Louise Law & John Stifler: Look between the lines on education 'reform'

Last modified: Wednesday, May 21, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — Some influential people who cry for educational “reform” in the U.S. have mustered extensive political and financial support to determine how America’s schools teach America’s children. The latest manifestation of their success is the introduction of the Common Core State Standards — curriculum guidelines now adopted by 44 states and the District of Columbia — and two new standardized tests, PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) and Smarter Balanced, to measure students’ progress under those guidelines.

If you have children in certain local schools, you may have heard of PARCC; the tests are being given in pilot form in selected districts in several states. According to their proponents, these tests will tell us how well public schools are preparing our children for higher education and a world defined by global competition.

This sales job is at best a mistake, at worst a hoax. It manipulates politics and public opinion to serve corporate interests at society’s expense. Teachers, parents, school committees and legislators need to persuade the Massachusetts Department of Education to back away from the PARCC tests and from Pearson, the international publishing company that has secured the contract to design and deliver those tests.

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Pearson, which maintains an office in Hadley, has a long history of glitches and scoring errors that have cost districts and states considerable time and money. It has also engaged in questionable promotional practices. As the New York Times reported in 2011, Pearson’s charitable foundation underwrote travel to international conferences for states’ education commissioners, the people responsible for deciding which publishing company would get contracts for designing the new tests.

Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester and David Steiner of New York were two of six who took a Pearson-sponsored trip to London. When the New York Attorney General’s office found the foundation in violation of laws against the use of charitable funds to promote for-profit activities, Pearson paid $7.7 million to settle the case.

This new testing plan is part of Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s variation on the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind legislation, which was supposed to make all American children proficient in math and reading skills by 2014.

The PARCC tests themselves, however, appear poorly designed — or purposely designed to ensure that plenty of students will fail them.

Administered twice a year (instead of just once, as MCAS is), the tests will be taken on line and will more than double the amount of school time spent on testing instead of teaching. Pearson anticipates enormous profits from its test contracts and from the instructional materials it will be able to sell to “failing” schools. Meanwhile, under Bush-Obama policy, students’ scores on the new tests can be used to evaluate teachers and to remove control of a school from its administration and school committee, handing it over to the state government — or to a private company.

In 2013, New York administered Pearson-designed prototype tests in public schools in grades 3-11, and 70 percent of students failed. Afterward, students, parents and teachers questioned the tests’ length and confusing contents. This year, more than 30 principals of historically high-achieving schools in New York City demonstrated against the way these tests seem characterized by ambiguous wording and questions inappropriate for the specified grade level.

Pilot PARCC tests given this spring in several Massachusetts schools repeat New York’s experience. Locally, a teacher invited children to write poems about the test afterward. One response:

A blank screen

Filled with words



Making our hands



Into a pool

Of charred flesh

And dead brain cells


From a formula that no one knows.

Massachusetts maintains the highest student performance standards in the country. A sixth-grader in a western Massachusetts school that has regularly scored near the top on the MCAS observed of the PARCC test, “This isn’t testing what we know. It’s testing what we don’t know.”


The tests will identify purported failures of America’s schools and enable Pearson to sell “solutions” to these problems. If the kids don’t know this stuff, they can buy Pearson’s books and digital instructional materials, which explain it really well.

Besides, in 2013 Pearson’s stock price lost 5.9 percent in value, its largest decline since 2002. At one point this year, Pearson’s stock price dropped 25 percent, and Goldman Sachs lowered the company’s rating. Pearson needs to reassure its investors.

Pearson’s Hadley office is advertising for people locally to read and score these tests — advertising on Craigslist, and offering $13 an hour. “Current & former teachers encouraged to apply.”

Massachusetts’ schools will not have to use the PARCC next year. They’ll be offered the option of using the MCAS at least once more. However, the MCAS will count in calculating whether a school is making the yearly progress required by federal legislation, while the PARCC won’t count yet. For struggling schools, this policy gives a clear incentive to use the PARCC test immediately.

The contents of PARCC are almost entirely secret. Only a few sample questions are available online. According to teachers who have glimpsed portions of these tests or heard about them from students, some tests have included contents taken directly from Pearson-published products – an unfair advantage for schools that buy their materials from Pearson, since their pupils are more likely to respond quickly to these questions and to understand the answers.

The conflict of interest continues. A consultant advising the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) about its needs — and paid $250,000 by the Commonwealth for doing so — is Sir Michael Barber, Pearson’s chief education advisor.

The Core Curriculum’s chief architect, David Coleman, is a principal of Student Achievement Partners, whose sole business is developing the CCSS. Coleman’s company has received $6.5 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The new tests are computerized. They require software upgrades and in some cases new computers. The computer industry likes this corporate reform very well.

The story here is of an ongoing effort to privatize education — an effort ostensibly supported by the argument that if public education were run like a business, it would produce a better product.

But competitive business is not a good model for education. Businesses need to make profits. Schools need to do something different: they need to create not only individual success but public goods, i.e., benefits to society that are not measured by stock prices.

The profit-driven approach creates incentives to cut faculty and to rely more on computer-based learning.

Computer-based learning, however, has a poor track record. In 2011 the New York Times found that students in a highly touted virtual school in Pennsylvania, who did most of their “learning” on line, scored far below the state average in terms of math and language skills: 42 percent were at grade level or better in math, compared to 75 percent in conventional schools statewide; in reading, the numbers were 52 percent compared with 72 percent in conventional schools.

In Ohio, Colorado and Oregon the Times reporter found similar results. In Greenfield, the Massachusetts Virtual Academy opened in 2010 with the curriculum of the for-profit company K12 Inc.; by 2012, its students’ performance in math and reading had fallen to second-lowest in the commonwealth.

Educators in Massachusetts and across the country need to oppose this trend toward privatization, secrecy and top-down control.

Rather than allow schools to be driven by tests that are designed, delivered, reported and analyzed by a for-profit company, we need to give teachers more time to teach their students and to observe, in the classroom, how well they are progressing.

We can enhance our current assessment system to measure student learning in alignment with the new Common Core standards. Good assessment methods hold our public schools accountable for students’ progress in a way that strengthens those schools. We need measures of student learning that inform teaching, not corporate maneuvers to sell products.

Louise Law is the director of elementary education for the Union # 38 School District. John Stifler teaches writing in the Department of Economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.


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