From high school A’s to college F’s

Kashawn Campbell, a straight A student at an inner-city Los Angeles high school, went to Berkeley with a great attitude, a great work ethic, lots of “grit” — and weak reading and writing skills, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Raised by a single mother who works as a security guard, Campbell grew up with little exposure to the world outside his neighborhood other than watching Jeopardy. Although Berkeley felt like a “different world,” he embraced it enthusiastically.

He filled his dorm room with Cal posters, and wore clothes emblazoned with the school’s name. Each morning the gawky, bone-thin teen energetically reminded his dorm mates to “have a Caltastic day!”

But he was shocked by the academic expectations.

At Jefferson, a long essay took a page and perfect grades came after an hour of study a night.

At Cal, he was among the hardest workers in the dorm, but he could barely keep afloat.

Seeking help, he went at least once a week to the office of his writing instructor, Verda Delp.

The more she saw him, the more she worried. His writing often didn’t make sense. He struggled to comprehend the readings for her class and think critically about the text.

“It took awhile for him to understand there was a problem,” Delp said. “He could not believe that he needed more skills. He would revise his papers and each time he would turn his work back in having complicated it. The paper would be full of words he thought were academic, writing the way he thought a college student should write, using big words he didn’t have command of.”

Campbell chose to live with other black first-year students in the African-American Theme Program, two floors in a dorm. He became close friends with roommate Spencer Simpson, who was earning A’s in challenging classes at Berkeley.

Like Campbell, Simpson had been raised by a single mother in a tough neighborhood and earned straight A’s at low-performing schools. Both were nerds who “didn’t try to act tough” and were “shy around girls.” But there were differences.

Spencer’s mother, a medical administrator, had graduated from UCLA and exposed her only child to art, politics, literature and the world beyond Inglewood. If a bookstore was going out of business, she’d drive Spencer to the closeout sale and they would buy discounted novels. She pushed him to participate in a mostly white Boy Scout troop in Westchester.

To Spencer, Berkeley was the first place he could feel fully comfortable being intellectual and black, the first place he could openly admit he liked folk music and punk rock.

Campbell coped with depression, kept working, joined study groups and — with an A in African American Studies — raised his GPA above 2.0. But he got an incomplete in the writing class on his second try. He’ll be back for a second year.

Hirsch: If kids learn content, they’ll ace tests

Students will ace Common Core language arts tests if they’ve learned history, civics, literature, science and the fine arts, write E.D. Hirsch on the Core Knowledge Blog. But it’s a big if, concedes Hirsch, who backed the new standards.

He quotes a comment from an “able and experienced teacher” on the blog: ”A giant risk, as I see it, in the implementation of Common Core is that it will spawn skills-centric curricula. Indeed, every Common Core ‘expert’ we hear from seems to be advocating this approach.”

The best-selling books about teaching the Common Core advocate techniques for “close reading” and for mastering “text complexity,” independent of content.

. . . students’ ability to engage in “close reading” and to manage “text complexity” is highly dependent on their degree of familiarity with the topic of the text. And the average likelihood of their possessing the requisite degree of familiarity with the various topics they encounter in life or on tests will depend upon the breadth of their knowledge. No amount of practice exercises (which takes time away from knowledge-gaining) will foster wide knowledge. If students know a lot they’ll easily learn to be skilled in reading and writing. But if they know little they will perform poorly on language tests—and in life.

The new Common Core standards call for “a well-developed, content-rich curriculum” that is “coherently structured,” writes Hirsch. But will schools switch their focus from teaching skills to teaching the knowledge children need to understand what they read?

Writing is thinking

Education Realist is teaching Book Club/PSAT, aka “Asian summer school” to a class of straight-A students. Writing is thinking, she tells them.

 “See, when you say you don’t know what to write, you are actually saying…..”

“I don’t know what to think.”

“Bingo.”

“Crap.”

“Indeed. How many of you google other essays and, please god, don’t copy them directly but take the ideas and rewrite them?” A few hands go up. “Yeah. DON’T DO THAT.”

“But I have no idea what to write.”

“Okay. So when you say you want to become a better writer, you are actually expressing the need to…”

“Become a better thinker?”

Her students want to know what their teacher wants them to say. She tells them to say what what’s on their own minds.

“But what if there’s nothing there?”

“. . .  if you don’t know what to think, then I’d rather you write articulately and carefully about why you don’t know what to think, instead of making something up.”

“And that will help my vocabulary?”

Only, if they learn to think about the meaning of words, she replies.

I agree. Clear writing requires clear thinking.

If high school is easy, college is hard

Valedictorians from low-performing Washington D.C. high schools are poorly prepared for competitive colleges, reports the Washington Post.

Nearly two-thirds of the District’s high school graduates enroll in college: 37 percent of D.C. students who go to college complete a four-year degree in the six years after graduating from high school.

Top students can get into top colleges, but then they’ve got to pass their classes.

(Sache) Collier, the 2011 valedictorian at Ballou Senior High in Southeast Washington, said the first thing she noticed when she arrived at Penn State University was how intently her fellow students paid attention during class.

“It was like, ‘Wow, everyone’s on the same page and everyone wants to learn,’ ” Collier said. “At Ballou, it wasn’t like that at all. I was always trying to get the students quiet.”

Collier had been a star at Ballou, where fewer than one-quarter of students are proficient in math and reading. But she said that her classes largely dealt with the basics: summarizing story plots, for example, and learning how to write complete and grammatically correct sentences.

Only in her senior year, in an advanced English course, did a teacher challenge her to think more deeply. “I feel like it was too late,” said Collier, who took two of the three AP classes she said were available to her at Ballou. “It just wasn’t enough to have that kind of teacher for one year.”

In her first semester at Penn State, Collier was surprised by professors’ expectations. She’d done little writing and no research in high school. She earned a 2.1 grade-point average, but raised it to a 3.38 by the end of sophomore year by using writing tutors and consulting librarians and professors. “I’m not the type of person to give up,” Collier said.

Seth Brown, valedictorian at Wilson HIgh, took 11 AP courses, passed five exams and got into Dartmouth. But he was “overwhelmed” by two five-page writing assignments — longer than any assignments he’d completed in high school — in his first semester. “I didn’t even know where to start,” said Brown, a rising senior at Dartmouth.

These students persisted. Many give up.

ACT: 25% are ready for college

Twenty-five percent of ACT test takers in 2012 were prepared for college, according to ACT’s 2012 Condition of College and Career Readiness report. Sixty-seven percent were ready to pass a college writing course, 52 percent were prepared to read a social science textbook, 46 percent were ready for college algebra and 31 were likely to pass biology.

Forty percent of ACT test takers reached the readiness benchmark in three areas. Twenty-eight percent didn’t qualify in any subject.

Passing an ACT benchmark means a student has a 50 percent chance of earning a B or better and a 75 percent chance of earning at least a C.

Thirty-seven percent of test takers want to earn a professional or graduate degree, 45 percent will settle or a bachelor’s and 5 percent are aiming at an associate degree.

Teachers hit computer-scored writing exams

New tests aligned to the new common standards will ask students to do more writing and provide quick feedback to teachers on their students’ skills. But that’s only cost effective, if students’ writing is scored by computers, writes Catherine Gewertz on Ed Week‘s Curriculum Matters. Not surprisingly, the National Council of Teachers of English think machines can’t evaluate writing.

In its statement, the NCTE says that artificial intelligence assesses student writing by only “a few limited surface features,” ignoring important elements such as logic, clarity, accuracy, quality of evidence, and humor or irony. Computers ability to judge student writing also gets worse as the length of the essays increases, the NCTE says. The organization argues for consideration of other ways of judging student writing, such as portfolio assessment, teacher-assessment teams, and more localized classroom- or district-based assessments.

If essays are scored by humans — usually teachers working over the summer — the costs will go way up, tempting states to require less writing.

Learning by teaching

Student work can illuminate teaching, writes Diana Senechal, who presents three students’ philosophy papers on Gotham Schools. She teaches at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering, a selective public school in New York City partnered with Columbia University. In the school’s Philosophy for Thinking program, “ninth-graders study rhetoric and logic; the 10th-graders, ethics and aesthetics; and the 11th-graders, political philosophy.”

She asked students to write about an ethical dilemma in their own lives or in a work of literature. A 10th-grade boy began:

While I was about to start this assignment, I spent about twenty minutes stressing over the fact that I couldn’t think of anything that made me question ethics. I complained to my mother that I couldn’t think of anything to say. I then asked her whether I should ask Professor Senechal whether I could make it up. Mom raised her eyebrow. “Is that ethical?” she asked.

He turned his dilemma about the assignment into the topic of the assignment, Senechal writes. He went on to analyze philosophical positions on lying, such as “Kant’s argument that any lying results in loss of dignity; utilitarian arguments that lying may be acceptable if it is used to a good end” and more.

He concludes that he is somewhere between Kant and utilitarians. Implicit in the discussion is his decision, for this particular occasion, not to lie.

“Real-life applications of philosophy need not be shallow, if the philosophical thought is strong,” Senechal decided.

Reading, writing and knowing

Core Knowledge got its start from E.D. Hirsch’s years teaching literary theory as an English professor, he writes in How Two Poems Helped Launch a School Reform Movement in The Atlantic. He discovered the importance of background knowledge when he looked at ways to improve college students’ writing.

When the topic was familiar to readers, you could measure the benefits of good writing (and the problems caused by bad writing) quite consistently. But the time and effort it takes to understand a text on an unfamiliar topic completely overwhelms the effects of writing quality.

At a Richmond community college, students couldn’t read or write clearly because they lacked a base of knowledge, Hirsch writes.

These students, primarily from disadvantaged backgrounds, could easily read a text on “Why I like my roommate.” But even after controlling for vocabulary level and syntax, they could not easily read about Lee’s surrender to Grant. These Richmond students, surrounded by Civil War mementos on Monument Avenue, were clueless about the Civil War. Their lack of knowledge was the reason they were unable to read well about anything beyond the most banal topics.

Researchers have found that “relevant prior knowledge — information already stored in one’s long-term memory — is the single most important factor in reading comprehension,” Hirsch writes.

Schools talk about “grade level” reading skills. This makes sense for decoding skills, but not reading comprehension, Hirsch argues. Students can comprehend a reading passage if the content is familiar, but struggle if it’s unfamiliar. ”

For understanding a text, strategies help a little, and knowledge helps a lot,” Hirsch concludes.

Back to basics in college

In a remedial math workshop at Indiana’s Ivy Tech, students stack wooden blocks to visualize math concepts. Students learn basic skills and take college-level math in the same semester, which has tripled the pass rate.

At another community college, a hard-working special ed student fails remedial English for the fourth time. His professor thinks it’s hopeless.

The second-chance club

In the “second-chance club,” dropouts, immigrants and people trying to start over must learn to write a thesis sentence, make verbs agree with subjects and master the comma to pass remedial English and move on to college-level courses.

A Wisconsin high school now works with employers to offer 22 dual-credit career classes in business, marketing and information technology. When seniors filled out surveys, three-fourths said they planned to enroll in four-year colleges and universities. It turned out half were going straight to the workforce with minimal skills; only 20 percent enrolled in four-year institutions.