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October 16, 2014

New CPE report examines what’s behind new literacy standards

BeyondFiction_slider3 We gave you something to watch earlier this week with the release of our newest video, Making Time, now we’re giving you something to read.

Much like our video, Beyond Fiction: The Importance of Reading for Information, is concise but packed with data and analysis on a really concerning trend in the American populace: we’re good at reading for pleasure and entertainment but not so good at reading for information. What exactly do we mean by reading for information?

It’s everything from being able to read and understand a newspaper article (which about 30 million American adults can’t do) to being able to decipher a street map (which some 27 million American adults can’t do).  We don’t mean to pick on the adults here, but international surveys conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, show we get progressively worse at informational literacy the older we get.

Just four countries ranked higher than the US when it came to fourth-graders’ ability to acquire and use information. In contrast, 14 countries ranked higher than our 15-year-olds in terms of their ability to acquire and use information. Not good. But new standards, particularly the ones touted by Common Core, aim to fix this disparity by expanding and restructuring the way literature is taught. So, take a moment to dig into our latest study which, yes, is a form of informational text.  Aren’t you smart! – Naomi Dillon






October 6, 2014

More time for … reading

Last week we shared with you an interview that CPE Director Patte Barth conducted with PBS’ NewsHour on the growing trend among states of building extra time and support for struggling readers at the elementary level. Within that news package was another video that specifically looked at the practice in Florida, where a 2012 state law mandated a focus on the 100 lowest-performing schools.

CPE tackles both subjects— time in school and reading reforms— in two separate projects that will be released next week. Take a gander at this video and then mark your calendar for ours.

 

 






July 3, 2014

Remembering a beloved writer

Earlier this week, contemporary literature lost one of its brightest stars. Walter Dean Myers was the author of over 100 books, recipient of multiple honors including two Newberys and three National Book award nominations. His books were especially popular with middle-school readers, many of whom read them first in English class. Myers died at the age of 76 on Tuesday, July 1 following a brief illness.

Myers primarily wrote about young characters for young readers, but his themes could hardly be described as adolescent. Often drawing from his own youth in Harlem, he told stories of youngsters’ struggles to grow up in an environment where crime, poverty and the specter of racism were constant companions to the events. As the New York Times put it, Myers wrote about “teenagers trying to make the right choices when the wrong ones were so much easier.”

A confession: I was dragged kicking and screaming to my first Myers’ book. I was — and to large degree still am — an insufferable snob when it comes to young adult fiction. The way I see it, the world has an abundance of good “real” literature that is easily accessible to young readers. Why pander to them with a dumbed down substitute? (Which I still maintain describes the bulk of the genre.)

Fortunately, there are plenty of good educators out there who don’t share my snobbery. I worked with one such person during a time when my job involved helping teams of teachers align their instruction to state standards. My colleague and I were bound for the west coast where he was going to demonstrate model lessons, including a multi-part unit based on Myers’ best-seller, Monster. He insisted I read the book first. So I started the book on the plane from D.C. with about the same enthusiasm as one approaches a root canal. I did not look up again until I finished it long before the Rockies.

Boy, was I surprised! Yes, in terms of character and plot, the book clearly shows its appeal to younger readers. Monster tells the story of a teenage boy who is on trial for a murder he may or may not have been guilty of. Told as part-memoir, part-news account, part-screenplay, the book is incredibly sophisticated, structurally complex and contains enough ambiguity to provide chum for the most discerning bookshark. Myers may have young people in mind when he writes, but the themes and the critical demands he places on the reader place him among our more innovative story-tellers.

I can see why teachers like to use his texts in their classrooms. His books provide so many riches to be mined in class discussions. They elicit many reactions. Moreover, they are open to very different, but equally valid interpretations based on the evidence in Myers’ text. As such, Myers not only relates to teenagers on their terms, he provides them with the stuff to help them develop into strong, critical readers and analysts.

Myers leaves many fans, young and old alike, who, I’m sure, will assure his legacy for many years to come. – Patte Barth

 

Filed under: High school,instruction,Middle school,Reading — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 2:44 pm





October 9, 2013

Can tests be worth teaching to?

It’s widely accepted that teaching to the test is a bad thing. The phrase itself summons images of robotic children reciting factoids and filling in bubbles with their number 2 pencils. The practice is said to suppress creativity and critical thought, and crowd out subjects and topics that aren’t tested. Classrooms become joyless.

But what if test prep didn’t mean memorization drills and a stripped down curriculum? What if students couldn’t tell the difference between assessment and a really interesting lesson?  What if the test was something teachers wanted to teach to?

That is one of the challenges the “next generation assessments” are attempting to meet. Two state consortia (PARCC and SMARTER Balance) are currently at work on tests aligned to the Common Core that will “measure the full range” of the new standards. This will include the abilities to think critically and creatively, reason mathematically and communicate effectively — skills that aren’t typically associated with standardized, multiple choice tests.

The consortia greatly benefit by the involvement of the country’s leaders in performance assessment, that is, tests designed to mimic rich “authentic” classroom instruction. The $346 million in federal dollars doesn’t hurt either.  Still, developing these tests while making sure they meet high psychometric standards for validity and reliability is an enormous task. Even if they succeed at creating the instruments, will the tests have the desired effect on teaching?

A new report from the RAND Corporation seeks to answer the question, can standardized tests be worth teaching to? The authors of New Assessments, Better Instruction reviewed over 130 studies examining the relationship between high stakes testing and instruction. They offer a qualified “yes”— as long as certain conditions are met.  These conditions don’t only relate to the test design, but also to policies governing implementation and accountability that lawmakers at all levels should heed.

First, the tests themselves. According to the report, the assessments should “mirror high-quality instruction.”  So-called “deeper learning” isn’t easily modeled in multiple-choice format. The authors caution that producing rich assessments may require sacrificing some reliability related to scores, but add that the resulting impact on instruction may be worth it.

The RAND authors also recognize the importance of finding the right balance for accountability. They write:

Research on the ways that high-stakes tests influence instruction suggests that if the test is unimportant or irrelevant to students, teachers, administrators, and parents, it is unlikely to have an effect on instruction. On the other hand, if there are very high stakes attached …. there may be severe “teaching to the test” that does not promote real deeper learning but focuses on superficial features of items.

The solution? Multiple measures for teacher and principal evaluation , accountability based on growth as well as status, and an integrated system that includes low-stakes, formative assessments for tracking student progress along with the high-stakes, end-of-year summative tests.

Already examples are emerging from the consortia that illustrate what tests worth teaching to might look like. The CPE team has been having a lot of fun trying out the SMARTER Balanced practice tests.  We admit some of these items had us momentarily humbled, but we still maintain we’re smarter than a 5th grader.  Try them out for yourselves here.

More importantly, we think that assessments like these could drive deeper learning and instruction especially if combined with sensible accountability policies.

Filed under: Assessments,Common Core,instruction,national standards — Tags: , , , , — Patte Barth @ 10:53 am





September 25, 2013

Benefits of state-designed curricular resources

TeacherIn late August, Texas State Senator Dan Patrick stood before the Texas Board of Education and argued against state-designed lesson plans. One of the central concerns of Senator Patrick and his growing mass of supporters was that state-aligned lesson plans, assessments and curricular tools from the TEKs Resource System (TEKs), Texas’ curriculum-management network, contained anti-American and anti-Christian values. Senator Patrick made the case that these flaws encouraged children to challenge family traditions that many Texan’s subscribed to. The senator also feared that TEKs materials were imposing centralized, common core related policies, which stripped local school districts of their autonomy. Whether or not Senator Patrick’s arguments are valid, what’s troubling is that he and his supporters haven’t acknowledged the general merits of state-developed resources or the state standards they uphold. As such, it is both timely and vital to explore two critical merits and their relevance to public education leaders.

1. Don’t set standards without thoroughly explaining them

Although, many policymakers are leery of centralized, state control over education, few argue for the complete dismantling of state education standards. Even Senator Patrick seems to agree with some form of academic commonality between districts. So, if most people generally agree that Texas, and all states, should spend time, money and human capital choosing standards then state officials surely must create measures to help schools hold students to those standards. To phrase this point as a question, does it make sense to place effort into setting expectations for curricula without ensuring that teachers understand those expectations and know how to apply them to their lessons? After all, curricular standards are purposefully written with brevity and broadness so that teachers have flexibility when designing individual lessons. While expert teachers may thrive with that freedom and require little support connecting standards to their curricula, inexperienced teachers do not possess the pedagogical experience to reach the same conclusions. But even with veteran educators, state-designed materials cross the bridge between standards and lessons so that all educators catch a glimpse of what’s expected on the ground level.

2. New teachers need curricular resources from experienced teachers

Hovering around 50%, it’s no secret that teacher attrition rates are a major issue in U.S. public schools. An article from the Huffington Post reminds Americans that a lack of quality resources and support is a major contributor to the large number of teachers that leave the workforce. Considering this, policymakers must acknowledge that, aside from political disputes about specific messages, new teachers need to know how veterans lesson plan. More specifically, beginners must learn how to take a broad, complex topic and separate it into monthly, weekly, daily and moment-to-moment components that are logically sequenced, aligned to state standards and challenging for students. Since state curriculum developers are proven educators, their eye for lesson planning should not be overlooked by new teachers even if the message behind particular lessons is disagreeable. Materials from other experts should be given equal consideration so that new teachers can hone their particular teaching style from a variety of quality resources.

Taking a step back, its important for education leaders and parents to acknowledge that support for some level of state standards necessitates an explanation of those standards at the school level from experienced educators. When clarity of those expectations is provided, parents can take solace in the added support and guidance that it provides to new teachers as they learn how to explain material. Political debates about content messages should, of course, not be ignored. However, they should include the general merits of states assisting districts in lesson plan sharing and support. – Jordan Belton

Filed under: CPE,instruction,standards — Jordan Belton @ 10:55 am





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