Sunday, October 19, 2014

Would you rather have $50,000 or $25,000? Explaining the impact of full-day kindergarten

             Lots of interest, all of a sudden, in full-day kindergarten… I’ve had several questions about that scheme during the past few days. I’m not sure why, but it is well worth discussing yet again.

            What I’ve been asked has varied, but it always seems to come back to, “Is full-day kindergarten better than half-day kindergarten?” I get why that is being asked, and I’m too polite to sneer openly, but what a silly question.

            Should we set your salary at $50,000 or $25,000? Could I pour you a half-glass of wine (or, if the waiter were optimistic, a half-full glass)? Would you prefer to win the first half of the game or the whole game? 

            There have been two sizeable meta-analyses of the whole-day/full-day controversy—one with an educational thrust and the other from the health care side of the house. Both have reached the same conclusions: Full-day kindergarten provides students with stronger academic preparation in reading, language, and mathematics. Full-day kindergarten provides students with stronger social-emotional support (yes, the full-dayers develop greater self-confidence).

            But both research reviews also conclude that these pluses usually fade by age 8. Providing 5-year-olds with more teaching early on is advantageous in producing good first-graders, but it is unlikely to improve high school graduation rates. At least the way we do it now.

            How can I be so blithe in my allegiance to such a short-term positive?

            Frankly, I think we expect too much of early interventions. It shows a real misunderstanding of the power and value of teaching.

            Many years ago I used the metaphor comparing teaching with insulin therapy and vaccines. We usually argue the merits of early interventions as being the latter. We tell policymakers that if they invest more in the early years, there won’t be educational or social needs later.

            But education is not a vaccine. If we teach something and it provides an advantage, that advantage will go away if we then teach that something to someone else.

           Back in the 1970s, Dolores Durkin taught preschoolers to read. She then tracked their progress. When these early readers entered kindergarten, they spent the year working on letter names. Not surprisingly, by the end of the year, their classmates who had spent the year studying this aspect of literacy partially caught up. A couple more years of that and the benefits of early learning were dissipated.

            I started asking would you rather have $25,000 or $50,000. That’s silly, too, but imagine if my answer were: $25,000 because in 3 or 4 years the advantage would be gone. You would have spent all that money and there’d likely be no material difference between the groups.

            Full-day kindergarten can be a good investment. But only if we save and invest the benefits to be derived from it. (Imagine if with your extra $25,000 you had invested some of that; then there would clearly be an ongoing benefit of the extra dough.

            In education that would mean continuing to build on those early gains. Full-day kindergartners need first-grade curricula and instruction aimed at taking them from where they are (as a result of the full-day teaching) and then accelerating these children forward again.  

            What we do instead as a result of early interventions (full-day kindergarten, parent programs, Reading Recovery, etc.)? Typically, we throw these children back into the mix, providing them the same instruction they would have received had there been no intervention. And, we invest in various programs aimed at trying to “catch up” the children who did not receive that early intervention (which is why programs like Head Start can appear to be ineffective).

            Build quality on quality, use instruction to accelerate children forward continually, and you will see the long-term benefits of full-day kindergarten and other effective early interventions.

Cooper, H., Allen, A.B., Patall, E.A., & Dent, A.L. (2010). Effects on full-day kindergarten on        
     academic achievement and social development. Review of Educational Research, 80(1), 34-70.

Durkin, D. (1974-1975). A six year study of children who learned to read in school at the age of four.      Reading Research Quarterly,10(1), 9-61.

Hahn, R.A., Rammohan, V., Truman, B.I., Milstein, B., Johnson, R.L. et al. (2014). Effects of full- 
     day kindergarten on the long-term health prospects of children in low-income and racial/ethnic-
     minority populations: A community guide systematic review. American Journal of Preventive

     Medicine, 46(3), 312-323.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A George By Any Other Name: Guided Reading and the Common Core

Once when visiting the Big Easy, a young woman who had clearly been over-served, stopped me and said, “You’re that guy.”

I smiled, bemused, unsure what to say. Now her friends had fanned out around me.

“You’re that guy. You’re that guy on TV.”

My grin grew downright idiotic. At first I tried to explain that I wasn’t “that guy,” but that just seemed to convince them even more that I must be. They insisted.

I never figured out who she thought I was, but I copped to it, and thanked her for her support and asked her to keep watching. I’m pretty sure she had me confused with George Clooney (Cyndie tells me it was more likely Bozo the Clown). 

I’m still pretty sure it was Clooney, though my hair hasn’t really turned as much as his.

That got me thinking… think how disappointed that young lady might have been, when she sobered up, had I pressed my advantage. 

No, that wasn’t what I was thinking. I was thinking that it really matters that we know of what we are speaking. I know many of you are thinking: Tim Shanahan, George Clooney, what's the difference? But--believe it or not--there is a difference and it could matter to somebody.

That’s true of lots of things. Like guided reading, for instance.

The term “guided reading” is causing a lot of confusion. Most of us now use it as shorthand to refer to those instructional procedures recommended by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell in their book, Guided Reading (1996) – much as many of you might use George as shorthand for Tim Shanahan.

The problem with that conception of the term “guided reading” is that it actually conglomerates three separate aspects of instruction into one idea.

And, that’s where the problem is. When I say that the Common Core contradicts the fundamentals of guided reading—I mean George Clooney, and you’re thinking Tim Shanahan.

From the emails I receive and the audience comments at my presentations, it is evident to me that many of you—probably most of you—think of guided reading as instruction with leveled books; that is, with books matched to the students' instructional levels. Because of that, I often use “guided reading” as a shortcut key when I am criticizing the idea of leveling kids’ reading in those ways.

And that works great with some of my audience. They get what I’m saying. They definitely are not confusing me with either Mr. Clooney or Mr. Bozo.

But the Fountas and Pinnell version of guided reading--because of its complexity--means different things to different people. A significant part of my audience believes that guided reading is about small group teaching, and studies are pretty clear that small group teaching is advantageous. Those individuals hear me challenge guided reading and they start seeing images of a clown with really big feet.

The term, “guided reading,” was not created by F&P. It was a term used by one of the basal reader companies during the 1950s to describe their lesson plan in which teachers guided students to read a text by preteaching vocabulary, setting a purpose for reading, having kids read part of the text, and then discussing that portion in pursuit of a series of teacher questions. (A competing program at the time marketed a very similar routine called “directed reading”).

Again, when I talk about the contradiction between “guided reading” and Common Core, some individuals are taking it that I’m criticizing the idea of reading a text en masse under the supervision of a teacher. And, again, to these folks, they are definitely seeing grease paint and big shoes rather than a hunk.

Please understand: Research findings and Common Core standards do stand in stark contradiction to the idea of teaching everybody (beyond beginners) at their so-called instructional level. The standards say nothing about small group instruction or communal readings in which teachers scaffold kids’ interactions with text. The criticisms are of the first, not of the second two.

I hope that helps. 

By the way, I have made headway in convincing Cyndie that people really do confuse me with George Clooney. She is even warming to the idea. Of course, she has been dropping hints about a 7-carat diamond, but I’m sure we’ll work that problem out over time.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Final Notes on Washington Post Article on Complex Text Requirements

Last week I replied to some of the remarks about text complexity that were made on the Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column. Here are a couple more.

Fountas and Pinnell are stating what is their take on what the Common Core standards say. What the standards say and what their supporters are advocating are not necessarily the same thing. I think this statement is fully in agreement with what I have said above. 
"But standards do not usually prescribe that students must spend all their time reading texts that are extremely hard for them, with no access to books that will help them learn." 
As I said in the article, it was Core supporters Petrilli and Shanahan who have made the argument for frustration level text, not necessarily the Common Core standards. The way the standards are being implemented, and the fact that they do ramp up text level expectations with no research to back up that requirement, is problematic. 

This writer makes claims that simply are not true.

He/she claims Mike Petrilli and I have promoted something that is not in the Common Core. That is not case. Let me explain where the idea that students will need to be taught with more challenging text comes from. First, CCSS, unlike the standards they replace, specify the levels of text that children need to be able to read to meet the standards. In the past, standards emphasized reading skills, but neglected the complexity of the language that students needed to negotiate. Teachers could teach the grade level skills, but place kids in out-of-grade-level texts without any concern.

Additionally, CCSS has set the levels for each grade in a way that ensures that the average child will NOT be able to read the texts with 95% accuracy and 75% comprehension. The writer is correct that the standards don’t explicitly say that, but it is easy to check out. For example, MetaMetrics has long set Lexile levels for the grade levels in a way aimed at identifying the texts that students could read with 75-90% comprehension. CCSS has set standards that raise the Lexile levels for each grade level (raising them means that the average student would not be able tor read the texts with that level of comprehension, because the books would be relatively harder.

The other big error in this letter is the claim that there is “no research” supporting the ramping up of text level expectations. Actually, that is not the case. There is a growing body of research showing that our students are not graduating from high school and that students can be taught effectively with more challenging text. In fact, in some of the studies working in harder texts has led to markedly higher achievement.

Russ Walsh calls for teachers to "balance our instruction between independent level, on-level, and frustration level texts." That is, reading experts are (and always have been) recommending that students encounter 'frustration level" texts whether one approves or disapproves of Common Core. 

I think Shanahan is incorrectly characterizing guided reading instruction in the piece you cited above.
Fair point. I thinks he sets up a straw man (either students read easier texts without instruction or more difficult texts with instruction) and proceeds to knock it down - so I would have to agree with your criticism.  

These 3 sets of comments are incorrect as well. I would suggest that they go and read Fountas and Pinnell or Allington or Johns or any number of reading experts who have written about instructional level teaching and guided reading. None of these sources recommend teaching students with both instructional and frustration level materials. I have repeatedly over the past few years suggested that more reading strength would be developed by having students read texts at multiple levels and have even designed instructional programs that do this. That approach comes from my analysis of the research on this issue, not from past practices recommended by Russ Walsh or any of these other authorities (in fact, another respondent showed quotes from Fountas and Pinnell showing that they reject the idea of teaching kids with grade level materials—despite the research studies showing students making bigger gains doing that instead of guided reading).


The original posting and the responses revealed some unfortunate confusion over a couple of terms of reading jargon: balanced literacy and guided reading. Lots of the exchanges looked like folks talking past each other, because they didn't know what these terms referred to. Carol Burris seemed to think that "balanced literacy" referred to balancing frustration and instructional level text (it doesn't), and it is important to recognize that there are at least two definitions of "guided reading." When I (and others) refer to "guided reading" colloquially we confuse teachers as to what the problem is that Common Core is addressing. In an upcoming posting (or two), I will define these terms and try to explain their significance to try to reduce some of this confusion as that can only undermine efforts to better meet kids' educational needs.

Finally, National Public Radio will soon address the complex text issue. Here's hoping that they sow less confusion and misinformation than the Washington Post article.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Snappy Responses on Challenging Text Debate

Last week, Valerie Strauss devoted her Washington Post space to an article challenging idea of teaching with challenging text, including my articles. The posting got lots of response showing fundamental misunderstandings of the issues on this. I am reprinting some of those responses along with my rejoinders to those. I will continue this over the next couple of entries since I think it will help teachers and parents to understand what this issue is about.

Basically, many reading experts have claimed that it is necessary or optimum to teach students using texts that are at the students’ so-called “instructional levels.” A text would be said to be “instructional” if students could—on their own--recognize approximately 95% of the words and answer 75-90% of the questions about the passage. Texts harder than that were considered to be “frustration” level. Accordingly, most elementary teachers report trying to teach students at their instructional level rather than their grade level.

The controversy has been brought about by Common Core, since those standards are specific about the difficulty level of the texts that students need to learn to read. Unlike past standards that ignored what students could read. CCSS specifies particular levels of text difficulty for each grade two through twelve. They did this basically because if students were taught at their instructional levels all the time, how would they ever reach college or career readiness by the time they leave high school.

Below are some of the letters from the Washington Post site, and my rejoinders in italics.

I do both leveled reading and introduce grade level complex text that we all work through together for deep comprehension. I don't see a conflict with the standards at all. The reality is that not all students will be at grade level when they walk into your room. A teacher needs to make the adjustments needed to differentiate or at least have times when students are reading at instructional level, i.e. guided reading and one on one reading. I have students reading complex texts now independently because they can. The others participate in close reading exercises in whole group and just because they can't read every single word or read it fluently, that doesn't mean they can't understand the nuances in the text that are on the analysis or inference level. Some of my best critical thinkers were not the best readers and they contributed more to our conversations about text than some of those readers reading above grade level.  
 I have read the standards thoroughly for my grade level and I don't see that they are saying the students should be reading at a frustration level all the time. I use my own instructional judgment in my classroom and they are in line with the standards.

            This writer is correct that CCSS does not explicitly state that teachers need to teach with frustration level texts. However, they do specify text difficulty levels in grades 2-12, and since those are part of the standards, students will be tested using texts of those difficulty levels. Teachers can spend the year teaching fourth graders to read second grade texts—many do because “not all students will be at grade level when they walk into your room”, but that  means the teacher is not even attempting to teach the fourth grade standards. Teachers are expected to teach their state’s standards and that means trying to teach students to read grade level texts; if they do this, given the current “reality,” that means many students will be working in frustration level texts.         

            The confusion evident here is a common one: the point is not to frustrate kids. The point is to teach students to make sense of texts of particular levels of difficulty.

            I agree with this writer’s idea of teaching students with multiple levels of text; I’ve called for that repeatedly on this site and in presentations and articles. I would point out that this position contradicts the popular notion that students should be taught at their instructional level all the time). However, this writer’s description of how to do this makes no sense. Students need the greatest scaffolding and support from the teacher when reading the hardest texts. If complex texts are assigned to the whole class and instructional level ones to the small reading groups, then you are doing the opposite: you’re making sure kids get help when they don’t need it, and that they don’t when they do.


It is the instructional shifts, philosophy of proponents who do not like guided level reading and of course the tests. Keep doing what you are doing. You are doing right by your students.

            This is an example of someone who has fallen in love with a particular way of doing things—in this case, guided reading—and, therefore, resists the possibility of teaching successfully in any other way. I’m always befuddled    when a principal commits to a teaching activity with no research support, especially given the results that we are getting. The only study I’ve found on the effectiveness of guided reading was one in which guided reading was the comparison condition. Kuhn & Stahl (2006) reported that students who had worked with grade level texts did better than those in the guided reading instruction—oops). Teachers should pay attention to evidence—not opinion.


I completely agree that these "few" are attempting to dictate instruction. I don't like it. Every child is different. Educators should gear their teaching to fit their students. Some students may not do well with "frustration level teaching." Like I said, I'm afraid that those are the students that will choose to give up...that may seem like the easier route. Maybe it's the word "frustration" that doesn't sit well with me. I don't know.
            This writer makes a good point: much of the commentary on the Washington Post site focused on the idea of “frustration” and how bad it was to frustrate kids. Misunderstanding of educational jargon is the source of this concern, however. Studies show that the text levels labeled as “frustration” by reading experts are inconsistently related to actual measures of physiological or psychological frustration, and that mild levels of frustration are requisite for learning.

            The issue isn’t whether kids should be frustrated, but whether the teacher   can assign texts at grade level. Students may struggle to read such texts initially, but more than 20 studies show that they can work with such texts without frustration if the teacher provides appropriate support.

More to come...