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.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Step-by-Step Guide to School Preparedness Efforts

I've previously written about some key principles to guide school implementation efforts.  One teacher mentioned to me that though these were helpful, she was still confused about how her leadership team should sequence their efforts so as to effectively undertake a whole-school Common Core implementation effort.  Of course, every school is going to approach preparation differently, but here are four sequential exercises that a school leadership team might consider:

(1) Survey, Synthesize and SWOT the Standards
As Deborah Kenny says in her Washington Post article from earlier this year, "You do not make teachers better by handing them a packaged curriculum and sending them to a few days of training. Instead, teachers need time to analyze the standards, practice different teaching strategies, learn from mentors, collaborate with colleagues, observe one another, look at student work together, reflect on why certain approaches work better than others, learn from mistakes and continually improve. None of this is fast or easy. But it is how teachers become great."  Don't we all agree with this?  Nevertheless, it can still be difficult to figure out where to begin in tackling the Common Core.  First step: Read, discuss, process, analyze, and discuss again the standards.  What do the standards say and how are they organized?  How do the standards connect across grade levels?  What implications do the standards offer for teaching and learning?  How do our current curriculum and instruction practices support the standards and in what ways do the standards stretch us to do things do things better?

(2) Create a School-wide Implementation Framework
After a thorough examination of the standards, consider what unique implications the developmental progressions have on how you might approach school-wide curriculum planning and assessment, especially the articulation of "featured" standards and "supporting" standards in each grade and across grade bands.  For example, summarizing isn't mentioned in the standards until 4th grade.  How do we plan to teach this skill when using short and longer literary and informational texts?  And when will we teach this skill?  Perhaps summary writing would work well as a unit featured standard at the end of 3rd grade, then again in the first nine weeks in 4th grade?  Perhaps our collective assessment of students' writing skills suggest that summary writing (as a featured standard) is best planned in a unit after Christmas during the 4th grade year.  After that, as a way to continually reinforce, we might include this skill as part of several units' supporting standards.

(3) Selecting Featured Complex Texts
As I've previously mentioned, one of the most challenging and crucial responsibilities for teachers will be selecting and "clustering" texts to support the reading, writing and speaking/listening standards.  Consider the value of a prolonged staff development effort centered around teachers working together to identify diverse groupings of featured complex texts that serve as the centerpiece of ELA and content-specific units.  A complex text inventory such as this one might be helpful toward this effort.

(4) Shaping Units Around Featured Texts
Draw on conversations focused on curriculum planning and assessment as well as the selection of featured complex texts to begin to build one or more units that meet the demands of the Common Core Standards.  This process should include trying to dig for complementary print texts and digital texts/resources that pair well with the featured standards and text.  Get your library/media specialist and tech coordinator involved here!  

Monday, October 14, 2013

Comment String on CCSS ELA

I typically don't spent a lot of time posting comments on others' blogs, but I have done so on a few occasions on Erin Tuttle and Heather Crossin's Hoosiers Against Common Core site.  I enjoy reading their posts even if I agree with very little.  Erin and Heather are thoughtful, concerned parents who have done a great job in raising awareness about CCSS, particularly with respect to the math standards.

I recently posted a couple of comments in response to a blog entry that I thought I would share.  They speak to some previous posts.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

CCSS Implementation is a "Real Grind!"

After speaking to a group of teachers in Indianapolis some months ago, one teacher approached me after the inservice and expressed concerns about how much time, energy and patience understanding and implementing CCSS was going to take.  "This is going to be a real grind!" she said.  Let's hope she's right.

One of the key aspects of a good school, district or diocesan-wide implementation plan is that it should be a grind.  A long, slow, methodical, painstaking grind.  Despite what you might read or hear, there's no easy fix.  No single textbook series, webinar, in-service experience, web site, or model lesson plan is going to get this done for us.  Sure, check out the Basal Alignment Project, Achieve the Core, and the host of other resources that provide insight about CCSS implementation.  Certainly these can be helpful!  However, you and your colleagues have to figure out CCSS for yourselves!  How does it work in your classroom, with your students, with your routines, and with your approach to unit and lesson planning?

If you think back to those times in your career when you've improved most as a teacher, isn't it because you've chosen to dig in, experiment, observe and discuss and collaborate with colleagues?  Be weary of those who claim that, for years, they have been teaching in a way that supports CCSS.  I'm sure these teachers are out there, but I tend to be skeptical.  Regardless of how successful you've been as a teacher, CCSS gives us lots of opportunities to take a look at our own teaching and assessment practices and make improvements.

Amy Coe Rodde and Lija McHugh of the Bridgespan Group recently authored a report that speaks to the importance of the CCSS grind.  The report, entitled Building the Missing Link Between the Common Core and Improved Learning, highlights the stories of leaders and teachers who embrace the idea that a successful CCSS implementation plan takes time.  The authors note that "the practices and experiences [of these people] provide a model for others determined to ensure that the Common Core becomes more than just 'a poster on the faculty room wall.'"  It's worth a read.

In the next post, I'll propose some suggestions for how administrators and teacher leadership teams might begin the effort toward successful CCSS implementation.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Quotes and Questions to Guide CCSS Implementation, Part 2

This post is a continuation of the one last week focused on some Common Core-inspired quotes paired with corresponding questions for reflection.

(4) "Reading, especially complex reading, doesn't occur in isolation.  [Teachers should] imagine a reading experience that is scaffolded by design, that resists reading in isolation, and welcomes a situation in which texts 'talk' to each other."  (from Sarah Brown Wessling's Supporting Students in a Time of Common Core)

How does CCSS and PARCC/SB make text relationships, text connections and research with texts more important than ever?  Might we think about texts in the same way we do about standards?  That is, could we select one text to use as a "featured text" and other texts, text excerpts and digital and print resources to use as "supporting" texts?  How do these unit texts relate to one another--so to facilitate summaries, comparisons and syntheses--and how do they bring out the best in our unit's featured standard(s)?

(5) "Asking [teachers] to require all students to read a high-Lexiled text is a complete mind shift for them...We are going to scaffold the heck out of grade-level texts, and we are going to pre-plan close readings for struggling students over essential excerpts from the book.  We are going to plan units that will provide appropriate amounts of context through differentiated pieces in preparation for the grade-level text.  This is going to be a huge challenge, but we are moving forward with an expectation of revising." (from Christina Hank's blog, MS Language Arts: Where We've Been and Where We're Going)

Teachers who have worked hard during the past decade or two to select leveled texts for their students might be struggling with the notion that all students should be reading the same text.  As Christina notes, a "one text for all" approach may constitute one element of CCSS-aligned unit planning, but let's not abandon leveled texts and differentiated reading groups.  I see the "one text for all" approach as being appropriate for the central part of the unit.  However, let's continue to utilize leveled resources as ways to support student reading, practice skills, provide background information and context, as well as facilitate text-text connections and research.  When it comes to differentiated experiences in my classroom, how can I utilize one featured text as well as leveled supporting texts to meet the featured standard(s)?

Monday, September 30, 2013

Quotes and Questions to Guide CCSS Implementation, Part 1

In a recent presentation, I offered a series of quotes that might frame how principals move forward with CCSS implementation and alignment efforts.  See the quotes below along with some questions to guide reflection:

(1) "A related misconception in working with the Common Core is evident when teachers turn immediately to the grade level Standards listed for their grade or course to plan their teaching." (from McTighe and Wiggins' From Common Core Standards to Curriculum: Five Big Ideas)

What does it mean to say that the structure of CCSS reflects a series of "developmental progressions"?  What would be some examples of these developmental progressions (hint: RI/RL Anchor Standard #2 or RI Anchor Standard #8) and why are they important for us to understand when thinking about how we approach the teaching of our own grade level standards?

(2) "Alignment is no longer a simple process of picking a standard, teaching a lesson that addresses it, and ticking it off a list.  Aligning instruction to the Common Core means planning lessons that address several standards on a repeated basis."  (from Burkins and Yaris' 5 Things to Keep in Mind as You Implement the Common Core)

Since the dawning of standards-based reform more than fifteen years ago, curriculum planning has devolved into an atomistic exercise where individual standards are isolated and conveniently slotted into lesson or week-long experiences.  Recently, I observed one instance where a teacher indicated that the week's goal was for students to "identify details and examples from the text when explaining the key ideas found in the text."  Shouldn't standards like this underscore every lesson and unit that we plan?  What effects is this kind of curricular fragmentation having on teaching and learning?  How might CCSS be providing us an opportunity to change the role standards play in our micro and macro-curriculum planning?

(3) "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." (from Kathleen Porter-Magee in Doug Lemov's A Few Minutes with Kathleen Porter-Magee)

How do we typically treat the teaching of comprehension skills such as visualization, making text-self connections, and generating questions?  Are such skills taught in such a way as to continually support the ultimate goal which is for students to be independently reading and comprehending complex literary and informational texts?  Or are these skills more often taught in isolation and without enough regard for the quality and complexity of the text?

Part 2 later this week...

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

What's Your Library/Media Specialist Doing for Dinner Tonight?

One of the aspects of the Common Core ELA that I find to be most challenging is the ability to plan units that bring together featured and supporting texts.  A featured text is the text(s) that all students in the class read regardless of reading level.  This text(s) is the heart and soul of the unit and should frame the culminating assessment.  Supporting texts, on the other hand, help students practice certain skills, acquire helpful background knowledge, research a topic or, most importantly, forge connections with the ideas and elements found in the featured texts.  These texts may be leveled and could vary depending on the student or situation.

Structuring units in this way is no easy task!  It represents a departure from typical approaches to instructional planning where little attention is paid to the selection of texts or the relationship among them.  But much of what we read in CCSS (see RL/RI.3, 7, 9) and anticipate seeing from the testing consortia require that we think about how to weave together texts.  In her book, Supporting Students in a Time of Common Core, 2010 Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling, says it well: "Reading, especially complex reading, doesn't occur in isolation.  [Teachers should] imagine a reading experience that is scaffolded by design, that resists reading in isolation, and welcomes a situation in which texts 'talk' to each other."

Building curriculum in this way requires not only the expertise of curriculum directors and classroom teachers, but also perhaps schools' most valuable resource--the Library/Media Specialist!  Involve him/her in the planning of your units.  Involve him/her in your plans to build your CCSS classroom libraries.  And involve him/her in collaborative endeavors that seek to bring together reading and content area teachers.  Moreover, Library/Media Specialists with their resourcefulness and knowledge of texts can also be helpful in contributing to complex text inventories that, among many possibilities, could be used to assess the Lexile levels and notable qualitative elements of current print and digital reading materials.  In short, Library/Media Specialists should be one of the most important people in your building!  As Library/Media Specialist/blogger, Kristin Hearne, was quoted as saying in this Edweek piece, "When it comes to the Common Core, librarians can be a school's secret weapon."  Indeed!  So, if you're not already, seek out your Library/Media Specialist and enlist his/her help in making the transition to CCSS.  In fact, what is he/she doing for dinner tonight?!?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Help Wanted: CCSS Tech Coordinator

When presenting to teachers and administrators, I often talk about two building-level positions that don't get nearly the attention they should in the Common Core era: Technology Coordinators and Library/Media Specialists.  I'll address the first of these today and the other in tomorrow's blog.

Let's consider the typical mandate of a K-8 Technology Coordinator.  He/she might be teaching a couple of classes focused on keyboarding, Internet research, digital art, music or video tools, or the array of features or applications used in Word, Excel or Powerpoint.  In good schools, the Technology Coordinator is also spending lots of time working collaboratively with teachers to identify ways to utilize technology to expand and support various aspects of the curriculum.  My colleague at Core2Class, Deb Gardner, who spent more than 10 years as a Technology Coordinator will be the first to tell you how important and overwhelming it is to have to balance the demands of your own classroom together with the outreach required to help others with their own curricula.

Since the adoption of Common Core, the job of the Technology Coordinator has seemingly gotten more complex as teachers intensely seek out ways to infuse technology into their Common Core lessons.  One teacher recently told me that her school's recent adoption of a "Common Core-aligned" textbook has she and her colleagues running ragged to keep up with all of the technology integrations it includes.  The way many folks are talking, it's almost as if effective teaching demands the constant integration of technology.  As proof, I would point to the countless articles and PD sessions, including one last Fall here in Indianapolis by curriculum guru Heidi Hayes Jacobs who argued that the Common Core Standards require schools to upgrade their curriculum in ways that rely heavily on technology.  "My friends," she said, "paper is dead."

It scares me when I hear folks associate the effective teaching of CCSS with lots of instructional technology.  I say this not because I'm stuck in the Stone Age or because I fear change.  It's because I worry that the emphasis on technology is distracting us from what's at the heart of Common Core.  As I see it, the K-8 CCSS ELA underscores two fundamental expectations: (1) SWBAT (Students will be able to) closely read, analyze and discuss complex texts by finding and using textual evidence; and (2) SWBAT draft text-derived written responses--to high quality prompts--that summarize, synthesize and compare ideas from one or multiple sources.  Yes, CCSS ELA also expects students to demonstrate the ability to use technology (see RI/RL.7, W.6 and SL.5), but these expectations are not ends in themselves, but means to get students reading, writing and speaking more thoughtfully, analytically and collaboratively.

Just the other day, I read this article that offered some whiteboard and tablet-based activities designed to meet CCSS Anchor Standards RL.2 and RL.4.  The author says, "Both of these anchor standards lend themselves well to integrating technology into instruction. Teachers can take a traditional English language arts tool--the graphic organizer--to the next level (emphasis added) by using interactive whiteboards and mobile devices."  How does the use of an interactive whiteboard alone do anything to ratchet up the level of rigor or expectation?  How much time will using these mobile devices take to plan, set up and execute?  Could the same goals be met more efficiently without the use of technology?  Does the technology help drive the lesson and unit forward or is it more of a fun distraction?

Don't misunderstand me: I'm all for the use of technology in the classroom.  But toward what purpose?  And how much classroom time is it going to take?  Back in February Char Shryock gave a presentation at the Ohio Educational Technology Conference where she discussed moving one's classroom from a "substitutive" use of a technology to a "transformative" use of technology.  This makes sense to me.  Instead of simply advising the incorporation of technology "just because" let's be clear about how certain types of technology are uniquely poised to meet the fundamental goals of CCSS.  Digital tools such as Project Gutenberg and Lit2Go can help support teachers' efforts to find companion texts on which to base culminating comparison and synthesis prompts.  Already have hard copies of the texts for your upcoming unit?  Great.  Then don't use these digital tools for the unit.  Resources such as Prezi or Piktochart could be helpful to students preparing for a class presentation.  But maybe teaching these resources is taking too much time away from other more important endeavors.  No problem.  Have students use something more familiar to them that can equally serve the purpose of the presentation.  Designing a snazzy Prezi is not, in itself, a worthy endeavor.

Technology Coordinators now have a new mandate with Common Core.  It's not to integrate or help teachers integrate the latest iPad app or Smartboard feature, necessarily, but to work with teachers to figure out which technology integrations can transform classrooms into laboratories that reflect the essence of Common Core.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Buzz Over the "Technical"

In all my days as an educator, I’ve never heard so much talk about “technical manuals”!  Many critics of Common Core claim that the CCSS’ emphasis on informational text will result in teachers using dry, dumbed-down technical manuals, government documents, and brochures instead of great literary works.  You can find this critique all over the anti-CCSS materials floating around on the Web, including in a well-circulated piece penned by Sandra Stostky (whom I respect greatly for her work over the years helping states, such as Indiana, craft clear and rigorous ELA standards) entitled Literature or Technical Manuals: Who Is Teaching What, Where and Why? 

Given the attention this subject has received, I think it's important to point out a couple of things:  

First, as I see it, CCSS seeks to do precisely the opposite of what critics allege.  Unless you've had your head in the sand during the past two years, you well know that CCSS sees challenging and complex text--regardless of genre--as perhaps the chief component of sound curriculum planning.  Critics are quick to point to Standard 10 which includes the words "technical texts" as proof of CCSS' subversive plot to transform classrooms into low-minded training labs.  This is silly.  Standard 10 should be viewed along with the exhaustive set of available resources for assessing text complexity as a way to emphasize the important contribution quality texts bring to the curriculum.  During the past two years, thanks to CCSS, educators have been working hard in this state and others to figure out how to select and teach appropriately challenging texts.  Prior to the adoption of Standard 10, how much discussion was there in schools and districts about this issue?

Second, with the amount of attention "technical manuals" has received in the debate over CCSS, one would expect the CCSS exemplars to be replete with these types of texts.  Well, according to my count, among the tens and tens of exemplar informational texts included in Appendix B, there are exactly two that would qualify as a technical manual: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency/U.S. Department of Energy's Recommended Levels of Insulation and the U.S. General Services Administration's Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management.  I have to admit that these two text exemplars do seem a little dry and obscure.  I agree with critics on this point.  But these two texts are lumped in among a spate of interesting science and social studies-oriented texts and, in the upper grades, important speeches and seminal historical documents.  

Furthermore, if we are going to take on CCSS for its inclusion of these technical manuals, we better take a closer look at the current Indiana standards framework.  You remember, the one considered by critics to be far superior to CCSS?  The one given an "A" grade in 2006 by Sandra Stotksy, who at that time was assessing state standards frameworks for the Fordham Foundation?  Consider the long list of standards (with instructional prompts) from the Grades 4-12 Indiana ELA Standards that implicate the use of technical manuals, government documents, applications or brochures (see below).  If such technical documents are so deleterious to student learning, why are they so prevalent in our "best in the nation" ELA Standards? 

Don't get me wrong, I don't have an issue with the Indiana Standards' inclusion of such expectations if they are part of a larger effort to encourage teachers to plan and assess using a collection of varied and challenging texts (e.g. perhaps a technical document could be used as one source among many for a 7th grade opinion piece).  CCSS should be spurring lots of these types of discussions--discussions about how to plan, assess, design quality prompts, and gather and leverage rich resources.  But instead we find ourselves inundated by less substantive, more "technical" discussions.

"Technical Documents" in the Current Indiana Standards Framework

4.2.6 Follow multiple-step instructions in a basic technical manual.  Example: Follow directions to learn how to use computer commands or play a video game. 

5.2.7 Follow multiple-step instructions in a basic technical manual.

6.2.5 Follow multiple-step instructions for preparing applications.  Example: Follow directions to fill out an application for a public library card, a bank savings account, or a membership to a boys’ or girls’ club, soccer league, YMCA or YWCA, or another extra-curricular organization.

7.2.5  Understand and explain the use of a simple mechanical device by following directions in a technical manual.  Example: Follow the directions for setting a digital watch or clock.

8.2.5  Use information from a variety of consumer and public documents to explain a situation or decision and to solve a problem.  Example: Decide which is the most practical and economical wireless telephone to purchase by reading articles, brochures, Web pages, and other consumer sources, such as Consumer Reports.

8.2.8  Understand and explain the use of simple equipment by following directions in a technical manual.
    9.2.5  Demonstrate use of technology by following directions in technical manuals.
    Example: Locate and follow the directions embedded in word processing help menus for formatting text paragraphs, such as hanging indents. 

      9.2.6  Critique the logic of functional documents (such as an appeal to tradition or an appeal to force) by examining the sequence of information and procedures in anticipation of possible reader misunderstandings.  Example: Evaluate a document that gives a set of expectations and rules for behavior. This could be a school’s code of ethics, an extracurricular organization’s constitution and bylaws, or it could be a set of local, state, or federal laws. Evaluate the way the document is written and whether the expectations for readers are clear.

      10.2.1 Analyze the structure and format of various informational documents and explain how authors use the features to achieve their purposes.
      Example: Analyze an advertisement that has been made to look like the informational newspaper or magazine text around it. Explain why the advertisement would be designed this way and evaluate its effectiveness.

      10.2.3  Demonstrate use of sophisticated technology by following technical directions.  Example: Follow the directions to use a spreadsheet or database program on the computer.  Follow the directions to download informational text files or articles from a Web site. 

      11.2.3  Verify and clarify facts presented in several types of expository texts by using a variety of consumer, workplace, and public documents.  Example: Check information learned in a driver’s training course textbook with information in the printed Indiana Driver’s Manual. 

      12.2.3  Verify and clarify facts presented in several types of expository texts by using a variety of public or historical documents, such as government, consumer, or workplace documents, and others.

      Example: Verify information in state and federal work safety laws by checking with an employer about internal company policies on employee safety.