Schoolwork worth doing

“Ok, students, it’s time to get out your crayons!”

Hearing this never fails to delight kindergarteners in the classroom. But what about in seventh grade social studies, even if colored pencils are substituted for crayons?  Outside of art class, does drawing really represent the kind of work middle-schoolers should be doing to get ready for high school?

Analysts for the Education Trust recently examined the quality of classroom assignments in a half dozen middle schools in order to document the degree to which they were aligned to the Common Core’s English language arts standards. The preliminary results were published last month in the report Checking In: Do Classroom Assignments Reflect Today’s Higher Standards?.

The Ed Trust team was able to identify assignments that were clearly up to the task. But they also found that these were a fraction of what students are being asked to do on a daily basis. According to the analysis, a surprising few assignments were “aligned with a grade-appropriate standard” – 38 percent to be exact. The 7th grade drawing assignment cited above is an example. And the picture is even worse for students in high-poverty schools (31 percent “grade-appropriate”).

The research team examined both in- and out-of-school assignments given by 92 teachers to students grades six through eight over a two week period. Common Core-ELA standards cross subject areas so assignments were collected from teachers of English, humanities, history/social studies and science. The average number submitted per teachers was 17. Altogether the analysts scored nearly 1,600 assignments on such attributes as “alignment to Common Core,” “centrality of text,” “cognitive challenge” and “motivation and engagement.”

The report authors, Sonja Brookins Santelises and Joan Dabrowski, acknowledge that they did not expect to see 100 percent alignment to the higher-level demands expressed in the standards. Indeed, there is a place in the classroom for the occasional quick check of facts or basic skills practice that will help students use these tools more confidently when applied to more challenging tasks. But Santelises and Dabrowski did hope to see more rigor than they found, as follows:

  • 16 percent of assignments required students to “use a text for citing evidence”;
  • 4 percent required higher-level thinking; in contrast, 85 percent asked for either the recall of information or the application of basic skills;
  • 2 percent met their criteria for “relevance and choice”; and
  • not surprisingly given all this, only 5 percent were scored in the high range of the Ed Trust framework.

For me, reading this report was like déjà vu all over again. In the nineties and early aughts, I worked at the Ed Trust as part of a team that helped teachers in high-poverty schools align their lessons and assignments to state standards. During that time I can’t say how often we saw the “movie poster assignment” as the culminating task following a major unit of study. This assignment asks students to create, to draw, a movie poster on the topic as opposed to writing a paper or otherwise have students show their capacity to extend their thinking about the material. Could such an assignment be given occasionally as a break from a routine of academic heavy lifting? Absolutely. But in the schools we worked in, the movie poster wasn’t the exception. Too often, assignments like it were the routine.

Today, as it was then, low-level assignments are not a teacher-led plot to keep kids illiterate. Teachers in many schools struggle to keep their students engaged while keeping up with overstuffed curricular and testing requirements. The problems are exacerbated when students are performing well below their peers. Teachers in such situations often respond by providing lessons in easy bits with the idea that they will eventually build to higher understanding – what educators call “scaffolding.” (I show an example of a scaffolded math lesson on slides 7-13 in a common core presentation you can find here.)  While the practice is sound, Santelises and Dabrowski documented an over-reliance on scaffolding which rarely led to independent learning.

Nonetheless, the fact that 5 percent of the lessons were complex and high-level is cause for optimism. These teachers clearly know what rigor looks like. In addition, because of the short two-week window, the analysts may well have missed out on major end-of-unit assignments that push students’ thinking to higher levels.

The Ed Trust team is continuing its study, which should tell us more about how typical these findings are. In the meantime, school leaders who want to know how well instruction in their schools and district align to higher standards can check out this implementation guide.

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