Archive for the 'Ed Policy' Category

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Nature vs. Nurture

Friday, November 8th, 2013

The term “nature vs. nurture” is a poetic turn of phrase that refers to an ongoing reexamination of the roles that heredity and environment play in determining who we are as individuals. The expression was popularized in the 19th century by Francis Galton, though the debate and the phrase had been around much longer than his day. In fact, Shakespeare himself juxtaposed the two words in The Tempest, as Prospero describes Caliban thusly:

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick;

Shakespeare was not the first to contrast these two words, but Galton is known to have been a Shakespeare fan, and it seems reasonable to imagine this was his source.

Shakespeare’s plays are filled with models of the intricate workings of human nature, depictions of how individuals are influenced by external factors, and the complicated interplay between the two. As we will soon see, Shakespeare was also an early voice in this conversation, and an often-quoted source by later thinkers as well. Therefore, our Shakespeare Follow-Up will focus on the development of the nature vs. nurture debate from Shakespeare’s time to ours today.

But please note that this is a very large topic, and I’m going to sweep through it rather quickly, so feel free to do your own follow up on any topic here that interests you.

Political philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau are often grouped together as “social contract theorists,” because they presented ideas about how and why humans form societies. But when considering their impact on the nature/nurture question, it’s more illustrative to focus on their differences.

In Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes argued that human beings, existing in a state of nature, are savage and brutal. Therefore, we willingly surrender our autonomy to a sovereign unconditionally in order to gain security from our murderous brethren. John Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), lays out the idea that we refer to today as tabula rasa, or “the blank slate.” Rather than seeing human beings as being innately evil, as Hobbes does, he sees us as being neither good nor evil naturally, but rather open to influence from our environments. Jean-Jacques Rousseau presents a different view of the natural state of the human in his book Émile (1762). For Rousseau, humans are born innately good, and it is society that corrupts.

Naturally, the choice of which of these three views to adopt will have a profound effect on how a culture views education and child rearing. We can’t control the nature, but we can structure the nurture to make the best use of our understanding of it. If we believe that human beings are born evil, we’ll want to make discipline the backbone of our educational system. If we believe that children are blank slates, we’ll seek to fill those slates with our best models for citizenship and morality. If we believe that our students are innately good, then maybe the best thing we could do would be to just get out of the way and let them explore the world they find themselves in. You can hear echoes of these debates in today’s conversations about education.

In the post-Darwinian era, psychologists began to codify the progression of human development into various stages. The progression was determined by nature, but profoundly impacted by environment. Sigmund Freud described five psycho-sexual stages of development in childhood. The eight psycho-social stages outlined by Erik Erikson were strongly influenced by Freud, but extended to adulthood.

But wait! A lifetime of human progression divided into stages? Why does that sound familiar? Oh right…

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel,
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

It seems that Jacques in As You Like It was on the right track, centuries ahead of his time. Freud famously wrote about Hamlet, and Erikson even cites Shakespeare’s “ages of man” in his 1962 article “Youth: Fidelity and Diversity,” which also provides an in-depth discussion of Hamlet.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) developed a set of four stages of cognitive development that have been profoundly influential in our understanding of human nature. Piaget believed that these stages developed naturally, and that new levels of learning become possible at each stage. Score one point for nature! Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934) built on these ideas, but demonstrated that learning could actually encourage cognitive development. There is a zone between what students are capable of doing on their own and what they can do in an environment that includes guidance and collaboration. Stretching into this zone can assist children in progressing developmentally. There’s one point for nurture, and it’s a tie game.

In fact, it will always be a tie game. Everyone agrees that both nature and nurture are significant, and we can argue about various degrees. Noam Chomsky (1928 – ) revolutionized the field of linguistics by describing, in Syntactic Structures (1957), the innate ability of the human brain to acquire language. This was a challenge to the behaviorist philosophy that was dominant at the time. In Frames of Mind (1983), Howard Gardner describes a system of multiple intelligences that different people seem to possess in different measures. The rise of theories such as Chomsky’s and Gardner’s would seem to move the needle towards nature, but the fact that they continue to influence our educational practices demonstrate the importance of nurture in the equation all the more powerfully.

Shakespeare, of course, didn’t know any of this. Nevertheless, his understanding of the complex interplay between nature and nurture was nuanced enough for him to create models that still have us debating the actions and motivations of fictional characters as though they were real people. Why, for example, does Macbeth kill Duncan? Is it because he’s ambitious? Or does he succumb to pressure from his wife? If it’s the former, would he have done so without prompting from the witches? And if it’s the latter, what elements of his nature make him susceptible to his wife’s influence?

I give up. What do you think, Lady Macbeth?

Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
What thou art promis’d. Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way; thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it; what thou wouldst highly,
That thou wouldst holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win; thou’dst have, great Glamis,
That which cries, ‘Thus thou must do, if thou have it;’
And that which rather thou dost fear to do
Than wishest should be undone. Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,
And chastise with the valour of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crown’d withal.

A lot of these Follow-Ups are about how much Shakespeare didn’t know. This one is about how much he still has to teach us.

Don’t Be Rotten to the Core

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

I thought I’d take this opportunity, while the federal government is shut down over the question of its own power to legislate, to talk about another somewhat controversial initiative, namely the Common Core State Standards.

It should be noted that this is not a simple left-right issue. At a recent conference, I heard Kim Marshall joke that he never thought he’d see national standards because “the right doesn’t like national, and the left doesn’t like standards.” So, as you might expect, the Common Core seems to be embraced by moderates in both parties, while being attacked by extremists on both sides. Teachers and parents, who are the most directly affected by the changes, express the same range of opinions as policymakers and pundits. So, the discussion continues.

To get a sense of the issues involved, as well as the general tone, check out this New York Times editorial by Bill Keller, and this response by Susan Ohanian.

For the record, I agree with the Bill Keller editorial (you can just change that “K” into an “H” and we’re good). I’m a fan of the Common Core, though I have a number of concerns about the way it’s being implemented. But I respect the opinions of many who oppose it, and understand the quite valid reasons why they do. Unfortunately, most of the rhetoric that I encounter against the initiative is either focused on areas that have very little to do with the standards themselves, or are based in a fog of misinformation.

Now, if you’ve read the standards, and you honestly believe that we should not want our students to be able to cite evidence from informational texts to support an argument, I’m very willing to have that conversation. If you think the Common Core shifts aren’t the right direction for our students, I’m very willing to have that conversation. If you have a problem with emphasizing literacy in the content areas, I’m very willing to have that conversation. That’s just not the conversation I’ve been hearing about the Common Core, and if we’re going to discuss these very large-scale changes in the way they deserve to be discussed, we need to clear the air of distractions and distortions.

With that in mind, I present the Top Ten Most Common Objections to the Common Core, and my responses to them. This is meant to be the beginning of a conversation and not the last word, so please feel free to continue the discussion in the comments section below.

1. The Common Core is too rigorous. The standards are not developmentally appropriate.

I think we’re feeling that now because we’re transitioning into these standards from a less rigorous system. If students come in on grade level, what they’re being asked to learn in each year is very reasonable. The problem is that we’re so far from that “if,” that the standards can often seem very unreasonable. Add to that a rushed implementation, complete with career-destroying and school-closing accountability, and the Common Core expectations can leave a very bad taste in our mouths.

What’s more, the Common Core includes qualitative shifts as well as quantitative shifts, so students will be as unfamiliar with the new ways of learning as their teachers are. The good news is that each year we implement the Common Core, students will become more used to Common Core ideas such as text-based answers and standards of mathematical practice, and will be better prepared for the work of their grade each year. It will likely get worse before it gets better, but I do think there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it will at least become visible in the next year or two.

2. The Common Core is not rigorous enough. My state had better standards before.

Well, the standards are meant to represent only the minimum of where students need to be in their grade level in order to be on track for college and career readiness by the end of Grade 12. So if you can meet these standards and then exceed them, more power to you. States that adopt the Common Core are also free to change up to 15%, and to add additional standards as well.

So here in New York State, we added Pre-K standards that aren’t in the national version, we put in additional standards throughout the documents (including Responding to Literature standards in ELA and teaching money in early-grade math classrooms), and we still retain the state-wide content standards in social studies and science that students need to pass their Regents. And even where states are slacking, a high-performing school won’t suddenly lower their standards just because they can. That’s not how they became high-performing schools in the first place.

3. The Common Core is a mandated top-down program that infringes on state control of schools.

The Common Core is not mandated by the federal government. States can choose to adopt the Common Core or opt out. I hesitate to present the most blindingly obvious of proofs, but here we go: not all of the states adopted the standards. Some states chose to opt out. That should suffice as proof enough that states can choose to opt out if they want to.

Did the federal government sweeten the deal by adding Race to the Top incentives for states that adopted the Common Core? Yes. But that’s bribery, not coersion. You can say no to a bribe, even if you need the money. And this wasn’t even that much of a bribe, as everyone knew there were only going to be a limited number of states that won Race to the Top funding and Common Core adoption was far from a guarantee.

Whether you love or hate the Common Core, it was your state legislature that adopted the standards, and the credit or blame should be placed there. States are just as capable of having cynical self-serving politicians as the federal government is, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But some states may have genuinely adopted the Common Core to improve education for their students, even if you don’t think it will.

Frankly, I’m no more a fan of Race to the Top than I was of No Child Left Behind. I don’t think states should have to compete for education funding. And there were other incentives in the Race to the Top formula I had issues with, like the charter school expansions. But these are criticisms of federal education policy, and not the Common Core standards themselves.

4. The Common Core is a result of the corporate reform movement that’s undermining public education.

Maybe.

I don’t think the standards do undermine public education, though, and I believe the people who actually put them together are earnest in their attempts to improve it. I’m not blind to some of the strange bedfellows involved with the process, but if an idea leads to good things, I don’t care where it comes from. This is an argument that just doesn’t work on its own. Just because Bill Gates funded it, it isn’t necessarily Windows 7. Zing!

5. The Common Core is only about testing and accountability.

I hate to break it to you, but the testing and accountability movement has been around a lot longer than the Common Core. We’re already teaching to the test, so it makes sense to design a better test, one worth teaching to. You can read about early attempts to align New York’s state-wide exams to the Common Core in this article, and I’m quoted towards the end, but the bottom line is that they didn’t go very well.

Two multi-state consortiums are now hard at work to build a better test, though this turns out to be a tougher job than they originally thought. They are talking about having students take the state-wide (actually, consortium-wide) tests on computers, which means that every school needs to have computers. That could be a logistical nightmare in itself, but it could also mean more funding for computers in schools.

In New York City, teachers are being evaluated through a system that uses test scores, in one form or another, as 40% of a teacher’s score, while the other 60% will be based on the Danielson Framework. In my opinion, that’s a vast improvement over using test scores alone, which even the Gates-funded MET study doesn’t endorse.

6. The Common Core is a conspiracy to keep the poor uneducated.

No, that’s what we have now. There is a strong correlation between socioeconomic status and academic achievement. Having a set of common standards is one step in the process of attempting to close that gap.

7. The Common Core replaces literature with government manuals.

That simply isn’t true. There is an entire section of the standards that covers Reading Literature. There may be a government manual listed somewhere in the examples of informational texts, but it’s disingenuous to hold that up as the centerpiece of Common Core expectations for student reading. Anyone who makes this argument is either unfamiliar with the standards, or uninterested in engaging in a serious discussion about them.

8. People are making money from the Common Core!

This is true, in as much as we need people to write tests, publish classroom materials, and train teachers. But we would have needed this anyway, Common Core or no.

Liberals tend to think that everyone should do their jobs with the purest of motives, and if someone’s profiting from something, it must be an evil conspiracy. Conservatives tend to believe the opposite: that if you made money from an idea, then that proves the idea had market value, and those who improve the system deserve to profit from their innovations. I take a more neutral view of profit’s correlation with good in the world. I work in teacher training, and the Common Core affects what I teach, but not how often I teach or how much money I make. I have no financial interest in defending the Common Core.

Keller’s editorial estimates the costs of the new tests at about $29 per student, in a system that spends over $9,000 per student in a year. You might not like the Common Core for other reasons, but cost alone can’t be the only reason to oppose it.

9. These Common Core-aligned materials I have are bad.

I don’t doubt it. But just because a product claims to be “Common Core-aligned,” it doesn’t mean that it is Common Core-endorsed. I have no end of problems with the range of “Common Core-aligned” curricula being rolled out by New York City alone. This is not a function of poor standards, but rather poor implementation.

By the way, a lot of the Common Core-aligned materials were delayed getting into schools this year, even as teachers were required to start using them. You don’t have to convince me that we’re having implementation problems.

And I spent last summer modifying my own organization’s social studies curricula to be Common Core-aligned, and I feel strongly that our products improved immensely because of it.

10. The Common Core is untested, and shouldn’t be implemented on such a large scale without a pilot program.

This is from Reign of Error author Diane Ravitch, and she makes a fair point. But nothing’s written in stone. The standards will work in some ways and need mending in others. And where they need mending, we’ll mend them. Ten years from now, we may come to see the current version of the Common Core as a really good first draft. Or we may remember it as New Coke. There’s no way to know until we try it out. That can be used as an argument for it as well as against it.

I do think that we should do everything we can do to make it work. That’s the only way we’ll really know if it doesn’t.

Honorable Mention: President Obama is for it, and therefore I must be against it.

Hey, look! Someone over there is getting health care.

I really do see a lot of parallel between the Affordable Care Act debacle and the Common Core controversy. Tea party Republicans want to talk about how Obamacare will destroy the economy and force the government between you and your doctor and lead to the apocalypse, but they really oppose it on ideological principles. If they would talk about their principles, we could have an honest debate, but they know these principles sound cold and selfish, so they obfuscate. Common Core opponents dance around the actual changes being made in education because most of them make sense. The real concern, as I see it, is the danger of the larger corporate-funded movement to use testing and data to prove the ineffectiveness of public education in order to move to a privatized free-market system.

That’s a concern worth discussing directly, and I’m very willing to have that conversation.

Question of the Week

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

So, today was my birthday.

People always seem to want to know how you spent your birthday. Frankly, it’s just another day to me, so it doesn’t bother me that I spent much of it preparing for a workshop tomorrow.

The workshop is going to be on the Danielson Framework for Teaching, a 22-component system for evaluating teacher effectiveness. Last year, New York City was using three of these components, and we all had to learn them inside out. This year, we’ll be using all 22, and everyone is scrambling to catch up.

Over the next two days, my job will be to train all of the teachers in one high school on the extremely comprehensive criteria on which they will be judged.

I did some trainings on the Framework over the summer. Teachers approach it with skepticism, as experience has taught them to be cautious of new initiatives. Added to this is the reasonable perception that the system can often be hostile to teachers. But once we actually delved into the measures, the teachers generally agreed that they are fair, assuming the evaluations are implemented fairly.

I’m guessing that the Danielson Framework will be a very important part of my life between now and my next birthday, so I should say a few words about it. The 22 components are organized in four domains:

Domain 1: Planning and Preparation
Domain 2: The Classroom Environment
Domain 3: Instruction
Domain 4: Professional Responsibilities

New York City is using the ratings based on the Framework as a portion of overall teacher evaluation, and Domains 2 and 3 will be 75% of that portion.

As an interesting side note, I was in Pennsylvania visiting my sister last week, and I happened to be there on the day that the kids were assigned their teachers. Parents were texting and calling each other like mad trying to determine who got what teacher and how the classes would be made up.

Out of curiosity, I asked my sister what parents look for when they decide what teachers they want their children to have. She listed a number of qualities that mainly fall into Domain 2. I asked her if parents in her community care about how much test scores improved for the class the teacher had the previous year. They couldn’t care less.

So that’s not a scientific study, but it is an enlightening data point. As we head back to school, I’d love to turn the question over to the Shakespeare teacher community.

When you send your own children back to school, what do you look for in a teacher?

In the Zone

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

As we begin implementing the Common Core State Standards this year, many of the schools I advise are having very similar problems with grade-level readiness. This isn’t a new problem, to be sure, but it has become intensified by Common Core expectations. The Common Core standards are more rigorous than last year’s New York State standards, so even students who were on grade level last year have some catching up to do. Also, built into the DNA of the Common Core is the idea of a “staircase of complexity” in which students must master the standards of the prior year before they are ready for the standards of the current year. In other words, they must master the 5th-grade standards in order to become 6th-grade ready.

For example, students in Kindergarten learn to state an opinion (”My favorite book is…”). In Grade 1, they provide a reason for their opinion. In Grade 4, they support their reasons with information, while in Grade 6 they write arguments to support claims with reasons and evidence. In math, students are expected to be effortlessly fluent in addition and subtraction by the end of Grade 2, so they will be ready to begin fractions in Grade 3. By the end of Grade 5, their understanding of fractions is thorough enough to begin algebra in the 6th grade. It’s a well-structured progression that brings students step-by-step from Kindergarten to college and career readiness by providing incremental support based on the learning that has accrued through the previous years of instruction in every grade.

What happens, then, during the first year of implementation? Our students aren’t even coming in on grade level based on the old standards, let alone the more rigorous standards demanded by (and required for) the Common Core. Our 6th graders aren’t coming in having mastered fractions or the opinion essay. Their reading levels do not prepare them to approach the complex texts in the new reading band levels, which themselves are set higher than previous levels by the Common Core (as can be seen in the chart at the bottom of page 8 of the ELA Appendix A):

(Click for a larger image.)

And this problem is even more profound in high school, where the high-stakes Regents Exams are looming, and many students aren’t even prepared to read the instructions.

In a December 2011 keynote titled “What Must Be Done in the Next Two Years” (you can download the transcript here), David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core Standards, addresses the idea of grade-level readiness. He’s a brilliant man who speaks with a persuasive confidence, but he’s on the wrong side of this particular issue.

But for your sakes, the really exciting thing is for the first time there’s a measure in the standards that insists that students at each level are encountering texts of adequate complexity.

Nonetheless, you could nonetheless be defeated, because the most popular instructional practice for students who are behind is to replace their core reading with leveled text at their level, right? So if you were to actually look at what your kids are being given, they are constantly matched in this seeming noble idea that you should match everything they read to where they are today, often called a proximal zone of development, et cetera.

Let me be rather clear. Leveled readers and reading at your own level has a crucial role to play for kids in terms of their vocabulary growth, their love of reading, and has a very important role, so I’m not saying kind of just get rid of it. But what I am saying is the core of instruction, if we want kids to catch up, has to be the deliberate study of sufficiently complex texts, again and – we cannot exclude students from that and expect them to magically catch up. That’s a scaffolded environment, do you get me? Where their frustration – they are expected to be frustrated. That frustration is managed. It’s part of the classroom community, and they engage repeatedly in dealing with things that are more difficult than they can handle.

First of all, it’s the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), not the “proximal zone of development, et cetera.” I’m less bothered by his mixing the words around than I am by the “et cetera,” as if to say “yeah, there was more but I couldn’t be bothered to absorb it.” The ZPD is the range between what a child can do independently and what that same child can do with support. The concept was first described by Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky in the 1930’s, and has had a profound impact on developmental psychology and learning science. You can’t be dismissive of the ZPD in one breath, and then go on to recommend scaffolding in the next. The very idea of scaffolding is based on a Vygostkian model of development. The term was introduced by American psychologist Jerome Bruner, and it refers to the supports that we provide students within their ZPD to help them achieve at higher levels. As the metaphor suggests, once students can do these tasks independently, we can remove the scaffolding.

Coleman’s right that there should be managed frustration. If students read texts that are too easy for them, they may enjoy those texts, but it’s not the best way to support reading progress. When students have to read within their ZPD, they feel a frustration we might accurately describe as growing pains. They experience a stretch, and in that stretch, learning can actually help drive cognitive development. If, on the other hand, the material is above the upper limit of their ZPD, they will not experience that productive frustration. They will simply shut down and not attempt to read the material at all. And there is no amount of scaffolding that will make it possible. Think of a weight you can lift easily, a weight that requires some effort to lift, and a weight you can’t budge at all. Which of those three weights would you choose if you wanted to promote muscle growth?

So if you have students who are one or two grades below grade level, it might be worth trying to push them in the way Coleman describes. But students who are four, five, six years below their grade level, aren’t going to be reading on grade level by the end of the year no matter whose philosophical outlook you subscribe to. Nobody is expecting them to “magically catch up.” The idea is to support them in making the greatest progress possible. It is Coleman who is invoking magic when he expects that these students will be able to catch up simply through teacher patience, student frustration, and intense scaffolding.

But if anybody should be a proponent of Vygotsky, it’s David Coleman himself, for Vygotsky provides a clear developmental framework for the Common Core. If learning really can drive development, and I believe it can, then having a rigorous set of standards defined for each grade level organized into a staircase of complexity makes a lot of sense. If we adhere to these standards from Kindergarten, making sure that students receive support in a multi-tiered Response to Intervention system to ensure that they remain on grade level at the end of each year, then the Common Core might actually be a blueprint for making sure that our students are well prepared for the rigors of college and the workplace by the end of Grade 12. Wouldn’t it be a shame if that were all true and the Common Core really is a better way of doing business, but nobody ever knew it because the implementation was so badly botched?

So what can we do? If I were in charge of implementation, I would have had two years of bridge standards before fully adopting the Common Core. If the 5th grade NYS standards say ABC and the 8th grade Common Core standards say JKL, then we develop a logical DEF for 6th grade and a 7th-grade GHI that allow us to incrementally meet the higher standards. Instead, we’re going right from 5th-grade NYS to 6th-grade Common Core, and even students that were on grade level last year are being left behind. The folks at the New York City Department of Education, for their part, seem to understand the difficulties involved, and are trying to make the changes as gradually as possible to support teachers. But no such support is available for students, as the level of rigor expected for them is coming from Albany, and is out of the city’s hands.

I can’t tell you what the statewide assessments are going to look like at the end of this year, but I’m pretty sure the students are going to be expected to read on what is now considered grade level, and this is the problem. What do you do if you have 8th-grade students reading on a 4th-grade level, when you know you are going to be accountable for them passing an 8th-grade test at the end of the year? One option is, as Coleman describes, to give them 8th-grade reading selections anyway, have them read fewer overall texts, and heavily scaffold the texts being read. Another option is to try to give them two years of instruction in a year, committing to bring them from a 4th-grade level to 6th-grade level. Neither strategy will prepare them to read on the 8th-grade level by test time, but I prefer the latter method. It’s better to make meaningful progress in the time that you have than to squander the opportunity by fumbling around with inappropriately difficult texts. I understand, respect, and even admire Coleman’s desire to get everyone on grade level. It’s not going to happen this year.

Given that some of the quantitative targets may not be possible this year, another option is to focus on the qualitative shifts. Give students more exposure to informational texts. Give them more complex texts than they are reading now. Have them read more independently, and give them opportunities to cite evidence from the things they read to support their writing. These are all Common Core-aligned shifts, and can be implemented right away, regardless of student reading levels.

Finally, teachers can make a big difference by differentiating instruction. Some students may have higher upper bounds in their ZPD than might be apparent at first. And if you’ve agreed with me up until now, follow me the rest of the way. It’s important for teachers to challenge their students to the highest extent as is possible for them. Students will push back, but being a teacher means to encourage students to do more than they ever thought they could. Now is the time to do that. Please don’t mistake my nuanced understanding of cognitive development for timidity. I’ve taught Shakespeare, in the original language, to low-performing 5th graders. But to do that, I had to have some confidence that my learning goals were within their Zone of Proximal Development. And when they were, it turned out that it was possible!

As for the end-of-the-year tests, the whole state is in the same bind, so relative success is still very much in reach given the right strategies. Students feel growing pains, and so do teachers. But that pain just means that we’re working outside of our comfort zone, and are instead in a zone that is more conducive to growth.

Science!

Monday, January 7th, 2013

Today, I worked with science teachers on their performance tasks. Actually, I’ve been doing a lot of consulting this year on performance tasks, which is the hot new trend in assessment.

A performance task is an opportunity for students to demonstrate that they can independently apply the skills they’ve learned in a real-world context. So it’s like a post-test, only instead of multiple-choice questions, students have to do an authentic activity. Teachers examine the resulting student work with a rubric to measure whether or not students have learned the skills, and they can then use this information to plan future instruction. It’s much more effective than standardized-testing data in diagnosing student needs, though I do admit it is much more time-consuming.

This year, I’ve been working a lot with social studies and science teachers. Because of the Common Core shifts, these teachers are now required to teach literacy skills. There are no actual content standards in social studies or science in the Common Core; all of the standards for these subject areas are literacy standards. There are science content standards currently under development by Next Generation. When they are completed, states will have the option of adopting them in the same way they adopted Common Core. But until then, science content standards come from the states, and literacy standards from the Common Core are applied across the curriculum.

Now, I actually like the idea of literacy across the curriculum, but it is a big adjustment for science and social studies teachers, and so the schools where I consult have asked me to work with these teachers to help them infuse literacy skills into their curriculum and their assessments, particularly the performance tasks that New York City is requiring them to administer this year.

I have had a lot of experience working with social studies teachers in the past, but I’m probably working more with science teachers this year than I ever have before. And that’s fantastic, because I get the opportunity to learn a lot of new things. I also get the chance to yell “Science!” like Magnus Pyke a lot. No, I don’t really do that, but it would be fun.

One of the science teachers I worked with today swears by a website for an organization called Urban Advantage. It has some great resources for teaching middle-school science with an inquiry-based approach. I like the way that their materials scaffold scientific writing, which is my focus this year.

Another science teacher I worked with today showed me the PhET website, which has some really compelling interactive simulations in the sciences. I watched 7th-grade students run a simulation on density, in which they had to determine the mass and volume of various mystery substances and identify them from a list of materials and their densities.

Science!

Shakespeare and the Common Core

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

Across the United States, education is undergoing a sea-change (into something rich and strange) surrounding the adoption of something called the Common Core State Standards.

Standards are simply a list of what students should be able to do by the end of each grade. Traditionally, these have been defined by states, with a requirement for them to do so by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. States still define their own standards, but, in an unprecedented act of coordination, 45 states (plus the District of Columbia and a few of the territories) have adopted the Common Core as their state standards. Full adoption has been targeted for next year, though New York has started phasing in significant portions of it this year.

Love it or hate it, the Common Core represents a new direction in pedagogical thinking, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Personally, I think the Common Core standards are a lot better than the existing New York State Standards, but we’re going to have to suffer through a difficult transition period before we can reap the benefits of that improvement. Right now is probably the most difficult time, as we have to deal with students who are not starting on what the new structure defines as grade-level, a lack of Common Core-aligned teaching materials, and uncertainty surrounding precisely how these new standards will be assessed. May you live in interesting times.

As with anything new and complex, there are going to be a number of misconceptions floating around about it. One of the most prevalent I’ve seen is that the Common Core eliminates (or at least de-emphasizes) literature, in favor of informational texts. In particular, many are convinced that Shakespeare will be replaced entirely by non-fiction, as public education descends into a Dickensian nightmare of Shakespeare-deprived conformity and standardization.

In fact, Shakespeare is mandated by the Common Core.

The confusion seems to stem from a chart that appears on page 5 of the English Language Arts Standards document, outlining the percentages of literary vs. informational texts included in the National Assessment of Educational Progress:

(Click for a larger image.)

The Common Core is explicit about aligning curricula with this framework, but it is just as explicit about how that alignment should be distributed:

Fulfilling the Standards for 6–12 ELA requires much greater attention to a specific category of informational text—literary nonfiction—than has been traditional. Because the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes if the NAEP assessment framework is to be matched instructionally.

So, despite the canard that high-school English classes will only be allowed to teach literature 30% of the time, the 70% informational text requirement refers to the entirety of student reading across the curriculum. Given that one of the major shifts is an increase in reading and writing in the content areas, the ratio makes sense.

Let’s say that, over the course of a particular unit, a high-school English teacher is assigning 3 literary texts and 1 informational text. That means that (text length aside) students are reading 75% literature in English class. And if this is the only reading the students are doing, then they are reading 75% literature overall. But now imagine that, during the same timeframe, they are also reading 2 informational texts in social studies, 2 informational texts in science, and 2 informational texts in all of their other classes combined. They are still reading 75% literature in English class, but this now represents 30% of their reading overall.

And, far from being lost in the informational-text shuffle, Shakespeare now becomes the man of the hour. As the only author explicitly required by the Common Core, Shakespeare must be taught in grades 11 and 12 (see page 38, right column, Standards 4 and 7). Shakespeare is also included in the recommended texts for grades 9 and 10 (see page 58, left column, center). And Shakespeare is not excluded for younger students either, as the standards outline only the minimum of what must be taught in each grade. The Common Core does stress using authentic texts, so updated language versions of Shakespeare would be frowned upon, but that’s actually an adjustment I can get behind.

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the Common Core, and a lot of objections surrounding the new changes. Some of these objections are legitimate, and some are not. I look forward to continuing that conversation as the implementation develops. But rest assured that Shakespeare isn’t going anywhere.

Shakespeare Anagram: Romeo and Juliet

Saturday, September 15th, 2012

From Romeo and Juliet:

But, let them measure us by what they will,
We’ll measure them a measure, and be gone.

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

The melee damage-buy seems mutual where Rahm blew a test-result law by the union.

A Choice to Make

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

There is so much wrong with this article by Eric Hanushek that I fear that anything less than a line-for-line rebuttal will be woefully inadequate as a response. Out of consideration for my readers, I will refrain from providing one, and will rather try to focus on the most important points. Hanushek, of course, is the Stanford economist whose lurch into the field of education has driven much of the recent misguided effort towards “Reform” in today’s educational system. His article does a good job of summarizing his most crucial arguments, so it’s worth some time examining.

The title of the piece is “Valuing Teachers” and a brilliantly disingenuous title it is. Rather than using the word as we might use it (placing a high value on teachers), he is using it as an economist might (assessing the value of teachers). He is measuring how much teachers are worth. According to Hanushek, better teachers result in higher incomes for their students later in life. To make his case, he uses a series of unscientific leaps of logic that will yield easily to a few moments of rationality.

He notes that “a student with achievement (as measured by test performance in high school) that is one standard deviation above average can later in life expect to take in 10 to 15 percent higher earnings per year.” I have no reason to doubt his numbers.

But Hanushek is making the classic blunder of confusing correlation with causation. Do higher test scores in school directly cause higher incomes? Or is it possible that they may have common contributing factors? What about factors that the student brings in, such as intelligence, stamina, and motivation? Is it possible that parental income can be a factor in both standardized testing scores and future income? Hanushek’s famous value-added study attempted to isolate these factors, but he seems content to ignore them when citing this achievement/income connection.

And, as Diana Senechal points out, “there is no evidence (as far as I know) that students in the highest percentiles in high school are those who made the greatest gains on their standardized tests over the years. In fact, I suspect that most of them did pretty well on those tests all along.”

Using future income as a measure of teacher quality is even more outrageous than using test scores. How much does a Stanford professor make compared to a Wall Street hedge fund manager? Is that a function of the quality of education they received? In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I make significantly less than LeBron James. Did he have better teachers?

Hanushek’s solution is to “contemplate asking 5 to 10 percent of teachers to find a job at which they are more effective so they can be replaced by teachers of average productivity.” (Note to my boss: if it should ever become necessary to fire me, I would request that you instead contemplate asking me to find a job at which I am more effective.)

Hanushek’s solution – fire the bad teachers – is very simple, but it requires several assumptions that I don’t think we should be so quick to grant.

Assumptions

  1. Standardized tests accurately measure student achievement.
  2. The teachers whose students don’t make progress on the tests are the bad teachers.
  3. There is a line of average teachers at the door waiting to be hired.
  4. No factors other than teacher quality are significant.

Peruse this list, and note that Hanushek’s plan falls apart if even one of these assumptions is false. In fact, they all are.

Assumption: Standardized tests accurately measure student achievement.

False. The tests that students are given are deeply flawed indeed. Many of the questions do not test what they purport to test, and test-taking itself has become it’s own skill set that schools ignore at their own peril. If we’re careful, we can use some the results to identify areas in need of improvement. But the tests on the whole are way too idiosyncratic to use the overall scores as a basis for high-stakes decision making.

Assumption: The teachers whose students don’t make progress on the tests are the bad teachers.

False. In an August 2010 paper for the Economic Policy Institute, a team of highly distinguished education researchers laid out the case against the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers. Bottom line: It doesn’t work. Test scores are simply an ineffective statistical measure for identifying bad teachers. If you don’t find twenty pages of research from a panel of experts compelling, then you can read about this well-respected hard-working teacher who got slammed by a statistical formula.

Assumption: There is a line of average teachers at the door waiting to be hired.

False. In fact, teacher recruitment and retention is becoming a serious problem. A McKinsey study, Closing the Talent Gap, describes the decline in the teaching profession’s ability to compete in the labor market.

However, I suspect there is a bit of condescension towards the profession of teaching when we assume we can just go out and hire average teachers. The implication is that the average person would make an average teacher, rather than acknowledging that teaching requires a particular set of qualities (e.g., diligence, patience, intelligence, and a calling to want to do it) for someone to even be an average teacher. To glibly say that we can just fire the bad teachers and hire average ones is unintentionally insulting.

Assumption: No factors other than teacher quality are significant.

False. Hanushek anticipates this rebuttal, and is kind enough to provide examples of other factors that are not significant:

The initiatives we have emphasized in policy discussions—class-size reduction, curriculum revamping, reorganization of school schedule, investment in technology—all fall far short of the impact that good teachers can have in the classroom. Moreover, many of these interventions can be very costly.

Costly? I thought we were discussing what is most effective. Aren’t we having a national education crisis? Hanushek has moved past his role as researcher and now is making policy judgements. Danny Westneat argues effectively against the idea that class size is irrelevant, so I don’t have to. Teachers already know the importance of class size, and I suspect that the Reformers do as well. Similarly, other initiatives we take to improve education, costly or no, are based on research and accumulation of best practices. Even if we let Hanushek fire all of the bad teachers, we would still want to implement successful education initiatives. Sorry.

Neither side is happy with our current educational system. But Reformers seem to offer nothing but slapdash solutions that keep expenses low but ignore the facts on the ground. It seems, then, we have a choice to make. Do we want to have a public education system in this country? Many do not, and would rather see the free market take over education. Charter schools seem to be a first step in that direction, and I think the Reformers who tout them have become, wittingly or unwittingly, somewhat of a stalking horse for the movement against public education. Diane Ravitch, in her eloquent response to Waiting for Superman, discusses why charter schools aren’t the panacea they’re often held up as. She also discusses the impact of poverty on student achievement, and the dangers of ignoring it in the national discussion. Paying teachers more? Keeping class size down? Addressing the needs of high-poverty schools? It all seems so… costly.

That’s what it’s going to take, though. If we want a high-quality public education system, we’re going to have to pay for it. These may be troubled economic times, but really it’s just a question of priorities. If we’re going to have public education at all, we need to increase, not decrease, funding for it. We need to increase it by a lot. Reformer “solutions” only distract from the real issue. They want us to look at charter schools, but if we look closely enough, we’ll see that the most successful charter schools are able to spend much more per student than the public schools who are expected to emulate them.

And so, we must choose between abolishing public education and funding it adequately. Abolishing it is not really a choice at all, and would lead to an even worse crisis than we have now. But, if we can adjust our priorities and give our students the schools they deserve, then, as Dan Quayle said, “We are going to have the best educated American people in the world.” (Should we be blaming his teachers?)

It’s Funny Because It’s Not Funny

Sunday, March 6th, 2011

I recently saw a particularly poignant piece of graffito etched on a friend’s Facebook wall:

A public union employee, a tea party activist and a CEO are sitting at a table with a plate of a dozen cookies in the middle of it. The CEO takes 11 of the cookies, turns to the tea partier and says, “Watch out for that union guy. He wants a piece of your cookie.”

And while this might easily refer to any number of anti-labor sentiments, it seems most appropriate as a reaction to the current – inexplicable – War on Teachers that has been raging in the media lately.

If you haven’t seen last Thursday’s Daily Show, you really need to go watch it. In a brilliant piece at the top of the show, Jon Stewart demonstrates the hypocrisy of the right-wing talking heads when talking about teachers. Later, he interviews education truth-teller Diane Ravitch, who lays out the rest of the argument.

If you want to understand the conversations surrounding education reform, then – as Tom Tomorrow says in this week’s strip – that’s all you need to know.

Accountability

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

I was talking to my graduate students about the literacy standards last night, and predictably got pulled off on a tangent about accountability. I found myself making a point that I’ve alluded to before, but it’s worth making explicit now.

Robert Benchley famously said “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.” I will put myself in the former category when I say that, generally, there are two kinds of people who talk about standards and accountability.

The first believes that anything worth doing is worth doing well. In order to make sure we’re doing the best job we can, it’s important to measure our results, so we can identify areas for potential improvement and apply strategies for intervention where they will do the most good.

The second believes that taxpayer-funded education is one of the evils of socialism and must be eradicated. In order to make the necessary changes, evidence must be gathered that the public education system is a failure, so that arguments to turn education over to the free market will be more persuasive.

And my point was that, when you hear someone talking about standards and accountability, it’s important to know which of these two groups that person is in.