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...]

From Core Knowledge to civics

After five years writing the Core Knowledge Blog, Robert Pondiscio is moving on. He’ll help “launch a new organization to advocate for civic education, to renew and revitalize the civic purpose of education.”

He says some guy named E.D. Hirsch will take over the blog for now.

Pondiscio will remain focused on “the content of our children’s education–what teachers teach and children learn.”

With the advent of Common Core State Standards, much of the energy around school improvement is now squarely focused where it belongs: inside the classroom.  Does this mean K-12 education is now safe for content?  That curriculum is the most favored reform lever?  Not hardly.  CCSS implicitly rescues literacy from its status as a content-free, skills-driven intellectual wasteland, but questionable, ineffective literacy practices are the seven-headed Hydra of Greek mythology—cut off one head and two more grow in its place.

I choose to be optimistic.  The essential point made by E.D. Hirsch for nearly 30 years – literacy is a function of background knowledge – is settled science. For the first time in the reform era, American education is having a deep and fruitful conversation about what gets taught.  The understanding that the more kids know across knowledge domains, the more likely they are to read, write, listen and speak with comprehension and confidence, is enshrined in the Common Core ELA standards.

But the fight “will never be over,” he writes. “Education has a peculiar talent for endlessly re-litigating disputes, regardless of the weight of evidence, and relabeling old ideas as new and innovative.”

Also on the CK Blog, check out Jessica Lahey’s Epistle to the Romans on teaching Latin.

Latin students learn more, Lahey writes. But the best part “lies in the evolution of our language, the stories revealed through etymology, the history of our culture articulated through the words we preserve and the words we discard.”

 As Robert’s post points out, a big vocabulary does not come from sheer memorization. Anyone who has ever been subjected to an 11th-hour SAT prep course knows that. It comes from a deeper understanding of word origins and repeated exposure to novel words through reading. If I know that the Latin acer means “sharp,” I can deduce that “acid” has a sharp taste, an “acute” angle is sharp, “acrid” is a sharp smell, and an “acerbic” person has a sharp wit.

I am all for the memorization of vocabulary; in fact, my school teaches vocabulary using a lovely series called Vocabulary fromClassical Roots and my students memorize their share of vocabulary lists. However, if we want our students to achieve true depth and breadth of vocabulary, it’s worth spending some time among the Romans. A working knowledge of Latin is worth more than the weight of its word roots. It is an exercise in reverse-engineering our own language in order to understand how all the parts fit together to create a whole.

I learned Greek and Latin roots in a seventh-grade class called Vocabulary Reading. Etymology really is fun.

Robert Pondiscio: Building a better Edsel

Down the street on the Core Knowledge Blog, Robert Pondiscio reports on an email he received from a strong supporter of charters. She told him that she had visited a Big Name “no-excuses” charter school and discovered, to her dismay, that the curriculum was “all fuzzery all the time,” with minimal direct instruction:

Teachers aren’t allowed to use direct instruction for longer than a few minutes; then the students must repair to their pods and discover knowledge. After they discover knowledge, which means solving ONE problem, they return to the rug and explain their “strategies” to each other. Although the school prides itself on efficient use of time, the students I saw were spending a lot of time doing nothing at all while they waited for the other kids to finish so the whole group could migrate back to the rug.

And yet, as far as available data go, this school is doing “very, very well,” reports Pondiscio. What is going on here? Short-term data do not necessarily translate into long-term achievement. This seems to be the upshot of a recent report by KIPP, which states that “only 33 percent of students who completed a KIPP middle school 10 or more years ago have graduated from a four-year college.” That’s much better than the average rate for low-income minority students. All the same, Pondiscio notes, it shows how much work lies ahead.

Perhaps the data reflect temporary results, suggests Pondiscio, not the sort of learning that will last. Perhaps we’re putting all our energy into building the best possible Edsel–that is, bringing everyone up to a familiar level of mediocrity.

Pondiscio writes, “The long view may be slowly, quietly emerging–as it should and must–as the question in education reform.”

Read the whole piece.

It’s the academic content, stupid

Some well-known education reformers attended private high schools, wrote Michael Winerip in the New York Times. His list includes Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Teddy Kennedy, Checker Finn, “Waiting for Superman” director Davis Guggenheim, Jeb Bush,  and others.

In response, ed reformer Whitney Tilson called Winerip “the worst education reporter in America” and a “gutless weasel.” Tilson also lists education reformers who attended public high schools.

In Private School Student, Public School Reformer, Core Knowledge blogger Robert Pondiscio takes a calmer look at the issue. He thinks that well-educated people may take a strong curriculum for granted.

Private and parochial schools tend to have fairly set curricula that describes grade-by-grade content with great specificity. Public schools tend to have “standards” that enumerate the skills kids should demonstrate, while leaving curriculum choices to the teachers.

The difference is significant, Pondiscio argues.

If you assume that what kids learn is basically the same from school to school, you will naturally assume the only thing you can change is teacher quality, accountability, pay structures and funding formulas.  Do students in public schools get poorer meals, fewer resources and lousy teachers compared to their privileged peers?  Some do, some don’t. But the one thing most low-SES children certainly do not get is a well-rounded, academic curriculum.  Tilson himself once told me that a good curriculum “is like mom and apple pie. Everyone is in favor of it.”

But then why are so many children saddled with content-free drivel?

Pondiscio sent his daughter to a Manhattan private school, while he taught at a public school in the South Bronx. Lots of public-schools teachers were stronger than some of the private-school teachers, he writes.

The magic of her school, at least at the elementary school level, was not in the teachers but in the curriculum and a first-rate, purposeful school tone.

I went to public schools in an upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago. We had a mix of excellent, average and lousy teachers. The curriculum was hit-and-miss, especially in elementary school. But we had a first-rate school tone. Our education-centric parents — mostly college educated and Jewish — had moved to the suburbs for good schools. They sent their smart, ambitious kids to public schools. And the schools were good.

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.

"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?

Writing classes should teach writing

Grading papers for a graduate literature course, Professor Stanley Fish “became alarmed at the “inability of my students to write a clear English sentence,” he blogs at the New York Times. Most were instructors in the college’s composition program.  He discovered that only four of 104 composition sections focused on the craft of writing. In the other 100, “students spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues — racism, sexism, immigration, globalization.”

. . . I advised administrators to insist that all courses listed as courses in composition teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else. This advice was contemptuously dismissed by the composition establishment, and I was accused of being a reactionary who knew nothing about current trends in research.

Fish cites What Will They Learn? by American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which criticizes general education requirements that let students earn math, science or foreign language credit for courses that don’t teach competency in the subject. As for writing, ACTA opposes giving credit for courses that require writing but don’t teach writing.

In order to qualify, a course must be devoted to “grammar, style, clarity, and argument.” The rationale behind these exclusions is compelling: mathematics, the natural sciences, foreign languages and composition are disciplines with a specific content and a repertoire of essential skills. Courses that center on another content and fail to provide concentrated training in those skills are really courses in another subject. You can tell when you are being taught a mathematical function or a scientific procedure or a foreign language or the uses of the subjunctive and when you are being taught something else.

The damage is done long before college, writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog.

Writing instruction – especially in “writer’s workshops” concerned primarily with student engagement and developing a child’s “voice” – tends to be more concerned with teaching a child to have something to say, rather than developing the ability to say it clearly, cogently, or grammatically.

The first step in good writing is to figure out what you want to say. But it’s not the only step. I worry about the journal fad, which encourages students to practice writing to themselves but doesn’t teach them how to communicate with other people.

Racing to the top

The “Race to the Top” — $4.35 billion in federal funding to push education reform — starts today.

States must let student test scores be used to evaluate teachers and principals,  writes Michele McNeil in Education Week. That would force California and New York to change state law to qualify for funds.

This is Education Reform’s Moon Shot, writes Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a Washington Post op-ed. The department’s never had this much money to hand out before. There are 19 points, but four basic ideas are critical:

– To reverse the pervasive dumbing-down of academic standards and assessments by states, Race to the Top winners need to work toward adopting common, internationally benchmarked K-12 standards that prepare students for success in college and careers.

– To close the data gap — which now handcuffs districts from tracking growth in student learning and improving classroom instruction — states will need to monitor advances in student achievement and identify effective instructional practices.

– To boost the quality of teachers and principals, especially in high-poverty schools and hard-to-staff subjects, states and districts should be able to identify effective teachers and principals — and have strategies for rewarding and retaining more top-notch teachers and improving or replacing ones who aren’t up to the job.

– Finally, to turn around the lowest-performing schools, states and districts must be ready to institute far-reaching reforms, from replacing staff and leadership to changing the school culture.

It’s fair to evaluate teachers based on students’ progress, says President Obama in a Washington Post interview.

So what we can say is that if a kid comes in and they gain two grade levels during the course of that single year, even if they’re still a little behind the national average, that tells us that school is doing a good job.

Linking teacher pay to test scores is a big mistake, argues Robert Pondiscio.  Teachers already focus too much on scores and too little on the big picture.

It’s The Carrot That Feels Like a Stick, writes Mike Petrilli on Flypaper. He likes the reform ideas but dislikes the Washington Knows Best tone. If the states are forced to go along, they’ll implement reforms half-heartedly.

This is a draft, not the final proposal, so it’s possible the administration will bend on some of its 19 points.

Eduwonk hopes the department will hold the line, denying grants to states that aren’t serious about change. He notes NEA president Dennis Van Roekel claims to be “absolutely in sync with where they’re going,” except for performance pay, charter schools and linking student and teacher data.  Eduwonk writes:

It’s akin to saying they’re on board with Duncan’s ”moon shot” except for the parts about rockets, rocket fuel, astronauts, engineers, and mission control.

Michael Umphrey wants students and parents to change — or else.

(Obama) could send the school money directly to the parents in the form of vouchers, threatening to cut it off if the kids grades don’t improve. He could turn off cell phone service for kids whose GPA drops below C. He could give each honor student one of those unsold General Motors cars while revoking drivers licenses for any student who gets an F.

Hmmm. Would a GM car be a sufficient motivator?

It’s difficult to figure out how much a teacher or a principal has contributed to students’ learning.  I think we’re in the early stages of figuring this out, not in the so-obvious-everyone-should-do-it stage.

Cargo Cult Education

Cargo Cult Education — the idea that it’s enough to “find what works, adopt it and spread it around ” — is all the rage, writes Allison at Kitchen Table Math in response to Curt Johnson’s Eduwonk post on innovation vs. replication.  She quotes physicist Richard Feynman on “Cargo Cult Science“:

In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

Districts need to “understand what’s underneath the ‘lessons of the high performing school’” in order to make a difference, Allison writes.

Reading instruction — all strategies and no substance — is an example, writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog.

Its entire point is to teach children “what good readers do” and the habits of mind that are reflexive to able readers. It’s the exactly the same thing – you teach kids to mimic the behaviors that lead to comprehension – but without the background knowledge that actually makes it possible.

The Music Man’s Harold Hill was ahead of his time. Buy the band uniforms and the instruments — look like a marching band — and you’ll never have to learn the notes.

Compulsory schooling to age 19?

Raise the age of compulsory education to 19 proposes Harold Levy, former New York City schools chanellor, in a New York Times op-ed.

Simply completing high school no longer provides students with an education sufficient for them to compete in the 21st-century economy. So every child should receive a year of post-secondary education.

The benefits of an extra year of schooling are beyond question: high school graduates can earn more than dropouts, have better health, more stable lives and a longer life expectancy. College graduates do even better.

Levey’s other school fixes include an anti-truancy PR campaign, a pro-college PR campaign and improving K-12 education so students can handle college classes. In other words, many students aren’t developing the work ethic and academic skills to benefit from any form of higher education.

The old chicken-and-egg issue arises. Do the educated do better because they spent more years in a classroom? Or because they’re more motivated, hard-working and/or smart than those who drop out of high school or fail to take advantage of community college?

Core Knowledge’s Robert Pondiscio writes:

Levy’s piece is a good example of what might be termed credentialism –favoring the prize over the accomplishment it represents.  While high school graduates may earn more and enjoy better health than dropouts, the diploma does not magically confer these benefits.  The person who has reached this level of achievement is also more likely to live a productive, stable life.  People with health club memberships might be in better shape than those without.  But it doesn’t follow that the key to health and longevity is to give every American a health club membership.  You have to be inclined to work out. . . .

It’s hard to see how flooding colleges with unprepared and unwilling students will do anything other than damage a productive higher ed system.

There are people for whom K-12 schooling isn’t working. More of the same isn’t likely to work any better.