Did You Hear the One About the Talking Pineapple…

by Robert Pondiscio
April 20th, 2012

“It’s clearly an allegory. The pineapple is the Department of Education. The hare is the student who is eagerly taking the test,” said E.D. Hirsch. “The joke is supposed to be on the hare, because the questions are post-modern unanswerable,” he said. “But in fact the joke is on the pineapple, because the New York Daily News is going to eat it up.”

I’d explain what he’s talking about, but some things are beyond explanation….

Update:  At EdWeek Teacher, Anthony Cody asks the question that needs to be asked:  Would YOU want to be judged based on an 8th grader’s ability to make sense of this bizarre little story?

Trespass Freely and Fearlessly

by Guest Blogger
April 17th, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

A teacher emailed me a while back with a great question. I’ve been meaning to answer and there’s no better time than today, when I have five other deadlines to avoid.

Dear Jess,

Here’s my question for today: how much can high school age students benefit from a classical curriculum like the one at my kids’ school?   I love that next year my son will read, for example, Plato, as part of the Great Books type humanities program. That stuff is challenging for even the best educated adults. We chose to transfer our kids this year to [name deleted] specifically because of their humanities program. The other option was having them take many AP courses while attending the nearby traditional public high school. I had nothing like the [name deleted] curriculum back in my high school days, and I only read Great Books stuff on my own, many years after I graduated from college.  So I’m excited for my kids to have this opportunity, but only if it benefits them.

Are “Great Books” relevant for today’s students?  My answer is an emphatic “yes,” and I whip out my favorite quote on the subject, by Michael Dirda: “Classics are classics not because they are educational, but because people have found them worth reading, generation after generation, century after century.”

The argument against asking young people to read great books goes something like this discussion from the Diane Rehm Show. Panelists were discussing the novel Ethan Frome, and a caller said he thought students should not read some books until they are forty, with the life experience and perspective to understand the darker, more mature themes.

While I would shy away from teaching Ethan Frome in the darkest weeks of our New Hampshire winter – just for sanity’s sake, mind you – I respectfully disagree. I have heard this argument among teachers, that Romeo and Juliet is appropriate for middle school, while King Lear is not. Romeo and Juliet concerns itself with the heartache of young love, while King Lear stares down the naked torment Lear finds at the end of his useful life. Students may find connections to their own life in the story of Romeo and Juliet’s love tragedy, but the pain of losing a child and the treachery of the vile Edmund are just too mature for younger readers.

Sure, the familiar may be strange in King Lear, but there is much to offer young people in a story such as Lear’s. My students love the treachery of Edmund, the way he plots against the seemingly perfect and legitimate Edgar. Lovely, bookish, kind, Edgar, who can do no wrong in his father’s eyes. And the tensions runs high as Edmund is overtaken by sibling rivalry and plots to steal a place in his father’s heart – or at least his inheritance.

Or what of Cordelia? The youngest child, who cannot heave her heart into her mouth in order to satisfy her father’s outlandish expectations and is eclipsed by her more rapacious older sisters? Or Gloucester, who does not realize until too late that he has hurt someone he loves, and must find a way to make amends.

No, King Lear is not an easy read. It would be much easier for me to reach for The Hunger Games or Inkheart – both commonly assigned in middle school, and books with entertaining plots, to be sure, but they are…lacking. Reader’s questions are too easily answered. “Of all the virtues related to intellectual functioning, the most passive is the virtue of knowing the right answer. Knowing the right answer requires no decisions, carries no risks, and makes no demands,” writes Elanor Duckworth in The Having of Wonderful Ideas.

It is important that we ask students to read great works of literature because, when we hand them Dickens or Shakespeare, we offer students so much more than a good story. We give them the opportunity to step beyond the safe boundary of the known world and journey into the uncharted territory of challenging vocabulary, unpredictable plot, and shifting perspectives. I’m with Virginia Woolf on this one, “Literature is no one’s private ground. Literature is common ground; let us trespass freely and fearlessly and find our own way for ourselves.”

In the end, that’s what I hope I do. I teach my students how to find their own way through a complex and challenging world, and these books are the maps I hand my students.

Great books are literary proving grounds, safe places for students to try, fail, and in the end, find unexpected moments of wonder and pride in their own abilities. Students cannot approach these works lightly; they must brave these works armed with their own experiences and ability to reason, because great works of literature require more than simple retrieval and regurgitation of other’s ideas; they demand feats of intellectual bravery, patience, and trust.

Great books contain more than challenging vocabulary and syntax. Great books contain novel ideas, universal themes, vivid sensory experiences and complex literary construction absent from commonplace works of literature. Great books teach great lessons. When students learn to ask more of the books they read, they learn to ask more of themselves.

Jessica Potts Lahey is a teacher of English, Latin, and composition at Crossroads Academy, an independent Core Knowledge K-8 school in Lyme, New Hampshire. Jessica’s blog on middle school education, Coming of Age in the Middle, where this piece also appears, can be found at http://jessicalahey.com.

Choosing Curriculum Without Evidence

by Robert Pondiscio
April 13th, 2012

If you wanted to improve medical care, would you focus on hospital administration and patient insurance?  Or would you look at the treatment doctors were giving patients?  Would you try to improve a sports team’s won-loss record by focusing on stadium layout and the team’s travel schedule?  Then why, ask Brookings’ Matthew Chingos and Russ Whitehurst, do education policy makers focus most of their attention on academic standards, teacher evaluation, and school accountability policies?  Shouldn’t we be looking instead at instructional materials?

“There is strong evidence that the choice of instructional materials has large effects on student learning—effects that rival in size those that are associated with differences in teacher effectiveness,” the two write in a new paper from Brookings, Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness, and the Common Core.

“Whereas improving teacher quality through changes in the preparation and professional development of teachers and the human resources policies surrounding their employment is challenging, expensive, and time-consuming, making better choices among available instructional materials should be relatively easy, inexpensive, and quick.”

There’s one big hurdle to clear in correcting this rather obvious problem: Little effort has been made by the field to differentiate effective curricular materials from ineffective ones.  In fact, in most states, districts and schools, it’s nearly impossible to know what materials are being used at all.

“In every state except one, it is impossible to find out what materials districts are currently using without contacting the districts one at a time to ask them. And the districts may not even know what materials they use if adoption decisions are made by individual schools. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which has the mission of collecting and disseminating information related to education in the U.S., collects no information on the usage of particular instructional materials.”

Chingos and Whitehurst predict the blindness on curriculum will become a critical problem for Common Core Standards implementation.  “Publishers of instructional materials are lining up to declare the alignment of their materials with the Common Core standards using the most superficial of definitions,” they note.  “The Common Core standards will only have a chance of raising student achievement if they are implemented with high-quality materials, but there is currently no basis to measure the quality of materials. Efforts to improve teacher effectiveness will also fall short if they focus solely on the selection and retention of teachers and ignore the instructional tools that teachers are given to practice their craft.”

The paper offers up a number of suggestions:  State education agencies should collect data from districts on the instructional materials in use in their schools.   also wants to see the National Governors Association (NGA) and Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) “put their considerable weight behind the effort to improve the collection of information on instructional materials in order to create an environment in which states, districts, and schools will be able to choose the materials most likely to help students master the content laid out in the Common Core standards.”

Chingos and Whitehurst are dead-on in their critique of ed reform’s indifference to curriculum and materials.  When we focus on the mechanism by which schools are  created, managed, financed or evaluated, we are assuming that what kids learn, and with which materials, is pretty much settled, or doesn’t really matter.  All that’s left to do is figure out what works in terms of delivery of instruction and grow it, or figure out what doesn’t work and shut it down.  Any teacher who has worked with different literacy or math programs can easily attest this is not the case.

The Inspector Will See You Now

by Robert Pondiscio
April 11th, 2012

If we look at more than just test scores to determine teacher effectiveness, shouldn’t we do the same for schools, asks Fordham’s Mike Petrilli.  The best accountability systems, he argues, “take various data points and turn them into user-friendly letter grades, easily understandable by educators, parents, and taxpayers alike.”  Petrilli wants to go one step further adding a human element to accountability in the form of “school inspectors” modeled on Great Britain’s inspectorate system.

Under Petrilli’s proposal, a group of inspectors would visit a school at least once per year. “They would mostly look for two things,” he writes.

  1. Evidence that the school is achieving important outcomes that may not be captured by the state accountability system. For example, the school’s administrators might show them test score data from a computer adaptive exam like NWEA’s that demonstrates progress for individual kids (especially those well above or below grade level) that isn’t picked up by the less-sensitive state test. Or perhaps a high school has compelling data about its graduates’ college matriculation and graduation rates that put its mediocre test scores in a different light.
  2. Indications that the school’s culture and instructional program are inculcating valuable attributes in their students. This is to guard against the “testing factory” phenomenon. Is the school offering a well-balanced curriculum (and extra-curriculars), or engaging in test-prep for weeks on end? Is it focused on teaching “non-cognitive” skills and attributes, such leadership, perseverance, and teamwork? Character traits like empathy, honesty, and courage?

Petrilli’s first point is deeper data that probably doesn’t require on-site inspections; the second is more interesting.  I’m all for a more nuanced view of school performance.  If you’ve been in a school lately and haven’t come away dispirited by the sheer volume of test-prep and frustrated by curriculum narrowing, you’re likely engaged in a form a denial or willful ignorance.  Anything that broadens the lens is a step in the right direction.

I certainly agree that you can tell a lot about a school by walking its halls and sitting in its classrooms.  The trouble is that the higher the stakes, the less likely you are to see—or to be allowed to see—the school as it actually is, warts and all.  I’m reminded of the spitting and polishing we used to do in my school when we were having a Superintendent’s walk-through or preparing for our “quality review.”  Suddenly fresh student work bloomed on every bulletin board.  Daily agendas were posted.  Aims and standards in child-friendly language were omnipresent on the blackboard.  Records and planbooks spruced up and made ready for review.  Amazing, engaging lessons were planned and delivered.  No boxed macaroni and cheese when company’s coming.   Dirty dishes went into the oven and dust bunnies were swept under the rug moments before guests arrive.

In short, it’s not hard to master the art of displaying “visible evidence” of teaching and learning, while the underlying practices remain disappointing.  If you think that test prep is a waste of time, try getting your lesson plans, student data, running records and myriad other bits of housekeeping presentation-ready for the Inspectorate.  Is this really what we want teachers to focus their energies on?

Some years ago, I proposed a system of random testing whereby the students to be tested, testing dates, grade levels and subject matter was a matter of chance.  The only way to perform well under such an accountability system would be to actually teach all of the students well in all subjects.  That still strikes me as the right impulse.  Any accountability measure with stakes attached to it will inevitably come to dominate classroom practice.  It’s simply human nature to want to put your best foot forward when your reputation or your job is on the line.  This is fairly obvious.  The most likely response to the accountability mechanism should be precisely the practice you want to see in classrooms.  Anything else misses the mark.

A good inspection system can add significant value.  A thoughtful review diligently considered can lead to constructive suggestions and improved outcomes.  It needn’t be a “gotcha” game.  But the same is true of pure test-driven accountability.  In theory, the best outcomes should come from a well-rounded curriculum, effectively implemented by well-trained teachers.  It just hasn’t seemed to work out that way in practice.

Loose Canons

by Robert Pondiscio
April 5th, 2012

The top 40 books read by U.S. high school students – whether assigned in school or chosen by kids on their own – are on average written at a fifth grade level.  In an op-ed in the New York Daily News, Sandra Stotsky blames a curricular approach to literature that worships almost exclusively at the altar of student interest, a practice nearly unique to teachers of English.

“Suppose that a school’s math curriculum director said it didn’t matter in what grade kids actually studied fractions. What’s important is that they “own” fractions if they choose to study them. That way, they will like math better.

“Suppose that the same school’s history curriculum director said it didn’t matter when kids studied the Constitution — or if they did at all. Instead, let them decide what history to study so that they like studying history.”

Stotsky cites a new report that shows The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (reading level 5.3) topping the list of books read by high school students, whether assigned by their teachers or chosen independently. “What high school kids choose to read on their own is one matter,” writes Stotsky. “But, surely, school librarians should recommend and English teachers should assign as many texts above their grade’s reading level as on it. If we don’t actually challenge students, how can we expect serious learning to take place?”

Even books that almost certainly were assigned demonstrate a relatively low level of challenge:  Of Mice and Men (reading level 4.5), To Kill a Mockingbird (5.6), and Night (4.8), for example. All fine works, writes Stotsky, “but these easier-to-read selections must be balanced by other works also with adult themes but much higher reading levels.”  Stotsky faults the “damaging notion that students of all grades should be allowed to read chiefly what they want in the English classroom” for the decline.

“Thus the K-8 reading curriculum came to feature a sequence of culture-and-content-free skills, with a variety of “trade” books for kids to choose from — no oppressive Western canon full of Dead White Males (or Females, for that matter) or even any coherent sequences of culturally or historically significant authors and texts. High schools had no choice but to respond accordingly — you can’t just foist Austen or Dickens on a student who’s been reading fifth-grade-level texts. Few even try: Most of the top 40 books in grades 9 to 12 today are easy “contemporary young adult fantasies.”

The well-intentioned idea behind the ‘just let ‘em read’ approach is that it will create adult readers with a lifelong love of books and reading.  Only there’s no evidence that’s actually happening, Stotsky notes.  “We’ve tried a literature curriculum chosen by students’ or teachers’ whims,” she concludes. “Now it’s time for that unfortunate experiment to end.”

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