Monday, November 25, 2013

The Common Core is NOT the problem

I was thumbing through a professional journal whose title shall go unnamed.  I became annoyed, although not particularly surprised, that the author had led with the assertion that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for Language Arts were a constriction on the expansive and creative teaching of literature and composition.  Not only was this assertion made, but it was undergirded with an assumption that anyone reading this article must agree.

Let me say for the record, here and now, that not only do I not agree, I disagree in the extreme.  The CCSS are not responsible for the absence of creativity or rigor or divergent thought or mastery or any other quality one might find in a high quality classroom.  The CCSS are standards--not techniques. 

Let's use a fairly one-to-one analogy--building standards.  In North Carolina, Chapter 15 of the building code, which deals solely with roofing, is fifteen pages long.  It requires, among other things, that whatever you use to fasten the shingles to your roof has to extend at least 3/4" into the shingle.  This is not unreasonable.  In a high wind, loose shingles are a danger to the structural integrity of your home and the bodily safety of anyone wandering by. 

That's just Chapter 15.  There are no fewer than fourteen other chapters covering everything from sheet rock to plumbing to electrical systems.

Now, I'm going out on a limb and assume that most of you live indoors.  Your home, be it ever so humble, probably conforms to these standards or something similar in a different state.  I will further assume that few of you would credit or blame your home's aesthetic value on the building standards. You probably have some choice words for that contractor, though.

Frankl Lloyd Wright, Mies Van de Rohe, Louis B. Sullivan--these men didn't revolutionize architecture by ignoring builidng codes. And good teachers should not find themselves hamstrung by learning standards that represent the minimum expectations for our children.

The standards are not the problem.  The rampant ignorance of what the standards are--particularly by those leading their implementation--is a huge problem.  I'm reminded of Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer, who asserted that there are no problem breeds, only problem owners.

The biggest problem that I have witnessed is a failure on the part of superintendents, curriculum directors, department chairs, and principals to READ the documents.  I would be willing to bet my car--it's a 2011 Rav 4--that fewer than half of these people nationwide have read the entire document, including the appendixes, and fewer still have taken the time to understand the instructional implications of it.

I will go a step further and wager that implementation of the standards in most districts involved pulling up the old curriculum document, locating the CCSS that most closely resembled each standard listed in the old document, and doing a series of copies and pastes. 

If that is in fact what has happened in most school districts, it should come as a surprise to no one that the process is not working.  Note, please, that I didn't say, "The standards aren't working."  Standards simply are.  It is up to us to reach or exceed them, to use them to our benefit.  They don't do anything.

I've been ranting rather generally for a while.  Let's get into some specifics--say, writing. 

FYI, I'm not ignoring the math standards; I just want to get a running start into them.

In the fourth grade, students should be able to "write opinion pieces . . . supporting a point of view with reasons and information," "convey ideas and information clearly," and "write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences." 

Persuasive, expository, and narrative writing.  Does anyone object so far? 

Here's where the problem comes in.  To write an effective persuasive piece, for example, requires that students must learn the differerence between a reason and a piece of evidence.  The standards further require that they connect the ideas within their writing with transitional words and phrases.  Most difficult, students must be exposed to ideas and topics about which they are encouraged to develop, express, and support opinions.  This takes time.  In fact, it takes the entire school year to gradually layer in that instruction and allow studentstime to practice and develop mastery.

What has unfortunately happened in too many schools is that each type of writing has been shunted into a single marking period.  And in more than a few schools, all writing instruction is limited to language arts instructional time. This very new wine has been stuffed into dusty, old bottles.

This will not work, nor was it the intent of the consortium that developed the CCSS.  The whole point of this endeavor was to have a common set of expectations.  Local accents notwithstanding, are the skills needed to read and write effectively markedly different in North Carolina and Michigan?  If a child moves from Lansing to Raleigh, should she have to repeat or skip a grade because the states' standards are so disparate?

I urge every teacher, parent, and interested citizen to read the standards for themselves.  Read the appendixes and the introductions, too.  That's where the intent behind the standards is found--and it's remarkably jargon-free. 

Having informed yourself of what is in these documents,  ask your child's principal how teachers have been supported in implementing the standards.  Go to a school board meeting and ask the members and the Superintendent what they think about text complexity or performance assessments.  If you hear crickets, you'll know where to direct your anger.

The Know-it-All

Sunday, November 17, 2013

My Continuing Beef with the Academy

I'm sick of people misunderstanding what a scientist is, what a scientist does. . . . It isn't looking for a better cigarette filter or a softer face tissue or a longer-lasting house paint, God help us.  . . . When most other companies brag about their research, they're talking about industrial hack technicians who wear white coats, work out of cookbooks, and dream up an improved windshield wiper for next year's Oldsmobile. . . .Here, and shockingly few other places in this country, men are paid to increase knowledge, to work toward no end but that.
Dr. Asa Breed, Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Okay, I realize this is my second Vonnegut reference in as many posts, and this is in no way intentional.  Serendipity is a driving force in my life, which may account for the fact that I earn approximately $20,000 less now than I did ten years ago, but, as usual, I digress.

I had another run-in with a member of The Academy last week that further cemented my opinion of it.  I'd like to state for the record that there are exceptions:  Dr. Eric Houck of the University of North Carolina, Dr. Tricia Reeves of the University of Georgia, Dr. Jude Preissle (retired).  Clearly, this list is not exhaustive, but, in my experience, it's also not very long. 

A professor's primary function is not teaching.  I cannot stress this enough.  At most universities that you've heard of, the faculty work load is typically 50% research, 25% service, 25% teaching.  In fact, the big joke in academia is that if you receive a teaching award, you might as well kiss you chance of getting promoted good-bye.  [Ha-ha.]

Professors are experts in a particular field.  Their job is to identify holes in the body of knowledge of which they are experts and then perform original research in an effort to plug the holes.  Over time, this web of information should yield changes in practice and perhaps in how the general public understands the universe (or some small part of it).  Theoretical physics is a great example of this process in action.  In the 1920s, the average Joe might have yawned and asked, "Okay, E=MC2.  So the #@(* what?"  Several decades later, we landed a man on the mood using that information.

Teachers are not experts, per se.  They have expertise.  This is a subtle but crucial distinction.  I taught high school English.  An English professor might know everything there is to know about Mark Twain and his body of work.  I knew more about Twain than the most people, but I was not an expert.  I couldn't afford to be since I also had to know more than most people about the life and work of Toni Morrison, Shakespeare, Esmeralda Santiago, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Upton Sinclair and a host of others.

My primary role was not to "profess" my expertise.  It was to use my expertise in both the subject matter and the science of teaching (called pedagogy) to lessen the likelihood that my students would say, "So Toni Morrison's Beloved is post-modernist.  So the #@(* what?"

The bumper sticker wisdom in teaching circles is that your students won't care how much you know until they know how much you care.  Teachers, as opposed to professors, have to take into consideration such thins as
  • Mike doesn't have his homework because he put his backpack in the car last night so he wouldn't forget it, but then his father got drunk, cursed out the entire family, left in the car, and hasn't been heard from since;
  • Paula has been absent eight times this quarter because she was forced to take out a restraining order against her ex-boyfriend--who also attends the school--and has been either in court or avoiding the ex's friends who have begun harassing her;
  • Adam doesn't write very well, but he built a working grandfather clock in his industrial technology class.
You get the idea. 

I was watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory (full text of said episode available at the preceding link) in which Sheldon receives horrible reviews for his teaching.  Wounded by their comments, including one girl who wrote, "Dr. Cooper has made me want to start cutting myself again," he seeks advice from his girlfriend, Amy.

Amy: Have you considered improving your socialization skills, thus allowing you to communicate more effectively with other people?

Sheldon: Isn’t that their burden? I’m the one with something interesting to say.

While much of TBBT's portrayal of academia is pure fiction, this interchange is kind of right on the money. 

Which brings me to my current beef .

The facility for which I work is offering a professional development seminar in a subject area in which none of our full-time faculty have expertise.  We therefore contracted with a scholar who has both research chops and K-12 teaching experience.  In looking over the proposed schedule, I became concerned because I saw a lot of activities that appeared to assume fairly high ability levels in the children, whereas I was anticipating that the teachers attending would be in need of remediation techniques for students with low ability levels.  Because the schedule was written in bullet points, I realized there might be material there that I just didn't know about.  So I called the scholar and asked for clarification.

Any man who has ever said to his wife, "Hey, honey, you want to take a walk?" and had his head bitten off with, "Why?! Do you think I'm fat?! I need more exercise?!" will recognize what happened next.

Unbeknownst to me, Madame Scholar took extreme umbrage with me.  Apparently, she felt I was questioning her credentials.  I'd like it noted that she did not share this with me directly; I only found out after another faculty member had to do damage control when Madame Scholar threatened to renege on her agreement to teach the seminar. 

I am not a diplomatic person.  However, I'm rarely intentionally cruel or disrespectful--at least not to someone's face--and I'm quick to admit it and apologize when I've behaved like a jerk.  I plead complete innocence on this one.  The upshot, unfortunately, is that I've been removed from any further responsiblities regarding this seminar, including sitting in on it to increase my own knowledge. 

When I was at UGA,one of my professors--a fully tenured professor, I might add--had us read several of his articles. Part of the final project was a critique of the literature, so, assuming he meant ALL the literature, I pointed out that his work ignored the implementation difficulties that are inherent in transferring research to the classroom. He was not grateful.

Scholars like to consider themselves part of a conversation in which they make their work available to other scholars who read and respond critically to it.  My experience has been that many of them are interested only in the give, not the take.  They are defensive of their work, almost to the point of childishness. 

I look forward to finding out how Madame Scholar responds if the teachers in this seminar dare to ask her questions similar to those I raised.

The Know-it-All

Monday, November 11, 2013

It's not JUST your opinion

I thought I'd take a break from education policy for a moment to address what is fast becoming my least favorite expression: "Well, it's just my opinion."

This is the desperate response of someone who has no response.  

"Obamacare is unconstitutional!  You can't force people to buy insurance."

"Um, you have to buy car insurance if you own a car."

"Well, Obamacare sucks.  That's just my opinion."

Don't get me wrong; liberals do this, too.  

"The Patriot Act is a violation of the 4th Amendment!"

"Isn't gun control a violation of the 2nd Amendment?"

"That's different."


"Well, that's just my opinion."

What both these desperate individuals really mean by "it's just my opinion" is "I don't want to lose this argument, but I have no intelligent response to what you've just said.  On the other hand, opinions are subjective.  If I claim that mine is an opinion, you can't disagree with it.  Ha-HA!"

As you well know, opinions are like . . . well, Kurt Vonnegut offered this lovely sketch of what opinions are like.  And everyone has one.

What separates valuable opinions from merely talking out of your ass is the ability to support them with facts.  If you have no facts, your opinion is worth no more than anything else that comes out of that part of your body.  If you do have facts, then it is no longer JUST your opinion.

Let us agree to a moratorium on this expression.  If you've taken the time to educate yourself, to have logical and actual reasons for holding this opinion, we'd love to hear it.  

If all you have is an opinion, keep it to yourself.  

The Know-it-All

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Quid Pro Quo

Yesterday, I unloaded on the academy.  Today, it's the practioners' turn to feel a little sting.

In that earlier post, I noted that part of the reason for the disastrous results of some so-called research-based best practices is reductionism.  I'm going to lay most of the blame for that at the feet of K-12 administrators. 

Make no mistake.  I think classroom teachers are guilty of reductionism, too, but, for the most part, they have very little power over what interventions get adopted by their schools.  If you have that power and are also a reductionist, I'm talking to you.

[Imagine I just put two fingers to my eyes, then turned them toward you, then back at me.]

What do I mean by reductionism?  It is the process by which a complex idea is divested of all its complexity either because the person dealing with the idea doesn't fully understand it or doesn't want to do the work all that nuance would require.  Let me give you an example.

A few months ago, I engaged a group of teachers in an activity designed to illuminate the societal changes catalyzed by World War I.  Among the artifacts they examined was Wilfred Owen's "Dolce et Decorum Est."  Ordinarily, I would simply provide a link to the text, but understanding the theme of the poem is essential to understanding what reductionism is.

Dulce Et Decorum Est Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori: Latin, "It is sweet and proper to die for one's country."

Owen was a Lieutenant in the British army and, in fact, was killed in action shortly after this poem was written.  The poem describes a mustard gas attack, not the sort of subject matter usually found in British lit prior to this time.  The imagery is horrifying.  No one could read this and think Owen sees war as glamorous or heroic.

You would think.

I checked in with one teacher who pointed to the footnote in which the Latin was translated and claimed the poem was a call to arms, a glamorizing of warfare.  Think "Charge of the Light Brigade."

I pointed this teacher to the last two lines of the poem and asked, "What does the narrator say about this Latin phrase?"

"Oh, I didn't see that he called it a lie."

I think I demonstrated tremendous restraint in not asking, "And the rest of the words?  Did you miss them, too?"

This would be a particularly heinous example of reductionism.  You probably have students who do this--grab on to a fragment of a sentence and contort it into an interpretation of an entire essay. 

Unfortunately, you probably have colleagues, principals, curriculum directors, and superintendents who do the same. 

Reductionism can be avoided, but it won't be easy. 

First of all, the people who inhabit those offices need to be smart.  I once asked a guy in my Introduction to Statistics class at the University of Georgia, "What correlation are you trying to demonstrate?" 

"Aw, hell, I'm just gonna count some shit."

He was referring to his DISSERTATION!!! 

Somewhere in Georgia, people are forced to call this man "Doctor."

Second, assuming we get smart people in these essential positions, they have to read and interpret the research themselves.  We can't count on the salespeople that Pearson or Houghton-Mifflin or Renaissance Learning send into their offices to provide unbiased information. 

Would you ask your meth dealer, "What's this going to do to my teeth?"

We cannot rely on educational journalists to provide complete information.  Watch an episode of Good Morning, America! and see how a single medical study gets bastardized in mere seconds.

The bestowing of the title "Doctor" should also imply the ability to read, understand, and critique research.  If you can't do that, you don't deserve that job.  If you can do it, but opt not to, you still don't deserve that job.

Let's start demanding more of our administrators and ourselves. 

If your state legislature ordered you to eat something out of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, I hope you would refuse.  We read labels at the grocery store.  I don't think it's unreasonable to read the labels of what we're being asked to consume in the classroom and say, "No, thank you.  No more rat droppings for me."

The Know-it-All

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Audacity of Skepticism

I  become very agitated when anyone introduces me as an "expert."  I'm educated, and I have a point of view.  Because I can string words together fairly lucidly and, perhaps because my voice is deep and stentorian (those of you who don't know me will just have to take my word for that), I may seem more convinced of my own expertise than I actually am. 

I say all this by way of establishing a patina of humility: "Shucks, don't think nothin' about this li'l ol' PhD.  My dawg, Daisy, is smarter'n some people what folks call 'doctor.'" 

She really is, actually.  When in the presence of some PhDs and EdDs, I wonder, "Who puts your pants on for you in the morning?" 

Or, the case of the more obnoxious of their ilk, "How is it no one has killed you yet?"

It was in a meeting with the latter that I found myself last week.  There are many things about this meeting about which I could complain, but I'm going to limit myself to the arrogance of some members of the academy and the myth of research-based best practices.

For those of you who don't recognize this word in context, the "academy" is the world of the scholar: higher education, colleges and universities, those whose primary responsibility is to create knowledge, not consume it.  What most people outside of the academy don't realize is that these entities' first responsibility is not the education of college students; it is the production and publication of research.  Members of the academy must publish. 

Now understand that these are not publications that the practitioners of education read.  English Journal, Teaching Children Mathematics, Science Teacher--these are all phenomenal resources.  Practical, readable, creative.  They are not "academic" journals. 

The late David Foster Wallace opined, "The truth is that most US academic prose is appalling—-pompous, abstruse, claustral, inflated, euphuistic, pleonastic, solecistic, sesquipidelian, Heliogabaline, occluded, obscure, jargon-ridden, empty: resplendently dead."  I had to look up most of those words, too.  Wallace was having a bit of fun by using lots of big words, most of which mean "using many big words unnecessarily."

The research that Wallace eulogized and that my sister, a Senior Policy Analyst at the National Education Association referred to as "unusable, unreadable sawdust" is the stuff that constitutes your so-called research-based best practices. 

Unfortunately, here's the process by which that sawdust makes its way into your classroom.  The author or authors publish the findings of a study that may or may not have
  • been submitted prematurely because the author(s) required more publications to gain traction with the tenure committee;
  • contained a non-representative sampling of students;
  • been conducted over a very short period of time;
  • made use of resources or experts provided by the university and not readily available in the average classroom;
  • provided alternative explanations for the results the researchers found.
The researchers then present their findings either in print or at a conference.  If they are ethical, they limit themselves to a statement such as, "The findings SUGGEST that there is a RELATIONSHIP between our intervention and [insert selected improvement in student achievement.]  If they are not ethical, they say, "Our findings PROVE that X causes Y." 

CAUTIONARY NOTE: Any researcher in the social sciences who claims causation without hesitation is full of $#!+.  Put that on a bumper sticker.

Moving on.

Even ethical research, though, falls into the hands of . . . people.  And like a sinister game of telephone or when you make repeated photocopies of other photocopies, the original message gets blurry and distorted.  What started out as a suggestion that perhaps some children might benefit from an alternative to phonics because they have trouble identifying the individual sounds in words is subjected to round after round of reductionism, eventually finding its way into your classroom as, "Don't use phonics; use whole language instruction."

Like the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano, you can pretty much count on some paradigm shift every year or so.  In the mid-sixties, we had The New Math, which humorist and math professor Tom Lehrer explained thusly: "It's more important to understand what you're doing rather than to get the right answer."  Check out his song "The New Math," on the album That Was the Week that Was. Sadly, Lehrer no longer performs, claiming irony died the day Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. 

But I digress

In the eighties, we were told to stop teaching grammar because it only made sense to people who already understood it and took time away from more valuable instruction. 

At some point, we were told to teach history NOT chronologically but thematically. 

We've been told not to correct children's spelling, that "invented spelling" is an important stage in the development of literacy and of phonics instruction. 

Oh, yeah, we went back to phonics instruction some time ago. 

My point is that, at one time, all of these "reforms" were the result of research-based best practices.  Any many of them were, essentially, neither.

Wayne Booth, Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Chicago, created a fictional utopia in which researchers had to pay to be published and could only publish a limited number of works.  In this manner, only work that was of the highest quality and needed to be read by others would ever see the light of day.  Obviously, Booth was speaking tongue in cheek, but one can see a certain beauty in the concept. 

We K-12 educators cannot control what happens in the academy.  We can only control how we respond to it.  We need to get over our inferiority complex.  Yes, "scholars" can be arrogant and condescending.  They use academic jargon and complicated statistical modeling.  Unfortunately, we assume, "Hmm, I don't understand this, so it must be brilliant."

It's not.  Any idiot can make something complicated seem complicated.  True brilliance is making the complicated understandable.  Someone smarter than me once said that when people use a lot of words, they either don't know what they're talking about or don't want you to know what they're talking about.

K-12 educators and policy-makers have to become smarter consumers.  Be audacious.  We can't be so intimidated by scholars that we are afraid to make them explain their research in ENGLISH.  If they can't or won't, we can't be afraid to reject it.  Be skeptical!  I've seen educational research conducted.  Some of it excellent.  Much of it is crap. 

And we, as a nation, have to stop eating it.

The Know-it-All

Friday, November 1, 2013

Enhancing Reading Fluency in the Elementary Grades

If you teach elementary school in North Carolina, you are likely aware of the Read to Achieve legislation, part of the 2013 Excellent Schools Act.  In a nutshell, by the end of third grade, all children will be reading at or above grade level.  If they aren't, their parents will have the option of either retaining them in third grade or enrolling them in a 6-8 week summer reading camp.  

Let's leave aside any editorial comments you may wish to make, such as "Summer reading camps?! What an excellent way to make children hate books!"  Let's also leave aside our vitriol regarding the use of public money to purchase boxed programs for assessing, teaching, and reassessing student achievement.  The money has already been spent, the contracts signed.  To bitch about any of it at this point is a waste of time. Instead, let us turn our attentions to the issue on which we can all agree, viz all children should be reading at or above grade level. 

I taught high school English, so my knowledge of early grades literacy is minimal.  But I like to think of myself as smarter than the average bear.  I did some reading, namely "Put Reading First," (see link below) a concise, wondrously jargon-free guide to the basics of early literacy.  In another nutshell, there are five elements: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.  It's important to note that these components are separated only for the purposes of talking about them.  They should not be taught in isolation from each other.  

My job requires me to translate research and ideas into actionable classroom behaviors.  The section of the report on fluency--the ability to read words quickly and accurately--noted that "repeated and monitored oral reading improves reading fluency and overall reading achievement" (p. 21).  Because many NC teachers no longer have aides in their classrooms, I wondered how a teacher would find time to monitor this reading and provide feedback to all her students.  What process could I invent that would make this essential step a little less difficult to implement?

I turned on my iPad and checked the app store for a free voice recorder. Quick Voice was the first to pop up, so I downloaded it.  I then test-drove this idea with a group of 15 K-5 teachers.  They recorded themselves reading a passage, then listened to it.  If they like their fluency, they saved the file with their last names.  If not, they erased it and tried again.  Once they had a file they liked, they emailed it from the iPad to me, and I filed each person's work in an e-folder.  At her "leisure," the teacher can listen to the students' reading and work individually with those who are not progressing sufficiently and offer a simple, "Way to go," to those who are.  The files also form a chronological record of each student's progress--very handy for parent-teacher conferences.

It's been a few weeks and the results are better than I anticipated.  The teachers loved the idea and began using it immediately.  Their students have become better at self-assessing.  They listen to their own voices and make comments like, "I sound like a robot."  Ever competitive, even if only with themselves, they have begun monitoring their reading speed using the timer function at the top of the screen.  If they think they can beat their time, they re-record.  

I don't want to break my arm patting myself on the back, but I'm pretty damn proud of this idea.  It costs the school nothing.  It empowers the students.  It frees up teachers to do something else while still satisfying the mania of progress-monitoring.  There is nothing not to like about this.  And for those of you about to whiz on my parade because you don't own an iPad, Iask the janitor to haul out some World War II era tape-recorders, several hundred of which are probably gathering dust in the bowels of your school.

Let me know how it goes.

Deb, The Know-it-All