Category Archives: Uncategorized

IL Passes Civics Bill, still needs timeline for implementation

Below is a lengthier version of a blogpost written for Mikva Challenge.  The signed Act now has a trailer bill to define a timeline for implementation.


Towards the end of August Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed into Law a requirement for all high school graduates to have equal access to high quality civics courses starting in school year 2016-17.  The law defines high quality as a “one semester course” that teaches the “skills, knowledge, and attitudes” need to become “competent and responsible citizens” in the 21st century.  The Illinois CivicsRequirement inherently recognizes that Civics must be an active learning process calling for “simulations, service learning,” and opportunities for youth voice and empowerment.

The urgency for the law is apparent: only 49% of Illinoisans voted in the most recent Gubernatorial election, and only 31% of the votes came from Millenials (18-35 yr olds.)  Even beyond voting, there is a general feeling of in-efficacy and non-agency in government and politics.  When I ask students who have never taken a civics course if they want to vote, volunteer, or debate issues in their community, I often get a response similar to “Why should I vote/care, nothing will change anyway.”   However, across the board those numbers jump when young people have a chance to participate in action civicsand service learning in the school setting.  So much so that in the March 2014 Gubernatorial Primaries -which traditionally records low voter turnout- new voters (17 & 18) out-voted their parents across the state!
To use the Table metaphor, if we want to ask young people to sit at the table with us, we have to show them how dinner is better when they’re in attendance. Or as my colleague says, “Democracy is reserved for those who show up.”  If we as a society believe school really is for everyone, than civics – like drivers ed, health, or math- should be required, and particularly so in a time of heightened racial and economic discord when citizens across the United States feel like we couldn’t be farther from the opposite ends of the table on our issues. Action Civics in the classroom can provide a safe space for young people to explore issues that matter to them, and engage in democratic methods to impact society.
Unlike other states such as Arizona, which have recently reduced Civics to another high stakes test, the classroom teachers who aided in design of the bill language purposefully omitted a testing component because of the recognition that Action Civics cannot engage young people via only pencil and paper.  While some believe that might take away the teeth what some call this “Civics Mandate” I believe it instead provides classroom educators the autonomy to generate engaging, meaningful lessons that are responsive to the needs of each student and school community in Illinois.
Currently, Illinois law requires two social studies credits to graduate, one of which must be United States History, and students must pass a Constitution Exam to graduate. That requirement does not change.  But the social sciences has been struggling recently: we have been forced to retro-fit our curriculum to Common Core Reading and Writing standards, which some parents and educators -like myself- argue devalues the content we teach.  Compounded by budget cuts, like other schools and districts across the state, my former principal found it necessary to cut Social Studies elective courses.  In the past students were able to enroll in one of eleven different electives (Geography, Law, Latin American History, etc. ), but due to budgetary restrictions from every revenue stream, we now offer only three.  The Civics requirement can guarantee that each school offers another high quality elective course in my school and across all Illinois schools.
But as we know well, mandates alone can be problematic for schools, educators, and of course students.  This will require tremendous supports in the form of professional development. Chicago and some suburban schools have gotten a head start from the body of curriculum developed by teachers, professional development support network like the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition, and content specialists like elected officials, attorneys, political scientists who dedicate their time and energy to talking with teachers and students.
Already Chicago Public Schools is in its third year of employing the innovative and adaptive Global Citizenship Initiative, and has been so successful that more than sixty teachers will be using the curriculum this school year.  The GCI curriculum combines action civics and financial literacy content, and outlines different “tracks” teachers may choose depending on the goals of the class.  Curricula like this combined with high-quality professional development is what will support teachers in making this new Civics requirement a success.
This could not have ben achieved without the demand from young people, and the engaging instruction of educators with the energetic support of civics-oriented non-profits collaborating across Chicagoland and Illinois like the Mikva Challenge, Constitutional Rights Foundation, and the youth-led Chicago Votes Education Fund.  Brought together by support from McCormick and similar civic-mission foundations, and led by Shawn Healy of the McCormick Foundation, the Illinois Civics Requirement Law is really a collaborative effort of everyone from young people and teachers in the classroom to curriculum developers to foundations and government supporting the health of our democracy today and for generations to come.
John Dewey the 20th century philosopher credited for the design of contemporary American education system once declared that “in order for democracy to thrive, it must be reborn each generation, and education is it’s midwife.”  I applaud the Governor and General Assembly’s foresight and expediency with which they acted, as well as the educators, and educator support network that worked hard to design strong language that honors what high quality civics should look like in our schools in the 21st century.

Posting the 2014-2015 Chicago Public Schools Testing Calendar here

CPS SY15 Assessment calendar-district schools

Hard to access unless you’re an employee.

Includes: REACh performance tasks, NWEA, TRC+, dibels, mClass, Math, IDEL, ACCESS, PARCC, Explore, Plan, ACT (EPAs), ACCESS, NEAP, DLM + STAR, COMPASS, IB, &  AP exams.

CICS CQ4U UPDATE: Action Tonight!

The staff of CICS ChicagoQuest, who announced in December their decision to unionize  is holding a public meeting for all stakeholders in CICS to speak about the lack of accountability from the CICS Board and the failure of school management to recognize their union and address school issues impacting their students.
Today they will start with an action outside their school because they had their approved space in the school abruptly cancelled by their CEO, even though the school is a CPS building. The meeting will then be held nearby at Seward Park.
Below is a media advisory, and if you’d like to get the day-of press release, please let me know. Here are some links that might be useful. 
Media Advisory

April 25, 2014
Carlos Fernandez, Chicago ACTS 773-450-4176
Kenzo Shibata, IFT 312-296-0124
Teachers at CICS Chicago Quest Charter Schools Demand Accountability from Out-of-touch Board of Directors
Teachers, parents, and students organize to speak out against the Chicago International Charter Schools’ unaccountable bureaucracy
CHICAGO MONDAY – After months of school management holding meetings at times when most teachers or parents couldn’t possibly attend, teachers from ChicagoQuest and other CICS schools will be holding their own public meetingon Monday night. They invited the CICS board to hear concerns over the lack of accountability to parents and students and to demand respect for teachers’ right to unionize. After agreeing to provide space in the school, the CEO suddenly retracted the offer. Now, teachers will be joined outside the school by parents and community members to express concerns over how CICS practices such as its management fees and subcontracting negatively impact students learning and well-being. Planned meeting to be held after at alternative site.
Who: Teachers, parents, students from CICS ChicagoQuest School
When: Monday, April 28th at 6:00 PM
Where: Outside ChicagoQuest Charter School, intersection of Clybourn and Ogden Avenues, Chicago, IL 60610
The CICS network includes 15 schools governed under a Board that does not include a CICS teacher, staff, parent, or student. CICS board meetings are at 3:30 PM during the workday downtown, making access nearly impossible for teachers and the community. Teachers organized this event in the neighborhood at a time more convenient to working families. They will be joined by community members to speak out about the lack of accountability to parents and students and to demand respect for teachers’ right to unionize. In December, more than 97% of the staff at ChicagoQuest signed union cards, the fourth CICS school to do so, motivated by their wish to address issues that impact their careers and the students they serve. 
To address issues impacting the staff and students of CICS ChicagoQuest, the school staff decided almost unanimously to unionize in December 2013, the fourth CICS school to do so. They seek the kinds of voice and support the teachers at the 3 other schools have won, but their CEO will not recognize their decision or reach agreements to assure a first contract. The CICS Board of Directors has rebuffed the staff’s requests to get involved and to make its decision-making more accessible. The ChicagoQuest staff call on their CEO and the CICS Board to reach agreements with its union and include staff, parents, and students in its decision-making.

“Charter School Teachers on a Mission for Change”

When I first started teaching it was in a charter school, and I quickly learned what Right to Work meant, when I attempted to stand up for my students against oppressive Zero Tolerance policies and was summarily relieved of my teaching position.  Fired.  For standing up for students.

I applaud the members of the American Federation of Teachers Alliance for Charter Teachers and Staff (AFT-ACTS), and their newest members in Chicago both of UNO Charter Schools and Chicago Quest.

Below is a letter form the teachers of Quest, and I do hope you will take the time to support their cause.  

Better teacher conditions are better learning conditions, and we are all Chicago teachers.



“Teachers on a Mission for Change”

“There are two kinds of people, those who do the work and those who take the credit. Try to be in the first group; there is less competition there.—Indira Gandhi

“32 of the 33 educators at CICS ChicagoQuest declared that they are organizing a union at their school to strengthen the relationships between the school, teachers, school management, and other stakeholders to ensure student-centered policies” (ACTS story). For over three months, Civitas Education Partners has failed to recognize the union that our teachers and staff have formed.Screen Shot 2014-03-29 at 11.44.38 AM.png

On December 18th, in a powerful demonstration of unity and commitment, our staff stood together at a staff meeting, reading one line of our mission statement at a time to our administration. We wore union buttons and revealed our “beautiful people flyer,” with each union member’s picture and quote explaining why we want to unionize. We announced three demands:

1. that ChicagoQuest, Civitas and CICS recognize our union.

2. that ChicagoQuest, Civitas, and CICS bargain with us under the terms of the existing Civitas union contract, with Quest-specific addenda.

3. that CICS agree to terms for future organizing and bargaining at other CICS schools.

CICS and Civitas have disregarded all three demands. Representatives from our union, Chicago ACTS, and Stacy Beardsley (CEO of Civitas) have had three meetings to negotiate recognition and terms for bargaining. Instead of respecting our unified voice, Civitas has stalled on making forward progress.

Ms. Beardsley’s response is unreasonable, illogical, and disparaging. She says our game-like, 21st century-learning school is too unique to operate under the existing Civitas contract. Yet our sister school Quest2Learn, in New York City, is operating successfully under the UFT (United Federation of Teachers) in NYSUT (New York State United Teachers). The only concrete reason she has given that CQ can’t be in the Civitas union is a “financial” or “monetary” one (meaning she wants to continue having pay freezes instead of offering fair pay).

Chicago International Charter Schools has also disregarded our demands.  On February 18th, three parents and twenty-six ChicagoQuest staff members showed unity at the CICS Board of Directors meeting and spoke to the board. The board claims they cannot respond to our demands because they are not the direct employer of CICS ChicagoQuest (deflecting the issue back to Civitas).

Screen Shot 2014-03-29 at 10.51.15 AM.png

While Civitas has been stalling, the ChicagoQuest staff is already focused on union actions to improve school conditions for staff and students. In January we signed a petition demanding that the school create an Emergency Response Plan (since, over 6 months into the school year, our school had no instructions or drills for fires, tornados, lock-downs, etc.). The school responded in one week, supplied all classrooms with laminated plans, and we have recently held safety drills. We are emboldened by the fact that our union is already making important improvements for our students!

We are calling on all allies of our union to support us and help put pressure on Civitas and CICS to recognize our union. We requested that CICS change the date, time, and location of the April board meeting so that more stakeholders can attend (as it is difficult for parents to attend a meeting during work hours, at 4pm, and it is also during the CICS spring break, so many staff members will be out of town).  They said NO to our request.

How Can I Support the CICS ChicagoQuest Union?

1. Write a public letter to CICS & Civitas demanding that they recognize our union and change the April Board Meeting for ALL CICS teachers, staff and parents (write to or call them privately, and publicize your request in any media to which you have access)

Aubrey Monks (School Director)

Stacy Beardsley (CEO of Civitas Schools)

Beth Purvis (CEO of CICS)

2. Attend an alternative board meeting we are proposing to CICS on April 24th, 6pm, since CICS refused to move the April Board Meeting to a reasonable time and date.  Location TBD (check our facebook page for updates). Encourage any colleagues to attend as well.

3. Attend the April Board Meeting even though CICS would not change the date and time.

4. Like our facebook page and spread it around!

In Unity,

The members of the CQ Union



I just took the Practice PARCC exam, and boy, do I feel…

On March 13th, the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers published sample PARCC tests, and so I decided to make an *honest* attempt at it tonight.  But I also took notes along the way in case you’re interested.  Most might not make sense…until you take it yourself (which I am hoping you do, so we an rant about it over beers next week!)

SPOILER ALERT: Whatever I did or didn’t do (sign in so the NSA can track me, perhaps?), I don’t actually know my results.  I don’t know why.  At this point, I really don’t care.  I am pretty sure I blew it though.  Yeaaap, so.   Now it’s time to cry myself to sleep.



Notes as I take the ELA Practice PARCC for 11th graders.

3/25/2014 ; Start: 6:10pm

23 two-part questions.

Why does this start out with a question about DNA and enzymes.  We won’t study this in social studies class.  Like ever.

Questions are way too complex, response options don’t make sense. 

Took me four times to drag and drop supporting evidence.  Said “not all supporting details would be used,” but all of them were.

“Add enzymes” vs add enzymes to a sample being studied” (but this was a summarized option), very confusing.

Question asks for “steps required in DNA ident…”  but how did this turn into, “why it’s possible,”  and  “how easy it’ll be.” for Part B?

Daedalus & Icarus….Only cause I already know the story does this make ANY sense.

Instructions: “Today you will read two poems about Greek Mythology” but the second is actually an Anne Sexton poem.

Central idea: Only bc I know the context of what Icarus’ story has inspired.  Incredibly complex! I feel like I’m flying into the sun right now.

13 questions in…I’m pretty tired.  Stamina low…now, TWO essays.  Holy crap.

Abigail Addams “stood up for those who lacked power like slaves, women, and the colonies.”  Um, OK, so now the test is making sweeping judgments about complex systems of race, sex, and diverse communities, & who has power within them?!

Frankly I am disappointed in the historical reading.  This is low-grade textbook stuff, rife with assumptions about the Addams’ and early American society that the reader is to take as truth, without citations.  No document based analysis.

I skimmed this piece…getting exhausted.  Don’t care about how well I do, just going to guess (6:48p, question 15).

I just realized (Question 18) that I am supposed to be reading a new document- a letter from Abigail Addams (primary source), but I had no idea.  Looks the same from the instructions.

Question 19…just guessed.  Test fatigue set in.

Question 20, I think these are all different letters from Abigail.  This is boring as shit, and I always love teaching about the Addams’ !

Question 22, I used the “Evidence” to justify the claim, even though it said to to do the opposite…we’ll see if that little bit of test-trickery pays dividends!

And then I was instructed to write 3 essays to which I simply wrote, “I hate you PARCC, I hate you Common Core, I hate you TestNav.”

I ended the test at 6:59pm. (49 min.)

Tried looking for an answer key and I couldn’t find one.

Well, I am NOT feeling confident about this.

There are definite issues with content and context.  No text is without context, because if we want readers to engage with or appreciate any text they need to know what motivated the author to put quill to paper in the first place.  These readings are just as bad as any other standardized test. Only MUCH longer. The complexity of the texts and the questions are not age or grade appropriate. 

The instructions are confusing.  The language in the social science text is bigoted.  The TestNav platform is awkward and not intuitive.  Details like the background colors; text font don’t allow for me to recognize transitions to new material (e.g. Addam’s letter, scroll bar) compared to if this were a paper and pen test the new material would have the visual-tactile cue of page-turning.

So what do we do with a series of bad tests?  I applaud Indiana for backing out of Common Core– even though I don’t approve of the conservative reasons behind it.  We all need to do the same, and institute portfolio assessments and locally-designed curriculum moving forward.

Letter to the Editor(s) of the Kankakee Daily Journal

I am very disappointed in the recent Editorial from the Kankakee Daily Journal writers who have completely misrepresented the facts about the Chicago Teachers Union’s support of the parent’s testing boycott.  How far has journalistic research fallen?

Born and raised in Kankakee, I now teach social studies in a large Chicago Public School on the southwest side.  I am also an elected and active delegate to the Chicago Teachers Union.  I am directly involved in the testing Opt-Out boycott, which to clarify on behalf of the Journal, does not state that parents should “keep their children home” as the Journal claimed, but rather, send their children to school on ISAT Testing Day with an Opt-Out letter and books to read silently while testing are administered.

Last year, a few of my students opted-out of the second day of the Prairie State Achievement Exam (called Work-Keys) and you know what happened?  Nothing. The Work-Keys test only gauges certain non-academic work-place tasks, like reading a manual and following a set of instructions (like, to build a “thing” the student won’t actually get to build in real life because they’re just taking a test). Neither CPS, the state of Illinois, nor potential colleges are holding anything against those students, in fact I know of at least one of them who wrote about his experience opting-out as “civic engagement” for a college entrance essay.

There is very little that standardized testing can tell us in the way that it is being used today.  I draw a very clear distinction from the kind of standardized testing that I was doing in high school, little more than a decade ago.  The newest assessments do not reflect content being taught, and are not created, or scored by actual educators.  

In nice round numbers, I am mandated by CPS administration to dedicate more than one month of my students’ classroom time to testing and test prep, of which, only three hours of that is mandated for graduation in the Illinois.  But that’s for only my class; my students have seven others they visit each day.  As multiple news local outlets have reported, even kindergarteners in CPS elementary schools are spending a third of their year -60 days- on testing.  Yes, Kindergarten.  

In the Civil Rights era standardized tests were created to assure equitable distribution of resources in schools, but that doesn’t account for the upsurge in testing today. What is different now is the that we have two-fisted “carrot-or-stick” legislation in the  No Child Left Behind Act – which labels schools who don’t make the grade “failing”, and the follow-up piece Race to the Top which “leases” those public schools -and all our tax dollars that go with it- to the highest bidder, namely charter school operators who are not beholden to public school funding transparency laws.  With those groups, we never know how much of our money they are spending on classrooms or slick advertising, nor why they keep kicking out students with special needs because they claim those public school laws do not apply to them.  However we do know that charter operators suspend students at higher rates right before times of standardized testing, which has the effect of increasing their average test scores, making the charter schools look much better on paper than their public school counterparts.  I should know, I taught at a charter school.

We know that as a whole, standardized testing does not show us what students know, but rather is a closer predictor for what zip-code they live in, and at best they can tell us how well any given student may do in only their first year of college.  The newest brand of tests coming to Illinois next year, the Common Core-aligned MAP and PARCC -the whole reason we’re phasing out ISAT anyway, do not test content, only math and reading skills, and only on a computer screen.  So much for Columbus, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Michelangelo, Daily Journal Editors.

We also know that with the high-stakes attached to the tests, principals are increasingly under pressure, and even willing to cut programming especially in the arts, vocational technology, and electives such as my American Law class (one of the more popular courses we used to offer) to make room for a test-prep courses.  Perhaps if Kankakee teachers -I used to be one of them, too- aren’t sending Students of the Month for “top-speller” it’s because Spelling-Bees have been all but eliminated with everything else we used to love about school.

The bright note in all of this is that there are only three tests that are mandated by state law to graduate in IL: the first day of the PSAE, a beginning-of-the-year (BOY) exam, and an end-of-the-year (EOY) exam.  Everything else is added on by local districts and can be opted-out of, if parents so choose.   We need parents across IL to choose to opt their children out of irrelevant, valueless, and ultimately harmful tests.

We know that what happens in IL, happens first in Chicago.  So while the Daily Journal reporting on a Chicago issue could have shown tremendous foresight for what’s coming to all our schools across IL,  I do hope in the future they get their opinions from actual people who live it everyday.

The Tragedy behind Noble Street Charters – a Skimmed Lottery

I am teaching logic and argumentation in civics this week, and one of my favorite #edjustice advocates, Katie Hogan has submitted a response to Noble St. CEO Mike Milkie’s OpEd regarding expulsion rates at his charter network.  We’ll see if the news outlet publishes, but I couldn’t resist.



In response to “Expulsion heartbreaking but necessary,” by Michael Milkie February 21, 2014

As a teacher for fourteen years in CPS neighborhood schools I can empathize with the pathos in Mr. Milkie’s arguments in the February 21st, 2014 editorial.  Mr. Milkie argues that although it is “heartbreaking” to have to expel so many students, he has to make the tough choices for “high expectations and personal accountability.”  After all, I myself, have had those days where the one or two most disruptive and combative students were absent.  I’ve imagined what it would be like teach everyday with the absence of their complex, and often excruciatingly frustrating presence.  Where I could just “teach,” and not metaphorically duck and head roll the verbal and emotional outburst of my most troubled young people.  Yet, Mr. Milkie offers us a red herring argument about Noble Street’s darker, more disturbing contribution to our city’s educational disparity – Mr. Milkie’s good intentions and polished verbiage trick us to look at the Noble expelled as sacrificial lambs abandoned to the wolves – or neighborhood schools – for the good of the pack; in fact, we are looking at the wrong end of the spectrum.  Noble’s true tragedy is what they take from the proverbial top, not what they kick out from the bottom.

Although it is true that Noble Street schools maintain a lottery of applicants – it is a skimmed lottery.  The skimming occurs in the way in which parents get an application to enter the lottery.  This application occurs only after the parent, or guardians, have attended a multiple hour – sometimes over three hours – meeting about the culture of Noble Street.  I actually take no issue for the philosophical intentions of Noble Street to hold these meetings, but what the practical implications of skimming from these meetings does to the academic diversity in the rest of the city.  There are few stronger statistical correlations between parental involvement and student success in school.  Beyond common sense, study after study, has shown that parental involvement trumps just about any other statistical factor – with the exception of family income – that an educational researcher can find.  These students even have a name in educational research “academically oriented” students.  Academically oriented students outpace even their higher testing peers when it comes to g.p.a. school retention, and college persistence.  Parental involvement –especially in communities in poverty- is the surest bet for a young person to achieve success by every measure of our society.  These are the young people that Noble receives and educate.  They are also the young people that are disappearing from our public, neighborhood schools.  More importantly, these are the parents moving in mass toward each other from public schools into this charter chain.

As a parent myself I can also empathize with each one of the desperate and often C.P.S. scarred adults who strongly defend and protect this intimate and personal decision.  I know I want the best for my own daughter, how can I fault any other parent?  I don’t.  Parents are used and mistreated by C.P.S. on a daily basis.  My argument is not even with Mr. Milkie himself who I believe in his heart really does want what is best for kids.

My argument is with leaders of this school system who are charged with educating all children, not just those from academically oriented homes, and turn a blind eye to the growing three tiered system of selective enrollment, charter, and public schools that continues to decide the winners and losers not based on what is best for the community, or city; but what is best for the next election, real estate development, or church group he or she belongs to.

Mr. Milkie begins his article with an impressive statistic of projected college success with the qualifier: “if history repeats itself.”  Yet, he does not need that qualifier.  History will repeat itself at Noble.  The schools that are run this way are perhaps the least risky bet in this entire district.  His students will succeed.  His ACT numbers will continue to rise.  He will be given more schools to run.  But Mr. Milkie and those who support charter school expansion have made a Faustian bet that they cannot ever take back.  There is a price for their continued success.  The price is that just like taking a troubled young person out of a classroom for a day improves the quality of an education; taking out an academically oriented child and his or her parents also decreases the quality of the schools of origin.  Just as I teach better when the trouble maker is out of the room; my lessons and parental relationships suffer when these students join others like them at these educational havens for active and engaged parents.

As a city we do far greater harm to all of our children by continuing policies that only benefit a few.  I remember when I was growing up and joined the local park district softball league they had tryouts before setting the teams.  After the tryouts I found out that all my friends – all the best players – were split up onto different teams.  Upset I asked my dad why they did that, after all, it made it seem like we were being punished for being good players and good friends.  He smiled and told me that not only would I be a better player because the teams would be even, but that everyone would end the season better than when we started.  And you know what, he was right.  I will spend the rest of my professional life defending the “we,” over the “me.”  It’s a hard argument, but it’s the right one: the noble one.

Hearts and Minds: Teaching and Learning the Relevant and Valuable

Share widely, and please let me know what resonates with viewers in the comments below. Thx!

Special thanks to many, many groups and individuals who helped both -knowingly and not- in the production of this film including:

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless
Mikva Challenge & Center for Action Civics, Meira Levinson & Facing History
The Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE)
Chicago Grassroots Curriculum Taskforce
Save Ethnic Studies of Arizona

Catalyst Chicago, National Louis Univ., and Teach+

More specifically, and in no particular order: Steve Zemelman, Mark Larson, Jill Bass, Anton Miglietta, Xian Barrett, Shanti Elliot, Liz Brown, A.C. Knapik, Hannah Willage, Pam Konkol, Sarah Slavin, Sabrina Stevens, Jose Luis Vilson, Meira Levinson, Elizabeth Robbins, Bill Keundig, and Amber Smock…for so much I have learned from you all.

Design Lessons for Students, not Standards

Happy Friday, all.  This one was originally posted on the VIVAteachers blog.  I’ll ask some students if I can feature their projects up here next week.

For more on CCSS, see previous post.    



Design Lessons for Students, not Standards

I consider most conflicts to be problems of design.  As a teacher, my first task is always to design lessons that are engaging.  Some teachers do this very easily with humor, or great storytelling.  I do this by prioritizing relevant and valuable ideas shared by the students in the room, and I excel at that…  or so my students and their parents tell me.  If my designs are off, my lessons will not be engaging and my students will not learn.  And, believe me, students are quite effective at letting me know when my lessons are not engaging.

In general, learning standards are implemented as a design solution for a problem that never was.  In my nine years of teaching social studies and Spanish, I have had to learn and prioritize the Illinois Learning Standards – of which there are six different sets for the social studies ‑ along with socio-emotional standards, the ACT-aligned College Readiness Standards, and now the Common Core State Standards for literacy.  (There are no social studies standards for this newest set, so by default, I am directed to use the non-fiction reading and writing standards.)  As part of my evaluation, all of these standards are to be accounted for in my lesson plans, as if they add value that wasn’t already there in the lessons I’ve been teaching.   Please consider the value and relevance of the following lesson currently happening in my classroom.

I teach Financial Literacy as a semester-long social studies course for high school juniors in a Chicago public school.  The first quarter, which just finished on October 31st, focused on professional skills; the second quarter revolves around money management.  This week my students – who have just completed their mock interview for a future career – must go through the steps of determining a place to live on a fixed salary, and then present their decision to their peers in the form of a brief PowerPoint presentation.

To complete this project, the students must first determine their biweekly net pay and cost of living expenses (determined by scale based upon their grade from last semester, e.g. students who received an “A” earn $42,000, and performance in the mock interview), and then they must find a place to live.  To do this, students scour the Internet for classified ads on webservers like Craigslist. They quickly realize that the students who did really well in the mock interview have an easier time finding a desirable living arrangement, while the ones who didn’t do so well might have to find a classmate willing to be a roommate.  Some even have to explain in their presentations why they are living at home in their parents’ attic!

Year after year, this is one of the most popular lessons I do with my students because they consider it both relevant and valuable to their real lives.  Students will (hopefully) be moving out of their parents’ homes in a few years, and this lesson is usually the first opportunity they have had to navigate their possibilities for determining their living options.  This is an assignment that requires some adult support, but relies on students’ autonomy and ingenuity.  They love being able to compare who got the “better deal” on the “coolest” apartment.

They apply mathematical skill-sets of adding, subtracting, multiplying and proportioning for the paychecks; techno-literacy, geo-spatial mapping, and economic decision-making to determine a place to live; and communication skills both in the presentation of their PowerPoint and in the negotiations of “what’s fair” between roommates for who get different sized rooms.  Some of the students argue that since their partners/roommates are contributing unequal amounts money, than perhaps that person’s bedroom will be the size of a walk-in closet.  We all get a good laugh, and then move on to budgeting in the real world the following week.

If I have explained the purpose of this activity clearly, the reader probably wasn’t judging this lesson based upon their determining what standard I was trying to teach.  That’s because I’m not trying to teach a standard, I am teaching a valuable lesson to young people: how to find a place to live when you are on your own, something that most people have to do sometime in their young adult lives.

This lesson has changed very little over the years I have taught it.  Neither the Common Core nor the College Readiness Standards, and not even the Illinois Learning Standards have any bearing on the value of this lesson.  The standards are inconsequential.  The activities are not derived from or determined by standards; the lesson comes from the students’ needs to master content that is relevant and valuable to their lives.

Most of the lessons I design prioritize what is relevant to the content and valuable to students and our community.  But this is changing in my classroom, as it is across the profession, with the pressure either to align our current curricula to the standards, or to design different activities that justify the assessments (read: standardized tests). What then happens to valuable lessons like the one I’ve describes?   They get relegated to “extra credit” instead of being the subject matter of everyday learning, and teachers have to tailor classroom learning to the assessments that teachers most likely did not design.

This is not an appeal for more help in learning how to implement the standards better in my teaching.  If I wanted support for applying the Common Core in my classroom, I could get it.  I could ask my administration or my union, and both would be responsive.  I could attend any number of professional development sessions, or sign on for some webinars in my pajamas any night of the week.  Google turns up unlimited implementation ideas I could put in place immediately, and Education Week is forever advertising a new solution system for my administration to buy.  Yes, the Common Core has designed an entire market of solutions for a problem that didn’t exist five years ago.  What if all that money went directly into classrooms instead?

No, I don’t want support for Common Core. I simply believe we should not do it, because it does not prioritize the needs of the people in the teaching and learning process: students and educators.  In fact, I believe we should actively resist its implementation, and provide educators with the autonomy, support and time to design engaging lessons in the ways they know best: by prioritizing the people in the room.

“When you assume, you make a CCSS of you and me”

The Common Core is laden with serious problems, and it makes me want to vomit, but not until after I school some folks, out of the loop.  I won’t even bring up the fact -as TeacherX likes to point out- that it’s “a $14 billion Trojan horse for more testing.”

A week before school started and I had to sit through a horrible professional development that was put together by our “network literacy specialist” who, when I asked her where she got the document she responded that ” it was something I got from a friend.”  As if that’s good enough.  Thank you for your honesty in describing how you waste my time with such little forethought.

I was so livid about the content and methods, I posted pics to these to social media with the comment below.  Please note the description for the “close reading” strategy:

The text below (Dees) was given to teachers as professional development on literacy strategies for CCSS. The disposition we take is that this should be text-dependent reading, un-contextualized (second pic). This document expounding the virtues of vulture capitalism and philanthropic colonialism is meant to be read w/o understanding all the grief those two practices have caused in the world and more intimately in our Chicago communities. This is why educators must fight the common core animal head on. No text is without CONtext.
In the margin, I wrote, “If background knowledge is secondary, then why pay for certified educators?  Why not do everything via virtual school?  (Adressing the “close reading strategy) Very problematic: [this reading is] disengaging, individualistic, [encourages to students to] develop[ing] false conclusions.  This is the centerpiece of the CCSS problem.”
Today the Examiner published a poorly-researched op-ed extolling the virtues of Common Core, missed the boat completely and declared that professors -the one he interviewed- think that the CCSS will improve “teachers expectations of learning for young black and brown men in Chicago and nationally,” even while admitting they probably won’t be implemented well in Chicago.  Which is true.
Below is my challenge to the ideas he put forth:
I call into question a serious assumption that he makes: It is extremely problematic to call reading the “most basic of skills…” To be sure, there is NOTHING basic about reading. As literate adults, we take for granted and forget that, but the reading process is extremely complex to both learn, and to teach, and only more so under threat of high stakes (testing, school closures, merit pay), and the conditions of our schools (rising class sizes, no AC, students experiencing trauma).

I am a social studies teacher in CPS, but because there are no Social Studies Standards, I “officially” teach “Literacy.” This is because in the 1980s’ standards implementation set off the “Culture Wars,” and so a strategic decision was made by the (non-teacher) “experts” from the Governor’s Association and Achieve, Inc. to replace social studies with literacy in order to pass a “common” set of standards across the US, and in doing so bypass the inherent bias in social studies education: “the question of “which/whose history is the subject of study, and therefore the “official history?”

The CCSS are written in a way to declare that if any given young person is meeting standards, they should be able to “analyze context given a piece of text” via critical thinking. But without context a reader cannot place importance or relevance into a given document, and therefore critical thinking DOES NOT take place at all, and the standards ultimately feign neutrality in the face of “bipartisanship.” Real neutrality means analyzing text and contexts. As I say to my students, “we must read the word AND read the world.” CCSS does not ask this of young people.

It does not matter what kind of standards are developed or aligned to what kind of tests. The only way to make learning valuable for young people is to make sure they have context for learning. No set of standards can provide context. Only when we recognize to invest in the people who engage in both teaching and learning will we start to value the process as a whole.

Here’s what needs to happen to improve the rate of success for young people:

1) Invest in humane and developmentally appropriate facilities and conditions for teaching and learning.

2) The job of Principal should not be “building manager,” but “teacher-leader” as they were 50 yr ago focusing on staff development.

3) Individualized Professional Development Plans: Support for educators to work on what they want to work on that directly translates to improved curriculum and instruction for students.

4) A rich and varied curriculum of not only STEM, but the arts, humanities, health, civics, and vocational experiences.

All of this is not cheap. But I am convinced that if the United States can afford 4 wars in 10 years, or money to bail out major banks we can afford a dignified education system for all children.

The need for standards is a myth, but a lucrative one at that, and pervasive in the education reform world.  As educators we roll our eyes, but we need to speak up and expose what it actually does to curriculum and instruction – and ultimately students- is harm.