Thursday, July 28, 2016

In the best interest of children- what's wrong with the standards

Kelly Gallagher's book, In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom, takes time to examine the CCSS. He points out both strengths and weaknesses. Below is a chart copied from the book.

Common Core Anchor Reading Standards
1.       Students are asked to read rigorous, high-quality literature and nonfiction.
2.       Students are asked to determine what a test says, what a text does and what a text means.
3.       Close reading of rigorous text is emphasized.
1.       Readers should not be confined to stay “within the four corners of the text.”
2.       Prereading activities are undervalued.
3.       Recreational reading is all but ignored.
4.       There are no reading targets in terms of how much students should read.
5.       The reading standards may be developmentally inappropriate.
6.       There is a misinterpretation regarding the amount of informational reading.
7.       CCSS is driving an overemphasis on the teaching of excerpts.
8.       The exemplars are problematic in terms of relevance and reading levels.

Gallagher 2015, p. 61

I will address some of the shortcomings. First staying with in the walls of the text. This is preposterous. The Gettysburg Address cannot be viewed without the lens of the Civil War. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a Dream" speech without knowing about segregation and prejudice lacks impact. The manual that comes with your dishwasher might be simple enough for novices without dishwasher experience, but the repair manual is not. A jury is given a brief informational blurb every time DNA evidence is provided so that they understand what is going on. If you are in college, the textbook for the 101 course might have the same reading level as the 305 level, but you are going to struggle to read the book for the 305 course if you do not have the background information. Try to understand the young love concept of Romeo and Juliet without knowing about how loving relationships work-- not going to happen. Utilizing prior knowledge is essential for comprehension. For the CCSS authors to promote isolated reading is preposterous.

Recreational Reading is a cornerstone of few programs, but many programs have seen remarkable growth as a result of independent reading. My favorite was that reading three, self-selected, at reading level books is enough to virtually eliminate the summer reading slide, and since that is responsible for a significant portion of the poverty reading gap, reduces the gap between the haves and the have nots. Self-selected reading is responsible for the vast majority of vocabulary growth, especially as kids get older. Further it develops a love of reading. Call it what you will- DEAR, SSR, SSI- it is reading individually chosen books that are accessible to students based on individual reading levels and interests. Going with this is the idea of how much. Donalyn Miller of Book Whisperer fame, suggests 40 books per year. New York state recommends 25. Importantly, this includes required reading books. So if a student reads 4 novels in English class, that is four you can check off the list. Kids need to read extensively to develop reading, vocabulary and writing skills.

Next is the informational reading split. The CCSS authors recommend that by high school 25% of reading be narrative and 75% be informational. I have argued this point since the standards came out. Do students read outside of ELA? I sure hope so. We spend a lot of money on textbooks for history and science as well as other subjects if our kids do not read them. If you have four core classes that means nonfiction rules in the content area (75% of the classes) and fiction can have a large rein in ELA. We have traditionally taught some nonfiction in ELA- when we talk about American Literature, speeches play a large role. Poetry- found in the 811 section of nonfiction- qualifies. We read or are presented with information about time periods and authors before we jump into Twain, Shakespeare or Orwell. This is the nonfiction ELA teachers present. We do not and should not eliminate fiction from the dominant ranks of  ELA class.

Exlemplars are problematic. They are isolated from the rest of the curriculum. In high school we read A Tale of Two Cities in ELA while we studied the French Revolution in history. They support each other. Much literature supports history in this way and many schools utilize this approach. Students who are learning about the American Revolution are primed to read My Brother Sam is Dead and those reading Animal Farm should have background with the Russian Revolution. Just because someone said this is the type of work we expect does not mean that it is appropriate for the students in front of us. Further the standards ignore the fact that many of our students read far below grade level. The NYS modules for eighth grade included the book Unbroken- the tale of survival in Japanese prison camps in WWII. It discusses bullying in, at times a positive light, and talks extensively about torture. It has a 10th grade reading level. Why is it recommended for 8th grade? This is a stretch text for kids reading slightly above grade level. Take a moment to think about those reading below grade level. This is approximately 1/3 of the average class- not to even think about a class from a struggling urban school. Some of them are reading within two years of grade level. They will not read this material. It is not rigorous- it is impossible. All the scaffolding and previewing (that we are supposed to limit) will only make it slightly less inaccessible. We need different strategies for those kids. Just plopping the book, or an excerpt, in front of them will not make them better readers. More often than not, it turns them into nonreaders.

As teachers we need to embrace the strengths of the standards, but then we need to adjust them or adjust the curriculum to meet the needs of the students in front of us. We have the opportunity to create a generation of readers- let's not ruin it.

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