PARCC: The Elevator Speech

This morning, I was greeted by more “alleged news” (thanks Jack Cole for THAT gem) purporting that “Educators Urge State Board to Adopt PARCC Exam“. Despite the fact that this news is sourced in the Statehouse News Service and, therefore, just a press release unworthy of front page space, I call baloney.  Here is why: helpme

  1. PARCC is not proven to measure college and career readiness any better than the current MCAS test. Now I could go off on a tangent about the merits of any single, high-stakes test in predicting future success for students, but I’ll stick to the fact that in this era, testing rules. If the new assessment doesn’t do what it is touted to do, why bother to change?
  2. PARCC is expensive. PARCC is administered electronically. That means network and hardware expenses above and beyond what cash-strapped schools already have in place. So, instead of hiring staff or purchasing materials to support programs, a school district is supposed to buy technology upgrades for the purpose of testing. In addition, the time needed to administer PARCC is “expensive” in that instead of learning something, anything, kids are busy with an assessment of dubious value.
  3. PARCC puts many urban districts at a disadvantage.  I taught in a school with a 90%+ poverty level. My kids were not regularly exposed to technology unless they were accessing it in school. The PARCC samples I’ve seen require a high-degree of manipulation between reading a question, computation and/or side work, and moving items around a screen to create an answer. So for kids like my former students, PARCC becomes more a test of technology skill.
  4. PARCC is owned by Pearson.  Pearson – the giant conglomeration owning lots and lots of curriculum resources and now they own the PARCC test. Pearson also dabbles in teacher effectiveness, which (I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn) is tied to the assessments (those assessments are very ones Pearson also owns). In the old days, the US government would call this a monopoly. Now it’s simply sweet one-stop shopping. What could possibly go wrong there?

Why in the world does Massachusetts continue to entertain alignment to PARCC? I have no idea.

School Committee Meeting, 21 October 2015

DSC_0044_edited-1What follows are some highlights from a very lengthy School Committee meeting. In place of a bulleted list of meeting agenda items (the meetings are televised and rebroadcast by LTC), I’ve included some explanatory commentary. Why?  Education issues are often fairly complicated; we use too many acronyms and assume what is obvious to those of us who live in the educational world is just as obviously clear to those who may not.

I decided to make School Committee Meeting commentary part of my education blogging for several reasons, the main purpose is to clarify why we should all care about and pay attention to local decisions impacting our schools. When we all understand the implications of decisions and work together to support Lowell on the path to becoming one of the great urban school districts, everyone, but especially our children, benefits.

So here is my first offering, a synthesis of the major points of the meeting.My own opinions are highlighted in italics. If you have suggestions and or commentary that might make these posts more informative and helpful, I welcome them.

Meeting Wednesday, October 21, 2015

All seven committee members were present for this meeting. The Spotlight on Education portion of the meeting highlighted the achievements of the Kindergarten through Grade 8 Summer Math Program.

One of the first agenda items to receive close attention was Item 7, a motion to go on record in opposition to the PARCC Tests (Partnership to Assess Readiness for College and Careers) by Steve Gendron.  After discussion, the committee has decided to approve communicating opposition to PARCC with a “friendly amendment”. The operative words “at this time” expressed the reservations discussed: namely that the PARCC will be very expensive in terms of time and equipment and, at this writing, those expenses seem to fall on local school budgets. I have previously written about my own concerns regarding PARCC tests and will reblog those posts separately.

As the Lowell Schools, and most of the schools across the US, are currently tying curriculum to the Common Core Standards, there could be a perceived disconnect between the curriculum (Common Core) and the standardized tests (MCAS, PARCC and Smart-Balance used in some states). This is a complicated issue as the Common Core standards themselves are controversial, and there are efforts underway to return Massachusetts to prior curriculum standards.  

Additionally, Mitchell Chester, Commissioner of Education (DESE – Department of Elementary and Secondary Education), just this week suggested the PARCC could be replaced by a hybrid of the MCAS (current) assessment system. (see link to Commonwealth Magazine). This hybrid is referenced as MCAS 2.0. It is unknown whether MCAS 2.0 will just look like a mildly reworked PARCC, thereby not making any substantive change. Mr. Chester is also head of the PARCC Consortium, a group formed to advance the use of this test throughout the US as a way to test Common Core standards. In my opinion, if even the Commissioner who has a bias toward adopting PARCC,  is abandoning this assessment, there is reason to question whether or not to adopt it at all.

As for the expense of PARCC implementation in Lowell, there are several factors. The technology infrastructure was overloaded last year when a pilot, or small group of schools experimented with the test administration on iPads and laptops.  Additional technology infrastructure and hardware would be required. Estimates are currently in the $2 million range. That’s $2 million that Lowell does not have laying around. In the words of Mr. Leary, the state (or feds) need to “fund the mandate”. 

Newcomer Programs and Additional ELL Teachers

As an urban district, it is not a surprise that Lowell has a rather large population (29%) of English Language Learners which include newcomers. Mr. Leary noted that the newcomer program costs were reimbursed (by the state?) at about a 50% rate, leaving the City and School Department budget to come up with the rest.  Given the 29% ELL population, the shortfall numbers will not be sustainable and will impact other budgetary items and programs.

The School Department prepared a detailed rationale and analysis of the need for assistance and issued a letter to our congressional representatives at the federal level.  The Committee has requested that Dr. Khelfaoui and his administration continue to keep the need for (financial) assistance on the minds of legislators at both state and federal levels and perhaps work in coordination with other schools in similar circumstance to bring this to the forefront.

In a related agenda item, Lowell Schools have requested 5 additional ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers to support the mandated 45 minutes per day support for higher performing ELLs (English Language Learners) and 90+ minutes per day support for early English acquisition students. Performance levels are tested and tracked via yearly testing. Note: All classroom teachers are required to have an “endorsement” on their teaching license that they have been trained in differentiation techniques for ELLs. An ESL teacher has more specialized training to help students acquire English skills needed in content areas, for example.

The School Committee supported this motion; the funding for the 5 positions will be presented at the next meeting. Funding is pending approval at the state level to transfer money from an Early Childhood revolving account.

Other Agenda Items

Two other agenda items were discussed more thoroughly: a motion from Kim Scott to address quality of food in the cafeteria (including returning to in-house food services) and a review of the District finances.

As the contract with Aramark is expiring this year, the Committee members would like to survey students and families about the food quality, and review Aramark’s performance ahead of any decisions to renew or revise the food services contract.

A review of the budget expenses by Mr. Antonelli revealed that the district has expended or encumbered about 18% of the budget and this is considered within the normal range of operations.  There is a concern, however, that the budgeted amount for insurance will show a deficit by the end of the fiscal year. This seems to be due to more employees choosing the indemnity plan. When questioned further, Mr. Antonelli explained that the budgeted amount is derived after consultation with the City CFO and generated prior to the Open Enrollment period when employees choose their insurance plan. Therefore, while the budgeted amount may be a “best guess”, there are factors which can cause it to be inaccurate.

The agenda and meeting packet for this meeting can be found at this link.

Strategic Planning Launch, October 14, 2015

These are my notes from the Strategic Planning Launch held October 14, 2015. (Lowell: Imagine Our Future Public Meeting). The meeting was held in the Burgoyne Theater at LHS Freshman Academy. In attendance were many school and district administrators, at least 2 current school committee members along with several candidates for school committee, parents, teachers, UTL leadership, community partner representatives, and interested community members.

Continued public input is solicited through an online survey (link here).

Those in attendance were welcomed by Jill Lang, Freshman Academy Director, followed by presentation of colors by the LHS JROTC and the Star Spangled Banner sung by members of the LHS Chorus.  Superintendent Khelfaoui welcomed the attendees and translation of this message was provided in several languages.

A video created by LET Channel 22, What Makes Lowell Schools Special, was shown to introduce those in attendance to some of the positives in the Lowell Schools. Hopefully,  Central Office can make this video available to the public on a YouTube channel or link to LET22.

Superintendent Khelfaoui explained the purpose for creating a strategic plan: to develop a multi-year strategic plan for continued growth and development of the Lowell Public Schools. The resulting plan will be developed through a series of public and issue-focused meetings which will include all stakeholders in the Public Schools. These stakeholders include: Administration, Faculty Members, Parents/Guardians, School Partners and interested community members.

The inclusionary goal is to encourage people with diverse perspectives from throughout Lowell to participate in surveys, focus groups and committees. Dr. Khelfaoui cited his work in the Arlington (VA) Public Schools in this area (see link). Part of the strategic planning process, data analysis, has already begun through the LPS Leadership Academy (administrators). Claire Abrams (Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment) and  Jeanine Durkin (Assistant Superintendent of Student Services) explained the types of participation and time commitments that will be needed over the next months (late October through Spring 2016) in order to develop a strategic plan. The final version of the strategic plan will be presented to the School Committee. These are the four ways in which stakeholders might participate:

  • Strategic Task Force: 10 or more members focused on a specific topic of relevance (minimum 3 meetings)
  • Strategic Synthesis Team: Will combine all the reports of the Strategic Task Force Teams into a report for the Superintendent (minimum 6 meetings)
  • Focus Groups: 10 or more stakeholders sharing common expertise and interests (1 meeting)
  • Public Forums: groups of stakeholders meet to discuss concerns and issues (1 meeting)

Attendee were invited to complete this survey (link here) and indicate any level of participation they were interested in.  If you were unable to attend the meeting, please use the survey to voice your opinion/preference and willingness to participate in the future.

The evening ended with a well-appreciated performance by the LHS Band.

When Data Matters

DSC_0162As noted previously, the Commonwealth’s Joint Committee on Education has taken up a discussion on whether or not to raise the cap on Charter Schools.  While I worked the entirety of my career in a non-charter environment (10 year private schools, 20 years public), I do have a bias on the topic. It concerns me when a corporation, such as Sabis or Kipp, runs the school. It concerns me that the funding of corporately managed charter schools comes from a local cash-strapped district. And it concerns me when the make up of the student body is not a mirror of traditional public schools in the same district. When charter schools adhere to what was their initial charge – to become incubators of innovations in education and to share their findings – that is a good reason to engage with charter schools.

Suzanne Bump, Massachusetts State Auditor, testified before the Joint Committee this week. She was not testifying to encourage or discourage lifting the cap. The State Auditor wanted to exam the claims that counts of students on waiting lists were inaccurate, that there are inconsistencies in charter renewals, and the charge of lack of collaboration between public schools and private schools. Here are her words:

It had been my hope that an audit would examine not just the topics I mentioned. Another goal had been to get meaningful, unbiased, and complete data so that when this annual debate next took place, you and the public would have access to more facts. I have long believed in, and as State Auditor am committed to, the notion that better information makes for better public policy.

We especially wanted to know whether the student bodies of charters shared the demographic characteristics of the sending districts, as the law requires, and whether there were measurable differences in the academic outcomes of the competing systems.

And the result?

As the audit indicates, however, we could not answer those questions because we found the data collected and published by DESE to be unreliable.

Is this the very same “data” that the Governor used to plead for increasing the cap on Charter Schools? Data that the State Auditor characterizes as “unreliable”?

Please, please, please read the two-page remarks for yourself. My data mantra has always been “garbage in, garbage, out”. That surely seems to apply here and it is not a good basis on which to make important educational decisions.

One final quote from Ms. Bumps’ remarks, sums it up:

This is the 21st century. We have the brain power and we have the ability to get the information necessary to inform our decision-making, so let’s base decisions about the future of our kids, our economy, our society on facts

Yes. That is exactly when data matters.

Exactly, sort of

Here’s a quote attributed to Governor Baker’s testimony during the hearings to lift the cap on Massachusetts charter schools:

We should celebrate their success and build on it

I could not agree more. Surely good practice and innovation needs to be celebrated and built upon. However, I wonder who the Governor is referring to with the word their in his statement. Surely he can’t mean only Charter Schools are experiencing success that can be built upon. I refer local readers to the Murkland School in Lowell, whose success in turning around from Level 4 to Level 1 has been nationally recognized.

IMG_0200In this YouTube clip, the governor indicates that among most successful (by what measure?) schools in the Commonwealth are Charter Schools. Where is the data for this? Does this statement mean all Charter Schools are successful simply because they are not traditional public schools? And what measure is being used to assess success? Because if the single measure for success is a high-stakes test such as the current MCAS test (or the PARCC in the future), that opens up another challenge. Is a single-shot, high-stakes standardized test the only way to measure educational success?

According to the Governor and news reports there are in excess of 37,000 students across the Commonwealth on waiting lists to enter Charter Schools.  Again, where is the data for this? And why are news outlets not challenging the Governor for this data?

Before a cap on the number of Charter Schools is lifted, answers need to be provided. Decisions must be based on real facts, not anecdotes or fuzzy thinking.