigue, students who are exhausted from days of testing.  

 I am relieved that paper-and-pencil versions will be used as the technology layer is one many of our students are not yet ready to conquer.  I appreciate that the English Language Arts test does not take place in early March as testing children on one years’s growth at the seven month point in a school year, as MCAS did, seems to be set up for failure.

I have a concern when a PARCC Executive Board member appears to be applying the hard-sell with school districts across the state (not just Lowell as it turns out) by making deals that ignore passed deadlines. That alone makes me wonder what the ulterior motive might be. We have recently learned Mr. Chester lost his chairmanship of the PARCC board. He is still a member of the PARCC Executive Board, however, and that, in my opinion is a conflict of interest concerning objectivity and this test.

Pragmatically, I understand the rock and hard place that caused the PARCC vote to pass. No one wants the specter of a Level 4 designation and the consequences that could accompany it (demoralization of staff, loss of local control, installation of school overseers) and by taking the “deal” (that being the incentive to not hold scores against the District) the LPS can avoid that.  Reading between lines – what was said and left unsaid – there was little choice for the Committee. What is unavoidable is that our students will be put through the wringer with a new assessment that may or may not provide useful curricular data, no performance data, and may still be used as a tool for teacher evaluation.

I plan to write about this in depth over the weekend from the perspective of a teacher who was in the midst of high-stakes testing in a lower performing school.  {Edited to include link 23 January 2016}

Executive Session

The committee ended the public portion of the meeting and went into Executive Session for the contract, litigation updates and to consider extensions of contracts to the Assistant Superintendents.

The link to the meeting packet can be found here.

No-Nonsense? Nonsense!

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DSC_0107Our local CBS affiliate posted a public opinion question this morning. The “No Nonsense Nurturing” is rearing its ugly head once again because teachers and schools using this program (see link ) have gained some news cycle traction: teachers are being told not to use “please” or “thank you” with students.

As Amy Berard, former Lawrence Public School teacher, so eloquently wrote, the program requires teachers to speak with students according to a script. Don’t say please. Don’t say thank-you. Be direct, speak without inflection. Don’t give students a choice.

Oxymoronically named, the program does anything but nurture. Teachers are commanded not to use polite language as it might cause the teacher to appear to be less powerful, to lose “control”. Is this what education has come to? Power and compliance?

As a classroom teacher with thirty years experience, this trend in education policy to find the one program that will magically turn all students into acquiescent sheep troubles me. Educators don’t need to be trained and practiced professionals who have the skills in child psychology and classroom management to read the room and respond to what the students’ needs might be. No, all one needs is the magical script, training and consultant available for an extra fee.

I spent the whole of my teaching career empowering students to learn by making choices, modeling acceptable social interactions, and still managed to keep 20-30 young learners from swinging from the light fixtures. Students need to learn from decision-making and practice making good choices. As a colleague in my last school used to say, “you win or lose by how you choose”.

An educator recently made this thoughtful observation:

One of the Great Truths of Ed. Reform is that we cheer on reforms
that affect Other Peoples’ Kids, but that we would never tolerate for our own
kids.

Is this the kind of nurturing we want for our children? Puh-leeze.

School Committee Meeting, 06 January 2016

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6 members present, Jackie Doherty absent


As the first meeting of the year, this was a very quick one (about 25 minutes). Most of tonight’s agenda was routinely dealt with so I’ve only noted points in the meeting whflipoutere there was some discussion.

After the roll call, Mr. Gendron received committee persmission to have LHS students from Generation Citizen address the Committee. If you, like I, were a bit confused about the program, here is a link to a December 30 article in the Lowell Sun by Amelia Pak-Harvey.  This project is a pilot meant to introduce students to civic engagement.

The students present at tonight’s school committee meeting explained their process in determining a need for a financial literacy course and asked for the Committee’s support in implementing a financial literacy program at the High School. After the presentation, Mayor Kennedy suggested that the students’ request be put more fomally on a future meeting’s agenda.

And, as a side-note, Ms. Martin noted a 4-day summer program for high school seniors which is sponsored by CTI. The program, Student Finance 101, is offered for free and is designed to assist seniors navigate financial aide and other financial issues as they move on to college and greater financial independence.

Motions

Mr. Gendron presented the two motions on the agenda tonight. The first motion (2015/506) requested planning and a follow-up report for what has annually been a Community Service Day  throughout the school system each Spring. Last year, my fourth grade students participated in this effort by cleaning and beautifying Lincoln Square Park; throughout the City, students do similar service projects embracing the importance of becoming active in their community. 

The second motion, 2015/507, requested a plan for the handling middle school population explosion anticipated to begin next school year. In addition to modulars (portable, leased classroom spaces), the district needs to consider teaching and support staff expenditures needed. Ms. Martin suggested that along with consideration for modular spaces, the district should also look at the anticipated re-zoning of schools (see Item 7 from the prior meeting on November 18, 2015) – which of course will make this a lot more complicated, but should result in an effective solution to significant increases in the middle school population.

I would agree with Ms. Martin’s suggestion here. Looking at the increased needs at the Middle School level along with the complex issue of creating a neighborhood school approach to student assignments will definitely be a daunting challenge. Rather than patch the immediate need for space with a band-aid, a more thorough analysis of student assignment and school zones will provide a longer-term solution and should result in a more permanent policy.

New Business

Under new business, a budget transfer request (2016/9) to increase the NEASC (New England Association of Schools & Colleges) accreditation budget from $15,000 to $24,000 was questioned by Mr. Gignac.  Mr. Antonelli was not able to identify the origin of the budgeted amount ($15,000) as the budget was developed prior to his tenure (possibly based on an historic figure from prior budgeting the last time LHS was accredited?). The increased amount ($24,000) covers the travel expenses for a Visiting Team of educators participating in the accreditation of Lowell High as well as the report presented to the District (due in Feb. 2016).

During the course of the accredition process, the high school hosts a visit, or peer review, by a  visiting team of  colleagues who observe nearly every aspect of a high school operation. As a result of this on-site visit, a report is made noting strengths and areas where improvement might be needed according to the NEASC guidelines. Here’s a link in case you’d like to read more about this. The travel expenses for this 4-day visit are included in the requested increase of $9,000. 

A side-note to routinely approved Convention and Conference requests was made by Ms. Martin.  The Martha McQuade Adventure Fund (story written by Jen Meyers here) offers scholarships to assist students who would like to participate in international travel opportunities, but find the costs limiting.

Meeting adjourned at 6:56 pm. Record time.

The change is the thing

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flipout

2015 has been a transition year for me – personally and professionally. What had always been has flipped end over end, and now there is a new lens through which the world is viewed. There is no holding on to the old as this world and the environment around me is always changing. Kind of like this image – sometimes a new point of view changes everything. And, while sometimes met with less than enthusiastic appreciation, the change is the thing.

So here’s to 2016 and to meeting the changes a new year will undoubtedly bring. To looking at things from a new perspective. And to health and happiness to you and your families.

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