U.S. millennials: Schooled but not skilled

America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future is depressing and alarming, writes Fordham’s Robert Pondiscio.

Many Americans 16 to 34 years old “lack the skills required for higher-level employment and meaningful engagement in our democracy,” concludes the Educational Testing Service (ETS) report. 

Young Americans have more years of schooling than any previous generation, writes Irwin S. Kirch, director of the ETS’s Center for Global Assessment, in the preface. The U.S. has the highest proportion of millennials who are college graduates of the 22 countries studied.

Yet, the educated and the uneducated “demonstrate relatively weak skills in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology rich environments compared to their international peers,” Kirch writes.

U.S. millennials outscore only their peers in Italy and Spain in literacy. They rank last in numeracy.

It’s not that the U.S. has more low-income or immigrant students, notes Pondiscio. When our wealthiest students are compared to their wealthiest, our best-educated, our native-born, our immigrants, the U.S. falls short.

One of the comforting lies we have told ourselves in recent years is that, while we might have problems, our top performers are still the equal of the best in the world. Alas, the score for U.S. millennials at our ninetieth percentile was statistically higher than the best in just a single country: Spain.

These are “the people who will work, earn, support families, create jobs, make policy, take leadership positions, and be entrusted generally with protecting, defending, and continuing our democracy,” Pondiscio concludes.

As commencement speakers put it, they’re the hope of the future. A slim hope.

Literature, non-fiction, lady or tiger?

Under the Common Core, students are supposed spend half their reading time on non-fiction in elementary school, 70 percent in high school. English teachers aren’t happy about the shift from literature. Susan Pimentel, a lead writer of Common Core standards, defends the stress on non-fiction in a Hechinger Report interview.

The “literacy” part of the English Language and Literacy standards includes reading in social studies, science, and technical subjects, says Pimentel. Seventy percent of reading in all classes should be non-fiction.

It’s really important that in science and history classes, students have access to important primary texts and that they be able to figure out what the speaker is trying to say. In English, there should also be great literary non-fiction, so students can uncover the meaning and understand the author’s perspective.

In talking to college professors and employers, Common Core writers discovered a “four-year gap” between high school graduates’ skills and the demands of college and careers, says Pimentel.

A New York City teacher is using literature to teach computer science, writes Emmanuel Felton on the Hechinger Report. 

“Literary texts are informational texts,” says Lev Fruchter, who teaches at a school for gifted students.

He’s developed a computer science curriculum, STORYCODE.  Fruchter uses works like Moby Dick, where characters talk about science, and “what if” science fiction. However,  he says “implicit” STEM stories are the most powerful.

Frank R. Stockton’s 1882 short story The Lady, or the Tiger?  helps students understand binary choices.

In the original story, a king discovers that his daughter is having an affair. To punish the princess’s lover, the King puts him in an arena with two doors. Behind one door is a woman the king thinks is an appropriate mate for the lover, behind the other is a tiger. Meanwhile, the princess learns from the tiger keeper which door is which, but the question is whether the jealous princess will lead her lover to his death or into the arms of another woman.

In coding terms, this is a 1-bit story, with the solution either being 0 if she chooses to send him to his death or 1 if she sends him to the other woman.

But Fruchter likes to add more layers. Fruchter adds that the lover knows about the princess’s jealousy and has to decide whether or not to trust her. It is now a 2-bit story with four possible versions. Fruchter then adds in that the tiger keeper is in love with the princess, thus introducing the possibility that the tiger keeper lies to the princess, making it a 3-bit story with eight possible outcomes.

Each students writes a version of the story, then retells it in code. For example 110 “could translate to the tiger keeper telling the princess the truth, the princess telling her lover the truth, but her lover doesn’t believe her.”

Smarter babies, word by word

Building a baby’s brain starts at birth, the Thirty Million Words Project tells brand-new mothers.

Hours after giving birth to her first child, Bionka Burkhalter agreed to listen to two women talk about the importance of talking to Josiah. The 21-year-old single mother, who has a GED, “heard about tuning into his cues and responding when he cries, and about giving him a chance to communicate back to her, even if just through eye contact,” reports Sara Neufeld on the Hechinger Report.

xx talks to newborn Josiah

Bionka Burkhalter talks to newborn Josiah, after hearing a Thirty Million Words presentation. (Photo: Julienne Schaer)

“Obviously, language can in itself be a key part of building a child’s brain, but the parent relationship really is the basis for all of child development,” said founder Dana Suskind, 46, a widowed mother of three school-age kids and a pediatric surgeon.

A long-term study will compare the effects of six months of home visits: Some mothers will get advice on communicating with their babies while the control group will hear about nutrition.

Suskind’s team will follow 200 Chicago children to measure their kindergarten readiness.

 Parents will be taught to weave back-and-forth conversation into daily activities, from diaper changing to cooking dinner, and to explain to children why they are being asked to do things, rather than just directing them. They’ll be urged to go on a “technology diet,” since children need human interaction; their brains don’t build connections with televisions and computers. And they’ll be prompted to praise their children’s efforts rather than the outcomes of their actions so they won’t be discouraged from taking chances when something doesn’t work out. (“I love how hard you worked on that!” would be preferable to “You’re so smart!”)

“The ultimate answer is the whole society understanding how important parents are in their children’s development,” Suskind said. In low-income communities, “they’ve been told the opposite, that they’re not powerful.”

NYC’s would-be teachers flunk literacy test

Teacher trainees have to pass a new literacy exam to teach in New York: One third failed statewide and a majority of would-be teachers failed the literacy test at New York City colleges, reports the New York Post.  

The Academic Literacy Skills exam “measures whether a prospective teacher can understand and analyze reading material and also write competently,” reports the Post.

At a half-dozen City University of New York campuses, half or more failed to make the grade.

CUNY pass rates ranged from 0 at Boricua College in the Bronx to 82 percent passed at Hunter College.

Students who failed can pay a fee to retake the test.

State Education Commissioner John King said New York said many teacher-prep programs need to improve or close. “It’s better to have fewer programs that better prepare teachers than having many schools that have teachers who are unprepared for the classroom,” said King, who’s leaving to be a senior advisor to U.S. Education Department Secretary Arne Duncan.

Most states have not done enough to make sure new teachers will be ready for the higher standards students are expected to achieve, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality’s State Teacher Policy Yearbook.

Stephen King on teaching writing

 

Before he was a best-selling writer, Stephen King was a high school English teacher. In The Atlantic, Jessica Lahey asks King about teaching writing and reading.

Lahey: You have called informal essays “silly and unsubstantial things,” not at all useful for teaching good writing. What kinds of essay assignments are useful?

King: I tried to give assignments that would teach kids to be specific. I used to repeat “See, then say” half a dozen times a day. So I would often ask them to describe operations that they take for granted. Ask a girl to write a paragraph on how she braids her sister’s hair. Ask a boy to explain a sports rule. These are just basic starting points, where students learn to write on paper what they might tell a friend. It keeps it concrete. If you ask a kid to write on “My Favorite Movie,” you’re opening the door to subjectivity, and hence to a flood of clichés.

It’s “a horrible idea” to teach Moby-Dick or Dubliners to high school juniors, says King. It’s too depressing. “But it’s good to make them reach a little. They’ve got to see there are brighter literary worlds than Twilight. Reading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex.”

If he hadn’t been able to make a living as a writer, King was planning to switch to teaching elementary school.

Here’s the flat, sad truth: By the time they get to high school, a lot of these kids have already closed their minds to what we love. I wanted to get to them while they were still wide open. Teenagers are wonderful, beautiful freethinkers at the best of times. At the worst, it’s like beating your fists on a brick wall. Also, they’re so preoccupied with their hormones it’s often hard to get their attention.

“Do you think great teachers are born or do you think they can be trained?” asks Lahey.

King: Good teachers can be trained, if they really want to learn (some are pretty lazy). Great teachers, like Socrates, are born.

. . . The best teachers are artists.

I’ve never read one of King’s novels. I don’t like the genre. But his book on writing, titled On Writing, is excellent. His advice to would-be writers — “write a lot and read a lot” — is precisely what I say to young writers.

No longer a ‘pariah’

Politico’s list of the 50 “thinkers, doers and dreamers who really matter” includes, at number 8, E.D. Hirsch of the Core Knowledge Foundation and David Coleman, principal author of Common Core Standards.

“I’ve Been a Pariah for So Long,” Hirsch tells Peg Tyre.

At age 86, educational theorist E.D. Hirsch is finally being rehabilitated. For nearly 30 years, he has been labeled a blue-blood elitist and arch-defender of the Dead White European Male. Now, the retired English professor is finding that his ideas, once dismissed wholesale by the educational establishment, are being credited as the intellectual foundation of the national reform movement that has swept the country in recent years, pushing expanded access to preschool and the Common Core state learning standards to improve the chances of America’s poorer children.

In 1987, Hirsch argued in Cultural Literacy argued that children need background information to understand what they read.

In the index, he listed “5,000 essential subjects and concepts that Hirsch believed teachers should impart to their students, arrayed in alphabetical order: A.D., ad absurdum, adagio, Adam and Eve, Adams, John.”

“He showed the fundamental importance that knowledge plays to develop the foundations of literacy,” says David Coleman, who calls Hirsch’s work “absolutely foundational.” 

The Common Core is a “delivery mechanism” for Hirsch’s ideas, writes Robert Pondiscio, who worked for Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation, funded with the profits from his books.

The standards say:

By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.

That’s Hirsch.

“One of the frustrations of supporting Common Core is seeing Hirsch’s simple, elegant, and irrefutable insight disappear into a miasma of sloppiness, opportunism, and obfuscation,” writes Pondiscio.

OMG! Can the apostrophe survive?

The Apostrophe Protection Society is battling Kill the Apostrophe, reports Joe Pinsker in Punctuated Equilibrium.

With texting on the rise, autocorrect may be the only hope for the embattled punctuation mark.

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…]

Read to children from birth, doctors advise

This coming Tuesday, the American Academy of Pediatrics will announce a new policy: Doctors will now advise parents to read to their children from birth.

The reason? Exposure to vocabulary has a great effect on brain development, according to research. Children who are exposed to a large vocabulary tend to fare better academically than children who are not–and the latter come predominantly from lower-income families.

Thus, by urging parents to read to the babies from day one, the AAP hopes to help reduce academic disparities.

Now, reading to children from day one onward is a good idea–not only because it could boost their academic performance, but also because it’s the way to some interesting conversations and ideas. From a Boston.com article:

Reading aloud is also a way to pass the time for parents who find endless baby talk tiresome. “It’s an easy way of talking that doesn’t involve talking about the plants outside,” said Erin Autry Montgomery, a mother of a 6-month-old boy in Austin, Texas.

But is it really necessary to begin at birth? Daniel Willingham advises waiting a bit:

First, “from birth” is too early. It’s too early because parents of newborns really do have other, more pressing things to think about such as sleeping, and figuring out how family routines change with the new family member. It’s also too early because a newborn probably is not getting that much out of being read to. Newborn can’t really see much of a book — their vision is 20/500, and they don’t see blues very well until around age 3 months. And babies are much more social at a few months of age. My fear is that parents of newborns will either ignore the advice given their other concerns, or try to follow it, find it unrewarding, and drop it. The American Academy of Pediatrics might do better to direct members to recommend read-alouds beginning when children are to get the set of immunizations delivered at 4 months of age.

The problem I see is this. What are the consequences–for the poor and wealthy alike–of reading to your children primarily in order to boost their academics? Will this be good reading?

Some who didn’t previously read to their kids might follow the advice with gusto. Some might treat it as a chore. “OK, it’s time to read an informational text together. You’ve got to do your vocabulary building.” The kids will hate it.

Willingham sees a way through this: give parents some basic advice on how to read; that will both increase the chances that the parents will follow the advice in the first place, and also make it more enjoyable. He offers a few suggestions from his forthcoming book:

  • Read aloud at the same time each day, to help make it a habit.
  • Read a little slower than you think you need to. Even simple stories are challenging for children.
  • Don’t demand perfect behavior from your child.
  • Use a dramatic voice. Ham it up. Your child is not judging your acting ability.

I would add another: get used to listening to audio recordings of poems and stories. The better your ear for these things, the better you yourself will read aloud.

Willingham also suggests providing books. After suggesting that Scholastic help out, he heard back from Scholastic that it was going to donate 500,000 books. Will they be good books? That remains to be seen.

On its own, the pediatricians’ advice might not do much. But in combination with a few other efforts, it might spur some reading.

 

[Thanks to Joanne for pointing out Dan Willingham’s piece.]

Reading Rainbow is not a charity

“LeVar Burton has found a pot of gold at the end of Reading Rainbow, reports the New York Daily News.” The former host’s Reading Rainbow app raised $1 million in 24 hours on Kickstarter.

Burton, also known as Star Trek’s engineer, bought the name of the PBS children’s series, which aired from 1983 to 2009. He’s started a company to bring “Reading Rainbow’s” digital library of books and videos to classrooms and homes.‘We can genuinely change the world, one children’s book at a time,’ LeVar Burton said about his goal to raise money to bring ‘Reading Rainbow’ online.

Burton’s RRKidz, which produces a Reading Rainbow tablet app, is a for-profit company, not a charity, writes Caitlin Dewey in a Washington Post blog. It will be available to teachers for a monthly subscription — not free.

The app features book read-alongs and “video field trips.” Like the show, it fosters interest in reading but doesn’t teach reading skills, writes Dewey.

However, the app may not reach many low-income children. The Kickstarter funds will be used to put the app on desktop computers, while low-income families are much more likely to use phones to access the Internet.

Teachers already can access many episodes of the show for free via YouTube.

A better way to get books to needy kids is to give to nonprofits such as Children’s Literacy Initiative or First Book, Dewey suggests.