Friday, February 21, 2014

Some Early Thoughts on IN ELA Draft Standards

For all of the hemming and hawing in Indiana about the problems with Common Core, the draft of the new Indiana standards seems remarkably similar!

Although the draft standards contain a few new standards, the framework actually reflects a similar structure to that of the Common Core.  In the 3rd grade standards, for example, Standard 1 deals with citing textual evidence to ask and answer questions (same as CCSS); Standard 2 relates to the main topic of a selection and how specific details relate to this topic (same as CCSS); Standard 3 of the informational text section--which asks students to identify the relationship between events and ideas--is exactly the same as what we find in the Common Core.  The documents are so similar, in fact, that a casual comparison of the two documents may lead many to question exactly why it was so urgent for the state to adopt a new ELA standards framework.


Minor structural differences do exist between the documents that actually make the new standards less coherent from grade to grade.  While the Common Core enumerates standards in the same way from grade to grade, the Indiana standards have a different number of standards between grade levels.  For example, the 4th grade standard asking students to connect ideas in a text to an oral or dramatic interpretation of the text is Standard #10.  The commensurate standard in grade 5 that asks students to identify how visual or multimedia elements contribute to the meaning of a text is Standard #7.  This is a relevant concern for teachers and curriculum directors who know that efforts to vertically align curriculum and forge connections between and among standards are critical elements of a standards implementation plan.


In terms of the substantive differences between the two frameworks, the new standards reflect almost all of the key themes found in Common Core.  For example, the new Standards highlight Common Core's emphasis on reading complex texts.  (Remember that prior to Common Core, no state standard document included a specific standard related to reading complex texts.)  The new standards now include a specific "complex text standard" for each grade level.  In addition, the new standards prioritize the importance of students comparing/contrasting, integrating, connecting and synthesizing information from multiple texts.  Common Core's Standard #9 promulgated these same expectations across grade levels, and PARCC and Smarter Balanced's prose-constructed items reflect this standard perhaps more than any other.  Much like Common Core, the new standards also emphasize the importance of citing evidence in reading and writing; the acquisition of "academic" vocabulary; evidence-based opinion writing; and "short research projects."  The entire writing section in the new standards looks strikingly similar to Common Core with a focus on narrative, informational and opinion writing (the new standards include "persuasive" writing as part of the opinion writing standards).  They also include a separate section on speaking and listening which also falls in line with Common Core's approach.


Foes have faulted Common Core with being too focused on informational text.  They have also argued that schools will be replacing literary classics with low-minded technical manuals that don't cultivate the kinds of critical thinking and discussion fundamental to good teaching.  Yet the new standards include a robust section on informational text (most grades include more informational text standards than literary ones) and, for the 4-5th grades, actually expect students to "follow multiple-step instructions in a manual or text."  


It should be noted that the new standards include more expectations dealing with genre-specific skills.  For example, Standard #8 in the 4th grade framework reads, "Explain major differences between poems, drama, and prose, and refer to the structural elements of poems and drama when writing or speaking about a text."  Critics of Common Core have pointed out that Common Core did not contain enough genre-specific standards (Common Core allows for more flexibility in terms of which genres teachers use to teach the skills inhered in the standards), however it's worth asking whether these changes are enough to justify the overhaul?


I also find it interesting that the new standards do not include a list of recommended or example texts nor do they include the instructional examples that accompanied the old Indiana standards.  Common Core critics were quick to jump on Common Core for dictating curriculum, but prior standards reviews done by Fordham and others have lauded Indiana for the specific instructional examples included in its framework.  As a way to placate critics, Indiana took these examples out.  In my judgment, these examples don't prescribe curriculum but give teachers ideas about how to operationalize the standards in the context of the classroom.  I wish they had included these examples.


Minor differences aside, these two documents are very similar in structure and substance.  Couldn't states that adopted Common Core add 15% of new content to the standards?  It would be interesting to know what percentage of the new standards represent expectations different than Common Core.  


Of course, as I've said multiple times on this blog, standards are only one piece of the puzzle.  Indiana can adopt the best standards in the country, but without good implementation and, most importantly, a quality state assessment, it won't matter much.  It will be interesting to see where things go from here.


Update: I hear Kathleen Porter-Magee is working on a side-by-side comparison of the two standards.  Stay tuned.
   

Monday, December 9, 2013

Why I Support Common Core

The debate over the Common Core standards, in many ways, has been helpful in stimulating conversation about what kind of standards our state—and country—needs in order to prepare students for college and career.  As helpful as this debate has been, however, it has perhaps overestimated the impact of any single standards framework.  Researchers such as Chester Finn and Tom Loveless have tried to remind us of the myriad implementation and assessment factors that can mitigate the quality of a standards framework. As Finn recently noted, Unless thoroughly implemented and properly assessed, they have scant traction in schools, classrooms, and the lives—and futures—of students.”  This is not to say that standards aren’t important.  Of course, we know that they are.  Within the structure of a coherent curriculum, reinforced by a rigorous system of assessment, and, most importantly, in the hands of a good teacher, good standards can help promote exceptional teaching and learning in our schools.  

So what are we to think about Common Core?  I make no secret of my support the CC ELA Standards.  I think they are rigorous and, accompanied by thoughtful curriculum and instructional planning, can help encourage students to think deeply, to read deeply, and to write and speak more often and with more consideration of the text.  The shifts that CCSS seeks to advance reflect a push back against an overreliance on certain instructional tendencies—such as assigning too many anecdotal writing tasks; covering too much material in not enough depth; and, my biggest pet peeve, overloading students (and parents) with arts and craft projects, arbitrary, disconnected field trip experiences, or hours of rote homework exercises.  Practices such as these have somehow become tolerated, if not sanctioned, ways of doing business in our schools.

CCSS promulgates what I like to call “evidentiary questioning” from teachers and “evidentiary thinking” from students.  CCSS emphasizes the importance of engaging in this kind of thinking within a single text or, in many cases, in multiple texts/text sources.  Throughout the grades, students are asked to summarize, integrate, synthesize, and compare and contrast key ideas between and among multiple sources.  These are skills underemphasized in our schools, in our current standards, and, most importantly, in our current state assessment.   

CCSS’ emphasis on multi-text analysis advances a notion of research that I think can go a long way in shaping quality teaching and learning in our schools.  Typically, research is operationalized in our curricula in terms of overly artistic “poster projects” in the elementary grades or, in middle school, a quarter-long “research paper”.  This approach to research is often treated as an entity unto itself, disconnected from what students are reading and writing about.  While both CCSS and the current Indiana framework contain standards that call on students to write written responses to text, CCSS, and particularly the consortia’s sample test items, place a more concerted emphasis on the potential impact of short, focused research and writing projects that are linked to what students read.  Such expectations, which are consistent throughout CCSS and the associated sample test items, require students to draft writing pieces that analyze key ideas, themes, characters, and lessons in multiple text sources.  PARCC’s item guidelines say as much: Passages should contain "discernible and significant points of comparison that invite questions beyond superficial observations."  This expectation is nonexistent on ISTEP+.  

If a school principal is looking to help paint a picture of what CCSS is all about, spend an afternoon with teachers studying and discussing the myriad sample items released by PARCC and Smarter Balanced.  These assessment prototypes highlight an important point that I mentioned briefly at the outset:  The efficacy of a standards document ultimately depends not only on the clarity, rigor and coherence of the standards document itself, but also on a rigorous, aligned system of assessment that can bring out the best of what the standards have to offer. Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, state tests—many of them bereft of any high-cognitive questions or tasks (see this2012 RAND study)—have been used as a basis for a number of high-stakes decisions from school performance ratings to teacher evaluations. With state tests driving policymaking the way it has, teachers and administrators’ knowledge of the kind of reading, writing and thinking embodied on the state test serves as an equal if not more important factor in shaping curriculum and instructional practices than the standards themselves. 

And here's where CCSS supporters and critics alike seem to miss the point: With state tests driving instruction in such a powerful way, the quality of the standards--whether they are rated as an "A" by groups like Fordham or deemed "world class" or "internationally benchmarked" by the spate of oft-cited curriculum "experts"—is inextricably linked to the quality of the state test.  So when we consider whether to adopt CCSS or not, we need to mindful that this decision accounts for only half (or maybe less) of the equation. 

Indiana is a particularly salient example of how a state test can mitigate the quality of a state standards framework. As I’ve mentioned before, I believe the IN standards are well written and rigorous. But, while ISTEP+ isn’t a bad test, it’s not a good one either. The way I see the standards being implemented in many classrooms has more to do with the kinds of questions and tasks that appear on ISTEP+ than the standards themselves. So despite all the talk about how effective the IN standards are, the limitations of ISTEP+ have had a significant mitigating effect on how the standards are being implemented.  Contrastingly, the items we see coming out of the consortia suggest that these assessments will engender the rigorous approach to reading, writing and research set forth in CCSS.  Let me expound on this point further. 

While ISTEP+ does a mostly adequate job in using short constructed response items as a basis for assessing comprehension, its restricted response items, in some cases, don’t hinge on students’ reading of the text, particularly when we compare these items to the evidence-based and technology-enhanced sample items released by the consortia.  

One of the premises on which the CCSS debate has been framed is that students should be reading quality texts.  However, on ISTEP+, there are no authentic texts used; items often reflect one standard instead of multiple standards (this further perpetuates a "checklist mentality" to standards coverage); and ISTEP+ writing prompts do not require students to analyze, synthesize or trace ideas or themes in more than one source to draft an extended response.

Despite well-written informational and opinion writing standards in Indiana's current framework, ISTEP+'s extended writing tasks reflect zero, yes ZERO, explanatory or opinion writing.  All extended writing tasks on ISTEP+ are focused on source-free narratives and, while the prompts require students to cite "details," none of the details are connected to what students read.  No wonder narrative and evidence-free writing dominates most classrooms!  

PARCC and Smarter Balanced seek to rectify this problem.  Here is one of the item guidelines PARCC provides to test writers: "Many writing prompts typically used on large-scale assessments have required students to respond to a quote or brief passage disconnected from reading grade-appropriate complex text(s). The Common Core State Standards for ELA/Literacy, particularly Writing Standards 8 and 9, require students to demonstrate their ability to write using and analyzing texts. Consequently, PARCC desires innovative writing prompts that clearly demonstrate that students can use what they have read to compose, whether they are composing narrative or analytic writings."

Yes, I know, we haven't seen a full test yet from either consortia and there are concerns about cost, technology glitches, accountability measures and overall school readiness.  But, for the first time since the advent of standards-based reform, these tests offer us an opportunity to privilege the kind of thinking that good standards frameworks, like those in Massachusetts and Indiana, have been seeking to encourage.  In fact, given the way questions and tasks are designed, the consortia assessments make it finally okay to teach to the test!

Having outlined the reasons why I’m in support of CCSS, I do have some minor concerns about the standards that are important to mention.

First, and this may seem too cosmetic, but I wish the CCSS would have included specific instructional examples meant to operationalize what the standards look like in the context of the classroom.  This is a helpful feature of the current IN standards framework.  While there are lots of resources that have been released which make it easier for teachers to understand and implement the standards, including examples within the document itself could have helped to clarify the standards and provide teachers a jumping off point for their planning and collaborative discussions.  I make this point understanding the hidden irony.  Can you imagine the outcry from critics of the Common Core—critics who already claim that CCSS is overly prescriptive—if it had included specific instructional examples?!

A second problem relates to CCSS’ precise indications for the amount of literary and informational text that should be taught.  I understand the rationale for including these percentages was to mimic the percentages of reading passages that appear on NAEP, but doing so is silly and, more consequentially, it has unnecessarily distracted from the effort to underscore the more important curricular point which is that students should be using a diversity of challenging literary and informational texts as the basis for their reading, writing, questioning, presenting, and researching.  Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the underlying premise of CCSS which is that, particularly in the elementary grades, fiction has dominated at the expense of quality informational text…informational text, by the way, that many students find equally if not more interesting and engaging than fiction.  Students’ exposure to more informational texts is important in order to support a unique set of writing, reading, and research tasks, many of which one could find explicitly enumerated in both the CCSS and the current Indiana standards framework.  Students’ ability to compare and contrast a firsthand and secondhand account of the same event or topic, or explain how an author uses evidence to support his/her assertions relies on multiple exposures to and strategic teaching of quality informational text.  (Both of these examples are taken from the 4th and 5th grade CCSS, respectively.) 

Informational texts are not only important to develop students’ reading skills.  Students ability to write text-based opinion or informational pieces require that they can deeply comprehend these text types, work with their features, and use their structures as a model for their own writing.  A look at most state standards documents—Indiana included—suggests that these skills have long been thought of as important to the K-12 English curriculum (this is a point often overlooked in the outrage against the focus on informational texts).  In my mind, CCSS’ emphasis on informational text simply calls us to refocus on these kinds of texts and skills, particularly at the elementary level where important science and social studies topics—the source of many informational texts—have gotten squeezed out of the curriculum. 

A third problem with CCSS has less to do with the standards themselves and more to do with how the standards are being implemented.  I have seen various examples of schools or districts, and even individual teachers, opting to implement the standards in ways that misconstrue the meaning of the standards or worse belie the standards altogether.  Critics have pointed to these examples as a way to explain what CCSS represents.  I don’t believe it was ever the intent of the standards to prompt teachers to excise literary classics such as Huck Finn or the Great Gatsby, nor do I believe CCSS is surreptitiously trying to spur schools to abandon the teaching of cursive or creative writing.  CCSS is no more responsible for these kinds of practices than the IN Standards have been for the long list of misapplied ideas, programs, and adoptions educators felt compelled to make during Indiana’s 20-year history of standards-based reforms. 

I have also seen “Common Core-aligned” textbooks and curriculum materials as well as professional development companies make CCSS reform appear too easy. “Tip sheets,” ready to use lesson plans and prepackaged curricula all imply that these standards require little or no change to existing practices.  In fact, publishing companies espousing to be CCSS-aligned continue to encourage a one skill, then another, then another approach to curriculum planning which belies the “challenging text first” notion that underscores CCSS.  I see CCSS as promulgating a sea change in how we teach reading skills.  Identifying key details, making inferences, discerning author’s purpose, questioning or predicting—all important skills—are taught in support of the text, not the other way around.  As KathleenPorter Magee writes: "For too long, and in too many classrooms, we’ve let great books take a back seat to reading skills and strategies.  Of course, learning skills and practicing strategies is useful, but the Common Core usefully pushes us to put skills in service of understanding and analyzing great texts, rather than as an end in themselves."  Despite such helpful advice, there are countless examples of curriculum checklists, incoherent pacing guides, and unit and lesson plans floating around that embody an atomistic approach to curriculum planning.  Early signs from the consortia suggest that this kind of fragmented approach to curriculum will not prepare students for the kinds of multi-faceted items that will encompass the new assessments. An EdWeek blogger who attended a NYC DOE-led conference indicated that the teachers in attendance were surprised "that the PARCC questions required students to employ a variety of discrete skills (rather than one isolated skill) making it much more difficult to show mastery."

In my experiences working and talking with teachers, I have found that teachers recognize that there are some fundamental shifts in thinking and practice entailed in what the standards and consortia items represent.  They recognize that implementation is more than just a new lesson plan or textbook series.  And they recognize that true “Common Core alignment” means teachers processing and discussing the standards and their shifts; taking an inventory of the types of texts used in their curriculum; and spending time figuring out how curriculum needs to change to build students’ capacity to read, write and think independently.  Those schools and districts that recognize these priorities will, in my view, find themselves poised to tackle the rigors of CCSS.

Despite the limitations of CCSS, my reading and analysis of the standards and consortia assessments leads me to stand in support of them.  Different than some, I’ve come to this way of thinking not primarily because of the myriad policy implications that exist in having a set of "national" standards, but more importantly because of the benefit this standards AND assessment framework can have on the quality of teaching and learning in Indiana’s schools.



Friday, November 22, 2013

A Response to Catholic Scholars' Letter to U.S. Catholic Bishops

During the past year, I have presented to several groups of Catholic school parents about Common Core ELA.  It's clear from these presentations that many parents, in light of what they've read and heard, are unsettled about the Common Core initiative (math in particular).  Of course, underlying parents' concerns about Common Core is a love of their children and a desire to give them a great education.  As a Catholic school parent myself, I get this.  However, many of the questions that parents have about Common Core ELA tend to focus on misconceptions that either stem from schools, districts or states' faulty implementation plans (e.g. a teacher eliminating the Great Gatsby from her curriculum so as to adhere to what she perceives to be a central tenet of the Common Core) or from Internet articles that often tend to conflate political concerns with quasi-educational arguments that often lack specificity, thoughtful analysis or sound reasoning.

Last month, more than 130 scholars representing many U.S. Catholic colleges and universities signed a letter condemning the Common Core as doing "a grave disservice to Catholic education in America."  I have little doubt that as I continue to visit with schools, Catholic school parents, who are smart and well-read, will reference this letter as a chief source of continued uneasiness about the standards.  With this in mind, and with due respect to these scholars who have every right to challenge the standards, let me offer a few thoughts on the points made in this letter:

In this brief letter we can only summarize our evidence and sketch our reasoning. We stand ready, however, to develop these brief points as you wish. We also invite you to view the video recording of a comprehensive conference critically examining Common Core, held at the University of Notre Dame on September 9, 2013.

This "comprehensive conference" was more an anti-Common Core rally than a conference.  No curriculum experts or scholars who support the Common Core were invited to speak or serve on the panel.  How can you "critically examine" Common Core without a presentation of alternative viewpoints?     


News reports each day show that a lively national debate about Common Core is upon us. The early rush to adopt Common Core has been displaced by sober second looks, and widespread regrets. Several states have decided to “pause” implementation.
Others have opted out of the testing consortia associated with Common Core. Prominent educators and political leaders have declared their opposition. The national momentum behind Common Core has, quite simply, stopped. A wave of reform which recently was thought to be inevitable now isn’t. Parents of K- 12 children are leading today’s resistance to the Common Core. A great number of these parents are Catholics whose children attend Catholic schools.
Absolutely true.  Of course Indiana is one of the states that has decided to pause its implementation of Common Core.  Let's keep in mind that pausing Common Core still leaves us with many critical questions as to how we handle standards and testing going forward.  For example, what alternatives exist if we decide not to go with one of the two consortia assessments?  
While the Indiana standards framework adopted in 2010 would be fine to readopt (I like Indiana's current ELA standards), taking this route would force us to either stick with ISTEP+ or design a new, more rigorous standards-aligned assessment.  The former seems hard to imagine in light of the feds' stipulation that all states adopt an assessment framework commensurate with the rigor evidenced in the consortia assessments.  ISTEP+ simply wouldn't measure up.  The latter seems to hard to fathom in the light of the costs inherent in designing a new state assessment.  So where does that leave us?   
Supporters say that Common Core will “raise academic standards.” But we find persuasive the critiques of educational experts (such as James Milgram, professor emeritus of mathematics at Stanford University, and Sandra Stotsky, professor emerita of education at the University of Arkansas) who have studied Common Core, and who judge it to be a step backwards. We endorse their judgment that this “reform” is really a radical shift in emphasis, goals, and expectations for K-12 education, with the result that Common Core-educated children will not be prepared to do authentic college work.

This is a familiar critique of Common Core.  Dr. Milgram and Dr. Stotsky have ascended to heroic status among those opposed to Common Core!  What about the other experts who have also studied Common Core and deem it to be a huge step forward?  Marzano, Wiggins, Shanahan, Porter-Magee, Jago, Danielson, Hirsch.  The list goes on.  Why aren't the opinions of these experts also a factor for critics?  Furthermore, it is insufficient to simply cite the names Milgram and Stotsky as proof that Common Core is inadequate.  Isn't it reasonable to expect critics to provide a more comprehensive argument than this?  I rarely, if ever, hear critics present a side-by-side comparison of the current Indiana standards and the Common Core.  Sure, we hear a lot about Indiana's standards being "world class," but what does this really mean?  What it is about Indiana's (or any other state's) current standards and testing framework that is so superior to Common Core?  Yes, as Stotsky points out, the Common Core does not isolate out the expectations associated with specific literary genres such as poetry and drama.  Instead, Common Core integrates specific genre types into the literature and informational text standards themselves (e.g. folktales, myths, fairy tales, epic tales, lit from other cultures).  And Common Core, to its detriment, does not offer specific instructional examples designed to showcase what  the standards might look like in practice.  There are other minor differences as well.  But, for the most part, the IN Standards and Common Core ELA are actually very comparable.  So, what is it about CCSS that, when compared to the IN standards and testing framework, is so "radical"?  Critics need to offer more substantive analysis of CCSS--and current state standards and testing frameworks--to make their case.  Simply citing the names Stotsky and Milgram isn't enough.
Even supporters of Common Core admit that it is geared to prepare children only for community-college-level studies.  No doubt many of America’s Catholic children will study in community colleges. Some will not attend college at all. This is not by itself lamentable; it all depends upon the personal vocations of those children, and what they need to learn and do in order to carry out the unique set of good works entrusted to them by Jesus. But none of that means that our Catholic grade schools and high schools should give up on maximizing the intellectual potential of every student. And every student deserves to be prepared for a life of the imagination, of the spirit, and of a deep appreciation for beauty, goodness, truth, and faith.
Who said that CCSS is geared to "prepare children only for community-college-level studies"?  This is the first I've heard of this.  Jason Zimba, the lead author of the math standards, said this after testifying here in Indiana about the math standards: "The definition of college readiness in the standards is readiness for entry-level, credit-bearing courses in mathematics at four-year colleges as well as courses at two-year colleges that transfer for credit at four-year colleges.  It is incorrect to say, as critics sometimes claim, that the definition of college readiness in the Common Core is pegged to a community college level."  

I'm all for students being prepared for"a life of the imagination" and "of a deep appreciation for beauty."  I'm just not sure what this has to do with Common Core or, for that matter, anything related to a rigorous set of ELA curriculum standards.
We do not write to you, however, to start an argument about particulars. At least, that is a discussion for another occasion and venue.
I think this debate has had enough of vague references and unfounded accusations.  To be credible to Catholic school leaders who are seeking guidance on this issue, an argument about particulars is exactly what this debate requires.
Promoters of Common Core say that it is designed to make America’s children “college and career ready.” We instead judge Common Core to be a recipe for standardized workforce preparation. Common Core shortchanges the central goals of all sound education and surely those of Catholic education: to grow in the virtues necessary to know, love, and serve the Lord, to mature into a responsible, flourishing adult, and to contribute as a citizen to the process of responsible democratic self-government.
Common Core adopts a bottom-line, pragmatic approach to education. The heart of its philosophy is, as far as we can see, that it is a waste of resources to “over-educate” people. The basic goal of K-12 schools is to provide everyone with a modest skill set; after that, people can specialize in college – if they end up there. Truck-drivers do not need to know Huck Finn. Physicians have no use for the humanities. Only those destined to major in literature need to worry about Ulysses.
Perhaps a truck-driver needs no acquaintance with Paradise Lost to do his or her day’s work. But everyone is better off knowing Shakespeare and Euclidean geometry, and everyone is capable of it. Everyone bears the responsibility of growing in wisdom and grace and in deliberating with fellow-citizens about how we should all live together. A sound education helps each of us to do so.
There is a glaring lack of evidence presented as to what aspect of the standards make them "a recipe for standardized workforce preparation."  What specific standards advance this notion?  How are current state standards frameworks compatible with the mission of Catholic schools in ways the CCSS is not?  The argument you make here seems to imply that all standards--not just CCSS--are detrimental to the mission of  Catholic schools.  In your view, should Catholic schools be against any and all state standards and testing frameworks for reasons of their "bottom line, pragmatic approach to education"?

You indict Common Core for undermining the mission of Catholic schooling in the way it aims to discriminate between the college and non-college bound.  This indictment couldn't be more unfounded.  Above all else CCSS espouses the importance of all students reading, writing, and discussing thought-provoking and challenging questions emanating from quality, complex texts.  Expectations that feature multi-text comparisons and text-informed reading and writing, many of which were judged by the Indiana Department of Education to be more rigorous than those in the current IN standards framework, appear consistently throughout all grades in the Common Core ELA.  In fact, for the first time in a standards framework, Common Core includes an expectation that all students read grade level texts (as opposed to "just right" texts) "independently and proficiently" (see Standard 10 of the Reading Literature and Reading Informational Text standards).  Dr. Tim Shanahan, who supports the Common Core and was on the ELA feedback committee with Dr. Stotsky, has written extensively about how teachers using guided reading approaches (differentiating reading materials according to students' reading abilities) might need to adjust their approach so that all students, regardless of ability, are exposed to a common set of complex texts.  

If you ask teachers, they are not making plans to differentiate their instruction according to the college and non-college bound.  This question hasn't come up once in my dealings with teachers or administrators.  Instead, they are reevaluating the materials in their curriculum to ensure that they are appropriately complex and trying to figure out how to scaffold their instruction sufficiently so that students, who are used to reading less complex texts, can effectively transition to reading and writing about more difficult texts.  How again does CCSS "adopt a bottom-line, pragmatic approach to education"?     
Professor Stotsky was the chief architect of the universally-praised Massachusetts English language arts standards, which contributed greatly to that state’s educational success. She describes Common Core as an incubator of “empty skill sets . . . [that] weaken the basis of literary and cultural knowledge needed for authentic college coursework.” Rather than explore the creativity of man, the great lessons of life, tragedy, love, good and evil, the rich textures of history that underlie great works of fiction, and the tales of self-sacrifice and mercy in the works of the great writers that have shaped our cultural literacy over the centuries, Common Core reduces reading to a servile activity.
Professor Anthony Esolen, now at Providence College, has taught literature and poetry to college students for two decades. He provided testimony to a South Carolina legislative committee on the Common Core, lamenting its “cavalier contempt for great works of human art and thought, in literary form.” He further declared: “We are not programming machines. We are teaching children. We are not producing functionaries, factory-like. We are to be forming the minds and hearts of men and women.”
The rhetoric here rings hollow.  Which standards, in particular, would you consider "empty skill sets"?  How is Common Core ELA any different than the IN or Massachusetts English standards which, like Common Core, call for students to trace an author's argument through a text or use specific details from the text to identify the main idea?  In what ways does Common Core's substance or organization foster the teaching of "empty skill sets" any more or less than these state standards frameworks?  I don't disagree that often curriculum plans will treat skills such as identifying point of view or locating certain text features as ends in themselves.  This is an implementation problem, and it's not one unique to Common Core.  Let's remember that standards are not designed to be curriculum maps.  Good teachers and curriculum directors use the expectations inhered in the standards to bring together textual ideas/themes (e.g. good and evil) with skills (e.g. summarizing, finding main ideas, comparing characters, etc.) as part of a series of coherent instructional units.
Where in the standards is there contempt for "great works of human art and thought"?  It can't be from these Common Core standards, the first from 8th grade, the second from 9-10th and the remaining two from 11-12th grades, which suggest that analyzing the key ideas and themes contained in great works is critical to a good education:
Analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths, traditional stories, or religious works such as the Bible, including describing how the material is rendered new.
Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare).

Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.

Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.
Furthermore, Dr. Esolen's accusations are harder to understand in light of Common Core's long list of fiction and nonfiction text exemplars that privilege the kind rigorous and classical orientation he claims is so central to students' Catholic school experience.  Here is a sampling of the reading materials found in the Common Core list of text exemplars: Common SenseThe Declaration of IndependenceDemocracy in AmericaThe Great Great GatsbyCrime and PunishmentDon Quixote as well as poems by Keats, T.S. Eliot, Whitman and dramas by Miller and Shakespeare.  These exemplars (which serve only as recommendations and which teachers should feel free to use or not) as well as some of the sample test items emanating from PARCC and Smarter Balanced reflect an emphasis on analyzing and writing about important themes found in authentic, quality texts.  (Keep in mind that current state tests use reading passages constructed by test companies.  PARCC and Smarter Balanced are using authentic literary and nonfiction texts/resources that, in the words of PARCC to its test writers, "are worthy of reading outside an assessment context."  Think about the potential affect this might have on teachers' determinations about which resources to use in their classrooms.)

Underscoring this letter is the notion that because Common Core encourages the teaching of more informational text, the standards fail to help students "explore...the great lessons of life."  Reading fairy tales, fables, classic literature and the like is great.  However, can't books about Abraham Lincoln, Jackie Robinson, Mother Theresa and the Pilgrims also help students explore these lessons of life?  Furthermore, informational texts lend themselves to a different set of reading, writing and research tasks.  You can't trace or critique an author's argument with a literary text.  Every state standards framework currently includes a section on informational text (the IN standards actually have a relatively equal number of standards dedicated to both literary and nonfiction text).  In this respect, CCSS isn't that different.  CCSS is simply calling attention to the fact that, historically, many schools have overlooked the unique and important role nonfiction texts play in the context of the curriculum.      
Common Core is innocent of America’s Catholic schools’ rich tradition of helping to form children’s hearts and minds. In that tradition, education brings children to the Word of God. It provides students with a sound foundation of knowledge and sharpens their faculties of reason. It nurtures the child’s natural openness to truth and beauty, his moral goodness, and his longing for the infinite and happiness. It equips students to understand the laws of nature and to recognize the face of God in their fellow man. Education in this tradition forms men and women capable of discerning and pursuing their path in life and who stand ready to defend truth, their church, their families, and their country.
Again, what, specifically, does this have to do with Common Core?
...the Common Core standards lack an empirical evidentiary basis and have not been field-tested anywhere.
I've heard this argument before from Diane Ravitch and others.  I don't know of a state standards document that has been "field tested."  Yes, standards documents typically receive more public and teacher feedback than did CCSS, but, to my knowledge, no recent framework has been field tested.  Remember, state standards are only as good as are the assessment frameworks and implementation plans that accompany them.  It would be almost impossible to field test a standards document in such a way as to isolate the myriad implementation variables that have such a decided influence on whether the standards are effective or not.
I respect these scholars' right to question Catholic schools' adoption of the standards, but it's hard to accept their critiques with such scant explanation as to how CCSS undermines the mission of our Catholic schools.  Parents: Choose your sources carefully! 






Friday, November 15, 2013

Kudos to Mr. Churchill...

...Aaron Churchill from Fordham that is.  He writes a great piece citing an example of a West Virginia state test item as evidence of why CCSS and PARCC/Smarter Balanced has such potential to change the way we teach writing.  Worth a read!


Friday, November 8, 2013

If Not PARCC or Smarter Balanced, Then What?

PARCC released some additional ELA sample items this week for grades 7, 8 and 10.  These items continue to signal a dramatic departure from most of the items we see on most, if not all, state assessments.  The items require students to read challenging, authentic texts (Paulsen's Brian's Winter and London's Call of the Wild are used as sources for the 8th grade performance-based items); deeply read and seek out evidence to support comprehension and vocabulary; and, most importantly, respond thoughtfully to extended prompts that connect back to the reading passages.  There is a lot to like here, particularly when we compare these kinds of items to ISTEP+'s sample prompts, such as this one that asks students to read a short passage (the last two lines read "Though it is not listed in any recipe, love and care are what makes the baker’s products so sweet. A cinnamon roll made with love will always taste better than one made without!") and respond to the question, "Do you think you would like to have a job as a baker?"

Students' results on the Common Core-aligned tests out of New York and Kentucky suggest that these tests are significantly more rigorous than ISTEP+ and other state tests that were adopted in response to No Child Left Behind.  A 2012 RAND study found that on 17 U.S. state tests, only 21% of the items required students to apply higher-ordered thinking skills (think level 3 and higher on Bloom's Taxonomy).  Since the enactment of NCLB many states have been playing games with their proficiency cut scores, misleading folks to believe that the slow rise in student pass rates has been more a function of student achievement gains than the unpublicized changes to performance standards.  As Grant Wiggins notes, "Alas, what many critics of Common Core forget is that it has been politically untenable for states to fail or warn a third to a half of their students – yet, this is in fact the reality of where students stand in terms of genuine readiness."

While we have not seen a full test yet from PARCC or Smarter Balanced and while there are some school preparedness issues to work out, it seems apparent to me that these new assessments are a huge step forward.  They have the potential to encourage better assessment practices, challenge students to connect what they write to what they read, and reshape the way teachers use texts in their curriculum and instructional planning.  After seeing the rigor inherent in these upcoming tests, it's hard to conceive of a return to the status quo.

So would those in the state who are so quick to criticize the Common Core help me to understand how we handle the question of the state test?  What alternatives exist if we decide not to go with one of the two consortia assessments?  While the Indiana standards framework adopted in 2010 would be fine to readopt, taking this route would force us to either stick with ISTEP+ or design a new, more rigorous standards-aligned assessment.  The former seems hard to imagine in light of the feds' stipulation that all states adopt an assessment framework commensurate with the rigor evidenced in the consortia assessments.  ISTEP+ simply wouldn't measure up.  The latter seems to hard to fathom in the light of the costs inherent in designing a new state assessment.

So where does that leave us?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Isn't Indiana Ed. Policy Heading Toward Something Akin to CCSS?

Here's a condensed IN CCSS timeline:

  • Earlier this year, Senator Scott Schneider and others in the state express their concerns about several aspects of CCSS.  Of particular concern is the lack of state authorship or ownership of the new standards.  In addition, Schneider and others point to the lack of rigor in CCSS compared to the current version of the Indiana math and ELA standards which have been deemed "world class" and "internationally benchmarked."  
  • After much debate, the legislature passes (and Governor Pence signs) HB 1427 which, among other things, creates a legislative committee to study the Common Core Standards and offer a recommendation to the State Board of Ed as to whether to drop or move ahead with the standards.
  • The committee convenes a series of public hearings to study the standards, however their final report, at least as of yet, doesn't take a stand as to whether the state should abandon CCSS or move ahead with it.  
So what can we expect moving forward?  This is pure speculation, but this is my take on the matter:

The State Board of Ed, without a clear recommendation one way or the other, will most likely move ahead with Common Core or charge the IN Dept. of Ed with the task of reconceptualizing the current state standards framework into a hybrid document that reflects a lot of what CCSS represents. Recently, we've heard rumors swirling that Indiana, hesitant to embrace the federally-funded consortia-designed assessments, has concerns about what to do next about a state assessment.  This State Impact article suggests that Indiana (and other states wary of PARCC or Smarter Balanced adoption) may look elsewhere to purchase its state assessment.

Unless I'm misunderstanding things, it sure seems like we are headed down a path that bears a striking resemblance to a policy commensurate with those states that have adopted CCSS and the corresponding consortia assessments.  For a multitude of reasons (cost being one), Indiana will most likely not design its own independent state test to align with whatever standards framework it ultimately approves.  This is noteworthy in that one of the rationales given for the "timeout" was the lack of any local role in creating the new standards and tests.  So, if Indiana is not going to design its own test, what options does it have left?  Doesn't it stand to reason that whatever test the state decides to use will, in some fashion or another, be aligned to Common Core?  Given this, doesn't it also stand to reason that Indiana will have to adopt a standards framework that, if it's not called "Common Core," will have to look and feel a lot like it?   

What am I missing here?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

When Does the State Test Debate Begin?

The debate over Common Core continues to rage on here in Indiana.  But when are we going to start talking more about the state test?  Most state test items that I've examined do very little to assess the kind of reading, writing and thinking that ostensibly will be a part of the consortia's upcoming CCSS-aligned assessments.  Take a look for yourself.  Compare the kinds of reading, writing, and vocabulary sample prompts included on ISTEP+ with those that have been released by PARCC and Smarter Balanced.  While ISTEP+ does a mostly adequate job in using short constructed response items as a basis for assessing comprehension, its restricted response items typically require students to cite much less evidence than do the evidence-based and technology-enhanced sample items released by the consortia.  Further, there are no authentic texts used on ISTEP+; items typically reflect one standard instead of multiple standards (this further perpetuates the "checklist mentality" underscoring most school and district curriculum maps); and ISTEP+ writing prompts do not require students to analyze, synthesize or trace ideas or themes in more than one source to draft an extended response.

Worst of all, despite well-written informational and opinion writing standards in Indiana's current framework, ISTEP+'s writing tasks reflect zero, yes ZERO, explanatory or opinion writing.  All writing tasks on ISTEP+ are focused on writing narratives and, while the prompts require students to cite "details," none of the details are connected to what students read.  No wonder narrative and evidence-free writing dominates most classrooms!  PARCC and Smarter Balanced seek to rectify this problem.  Here is one of the item guidelines PARCC provides to test writers: "Many writing prompts typically used on large-scale assessments have required students to respond to a quote or brief passage disconnected from reading grade-appropriate complex text(s). The Common Core State Standards for ELA/Literacy, particularly Writing Standards 8 and 9, require students to demonstrate their ability to write using and analyzing texts. Consequently, PARCC desires innovative writing prompts that clearly demonstrate that students can use what they have read to compose, whether they are composing narrative or analytic writings."

Yes, I know, we haven't seen a full test yet from either consortia and there are concerns about cost, technology glitches (Indiana's mess this past spring is evidence of this), and school readiness.  But, for the first time since the advent of standards-based reform, these tests offer us an opportunity to privilege the kind of thinking that good standards frameworks, like those in Massachusetts and Indiana, have been seeking to encourage.

Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, state tests have been used as a basis for a number of high-stakes decisions from school performance ratings to school takeovers to teacher evaluations.  With state tests driving policymaking the way it has been, teachers would be silly not to use what they know about state test items to drive their curricula.  This has resulted in a dumbing down of the curriculum as educators seek to prepare students for the kinds of uninspired, one-dimensional test items evidenced on ISTEP+ and many other state tests from around the country.  And here's where CCSS supporters and critics alike seem to miss the point: With mediocre state tests driving instruction in such a powerful way, no set of state standards--whether they are rated as an "A" by groups like Fordham or deemed "world class" or "internationally benchmarked" by the spate of oft-cited curriculum "experts"--is going to be implemented the way it was intended.

So Indiana, listen up: These tests may not be the panacea for the decade-long flat line we've seen in the state with respect to literacy achievement, but they may offer a giant step forward in changing the way we think about how and what we teach.