Sunday, September 13, 2015

Assignments Matter

Eleanor Doughterty wrote Assignments Matter: Making the Connections that Help Students Meet Standards for ASCD in 2012. Her overriding theme is that there is a difference between assignments, activities and assessments. The purpose of assignments is to create an environment for learning whereas an activity is "merely doing" (p. 23). It seems like her assignments are tasks that students need to participate in learning and thinking in order to complete. It appears she views activities as fairly useless and she does not discuss assessments.

In order to present robust and rigorous assignments that promote learning, she sees teacher collaboration as essential. She sees time as the number one impediment to completing assignments that present rigorous tasks that work toward teaching the CCSS. Time is required to deeply understand the standards and develop assignments that involve real world basis. In some ways her ideas appear to be more about essential questions than anything else. One example she provides is
What is the proper role of the individual in response to a disaster? After reading passages from the Dalai Lama, John Donne, Marcus Aurelius and William Stafford on individual responsibility, write a letter to a younger student that addresses the question and supports your position with evidence from the texts. (p. 23)

When you look at this assignment, it is the result of  a series of tasks the teacher will guide the students through in order to complete the culminating activity: scaffold reading comprehension tasks through each passage, discussion about responsibility, perhaps interviews or video viewing of people after a disaster, instruction in letter writing and composition might all be required. Yes, this assignment requires lots of instruction and could be robust, but it is very time consuming.

People refer to the Common Core standards as being substantially reduced in content, but assignments like this require perhaps a month of instruction. Content might still need to be reduced in order to accomplish this goal. At the end of the book she highlights a middle school program that instituted a program called Rapid Transit (p. 149-150). The students were significantly behind expectations and experienced high rates of failure in high school before the implementation of the program. Rapid Transit highlighted literacy and math skills and sidelined all but the major concepts in other subjects. The students were able to make remarkable progress in ELA and math, but at what cost? Students were denied access to content that build background to high school and life. They likely missed out on many activities that were exciting for students- rich science experiments, interesting stories about the history of our country and geography, perhaps even the arts, music and PE. It is an interesting trade off.

The other thing that seems to missing from Ms. Dougherty's program of focus on assignments is a focus on fluency. While ELA goals of reading deeply and communicating effectively  are permeating the curriculum across the board, there is also a focus on fluency with certain skills. I am concerned that her poo pooing of "activities" reduces opportunity for fluency. The book is significantly ELA focused but seems to ignore the idea that many of our students have reading fluency issues. These students need us to engage in activities that focus on reading fluency- rereading with a focus on prosody, listening while reading, and reading with a thought to speed and accuracy. She would probably defend her position saying that teachers could embed the instruction within other "bigger" tasks, and perhaps she is correct. Without mentioning fluency based skills, however, I fear that this text will encourage ignoring them.

One admirable key feature is her idea that anchor assignments are important. I live in New York. We have a long tradition of assessing students and releasing the assessments (our Regents testing program started in 1860). These tests have tasks that are anchors. They standardize expectations across the state. Teachers use old questions and activities to prepare students for the rigors of the exam. Done well, the summative test was the easiest test students experienced in their year. Anchor assignments provide for a set of expectations. They showcase what students should be able to do, what their writing should look like. This is exactly what our testing program has provided.

This book is strikingly lacking in examples of her ideas. She suggests locations to look for assignments, how to build and effective rubric and some possible solutions for dealing with logistic concerns, but these are usually lacking in detail that would assist one with implementing her ideas. In some ways it almost seems as if her goal in writing the book is to engage her or another consultant.

While I agree that rigorous tasks are important, teacher collaboration is essential to effective instruction of students and working to improve skill sets of teachers and students is important, we need to be cognizant of creating rich experiences in language that do not demoralize our students with disabilities. A dyslexic student faced with reading and writing tasks in every class needs tremendous support. Managing this is an agonizing process as electives are eliminated and graduation is postponed. We need to be careful to meet the needs of all our students. Not all students are going to college. Students need soft skills like resilience, time management, organization and initiative in order to be successful. We need to embed these skills throughout our curriculum and recognize their accomplishment. For students who struggle with executive function skills, we need to spend as much time detailing them as how to teach how to factor quadratic equations and finding the volume of complex polyhedrons. We need to develop underlying fluency to facilitate abilities in content areas. There is no quick fix or single solution to the problem of education. We need to look at each school, classroom and student individually and develop programs of study that apply to them.

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