Everything Old Is New Again

A post on the Facebook group for Illinois Raise Your Hand exploded into a debate about EdTech yesterday. It started with a question about an online math program and the challenges it posed for a tech-deficient population, and quickly turned into a veritable rehash of education reform ideas from the past century, all dressed up in today’s shiny new best: EdTech.

Leaving aside the tech resources imbalance for a moment, I’m sad (but not terribly surprised) to see that another CPS school implemented EdTech without considering, let alone consulting, its parent-student population. To quote a friend, “After a 7-hour school day, part of which is spent on electronic devices, time spent outside of school on electronics/digital media deserves a lot of scrutiny—especially for elementary-aged children.”

The research on this is clear: tech exposure is not a magic bullet to solving education’s crisis du jour. In fact, tech can be harmful to learning and development.

Frequently, parents (and educators) say that tech is important to remaining competitive in a global economy. You know what the global economy is also called? The knowledge economy. And according to this 2014 Harvard Business Review piece, the knowledge economy is a human economy.

The skills and abilities that will make our children competitive in a global economy and successful in life are the same skills and abilities that made their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents successful: the ability to use one’s brain, to think, reason, and manipulate information. These aren’t skills acquired by learning how to make a Google Slides presentation in 2nd grade. These skills are taught and learned through interactions with peers, teachers, mentors, and the natural world.

Anyway, my kids learned how to make a Google Slides presentation in 2nd or 3rd grade. Hoo. Rah. What does that really give them? Um, not much. Yes, it’s using a tool. Yes, the tool is kind of cool. But, knowing how to use an online computer program doesn’t make children more competitive in a global economy. It doesn’t add to their understanding of the way that the technology works. It doesn’t bring them closer to coding in C++. It doesn’t teach them a skill that they couldn’t pick up in 9th grade (or 12th grade). It doesn’t make them globally competitive. What will make them globally competitive and ultimately able to get and hold a job is their ability to think, reason, and communicate effectively with other humans.

And let’s not forget that being able to have the attention span to read a book or journal on paper is important. The tactile factor of books is important. I could say more on this subject, but Anne Fadiman did it so much better in her little book of essays, Ex Libris. (Do I know you? Then you probably already have a copy.)

Books, it seems, are another victim of the rise of EdTech. I took a MOOC last fall (America’s Poverty Course) and when the optional textbook arrived in the mail, my children were completely flummoxed by its appearance and usage. “What’s a textbook?” they asked.

They don’t know what a textbook is because their school doesn’t have any (that I know of/have seen). Why is that? Chicago Public Schools now requires its vendors to provide electronic versions of all textbooks, which might account for some of this. Some people say that the information contained in textbooks becomes obsolete and out-of-date.

Would I rather have an out-of-date textbook or EdTech? That depends on three things: (1) whether the book is so outdated that the information contained therein or the way it is presented is harmful to students; (2) who’s paying? CPS, the school, or in my case, parents via school fees; and (3) how old is out-of-date? 10 years? 20 years? 40 years? Longer? Modern algebra was invented in the 16th-19th century; is a textbook from 2007 outdated? I’m not sure I really believe that books still hanging around the system in 2017 on subjects like history, science, literature, and math can be outdated.

Are textbooks generally harmful to students? They could be, but we know that EdTech is harmful to students. “Research indicates that exposure to screen imagery is actually dulling our very senses.” Not only does it change the educational experience for students, but it also invades their privacy in a way that little else does. And no, it’s not the same as my using Facebook or WordPress or any other free online service for which my data is ultimately the price.

Why not? Because I’m an adult and a known entity. I get timed math anxiety, but I learned my multiplication tables 30+ years ago. My children are still literally in-development. I do not want to pay for EdTech companies to mine my children’s data while they teach themselves geometry proofs on bright, flashing SaaS programs.


Gamification, Ed Tech, and Ways of Learning

In the Chicago Mama household, we talk about learning a lot. More specifically, we talk about the ways we each learn, and what ways resonate the best with each of us, and with The Girl, The Boy, and Number Three in turn. We talk about it because it’s interesting to me. And we talk about it because three out of five of us are dyslexic.

Dyslexics learn things in a different way than everyone else, so learning how to navigate the changing educational environment is extra challenging. Dyslexia, simply, is trouble with reading. But while a lot is known about dyslexia, teachers often do not know a lot about it. It’s tough to be in a literacy-heavy school (which is every school in K-3rd grade) and have great difficulty learning to read.

In our house, this was more true for Number Three than it is for The Girl. I have often wondered if girls are simply better readers (or more drawn to reading) than boys, on average, but I have no evidence for this. A May 2016 article in the Wall Street Journal suggests that my hypothesis is a shared assumption.

The article reveals a small study published recently. In the study, which took place in France, children were given reading tests and told alternately that they were assessments or research for a new game in development. Boys scored higher than girls, comparatively, on game-related tests.

This is not surprising to The Dad, he says, because boys are more competitive than girls (or are competitive in a different way). To me, this explains the current trend of gamification in curriculum. Indeed, Mark Zuckerberg rather famously announced his intentions toward education with a Facebook post (announcement) about education in September 2015.

Little did I know at the time that my children would be soon be ensnared in the Summit PLP. Yes, I know that is a provocative way of referring to a program rolled out to six CPS schools this year in a pilot of “personalized learning.”

I’m using provocative language because this program, what it represents, and what it will do to education in America is very scary. I want you to know what is happening in your school and why this new program doesn’t have to be an example of the future of education. At this school or at any other.

In September, I authored a Facebook note about the plan to roll out something called Summit Basecamp to three grades, which directly affects 2/3 of my students. In October, I followed it up with another Facebook note, primarily a list of questions for which I am still awaiting clear answers. In November, I began hearing whispers of complaints from parents about the program. During the December round of parties and festive events, parents were no longer measuring their words about the program: Is it staying? Is there anything we can do to get rid of it?

This post is an attempt to answer those questions in a transparent way. As a policy wonk, armchair researcher, and person who occasionally reads the fine print, I have done a fair amount of research on this nascent program and its implications not only for my children, but for all children. Not surprisingly, and mirroring the responses to my own initial school-level inquiries, what I found initially was marketing fluff.

In the absence of clear answers, I refused to sign the parental consent waiver. While this has caused some extra work for a few teachers, it has also kept their skills fresh. And that’s important.

Because the implementation/instance of the PLP is a disaster.

It’s possible that Seattle could have told us that. Or New Hampshire. Certainly most parents I’ve spoken to decry the PLP’s effectiveness (as they quietly put their houses on the market, find room in the budget for parochial school, and freak out completely–or all three). It’s all anecdotal, and most people know that I am critical of the PLP, so I won’t bother to tell you the number of folks who do not think well of the PLP.

Would they change their minds if their children did well on the three required sittings of NWEA* this year? Possibly. For now, it might be enough that their children find no joy in learning. It might be enough that the competency-based grading scale with its tightly controlled weights make it extraordinarily difficult to earn a mark higher than 91%. It might be enough that students spend 3/4 of their school days looking at a glowing screen.

A growing body of research has found problems with an over-reliance on technology. In classrooms and full stop. In fact, Parents Across America has put together a number of resources and research about edtech, including this glossary that defines what all the terms (often used interchangeably) are. These terms often sound like your child is getting one-on-one education,  but nothing could be further from the truth.

Check out these resources and let me know what you think.



* more on this in a subsequent post.

On racism in America 

A few weeks ago, I reacted on Facebook to the murder of a black man by police, an event that is far too common in America. In this case, it was Philando Castile. I wrote:

At the risk of further alienating my white friends who are police officers or are married to police officers, I’m going to post about this problem. This is not a gun problem (although it IS a gun problem), this is not a mental health problem, this is not a religious extremism problem. This is racism. I’ve been to places where I was targeted or stared at because I was a white, blue-eyed, blonde woman, and it’s very disconcerting and unnerving. Can you imagine living like that every day in your home?

Castile’s murder makes me angry. But it makes me profoundly, profoundly sad. (At the risk of alienating another community, it’s more upsetting to me than Orlando.) Maybe it’s because I’ve traveled extensively, maybe it’s because I am living imposter syndrome, maybe it’s because I fight against the racism I saw and heard and absorbed by osmosis while growing up white in one of the most deeply segregated counties in America….I deeply believe that people are people and we have more in common than differences among us.

I think multiple things can be true: many cops are good and just doing their jobs. Their jobs aren’t easy. The militarization of the police as an institution is problematic, and we are increasingly seeing its effects. There are assholes and entitled people in every race and class and group. Being black in America shouldn’t be a crime.

Then I had to walk through a sketchy black neighborhood on my way to a CPS meeting. And I’m going to be honest about my own racism. I’m going to be honest about all the thoughts I had in that 0.8 mile walk. I’m going to be honest about the argument that I had in my head with myself. And I’m going to be honest that having that argument with myself was a privilege afforded me by the color (or not) of my skin.

Because walking through that neighborhood was scary. It could have been dangerous, but was it really dangerous? Was it frightening to me because it was unknown and unfamiliar? Was someone really going to hurt me? Did it cross their minds? No, don’t be ridiculous, I told myself. No one is going to hurt me, they are doing their business, living their lives. I can’t believe you’re thinking this; you sound like a racist asshole.  

I walked along Lake Street, where a bunch of cars were parked, with men exiting their cars and setting up some kind of BBQ on the street–actually on the street–with lawnchairs and other equipment. I passed some blighted lawns, a guy in the shadows of a doorway, a man and a woman having an exchange outside a corner store, a crowd of men in bright blue shirts in front of a car wash, one of whom stopped me to “ask you a question,” which took the form of offering me a job. It seemed like a joke, that he was ribbing me.

I turned north up Homan Avenue, toward Westinghouse College Prep. On that street, I passed a few more blighted lawns and two guys working on a pick-up truck on the street. I walked on broken sidewalk littered with broken glass. Cars sped past me in both directions on Homan Avenue. Several thoughts occurred to me: I am lucky to have this privilege. Would a black person who got off at the wrong stop arrive meander my neighborhood attract little notice? And I’d never send my kid to Westinghouse College Prep. 

I crossed under the tracks and came to the Westinghouse property. A beautiful football field and track, a brand-new building, 11′ high fencing. I’ve never seen 11′ fencing around a school before. Our school’s fencing is about 4′ or 5′ high. It so clearly delineated to me: this is nice, and you stay out. Some fencing is about keeping people in. This fencing was about keeping people out. Not about keeping the lucky kids who attend Westinghouse in, although I suppose it could be about that too: keeping the benighted few inside the football field to rattle their brains around in football helmets, away from the impoverished blight of the surrounding neighborhood. 

Then I entered the school snd it’s freezing cold auditorium and listened to CPS tell lies (spin if you prefer) about keeping budget cuts out of classrooms. That’s  a different kind of racism, for a different day. 

ISBE ESSA Listening Tour

Last week, representatives from ISBE were in Chicago to review significant points of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and take testimony on how the state should incorporate the accountability measure required by the legislation. It was designed for policy types from organizations affected by ESSA, but attending a 4:30 meeting in the Loop on a Thursday isn’t always easy. I was one of a handful of parents who spoke. Here’s my statement:

My name is Caroline Bilicki, and I am a parent of three children who attend CPS. I am also an active member of a Local School Council, belong to the Illinois PTA, and volunteer with Illinois Raise Your Hand. I previously sat on the Illinois Assessment Review Task Force in 2014 and 2015.

I am here today to testify on the state’s continued emphasis on testing and accountability of children, and its policies to enforce the same. I’ve read your powerpoint slides, and you can argue that they use different language, that the tests are to provide accountability of teachers and administrators, and systems.

As I tell my children, you can keep repeating that, but it doesn’t make it true.

As a parent, as a problem-solver, as a thinker, as a humanist, I refuse to believe that any system that has children taking SIX YEARS of yearly standardized tests to measure their achievement tells me (or you) anything about my children as students except that they’ve learned how to take a standardized test. The system you’ve created doesn’t create accountability and better education; it creates haves and have-nots, a system that is so focused on the outcome that it forgets what the purpose of public education is.

Illinois must take strong steps to be included in the innovation assessment pilot to explore authentic assessment. Authentic assessment is important. Much more important to short-term well-being and long-term outcomes of students. My children’s teachers’ authentic assessment of their strengths and weaknesses has added depth and nuance to my understanding of my children as students, as well as added value to my relationships with each of my children. Standardized test results are worse than a value-add; they are a value-subtract because they take so much time and so many resources away from the process of daily learning.

Frankly, I am sick of it. I think our children would be collectively better off if the state mandated ways for parents to become involved in their children’s education that improved children’s well-being.

This system is grounded entirely on the notion of comparisons, and that comparisons are good. Comparing students is a harmful practice. It’s harmful to the students themselves, and it’s harmful to teachers, schools, communities, districts and educational practice in general. Teddy Roosevelt famously quipped, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Please stop robbing elementary education of joy.

Mechanizing… childhood?

American students, it seems, cannot compete with their Singaporean or Chinese counterparts, as measured by PISA scores. Our lack of prowess on the PISA seems to justify the test-heavy, hyper-achievement-focused competitive world our children live (and learn) in these days.

And that’s why Americans are spending upwards of 8 hours testing 3rd graders’ ability to do math four different ways and figure out which “deep reading strategy” is really the right answer. That’s why we have the Common Core State Standards, and why we point fingers at anyone who’s doing better with a cry of, “They cherry-pick their testing cohort!”

Um, maybe. But so what? We are talking about tenths of percentage point differences. And why? So we can “compete.” Why? Why is that competition important?!?

I’ve been asking this question for three years. I’m not the only one still waiting for an answer.

The difference in teaching methods is how we got the CCCSS in the first place. I think it’s awesome that educators recognize that not everyone learns in the same way. It’s also true that testing 3rd graders to make sure they are on track as 11th graders is ridiculous. We are trying to mechanize teaching (or more appropriately, we are trying to mechanize students) even further than we already have, and we want to quantify things that really can’t be quantified. I had chronic “not working up to her potential” grades as a child, and I tanked on standardized tests as soon as I figured out that the stakes were high (when I didn’t yet know what the stakes were, I did well). And yet, I’m constantly learning and trying to learn things, information, skills. Isn’t that the people we want running the show? Critical thinkers and lifelong learners?

PTA and the Propaganda of Common Core

I feel very conflicted about the Congress of Parents and Teachers these days. I’ve been a member of the organization since I started as a parent in public school, and I can’t imagine not supporting my local chapter through membership (and dues).

But, but, but: I have no idea what the PTA as an organization is thinking these days.

In 2009, the national PTA took a bunch of money from the Gates Foundation to push support for the Common Core.  OK, I know from experience with the national PTA trainers and the Illinois PTA folks I’ve met that the campaign was about sharing information. But it says right in the press release (link via the Wayback Machine) that national PTA was engaged to “mobilize parents to advance key education priorities.” That’s just a fancy way of saying that they are pushing parental support for the Common Core.

It took a few years for the CCSS message to trickle down through national PTA’s members, for educators to draft and implement new lesson plans that meet the new standards, and for companies like Pearson and consortia like Smarter Balanced to design and implement the standardized assessments (PARCC and SBAC)  to measure educators’ success in implementing the standards.

And that’s about when the backlash from PTA members started. The backlash started in New York, where the anti-testing movement has also been strong. In the fall 2013, then-NY state education commissioner John King, Jr. canceled a series of townhalls about Common Core that he was scheduled to present because the first one went so badly. This man is now the U.S. Secretary of Education.

While you contemplate that scary thought for awhile, let’s go back to the PTA.

I have written about my past involvement with Illinois PTA. I am no longer an active member of the state body. As I told both Illinois PTA leaders when I resigned and a friend today, the problem with Illinois PTA is that, while their intentions are good, the 100% volunteer nature of the organization creates a vacuum of organization-level involvement. The people who have kids on the ground and in the schools do not have time to run the organization, and the people who are running the organization are often older or no longer have children in school. In Illinois PTA, most of the people who have time are grandparents. They may not be the best people to make agreements or set policy.

I resigned my position in 2015 in part because of the time issue. But I think a lot of it also was that I was tired of ramming my head against the national policy. And because of the tiered membership organization structure, state policy was dictated by national policy, and seemed intractable. It continues to seem that way.

At this time last year, I literally had a voracious disagreement with an 86-year-old lifetime member of Illinois PTA about whether the state organization should support or oppose HB306 after the current president-elect suggested Illinois PTA sign on to an oppose measure with Illinois Stand for Children.* Seriously? IANAL, but I was quoting bylaws and leg platforms like a boss. 

After almost a year outside the state organization, I am annoyed anew at Illinois PTA’s policy and stance on standardized assessments. I don’t have it in me to fight the fight against the entrenched national policy on CCSS as a volunteer. I’ll vote with my feet, by walking away from involvement with the state organization. But also, I’m sad to see what PTA is coming to. I feel like it’s soon going to become Hull House: a has-been legacy of secular humanism.


* I actually had forgotten this detail, but looked up the email chain to refresh my memory and all the big feels came rushing back.