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.


Cognitive Dissonance

Or why I’m still in the public education system despite this mess (or this one.)

My kids attend a very well-regarded northside magnet with good test scores and an emphasis on academic achievement. They also attend a very well-regarded northside magnet with amazing, caring, nurturing teachers, a strong and supportive and engaged parent community, and a curriculum that includes art, music, technology, and P.E. It is amazing that the school does as well as it does with its chronic underfunding and pressure to cure all of society’s ill’s on less per student per year than it costs for full-time daycare. I

It is not a perfect school, but it is a very good school.

I stay at the public school in the city because it is hard-wired in me from childhood to support public education. To a paraphrase a friend and fellow school parent, I live this commitment to public education.

I stay because I don’t think I can effectively advocate for change from the outside. I stay because I “can’t”* afford private school. I stay because my kids’ teachers are so freaking awesome—from the art teacher who made The Girl feel special one morning in 2nd grade when she was feeling low and didn’t want to go to school, to her current 5th grade teacher who knows when to give her a hug and when to talk through a problem with her, to #3’s 3rd grade teacher who inspired him to work harder by making a sports analogy, to The Boy’s 7th grade math teacher who is not only teaching him 9th grade algebra, but doing so with kindness and open mind. I stay because my fellow parents all want to do the best by/for our children. I stay because quitting when you don’t like something (rather than working to change it) isn’t the value I want my kids to have about education or work, but perseverance is a value I want them to have.

I am a questioner. I am a critical thinker. I spend a lot of time thinking about these issues, reading about them, and talking/typing about them. For me, this questioning and thinking and talking isn’t a wholesale condemnation of my (kids’) individual public school or of the whole system, although I can see why someone would reach that conclusion. I think there are problems everywhere—nothing is ever going to be perfect, but (to me) there is value in the discussion, even though to outsiders it may seem like constant complaining.

* can’t being a relative term, a shortened form of “I have chosen a different path, which makes it difficult for me to afford private school.”

American Paternalism

A huge thank you to Nihal Goyal and The Nation, for covering an issue that’s been looming large in my brain (again) this week: how leaders know what our children need educationally better than the students (and their parents) progressing through the educational system, and the deep paternalistic view that drives those decisions. Do as I say, not as I do.

Come on. If Google engineers send their children to Waldorf schools, and eschew technology as a teaching tool, why should the poor kids get the dregs? I wrote about this several years ago, and Goyal’s story only confirms my instinct. In an online discussion yesterday about finding a “good” elementary school, I wrote this:

What seems telling to me is that the thinkers and doers of our generation send their kids to schools that don’t grade, don’t measure in data, don’t standardize test, don’t give homework in early grades, and do offer art, music, plenty of recess, etc. These schools are rarely all academic or all warm and fuzzy. They know that a mix of styles and approaches is appropriate. However, what separates the schools where the children of the elite attend and the children of public aid attend is usually money/time/resources and lots of them.

One of my fellow parents wrote that s/he believed that the education world has changed because our world has changed to need complex, strategic thinkers.

I don’t get that point of view.

The people who created this project-based, “complex strategic thinker” world came, in fact, from an education system that allowed more time and space for free play and exploration of alternative subjects. And, odds are, those complex strategic thinkers were the kinds of kids who tanked their SATs, dropped out of college because they were square pegs jammed into a round hole. As is true of so many things, we need people who have a range of talents and abilities and ways of thinking.

Maybe it’s because I (don’t think of myself as) a particularly complex strategic thinker. I am a complex, detail-oriented thinker. I am an intuitive thinker. And the world goes round through the talents and work of both (and many) types of people. Not everyone’s gonna be a Richard Branson or Bill Gates or Sergey Brin. What about the people who focus on the details Branson needs to make everything work? Those skills are important too.

Dyslexia, Special Skills, Literacy and How the World Goes Round

I am a writer. I can’t help it. Communicating via the written word is hard-wired into my psyche. I’m also a “serious,” regular reader. Anne Fadiman, with her life of letters and essays on reading/books, is my real-life literary hero. I quote children’s books like most people quote song lyrics. Until recently, couldn’t fathom living in a world where reading and writing (a/k/a literacy) wasn’t a central component of school, work, life.

That recently came first in November, and again in February, when both The Girl and Number Three were found to be dyslexic, plunging me into a whole new world where reading to learn involves a completely different set of skills than my right-brained self was used to. Like many others who found themselves in this position, I immediately reached out to an online community, joining a few Facebook groups for parents of dyslexic children, and subscribing to /r/dyslexia.

As a reader, writer, and intuitive thinker, I find it difficult to absorb and integrate this new information into my world view. It’s classic cognitive dissonance. But, along with my identity as a writer and reader, I also identify strongly as a learner. Learning about my children’s dyslexia is a new subject to explore, and to learn about. Ben Foss and the Dyslexia Buddy Network are helping me out, although it’s taken me almost three months to even partially process what I’ve learned.

In a way, learning this about my children has made me stronger. And maybe a little bit more flexible. It certainly has recalibrated my level of annoyance or frustration when my 3rd grader asks me to spell paint.

But, interestingly enough, although I see a lot of talk about the need for students today to develop complex, strategic thinking and creative solutions, I don’t see education systems really willing to embrace an alternative path to develop those complex, strategic thinking and solving skills. The ones that kind of come naturally to students with dyslexia, but not so easily to right-brained thinkers like myself. In modern education, we continue to focus on acquisition of literacy skills (or learning to read) until about 4th grade, when we start focusing on reading to learn. That’s a problem when one’s brain can’t process the written word in that way.

Go to your room

I have no real tips for dealing with sibling rivalry. My usual method of dealing with squabbling (petty or otherwise) is to–wholesale–send children to their rooms. I don’t want to play judge, I don’t care whose fault it is, and I don’t want to know who started it.

I feel the same way about CPS, CTU, and the state of Illinois right now. No one is acting like a clear-headed grown-up. Everyone’s blaming someone else. In both situations, I am the parent without a clue how to solve the squabbling, who can only wait it out, and hope that all my prior lessons and modeling of fairness will percolate through the surface while the child stews in his/her room.