Archives for September 2009

Reading: quantity, nonfiction, knowledge

The common standards movement has sparked a useful discussion of teaching reading. Many critics like the newest draft of the standards, reports Curriculum Matters.

Carol Jago, the president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of English, tells me she thinks the draft has improved in two ways. First, it emphasizes “quantity in reading.” Jago, an author and former high school teacher, served as one of several outside reviewers of the English-language arts version of the document.

“More is more when it comes to students and reading,” Jago told me in an e-mail. “I was delighted to see this important point addressed so directly…The dramatic difference between the number of books students read in high school and the number they are assigned in college I believe contributes enormously to student failure in the first semester at university.”

Jago also likes the focus on reading challenging books independently, a skill needed for college and the workplace.

Will Fitzhugh, the founder of The Concord Review, wants more stress on nonfiction documents and research papers.

In a Washington Post op-ed, cognitive scientist Dan Willingham critiques the standards for assuming students can understand what they read without background knowledge. Teaching “strategies” doesn’t lead to comprehension, he writes.

Remarkably, if you take kids who score poorly on a reading test and ask them to read on a topic they know something about (baseball, say, or dinosaurs) all of a sudden their comprehension is terrific—better than kids who score well on reading tests but who don’t know a lot about baseball or dinosaurs.

In other words, kids who score well on reading tests are not really kids with good “reading skills.”

Once students have “cracked the code of letters and sounds” and read fluently, the good readers are the ones with the prior knowledge to enable them to understand what they read, Willingham argues.  Students who lack background knowledge can reason their way through a text, but it’s slow and difficult, “a recipe for creating a student who doesn’t like reading.”

For $95, a homeless doll

Gwen Thompson, the newest American Girl doll, is homeless. Dad left, mom lost her job and they now sleep in a car. Like other dolls in the very expensive collection, Gwen sells for $95.

The decision to create Gwen, a friend to bully-battling Chrissa, is “at best a head-scratcher and at worst a horribly offensive cultural trainwreck,” writes Nina Shen on Double X.

I agree that Mattel should donate the profits to help real homeless children.  If not, parents might want to donate $95 to charity and tell their little girls to make do with the dolls they’ve already got.

Hard to great

The hard is what makes it great, Ms. W., a second-year Teach for America teacher, tells her AP U.S. History students.  Their performance varies.

The AP papers range from the sublime (“The Quakers allowed a remarkable degree of religious tolerance to flourish in Pennsylvania, perhaps because of their experiences with being persecuted during the English Civil Wars”) to the ridiculous (“When Christopher Columbus arrived from Great British he found the King of New England there and willing to help him.”)

Her students are used to getting A’s without studying. She’s trying to persuade them they’ll need to work harder to succeed in an AP class.

Carnival of Homeschooling

Heart of the Matter is  hosting this week’s Carnival of Homeschooling on bridging the gap between child and parent.

Unsafe at school

Walking from his Chicago high school to the bus stop, 16-year-old Derrion Albert was hit with a wood plank, punched and stomped to death by a mob of teenagers from rival neighborhoods.  Apparently, the honor student was attacked by both factions, police say. The attack was caught on video. Four teens have been arrested so far.

Fenger High School has reopened, reports the Chicago Tribune. But students fear more violence.

Many students were so afraid, they simply stayed home.

The ones who showed up were met by more than a dozen police officers standing sentry around campus and by squad cars positioned in the neighborhood announcing, by their mere presence, that they would guarantee safe passage to and from school.

. . . Nakia Fulton, a Fenger senior, said she too was nervous about attending school Monday.

“It wasn’t just that they beat him to death,” she said. “It’s that kids don’t know how to control themselves.”

Alexander Russo’s District 299 blog has links to stories on Albert’s murder.

I wonder if parent volunteers from both neighborhoods could be organized to patrol the route from the school to the bus stop.  These are their children.

Who shall test the test readers?

Poorly trained part-timers determine test scores that loom so large in education, writes Todd Farley in a New York Times op-ed. The author of Making the Grades, Farley was hired to score fourth-grade, state-wide reading comprehension tests when he was a graduate student in 1994.

One of the tests I scored had students read a passage about bicycle safety. They were then instructed to draw a poster that illustrated a rule that was indicated in the text. We would award one point for a poster that included a correct rule and zero for a drawing that did not.

The first poster I saw was a drawing of a young cyclist, a helmet tightly attached to his head, flying his bike over a canal filled with flaming oil, his two arms waving wildly in the air. I stared at the response for minutes. Was this a picture of a helmet-wearing child who understood the basic rules of bike safety? Or was it meant to portray a youngster killing himself on two wheels?

Some fellow scorers wanted to give full marks for understanding bicycle safety; others wanted to give a zero.

I realized then — an epiphany confirmed over a decade and a half of experience in the testing industry — that the score any student would earn mostly depended on which temporary employee viewed his response.

This is why multiple-choice tests can be more reliable than subjectively graded tests that rely on drawing (or writing) skills to measure reading comprehension.

I have a review copy of Farley’s book, which I plan to read very soon — along with the four other review books waiting for me. Maybe today! Anyhow, I vowed not to mention other people’s books without promoting my own book, Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds.

$50 per kid for college

Every San Francisco kindergartener would get a city-funded $50 college savings bond under a plan proposed by Mayor Gavin Newsom, write columnists Matier and Ross.

The idea behind the Kindergarten to College program would be for San Francisco to seed an account for each of the 4,500 children who enter kindergarten in the city’s public schools each year. The students and their families would take it from there.

The money could be used only for college and would come out of the general fund.

All students would be eligible for the $50, regardless of immigration status.  However, many illegal immigrants don’t have bank accounts. Newsom, who’s planning a run for governor, is trying to figure out how to  deal with that.

England bans babysitting by friends

You thought No joy in Middleville was crazy:  A Michigan woman was told not to watch neighbors’ kids waiting for the bus without a license. Nobody can match the English for meddling bureaucrats:   Two job-sharing policewomen have been threatened with prosecution as illegal childminders because they trade babysitting for their two-year-old daughters, who are best friends.

But the mothers, both 32, have now been told by Ofsted that surveillance teams will spy on their homes to make sure they are not continuing to care for each other’s daughter.

For the past two-and-a-half years, one looked after both of the girls while the other worked a ten-hour shift. Both worked two days a week.

A neighbor’s complaint triggered the inspection.

The nanny state exempts only family members from the ban on babysitting for more than two hours a day. Both mothers have placed their daughters in child-care centers.  One mother, separated from her husband, has applied for government benefits to pay the cost.

Standards won't stick

Robert Pondiscio explains Why Standards Aren’t Sticky at Core Knowledge Blog. He starts with a military analogy:  “Commander’s Intent” is designed to clarify goals without micromanaging tactics. Standards can’t do for education what CI did for the military because we lack “a shared understanding and deep experience with the tactics needed to achieve the desired results,” Pondiscio writes.

The draft reading standards put up for public comment this week by the Common Core State Standards Initiative can’t “stick” because they are built on a flawed model of reading as a transferable skill. By promoting even tacitly the idea the we can teach reading independent of content (decoding + reading strategies = the ability to comprehend everything), the standards offer little useful guidance for teachers, virtually ensuring that even these “fewer, clearer” directions will not be met. Only by describing specific texts and content across disciplines (making clear that comprehension equals background knowledge) with assessments aligned with those texts and content, can there be any hope of measurable progress.

Let’s be blunt: Find one single teacher drawing breath that needed a secretive committee of two dozen experts to tell her that high school students ought to be able to “discern the most important ideas, events, or information, and summarize them accurately and concisely.” This is not a standard, it’s a platitude. As a goal or statement of purpose, it offers as much guidance and direction as military orders to “win the war.” We do not lack clarity on our goals. We lack clarity on how to achieve them.

Is the standards movement a waste of time? Should we try to achieve consensus on effective strategies?

I’m atoning today — and fasting — so I’ll let cooler, better-fed minds deal with this.

Quality child care boosts math, reading

Poor children in higher-quality child care programs do better in math and reading through fourth grade compared to similar children in lower-quality programs or in maternal care, concludes a new study published in the September/October 2009 issue of Child Development. Quality care didn’t erase the effects of family poverty, but it helped, reports Early Ed Watch.

According to Boston College researcher Eric Dearing, “the more time these children spent in above-average child care providers, the further the association between familial income and school performance weakened.”

Trained observers evaluated how “child-care settings were organized, how teachers interacted with children, class sizes, and other indicators of quality care.”

It’s clear that intensive, expensive, very high-quality programs produce significant long-term benefits. The question has been: Can these model programs be replicated? Finding long-term gains from good-but-not-great programs is a hopeful sign.