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 differently...to 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)?