Category Archives: Literacy

Reading, Thinking, the Media and the Truth

I teach 9th grade English so one of my Common Core State Standards reads like this: 

Informational Texts: Delineate and evaluate argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.

I usually focus most on this standard when examining logical fallacies portrayed in advertising as part of my propaganda unit during the teaching of Animal Farm. The kids quickly see the illogical and unsupported claims about toothpastes, beauty products, diet pills and any number of other too-good-to-be-true product pitches. When the validity of the reasoning only takes a moment of critical thought to deconstruct, they get good at it. When claims are presented that "seem" valid on first blush, though, the kids have a hard time decoding the nuance of falsehood behind the presumptive truth.

The route information takes nowadays is more like the game of telephone than ever before, with information being stripped, twisted and de-contextualized until it emerges at the end of the line as a statement whose meaning is a completely different message than the original referent. Thus, our challenge is not to help students spot the obviously fallacious reasoning, but to have their radar on for the subtle (and I believe, often intentionally manipulative) misinformation, misguidance, incompleteness, or writerly interpretation that portrays itself as truth and fact.

This was already in my mind when I read this seemingly innocuous passage in an article about teachers:

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The Budget

Sale booksAnother invisible: the budget. I spend a lot of time on as part of my job. As chair of the English department, I have keep up the inventory of our resources–a key resource, of course, is our store of books. Every student at my school is required to take an English class, and my department budget works out to be about $1.80 per student per year. Granted, once you buy a book you can use it multiple times–but books also wear out, and our department budget also has to cover, among other things, basic supplies like paper, staples, dry erase markers, and the other necessities that my 18 full- or part-time English teachers usually end up buying out of their own pocket when the department supply runs out around mid-November.

When I get an email that we are a class-set short of copies of an anchor novel in the curriculum, I have to find a way to cover that gap. In a dream world, I'd buy library-bound hardcover copies of each novel, which start at about $20 per copy. Scratch that: in a dream world, I'd supply all of my students with e-readers wherein they can interact with, annotate, and easily carry their texts. 

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Guidance Team

By Rob

Struggling students are referred to the Guidance Team.  We identify the most significant barrier to student success.  We develop a plan to address the barrier.  We choose metrics to track the effectiveness of our plan.  We document our interventions and meet regularly to track progress. 

A teacher may bring a student to the team who’s reading below grade level.  We review the student’s reading data.  Perhaps we find evidence they need phonics support.  We align our school’s resources- this student will meet with our reading specialist for an 8 week phonics intervention.  This may lead to improved fluency and the student can then carry the meaning while reading.  As a result, their reading comprehension improves.  I’ve seen this happen.  It demonstrates some of the best work a school can do.

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Realigning to Common Core

File7011343695826By Mark

This summer, I've been participating in a book study about challenges in implementing Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts. In that spirit, I sat down today to look at my scope and sequence for the classes I teach (Freshman English Lit and Comp). All along I've been saying to myself and others that this whole Common Core Standards shifting is no big deal: we're already doing that work, it's just a matter of identifying in those standards all the things we already do–we won't really have to do much that is "new."

As it turns out, this whole process really made me rethink what I teach and how I teach. I found that there were many standards which were addressed, reinforced, and assessed in basically every single unit of the sequence. I also found a few standards which never appeared more than once, buried as a footnote in some broader unit. More concerning: some of the projects and assessments that I and my students enjoy the most were supported by only tenuous connections (at best) to the standards. 

This coming school year, I anticipate that many of my posts will reflect my process with the Common Core. Interestingly, when I try to characterize my feelings, the first word that pops into my head (however irrational this may be) is the word mourning. Some of those projects that kids seem to connect with so well lack strong connection to Common Core, even if they are the tasks that former students still recall to me ten years later. No matter how much I, or they, love the experience, these are the things I really need to examine and honestly assess whether they belong in my classroom under my new expectations.

As I try to help other teachers make this transition to the new standards, I need to remember that word that popped into my head. As I encounter resistance, I need to remember that isn't just about being "opposed to change." I need to remember that the first reaction when you are told to do something new might not actually be a reaction to that which is new, but rather a quick and confusing pang of loss for something deeply enjoyed that no longer seems to fit. 

The English Problem

File3561335707875By Mark

For several years, my building has been identifying and aligning curriculum to standards–first state standards and now Common Core Standards–with part of this process being the identification of the Power Standards! each unit of instruction is to focus upon.

Simultaneously, we are gearing up for a new teacher evaluation system which figures heavily on a teacher's ability to define what his/her students' learning targets are and assess and document student progress toward those targets.

To an extent, both have been an uneasy fit for me as a high school English teacher. It is not so much in the philosophies underpinning these movements. It is that no one that I talk to seems to understand what I've started calling "The English Problem."

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NCLB 2.012

By Rob

In a comment on my recent blog post Tom asks: "How can we rewrite the federal education bill so that it actually helps student learn?" This is a huge question. The difficult issues of funding, evaluation, accountability, standards, and testing must be addressed in a politically feasible manner. I don’t know what is feasible but I'd advocate for these ideas-

Standards: I support national standards. As a population we are more mobile than ever and there should not be a drastic difference in the curricular content among states. This requires a level of monitoring and evaluation of states and educational systems. Currently this evaluation and monitoring is done by comparing the separate standardized tests in each state. Although these tests are given to every student multiple times throughout their schooling it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions since these tests vary in rigor and content. Our testing system needs reform.

Testing: Evaluation and monitoring of education systems is necessary for oversight and informed policy decisions. However this does not require the current two week assessment window, every child tested, a huge financial cost, lost instructional time, and enormous pressure on educators and students. Instead this should be done with a smaller randomized sample of students and less impact and intrusion on instruction.

Summative tests, currently the HSPE and MSP (sort of), are assessments of learning given at the end of a particular educational stage. Passing these tests is necessary for students to receive credits or in some cases progress to the next grade. Presently these are a part of a broken testing system. With rare exception, the students who come into the tenth grade performing far below grade level are the ones who are not going to pass the High School Proficiency Exam.

This idea isn’t new but I support summative tests at grade 3, 5, 8, 10, and 12. Students should not exit that grade until they are proficient. How can a fifth grade teacher instruct a student on comparing and contrasting an author’s inferred message when the student is struggling to sound out every third word? How can an eighth grade math teacher approach the Pythagorean Theorem with a student who struggles to multiply?

I’ve heard teachers say (myself included) I could teach 35 students if they came to me proficient in the previous year’s content. Let’s go with this idea-

It begins with half day Pre-K for all students and full day kindergarten. Before they leave kindergarten they need to know their letter sounds, numbers, reading behaviors, and should be able to read and discuss the events in a predictable text. Those who are proficient enter a first grade class capped at 24 students (35 is too many first graders for any teacher no matter how academically proficient the kids are). Those who are approaching proficiency enter a first grade class capped at 16. Those far below proficiency enroll in a class capped at 12.

Schools would use their ongoing formative assessment in grades 1,2,4,6,7,9, and 11 to reconfigure classes and to carry the model forward. The student who enters second approaching standard but exits meeting standard would enroll in the third grade class with the highest student-teacher ratio.

This model has imbedded funding implications. The schools with the highest performing students would have higher class sizes and would be cheaper to staff as long as they continued to maintain high student performance. The schools with lower performing students, ostensibly with underserved populations, would have a lower teacher-pupil ratio and would receive more funding.

This model is not without its challenges. Schools would need to take great care not to track students by providing some students with continual remediation while others engage in higher order thinking. I believe smaller numbers of students is important when serving struggling students in reading and math it is also important for students not to be ability grouped for other content areas.

Can somebody tell me why this wouldn't be an improvement? Maybe this idea isn’t ready to be written into law but couldn’t congress earmark some funding so some districts could try it?


Corrective Action

Graph Down Arrow

By Rob

My school is in the third round of No Child Left Behind sanctions.  Among other procedures these sanctions call for ‘corrective action’ to be taken. 

Arriving at this point wasn’t a surprise.  It’s taken many years to get here.  Our school has been labeled ‘failing’ for a while but only after seeing last year’s test results do I feel like we’ve failed.  No teacher at our school wanted to enter the third round of NCLB sanctions.  Round 2, Schools of Choice, was embarrassing enough. 

There was pressure to improve our school’s test results.  I sensed a change in the tone of my evaluations.  Many new teachers were not hired for year two.  A veteran teacher was removed.  It seemed to me that the pressure was high and morale was low.

Perhaps other teachers felt this pressure more acutely than I.  Last year many of them have transferred elsewhere.  Of 23 classroom teachers 11 are novice (in their first or second year).  In my tenth year teaching I’m the second most experienced teacher at our school.

I’ve wondered how we’ve arrived at this unfortunate point.  Each fall we receive our state’s standardized test scores.  Teachers, energized and committed, face the challenge.  We’ve created systems for tracking student progress, providing extra support, engaging families, growing professionally, and improving instruction.  I believe some of these systems have been of great benefit to students.

While I thought these systems were beneficial our data never really showed it.  Here’s what it shows: (click the picture for a clearer view) 

In 2011 our scores dropped 30% to under 40% of students passing the 4th grade reading MSP.  The year before 71.4% of students passed the 3rd grade reading MSP.  The test didn’t get harder.  The state average pass rate remained flat.  This isn’t isolated to one grade.  Our 3rd grade reading pass rate fell 13.1% from the previous year.  Our 5th grade reading pass rate fell 32.8% from the previous year.

This drop in performance is startling.  So what happened?  Who knows?  I wish I had more answers and fewer questions.

Did the students consistently miss a particular type of reading comprehension question?  That could be addressed with an adjustment to the curriculum.

With a 37% mobility rate could the students who left be the ones who passed in 2010.  Might they have been replaced with students who didn't pass?  How about the families who left because of school choice (a NCLB sanction for schools in step 2 of improvement)?  Did the student population change significantly?  Are we comparing the same students from year to year?

Did students who narrowly passed the MSP in 2010 narrowly miss passing in 2011?  Did a slight drop in performance signify a drastic drop in the percent of students meeting standard?

Did significant numbers of non passing students come from specific classrooms?

Could school community, teacher morale, and the shame & blame policies of NCLB account, at least in part, for a dramatic drop in student performance?

Answers to these questions are important as a school undergoes “corrective action.”  I don’t know if anybody is asking these questions.  I don’t know if answers are available.  But I’d like to know exactly what problem I’m correcting and we all deserve a clearer answer than ‘you didn’t meet adequate yearly progress again.’ 

Testing the Limit

ScantronBy Rob

Great investments have been made to collect and use data.  The role of assessments and use of student data has shifted and it has changed the nature of education.

The standardized test, Washington’s Measurement of Student Progress, is analyzed extensively to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind.  It is used to identify schools as “failing to meet adequate yearly progress.”  It is used to rank-order schools.  New metrics which control for the impact of poverty use this data to compare effectiveness among districts.  This assessment comes at a great cost- financial, time, lost instruction, grading, and tools for analyzing.  The information gained from it could be found with a smaller sample size and at a lower cost.

The Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP) tracks student growth across a school year.  This test is completed by students on a laptop in a separate classroom.  Our technology and curriculum coach devotes weeks to setting up the computers, scheduling, and proctoring each class.  The list of goals compiled for each student is exhausting and includes standards not covered for months or years or, depending on the curriculum, not taught at all.  I am pleased when the assessment result matchs my analysis of the student but often it doesn’t.

I get very little actionable intelligence from the results of my MSP or MAP scores.  But increasingly I have to answer for the results. 

The emphasis on testing extends far beyond MSP and MAP.  Over the course of the school year my students must complete 32 mandated “common assessments” with the score recorded into a database.  How the scores are used I have no idea.  Increasingly these assessments feel more like an audit of my teaching than a tool for improving student learning.

Students also complete regular math and spelling quizzes.  This is an additional 85 assessments.  While these tests tie closely to the content they contribute to the culture of ‘no child left untested.’  My students are expected to demonstrate their proficiency 117 times throughout a 180 day school year.  They are second graders.  In third grade the assessment load will increase.

This certainly wasn’t my experience in elementary school.  It wasn’t even the experience of my students ten years ago.  And this emphasis on testing isn’t preparing my students for adulthood:  The last assessment I took was four years ago.

One form of assessment has been overlooked by policy makers and more attention should be paid.  It is the teacher’s ongoing examination of student progress and understanding.  Teachers use this information to inform their practice and to adjust lesson pacing.  It gives teachers an indication of what to re-teach or where to extend.  It allows teachers to identify struggling students while there is time to arrange extra support.  It requires acute observation and meaningful interactions with students.  This process is at the heart of teaching; it’s where the magic happens.  It happens every day… except when we're testing.


New Standards, Part 2

Wheels By Mark

One of the wheels I reinvent each August is this chart wherein I build the scope and sequence for my courses, identify the timelines as well as major formative and summative assessments, then list which EALRs/GLEs those assessments address so that I can be sure I've fulfilled my obligation. Sounds fun, eh? Yeah, I'm a fun guy.

As I posted recently, the State of Washington is shifting from the old standards for Language Arts (farewell EALRs and GLEs) to the new Common Core standards. Ultimately, I like the wording of these "new" standards better (and for some reason, I can just understand many of them better). There are changes, to be sure, but even within those changes I can easily see ways that "what I already do" could be tweaked a bit to fit that instructional goal.

This post, however, is my attempt to help illuminate the complexity within teaching that these standards illustrate. (I cannot even begin to imagine what this same post from an elementary teacher might look like!)

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New Standards

Checklist By Mark

At the end of July, Randy Dorn announced that the state of Washington has adopted and will begin transitioning to application of the Common Core standards for English Language Arts. I head back to my classroom next week to start unpacking and really getting down to work preparing for the school year, but I'm having a problem seeing how this shift in standards should affect my planning and implementation.

And, based on the emails that have filled my spam folder for my school email address, there are an awful lot of businesses looking to cash in on this standards changeover… so many emails in fact, that the persistent cynic in me wonders whether this change to CCSSO Common Core standards isn't more about supporting textbook and software manufacturers than it is about promoting learning. When I see on the changeover explanation that the "system will include…

  • optional formative, or benchmark, exams; and
  • a variety of tools, processes and practices that teachers may use in planning and implementing informal, ongoing assessment. This will assist teachers in understanding what students are and are not learning on a daily basis so they can adjust instruction accordingly.

…I hear the cha-ching of cash registers and start thinking about all those emails trying to sell me matierals "perfectly aligned with Common Core Standards to guarantee student success on major assessments."

It probably isn't all about lining the pockets of curriculum mills, but when I look at the standards and the timeline that OSPI posted (more on that below), I do wonder really what is going to change… and I don't mean that in a futile, cynical way. I mean it like this: don't these standards just communicate what we should have been doing anyway under the old standards?

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