Friday, November 30, 2012

Test, test. This is should not be the test.

In August 2011, we learned that 28% of high school students weren't ready for college.  In September 2012, we learned at that "[m]ore than half our nation's 2012 high school graduates who took a college entrance exam did not have the skills they'll need to succeed in college or in a career, according to recent reports from the SAT and ACT."

We also learned that 43% of the students who took the SAT had a sufficient "level of academic preparedness associated with a high likelihood of college success."

That's not good information.  Nearly 60% of college-bound kids aren't ready for college.  And we already know there is a 41% dropout rate of those students who have to take remedial courses.  And we already know we don't have enough students going into science or mathematics, never mind technology and engineering.  And we already know that one of the reasons students struggle with science and math is because they struggle with reading.

But here's something really fascinating.  As we are wringing our hands over students' lack of preparation, skills, and capabilities, over 800 schools, including some big deal liberal arts Ivy League and Ivy League-ish universities, are no longer requiring the SAT or ACT.

Say what? Well, hold on to your hats because this is an alert of one of the worst kept secrets in education: standardized tests are not helpful in measuring what students really know and what students really can do.

If we were really serious about knowing what students know and can do, we would do a lot more project-based learning and we would do a lot more with portfolios.  That whole senior recital and senior project approach in college has some merit.  There is no good reason a similar model can't be implemented in high school.  Especially if we're serious about this whole college and work place readiness thing.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

There Will Be Writing

I used to teach freshman writing.  Loved it.  LOVED IT.  Would do it again in a heartbeat.  College kids are challenged by writing for a lot of reasons.
  1. They associate ENG101 with dreaded grammar.
  2. They don't think they are writers.
  3. They know they don't know how to spell very well.
  4. They got bad grades in English in school.
Some of those are legitimate reasons for being concerned about writing, but everyone is a writer.  Not everyone is a good writer, but by virtue of putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, thumbs to smartphone surface, everyone is a writer.

But here's the thing about most writing in college: papers of assigned word length and page length.  Seriously?  To anyone paying attention: stop it.  Just stop it.  I told my students that papers needed to be as long as they needed to be.  If they needed to write 20 or so pages, I'd read them all.  If they thought they could address a topic sufficiently and achieve their purpose in a few pages, so be it.  Hey.  That's what revisions are for.

I could write a lot about writing, and I will write more posts about writing, but my purpose just now is to spend a smidge of time addressing writing and Common Core State Standards.  And here it is: there will be writing.  In fact, there MUST be writing.

As a quick sidebar: I'm consistently astonished by the number of educators who spent a lot of time yapping about the Common Core State Standards and yet have never actually read them.  Please.  Let's talk about evidence-based argument and opinion.  Curious about the ELA standards?  Go here.

Check out page 7 of the ELA standards.  See?  Notes about reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language.  Fundamental literacy skills.  For anyone.  I know this isn't easy to read, so it might be better to go to the source anyway.  Hint, hint.  Look at that third paragraph that students are able to "respond to the varying demands of audience, task, purpose, and discipline."  That's the stuff of almost any writing class.

And I'm sure you can pick out the subheading that students can "comprehend as well as critique" and that students "value evidence."  This is good stuff.  Stuff that makes sense.

And now look at page 18: the anchor standards for writing.  Some of this could come from a college writing class syllabus.  There is nothing outrageous or unsettling here.  At least, it shouldn't be.

I could do a short history of writing instruction here, and might do so in another post, but the point is that people write all of the time.  Sometimes we write well; sometimes we write badly.  Most of us have no idea when or how to use an adverb; that is the stuff of a different blog, Writing Matters.  We know, however, that writing and writing well is important.  We also know the danger of the misunderstood email, the misintentioned email, the slip of the thumb of a text.

Writing is critical not only to K-12 education as a function of literacy and learning, but it is critical to success in college and success on multiple levels in the work place.

Writing instruction can be challenging, I won't deny that.  For the college writing professor, part of the challenge is that every other college professor believes that writing instruction is not part of his or her job.  That mindset is often prevalent in K-12 classrooms, but, the reality is--and the Common Core State Standards reinforce this--writing instruction is the responsibility of every classroom teacher because literacy is the responsibility of every classroom teacher.

Where to start?  Start with the anchor standards for writing  Then go check out the writing standards for K-5.  Even if you teach middle or high school, look at the K-5 writing standards.  That is the foundation of what kids will be learning and doing before they get to your classroom; those are the benchmarks for instruction and learning.  And then review the writing standards for 6-12.  Take your time.  Underline. Highlight.  Write questions in the margins.

Even if you're only worried about writing, go back and look at those reading standards.  In fact, print out the anchor standards for writing and the anchor standards for reading.  Analyze those texts.  Compare them.  Contrast them.  Think about what you see.  Think about what you already do in the classroom and what works.  Think about how you can build on those successes to help students continue to refine and improve their skills, their thinking, their literacy.

See?  That wasn't so hard.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Rigor and Relevance: The Stuff of Common Core

If you're in education, you've heard of the Common Core State Standards.  If this is new to you, well, wow! you had better get on board because this train is coming!

This blog will host a series of posts about Common Core.  Some by me; perhaps some by others I can recruit who know more than I do about Common Core. 

The conversation about Common Core isn't new.  There are rafts of blogs and articles about Common Core, so this is simply one more resource.  Perhaps I can provide some service by consolidating, analyzing, summarizing, and other Common Core-like activities.

Rigor and relevance.  These are two of the topics discussed almost any time someone mentions Common Core.  Why?  There are lots of statistics that point to why, but let's start with something more engaging.

So that's a perspective on rigor.  What does it mean?  It means that a lot of educators struggle to understand what rigor is and what it looks like in the classroom.  I like to ask teachers what they think teaching with rigor feels like, which puzzles them.  I want to know if they think "rigor" means "more strenuous."  Most educators know that rigor doesn't mean more pages, more work, or more problems, and most educators realize that rigor requires more complexity, more time, and more critical thinking.  What they don't know is how to make that happen.  Ahhh, that would be strategies and different ways of looking at instructional practice and different ways of thinking about student learning.

What about relevance?  Well, there are a couple of ways to look at relevance.  Let's start with another example that might be more engaging.

Now you may be wondering why I insisted on italicizing the word "engaging."  I did it because we use that word a lot and, as we learned in Princess Bride, we have to be sure the word means what we think it means.  We want students to be engaged in their learning, but just because a lesson seems interesting, even entertaining or just because students seem to be focused or busy doing something does not mean they are learning.

You might now be wondering what rigor and relevance actually are and how that might look in a classroom, what that experience might be or seem like from a teacher's perspective.  And that's what I hope to begin to pursue in the next blog post.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Teacher's Editions: The Dumbing Down of Educators (reprise)

Once upon a time, teachers were given a textbook, perhaps a few other resources including a grade book, and given the responsibility to determine how best to teach the content, in what order, with whatever resources, etc.  Some did excellent jobs; others were journeyman teachers who plodded through the textbook one chapter at a time and bored their students in the process.  I've heard stories of teachers who read the textbook to their students, which numbs my brain just thinking about it.

Over the years, reform-minded people, some of whom were even educators, came up with ideas for "improving teaching."  Some ideas were even reasonably useful.  And then one day, one bright star came up with the idea of the teacher's edition.  The textbook itself would be the student's edition, you know, the book the students used.  And the teacher's edition would be the student textbook but with the answers to the questions at the end of each chapter or at the back of the book, and pointers for teaching the content.  Eventually the teacher's edition included scripts so teachers would know what to say when.  The advantage, of course, is that it would be easy for substitute teachers, even if they were administrators, to teach on a day if a teacher had to be absent from school.

And then something strange happened.  Because teachers had that wonderful teacher's edition that told them what to say and when, that gave them the answers to the questions to the problems, that offered notes about how to teach the content, teachers just flat out forgot that they needed to know something about teaching to help their students learn.

So you see, you could walk into any classroom in America in which teachers clasped their teacher's editions as they prepared to teach and you could hear a Stepfordian presentation of, well, I'm not quite sure what.  The best way to describe might be the publisher's idea of how the content should be presented to students.  Presented, not taught.  And not provided in such a way that kids might actually learn.

Now we have teachers who might have no idea what to do when in their classrooms without a teacher's edition.

There are some who have broken free of the tyranny of the teacher's edition.  Long ago they managed to to release their grips on the book and realized, some even remembered, what it was like to actually know the content they were expected to teach, and they remembered what it felt like to help a student through productive struggle and exert themselves in the process of learning through discovery.  And they realized it was pretty darned fun, and that kids actually learned.

The Common Core State Standards will make it hard for teachers to use a teacher's edition.  Really hard.  And I celebrate that.  Teachers are waking up to a new and somewhat terrifying morning when they have not only responsibility for teaching, but the freedom to teach in ways that makes sense for their students.

It is my hope we will see the eventual eradication of the teacher's edition and it is my belief that then we will begin to see a reversal of the dumbing down of our educators.  When that happens I believe we can be more hopeful about the educating up of our students.