Showing posts with label common core state standards. Show all posts
Showing posts with label common core state standards. Show all posts

Saturday, March 7, 2015

10 Arguments Against Common Core that Presidential Hopefuls Should Avoid

      An Open Letter to the Candidates

                Ladies and Gentlemen. We're quickly sinking into the quicksands of yet another presidential campaign. I'm writing to help with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) issue. I don't want any of you tripped up by a feeble or foolish argument, and there are lots of ways of doing that. I'm sure you all know not to rely on your 13-year-old kids for policy advice, and not to sigh audibly and roll your eyes since it will look like you sent your 13-year-old to debate in your place. If you can't stare down a callow opponent successfully, how will you ever convince voters that you can handle Putin or ISIS?

               I won't be so bold as to suggest what your position should be on Common Core, but I do have advice as to which arguments to avoid.   

1.  Previous educational standards were better.
            Don't make this claim. It can only embarrass you (as bad as not being able to spell "potato"). Past standards were so low that they were the educational equivalent of everyone getting a T-ball trophy. Many U.S. students met those standards and still needed basic reading, writing, and math instruction in the workplace or university—expensive places to obtain an elementary or secondary education. Anyone who argues against the CCSS should be able to explain why they want lower educational standards or should embrace a viable alternative. (Note campaign managers: Parents who are paying for remedial college classes or employers who are struggling to hire high school graduates with basic skills may become particularly testy over this argument).  

 2. Teachers didn’t write them.
            Ho-hum. Yeah, and I’ve long been opposed to the Declaration of Independence because it was written by a slaveholder and the Gettysburg Address is kind of dicey given that its author was in the pocket of big business before assuming the presidency. This argument elevates the ad hominem over the ad verbum. All that should matter is whether the standards are sound; if they are, a House Committee could have written them and they’d be a good idea. And, if they are not sound, how many years of teaching experience would the authors require for you to campaign on them? Many teachers worked on these standards, but who cares? The standards could still be useful even if that weren’t the case.

3. They promote the theories of evolution and global warming.
            Yikes. This is an interesting argument because everyone hates being tricked into supporting what they morally oppose. Unfortunately, it doesn't hold any water since the Common Core only deals with reading, writing, and math—and not with science, history, or any other school content or social issue. You may get away with this one, but there is always the risk that someone in the audience has actually read the standards. 

4. The Common Core isn’t research based.
            That sounds like a good argument, too. Pin the standards on the science deniers. But what if someone wonders what a research-based goal would look like? I know I want my marriage to be happy, my kids to be productive, and my country to be secure. I don’t know why I’d need a study to tell me that I wanted those things. In medicine, they use research to figure out the best treatments—not whether we want everyone to be healthy. Standards aren't teaching methods; they aren’t approaches to instruction. When the critics say some states should have tried these out first to find out if they're any good, it would be like having some states aiming for 4% unemployment and others for 8%—so that we'd know whether we wanted people to find jobs. 

5. They require too much testing.
            Common Core requires no more (or less) testing than any other educational standards. Since the early 1990s, federal law has required states to adopt their own educational goals and evaluate student progress against them. However, there’s nothing special about Common Core in that regard. If CCSS disappeared, states would still have standards and they’d still have to monitor student progress. Just as they have for the past 25 years. If you do choose to make this argument despite the facts, be careful in Alaska, Indiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. None of them have Common Core, but they all have educational standards and they are all testing their students against those standards.

6. They are the reason for all of the test prep.
            This is a great argument, and yet, I doubt whether many of you have the thespian skills to pull it off. Test prep, though unsavory, has nothing to do with Common Core. Educators have long devoted unconscionable amounts of time and resources to test prep, with barely a peep from any of you. Now, getting all worked up about kids being engaged in test prep instead of education will require all the faux sincerity of Captain Renault (“Casablanca gambling? I’m shocked.”). What would happen to test prep if there was no Common Core? Look to Texas or Virginia for your answer, rather than to the airy pronouncements of your supposedly shocked and offended advisors.

7.     Publishers are making money from them.
            Publishers do make money from these standards. And, if history is a guide, when we move on to the next big thing in education, they’ll make money off that, too. Government policies do help companies make money. But if that's an issue, then we ought to shut down the Defense Department, Medicare, Social Security, the oil depletion allowance, and pretty much everything else that government does—since all those nasty programs encourage the buying of goods and services from American companies. (Note to Jeb Bush: Perhaps your opponents' arguments against Common Core are really just a ruse to get schools to change their curricula more quickly to make even more money for the publishers.)

8.  The U.S. Constitution bans national curriculum.

            This one is a particularly tempting argument, especially if you are a lawyer. The Constitution does relegate authority for education to the states after all. The problem is that the federal government has always incented states in the area of education. Even a conservative Supreme Court has recently indicated that it will not even hear cases aimed at determining whether states must comply with federal law when they accept federal funding; they see it as settled law. Going before this Supreme Court to argue that Hamilton, Madison, and Jay knew nothing about the Constitution would likely be a tough slog (Justices Roberts and Alito can be sticklers about that kind of thing). The federal government has the right to require funded states to have standard--whatever standards they may choose to adopt--and there is nothing in Common Core that curtails that right in any way. You'll end up in the weeds. Avoid this one.

9. Common Core violates states’ rights.
            This would be kind of a funny argument coming from people who are running, not for governor, but for president. "If elected, I’ll not allow states to adopt Common Core." That sounds like under your presidency educational goals would be under your authority. That won't be palatable even from such staunch conservatives as a President Cruz or a President Paul. The states, being sovereign entities, have the authority to coordinate with each other as much as they choose. This is true in transportation, criminal justice, economics, natural resources, etc. From the beginning, states have had the authority to enter into such cooperative agreements, like the one that led to the creation of Common Core. This argument snatches that authority from the states, and doing so in the name of states’ rights would be too tricky a game by half. Where is George Orwell when we need him?

10. These are President Obama’s standards.
            Let's face it. It's always a good idea to run against an incumbent whose popularity is on the decline. And, getting voters to believe that these are Obamacore should be easy. When they were being written, Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, promised funding to develop new tests for the new standards (a “shovel-ready project,” in the parlance of the times), and when running for President, Senator Obama campaigned on the idea that we needed higher standards and a lot more testing. Making voters believe that the Common Core belongs to the administration should be easy; voters might never figure out that these standards were written with no federal funding and no federal involvement if you can create enough of a haze of suspicion. Of course, this will be an easier argument for some than for others. (Note to Bobby Jindal: You seem sincere in making this argument, but you'll probably need to explain why President Obama was able to operate you like a hand puppet on this issue for three years without you ever being aware of where his hand was. I would avoid using the term “brainwashing”-- see George Romney, 1968. Perhaps you could get away with claiming that President Obama just gave yours a light rinse. 

             Ladies and Gentlemen, I wish you all luck, and hope this advice is useful to each of you.  

And here is a recent Powerpoint presentation on Teaching With Complex Text

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Close Read of a Close Reading Video

            My daughters are Erin and Meagan. When they were little, Meagan would get upset because we always “ran Erins,” but never “ran Meagans.”

            That’s cute when a little one doesn’t know the meaning of a word. But such miscommunication can be a real problem in Common Core State Standards implementation.

            It’s getting so that I hate to hear the term “close reading” because it is misused so often these days. 

            A comment from a reader of last week’s blog entry challenged me to evaluate an online video of a close reading lesson. I gave it a quick review and replied. 

            It’s been bugging me ever since, and I decided to give this 8-minute video a close read of my own. I’m going to be pretty critical, but please don’t take that as an attack on this teacher (these video minutes are all I know or her). She looks to be pretty good teacher. But the close reading espoused here is not especially well connected to the concepts of close reading or Common Core. 

            Because of length of my critique, I'll spread the analysis over two blog entries. Here's the first:

1          1.     The video says close reading is an “instructional strategy.”
It is not. More properly, it is a way of reading text. Viewers should not watch this with the idea that this is how you teach close reading. There are some great teaching techniques here, but a teacher who followed these steps scrupulously would not be teaching kids to be close readers.   

2.  The video indicates close reading helps students “conquer complex text.”
That’s sort of true, but not as demonstrated in this video. Texts are complex in multiple ways, and all approaches to reading can be expected to address some of that complexity. For example, I don’t know of any reading approach that doesn’t require readers to come away with a text’s main points and key details. All past reading standards in the U.S. trumpeted those particular skills already, so a shift to close reading would change nothing in that regard.   No wonder some teachers tell me that they have always taught “close reading.”
The teacher in the video is correct that close reading is useful for dealing with texts that have “layers of meaning.” But she doesn’t demonstrate that in any way in the video (main ideas and key details are not layers of meaning).
In this kind of text, “layers of meaning” might require a consideration of the effects of how the text conveyed the information (how the telling extended or reinforced those main ideas and key details). For example, in his explanation of natural selection, Darwin writes: “The tail of the giraffe looks like a fly-trapper; and it seems at first incredible that this could have been adapted by successive modifications for so trifling an object as to drive away flies.” A close reader should wonder why Darwin focuses on such a “trifling object” in this magnificent argument.
But that, of course, was Darwin’s point. He wanted to show that even the tiniest organs of little apparent importance were affected by natural selection in ways that we could only guess at. Asking students what the giraffe does with its tail or toward what end the adaptation of the tail progressed are fair questions, but they aren’t close reading questions, per se because they don’t include an analysis of those rhetorical considerations.

3          3.     The teacher reads the text to the students.
If this is the “close reading instructional strategy” and its purpose is to teach students to “conquer complex text,” then reading the complex text to the students is going to be many teachers’ takeaway. And it would be a bad one. The kids need to do the reading if they are going to become better readers.
Close reading has nothing to do with whether a text is read aloud to students or whether they read it themselves. Doing the reading for kids will not make them stronger readers. The point of having kids read texts with higher Lexiles estimates is not so teachers can practice their reading skills, it is so kids can do so. I think this teacher makes a big mistake reading the text to the kids instead of giving them a chance to make sense of what it says.
This is not an issue of close reading, but of complex text. Those are two separate, but overlapping, issues in Common Core. Students need to learn to deal with text complexity, including learning to read complex language and dealing with the complex ideas. The teacher here seems to recognize that close reading won’t help the kids to read the challenging language of this text, so she does that part of the work for them (she takes challenging language out of the equation by making sure that no one actually has to deal with it). 

4          4.     Close reading requires multiple readings of a text.
This idea is correct. Going through a complex text more than once is often necessary to figure out what the text says and how it works, or to develop a deeper understanding of it. But, again, there are two ideas operating here. One of them is that reading and rereading is a kind of “try and try again” or “practice makes perfect” idea; if you didn’t get it the first time, maybe you will on a second read. Repeated reading in fluency is kind of like that: a student reads a text aloud making fewer miscues on each rereading.
That’s not a bad thing, and I have no doubt these third-graders will benefit from this kind of thorough attention to the content of this book. This teacher definitely is not just rushing through the text to get it done; it looks to me like these students will come away knowing something about adaptation and that’s a real plus.
However, the rereading that is inherent in close reading requires a bit more than that. It isn’t about doing a better job each time. It’s about doing a different one. Yes, it might take 8-year-olds two or three readings just to come to terms with what a text has to say. But that isn’t the rereading that is central to close reading.
In close reading, now that you understand what a text has to say, you can reread it to determine how it works. For example, how did the illustrations help you to understand what the author meant by adaptation? Or, why do scientists use the term “adaptation” instead of “change”?
The video shows kids rereading to figure out what the main idea and key details of the text were. That’s terrific and this teacher did that well. But that isn’t what we mean by close reading alone isn’t what is meant by close reading, and kids who can only do that with a text will not accomplish the standards.

Disclaimer: Publicly critiquing a video lesson is inherently risky. It's possible that the instructional segment is just part of a lesson, and that had the viewer seen the whole thing, the analysis would be quite different. Or, perhaps it is one lesson in a developmental sequence, and in future lessons the teacher would move the reading over to the kids, and would have them dealing with the more analytical and evaluative aspects of close reading as they read additional texts. The point of this critique is not that this is a bad teacher, or even that this is a bad lesson (neither of those conclusions are mine), but that this is not a particularly apt illustration of close reading or close reading preparation.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Prior Knowledge: Can We Really Level the Playing Field?

            Spoiler alert: This blog entry is a two-parter. The first part (today’s entry) describes a problem to which the second entry will offer some nifty practical solutions (nope, no practical solutions today).

            An idea heavily promoted in Common Core (CCSS) discussions is the notion that we shouldn’t talk about students’ “prior knowledge,” and that avoiding such discussions somehow “levels the playing field” when it comes to learning to read. Researchers in the cognitive sciences rediscovered the importance of people’s knowledge in learning and comprehension back in the 1970s (revisiting ideas previously explored by Bartlett, Kant, Plato, etc.).

            Research findings were very clear: readers comprehend more when a text overlaps with their knowledge of the world and they comprehend less when there is less such information in their minds.
            Research also has shown benefits from increasing students’ prior knowledge (it is “prior” in the sense that reader’s knew it before the author told them). And even reminding students that they have relevant knowledge prior to reading can bear fruit.

            Why is prior knowledge so useful to readers? There are many reasons, but certainly a basic one is that the availability of such information reduces how painstaking reading may have to be. If you already know much of what the author is going to say, you can kind of go on autopilot just watching for the new stuff. Your less informed classmates are going to have to attend to the text more carefully, trying to build up all of this information in their heads, proposition by proposition.   

            Let’s face it, if you have to figure out and remember 100 facts from a text and I only need to learn 50 facts from it (since I already had the other 50), then I’m going to look like I comprehended more.

            Another reason prior knowledge helps is that no author ever fully explains anything. There are always inferences that need to be drawn and connections that have to be made. Sometimes readers have to sort out an ambiguity in the text’s wording, and so on. All of those challenges are easier to deal with from a basis of knowledge.

            And prior knowledge affects memory matters, too. If I already have a lot of information in my memory about the ideas presented in this text, then storing the new information within those already created structures gets easier, too. (There’s a reason that P. David Pearson has long defined reading comprehension as “connecting the new with the known.”)
          However, there are costs to prior knowledge as well. Research has shown that readers will sometimes allow their current beliefs to overwhelm the author’s message. Thus, readers thinking they understand how the physical world works (based on their perceptions of their experiences with processes like gravity), will disregard the author’s explanation of what scientists have figured out in favor of staying with their prior (though incorrect) “knowledge.”

            Of course, in most reading prior knowledge doesn’t make us miss the author’s message altogether, but it may lead us to read less carefully (since we assume that we already know it, we don’t need to put in the effort and, thus, miss the nuance). Reading less reflectively or thoughtfully, weighing the author’s words to a lesser degree, and so on, can’t be good.

            Based on such research findings, school reading programs have gone off the deep end with prior knowledge discussions (maybe you have seen the ads for “Basals Gone Wild” videos on late night cable). Such activities had already been long in evidence--at least since the birth of the “teacher’s guide” in basal readers--but since 1975 the “Background” activities seem to have exploded.

            That means if kids are to read a story about a family vacation, there will need to be an extended discussion of family vacations prior to any reading. Of course, everybody has to be able to tell about their vacations and, perhaps, for the kids who haven’t had one, the teacher can have them talk about where they would like to go (we could call that pretend prior knowledge, I guess).

            Apparently, there is no school text that wouldn’t benefit from a 15-minute discussion of prior knowledge before reading.

            Enter Common Core (the plot thickens). CCSS emphasizes “close reading” and a key idea of close reading is to interpret what is in the text rather than examining one’s presuppositions, the author’s biography, or other sources of information external to the text.

            Some CCSS proponents have gone so far as to claim that not discussing prior knowledge or asking questions about what children already know will somehow level the playing field when it comes to reading comprehension. Their hope is that the poor kids and the rich kids will then be held accountable for the same work—making sense of the information that they all had equal access to in the text itself.

            That sounds great (I’m for poor kids, too), but it ignores a basic fact about reading: Prior knowledge plays a role in text interpretation whether there is a background discussion or not.

            We can make it look like the playing field has been evened by not talking about prior knowledge, but the more advantaged kids will then just appear to be smarter and better when it comes to reading (since all or most of the advantages of having prior knowledge will still be there).

            Funny thing is that I agree with those critics who think we’ve gone off the deep end when it comes to prior knowledge in reading. The discussions go on too long. The questions about it aren’t thoughtful or strategic. Frankly, our instructional practices don’t seem especially consistent with the research studies. In other words, we have taken a valuable set of insights and turned them into a dogmatic and inflexible set of practices that accomplish very little.

            What role should prior knowledge play in classroom reading discussions and how should teachers handle prior knowledge in the classroom? For some brilliant (yeah, right) answers to these provocative questions, tune in next time.


There have been requests for a couple of recent presentations that I have made: One was the talk I gave at the U.S. Consulate in Belfast, Northern Ireland concerning key issues in literacy learning and the other was a recent introduction (and history lesson) on the Common Core that I presented to my friends at the Ka Hui Heluhelu Reading Council in Honolulu, Hawaii. Here they are:

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

How to Organize Daily Instruction, Part IV

Over the past few weeks I have been explaining an organizational plan that is a better alternative than Daily 5. Although I appreciate an approach (like Daily 5) that structures time for teachers, I believe it is better to do that around the outcomes rather than the teaching activities. Teachers need activities, of course, but they need to keep focused on what they are using those activities towards. A complaint of most of the big names in education is that teachers get too bogged down in methods, activities, approaches and the like, and lose sight of the purpose of those actions.

Here I will provide responses to many of the questions that have come up.

Won’t it get tedious if I structure the day in the same way everyday?
Perhaps, but that isn’t what I have recommended.  You definitely could use my scheme in a repetitive manner and there are both benefits and drawbacks to that (as the question implies). However, the issue is whether you are spending enough time focused on the right goals, and how you organize that in a day is up to you as a professional. Thus, if you plan on spending 45 minutes on words in your first-grade, that does not mean that you have to teach words from 9:00AM-9:45AM every morning. You definitely could vary this day to day. However, you also could break up this time into smaller chunks.

Shouldn’t I integrate instruction?
Again, perhaps, but because the boundaries are not firm across these categories, it is possible to be very flexible. A fifth-grade teacher might decide that she needs more than 30 minutes to teach a good comprehension lesson—since the texts that students are reading are more extended than that. She could teach reading comprehension every other day, instead of every day, which would allow an hour for such a lesson (writing would usually get swapped with reading comprehension in such a structure). Or, what if the teacher was teaching comprehension, but found out—right in the middle of the lesson—that more vocabulary work was needed. The teacher could provide that instruction and even out later, by providing more or less instruction in one of the other categories.

My school requires that we all teach reading at the same time (in a 90 minute block at the beginning of the day), so I can’t do this.
You could use the required block and add additional time later in your school day. However, I’m not a big fan of your school’s approach.  It makes it more difficult to provide intervention services to the struggling readers (if everyone teaches reading at the same time, then if a student is pulled out during that time he/she gets less reading instruction).

I’m a secondary teacher and we don’t have a reading class. I don’t see how this can work?
Many secondary schools have taken this plan on successfully. It requires cooperation among the various departments, however. Typically, we work on a weekly basis. That would mean that we need to provide 10 hours per week of literacy work (2.5 hours of vocabulary, 2.5 hours of reading comprehension, 2.5 hours of writing, and up to 2.5 hours of oral reading fluency—depending on the students’ fluency levels). Each department agrees to provide some portion of this weekly experience and then some horse-trading is done to ensure that there is sufficient time for everything.

We are required to implement our core program with fidelity. I don’t see how I can do that if I follow this scheme.
I very much like the idea of following core programs with some kind of fidelity, but this isn’t always possible because of time considerations. Typically, core programs offer more instructional activity than fits in a 90 minute block or (even in a 2 hour space). Teachers, in such cases, may follow with fidelity the parts of the program that they teach, but what about the parts they have to omit? This plan helps teachers to make the decisions of what to keep and what to drop. If there is too little instruction, of course, then the teacher could follow that with fidelity, but then would need to supplement.

I find myself agreeing with your approach, but I still love the activities that my students have been doing through Daily 5. Isn’t there a way to compromise?
Like you, there are particular activities that I want to have in my classroom. For example, as a primary grade teacher, I read to my students every day. I did this, not to teach them to read, but as a tone setter for my classroom and as a way of exposing students to particular cultural artifacts (I loved reading Charlotte’s Web to them, for instance). If I were teaching in the primary grades today, I would still read to my students, I just wouldn’t count it as reading instruction and wouldn’t let it take the place of instruction in decoding, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, or writing. Isabel Beck and Moddy McKeown have certainly shown how I could translate that kind of teacher read aloud into an effective vocabulary lesson for the younger kids, so I could perhaps count it that way, but I might not make that choice either. That’s the real benefit of this approach—it keeps you focused on learning outcomes and it keeps you in control of the choices.

What about Common Core?
Common Core sets the learning goals; the goals that your instruction should focus on. All that I have done is to categorize these goals, and matched them with time expenditures. For example, many primary grade teachers look at the CCSS and conclude that they are suppose to teach more comprehension than decoding. My plan allows the teacher to protect sufficient amounts of time to make it possible for students to learn to decode. Review the CCSS standards (including the detailed items including in the appendices) and distribute them across the categories that I have emphasized.

I’m a pull-out reading teacher. Should I use this plan in my teaching?
I expect interventions to either be especially targeted (like a pull out fluency program only for students lagging in fluency) or individualized. My scheme requires the teacher to balance literacy instruction in his/her classroom, but an intervention teacher should be aimed at balancing the child. If Hector is strong in decoding and fluency, then the intervention teacher should aim at comprehension. If Sylvia is weak at decoding, then the intervention should be aimed at strengthening this weakness. This plan makes sense if a student is low in everything, but if there are stronger and weaker patterns of skills, try to even the child out by building the weak spots up (that isn’t a good way to go in a classroom, because the teacher simply has too many kids with different needs—thus, addressing all of the needs equally is the surest way to higher achievement).