Where’s the literature?

Secondary teachers should stress classic works of literature, argue Sandra Stotsky and Mark Bauerlein in a paper critical of Common Core Standards. The new standards name only a few required texts, such as foundational American documents (for example, the Declaration of Independence) and a Shakespeare play, notes Ed Week.

(The standards) say that half of what students read in elementary school—and 70 percent in high school—should be informational, arguing that mastery of such texts mirrors the demands likely to be made on them in college and job training. is.

. . .  some English/language arts educators . . .  fear that literature will lose its important place in students’ studies. The standards’ architects have argued that the opposite is true: Teachers of social studies, science and other subjects will inherit new responsibilities for teaching writing and reading in their areas, freeing English/language arts teachers to dive deeply into literary works with their students.

Stotsky, a University of Arkansas professor nd a chief architect of Massachusetts’ highly regarded academic standards, and Bauerlein, an Emory English professor, believe “the analytical and critical-thinking skills developed by a deep study of literature” will prepare students for college more effectively than reading informational texts.

Private schools and public schools in affluent suburbs will teach a literature-rich curriculum, while most public school students will suffer from a “literature deficit,”  Stotsky and Bauerlein predict. That will widen the achievement gap, they write.

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn isn’t included in Massachusetts’ new Common Cored curriculum, write Charles Chieppo and Jamie Gass of the Pioneer Institute. (It’s not banned either. It’s just not mentioned.) “These new English standards include less than half as much classic literature and poetry than the Massachusetts standards they will replace.”

 

Measuring performance by results

Can School Performance Be Measured Fairly? asks the New York Times‘ Room for Debate.

Testing Has Moved Beyond Filling Circles, responds Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation. Objective test scores should be just one part of measuring student success.

When No Child Left Behind was written 11 years ago, standardized tests were the only way to consistently measure student learning on a large scale. But since then, many states have developed sophisticated data systems that can calculate the percentage of high school graduates who enroll in college, enlist in the armed services and land steady, well-paying jobs. Instead of using proxy measures for successful preparation (i.e. test scores) we can use measures of the real thing. If high school graduates need to take remedial courses in college, for example, that means their high school didn’t do its job.

School evaluation should include standardized test scores and visits by “highly trained school inspectors” who can  ”observe classrooms and interview teachers and students.”

Waivers don’t go far enough in allowing states to use better measures of achievement, adds Fordham’s Mike Petrilli.

States may not, for example, use a race-neutral approach to identifying schools that are leaving disadvantaged students behind, as Florida would have liked. (In the Sunshine State’s own system, schools are docked if their lowest-performing students — whatever their race — don’t make significant gains in the course of the school year.) They can’t evaluate high schools by outcomes — like how many students go on to graduate from college — instead of by test scores. They can’t even use computer-adaptive tests, like those uses for graduate school admissions, because low-performing students would get assessed on content that is “below grade level.” (Of course, that’s the point of computer-adaptive technology — it can pinpoint exactly where students are, even if they are far ahead or behind most children their age.)

Use international benchmarks and real-world results, writes Sandra Stotsky, a University of Arkansas education professor.

We can find out if our teachers and administrators are effective by comparing our students’ performance levels on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which assesses knowledge of mathematics and science gained from a rigorous curriculum, and the Program for International Student Assessment, which assesses daily life skills and minimal academic content.

 

Massachusetts’ 26 regional technical/career high schools have long wait lists and high graduation rates, notes Stotsky, who helped write Massachusetts standards. “Accountability ultimately lies in their employability after high school.”

 

Reading ‘Hunger Games’ in high school

Few high school graduates are culturally literate, says Sandra Stotsky in an Education News interview. Her new book, The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum, comes out next week. In 2010, she surveyed a national sample of high school teachers to see what books they assign.

. . .  most students in this country experience an idiosyncratic curriculum, a fragmented curriculum whose individual titles don’t relate to each other in any way so that there is no accumulation of literary and historical knowledge of major literary traditions, movements, and periods in American, British and World Literature.

. . . what students read from grade 9 to grade 11 didn’t increase in reading difficulty. They were in essence, being pandered to, not intellectually challenged and educated.

Hunger Games is now required reading in some classes, interviewer Michael Shaughnessy observes. Teens can read the book on their own — it’s written at a fifth-grade level — without a teacher’s guidance, Stotsky replies.

Students who take honors, AP or IB courses may be prepared for “authentic college-level work,” she says. But there’s a vast middle group of students who graduate, go to college and find they can’t read well enough.

They have been shortchanged by an incoherent and intellectually flat literature curriculum reflecting idiosyncratic choices in the name of “engagement,” motivation, or relevance, or trendy ideas from the academy.

Bringing back leveled courses would provide more challenge for the top 20 percent of students and let average students read books written at the high school level in high school, she argues.

No time for stories?

Under the new Common Core Standards, students would spend half their reading time on “informational” texts in K-5 and 70 percent in middle and high school. This will weaken the public school curriculum, writes Sandra Stotsky, who directed the development of Massachusetts’ English Language Arts standards.

Standards writer David Coleman overstates the percentage of the elementary school day spent on literary stories and misunderstands why teachers use stories, Stotsky writes. It’s easier for poor readers to understand narratives.

If anything, elementary teachers reduced reading instructional time after the 1960s to make more time for writing and revising experience-based stories. Over the years, sales of history, science, grammar, and spelling textbooks declined for a variety of reasons. Education schools stressed hands-on science (which most elementary teachers were not trained to teach) and “more engaging” history materials, much of which came to be written in story form for the sake of struggling readers. Reading instructional series (A.K.A. basal readers) then integrated spelling, grammar, vocabulary, and composition study as part of their programs to make the language arts cohere with what students were reading.

Schools didn’t eliminate science, history, and geography; they just eliminated the means by which these subjects could be taught systematically and accurately by teachers who knew little about these subjects. In addition, struggling readers couldn’t read (or didn’t want to read) history and science textbooks, no matter how much publishers lowered the reading levels of these textbooks.

As tracking fell out of favor in middle schools, English teachers “began teaching more literature written at an elementary school reading level and fewer challenging or even grade-appropriate literary texts,” Stotsky writes.

An elementary teacher can make time to teach students to read literary stories and understand informational texts, she writes. A secondary-school “English teacher has only 45-60 minutes a day . . . to teach everything assigned to the English curriculum.”

Fifth-grade reading in high school

High school students need to read challenging books to prepare for college and informed citizenship, writes Sandra Stotsky of the University of Arkansas in response to to Renaissance Learning’s 2012 report. High school students’ top 40 books average a 5.3 (just about fifth grade) reading level, according to the company, which makes Accelerated Reader. That’s down from 6.1 in the 2008 report, notes Stotsky.

This republic cannot flourish in the 21st century, no matter how much time English or reading teachers spend teaching “21st century skills” . . . if the bulk of our population is reading at or below the fifth-grade level.

Accelerated Reader software quizzes students on their reading and awards points based on difficulty. The report doesn’t count books without a quiz. But AR now includes a very large number of books.

It’s not just that students choose easy books, Stotsky writes. According to the report, librarians are recommending books of interest to high school students that are written at the fourth- to fifth-grade level.

Readability formulas don’t tell us about the literary aspects of a literary text, but they do provide objective measures of vocabulary difficulty and sentence complexity. And why no serious historical nonfiction?

The list of most frequently read graphic novels shows many high school students are reading “classics” reweritten at a second-, third- or fourth-grade level, Stotsky writes. Examples are: Harriet Tubman and the Underground
Railroad, A Tale of Two Cities, Romeo and Juliet, The Time Machine, A Midsummer Night’s DreamJane EyreDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Scarlet Letter and A Christmas Carol.

Only Romeo and Juliet is on the top 40 list for all high school students. “In a few years, struggling readers may be more familiar with the “classics” as rewritten than regular readers are with them as written,” Stotsky fears.

Common Core Standards writer David Coleman also sees a problem: “If you examine the top 40 lists of what students are reading today in sixth–twelfth grade, you will find much of it is not complex enough to prepare them for the rigors of college and career.” The reports includes Common Core Standards’ “exemplars” of nonfiction and fiction books recommended at different grade levels.

College (not so) readiness

The new Common Core Standards promise graduates will be ready for college (or careers). They won’t be ready,  charges Sandra Stotsky, who headed Massachusett’s standard-writing effort.

More college graduates are defaulting on their federal loans.

What do tests measure?

What do tests measure? The NY Times’ Room for Debate blog asks for opinions on whether New York City’s rising test scores are meaningful. Sandra Stotsky, who led the development of Massachusetts’ state exams, notes that all countries test K-12 students at some point.

If the test requires students to do something academically valuable — to demonstrate comprehension of high quality reading passages at an appropriate level of complexity and difficulty for the students’ grade, for example — then, of course, “teaching to the test” is appropriate. That is exactly what we want English or history teachers to do.

However, her evaluation of New York’s grade 8 reading selections found “the test was assessing the ability to understand passages more appropriate for grades 4 and 5.”

On City Journal, Marc Epstein lambastes the New York Regents exam, which is scored to give the greatest weight to subjective questions.

. . . This year, for example, a cartoon of John D. Rockefeller holding the White House in the palm of his hand prompts the question: “What is the cartoonist’s point of view concerning the relationship between government and industrialists such as Rockefeller?” Another question deals with a cartoon of Teddy Roosevelt hunting bears. He’s holding a submissive bear with the name “good trust” on a leash while stepping on the carcass of a dead bear with the name “bad trust.” The question: “What was President Roosevelt’s policy towards trusts?”

The Global History Regents isn’t much better. A reading excerpt about child-labor abuse in nineteenth-century England begins with a sentence that reads in part, “it has always been a general reflection, that the children were very great sufferers, and seemed sickly and unhealthy.” The question: “According to Dr. Agnew, what is one impact the Industrial Revolution had on children?” Any answer that contains “suffer,” “sick,” or “unhealthy” will earn points.

The test is “gamed” to jack up scores and pass rates, writes Epstein, who is a high school teacher.

Standards and sausage

Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have agreed to work on common K-12 standards. The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers have taken the lead.

When students get their high school diplomas, the coalition says, they should be ready to tackle college or a job. The benchmarks would be “internationally competitive.”

Once the organizers of the effort agree to a proposal, each state would decide individually whether to adopt it.

I’m with Flypaper, which compared states’ signing on to standards to people joining a health club in January. We don’t know yet who’s committed and who’s not.

Creating national standards is like making sausage, writes Jay Greene. Only harder to do well.

. . . when everyone gets into the sausage-making that characterizes policy formulation, it generally becomes clear that no one is going to get what they want out of national standards. What’s worse is that the resulting mess would be imposed on everyone. There’d be no more laboratory of the states, just uniform banality.

Of course, some people always hope that they’ll somehow manage to sneak their preferred vision into place without having to go through the meat grinder. That’s what is happening now with the National Governor’s Association effort at “voluntary” national standards. In a process completely lacking in transparency and open-debate, some are rushing to announce a national standards fait accompli.

He quotes Sandra Stotsky, who worries that the standards development process is not transparent, and Sandy Kress, who warns in an Eduwonk comment that states will get a lot less enthusiastic about standards when they realize how incredibly hard it is to agree on something decent.

Teaching unmeasurable skills

The Content vs. Skills War rages on:  Sandra Stotsky, a University of Arkansas professor, takes a shot at Harvard Professor Tony Wagner’s call for students to learn “21st century skills” for “survival” in the global economy.

Wagner does not seem to care if students can read and write grammatically, do math or know something about science and history – real subjects that schools can teach and policy-makers can measure.

Unfortunately, Wagner dismisses measurable academic content while embracing buzzwords like “adaptability” and “curiosity,” which no one could possibly be against, but also which no one could possibly measure. Do we really care if our students are curious and adaptable if they cannot read and write their own names?

Wagner also knocks the time spent on testing. But the research doesn’t support the claim that testing crowds out learning, Stotsky writes.

. . . my colleague Gary Ritter finds that here in Arkansas public schools the most tested students — those in grades five and seven — spend only 1 percent of total instructional time being tested, probably less time than spent in class parties or on field trips.

If our kids learned 20th century skills really well, wouldn’t 21st century skills be easy to pick up?  I’ve always used my content knowledge to question, communicate, explore, etc.  And I don’t see excess knowledge as a big problem for today’s students. There are kids who don’t know what to do with the facts they’ve crammed, but there are more who don’t know enough to think intelligently or usefully.

Update: Jay Greene piles on here and here, arguing that Wagner “shows no evidence that higher levels of critical thinking can be found in places or at times when there was less content and less testing.”