CPS releases plans for another year of opt out suppression

“Education authorities should be devoting ever-more scarce resources to support and expand the use of authentic assessments designed and administered by professional educators who know your child and interact with them on a daily basis.

Instead, they are dumping millions of dollars into the coffers of companies like Pearson for unreliable, invalid standardized tests, siphoning money away from the classroom. The IL State Board of Education is requesting more than $47 million for PARCC for FY2017, an increase of almost $18 million (37%) over the previous year.”

More than a Score Chicago

On Friday, February 26th, CPS central office shared documents with principals and assessment coordinators that outlined that they will continue a policy of attempting to suppress parental and student rights of opting out of PARCC.  Copies of these documents are provided below.

CPS instructs principals to ignore parents’ written requests to opt out their children out of testing and to force students to refuse PARCC testing up to seven times—once for each individual unit of the test. (There are seven units for grades 3-5, six for grades 6-9.)

Although the instructions say refusing students may be provided with alternative activities and moved to a non-testing room, it does not explicitly prohibit the use of sit-and-stare.

This policy is in line with the federal and state government’s own policies of using threats and intimidation to bully schools and districts into bullying parents and students.

For accurate information on how…

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Higher Education

Higher Education Is About to be Disrupted Just Like Everything Else

I’m a dad of two public school kids. They’re still in the elementary grades, so I have a few years, but if one learns anything about being a parent, it’s to plan ahead. So I’ve been thinking about their futures. And college. I’ve decided that, like many other industries and sectors, higher education is about to be disrupted (or is it here already) 1 in the ways that buying books, listening to music, finding a place to stay, or getting around town are currently being disrupted. I’m not going to weigh-in on whether these disruptions are necessarily good. But the notion that banking your life savings, or a 2nd mortgage on your home to finance your children’s college education is an idea that deserves to be considered in the same way we once considered paying $4/gallon for gas a reasonable measure of progress.

Yet higher education faces severe problems. It is unaffordable for many, creating a more than $1 trillion mountain of student debt. 2 About half of students graduate. Politics and budget squeezes affect great public institutions such as the University of California at Berkeley and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The above is a quote from a recent New York Times article 3 on soon-to-be former Education Secretary Arne Duncan opining about the current state of higher education. Later in the article, it states that the average student loan borrower leaves with $28,950 in debt. Think about that. You could, in financial terms, think of it as an opportunity cost. And that isn’t even the costs spent to get to graduation. If I, instead, gave my kid a prepaid credit card with a $29K limit upon graduating high school and said, “good luck, kid”, I wonder what his options could be if she used those funds to create/hack/design her own life options.

I’ve been mulling over these things because it happens that there ARE alternative options to college on the horizon. A few years back, the venture capitalist Peter Thiel earned scorn by bankrolling a fund 4 to sponsor kids who decided to opt-out of college entirely, and instead receive $100K each to fund their own business startup. The rationale was that these kids would learn more by doing that than they would receive in a four-year traditional college. The uproar was intense from mainstream educators. I won’t go into detail but I felt it was a worthwhile experiment. Fast forward to today. In Chicago where I live, a new venture called Till School 5 is about to launch that offers high school graduates a 2-year, design-focused, “portfolio” approach to education. The young adults will work closely with professional practitioners on real-world projects, so that when they graduate, they will have real on-the-job skills. And the cost? About $16K per year, or just a little more than that fictional credit card I described earlier.

But what about all the other stuff that you experience at a traditional college? Or what about a two-year school? I went to a four-year school in a large Midwestern state. It was huge. Perhaps being a nameless, faceless student trying to figure out how to navigate a huge school, make friends, live with roommates, learn how to time-manage and schedule, and well, experience life are things that are baked-into the college experience. As is loneliness, isolation, racism, and cultural clashes. I don’t know. I’m sure some folks long for the good old 1800’s, where people struggled to farm out in the wilderness, devoid of electricity, running water, and indoor plumbing. But I’d rather be thankful for modern conveniences. It’s not like those life experiences can’t be duplicated in other settings. This, I think, is the same criticism levelled at online education. Can you make virtual interactions be the same as face-to-face ones? No, but as others have pointed out, we are now at a time when the rise of non-traditional students who need non-traditional approaches has never been greater. Something’s gotta give, and the sooner the better for us as parents.

Maybe, in the end, the purpose of school is to help our kids find their own sense of purpose. To prepare them for a life where they can set, and achieve, their own goals, not grind away to meet the needs of some bureaucrat or college admissions officer. Given decades of damage from our testing and accountability strategy, maybe it’s time to place our bets on a strategy that puts its weight behind engaging and inspiring our kids . . . and teachers. Imagine what our country is capable of if we figure out how to launch millions of purpose-driven kids into society prepared and energized to their world better through their talents, passions, developing skills, and ability to learn. Kids that are, truly, prepared for life.

In conclusion, I wanted to leave you with a broader question: What is the Purpose of School? This is a question posed by venture capitalist and education reformer Ted Dintersmith in a recent Washington Post article 6. The quote and resulting documentary above is his answer, and I encourage you to read the entire article and view the film. Our model of education is on a bubble which is about to burst, and I can’t help but plan for what’s next.

2016 Update

Level Up Your Real Life

This year, my Christmas gift to myself was to install and start playing Boom Beach, a mobile game made by one of the leading game developers on the planet 1. For those not familiar with the genre, this type of game encourages players to play consistently, either battling other players, while at the same time harvesting resources like gold coins to build bigger and stronger fortresses. I’m not a huge gamer, but over the past few years, I’ve found myself drawn into a few of these types of games, which I’ve ended up playing obsessively, compulsively, for short but intense periods of time. In the parlance of the gaming world, I’ve been leveling up. This refers to working intensely in the game or virtual world to amass enough gold, experience points, or whatnot to advance to the next stage of the game. It can be a exhilarating rush of adrenaline with fuels late night (all night sometimes) battle sessions in front of a screen while the rest of your family dozes in deep slumber. And for the past two weeks, we’ve had some downtime to sleep-in as we near the end of the year.

I’ve always looked forward to New Year’s Eve. Historically it’s been my favorite holiday. Thanksgiving? An orgy of gluttony. Christmas? An orgy of consumer consumption. Halloween? Hell, I have enough trouble figuring out my daily outfit, much less trying to one-up the neighbor’s meme-worthy pun of a costume. But NYE always resonated with me as a positive, optimistic surge of hope. Hope that all the disappointments, failures, and setbacks would be swept away with that Dick Clark Ryan Seacrest Times Square shiny ball upward traverse into a new year filled with new possibilities. Lately though, I’ve been in a deeper funk, one borne out of the long slog of raising two (terrific) young children in an urban metropolis beset by shootings, corruption, and the decay and disenfranchisement of the public school system. If that weren’t depressing enough, the fact that I’ve been functionally unemployed for the last ten years, having left my stable yet uninspired job in higher education to be a full-time parent. I wouldn’t have traded that for anything, especially the first few years, but now with my kids getting older, it’s past time to transition back into gainful employment. And by transition, I mean spending the last few years applying for creative, thoughtful jobs doing what I’m passionate about. Even if I settled for a McJob, I’d have trouble getting that 2. The corporatized work world in 2015 isn’t interested in flextime, working from home, or family-friendly policies 3. Unless of course, you’re a billionaire or a white male tech executive 4. No one wants to hire an almost 50-year old schlumpy guy with two kids it seems.

So, I’ve been a bit depressed. And grumpy too, if you ask my wife and kids. Out of this gloomy funk, you can maybe see why year-end festivities have somewhat turned around for me. Rather than seeing optimism and possibility, I now see 2016 as another year of unemployment. Another year of schlepping the kids from school to choir to playdates to birthday parties to camps and back. My gravestone will say “he schlepped his kids around”.

Anyway, back to the video gaming. I’ve noticed that having these bursts of adrenaline as I level up on a constant basis while attending to holiday obligations has sort of pulled me out of this funk. I can achieve something, even if it’s so mundane as upgrading my island fortress bazooka cannon to obliterate attacking forces in my own virtual world. And that’s the big idea I want to end with, and which I want to explore more deeply in 2016.

What if video games can improve one’s mental outlook on life, to achieve one’s goals? Or bigger than that, what if games can change the world for the better? In the end, all that I’ve really accomplished so far exists in the virtual plane. No one really cares when you say you hit level 257 in Pac-Man. But what if games could extend to your real world life. By doing something, or leveling up, you make one small step of progress towards a happier life, or a long unfulfilled world? In 2016 I want to explore this theme, and pursue the tools and platforms which might be needed to make this a tangible product or offering. In a future post, I’m going to expand on this idea. There’s a time management concept called “Pomodoro Technique” 5 which I’m testing out. Basically it has you work in short bursts of around 25 minutes each, with short breaks in-between each burst. This kind of sounds like the time it might take for my gunship to reload in Boom Beach. Hmmm.

May you also be “leveling up” and achieve your super awesome turbo flame thrower turret in 2016. Happy New Year.

Audio Post

The Houdini Box – review

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

I enjoyed the press opening* of The Houdini Box, the latest staging from the talented folks at Chicago Children’s Theatre. To be honest, I had reservations going into this production at the intimate Mercury Theater in Lakeview. Having seen their previous productions, Dot and Ziggy, and Goodnight Moon, I had mixed feelings. Dot and Ziggy was an innovative theatrical show aimed at the very youngest. Goodnight Moon, however, left me feeling a clubbed over the head with too much sound and fury, in taking what had been a classic bedtime story and turning it into an hour-long multimedia extravaganza. It was too over-the-top, even for my three-year old, and I was left checking the clock on my cellphone hoping for that production to end. So I wasn’t sure what I would get with their latest offering, which adapted the award-winning illustrated children’s book of the same name by Brian Selznick. I had checked out the book beforehand and read it to my now 8 year old daughter. She and I enjoyed the straightforward tale accompanied by the simple ink drawings by Selznick. I hoped that it wouldn’t be exploded into a riot of day-glo color as exemplified by Goodnight Moon.

And I was not disappointed. Sure, they took liberties and added elements that were not in the original story, such as the addition of the Barker character. But this actually made the performance more complex and enjoyable for the adults in the crowd. On a tangential note, it seems like children’s theatre as a whole is going above and beyond to make shows more sophisticated to appeal to the parents of the kids as much as the kids themselves. I like that to some degree, but part of me yearns for the simple productions put on by threadbare storefront companies operating on a shoestring. It seems more honest and direct.

Back to the show itself. It features three actors playing several roles. I liked this idea. My kids loved it, especially when one of the male actors dressed up as the aunt. Also featured in this show are puppets in several creative configurations. I especially like the dolls in the dollhouse that were handled by puppeteers dressed in black clothing. I felt it exposed my kids to new ways of imaging how puppetry could be done. All throughout the show there is original songs and scoring, all done very well by the cast and two musicians on either side of the stage. You could clearly see the influence of director Blair Thomas and his past work with Red Moon. There were dark thematic elements, but not ones which would be scary for kids; again more for the adults to appreciate.

In summary I give an enthusiastic thumbs up, as did my daughter and her two classmates. This is a show geared for an older child – 7 and up I’d estimate. It is sophisticated yet accessible for kids, yet not dumbed down for the grownups in the audience.

* Disclosure: I was provided complimentary tickets to the press opening of this show by Chicago Children’s Theatre. I did not receive any other compensation for my efforts and am not affiliated with CCT nor its marketing or public relations firms.

Ending 2011 on a melancholy note

I enjoy New Year’s Eve. It’s always been my favorite holiday to look forward to. It’s the feeling of anticipation of a new year, of new possibilities, new friends, new circumstances, a hope for new and exciting things to come along. But this year, regrettably, I’m not feeling the love as the clock approaches midnight. It’s been an exhausting year, and as we roll into 2012 in a couple hours, I can see a landscape that I will simply call “more of the same”. December’s been a tough month. There’s all the usual holiday madness and rush. With one kid’s birthday this month, and the other one’s next month, with Christmas right between them, it’s always a blur of presents and gift-buying. I also just finished a week of co-teaching a movie making camp for a group of 5 year olds. Then we’ve also been hit with some friends and family passing away at the end of the year. As head of the PTA at the older kid’s school, the winter break hasn’t been much of a break, for as soon as school begins, the fundraising onslaught begins (we have 3-4 events in the next 90 days). So I’ve been working through all the above getting software and web stuff ready. It goes without saying that we didn’t get Christmas cards out this year (but I did manage to produce a pretty cool online holiday video).

On the at-home-dad front, I’ve been wanting to transition into more of a working dad, but with the younger one looking at another year of part-time pre-K, realistically I won’t be able to move back into full-time work until at least fall 2013. So I’m looking at another year of kid-schlepping. One bright spot is that I’m involved with a cool group of moms who are working collectively on establishing a cooperative playspace for our kids. Yeah, yeah, I know. Yet another project that demands more time than I have to spare right now. But that might lead to some interesting things on the career front in 2012. More on that later.

In the meantime I wish you all a prosperous and fresh start for the new year!

A Day at the Chicago Public Schools Gifted Testing Session

For the first time, I took my daughter to the annual gifted testing for Chicago Public Schools selective enrollment. This is the test you take your kid to if you want to get into one of the dozen or so selective enrollment schools. I had been tempted to do this since she was in Kindergarten. Several parents of schoolmates had pulled me aside in the past and suggested I do it. It’s hard to resist. After all, what parent doesn’t think their kid is “gifted”? And every parent wants to be reassured by a numerical score that they’re doing it right. Well, we’re happy with her current school (a magnet school), and why open a Pandora’s Box if the result is that she’s a genius and gets an offer from another highly-regarded school? She’d have to leave friends and teachers whom she loves, and when she heard about getting this “test”, we could tell she was anxious about what it would mean, and even about doing poorly on the test itself.

So I convinced myself that we were going to get her tested just to see how she did, that we weren’t going to make any changes based on the score, and that this was an exercise in experiencing the “process” of getting tested. I am after all, curious about what exactly is on the test, since it seems to be some kind of state secret protected under lock and key by CPS. I even told myself it would be a good career development exercise, since lately getting your kid into the right CPS school has parents so anxious they hire consultants to help them. After snooping around various blogs about CPS gifted testing, I realized that almost no one knows what’s on this test. I was intrigued. So we applied for the testing and got a reasonably good time. CPS assigns you a random time and day for testing.  Last time I tried we got an 8AM on a Saturday (ugh!). This time was a 1:30 in the afternoon, so we went for it.

I brought my daughter, who is now in 2nd grade, and her brother who is 3, along for the ride. I had read that the time for testing could vary considerably, from 15 minutes to over an hour. The testing takes place at IIT on the near southside, in a college lecture room. You arrive with your kid and check-in, where they give you a number printed on a colored square. When enough kids have arrived, they call out the color and your kid lines up with all the other kids with that color. They then escort the kids out of the room to another room. There were about 4 groups of children of about 15-20 students each in our session. I asked and was told the test would take about 90 minutes. The proctors made it clear that no children would be allowed to bring any kind of electronics or recording equipment with them into the test room, and that if for any reason a child could not complete the test, or was disruptive, they would not be allowed to re-take the test again until the following year. The parents were kept waiting in the auditorium until the test ended and the children returned to the auditorium.

The waiting time went fairly smoothly. I placated the 3 year old with snacks and an iPad. There was no public wi-fi in the auditorium. There were bathrooms nearby and mention was made of a snack machine elsewhere in the building. After about an hour the children were returned. I asked my daughter how well she did. She said she thought she got most of the questions right. It turns out, at least for the 2nd grade level, that it was a multiple-choice test, probably about 30-40 questions. The students were asked a question and asked to fill in a bubble like on a Scantron type form. My daughter could not remember all the questions, but the ones she did tell me were along the lines of: “what type of animal has a mane?”, then she has to choose which picture best matched that question. Another was, “which shape can you not draw without picking up your pencil from the paper?”. I asked her if there were any math questions and she said no. There was a bathroom break during the testing. Kids who did not have to go remained in the classroom and were entertained with a game of hangman while waiting for their peers to return. So it seems like at this grade level what your kids get is a multiple-choice assessment of their vocabulary and deductive reasoning skills using visual depictions.

If you’re getting your kid tested for the younger grades like Kindergarten, I have heard that the test is shorter and more open-ended. Maybe I’ll repeat this again in the coming years when the 3 year old is ready for Kindergarten. Oh and one other thing, they showed the parents a CPS video on the magnet / selective enrollment process. I swear, the process is so confusing, that the majority of parents would fail if THEY were tested on what they had just been presented in the video.