Squishiness Watch

by Robert Pondiscio
October 22nd, 2012

A “draft framework” for common social studies standards is scheduled for release next month.  If a report by Education Week’s Catherine Gewertz is any indication, they might be so devoid of curricular content as to be functionally meaningless.

“Social studies specialists have been working with state department of education officials and others to create standards in that subject,” Gewertz notes.  That means expert guidance on the history and geography subject matter children should learn in each grade–the seven continents and oceans of the world in kindergarten; Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt in first grade; the U.S. Constitution in second grade–right?  I mean that is the point of this exercise, isn’t it?   Gewertz’s blog post indicates those looking for specificity might be disappointed.

“Early signs suggest that you shouldn’t expect something that prescribes the specific issues, trends, or events that students should study, but rather describes the structure, tools, and habits of mind they need in order to undertake an exploration of the discipline, and offers states a frame for the content they choose.”

Just asking: If the “framework” for social studies takes a pass on detailing what’s worth knowing and contents itself instead with a squishy and unsatisfying description of the “structure, tools and habits of mind,” how–how exactly, please–will that be anything than redundant with the CCSS ELA standards?

The ELA standards strike a hammer blow for a content-rich vision of literacy in U.S. classrooms without detailing the content.  It’s a step in the wrong direction if social studies specialists are unwilling to begin to detail at least some of what that content should include.

Perhaps the authors of the draft framework would like to help themselves to the Core Knowledge Sequence for Pre-K to 8th grade.  It’s free for your downloading.  Take it.  Steal it.  Call it your own.

 

Teaching to CCSS: Making Bricks Without Straw?

by Robert Pondiscio
October 17th, 2012

The following post originally appeared on Schoolbook, the education blog of WNYC, New York City’s public radio station.  It appears here with the permission of the author.  – rp

Bricks Without Straw
By Matthew Levey

A decade into the education reform movement in New York, we have doubled our school budget to $24 billion. We’ve focused on teacher quality, and how to measure it. We’ve created many new, often smaller, schools.  Unfortunately our students’ scores on the key tests like the SAT and NAEP haven’t budged.

Frustrated reformers have pinned their hopes on new Common Core State Standards (CCSS ) that make explicit what a college-ready student should be able to do in math, reading and writing. The CCSS say content matters, but the authors didn’t dictate which content to teach or how to deliver it.

Under CCSS, third graders “develop an understanding of fractions, beginning with unit fractions” but the CCSS do not say how. Eighth graders should be able to “produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience” but the CCSS don’t pick the topic.

How we implement the CCSS will determine whether we improve student outcomes or not.. What I have observed so far, as a parent of three children in public schools and the husband of a teacher, suggests our approach to implementing the CCSS is not off to a great start. In selecting content and teaching children how to respond thoughtfully to it, we seem to think whatever we were doing before was good enough to meet the new standards.  Our schools, and our teachers, need to invest meaningfully in training and curriculum redesign; on the front lines that doesn’t appear to be happening.

Where’s the Content?

Non-fiction matters more than ever before, according to the CCSS. So how does my tested-above-proficient 8th grader come to believe that the Confederacy was winning the Civil War prior to the Battle of Gettysburg?  Perhaps it starts with history textbook with too many empty graphics, organized around themes rather than time. Maybe it starts by asking them to write about the battle before they were assigned the right chapters in the book? If content is king children don’t seem to be getting enough.

When my 5th grader’s teacher told us about the social studies curriculum, she practically apologized that she had to teach about government for two months, “because the kids find it boring.” The good news, she said, was that she too was learning a lot about the topic as she prepared her lessons. When a parent asked whether the current election campaign would be incorporated into the unit, the teacher said, “Oh that’s a good idea, maybe we could have them make ads for a candidate.”

Structure Matters too

Getting the content right is just part of the challenge.  Our children also need much more explicit instruction in how to put that content in context.

My daughter’s first written assignment this year was to imagine herself as a delegate in 1787, and explain whether she would vote for the Constitution if the Bill or Rights wasn’t included. Since my daughter hadn’t learned anything about the small states vs. big states debate, or any of the other big ideas that roiled Philadelphia that summer, all she could express was her feelings.  Like a true New York City resident, she didn’t feel the 2nd amendment made a lot of sense, but it was hard to say why.

Asked to write about the inevitability (or not) of the Civil War, my son struggled.  He knew about slavery and industrialization, but years of the Teacher’s College writing model used in our local schools left him ill-prepared to organize his knowledge effectively. Judith Hochman, whose program is credited, in part, for helping save New Dorp High School correctly observes that  “much writing instruction prior to ninth grade … is based around journals, free writing, memoirs, poems and fiction.”

The result, Hochman notes, is that students don’t know “how to communicate effectively to an audience. Students are given little or no preparation for the types of expository writing required in high school, college, and the workplace.”

Following her advice I pushed my son to think about using words like “although,” “unless” and ‘if” to build more complex thoughts. After a few hours of work, he turned to me and asked, “Why don’t they teach this in my school?”

In Exodus, when the Israelites asked to leave Egypt, Pharaoh forced them to make the same quantity of bricks, but without straw.  This ancient story has become a metaphor for an absurdly hard task.

Parents rightly expect our schools will improve if we use higher standards. But to do so, district and school leaders must look closely at the content they’ve selected and how it is delivered. Repurposing our existing approach and declaring it ‘new and improved’ simply will not do. It’s like asking schools to make bricks without straw, and that’s a recipe for trouble.  Just ask the Pharaoh.

Matthew Levey is the father of three New York City public school students. He is the co-founder of Bright Track, an educational advisory service, and a former Community Education Council president.

Toy Canon

by Robert Pondiscio
October 10th, 2012

Just days after Mark Bauerlein’s assertion that Common Core State Standards makes high school English class safe once more for Dead White Males, along comes living white male Mike Petrilli with a proposed “Kindergarten Canon” — a collection of 100 “must-read picture books for preschoolers.”

Mike’s list  draws substantially on Core Knowledge’s list of recommended books for preschool and kindergarten, so there will be few quibbles from this blog.   Its principal strength is that every time I find myself thinking, “I bet he overlooked (A Chair for My Mother, Ferdinand, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel)….”  I find, nope, it’s in there.

A few selections feel like filler. One Morning in Maine is one too many Robert McCloskey books, after Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal.  No room for Rumpelstiltzkin but George and Martha make the list?  The Tale of King Midas is out but Knuffle Bunny, is in?   Teachers will surely mourn the omission of Miss Nelson is Missing!   Everyone is sure to have absent favorites:  My canon would have to include  Tar Beach; Come Along, Daisy; Go Away, Big Green Monster!  Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse and How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnightif only to get at least one book on the list with illustrations by Mark Teague, the best  children’s book illustrator currently drawing breath.

One big difference between a kindergarten canon and shelf of major works of literature to read in high school or college: there really IS time to read every single book on Mike’s Kindergarten Canon while a child is in preschool, and then some.  Repeatedly.  Lots of parents can still recite Goodnight Moon by heart, years after their kids are off to college.

That should keep the gnashing of teeth to a minimum.

 

 

 

 

Demographics Isn’t Destiny. Vocabulary is Destiny.

by Robert Pondiscio
October 8th, 2012

There’s a must-read piece in the New York Times by Ginia Bellafante about language, poverty and academic achievement.  The article is ostensibly about the controversy over admissions to New York City’s specialized high schools, including Stuyvesant High and Bronx Science.  But Bellafante wisely traces the problem back to its origins and the systemic advantage of growing up in a hyper-verbal upscale Manhattan home.

“It is difficult to overstate the advantages arrogated to a child whose parent proceeds in a near constant mode of annotation. Reflexively, the affluent, ambitious parent is always talking, pointing out, explaining: Mommy is looking for her laptop; let’s put on your rain boots; that’s a pigeon, a sand dune, skyscraper, a pomegranate. The child, in essence, exists in continuous receipt of dictation.”

Low-income homes?  Not so much.  Bellafante describes a conversation with the founder of the Ascend Learning Charter School network, which serves largely low-income black children in Brooklyn.  “I asked him what he considered the greatest challenge on the first day of kindergarten each year,” Bellafante writes.  “He answered, without a second’s hesitation: ‘Word deficit.’”  She cites the now-familiar (hopefully) Hart and Risley study that demonstrated profound deficits in the number of words heard by children growing up in poverty in the first years of life.  She also cites E.D. Hirsch’s observation that “there is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age six is the single highest correlate with later success” [my emphasis].

In short, demographics is not destiny.  But vocabulary just might be.

Note that Hirsch cited “general knowledge AND vocabulary.”  Before we convert early childhood education into extended vocabulary enhancement exercises with word lists to be memorized, it’s essential to understand how big vocabularies are created.  We don’t learn words through memorization, but by repeated exposure to unfamiliar words in context, and general knowledge is context. My Core Knowledge colleague Alice Wiggins uses the example of the unfamiliar word “excrescence.”   You probably don’t know what it means, so here it is in a sentence:

 “To calculate fuel efficiency, the aerospace engineers needed an accurate estimation of excrescence drag caused by the shape of plane’s cabin.”

Not helping?  Here’s another:

“Excrescences on the valves of the heart have been known to cause a stroke.”

After two exposures, you might have a vague understanding of the word.  Another sentence enables you to check your understanding, or refine your definition.

 “The wart, a small excrescence on his skin, had made Jeremy self-conscious for years.”

By now, you probably have a pretty solid understanding of what an excrescence is.  One more sentence should verify it.

 “At the far end of the meadow was what, at first glance, I thought a huge domed building, and then saw was an excrescence from the cliff itself.

I never gave you the definition, or asked you to look it up.  But you figured the word excrescence means an abnormal projection or outgrowth.

This is an accelerated example of how we acquire new words:  by intuitively guessing new meanings as we understand the overall gist of what we are hearing or reading.  But critically, think of all the words and knowledge you already had that enabled you to learn the new word.  You know about engineers and strokes and warts.  You didn’t have to stop and wonder what “fuel efficiency” and “aerospace” and “self-conscious” mean.  You’re already rich in knowledge and vocabulary and you just got a little richer.  A child without that background knowledge hearing the same sentences would not learn the knew word and would fall a little further behind his more verbal peers.  Thank or blame the insidious “Matthew Effect.”  Bellafante’s excellent piece makes the same point implicitly with its description of the three-year-old child who understands what an upholsterer does and that the piece of furniture in his apartment is called an “ottoman.”

“All of this would seem to argue for a system in which we spent ever more of our energies and money on early, preschool education rather than less,” concludes Bellafante.

Yes, but let’s be VERY clear:  What is needed to close the verbal gap is not just preschool.  Not even “high quality” preschool.  What is needed is high-quality preschool that drenches low-income learners in the language-rich, knowledge-rich environment that their more fortunate peers live in every hour of every day from the moment they come home from the delivery room.

 

“OK Dead White Guys, You Can Come Out Now”

by Robert Pondiscio
October 5th, 2012

With the advent of Common Core State Standards, English class may be safe once more for Dead White Males.  In an op-ed in the New York Daily News, Mark Bauerlein points out CCSS’s requirement that students should be able to “demonstrate knowledge of 18th-, 19th- and early-20th-century foundational works of American literature.”

“A praiseworthy aim,” writes Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University and author of The Dumbest Generation. “It goes right along with reading the Declaration of Independence, studying the civil rights movement and, ultimately, becoming an informed citizen.”  But to the gatekeepers of high school English, he notes America’s literary tradition “is not a treasure. It’s a threat.”

“The rich but flawed history of our literature, which stretches back not just to the Puritans, but to ‘Beowulf,’ has been chipped away by identity anxieties. We’re told that female, black and brown students must encounter inspiring female, black and brown characters and authors — or else they won’t realize that they can become successful adults.”

“This is the role-model premise, and it applies a quota system whereby the representation of authors must mirror the population in race and gender,” writes Bauerlein.  “With the advent of Common Core standards, we finally have the chance to break their hold,” he concludes.

“English teachers now have a solid defense against identity quotas in the classroom. The states that have adopted Common Core, including New York, have to observe the standards, and so the high school English classroom will thus preserve Hawthorne, Irving, Melville, Whitman and other authors who don’t match the PC mentality.

The “demonstrate knowledge” requirement in CCSS is an interesting turn of phrase and one I hadn’t thought much about until reading Mark’s piece.  While I expect debates about the canon will always be with us, it seems reasonable to suggest that an educated high school graduate can and should be made familiar with a wide array of classics while still reading “Beloved” in English class. As with so many mad pendulum swings in education, it needn’t be an either or proposition.

One can look at literature in two ways.  Given the depth and breadth of our literary traditions, few of us will live long enough to do more than scratch the surface.  But there is still great value in familiarity with works that are cultural touchstones, and to which allusions are common in our language and discourse.  For example, I will reluctantly confess that I have never read Moby Dick, but I’m familiar with the plot of the novel and I get the references associated with it, and you probably do too:  Captain Ahab.  The white whale. “Call me Ishmael.”  That nautical logo on the cup of coffee you ordered from Starbucks this morning?  Not a coincidence.

Did I just “demonstrate knowledge of 18th-, 19th- and early-20th-century foundational works of American literature?”  Am I at, above, or approaching the standard?  Surely, there’s clearly value in both depth and breadth.  Indeed, one of the best pieces I’ve read on the value of cultural literacy was written by Bauerlein himself.

I’d be delighted if CCSS didn’t start yet another war over the canon.  But I’m naive like that sometimes.

It’s Not You, It’s Me. I Think You’re an Idiot.

by Robert Pondiscio
October 2nd, 2012

Anyone who has grown overtired of dead-end education debates needs to read Dan Willingham’s latest blog post, which points out that when debate devolves into mere taunting and questioning the motives of your intellectual opponents, the audience you’re most trying to reach–the unpersuaded and undecided–tune out. “In education policy, some of us have gone too far,” Dan writes.  “People who disagree with us are depicted as not merely wrong, but evil.”

“People who advocate reforms such as merit pay, the use of value added models of teacher evaluation, charter schools, and vouchers are not merely labeled misguided because these reforms won’t work. They are depicted as bad people who are unsympathetic to the difficulty of teaching and who are in the pockets of the rich.

“Likewise, those who see value in teacher’s unions, who are leery of current methods of teacher evaluation, who think that vouchers threaten the neighborhood character of schools are not merely wrong: they are accused of looking out for the welfare of lousy teachers.

“And of course both sides are accused of ‘not caring about kids.’”

Willingham, as is his wont, cites studies bolstering what you might intuit by watching—or heavens forfend, participating in–these dispiriting wars of words:  partisans tend to believe they know what people in the other side of an issue are thinking and how they would behave.  The bottom line: “We think that people who agree with us are moral, and people who disagree with us, less so. Further, we think that we know how other people will interpret complicated situations–they will driven more by ideology than by facts,” Dan writes.

He concludes with a call for “fewer blog postings that, implicitly or explicitly,  denigrate the other person’s motives, or that offer a knowing nod with the claim ‘we all know what those people think.’” That call is all but certain to be more honored in the breach than the observance.

We can’t help ourselves.  And besides the other guys really ARE  evil.  Me? I just want what’s best for kids.