What are our kids worth, anyway? Reign of Error part 5

Last time, we talked about student standardized test scores and their role not only in education policy but also in the national psyche. This time I want to look at what that means outside of the pages of a book, and in a real city. Our real city.

Fortunately for me, I get beautiful illustrations, suitable for framing, weekly, nay daily, of the points Diane Ravitch raises in her book Reign of Error. Examples, quotes, policies which I can read about then watch before my very eyes--these come rolling down from on high in a deluge. We public school parents got a good one just a few days ago. A good one? I really mean so blatant it was like a 2 x 4 upside the head.

You might have heard it by now. Duncan's been claiming for months that the only people who are opposed to the Common Core State Standards are tea party kooksterbobs. But that narrative was never true and it's becoming more apparent with the increasingly loud opposition, so now he's had to adjust. I'm sure it was with a heavy patronizing heart that he explained how so much of the opposition to the Common Core comes from white suburban moms who are facing--for the first time--the fact that Boopsie and Buffie are not brilliant after all. The Common Core has finally arrived and revealed the painful truth. Suburban children aren't brilliant and their schools are no good. And after all their parents have been through to secure a good home in a good neighborhood with good schools--why, this is a real "punch to the gut." Arne says what will help these poor benighted housewives is to realize that the problem we're facing is not a local one, rather it is of global dimensions. He'll help us face the truth and it will be a quicker, more painless journey with him if we know our whole nation is in jeopardy.

Well. You can imagine how that went down. City moms and country moms, black and white moms have all responded to this nonsense, and we've had teachers and scholarly entries and race and class critiques.

And there are many reasons folks are trying to stand up and shout--not just that we're extremist tin-foil hat wearers or vacuous disillusioned suburban whiners. No, folks stand up against the Common Core State Standards because they had one educator involved in their creation and dozens of representatives from testing companies; because the standards are age inappropriate in the young grades and they are flat-footed and contextless in the upper grades; because they cut into class time over hours and hours, weeks in fact, of test prep and testing.

It is these tests that cause empathetic Arne to feel for the sad suburban moms. Tests. Tests, Duncan says, which reveal the truth.

Tests reveal our children can't measure up. Tests demonstrate to the entire world that our children are inadequate. The bar graph created by all those thousands and millions of national test scores shows without a doubt that our kids are failures.

Tests tell us this. For Arne Duncan and all the corporate ed reformers, tests tell this truth. Plain. Simple. Fact.

I believe that for Arne Duncan, the primary value of a student is as a test score. Oh, he would never say this. But it shines through in all his rhetoric and all his policies. His influence in Chicago is profound. His beliefs are shared by our CPS leaders.

We CPS parents went through a wrenching spring this year in which we saw 50 public schools closed. Test scores played a huge part in that, even though that was only one of the reasons given for a brief time for the practically criminal act.

CPS parents came together last spring and decided enough was enough. A loose coalition of moms who wanted to respond in a positive way to the destruction of neighborhoods and the shuttering of viable schools came up with a plan. What are we losing? What are we in danger of losing? What is the value of the neighborhood public school? What is the value of the child in that school?

They created the Neighborhood Schools Fair. They wanted to highlight all the good things that happen in our schools. They wanted to give the schools a chance to bring their best, show it off, share it.

The Neighborhood Schools Fair happened after months of preparation on November 16th at Clemente High School. 60 schools came to show what they had to offer. Parents could visit the school's exhibits and choose from several workshops. They finished off the day with a meal together. Schools brought performers--dancers from Volta, drummers from Clemente, a string quartet from Curie; North Grand brought culinary students passing hors d'oeuvres, Roosevelt brought honey samples from their bee hives. It was a high-energy celebration of Chicago's neighborhoods and its schools which so often serve as the heart of communities.

CPS was thrilled with this event, surely. Right?

They sent folks from central office, no doubt, because they were so proud of their schools?

Right?

Nah.

They had no official response, although one network chief, Luis Soria, attended and showed his support. Actually it sort of looked like CPS tried to undermine the Neighborhood Schools Fair by scheduling a couple of other same-day parent events that had names like Fair for Neighborhood Schools or School Neighborhood Fair. Bands performed. Breakfast was served.

Yeah.

Well, no matter. These parents, these women who pulled off this huge, well-organized, wonderful event are satisfied. They know it was a positive day which showed how much our schools have to offer our kids and how much our kids have to offer our city.

I asked them how they feel the district values their children. "Everyone is really a data point," said Cassandre Creswell, one of the organizers. Literally your kids are their test scores. Test scores determine whether a school is closed, a teacher is fired, a kid held back. Our kids, she feels, are numbers on a spreadsheet.

I asked her if she thought this was an accurate valuation of children. No, of course not, no one should be valued in this way, she answered. It is dehumanizing and discards kids, discards the purpose of schools.

I pushed. Doesn't that spread sheet clearly show us, though, how bad a Level 3 school is? I mean Level 3--it's based on all kinds of data. Bad test scores, poor attendance, trends, numbers numbers numbers. How can you argue with that? You stay Level 3 for long and you get put on probation, subject to a turnaround maybe or even closing. Shouldn't we want to get rid of Level 3 schools? Don't they have pretty much nothing to offer?

"These schools," said Creswell, "have the neediest kids." These are the highest poverty kids. They're hungry, they're economically unstable, they're not going to show up at school and score well on tests. And levels are based in large part on test scores. The curriculum at these schools whose kids are struggling so much becomes all about raising the test scores, and that means test prep. In schools where a heavy test prep and testing have become critical--literally required for the school's survival--the educational emphasis can tend toward the mechanistic. Things that aren't testable are dispensable.

Somehow it seems to me that kids in such neighborhoods deserve more. "School is a lifeline out of struggle," Creswell points out--or it should be. And for such neighborhoods, the school is the heart of the community--a safe place, a place where children can achieve and shine in many ways besides their performance on high-stakes tests based on the Common Core State Standards.

We need to ask ourselves if regarding our children as data points is the best foundation on which to build education policy. Corporate ed reformers see children this way. But actual living children are so much more than a score. Their schools are so much more than dots on a graph. Privileged suburban neighborhood or impoverished community with a neglected school, we all share this. Being understood primarily in terms of data value benefits no child.

And Arne Duncan, we don't need your help to face the reality that our children are after all "not brilliant." But you clearly need our help to understand something else: we reject your mechanized view of the value of our children.

If you want a better Chicago Public Schools system please like my Facebook page and join me there for more discussion. You can also follow me on twitter @foolforcps.

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