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Common Core and PARCC: What About the Children?

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The Common Core and PARCC debacle continue to rage at conferences, in articles and blogs, at board meetings, in faculty meetings, PTA meetings, and in living rooms and legislative hallways. Actually we think this is a good thing. The attention of parents, board members, teachers, community members, politicians, and candidates on the quality of education is certainly larger than in recent memory. There are questions about the value of national standards, the appropriate nature of some of the standards in the earlier grades, and angst about the use of standardized testing to change teaching and learning and evaluate students and teachers, all in the service of preparing students for college and career in the 21st century.

There is much to wrestle with in regard to the standards and the tests that accompany them. Those engaged in making sense of this, navigating the white water of what is truth and what is hyperbole, what is real and what just isn't real, can do what is best for the education of children by engaging in a two-way conversation instead of standing firmly in set, polarized opinions.

Change Through Listening and Respectful Dialogue
We contend schools still hold to a 20th century model. Fifteen years into the 21st century, most schools remain in that model; courses remain the same as they were, teaching remains subject and minute based, even the assessments are mostly the same. Of course the demand for change is loud. Truth be told, educators as a group of professionals failed to step forward with a plan for the 21st century learning, leaving space for others to step in.  Now it is a tussle between educators, policy makers, and even parents. Those engaged in this tussle are doing important work, but it is now, by necessity, reactionary. The sides have been staked out and opposition is clearly stated. We hope for better listening. 

It is with respect and open listening that common beliefs can be uncovered and serve as the foundation for moving forward together as a public education system. As a profession, many feel at odds with outside forces. Sadly, this is a waste of energy because we might have had double the power had we cleared the path together, in the name of the children. However, today's leaders must be prepared to sit with those who disagree, be open and honest, and attribute good will to others by deep listening. We hope for leadership in that direction.

Emotional Safety of the Children
In the meantime, the emotional safety of the children remains in the hands of school leaders. They are responsible for setting the tone of the environment in which the teachers and students work.  Why wouldn't teachers feel criticized, assumed to be less than effective, and publically shamed given the manner in which the changes to educational policy, funding, and evaluation have unfolded? 

Remember, there are the children. There is nothing wrong with good public debate. But when it comes into the living rooms, hallways and classrooms in which the children spend their lives, a responsibility exists.  These are, after all, children.  While teachers and administrators may be frustrated with what they deem to be unfair,  the manner in which they carry out these responsibilities, protecting the children from the fallout is important.  There is no need to add to the stress children are experiencing simply by growing up, by sharing frustrations. We cannot control what the children are hearing in their homes, but in schools attention to keeping the frustration away from the children is important.

The Catch-22 For Teachers
There is a Catch-22 for teachers especially, for many are being asked to do some things they don't believe in.  Although always held to some standard, and some curriculum, and certainly some regulations, they had fallen into the shadows. Now these new ones, held up front with the lights on, place teachers in a new playing field with new rules.

In many places teachers' evaluation is based in large part on student achievement on assessments. Why wouldn't teachers naturally focus on those assessments?  As the focus of the teachers' attention on those assessments grows, so does the question about the proper quality of those external assessments, providing a garden in which resentment can flourish. It is that resentment, worry, and certainly fear, that brings toxins into the schools. Then add to the mix, that when teacher evaluations are done and publicized, they become media fodder. An article in the ithacajournal reported:

According to data released by the New York State Education Department, 95 percent of teachers were deemed highly effective or effective during the 2013-14 school year. Of the rest, 4 percent received ratings of developing, with only 1 percent falling to the bottom rung of the four rating categories...The news came as a cause of concern rather than celebration for Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch, who said the numbers reveal a broken evaluation system that does not reflect the problems facing New York students.

So the Common Core, the assessments that measure them, and a new teacher evaluation system was put in place in whiplash fashion. In compliance everyone followed the directed path. And when the results are good, they are dismissed with "the numbers reveal a broken evaluation system that does not reflect the problems facing New York students." This is not a New York challenge only...for this discussion is taking place on the national level as well.

Take Control of the Tone 
The point is, educators lost hold of the wagon train and the reins were taken over by others. While educators step up to engage with those now holding the reins, those in classrooms have to leave their angst at the door, and face students with hope and excitement as always. That is hard because some of what they are doing, teaching, and assessing, has not been truly accepted as what they believe is good for students. Whether giving standardized tests to 5 year olds, or teaching a high school course without knowing what the assessment will look like or measure, places teachers in a difficult spot.

We have spoken with leaders who have stepped into the fray and were able, under these very circumstances, to be sure their teachers felt safe and appreciated while they lead them into the 21st century from within the school walls, with respect for the policies and mandates, but with hope and appreciation...which always benefits the children. No matter the standards, assessments or evaluations, it remains in the hands of the adults to make the environment a safe place for childhood, adolescence, and learning. No matter the national or state requirements, on a local level the leader can take the reins and make the difference by helping keep the attitudes that surround students hopeful, positive, and healthy, no matter the challenges facing the adults.

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