Cynthia Liu is CEO/Founder of K-12 News Network.

On March 14, 2014, I was invited to speak to the Association of Childen’s Librarians of Northern California at their annual Institute in the beautiful San Francisco Main Public Library.


Here’s the substance of the talk I gave. In re-arranging my address to the ACL for publication here, I decided to flip the order and put the call to action first and the reasoning behind it afterwards. Enjoy!

CALL TO ACTION: Five key ways children’s librarians can support STEAM learning and creativity/collaboration/communication/critical thinking in the classroom.

City librarians can:

  • encourage math literacy by setting up a time and space for math circles (just like story hour). See this UCLA professor’s work on nurturing math circles in Los Angeles. This can be adapted for a wider range of age groups and abilities. Down with math phobia! Let’s make math puzzling and problem solving a fun family activity.
  • foster hands-on learning in STEAM with well-curated tools that Makers use, patterned after the Berkeley Public Library’s Tool Lending Library (useful items could be potentiometers, PVC pipe cutters, Arduino kits, soldering irons, etc). Why should only the people who can afford to buy a potentiometer to measure voltage be able to do so, when a useful measuring tool like that could be available to anyone who needs it? A branch of the Oakland Public Library is proposing to have an expanded Tool Lending Library and community-run makerspace in the same building.
  • coordinate with school librarians to support grade-level appropriate research methods instruction to upper elementary through high school aged students. Students need in-class introductions to library resources in an intentional and systematic way to ensure no child has a knowledge base or preparation gap that’s widened by parental level of education. Children’s librarians in city libraries can think about how to introduce even elementary school-aged children to primary and archival sources to get them thinking outside the Google search box. Teachers are carrying the main responsibility for content; they need your assistance with research methods.
  • find ways to support extracurriculars like Destination ImagiNation, Odyssey of the Mind, Maker Faires. The first two are team creative experiences that reward STEAM approaches to artistic expression and practical problem-solving. Compile resources in stagecraft, theatre, making and playing instruments, and creativity-nurturing puzzles through specialized reading or resource lists so kids can explore for themselves.
  • see if institutional subscriptions to Destination ImagiNation or Odyssey of the Mind are possible with the library as sponsor. (In DI/OotM, proprietary challenges are available to teams that register through a school district. Perhaps as institutional subscribers, communities that are unsuccessful in getting subscriptions through their school districts can still participate by getting the challenge rubrics through their local library. BTW, I am not affiliated nor do I profit from increased participation in DI/OotM, which is a registered non-profit. DI is simply an extracurricular my son has enjoyed and from the growing attendance at regionals and state tournaments, it seems to be something other California families appreciate as well.)

School librarians can:

  • work with intentionality to introduce social/emotional learning and good digital citizenship to students when online. Privacy, safety issues, pro-social behavior can all be taught and reinforced starting in elementary, especially if students are using resources like Khan Academy (which has a social tutoring component). Teach this now while students are open to these messages. Set them up for healthy online social web use in middle and high school.
  • work with principals and teachers to educate parents as to best practices in computer use. Guidelines are essential. Too many parents are abdicating oversight or are unaware of the risks, or they wimp out when it comes to setting limits. Better partnership between parents and schools can help with a more uniform and pro-social school culture.
  • reinforce anti-cyber bullying messages/policies when instructing on computer use — good digital citizenship involves being able to back what you say and being able to stand behind your words in real life as well as in your online life.
  • serve as a liaison between teacher needs related to class assignments and city resources. Give city librarian colleagues a head’s up if waves of children will be requesting assistance on a particular subject.
  • weigh in on appropriate tech procurement (hardware & software), and if necessary, advocate for multi-use hardware/software that truly raises the tech literacy of students. SCHOOL LIBRARIES ARE NOT MERELY TEST CENTERS.
  • provide space and or resources for those students who refuse standardized test-taking. The reason their parents are refusing the tests is that they feel teaching to the test and test-taking itself distorts and diminishes valuable instructional time. If these students are involved in self-directed projects, provide space and resources to assist them in completing these during the the school day.

Both kinds of librarians can:

  • expand curation of STEAM-related stories (especially those regarding multicultural inventors, tinkerers, and scientists).

With regard to Local Control Funding Formula and Local Control Accountability Plans, children’s librarians can support community efforts to shape school district budget priorities in these ways:

  • change/coordinate library programming to offer LCAP informational sessions so parents can get up to speed, make suggestions, and ask questions in a separate program that takes place during a children’s story hour, author reading, or puppet show, for example. The children are safely and productively occupied and the parents can get information they need. This is especially important for parents in under-served communities. Will other people make budget decisions about programs and policies that affect ELL/low-income/special needs or foster youth WITHOUT the input of the families these programs are supposed to serve? Multilingual presenters and resources will be key.
  • school librarians can work with social studies teachers of middle and high school students to create civic education modules to engage youth directly in the shaping of school budget priorities. What resources are necessary to understand the school district’s budget? What are real-life proposals for improvement? For example, is a school resource officer on site necessary if students say a student-run conflict-resolution and restorative justice program is a better use of resources?
  • how can assessments better reflect content mastered and diagnose areas for improvement? We are fighting for every minute of the school day to be filled with deep, rich, relevant skill-building and critical-thinking experiences that celebrate and cultivate the full range of human endeavors. In my humble opinion, there is no room for that with incessant testing.

Remarks to the ACL, March 14, 2014

Thank you to the Association of Children’s Librarians of Northern California for inviting me to speak with you about Common Core State Standards from a parent’s perspective. You are the keepers of the temple, the guardians of ancient treasures. Children’s librarians, I salute you! You know where all the good stuff is.

I have a 10 year old in 4th grade who attends a public elementary school, and what prompted me to get politically involved in school funding, curriculum, and local school governance is the fact that my son started kindergarten just as the Great Recession began. He and the six million plus K-12 students in this state were subjected to $5 billion in education cuts every year for four years. The situation was dire and immediate. In suburban, affluent districts, teachers took the brunt of the blow and administrators and parents did their best to shield children from the effects in the classroom. In impoverished districts that struggled even before the Great Recession began, children labeled “failing” through low test scores lost art, music, and fully staffed school libraries and were compelled to undergo “double-blocked” math and reading remediation. They had no buffer. They lost teachers and key staff.

To counter this death spiral made worse by the chronic underfunding due to Prop 13, I launched a grassroots education news and civic engagement platform (K-12 News Network) so we could wake people to the need to save public education. Now, after passing Proposition 30 to fund schools in 2012 and rejiggering our school funding formula via Assembly Bill 97, we’re still only 49th in the nation in per pupil spending. (More on this in a bit.)

We are poised at an important moment. Just as funding is starting to trickle back into our schools through Local Control Funding Formula, something has appeared to interrupt the rebuilding of our public schools.

Fundingwise, our “hold harmless” level was set at 2012-2013 levels. Not 2008-2009 levels. The funding floor is lower now than it was before the Great Recession — something to keep in mind when we contemplate the amount of peak funding schools will receive at the end of Prop 30’s seven year term.

Curriculumwise, we’re now rolling out Common Core State Standards (Smarter Balanced tests, in CA). For our state, it’s a double shock to the system, both sold as “good,” but a difficult transition to make.

In talking about the Common Core State Standards, I mostly want to focus on the political impact. I’ll be peeling an onion – layers of education policy and laws that, when we finally get to the center, are about how the student experiences the standards as the teachers teach them, and how it is school and children’s librarians have a role in that process. So bear with me as we go through the initial layers.

The outermost layer: No Child Left Behind – everyone knows it’s broken, as is Congress, but it’s too profitable to fix it. Fantasy Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals of 100% proficiency and the testing machinery that supposedly certifies that proficiency have become useful clubs to pummel schools with and are too profitable to shut down, because “failure” is profitable. Look at Pearson: they’re passing the “disruption” on to us – their textbook market is shrinking due to greater adoption of e-readers, so they have to boost testing and remediation. When you read the business section of EdWeek, you should be appalled.

Data-driven instruction: this is necessary in order to label schools in need of “Program Improvement.” Low student scores trigger remediation supplied by testing companies. Test scores are how we commodify education. Standardized testing and the bell curve together create “failure.” In describing the “edu-bubble,” critic of market-driven school reform Jeff Bryant describes how this works:

[profiteers] gave the venture crowd a huge gift by decreeing that student scores on standardized tests would define the learning “output” that schools would be accountable for. And all of a sudden everything monetarily related to schools — operations budgets, teacher salaries, classroom costs, government funds, grant money — could be related to a test score output.


This in effect turned student learning — and by extension, the students themselves — into a commodity that could be speculated on. Now that edu-venturists had something they could put on the other side of the balance sheet, they could now “flip” student test scores into a speculative market. And all sorts of “reform” schemes and start-ups — from starting charter schools to lowering teacher salaries to closing schools — could be rationalized on the basis of test scores.

State waivers: ostensibly to lift federal penalties incurred if schools don’t achieve AYP, but in reality bribes given in exchange for adopting Obama administration regulations (instituting a stepped-up testing regime, making teacher effectiveness measured by student standardized test scores, etc).

California waivers, in particular: regarding CORE (California Office to Reform Education ) waivers (including San Francisco Unified, the rest of the districts are Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Santa Ana, Sanger, Sacramento City and Fresno) – in August, 2013 they got out in front of the state to develop new ways of measuring teachers and other concessions the federal Department of Education sought so the CORE districts would still receive federal money. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had threatened to withhold $1.5 billion in funding intended for the state’s poorest kids unless we administered new tests on old material. The CORE districts rushed to make their own deal with Duncan — but just a week ago, the feds blinked and said, “Oh, California, it’s ok that you went ahead and cancelled STAR tests and will be giving a test of the SBAC test in April-May of 2014 and the REAL test will count in 2015.”

The recent fed decision regarding California’s state waivers begs the question, what advantage did the CORE concessions to the federal Department of Education earn them? (The answer might be ‘none.’)

Finally, as to what gets taught in the classroom, you should know that the 2010 CA law (AB250) that formally adopted Common Core State Standards is also our P21 law in which we formally adopted Partnership for 21st Century Learning that emphasizes the 4Cs: creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. Some savvy educators have pointed out that CCSS come burdened with costly-to-implement, time-consuming computer-based tests, while the guidelines in P21 have no such liability. California is a P21 state.

Now we come to the heart of the onion — this seems to be how Common Core State Standards (and P21 principles) are making their way to the classroom:

  • Project-based learning (which we also had in some schools before CCSS was adopted)
  • Greater use of the computer in the classroom to administer benchmarks as well as summative assessments, attributable to CCSS
  • Greater use of the computer to do homework (kids might update classroom website for ELA tests, create powerpoints, make and edit videos…and use gchat/GoogleDrive to facilitate this)

Computer use for benchmark and other testing extends all the way to kindergarten. Many of the teaching professionals who have problems with Common Core find the emphasis on computer work age- and developmentally-inappropriate. They assert that the focus on the screen and direct instruction can hinder socialization and physical, concrete, open-ended free play so necessary to children in grades k-3. When you consider how direct instruction can inhibit creativity and exploration, you wonder why it would be suitable for the plastic minds of our youngest school-aged children, not to mention why much of this would be suitable for older children.

If children are forced to work on computers in the upper primary grades, then middle school/high school is too late to start teaching about good internet safety habits. Kindergarteners are asked to take tests on the computer. What’s the point of this? (They aren’t on any social networks, but still, why?? What’s the rush?) Educators should either give upper elementary students instruction on good digital citizenship in parallel with work assigned on the computer, or adopt a policy of keeping computer-based work mandatory in middle school and above and teaching good digital citizenship at that time.

Librarians can advocate that online access be age-appropriate, and also be part of the infrastructure to teach this to students alongside evaluating sources – what are good criteria for evaluating social networks for safety risks? They can also educate parents about games that come with chat and that even very young kids might be interacting with strangers online in that realm.

A few words on the rising resistance to CCSS: there’s now a national opt-out movement. Dissatisfaction with testing pre-dated CCSS roll-out. When the film “Race to Nowhere” was released in 2009, it struck a chord with parents who saw their children desperately trying to notch their belts with the qualifiers that would “guarantee” them entry to a competitive college. Perfect grades, perfect extracurriculars, perfect test scores…with a high price to be paid in lack of sleep, joyless, mechanical learning, depression, disordered eating and anxiety attacks, and so on.

Currently, parent and student dissatisfaction with ramped-up testing has found expression in test refusal. Here are some of the best reasons why families are refusing standardized tests:

  • Poor protection of student privacy: in NYS, parents are upset that student data from PARCC tests will be mined for possible marketing/profit purposes by inBloom, which was set up to aggregate test score and other perosnal information. See also the Atlantic Magazine piece “Your high school transcript could haunt you forever” – this information is not anonymized, it’s highly identifiable and could contain medical/quasi-medical information (such as various neurodiverse diagnoses), school disciplinary information, and so on. California has yet to address this with a bill that strengthens protection of student information still making its way through the legislature.
  • Tests steal instructional time
  • Tests are used to beat up students and narrow the curriculum
  • Tests are used to beat up teachers
  • Tests are used to characterize “failing schools” when we already know schools that struggle are poorly resourced and families are economically disadvantaged to begin with

And yes, right-wing Teapublicans who hate Big Gov anyway are using this as an excuse to shore up their fading demographic.

Test boycotts can be seen as an attempt to deprive these corporations of their product. Their product is data and the child is the worker who produces it for “free.”

In California specifically: I did not work my fingers to the bone to pass a revenue measure (Prop 30) that will fund testing companies and software/hardware purchases when nurses, school psychologists, librarians, and the arts have not been returned to schools as they were in 2008-2009.

Test refusals are an attempt by families to shift priorities.

I promised I would talk about Local Control Funding Formula and Local Control Accountability Plan committees, because this is connected to the quality and nature of instruction in our public schools.

We have an opening in Local Control Funding Formula. They’ve given us an inch, we should take a mile. We are beginning to experiment with greater stakeholder voices in participatory budget projects for the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles.

What if some districts decided to move to different forms of end-of-year assessment? What if teacher-generated performances, presentations, and portfolios of student work were the main emphasis, and not standardized tests? What if, since standardized tests claim to be partly diagnostic, we move when they’re given to October, as the state of Vermont did for the NECAP?

If we have Local Control in funding, why don’t teachers and families have Local Control in assessment? Perhaps it’s time for the pendulum to swing partly back to teacher-written tests and teacher subject experts to evaluate student progress — something our own Governor, Jerry Brown, has publicly said he favors on more than one occasion, given his criticism of standardized tests.

We Californians now have the potential to control the purse strings for school districts. How much influence will we seize, and will policy follow?



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