Dissecting the PARCC Propaganda

By Lynn Fedele

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) website offers a vast array of information about this new, untried assessment system, and it is designed to sell the PARCC assessments to parents and educators on all levels. As the PARCC is tied to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the website does a good job of promoting those standards, too. Published within a handbook for “State and District Leaders” in implementing the PARCC and the CCSS is chapter 4, titled “Organize to Implement: Getting the Message Out.” It is a 14-page long public relations manual, replete with charts and graphs and all sorts of useful suggestions.

The Montclair Schools have had an interesting relationship with the notion and function of public relations over the past year, and this year Central Services has hired its own public relations professional. While Mr. Frankel is indeed busy in selling the notion that all changes coming from the state and through superintendent MacCormack are working wonderfully, the public relations efforts to support the CCSS and the PARCC go beyond one man’s effort and employment with the school district. A close look at the PARCC’s chapter on organizing public support is telling; while any public relations work needs to be tailored to local populations and concerns, there is a good deal in the handbook that resonates loudly and clearly here in Montclair.

So let’s take a look at what the PARCC suggests.

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The chapter begins this way:

“One risk faced by any change effort is ‘undercommunicating by a factor of 10, or even 100.’ The communications effort should receive the same amount of effort as the implementation effort.” While this may seem innocuous enough, the implementation effort includes redesigning curriculum, updating technology, ordering and adapting new materials, and accelerating the level of instruction (frequently beyond grade level). These efforts have taken countless hours, a lot of money, and have upended many of our classrooms, not necessarily for the better.  That public relations should take as much time and effort is troubling. There’s an old cliche, “A good idea sells itself.” This opening statement seems like an admission that this is not a good idea and that the community will take a lot of convincing to get on board.
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Their first suggestion? It’s the first section, “Build a Base of Support by Establishing a ‘Guiding Coalition.'”
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First, they address why this has to happen:
“Flagging public support can push implementation off the rails. Pressure to water down student expectations may build, for example, once new assessment results show that students are not as prepared as once believed.”
The students are being assessed by a system that is largely untried. They are being assessed on standards that are being found to be frequently developmentally inappropriate. It’s not a matter of our students being under-educated, or our schools being underdeveloped, or of our teachers not having high expectations for learning; it is a matter of the PARCC being an unfair test.  What PARCC characterizes as “pressure to water down student expectations” is the joined voices of teachers, parents, education specialists, and students themselves saying that curriculum and assessment need to be fair, to be developmentally appropriate, to be focused on creating skills for life-long learning; these are voices saying clearly that demanding too much too fast is damaging  to children.
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The section continues, “Inevitably, state and district leaders need help in keeping rigorous expectations for students at the heart of their agenda. Though the strategic implementation team (district administrative employees responsible for getting the schools ready to administer the test) plays a key role in supporting their agenda, a small group of highly visible and credible leaders are needed to sustain effort in the face of pushback.” This small group is, of course, the guiding coalition. Locally, who do we have to fit this bill? Will the SATPs be further co-opted? The Achievement Gap Panel? Members of the Board of Ed? Time will tell. Certainly, spending public tax money on a P.R. consultant will help, too.
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Of course, publicly disparaging those who oppose the CCSS and PARCC is part and parcel of local corporate-reform efforts. Teachers are speaking out? It’s all too easy to paint teachers as lazy or, in Dr. MacCormack’s words at a Board of Ed meeting last year, “afraid of change.” Parents are concerned? Members of Montclair Cares About Schools are “uncivil” or are a fringe group or are engaging in personal attacks. Of course teachers and parents want children to learn; it’s silly to think otherwise. But it’s also silly to think that by echoing the word “rigor” proponents of PARCC and CCSS are actually advocating what is best for students.
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But what is best for students is not the focus of the P.R. chapter, and what comes next is disconcerting. According to PARCC: “The role of this ‘guiding coalition’ is to remove bureaucratic barriers to change, exert influence at key moments to support implementation and offer counsel to the strategic implementation team.”  Many of the “barriers to change” are actual democratic structures put into place to keep the public schools accountable to the public. How much more quickly would Dr. MacCormack ‘s and the corporate reformers’ changes be in place if they were not open to public scrutiny? And upon whom should the guiding coalition “exert influence”? What kind of “influence” are they implying with this? The chapter does not clarify.
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What the chapter does clarify, though, is how to keep the propaganda manageable.  The handbook, in referencing pushback, states “The best way to ensure that this does not happen is to play offense — make sure your messages and goals reach key audiences first and are regularly reinforced by credible messengers. In fact, don’t be afraid to communicate even if your implementation plan is in flux.”  This need for constant top-down message communication, even in the midst of “flux,” could explain the discrepancies in information this year. For instance, parents were given a list of PARCC skills that are being covered in the middle schools while the middle school teachers were not informed of their responsibility to teach these skills. Parents and teachers have been told there will be no test prep. In fact, in her posting on the Montclair Board of Education website “Why PARCC,” Dr. MacCormack writes, “As superintendent, I set the tone for how these tests will be interpreted in the district, regardless of the State’s mandates, and I will not support teaching to the test.” Yet some schools are giving practice PARCC tests. One administrator told a roomful of parents that a paper version of the PARCC will be available while other administrators are saying this will not be. The district’s powerpoint presentation to parents about the PARCC contains discrepancies about the time it will take to administer the test.
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Yet there are other areas of manageability that the district seems to be adhering to quite well, in particular the simplicity of the overall message itself. The PARCC recommends developing and repeating “three key  messages” and instructs “Repeat, repeat, repeat these messages across all communication channels and by all public messengers.” They even give suggested messages, including:
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PARCC: “State standards and assessments have historically been set too low, offering an inaccurate view of how well our students are actually achieving.” (Dr. MacCormack paraphrased this at a Board of Ed meeting earlier this year, and in “Why PARCC” she writes “Problems with the NJ ASK were numerous. For one, NJ ASK was not well aligned with classroom instruction, and therefore many teachers spent time doing test preparation. Turnaround of test results was slow and provided few concrete insights into student learning.” This comes despite the fact that the New Jersey standards have been proven to be among the nation’s best.)
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PARCC: “The Common Core State Standards and aligned common assessments are more rigorous than what we have [had] in place… and will provide an honest picture of how well our students, schools and system are achieving on the most critical knowledge and skills.” (Data, anyone? Dr. MacCormack writes in “Why PARCC,” “In addition, data gathered from assessment tests can also guide educators toward improving classroom instruction and foster the sharing of best practices for teaching our students.This is the ideal, but for more than a decade, under the State of New Jersey’s NJ ASK testing program, the ideal has been too far out of reach.”)
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PARCC: “Implementing the Common Core State Standards is a critical step toward ensuring that all students receive the true education they need for success in life.” (Last year, Dr. MacCormack and several Board of Ed members touted the CCSS as a means of addressing the achievement gap. In “Why PARCC,” Dr. MacCormack writes, “the NJ ASK offered limited measures of a student’s critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, key indicators of a student’s future success.
PARCC assessments, on the other hand, are said to provide a more thorough examination of student development than prior tests, with more writing and greater focus on critical thinking and problem-solving skills.”)
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What is happening in Montclair is part of a national agenda — PARCC even uses the word “agenda.”  They’ve published their playbook; we don’t have one. We can only speak the truth.
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Permalink: https://montclaireducationmatters.com/2014/12/14/dissecting-the-parcc-propaganda/
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One thought on “Dissecting the PARCC Propaganda

  1. Pingback: BOE Meeting 12/15/14: Advocacy makes a difference | montclair voices

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