Taming Godzilla, Preemptively?

A few weeks ago, my friend and colleague Sandy Merz suggested we write a blog together, in the form of a conversation.  Since I usually learn something from him, and he always makes me think, and he rarely steals my spotlight (however small it may be), I agreed wholeheartedly.  Enjoy!

Amethyst: How can we best ensure that the implementation of the Common Core Standards is about better quality learning and not just preparation for the new standardized assessments? Or is it possible that those two goals could actually be one and the same?

Sandy: Taking the second question first – the aim is that the two goals become one and the same.  And no doubt the most fired-up advocates of CCSS take for granted that they are. I’m a cautious advocate because in spite of their promise, I don’t see protections in place that will prevent CCSS assessments from becoming the Godzilla of standardized tests with all the attendant misery to students, parents, and teachers, and misuse by opinion leaders and policy makes.

Amethyst: I agree with your last statement.  I appreciate many things about the CCSS (Or the CCRS or whatever Arizona calls them now), especially the rigor required to truly meet the standards.  I think a classroom informed by them will prepare students well for their futures. However, “Godzilla of standardized tests” is an apt phrase.  A creature born of deep human dysfunction which comes back as a defender of the people, but which cavalierly knocks down an awful lot of buildings in the process. Once Godzilla is awakened, humanity has no real control over his actions.  Luckily, unlike with Godzilla, states and districts have a lot of control over how they develop instruction and assessment related to the CCSS, but so often good ideas become coopted for political messages or personal ideologies, and a monster can so easily be created. Especially with such demand for accountability in schools.

taming-godzilla-preemptivelyKeeping teachers engaged, reflective and vocal about their experiences might help in choosing reasonable paths to full implementation.  However, I often worry whether parents, opinion leaders and policy makers will take the time to have a more full understanding of what happens in classrooms, and the costs and limits of standardized assessments. How can we keep CCSS more like, say, a clean energy than Godzilla?

Sandy: I think the way to keep Godzilla contained is communication targeted to the specific audience.

Take parents. I have a friend who’s been doubtful – negative, even – about the CCSS. He sent me an article about students in Albany who were to read Nazi propaganda and then take the role of a Nazi government official having to prove his or her loyalty by writing an essay proving that Jews were the source of Germany’s problems: “You must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”

We discussed it on Facebook. I sent him a link to a piece by the right-leaning think tank EducationNext  and pointed out the distinctions between standards and curriculum. I reminded him that national standards were really not a new thing: After all, we took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills together back in the Johnson administration. Finally, I pointed out that a teacher didn’t need the CCSS to exercise bad judgment and that the case in the article could have easily happened without the CCSS.

 He answered that he had concluded that on its own the Common Core was pretty benign, but had been “cranked up” by some tangential policies his state was coming up with.

Moving to communication with policy makers. In my only exchange with a policy maker about the CCSS, I commented that there was any mention of workplace standards. I’ve recently attended events where talking to policy makers in their own terms was discussed a lot. Politicians are most receptive to short messages that provide data, tell a story, and include a specific “ask.”

As messengers, teachers can spread the word about the impact of policy in the classroom by joining professional and social networks that have have a broad reach and heterogeneous membership. We’re then placed to initiate discussions about the Common Core and respond positively to false assertions.

Amethyst: I agree with all you’ve said. So, let’s assume that teachers feel confident and able to speak their minds and engage with a variety of audiences (although I think both you and I know that is not true.) You brought up the concern that protections aren’t in place to prevent the development of a monstrous system of standardized testing. That concerns me as well. You know that the Godzilla of all tests would mean big money for the testing companies, and they have influence. What kinds of protections do you think need to be in place? Are we talking state laws? Guidance from the USDE? I know as a teacher of tenth graders, the unknowns about the PARCC exam in Arizona are so many that it’s hard to even “talk back.”

Sandy: You know, Amethyst, I think it’s more important why teachers don’t feel confident in speaking their minds.  The easy answer is to fault the system and insecure administrators who want total top-down control – and I know in some cases that’s true – plenty of cases, actually.  But talking to teacher leaders who do speak out, I’ve learned that one’s doubts is more daunting than standing up to power.  Reflecting on a change in one’s professional role leads naturally to apprehension, and it’s easier to stay where one is comfortable.

Regarding how I would like to see protections put in place:  I would trust a bottom-up approach – school to district to state to USDE, more than a top-down approach with protections starting with the USDE. I’d admire a state or district who would talk forward, instead of talking back, saying something like, “These are testing conditions we find acceptable, how can we help you accommodate us?” Now, it’s pretty lame to suggest it would be that easy. But now is the time to listen to what candidates and policy makers are saying and to communicate with those whose positions provide the most sensible checks on testing.

Amethyst: Given the opportunity to state what sort of CCSS assessment would reflect learning in my classroom, I’d have to go with a system of anchored portfolios with various types of student work samples and reflections, a ridiculously expensive, possibly masochistic, and yet authentic option that would be useful to my students and to me.

I know you’ve mentioned the idea of smaller, more targeted assessments. That appeals to me as well on a number of levels, because it would reflect growth, allow for conversations about learning, and likely not become an over-politicized monster from the depths. But besides cost, whatever happened to portfolios?

Anyway. Here we are toward the end of our time together. I had hoped we might spar a bit more, but I like your ideas and think they are really quite brilliant. I’ll leave you with the last word, Sandy.

Sandy: Thanks Amethyst.  I’m all for portfolios, starting early and staying with as they go through school.  The portfolio could be digitized and show pictures or art work, music performances, sports, and the like. (And, of course, grades and standardized test results.) I’d have privacy concerns – where is the portfolio stored?  Who has access? Who is the “custodian” of the portfolio? – Things like that.

The main goal of smaller, targeted assessments would be to test the test for validity. Using it formatively, to highlight and address student deficiencies would be secondary, in the beginning at least.

Here’s an idea, that I don’t know I’ve heard before – what if teachers (or schools) scheduled these smaller, more targeted standardized tests based on when they thought their students had mastered the material?

And one final idea that I wrote about in Vulgar and Perilous Reforms would have the community – teachers, families, businesses, the university, etc. work together to come up with learning goals and a plan for the year. Then a couple of times during the year, they could meet together and discuss performance and adjust as necessary. How revolutionary would that be?

Amethyst: I know I said you could have last word, but I lied: You mean, teachers would decide when to assess students, in a smaller, more targeted way in order to plan their instruction? Like back in olden times, but with a new, collaborative, standards-based approach and no Big Testing Corporations? Makes perfect National Board sense to me.


Amethyst Hinton Sainz

I currently teach English Language Development at Rhodes Junior High in Mesa Public Schools. I love seeing the incredible growth in my students and being an advocate for them. I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Adolescent and Young Adult English Language Arts. Before this position I taught high school English in Arizona for 20 years.

My alma maters are Blue Ridge High School and the University of Arizona. My bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Philosophy led me toward the College of Education, and I soon realized that the creative challenges of teaching would fuel me throughout my career. My love of language, literature and culture led me to the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College for my masters in English Literature. I am a fellow with the Southern Arizona Writing Project, and that professional development along with, later, the National Board process, has been the most influential and transformative learning for me. I enjoy teaching students across the spectrum of academic ability, and keeping up with new possibilities for technology in education, as well as exploring more topics in STEM.

In recent years, much of my professional development has focused on teacher leadership, but I feel like I am still searching for exactly what that means for me.

I live in Mesa, Arizona with my family. I enjoy them, as well as my vegetable garden, our backyard chickens, our dachshund Roxy, reading, writing, cooking (but not doing dishes), hiking and camping, and travel, among other things.

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