When Barbie Drops Algebra

by Robert Pondiscio
July 30th, 2012

Andrew Hacker’s provocative weekend op-ed in the New York Times (“Is Algebra Necessary?”) wondered why schools insist on subjecting students to the “ordeal” of algebra.  “There are many defenses of algebra and the virtue of learning it,” Hacker wrote.  “But the more I examine them, the clearer it seems that they are largely or wholly wrong.”  Making algebra mandatory, along with other more advanced math subjects leads to failure and dropping out, which “prevents us from discovering and developing young talent,” he argues.

“The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.  Shirley Bagwell, a longtime Tennessee teacher, warns that ‘to expect all students to master algebra will cause more students to drop out.’”

Well, sure.  But expecting competence in any reasonably advanced subject–biology, physics, or English composition–will likely have the same effect.  What Hacker is arguing might well be termed Barbie Syndrome: years ago, a talking Barbie doll uttered the infamous phrase, “Math class is tough!”  Mattel pulled the doll off shelves, but Barbie might have received a sympathetic pat on the back from Hacker, who proposes a different math curriculum that mirrors the quantitative reasoning most of us will need on the job:

“Instead of investing so much of our academic energy in a subject that blocks further attainment for much of our population, I propose that we start thinking about alternatives. Thus mathematics teachers at every level could create exciting courses in what I call ‘citizen statistics.’ This would not be a backdoor version of algebra, as in the Advanced Placement syllabus. Nor would it focus on equations used by scholars when they write for one another. Instead, it would familiarize students with the kinds of numbers that describe and delineate our personal and public lives.  It could, for example, teach students how the Consumer Price Index is computed, what is included and how each item in the index is weighted — and include discussion about which items should be included and what weights they should be given.”

“There’s a strong argument to be made that math is taught poorly in many schools, with little attention paid to how most people are likely to use numbers in the real world,” Dana Goldstein points out.  But Goldstein correctly perceives that any argument about who should learn what is ultimately about tracking.  “A great teacher can often spark interest in a subject a student thought she would never enjoy. One reason to have more rigorous academic standards is to leave open the possibility of that magic happening more often for more young people, and to make sure unfair streotypes about who is ‘academic’ don’t prevent kids from discovering unexpected passions,” she writes.

Dan Willingham points out that Hacker is simply wrong in several assumptions. “The inability to cope with math is not the main reason that students drop out of high school, he writes.  “Yes, a low grade in math predicts dropping out, but no more so than a low grade in English. Furthermore, behavioral factors like motivation, self-regulation, social control as well as a feeling of connectedness and engagement at school are as important as GPA to dropout [rates]” he notes.  Willingham also dismisses Hacker’s argument that too much of what students learn in math class doesn’t apply in the real world.

“The difficulty students have in applying math to everyday problems they encounter is not particular to math. Transfer is hard. New learning tends to cling to the examples used to explain the concept. That’s as true of literary forms, scientific method, and techniques of historical analysis as it is of mathematical formulas.  The problem is that if you try to meet this challenge by teaching the specific skills that people need, you had better be confident that you’re going to cover all those skills. Because if you teach students the significance of the Consumer Price Index they are not going to know how to teach themselves the significance of projected inflation rates on their investment in CDs. Their practical knowledge will be specific to what you teach them, and won’t transfer.”

Willingham says Hacker’s op-ed also “overlooks the need for practice, even for the everyday math he wants students to know.”

“There are not many people who are satisfied with the mathematical competence of the average US student. We need to do better. Promising ideas include devoting more time to mathematics in early grades, more exposure to premathematical concepts in preschool, and perhaps specialized math instructors beginning in earlier grades.”

Hacker’s suggestions “sound like surrender,” Willingham concludes, and I agree.  It’s hard not to detect a whiff of defeatism–a shrug, a wave, and the weary suggestion that, “Hey, not everyone can be good in math.  It’s OK” in Hacker’s putatively sensible piece.  But let’s try a more vigorous focus on math–with computational mastery and conceptual understanding given co-equal status–before we throw up our hands and suggest that Barbie drop algebra and switch to “citizen statistics” in 8th grade.

Update: “I think it is dumbing down math — so far down that it will close the door on many careers,” writes Joanne Jacobs.  “But it’s better to teach some math than stick unprepared, unmotivated students in dumbed-down classes labeled ‘algebra’ and ‘geometry.’”

Update x+2: Sherman Dorn weighs in.

“I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar”

by Robert Pondiscio
July 27th, 2012

If you use poor grammar, don’t look for a job at online repair community iFixit. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, CEO and founder Kyle Wiens describes his no apologies approach to hiring. “If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me,” he writes. “If you scatter commas into a sentence with all the discrimination of a shotgun, you might make it to the foyer before we politely escort you from the building.”

Everyone who applies for a job at Wiens’ companies takes a mandatory grammar test.  “If job hopefuls can’t distinguish between ‘to’ and ‘too,’ their applications go into the bin,” he writes.  Too harsh?  Too bad.  Grammar, he notes, is relevant for all companies.

“Yes, language is constantly changing, but that doesn’t make grammar unimportant. Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re.

But grammar has nothing to do with job performance, or creativity, or intelligence, right?  Wiens is having none of it. “If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use “it’s,” then that’s not a learning curve I’m comfortable with.” he writes.

“Grammar signifies more than just a person’s ability to remember high school English. I’ve found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing — like stocking shelves or labeling parts.”

It’s a nice reminder that the real world has its own stubborn metrics for judging how well we prepare our students and how they will be perceived.  Mark Bauerlein made a similar point not long ago about the real world value of cultural literacy.  “It counts a lot more in professional spheres than academics and educators realize,” he wrote.

Wiens’ piece has struck a nerve.  (Wait.  Should that be “Wiens’ piece?”  Or “Wiens’s piece?” I’m suddenly self-conscious)  An astonishing 1800 reader comments have been posted since it went up a week ago.  Many have taken delight in spotting errors made by Wiens himself. “Could I politely point out that ‘to properly use it’s’ is a split infinitive and incorrect?” chides one.  “Why is your company called ‘iFixit’ and not ‘I fix it’ then?” says another.  No small number take issue with Wiens dismissing creativity, leadership, and people skills in favor of mere pedantry.

Maybe so.  But he’s the boss.

The Unlikely Triumph of E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

by Robert Pondiscio
July 16th, 2012

At last week’s forum of the Education Commission of the States in Atlanta, Core Knowledge Founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr. was honored with the organization’s James Bryant Conant Award.  Given annually since 1977, the prestigious honor is bestowed upon “individuals who have made outstanding contributions to American education.”

E.D Hirsch, Jr. at last week's ECS Forum in Atlanta

For Hirsch, it has been quite a ride to arrive at this moment.   His ideas about education reform and reading burst into the collective consciousness with the 1987 publication of Cultural Literacy, a surprise publishing phenomenon which spent over six months on the New York Times best-seller list.  However, the book had the misfortune of coming out at the height of the ‘80s culture war battles and became, as Dan Willingham observed, “possibly the most misunderstood education book of the last fifty years.” Hirsch’s critics—and they were many and loud—largely ignored what he was saying about the fundamental role of shared knowledge in reading comprehension and literacy instruction. Instead they were aghast at what they mistakenly perceived as, in Hirsch’s words, “a reactionary tract about culture which supported a lily-white canon rather than being what it actually was–an explanation of the dependency of language mastery on broad general knowledge.”

In a 2007 interview, Hirsch expressed relief  about the emerging awareness that “all the time, the Core Knowledge project has been what it said it was – a progressive effort to improve schools and empower low-income and minority students.”  He elaborated in his acceptance remarks last week.

“Only gradually, after my book came out, has the research evidence greatly accumulated and made overwhelmingly clear that the essence of language proficiency is not mastery of skills and strategies but rather of broad academic knowledge. Now, 25 years after the book came out, no knowledgeable cognitive scientist disputes that insight. But it was understandable when the book first appeared that many would have viewed it as an ideological tract rather than a scientific fact.”

“Until very recently it would have been unthinkable to select me or anyone with views like mine to receive the Conant Award,” Hirsch concluded.  The turnaround, he noted, “can be interpreted as marking a change in our collective thinking about elementary education, away from how-to strategies and towards the much more interesting task of imparting knowledge.”

The complete text of Hirsch’s acceptance remarks can be found here. A video of those remarks can be found here.

Remarks on Receiving the Conant Award, July 10, 2012

E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

On behalf of my colleagues at the Core Knowledge Foundation, and the University of Virginia, I want to thank ECS for adding my name to a list that includes some of the most admirable people in American education. When I first heard of this honor, I identified with Dr. Johnson and his wife. There was a fable that the wife of the great dictionary maker found him in bed with another woman. “Dr. Johnson,” she said, “I’m surprised.” “No, Madam,” he said “I am surprised. You are astonished.” When I heard of this award, I was both!

The remarkable list of predecessors includes Ralph Tyler, who started NAEP among many other things, and Thurgood Marshall who won the verdict in Brown v Board of Education among many other things. As I ponder the other distinguished names, I see a few patterns in the themes that have mattered most to ECS and to the country – the goals and policies that have dominated our educational efforts since 1977 when the Conant Awards began.

I have lived through those decades and more – beginning as a first grader in 1934 at our neighborhood public school, the Lennox School in Memphis, Tennessee. There I learned that it didn’t matter who my parents were, or where their parents came from. My teachers explained that we were all free Americans, where one person is just as good as another. I quickly and permanently bought into idea.

The public school teachers of those days committed themselves very powerfully the Americanizing mission of the schools. And that aim was also reflected in our schoolbooks. This Americanizing mission could be called nationalism, but it was different in a fundamental way from the nationalism being taught in other lands which had not been created from the egg on the authority of written documents devoted to universal principles. Those other countries, including France, existed before the Enlightenment. They were not conceived in liberty and dedicated to abstract propositions. Their students were being taught a more tribalistic form of nationalism, founded on language, place and parentage, history, blood and soil – going back to the root sense of nationnatio – meaning birth.

Here in the New World, we were told, it wasn’t your birth that determined who you were, but your ability and diligence, and you pledged your allegiance to a multi-national community based on freedom and equality. The schools instilled in us an un-tribal patriotism, and a sense of equal worth that empowered some of us, including me, to rebel against our own parents, just as our predecessors rebelled against George the Third.

But this is not the occasion for narrating my history starting in first grade. More pertinent to the occasion is our common educational history since the Conant Awards began. Their most consistent and noble theme has been equality of educational opportunity.

That was the title of the Coleman Report of 1966, which showed authoritatively that during the 1960s families had more impact on academic achievement than schools did. Yet the Conant awards show that we as a nation have remained dedicated to changing that result. Several Conant awardees besides Thurgood Marshall have devoted their lives to equal educational opportunity – including, Carl Perkins whose name appears on the national Perkins Act of 1984 which aimed to improve the access for those who had been underserved in the past. It includes James Comer and Robert Slavin who have devoted their professional lives to equal educational opportunity, and it includes the redoubtable Kati Haycock who received the Conant Award three years ago. Despite our disappointingly slow progress, the goal of equal educational opportunity is never far from our minds. And I hope that you will think of the Core Knowledge effort by my colleagues and me as belonging to that common goal of equalizing educational opportunity.

As I discuss in my recent book, The Making of Americans, equal opportunity was a primary mission of our schools from the start –as they were conceived by Jefferson and Noah Webster. That was one of the two main aims. The first was to give each person an equal chance, and the second was to unite the huge spread-out country into a national community in which loyalty to that larger community would trump regional, local, and private interests. George Washington even left money for the schools in his will for the express purpose of “spreading systematic ideas through all parts of this rising Empire, thereby to do away local attachments and State prejudices.”

You will hear tomorrow from Justice Sandra Day O’Connor about the civic mission of the schools. I want to devote my few remarks to the place of language mastery in achieving equal opportunity, greater civic participation and greater economic effectiveness. In the triad of reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, we are pretty clear about what’s needed in arithmetic, but only recently has cognitive science corrected some widespread misconceptions about reading and writing, listening and speaking.

Those misconceptions have held us back. Overcoming those misconceptions is key to achieving language mastery for all. And language mastery is the key not only to citizenship, as Jefferson said, but to all of those information-age skills that have been termed 21st-century skills – critical thinking, the ability to work in teams, the ability to look things up, the ability to communicate well, and the ability to learn new skills readily. All of these skills depend on the possession of a large vocabulary.

I need hardly remind this group of that fact that our students’ verbal scores declined in the late 70s and have stayed flat ever since. According to the Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which correlates verbal test scores with income level and job competence — vocabulary size and reading comprehension are critical to raising student abilities and overcoming the achievement gap. No single general test of academic achievement is more highly correlated with income and civic competence than a verbal test such as the NAEP 12th-grade reading test.

Behind this correlation of verbal scores with life chances lies the deep truth that reading skill implies more than reading, and language implies more than language. A large vocabulary is, on average, the best single predictor of job competence and life chances. And a large vocabulary can only be gained by acquiring broad general knowledge, not by studying words. Nor can a large vocabulary be gained by practicing reading strategies and thinking skills – those dominant topics in our elementary schools. Such how-to ideas are enormously attractive, but they have not worked, and cognitive science tells us that they cannot work. Broad substantive knowledge, not formal technique, is the key to achievement and equity.

In 1987, many thought that my book-length foray into education reform called Cultural Literacy was a book about the culture wars. That’s why the cognitive scientist, Daniel Willingham, called it the most misunderstood education book in the past 50 years. What he had in mind was the mistaken assumption that the book was a reactionary tract about culture which supported a lily-white canon rather than being what it actually was – an explanation of the dependency of language mastery on broad general knowledge. That misunderstanding arose not just because the word “cultural” was in the book’s title, and not just because the culture wars were in high gear when it came out, but also because the nature of reading was and still is deeply misunderstood by the general public and many educators.

It was an accident that my combination of research interests brought me into contact in the 1970s with frontier studies the newly developing field of psycholinguistics. Only gradually, after my book came out, has the research evidence greatly accumulated and made overwhelmingly clear that the essence of language proficiency is NOT mastery of skills and strategies but rather of broad academic knowledge. Now, 25 years after the book came out, no knowledgeable cognitive scientist disputes that insight. But it was understandable when the book first appeared that many would have viewed it as an ideological tract rather than a scientific fact.

Unfortunately the scientific consensus has not fully made its way into the thinking of teachers and principals. Reading is still thought of as a skill which, once learned, enables you to understand language addressed to the general public – whether in print or over radio, TV or the internet. But reading ability is really two distinct abilities – decoding and comprehending. The single word “reading” has merged decoding and comprehension, causing us to assume that if students learn to decode well they can develop into good readers just by reading widely. But this is false.

Language proficiency is not just mastery of decoding but also a mastery of the broad knowledge that is taken for granted in speech and writing. Here’s a quick example taken from a British newspaper – The Guardian. As I read it to you, imagine that you are a disadvantaged student encountering a reading test like the NAEP.

A trio of medium-pacers–two of them, Irfan Pathan, made man of the match for his five wickets. But this duo perished either side of lunch–the latter a little unfortunate to be adjudged leg-before–and with Andrew Symonds, too, being shown the dreaded finger off an inside edge, the inevitable beckoned, bar the pyrotechnics of Michael Clarke and the ninth wicket. Clarke clinically cut and drove to 10 fours in a 134-ball 81, before he stepped out to Kumble to present an easy stumping to Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

That passage reminds me of a comment made after a public lecture by Einstein: “I knew all the words. It was just how they were put together that baffled me.” My colleagues at Core Knowledge have shown that this is precisely the kind of bafflement felt by disadvantaged children who encounter a passage on a reading test when they are unfamiliar with the background knowledge relevant to the passage.

If we consider the importance of unspoken, taken-for-granted knowledge in understanding language, and if we also consider the demonstrated importance of language comprehension for 21st-century skills, we are led to the firm conclusion that early schooling ought to be more focused on the systematic imparting of knowledge, and less on strategies and test-taking techniques.

I want to close with a final thought about the historical context of today’s Conant award. As Bob Dylan said: “The times they are a changin’.” Until very recently it would have been unthinkable to select me or anyone with views like mine to receive the Conant Award. I’ve had little to say in my work about such current reforms as charter schools, or teacher quality, or accountability systems, or school-management policies. My persistent theme has been that only a knowledge-based approach to early schooling, starting in preschool and pursued systematically over several years can overcome the language gap caused by family disadvantage. The findings of the Coleman Report can be reversed, but only if we abandon the how-to approach that we have followed for many decades.

Today’s award suggests that we are beginning to understand that the key to lifting achievement and narrowing the gap is a systematic approach to imparting knowledge, starting in preschool; that not only our curricula but also our tests need to be based on the knowledge domains of a coherent curriculum.

Thanks to a recent report in the New York Times, more people are now aware of the results of trials with the Core Knowledge early literacy program which have been stunning. And now with the Common Core standards, there’s a new emphasis on introducing broad general knowledge within the early literacy block.

Despite the criticisms that have been launched against the new Common Core standards, the principles behind them are sound – especially in their call for more units on science and history within the class hours devoted to language arts. For if general knowledge is the key to language proficiency, then early language-arts needs to help impart general knowledge coherently and systematically.

Some have rightly warned that merely following the letter and not the spirit of the new Common Core standards will leave us just where we already are. For if we teach helter-skelter bits of non-fiction (on the how-to theory of reading) rather than coherently developing student knowledge, we will not really have changed our practices or our results.

Perhaps your selecting me for this year’s Conant Award can be interpreted as marking a change in our collective thinking about elementary education, away from how-to strategies and towards the much more interesting task of imparting knowledge. If that turns out to be true, you will have given me much more than this great honor. You will have renewed my optimism about the future of our schools and country. So I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Suri Cruise to Attend School With Common Core Standards!

by Robert Pondiscio
July 5th, 2012

Surprising poll result:  Two-thirds of teachers have a “very favorable” or “somewhat favorable” view of Common Core State Standards.

Unsurprising poll result:  60% of Americans say they have seen, read, or heard “nothing at all” about the new standards in the past six months.

Maybe the headline will help.

(H/T: Curriculum Matters)

A Singular Honor for E.D. Hirsch

by Robert Pondiscio
June 27th, 2012

It’s a proud day for Core Knowledge.

From the Education Commission of the States today comes word that Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr., will be the recipient of its James Bryant Conant Award in honor of his “decades of work in developing and spreading the idea that students become proficient readers and learners only when they also have wide-ranging background knowledge.”

Hirsch joins a distinguished list of education luminaries to have received the Conant Award, including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Sesame Street creator Joan Ganz Cooney, the Children’s Defense Fund’s  Marian Wright Edelman, Senator Claiborne Pell, Fred Rogers, and Ted Sizer.

“For decades, Dr. Hirsch has been a thoughtful contributor to understanding how kids learn and helping our educational system better meet their needs. He is truly deserving of the Conant Award,” said ECS President Roger Sampson in a statement announcing the accolade.

Hirsch burst into the public eye with his surprising 1987 best-seller Cultural Literacy.  With his subsequent books The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, The Knowledge Deficit, and The Making of Americans, he solidified his reputation as one of the most influential education reformers of our time.

What fewer people know about Hirsch is that long before Core Knowledge, he was an influential literary critic and English professor who made a sudden and unexpected turn into K-12 education reform.  A 2008 piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mark Bauerlein described Hirsch’s growing awareness that  “literary theory and literary study were drifting ever farther from the pressing intellectual needs” of college students, and Hirsch’s unanticipated response.

“There was no apparent reason for Hirsch to do anything else except stay on track, continue the theory debate, publish in Critical Inquiry, field job offers and lecture invitations, and train the next generation of literary critics and theorists. But he changed focus and slid down the education ladder….He turned to primary education, dedicating his life, and lots of income, to improving the system.”

Hirsch has often told the story of being “shocked into education reform” while doing research on written composition. Conducting research at a pair of colleges in Virginia, he discovered that while the relative readability of a text was an important factor in determining a student’s ability to comprehend a passage, an even more important factor was the student’s background knowledge.

“African-American students at a Richmond community college could read just as well as University of Virginia students when the topic was roommates or car traffic, but they could not read passages about Lee’s surrender to Grant,” Hirsch recalled. “They had not been taught the various things that they needed to know to understand ordinary texts addressed to a general audience. The results were shocking. What had the schools been doing? I decided to devote myself to helping right the wrong that is being done to such students,” he said.

Thus was born Hirsch’s concept of cultural literacy—the idea that reading comprehension requires not just formal decoding skills but also wide-ranging background knowledge. He founded the Core Knowledge Foundation in 1986, and a year later brought out Cultural Literacy, which remained at the top of the New York Times best-seller list for more than six months.

Hirsch will receive the Conant Award at the ECS National Forum on Education Policy in Atlanta on July 10.  ECS’s announcement can be found here.

An extraordinary and richly deserved honor.

Is Teaching an Art or a Science?

by Robert Pondiscio
May 30th, 2012

That’s the question Dan Willingham poses in a new video.  As you likely know, Willingham is a University of Virginia cognitive scientist whose work focuses almost exclusively teaching and learning.  The video is worth watching, but – spoiler alert! – his conclusion is that teaching is neither art nor science, but “somewhere in between.”  He draws a parallel to being an architect, who understands enough about physics and materials science to design a building that won’t fall down.  But like an architect, a teacher “then also uses creativity and ingenuity to go beyond any strictures that science can offer, to create something wholly original, functional, and enduring.”

What is most interesting, and should spark the most informed and intense viewing of the video, is Willingham’s take on how science should inform teaching.

“I think what we know about how kids learn, and develop, interact and so on, can suggest boundary conditions. I mean by that things that, if you ignore them, will likely lead to trouble. For example, if you think that someone will acquire a skill without practice, that’s probably not going to work.  Providing practice for skills is a boundary condition. Another example, most kids benefit a lot from explicit instruction in letter-sound correspondences when they are learning to read, so providing that instruction is another boundary condition. Notice this doesn’t tell you how to implement practice, or how to implement teaching letter-sound correspondences—it just says that those things have to happen. I call these ‘must have’ principles.”

But in addition to the “must haves” there are a series of “could dos.”  In Willingham’s architecture analogy, there are ways to put a window in the middle of a brick wall that protect the integrity of the wall so it’s structurally sound.  But there is no rule saying you must have a window in a particular location, or have one at all.  This allows for a broad range of teaching approaches and activities, all of which could be good, useful or even elegant.  Just like architecture.

“The ‘must haves’ and the ‘could dos’ do not tell you what the house is going to look like.  The ‘must haves’ are boundary conditions, within which there is a HUGE amount of room for variation, and the ‘could dos’ are tools that you can use to help you get there, but you don’t have to use them if you don’t want to, as long as you respect the ‘must haves.’

Willingham is offering up his usual dose of fact-based common sense, but I’m tempted to suggest there might be little agreement on “boundary conditions” for teachers.   The preponderance of evidence may indeed come down on the side of phonics, as he suggests, but that hasn’t entirely settled the issue.  Whole language still has its adherents and repackagers.  Discredited ideas like learning styles remain hardy perennials.   The larger problem, to put it bluntly, is that education  pays insufficient evidence to science.

Boundary conditions in architecture or civil engineering are inherently self-policing.  Violate them and things fall down.  I’m having a difficult time thinking of a set of universally agreed upon “boundary conditions” for teaching.  But this creates an enormous opportunity for the cognitive scientists like Willingham to frame the discussion and offer evidence-based guidance on those “must haves.”  And an enormous obligation on the part of ed schools and programs that train teachers to pay attention.

It will take a whole lot of science to move the field past its self-image as an art, its neglect of science–and the tyranny of its philosophers.

Hot! Popular! Swears Like a Longshoreman!

by Robert Pondiscio
May 23rd, 2012

If you’ve read more than a handful of young adult (YA) novels, you’re probably well past the point of being dismayed by the thematic darkness and swear words.  A new study by Brigham Young University professor Sarah Coyne finds that on average, teen novels contain 38 instances of profanity between the covers or almost seven instances of profanity per hour spent reading.

But the number of curse words is less interesting than who’s got the potty mouth.  The characters who swear the most tend to be rich, attractive and popular, Coyne found  “From a social learning standpoint, this is really important because adolescents are more likely to imitate media characters portrayed in positive, desirable ways,” Coyne tells Science DailyScholastic blogger Morgan Baden puts it simply:  “all the cool kids are doing it.”

This is not the first time the content of YA fiction has come under the microscope.  Recall the Wall Street Journal a year ago published a piece which eviscerated the genre, noting that “kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.”  The medical journal Pediatrics published another bit of research by Coyne six months ago that found a link between profanity in media and teen aggression, Science Daily notes.

Scholastic’s Baden defends the blue language in YA books “where the characters are so vivid, and so well-written, that I couldn’t imagine them speaking any other way than the way the author chose them to speak.”  The readers of YA novels, she points out are “in the process of forming their identities, and sometimes that includes testing out ways of speaking and exploring just how much impact their voices can have.”

“F— it,” says the website Jezebel, which its signature insouciance.  “Let’s just be happy that kids are reading at all and not get our panties all twisted up about the fact that the books they’re choosing to consume accurately reflect how their friends actually talk.”

Easy to say, but woe unto the teacher who fields the angry call from a parent that starts, “My daughter says she chose this book from YOUR classroom library…”   Realistic fiction? Literary quality? Yeah, good luck with that.

Should there be warning labels on YA novels?  Shrink wrap them and put them on the highest shelf? “Unlike almost every other type of media, there are no content warnings or any indication if there is extremely high levels of profanity in adolescent novels,” Coyne says. “Parents should talk with their children about the books they are reading.”

Coyne’s study appears in the journal Mass Communication and Society.

Second Thoughts on Pineapplegate

by Robert Pondiscio
May 4th, 2012

Writing in his TIME Magazine column, Andy “Eduwonk” Rotherham offers up a largely exculpatory take on Pineapplegate.  The media jumped all over a bowdlerized version of the test passage, he notes.  New York state officials should have been clearer in explaining that nothing makes its way onto standardized tests by accident.  And in the end, Andy writes, what is needed is “a more substantive conversation rather than a firestorm” over testing.

Very well, let’s have one.

In the unlikely event you haven’t heard, a minor media frenzy was ignited a few weeks back when the New York Daily News got hold of a surreal fable, loosely modeled on the familiar tale of the Tortoise and the Hare, which appeared on the just-administered New York State 8th grade reading test.  In the test passage, a talking pineapple challenges a hare to a foot race in front of a group of woodland creatures, loses the race (the pineapple’s lack of legs proving to be a fatal competitive disadvantage)  and gets eaten by the other animals.

Rotherham points out that the passage picked up by the paper was not the actual test passage, but a second-hand version plucked from an anti-testing website. “The passage the paper ran was so poorly written that it would indeed have been inexcusable,” he wrote.  Perhaps, but the correct passage wasn’t exactly a model of clarity and coherence either.  Indeed, the fable’s author mocked the decision by the testing company, Pearson, to create multiple choice questions about his story on a state test.  “As far as I am able to ascertain from my own work, there isn’t necessarily a specifically assigned meaning in anything,” Daniel Pinkwater told the Wall Street Journal. “That really is why it’s hilarious on the face of it that anybody creating a test would use a passage of mine, because I’m an advocate of nonsense. I believe that things mean things but they don’t have assigned meanings.”

Ultimately the real version of the test passage was released by the state to quiet the controversy.  But it did little to reverse the impression that this was a questionable measure of students’ ability.  Rotherham’s big “get” in Time is a memo from Pearson to New York State officials detailing the question’s review process as well as its use on other states’ tests as far back as 2004.  The message:  nothing to see here, folks.  Show’s over.  Go on back to your schools, sharpen those No. 2 pencils and get ready for more tests.

“Standardized tests are neither as bad as their critics make them out to be nor as good as they should be,” Rotherham concludes.  Perhaps, but they’re bad enough.  The principal problem, which Pineapplegate underscores vividly, is that we continue to insist on drawing conclusions about students’ reading ability based on a random, incoherent collection of largely meaningless passages concocted by test-makers utterly disconnected from what kids actually learn in school all day.  This actively incentivizes a form of educational malpractice, since reading tests reinforce the mistaken notion that reading comprehension is a transferable skill and that the subject matter is disconnected from comprehension.   But we know this is not the case as E.D. Hirsch and Dan Willingham have pointed out time and again, and as we have discussed on this blog repeatedly.

So this is not a simple case of an uproar based on bad information and sloppy damage control.  What Rotherham misses in a somewhat strident defense of standardized tests and testing is that we are suffering generally from a case of test fatigue. The entire edifice of reform rests on testing, and while the principle of accountability remains sound, the effects of testing on schools has proven to be deleterious, to be charitable. Thus the conditions were ripe for people to overreact to perceived absurdity in the tests. And that’s exactly what happened here.

Was the story was blown out of proportion by some people playing fast and loose with the facts?  Perhaps.  But the facts, once they became clear, were more than bad enough.

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?

“Opinion Is to Knowledge as Dessert Is to Vegetables”

by Robert Pondiscio
March 16th, 2012

As a society, writes Liel Leibovitz, we have “rejected the thick weave of common culture for the gossamer of individual opinions” both as readers and writers.  His essay in the online magazine Tablet offers a noisy defense of a common literary canon.  Unless we commit to being serious readers, Leibovitz argues, we might as well just stop reading at all.

“If you consider reading simply a pastime, stop reading. Watch movies: They are less demanding on your schedule, tend to have considerably more nudity, and are generally easier to bring up in conversation. Let the faculties of your mind previously dedicated to parsing text commit themselves instead to better, more needful uses, like mastering Angry Birds. Let reading go gently into the good night and take its place alongside archery and woodcarving in the pantheon of pastimes past, previously popular and currently the domain of the few and the carefully trained.

“But if you’re serious about reading—or, for that matter, about your education—see to it attentively. Revisit Homer and read your way through human history. Don’t stop until you hit Kafka. Or, better yet, don’t stop until you see the entire vista of our culture spread before you and feel yourself every bit a part of it.”

The devaluation of knowledge in schools and lack of a common canon has created a culture of “poor readers, middling writers, and unfortunate human beings,” argues Leibovitz, whose most recent book is The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ideals of Divine Election, co-written with Todd Gitlin.  He is particularly scornful of the current vogue for memoirs. If you’re Winston Churchill and you won World War II and the Nobel Prize for Literature, then by all means write your memoirs. “Heck, make that two,” Leibovitz quips. “But if one’s designs on posterity involve writing an inane and intermittently amusing account of traveling somewhere banal and meeting some, like, really crazy people, one ought to take a cue from Sir Winston and first live a life truly worth writing about.”

Leibovitz acknowledges that his own opinions “might send many readers into fits of modern indignation.” Why not read for pleasure and share your points of view with a waiting world?  “The blunt answer is that points of view do not matter in the least,” he concludes.  “Points of view are to knowledge what dessert is to vegetables: You earn one only by first consuming the other.”

Follow me on Twitter: @rpondiscio