‘Balanced’ illiteracy

“Balanced literacy” failed when it was tried in New York City schools, writes Alexander Nazaryan in the New York Times. Yet, the new schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, plans to bring it back. She also promises to return “joy” to classrooms.

Lucy Calkins, a Columbia University scholar, championed the idea: “Teaching writing must become more like coaching a sport and less like presenting information,” she wrote.

Students’ joyful exploration of reading and writing would be “unhindered by despotic traffic cops,” writes Nazaryan, who taught English. But “studies showed that students learned better with more instruction.”

I take umbrage at the notion that muscular teaching is joyless. There was little joy in the seventh-grade classroom I ran under “balanced literacy,” and less purpose. My students craved instruction far more than freedom. Expecting children to independently discover the rules of written language is like expecting them to independently discover the rules of differential calculus.

The fatal flaw of balanced literacy is that it is least able to help students who most need it.

Middle-class students with lots of enrichment at home may be able to teach themselves to write, he concedes. His students needed to be taught.

Nazaryan was “yanked out of the Soviet Union at 10.” His English-as-a-second-language teacher, Mrs. Cohen, “taught me the language in the most conventionally rigorous manner, acutely aware that I couldn’t do much until I knew the difference between a subject and a verb.”

He became a teacher “to transmit the valuable stuff I’d learned from Mrs. Cohen and other teachers to young people who were as clueless as I had been.”

Update: Fariña is ignoring the research, writes Dan Willingham. Students in New York City’s Core Knowledge schools did much better in reading than students taught with the city’s version of balanced literacy.

Why return to a teaching method that didn’t work well? Marc Tucker thinks Fariña “knows how effective it can be in the hands of highly competent teachers with good leadership.”

Back to Balanced Literacy in NYC?

To those familiar with the history of New York City schools, this should come as no surprise: NYC schools chancellor Carmen Fariña is pushing for a return to Balanced Literacy, which she has long supported and which she sees as compatible with the Common Core.

Some dispute her claim; a New York Times article by Javier Hernández  quotes Common Core architect Susan Pimentel, who says that part of the Balanced Literacy philosophy is “worrisome and runs counter to the letter and spirit of Common Core.” Later, it states that she sees the two as potentially compatible. Compatibility aside, is this return to Balanced Literacy a good idea? I say emphatically no–and will give two reasons that weren’t mentioned in the article. It was in large part my objection to Balanced Literacy (as dogma) that spurred me to write Republic of Noise.

Balanced Literacy, which traces back to initiatives of the 1970s and 1980s, rests on the premise that children learn best when allowed to teach each other and themselves. The teacher is a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage”; students have frequent opportunities to choose their own books; and most lessons involve small group work (or sometimes independent work). The program was extensively developed in NYC schools in the 1990s. Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein mandated it throughout NYC schools in 2003. It is the foundation of the Reading and Writing Project, founded by Lucy Calkins.

While certain elements of Balanced Literacy, applied prudently, could be part of good teaching anywhere, the program as a whole has dangerous weaknesses. Many critics have pointed to the lack of curricular focus and the implied disparagement of direct instruction. The NYT article quotes Robert Pondiscio, who became an eloquent and passionate critic of Balanced Literacy as a result of teaching it in the South Bronx:

“One of the best things you can do to build reading proficiency is to build a strong base of background knowledge,” said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research organization. “When you have 24 kids reading 24 books, you’re not accounting for that.”

Indeed. Moreover, when there’s no specific content that the students are learning together, what do they get instead? Strategies, strategies, and more strategies. Reading strategies, writing strategies, strategies for remembering your strategies. In the absence of content, such strategies become vapid. Forget about holding a candle; they can’t even hold hot air to subject matter. Also, some of these “strategies” involve sidestepping the text–for instance, a teacher might encourage students to figure out unfamiliar words (that is, to figure out what they actually are) by looking at the pictures.

Here’s my contribution to the discussion: Balanced Literacy is to be distrusted because it is an all-encompassing pedagogical package that comes with both a worldview and a fever. Moreover, its emphasis on group work discourages high-level, sustained, and original work and thought. [Read more...]

Moats: Core fail

Common Core standards are appropriate for the “most academically able” students, says Louisa Moats in a Psychology Today interview. At least half of students will not be able to meet the standards. A nationally known expert on teaching reading, Moats helped write the standards.

Students doomed to “fail” core-aligned tests need a “range of educational choices and pathways to high school graduation, employment, and citizenship,” says Moats. Notice she doesn’t mention college.

The standards call for the use of “more challenging and complex texts,” which will benefit older students, she says. But that may hurt younger students.

Novice readers (typically through grade 3) need a stronger emphasis on the foundational skills of reading, language, and writing than on the “higher level” academic activities that depend on those foundations, until they are fluent readers.

Teachers aren’t prepared to teach the new standards, says Moats.

Classroom teachers are confused, lacking in training and skills to implement the standards, overstressed, and the victims of misinformed directives from administrators who are not well grounded in reading research.

. . . The standards treat the foundational language, reading, and writing skills as if they should take minimal time to teach and as if they are relatively easy to teach and to learn. They are not. The standards call for raising the difficulty of text, but many students cannot read at or above grade level, and therefore may not receive enough practice at levels that will build their fluency gradually over time.

Teachers have received no sensible guidance on how to teach students with learning disabilities, she adds.

  What little time there is for professional development is being taken up by poorly designed workshops on teaching comprehension of difficult text or getting kids to compose arguments and essays. This will not be good for the kids who need a systematic, explicit form of instruction to reach basic levels of academic competence.

I’ve been around a long time, and this feels like 1987 all over again, with different words attached to the same problems. When will we ever learn?

This is a devastating critique.

Via DCGEducator.

Oversharing to get into college

One Yale applicant wrote that she peed her pants rather than break off a conversation with an admired teacher. Another wrote about his small genitalia, recalls Michael Motto, a former Yale admissions offer. “He was going for something about masculinity and manhood, and how he had to get over certain things.”

Oversharing has gone over the top in college admissions essays, writes New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. that assessment. “There are accounts of eating disorders, sexual abuse, self-mutilation, domestic violence, alcoholism, drug addiction.”

“Being a little vulnerable can give great insight into your character,” said Joie Jager-Hyman, a former admissions officer at Dartmouth College and the president of College Prep 360, which helps students assemble their applications. “I’ve had successful essays on topics like ‘my father’s alcoholism’ or ‘my parents got divorced because my dad is gay.’ ”

But going too far “can raise red flags about students’ emotional stability and about their judgment.”

Affluent parents pay admissions counselors to help students come up with just the right amount of angst.

Michele Hernandez, another prominent admissions counselor, runs one or more sessions of an Application Boot Camp every summer in which roughly 25 to 30 kids will be tucked away for four days in a hotel to work with a team of about eight editors on what she told me were as many as 10 drafts of each of three to five different essays. The camp costs $14,000 per student. That doesn’t include travel to it, the hotel bill, breakfast or dinners, but it does include lunch and a range of guidance, both before and during the four days, on how students should fill out college applications and best showcase themselves.

One of my daughter’s high school friends wrote a touching essay about coming out as gay. It got him into an Ivy League college. He’s not gay, but at least he did his own lying.

“The unlived life is not worth examining,” responds Robert Pondiscio in a comment.

To a significant degree, these kinds of self-involved, narcissistic essays are explicitly taught and encouraged in K-12 schools from elementary school onward. New York City schools in particular have long been dominated by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project approach to writing, made (in)famous by literacy guru Lucy Calkins, which teaches children as young as third grade to plumb the depths of the seven-year-old souls for “seed ideas” for personal narratives for their “writer’s notebooks.” Those ideas are then painstakingly massaged into “small moment” pieces, personal narratives and even, yes, memoirs.

The kids . . . learn to conflate the confessional and self-involved with “great writing.”

“If elite colleges stopped asking for personal essays as an admission requirement and instead asked for two piece of graded academic writing — a research report, an English or history paper — the market for confessional writing would dry up by sundown,” writes Pondiscio. “It would also be a better barometer of college readiness.”

And perhaps it would dry up the market for $14,000 four-day college-app cram camps.

Pondiscio, who’s just signed on as senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at Fordham,  has more in a post on a Fordham blog.

Dead Poets’ me-me-me message

Dead Poets Society, which came out 25 years ago, has had a pernicious influence on young writers — and on college English departments — charges novelist Stephen Marche in Esquire.

The story is a classic tale of writerly egomania, transferred onto the figure of a teacher. Robin Williams playing John Keating — he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance — was the origin of the “cool teacher” cliche that humiliated so many of us in the 1990s. Instead of staying in a classroom reading, he takes his students for long walks and life lessons. Instead of having them read interpretations of literature, he begins his class by having them rip out the pages of the introduction. He modestly suggests that they call him “O Captain, my Captain,” a title that Walt Whitman originally intended for a murdered Abraham Lincoln, martyred savior of the Republic. Keating is entitled to his students’ adulation, in the film, because he imbues in them a sense of self-worth, totally unrelated to their accomplishments.

The movie presents literature as “collective narcissism,” writes Marche. Reading and writing are easy.

Understanding the literary tradition was not a task. Nobody had to learn foreign languages or philology. Nobody had to work at it. What you really needed to be a writer was to be sensitive and to overcome the traditional strictures of mom and dad. You really just needed to be a rebel.

Dead Poets Society glorifies a terrible way to teach humanities writes Kevin J.H. Dettmar, an English professor, in The Atlantic. It’s anti-intellectual gush.

The movie has been voted the greatest “school film” ever and often named as one of the most inspirational films of all time, according to The Guardian.

The birth of a citation

Xkcd explains Citogenesis:

Citogenesis

Two educations


Marcus Burke, author of Team Seven, went to college on a basketball scholarship, but chose writing. Burke talks about Why Every Writer Needs Two Educations in The Atlantic as part of the magazine’s By Heart series.

College essays reward dishonesty

Abolish the personal essay on college applications, writes Samuel Goldman.

In theory, personal statements allow admissions officers to get to know applicants as individuals rather than the sum of grades and test scores. In practice, these brief texts are the basis of subjective and sometimes highly political judgments about the groups of students that an institution hopes to enroll.

Hard-luck stories — “overcoming adversity” — are favored, reports the New York Times. That gives undisadvantaged a strong incentive to embellish minor hardships or “even invent sob stories,” Goldman writes.

Some parents hired paid tutors. Others help “savvy applicants revise and polish their statements so many times that the final versions are not very accurate reflections of their writing skills–or even their own ideas,” writes Goldman.

Most applicants to elite colleges have similar academic and testing records, a Yale official told the New York Times. So “they might as well make admissions decisions by a lottery among objectively qualified students,” writes Goldman.

If they really need to supplement high school credentials with a writing component, colleges might consider prompts that encourage classic features of the essay such as humor and ingenuity, rather than tear-jerking reminiscences. The University of Chicago is famous for offbeat prompts that encourage applicants to think rather than to recollect or emote.

Another option is to ask applicants to submit a research paper on a substantial topic, suggests Goldman.

One of my daughter’s high school classmates wrote a touching essay about coming out as gay. He’s now an Ivy League graduate. He’s not gay. But, at least, he wrote it himself.

Students do well on fast track to college English

Fast-tracking remedial reading and writing — offering a more rigorous one-semester course — raised success rates at a California community college. Compared to students in the two-semester course, fast-tracked students earned more credits and higher grades and were more likely to complete college English, earn a certificate or degree and transfer to a four-year college or university.

Babel vs. essay-grading bots

These days, more tests ask students to write short essays, not just answer multiple-choice questions. But it’s slow and expensive to hire humans do the grading. Essay-grading ‘bots are cheap and fast, but are they any good?

It’s easy to fool a robot grader, Les Perelman, a former writing director at MIT, tells the Chronicle of Higher Education.

His Basic Automatic B.S. Essay Language Generator, or Babel, can crank out robot-fooling essays using one to three keywords. Each sentence is grammatically correct, structurally sound and meaningless. Robots can’t tell the difference, says Perelman.

He fed in “privacy.” Babel wrote:

“Privateness has not been and undoubtedly never will be lauded, precarious, and decent. Humankind will always subjugate privateness.”

MY Access!, an online writing-instruction product, graded the essay immediately: 5.4 points out of 6, with “advanced” ratings for “focus and meaning” and “language use and style.”

Robots and human graders awarded similar scores to 22,000 essays by high school and middle school students, concluded at study by Mark D. Shermis, a former dean of the College of Education at the University of Akron, in 2012.

Perelman accused Shermis of bad data analysis. The Akron professor stood by his study and published a follow-up paper this year.

Computer scientists at edX, the nonprofit online-course provider co-founded by MIT, are working on the Enhanced AI Scoring Engine, or EASE. The software can learn and imitate the grading styles of particular professors,” reports the Chronicle.

Some of edX’s university partners have used EASE to provide feedback to students in massive open online courses (MOOCs).