Thursday, February 27, 2014

Don’t Give the Common Core State Standards a Close Reading and Other Culinary Tips

I’ve been receiving queries about the CCSS from teachers, principals, and consultants trying to figure out the standards. They don’t always like my responses—in fact, some have argued back that I must be wrong.  I’m not (he said, modestly).

But I’m getting ahead of myself, first the questions: 
One of the differences between the writing standard 1a in grades 9-10 and 11-12 is that students “introduce precise claims” (9-10) while in 11-12 students “introduce precise, knowledgeable claims.” I’m working with a group of teachers in clarifying the difference. It seems as though a precise claim would be also be grounded in knowledge rather than intuition or guesses or… Can you clarify?

Or…
Our team is now debating the differences between recount and retell.  We have found definitions of recount/retell, but we can’t seem to find credible resources that will clarify the differences. Since the Core uses retell in the K and 1st grade Core standards, and switches to recount in the 2nd grade standards, we feel it is critical that we are clear in explaining the differences. Can you help us to clarify the differences, or point us to a credible source to cite as we clarify the difference?

My response is that these well-meaning educators are not approaching these standards appropriately. They are looking for a narrow precision of meaning in a document not intended to provide that. I know that close reading is in right now, but a close reading of the standards—trying to make these fine distinctions by analyzing the words and structure closely—will undermine successful educational efforts rather than supporting them.

We aren’t lawyers and these aren’t legal documents.


Grant Wiggins has argued that the verbs in the standards need to be much more precise if they are going to provide a good roadmap for assessment. Grant Wiggins Blog Entry

But I’d argue back that it’s more important for the standards to support quality instruction rather than a spiffy test design.

These standards, because they are from the “fewer, bigger, better” school of standard writing, are intentionally not so precise. They leave a lot out, leaving many important choices and decisions to teachers and curriculum makers.

If the standards say students need to “summarize text,” then those who try to formulate a very precise conception of summarization are going to undermine, rather than facilitate, student learning.

Instead of that kind of hermeneutic verb analysis, it would be better to brainstorm in the other direction. That is, try to be inductive rather than deductive:

Think of all the kinds of texts and information sources that might be appropriate for students to summarize (consider different lengths of texts too, and any features that could make them difficult to summarize). Ponder, too, all the subskills entailed in summarization, such as recognizing and omitting unimportant information, identifying main ideas, creating generalization statements to replace lists of ideas, paraphrasing, and so on.

That is what the standards are asking us to teach, and those who try to serve such rich dishes of learning are likely to be successful. I’d want my kids to dine at their table—the dishes sound nutritious and delicious. But those who try to split hairs between recounting and retelling –trying to make sure that kids are served one but not the other—will be serving leftovers long past the date of expiration. No, thanks.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

"They are looking for a narrow precision of meaning in a document not intended to provide that."

I am the instructional coach in a district that spends a lot of time "analyzing" the core to find consistency amongst the standards. We then combine trends and ideas to create a more general focus for our teaching. When I read the quote above I had a thought that perhaps this is the work we are doing instead of the work you suggest later in your post.

Can you describe what you feel to be the most productive work collaborative groups of teachers can engage in to ensure proper understanding and teaching for both teachers and students?

Tim Shanahan said...

Good question. I try to deepen teachers’ understanding of the standards by looking at them less discretely than we usually do. For example, I have teachers look at the reading comprehension standards not as individual items but as approximate points along a series of progressions… that means reading the 12th grade reading standard number 1, and then reading all the number 1s, to figure out what it is that we are really trying to teach. I also lead exercises like scrambling all the elementary reading items, unnumbered (just making a random list of them, mixing up grade levels, etc.) and trying to get them back into their original categories. The point of this kind of exercise is to figure out what the categories mean; there are many items that will be interpreted differently if you know what categories they belong to. Third, I engage teachers in the kind of divergent thinking suggested above (brainstorming and studying what my be entailed by the various standards--that means instead of looking for the precise meaning of a verb considering all of its synonyms and related meanings). Fourth, I encourage teachers to look at connections and relationships across standards, like the connection between reading and writing items. Good luck.

Barbara Flanagan said...

Excellent recommendations, Tim. Thanks.

Barbara Andrews said...

Your post and the questions posed are confirming my concern that is coming out of a" standards movement" to a focus on standards based on 21st century skills - much teacher training will be needed, as younger teachers have only experienced standards as the "splitting hairs" and high stakes testing type.

doctordea said...

Since the standards were first published, I have been engaging teachers in the very activities that you describe: looking at the standards across the continuum of grades; conducting an open sort across a grade-level standard; and one you didn't mention, sorting standards across strands. It is through this kind of reading and thinking that teachers come to identify progressions, discuss the evolution of grade-level skills and make meaning of the progressions both intellectually and in a more practical sense: application to the classroom. This thinking demands a curiosity of and a willingness to work towards understanding each standard’s diction.
I stand in the field of those who respectfully disagree with your stance on the need to conduct a close reading of the standards: "trying to make these fine distinctions by analyzing the words and structure closely—will undermine successful educational efforts rather than supporting them." If we do not read the standards through a lens that draws distinctions between the language of grade-level standards, we will do our students a disservice by not stretching their learning.
There is a difference between retell and recount. I have offered a research based distinction between these iterations (as well as their evolution into the verb “summarize” at grade 4) in a blog written just over one year ago. To learn more, you can read that blog. Here, I offer yet another example to refute your position regarding the verbal shift in Reading Standard 1 from grade 4 to grade 6.
Teachers ask me about the difference between the words of standard 1: "refer," "quote," and "cite." If I were to extend your thinking about “retell” and “recount” to the Reading Standard 1 verbs of “refer,” “quote,” and “cite,” I would never move my students beyond an elementary use of text as evidence for my thinking. What is my evidence that the meaning and/or intent of these words is both varied and important? I cross reference the language among the strands of the Common Core. Whether planned or not planned by CC writers, an effort to cross-reference the diction of the reading standards to standards within other strands can illuminate the intent or context of the language in question.
Let me explain. In grades 4 & 5, Reading Standard 1 expects students to refer and quote respectively. In grade 6, the verb becomes "cite." Looking at Writing Standard 8, grades 4 & 5 both ask that students merely list this sources; however, W.6.8 asks that students "...quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and providing basic bibliographic information for sources" (CCSS, 2010. p. 21 & 44).This, I suggest to those who inquire of me the difference between the words selected as standards descriptors, is key to understanding through the use of evidence what the word "cite" means in grade 6 that is different from "refer" in grade 4 and "quote" in grade 5.
I’m not sure that these supports across the standards were planned anymore than I can say Shakespeare consciously planted the motifs we can find and analyze within and among his plays and sonnets. That, in my mind, is what needs less study. The words tell the story; the words convey the intent; the words are integral to the meaning and the measure of eventual success--both for the standards and for the individual.

Tim Shanahan said...

The problems with your approach to reading the standards are multiple: First, it narrows, rather than expands, what teachers try to teach. Many teachers are intent on teaching only that which they will be held accountable for—that is, what will be on the tests (a major concern that helped move the states to the Common Core). Do I have to teach students to cite/refer to another text or do they actually have to quote from it? A major premise of these standards was to try to escape from this kind of slavishness to test preparation demands. Teachers need to teach students to use information drawn from sources appropriately when they express their own ideas (in all kinds of writing and speaking). That means they need to be able to quote (meaning to use some of the sources words verbatim, and indicating the source of these words in an appropriate manner), cite (to appropriately use information from another source, though not necessarily quoting, but again crediting the source), and refer (to mention or credit more informally) external sources. The standards don’t mention that someone can quote too much of an original source, but it still needs to be taught. They don’t mention that sources sometime are used less to convey ideas effectively and more to claim authority, and yet we should try to teach students not to do this. Your approach is problematic because it encourages teachers to focus on the narrowest conceptions of these skills and abilities.

You claim to be engaging in a “close reading” of the CCSS, but then describe a reading approach that would have Brooks & Warren spinning in their respective graves. The point of close reading is to make sense of texts based only on the information in the text—to abjure outside sources. When you start trying to interpret a text by interpreting its meaning though external and separate texts as you describe, you are no longer involved in close reading. That concerns me given that you indicate you consult with schools on how to implement the CCSS… consultation that would depend heavily on your understanding of these fundamental concepts.

Sadly, your approach to reading in this case manages to embrace the worst aspects of both close reading and the more scholastic reading that it aimed to supplant. For instance, you blithely dismiss author intentions (as close readers do), but then engage in a search for meaning in external sources.

I have no problem with a scholastic approach to reading (as I’ve written here before), but greater respect for author intentions is essential to make such reading work (see E. D. Hirsch on this important issue). You should have noticed, for instance, that the CCSS authors never cited Kissner, nor did they ever cite her in anything else that any of them have ever written. Or you might have noticed that one of the main purposes of the Kissner book is to help teachers to prepare kids for tests (look at its title), an approach pretty foreign to the purposes of Common Core (and one that even the new tests are trying hard to avoid). Another thing worth noticing is that Kissner’s definitions don’t agree much with other sources in the field of literacy education. For example, many researchers (e.g., Neuman & Koskinen, 1992) have studied children’s written “retellings”—something your approach tells teachers not to consider. I respect that you are trying to get it right, but your approach will narrow teachers's efforts rather than emphasizing the big ideas inherent in these standards. Lean more heavily on the anchor standards than on external source; those efforts will bring you closer to the author's intentions in this case (which while being out of sync with close reading would be the right thing to do).

doctordea said...

I surely don't mean to belabor our discussion. But I disagree on two points. Though some teachers "are intent on teaching only that which they will be held accountable for—that is, what will be on the tests," as a public school teacher for many years and one still active in public schools, I fully believe the teachers of whom you speak not to constitute the majority of teachers in our schools. Moreover, I do not agree that coming to understand the language of the standards limits rather than broadens what can be taught. It is through progressions of grade-level standards that teaching and learning is itself broadened and not limited to repetitions of the same material, language, and expectations year in and year out--a repetition that has limited students' motivation to learn and to engage. Moreover, referencing language within the standards across the strands is not reaching beyond the text. Rather, reading across the text is an acceptable and desired approach to close reading as well as within the expectations of the very standards under discussion (RI.11-12.2 & 3). In the most historic sense, reaching outside of the document as we both know, is beyond the strict bounds of what has now come to be called close reading.
I appreciate your reflections and thoughtful counter response.

Robby B. said...

If the authors didn't intend us to examine the difference between "recount" and "retell," they should have used the same term. A change in vocabulary would indicate a change in purpose.

We spend more time and money trying to "interpret" these standards, and less time and money are spent actually learning how to teach better.

And if you don't want teachers to narrowly read these standards, that's easy. Stop the focus on the tests.

Tom Hoffman said...

To claim that it is a problem of reading rather than writing is ridiculous. The standards are full of sloppy false precision. Probably because they were done in a rush with poor editing and inadequate review. As a formal document it is an evident failure, but since there are no standards or guidelines for writing or evaluating these documents, I suppose that is only my opinion.

Teachers *should* be able to read the standards like lawyers without being misled by lazy, imprecise, and over-precise language.

It is obvious that the *success* of this project is far more important than its quality.

Tim Shanahan said...

Actually, Tom, what is ridiculous is the expectation that teaching and learning possess the kind of precision that you seem to fantasize about. There is a difference between standards or goals and curriculum and to pretend that there isn't as schools have been doing to try to teach to the tests hasn't worked and won't work. "Fewer, bigger, better" is a better way to go with standards, but those who try to teach such standards as narrowly and precisely as you suggest they should be able to will not advantage the children they work with.

Tom Hoffman said...

My expectations are based on studying the very international counterpart standards cited by CCSSI in their review of the CCRS, which I hope you are familiar with.

Ireland, for example, at the "leaving certificate" level is satisfied to include outcomes such as "Give an account of the gist of a text," and "Summarize the information they obtained from the text." Victoria just asks high school students for "an understanding of the ideas, characters and themes constructed by the author and presented in the set text."

None of the international counterpart standards I have looked at has meaningless variation in terminology across grade levels. They are quite satisfied to say what they mean, and if they mean to say exactly the same thing twice, they do.

The problem with Common Core's approach is *false* precision, such as the distinction between recount and retell. That is *not* introduced by the reader -- it comes from the authors. If there is not meaningful distinction, the variation in meaning should not have been introduced at all. It is sloppy editing for no apparent benefit whatsoever.

Tom Hoffman said...

OK, I tracked down the source of the error. It actually is a bad transcription of the Irish standards. At the "Infant" (read, kindergarten) level, there is an Irish outcome:

...re-read, retell and act out familiar stories, poems or parts of stories.

Which seems... familiar.

At the 1st and 2nd year level, the Irish include as a reading comprehension strategy, "retelling stories."

However, on the same page, there is a "...recount a narrative..." phrase within an oral language standard. From all the context and supporting documentation, its is clear that in Ireland, "recounting" is primarily used in the context of describing an event or experience, not a text or story.

Someone grabbed the wrong standard from the Irish ones when they were transcribing them. That's the source of the confusion.

http://www.curriculumonline.ie/Primary/Curriculum-Areas/Language/English

Tim Shanahan said...

Tom--
Your posts suggest that you don't know much about the Irish education system. I work in the Irish schools with some frequency (both in the Republic and in the North) and have been advising the Irish governments on literacy policy off and on over the past five years (I helped write the current government's literacy strategy, in fact--and am so credited). Your two posts do reveal the distinctions between the Irish standards and the Irish curriculum and both include the kinds of differences in wording that you are finding to be so upsetting. For example, what, precisely, Tom, is the difference between gist and summary? And, indeed, the Irish children are expected to retell and recount as well. In all my time in Irish classrooms and in my hundreds of hours spent with Irish teachers, I'd be gobsmacked if I'd ever seen any of the kind of trivial lawyering of the language that you are engaging in with the Common Core. (And, making up claims about how the standards were written and spreading such dreck across the Internet nineteen to the dozen is unhelpful as well). In any event, your claim that the CCSS standards are poorly written compared to the Irish standards is clearly wrong. Now raise a glass to St. Patrick and try reading the CCSS more like Irish teachers try to read and implement their standards--generously.

Tim Shanahan said...

doctordea (March 8)--

I wasn't commenting on the majority of teachers, but on those who are trying to ensure that they teach exactly what they think will be on the test. I don't know what percentage that is, but given the research findings showing the narrowing of the curriculum due to testing, it is evidently a considerable number.

Think of it this way: if you take a word like "recount" and you try to come up with its exact meaning (in terms of how much of a text has to be included in the summary and what format the summary has to be), you will end up trying to teach that format. But if you ask yourself what are all the reasonably close synonyms of recount, and what are all the useful forms of it, you are going to broaden what you need to teach. One is a convergent act and one is divergent. One is great for test prep, and one is great for designing a powerful curriculum capable of preparing students to do more than perform on one narrow test.

Tom Hoffman said...

The difference between gist and summary is straightforward enough. The gist is essentially the "main idea," expressed somewhat less academically, and you know what a summary is. If they shifted "gist" and "main idea" interchangeably within the same document without explanation or, apparently, intending to express a different meaning, then they'd be doing what the Common Core standards do.

When the Irish curriculum uses "retell" and "recount," there are two distinct meanings. When the Common Core switches between them, there apparently is no change in meaning.

This is bad writing in a formal document.

Tim Shanahan said...

Tom--

I'm embarrassed to point out that you are wrong on every point here--on the distinction between gist and summary (how many studies of this have you read?), on the meaning of the terms in the Irish standards (how many Irish schools have you worked in?), and in your evaluation of CCSS. Usually by random chance someone manages to get something right; you've set a new record. I know you hate the CCSS (and that you don't really know why, which is why you are searching so hard for some reason), but I would be curious which previous standards you want to harken back to. If states were to drop these standards, they will have to replace them with something. So which state standards would you resurrect to accomplish your dream of preserving the status quo-- a status quo in which 42% of the kids who have been meeting the standards that you love need remediation.

Tom Hoffman said...

At this point in the thread you are contradicting the gist of your initial post, that "trying to make these fine distinctions by analyzing the words and structure closely—will undermine successful educational efforts rather than supporting them." OK, fine, we should not split hairs over "retell," "recount" or "summary" in CCSS.

On the other hand, you say I don't understand the Irish curriculum because "gist" and "summary" have specific, research-backed, disciplinary definitions?

You seem to be arguing that the use of language in the Irish curriculum is much more precise than in CCSS -- if I want to understand the Irish curriculum, I should read the research on "gist" and "summary," but in the US, if I wanted to understand "summary," the preferred approach would be to "brainstorm in the other direction" and hope that inductive reasoning will lead me to the answer.

What I would like is more carefully written, more precise, better organized standards reflecting a fuller scope of English Language Arts as a discipline -- like Ireland's English curriculum. That's where I'd start.

Tim Shanahan said...

No, I’m not arguing that the language of the Irish standards/curriculum is more precise; in fact, you demonstrated that not to be the case. The difference is that Irish teachers aren’t spending inordinate time trying to distinguish among minor wording differences in either their national curriculum or in their educational standards (they respect the language more than that). They evidently recognize that those words – both in colloquial usage and professional usage – do not have very precise meanings and are often used interchangeably. Even when there may be some minor shadings of difference among such terms, the focus of their teaching does not turn on such trivial distinctions. Which was the point I started with. The Common Core Standards need to be read divergently (use a thesaurus), not convergently (not a dictionary) if they are to encourage and support good teaching.

We could maintain the status quo—past “standards” were really curriculum imposed from high levels of government—or we could continue on this path of shifting control over what needs to be taught to local districts and local teachers. That means not trying to be as specific as you are suggesting.