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Monday, February 22, 2016

Sign of the times

When I drove past this sign this morning, I had to stop and take the picture. It tells an entire tale about how education is creating new rifts in a society already characterized by vast inequality.

“Mendham Country Day School. Advanced Educational Opportunities. Teaching to the student NOT the test. NO Common Core. NO PARCC Testing.”

This private, $20,000-a-year K-6 school knows exactly how to grab the attention of affluent parents who are likely to send their kids there -- parents who either have direct experience with or have been hearing a lot about high-stakes standardized testing in public education. The four words, teaching to the test, speak volumes, and none of it good. They suggest that public school offers mechanistic pedagogy designed as a very limited tool to do one narrow task -- prepare children to pass a specific test  -- rather than the kind of teaching that inspires creativity and original thinking,  promotes intellectual curiosity, and develops the power to reason. Teaching to the test gets kids over an arbitrary hurdle placed in front of them in one given year. The implication is that this school will instead give kids the tools they need to be more broadly successful throughout their education and beyond.

“Nonsense,” say the data pushers. “That’s just paranoid. Common Core-aligned PARCC tests are just tools that help kids see how they’re doing and allow teachers and schools to be held responsible for their outcomes.” We’ve been hearing the rebuttals for years now: Affluent white parents are just afraid to discover their precious little dears aren’t as smart as they thought they were. They’ve been brainwashed by the teachers union. They’re afraid of change. They fail to see the big picture.

But if it’s so paranoid, why are the people behind these reforms, like New Jersey governor Chris Christie and state Board of Education president Mark Biedron, sending their kids to exactly this type of private school? They live in towns with some of the top public schools in the nation -- schools that don’t have to deal with the problems of poverty and lack of resources, but are subject to the same testing requirements as every other public school in the state. Instead, for their own kids, they choose private schools free of Common Core and standardized tests. Are these guys afraid their kids aren’t smart enough for Common Core and PARCC?

Of course not. Neither was I when I chose to remove my three children from the public school system. Sure, standardized testing soaked up a ridiculous amount of time that could have been spent on more important things, but I honestly didn’t believe those lost days would have a significant impact on my high-achieving kids over the long run. The real issue was what would happen on all the rest of the days. Even before the implementation of Common Core, I could see the harm that was being done by the high-stakes testing regime of No Child Left Behind, and later the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, which bound the fates of schools and teachers to the test scores of their students.

High-stakes standardized testing strangles learning in a number of ways. It dictates what is taught in the classroom by creating an irresistible incentive to focus on test prep. It pushes out of the classroom any subject, activity, or strategy that doesn’t directly enhance test scores in the short term. It handcuffs teachers from developing curriculums and classroom strategies that play to their own strengths as teachers and meet the unique needs of specific classes and students. It promotes mediocrity by rewarding schools and teachers for getting as many kids as possible over the line of basic proficiency rather than for driving high achievers to new heights. It drives schools to divert resources away from extracurricular and enrichment programs that keep kids engaged with school but aren’t perceived to contribute to higher test scores.

As my children moved through elementary and middle public schools, the writing on the wall became ever clearer: High-stakes testing was the new normal. By the time my eldest were entering their last year of middle school 4 1/2 years ago, it was a crapshoot whether they’d make it through high school before the shit really hit the fan. We knew that Common Core-aligned tests would emphasize close readings of informational text, which would change the way high school English was taught. We saw our school district’s excellent instrumental music program beginning to shrink. It seemed likely that PARCC would soon be a graduation requirement. Teachers, already vilified by anti-union forces who begrudged them their pensions, were alarmed at the prospect of their jobs depending on highly unreliable test scores. How would this affect our kids? Without a crystal ball, we couldn’t be sure. But we knew two things for certain: Every kid gets only one shot at high school, and all this data-driven reform was bullshit. We enrolled our kids in private school. We were lucky we could, though not with the same ease as many other parents who send their kids to elite private schools. Most people are not fortunate enough to be able to take this route.

The Mendham Country Day School sign is a pretty strong indicator that we are not alone. Other parents who can afford to jump ship are moving their kids to private school in response to high-stakes testing. Those schools are understandably capitalizing on that trend in the way they market themselves. How long before the demographic shift becomes noticeable and suburban school districts begin to feel the pinch of wealth flight?

When “No Common Core, No PARCC Testing” is a major selling point to the well-off, even as the ruling class pushes Common Core and PARCC for everyone else’s kids, there’s something very wrong. “Teaching to the student not the test” is not just a sign of the times. It’s a sign of trouble.

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