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.