This week, we learned ACT Aspire, the Common Core test supported by the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents, backed out of the bid process for Mississippi’s testing contract after new restrictions were placed on the vendors. There’s allegations of conflicts of interest. Do yourself a favor and read the Clarion Ledger article linked above. Ever since testing started, I have been looking for a teacher or parent of a school aged child in Mississippi who thinks the PARCC test we’re administering is beneficial to Mississippi’s students or education in general. I haven’t found a single one. I’ve heard support for the Common Core Standards. I’ve heard support for testing in general. But for those who are seeing it from the foxholes, PARCC seems to be considered a complete disaster. The attitude is to simply endure “the one year” and hope for a better test next year. But change seems to be eluding us. We seem doomed for a decade of endless PARCC madness. None of these observations are scientific, obviously- I’m just reporting the sentiment from the front lines.
We also found out this week Mississippi high school seniors will no longer be required to pass SATP tests in order to graduate. For those who complain that test scores are used too much to judge teachers’, schools’, and districts’ job performance, publicly, here’s insult to injury: The kids can sleep through every standardized test from middle school through high school, and you’ll see them snag that diploma at graduation anyway. If you still have a job, that is. You’re welcome.
When I decided to start blogging, I wanted my site to be a showcase for bright spots in Mississippi education. I wanted to devote my writing efforts to help highlight stories of hope and hidden points of pride that were going on in education. I wanted to brag to my friends and family about how wonderful it is to be a teacher in Mississippi.
But since my blog started, it seems public education in Mississippi has been under an unprecedented assault. Good news is being roundly defeated. If I want to talk teaching, I have no choice but to bring up a whirlwind of confusion and disfunctionality.
Here’s how it feels on the ground: As a public school teacher in Mississippi, I feel like the house I teach in is going up in flames. It’s terrifying, but I can’t just run out. There are kids in here who can’t afford for it to burn down. I was born and raised in the most needy, impoverished state in my country. My students are desperate for teachers to change their lives. They need more folks to start grabbing buckets to put out the fire. But for some reason, however this fire started, it feels like there are people outside who aren’t content to just watch us trip over ourselves, frantically trying to salvage our state’s education system. Sometimes I swear I can hear faint splashes of gasoline against the windows.
You see, this could be it. This could be the big one, the last battle, the cliff. We might soon finally find out what happens if you’re 50th and you keep getting worse. Destroy a kid’s love of learning, and you may never regain her trust. Lose her trust, and she stops investing in her education. She stops listening to her teachers. She stops caring about coming to school. She loses her academic footing. She drops out. Her ability to compete for jobs slips away forever.
This is these kids’ livelihoods on the line. It’s our state’s future. And apparently it’s not just me who’s noticing. A grassroots campaign called Fed Up With 50th has swept the state from the Coast to the Tennessee Line, and it’s gaining momentum. It is time for us to have an honest, fact-based conversation about education in Mississippi. And to begin, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered.
The Demolition Hypothesis
I was raised to show respect to the Powers That Be. I understand that they are professionals, they have more experience than I do, and that many of them are experts in the field of education. I’m a relative newbie; I have no misconceptions about that. I do not claim to have the answers to this problem, or to know better than those who have worked hard to achieve the positions they’ve got. Since my “Snow Days” blog, I’ve had several people urge me to air out sentiments common to teachers these days, but I had refused. I’m not out to gain cheap notoriety by biting the hands that have fed me so well. I know there are good people at MDE. I’ve worked for some of them. I still believe there’s good in the Common Core Standards. I do not believe that any legislators in Jackson actually want Mississippi to remain 50th. I’ve just honestly never been more discouraged with the state of Mississippi education, and I believe the absolute worst thing I can do is shrug it off, go home, and recharge for tomorrow with Netflix and a burger.
I cannot help but to ask questions and create hypothetical explanations. I’m a science teacher. That’s what we do.
I’ve started comparing decisions made in Mississippi Education to what I’ve termed The Demolition Hypothesis. It’s a horrible scenario I desperately want to prove is not our reality. In fact I look for information to poke holes in this explanation. It’s simply a control to compare our situation with. In this imaginary hypothesis, decisions made by the Powers That Be are cleverly deceitful steps made to undermine and ultimately destroy public education. In the Demolition Hypothesis, the legislature is working underhandedly to privatize education. They maintain a rigorous testing culture to collect massive amounts of data to support a hypothesis that public schools are failing. They want public schools to fail so that the public will lose trust in them, and accept a manufactured solution in the form of private schools, charter schools, and vouchers. They want students to hate the school day. They want teachers to be so overworked, underpaid, and demoralized that they quit their jobs. They want parents to have no safe haven from poor education but to pull their kids out and jump ship to private schools.
As I said, this is not what I believe. Our brains are much too skilled at seeing patterns where there are none, and the unfortunate effects of dozens of random actions is sometimes too hard to accept. But some people don’t know what to believe. I run into them at the grocery store, at the movies, and at family gatherings at home. They ask me what in the world is going on with education in Mississippi. Questions upon questions that I can’t answer. Again- I’m “just” a public school teacher. I just want to go into my classroom, teach science to my 8th graders, and come out to write blogs about how awesome it’s going. That’s it. But I feel like the walls of the classroom are closing in around us, pushing in on our ability to learn together. And even I’m starting to wonder why.
So I’ll just put the questions out there, respectfully. Mississippi voters and stakeholders in education want to know. What’s more, they have a right to know. I fully assume that there are intelligent, reasonable explanations for each of these. I just don’t have the answers to connect the dots for the folks in charge. Communication is always a good thing.
1. How is all this testing supposed to actually improve public education in Mississippi?
What do you, our state leaders, think of the work of experts like former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch who show that rigorous testing doesn’t actually work, and that test scores are simply an indicator of poverty levels? Do you assume to understand the problem better than people who have spent decades researching it? Or do you perhaps have other studies we teachers don’t know about, which we could share with our neighbors to support your position? Where is the evidence that increasing standardized testing actually helps Mississippi students?
2. Can we not- at the very least- agree to learn from the mistakes of other states?
What do you think about how rigorous testing failed to improve education in Florida? Do you have any plans to ensure that their vouchers catastrophe won’t happen here? Is there a master plan we’re operating off of, or are we essentially throwing spitballs at the wall to see what sticks? If there is a master plan, does it have a certain philosophical leaning? Don’t Mississippi’s citizens have a right to know what that philosophy is?
3. Why are you taking accountability away from students and heaping more on teachers?
Is it because you think Mississippi’s teachers are more to blame for our ranking as 50th than our students’ impoverished life situations, or what happened to them for years before they met us, or the decisions they make about how they spend their time? How does it prepare them for job accountability in their futures? Do you have any data to support this approach, which would contradict the overwhelming body of research that says income inequality is much more of a factor than teacher failure?
4. Why can’t we try funding the schools?
Do we really think underfunding public schools prepares kids better for life? Does it increase test scores? Is it really part of the solution? Why did you create MAEP if you didn’t think funding was important? Why do you deem it unacceptable to give full funding to public schools who have strict accountability, yet completely acceptable to take public money and give it to private schools with no accountability whatsoever?
5. How are you helping Mississippi public education?
We know you’re doing your best, but what would the Demolition Hypothesis look like in action? In an alternate universe where evil lizard people control Jackson, if they were trying to destroy public education in our state, what would they be doing differently?
Again, I’m just a teacher who is passionate about providing the best education for his students, and who wants to understand as much as he can about his state’s plans to improve. There are thousands of teachers like me- better than me. We’re tossed, turned, and confused. Give us the answers we need so we can understand how to help you improve education in Mississippi.