Good English teachers improve math scores

Good English teachers raise their students’ reading, writing and math performance for years, according to a working paper by a team of Stanford and University of Virginia researchers. Effective math teachers raise achievement only in math.

Researchers followed 700,000 New York City students  in third through eighth grade from 2003-04 to 2011-12.  Good English language arts or math teachers “not only produce higher than expected test scores during the year that they are teaching the students, but their students go on to score better in that subject in subsequent years,” they found.

More surprising were the crossover effects from English to math. The researchers found that the students of good English language arts teachers had higher than expected math scores in subsequent years. And this long-term boost to math performance was nearly as large (three quarters) as the long-term benefits within the subject of English. Conversely, good math teachers had only minimal long-term effects on English performance.

“Long-term benefits to good teaching were smaller in schools dominated by minority and low-income students,” the study found.

Dumbing down New York’s Regents exam

New York has dumbed down its Regents exam to avoid failing too many students, writes Michael Winerip in the New York Times. This year, for the first time, high schools students must score at least 65 on five exams — English, math, science, global history and U.S. history — to earn a diploma. But it’s easy to score 65, Winerip asserts. Literacy is optional.

The three-hour English test includes 25 multiple choice questions, an essay and two short responses. A student who gets 1’s on both responses is likely to reach 65, Winerip writes. What does it take to score a 1? The state teachers’ scoring guide gives an example of a 1-worthy short response:

These two Charater have very different mind Sets because they are creative in away that no one would imagen just put clay together and using leaves to create Art.

He also provides the start of an essay that deserves 4 out of 6 points, according to the guide:

In life, “no two people regard the world in exactly the same way,” as J. W. von Goethe says. Everyone sees and reacts to things in different ways. Even though they may see the world in similar ways, no two people’s views will ever be exactly the same. This statement is true since everyone sees things through different viewpoints.

I suppose one could argue that blathering, bluffing and echoing the words of authority figures are important workforce skills.

Winerip, never a fan of standards and accountability, doubts “there are new and higher standards, stronger curriculums and better tests just over the next hill to solve all our problems.”

“Four now,” he writes, “Wm. Shakespare must Be a turnover in his Grave (1 point).”

Professors: Core standards fit college

Common Core Standards in math and English reflect skills needed in college, said instructors of entry-level college courses in a new study. Reaching the Goal asked instructors at two-year and four-year institutions about the standards’ relevance and importance to college-level classes in English, math, science and social science, as well as career courses in business, computers and health care. David Conley of the Educational Policy Improvement Center was the lead researcher.

The study was designed to validate the new standards, charges Common Core critic Ze’ev Wurman in comments.

The study was very careful not to ask the $64,000 questions: (a) Do the standards reflect a sufficient level of preparation for your course, and (b) do the standards reflect a better, or a worse, level of preparation as compared to your current requirements?

Instead the study asked about “coherent representation” of the subject, and about a “level of cognitive demand.” One can have a coherent representation of any subject, and even at a reasonable depth in certain areas, yet miss whole chunks of material.

In addition, the study doesn’t break down responses by two-year vs. four-year institutions or by courses, Wurman complains.  Ninety percent of instructors responded on math standards; almost 40 percent said the math standards aren’t “coherent.” One third of responders were language and literature professors who are unlikely to be strong judges of math coherence. That suggests 55 to 60 percent of math instructors found the math standards incoherent, Wurman estimates.


Evans-Marshall and the canons of the profession

In October 2010, a Sixth Circuit panel decided that a teacher’s curricular and pedagogical choices are not protected by the First Amendment (Evans-Marshall v. Board of Education of the Tipp City Exempted Village School District). The panel cited several precedents, including Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006). There was a lively discussion of the case on this blog last fall; I find it worth revisiting because of the Garcetti question. In particular, Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissenting opinion in Garcetti deserves attention, as it brings up the idea of the “canons of the profession.”

To sum up the Evans-Marshall case: the dispute began in 2001, when a group of angry parents in Tipp City, Ohio, protested teacher Shelley Evans Marshall’s book selections and teaching methods. Marshall had taught Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and followed this with a project on censorship. She divided the students into groups and had each group investigate a book from the American Library Association’s list of “100 Most Challenged Books.” Two groups chose Heather Has Two Mommies by Lesléa Newman; when parents complained, the principal asked Marshall to assign a different book. Marshall complied, explaining to the class that this very experience would serve as source material on censorship.

When this unit was completed, Evans-Marshall assigned Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha and held class discussions about “spirituality, Buddhism, romantic relationships, personal growth, [and] familial relationships.” Although the school board had purchased the copies of Siddhartha, it had not explicitly included Siddhartha in the curriculum. Parents complained about this and other choices that Evans-Marshall had made; they found the explicit language in Siddhartha offensive. Parents presented the school board with a 500-signature petition calling for “decency and excellence” in the classroom. [Read more…]

A new curriculum map for new standards

So far, 36 states have adopted Common Core State Standards.  The next step is to figure out how to teach the standards. Common Core (an independent group) has released  curriculum maps for K-12 English Language Arts based on the new standards.

With encouragement from NGA and support from the Gates Foundation we took the standards along with the recommended exemplar texts and used them as the basis for creating new curriculum maps that we believe teachers today will be excited to use.  We even tapped the same expert who worked on the reading standards for the CCSS to create a new pacing guide for the teaching of reading customized to our maps.

Common Core’s curriculum maps were “written by public school teachers for public school teachers.”  Common Core urges teachers to look at the draft maps and comment by Sept. 17.

Common standards: First, do no harm

The proposed common English language standards should state clearly and forcefully that reading, writing, speaking and listening  “are not intended to be explicitly taught as skills,” writes E.D. Hirsch in Education Week.

Rather, even these preliminary standards need to stress that academic content—in literature, history, science, and the arts—must be taught coherently and cumulatively in order to impart the requisite language competencies.

The vague use of “standards” has “enabled writers to avoid making difficult but necessary curricular decisions that could guide the creators of classroom materials, teachers, and test-makers,” Hirsch writes.

There are two ways in which makers of standards could overcome the political difficulties of performing their chief duty: giving useful guidance. One would be to offer one or more exemplary curriculum guides. For “college- and career-ready” verbal standards, it would mean grade-by-grade curricular guides from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Another way of being actually useful would be to set forth in great detail the kind of criteria a local curriculum guide would have to fulfill to meet its pastoral obligations.

If we don’t decide what content should be taught, the textbook makers will do it for us, “even if it is trivial, fragmented, skills-based content,” Hirsch warns.

"Standards are not curriculum"

The revised Common Core standards are ready for review. The NGA clarifies in its release that “standards are not curriculum.” Robert Pondiscio comments that “it’s good to see a measure of clarity” about the distinction between the two.

These standards do look clearer than the previous version, although, as before, the math is more specific than the English. Chester E. Finn, Jr., at Flypaper comments:

We’re still reviewing the latest version but at first glance it appears that the math standards, while not perfect, have a lot going for them. The “English” standards are harder to appraise. They’re not actually English standards, but, rather, standards for reading, writing, speaking and listening. The drafters acknowledge that they would need to be accompanied by solid curriculum content, and they’ve provided a handful of examples—good ones, mostly—of such content. But they’ve also left most of the heavy lifting to states, districts, schools and educators. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it also means that the “common core” standards, at least in this version, are more a vessel waiting to be filled with curriculum than an actual framework for what teachers should teach and students should learn.

Yet even with the relative vagueness of the English standards, they have more substance than some of the state ELA standards I have seen. Here’s what the standards say about the quality of reading material:

The literary and informational texts chosen or study should be rich in content and in a variety of disciplines. All students should have access to and grapple with works of exceptional craft and thought both for the insights those works offer and as models for students’ own thinking and writing. These texts should include classic works that have broad resonance and are alluded to and quoted often, such as influential political documents, foundational literary works, and seminal historical and scientific texts. Texts should also be selected from among the best contemporary fiction and nonfiction and from a diverse range of authors and perspectives.

I looked at the illustrative texts and the commentary. I have some minor quibbles, but all in all they look fine. My main concern is that English class would turn into “a little bit of everything.” There should be literature class, and then there should be extensive reading and writing in the other subjects.

The math standards look promising, though the illustrative examples seem a bit on the easy side. Also, I am not sure why they avoided organizing the material around areas of mathematics such as geometry, algebra, linear algebra, calculus. Only probability and statistics get their own categories. Otherwise the material is organized around general skills and concepts. Why?