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February 12, 2013

Common Core’s emphasis on “close” reading a disservice students

Recently, my husband and I were invited over to a friend’s house for dinner.  They had prepared an unbelievable spread, and when it came time for dessert, they offered not one, but two choices—ice cream or cake.  Without blinking an eye, my husband declared, “Both please.”  We all laughed out loud, acknowledging the universally accepted truth that one is only allowed a single dessert, while he proceeded to enjoy both a scoop and a slice.  As I watched my husband savor both, I couldn’t help but think that a philosophy of “both please” could be something I could get on board with.  It might not be a philosophy to help American waistlines, but it’s certainly a philosophy that might push our debates about the Common Core English Language Arts into new, more fruitful directions.

I started thinking about this after participating in a teen book club here in D.C.  This year, I’ve had the pleasure of working with PEN/Faulkner to facilitate a book club for teen mothers at Cardozo High School.  We meet together at lunch, read a book, and we discuss it.  I have to admit that on my first day I was a little nervous.  It was a curious emotion because I’ve spent years teaching English doing just what I was about to do, read books with teenagers.  However, there was something different about this experience.  Our time together wasn’t influenced by grades, test scores, or college admissions.  Instead, it was just about reading for fun, discussing what interested you in a book.

The second we opened up the book, it felt different.  Students laughed out loud at parts, asked questions about what was going on, and when it came time to discuss were eager to share what they thought.  We never talked about metaphors, allusions, or the theme of the book—we just talked about whatever interested us.  As the weeks went on, I couldn’t wait for the book clubs, and I wasn’t the only one.  After each session, girls would share that they don’t read any of their books for English class, but that they loved this one.  In fact, girls who had to miss a session asked for copies of the chapter they missed to be left behind so they could catch up.  As I sat through the book clubs, I couldn’t help but wonder—why doesn’t every high school English class feel like this?  Are we, as English teachers, alienating children from the joy of reading?

I wonder if in our altruistic desire to be rigorous, preparing students for the challenges beyond high school, we have forgotten that reading is something you should enjoy.  It should be something that you can connect to your own experiences.  It should be something that teaches you a little bit about how to live life.  It should be something you engage with, ask questions of, and test your own experiences against.  Sometimes it seems that in some of our moves to improve reading and writing comprehension we’ve deformed reading and writing into solely a process of dissection, searching for metaphors and symbols, parsing apart the text with a fine tuned scalpel.

This is something we have to be exceptionally wary of with the implementation of the Common Core. The Common Core explicitly commands teachers to do close readings of text.  Such close readings focus on the text itself, and often call on instructors to slow down reading of a text, going piece by piece, often re-reading and analyzing portions of text.  A researcher at Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently crafted a set of guidelines for English teachers based on the close reading approach (often referred to as New Criticism literary theory) embraced by the Common Core.  The author makes suggestions such as devoting more time to a text so it can be read and re-read and focusing predominately on text-centered questions (versus questions that ask for personal connections to the text).

Now, as a former English teacher myself, I want to make clear that I in no way aim to argue that we should not approach some texts with a New Criticism/close reading approach.  In fact, when reading a complex text, it is often very necessary.  However, I worry that with Common Core implementation, English departments will begin to solely honor close reading as the only way to read a text, spending lots of time on a few texts, dissecting the text for literary concepts such as metaphors, rhetorical devices, and symbolism, and in the process turning some kids off to reading.  Close reading certainly has a place in one’s reading world, but it shouldn’t be the only exposure kids get to reading in their classes.

We’ve got to make room in our English curriculums (and I would argue in all disciplines) for reading for fun.  In the English world, we call this reading for fluency in that the reading is quick and for enjoyment versus for analysis, the mode honored in close reading.  One doesn’t stop to analyze the text, slice and dice it, highlighting the assertions, similes, and anadiplosis.  One zooms through the pages, laughing with the author, enjoying the plot, pulling over a friend to talk about if the main character should have done X or Y.  This is what we did in my book club, and it works to turn kids on to reading.

As districts start implementing the Common Core, I hope that English departments, like my husband, will say “both please.”   Yes to close reading, and yes to reading for fun.  While our debates in the education world seem to quickly swing from one side of the pendulum to another, the sweet spot might indeed not be on the fringes but in the middle.  Let’s have them analyze the symbols in Lord of the Flies, but why not also bring in some contemporary young adult literature for kids to read?  There’s no reason that they are mutually exclusive, but with Common Core and its battery of high stakes tests solely valuing close reading, it’s up to forward thinking school boards, school leaders, educators, and parents to demand both in the classroom.  –Allison Gulamhussein

December 20, 2012

Struggling to read

I can certainly relate to David Powel’s commentary about his son’s struggle to master the skill of reading. Mr. Powel eloquently describes his son’s long struggle to read despite having all the benefit of having two educated and loving parents. Just as with many parents of struggling students Mr. Powel assumed “a kid who visited museums in the summer, spent hours on end outdoors, traveled widely, slept under a safe and comfortable roof each night, ate well, and had health insurance would surely find a way to be successful in school.”

Yet, his son was only a ‘basic’ reader in the 6th grade, just as I was, which is why I can relate to the commentary. See, I, too, struggled immensely to read as well as my classmates. In fact, it is a struggle I deal with to this day. And just like Mr. Powel’s son I, too, was placed in remedial reading programs.

Yet, I now read and write for a living despite the fact there were people who never thought I would ever be able to handle rigorous course work or become the next John Steinbeck. However, the big difference between Mr. Powel’s son and me is that while his teachers were telling him what he couldn’t do, mine focused on what I could, particularly my resource teacher Joanne Walker.

I must confess that one of the people who never though I could handle rigorous courses or become the next Jon Steinbeck was me. In elementary school I never thought I would ever go to college never mind earning a master’s degree from one of the top universities in the country. I thought baseball was the only way I could ever make something of myself. Yet Miss Walker, Miss Irwin, Mrs. Reilly, and other teachers always expected more of me than I expected of myself. Somehow they saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. Without those expectations I am sure I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Unfortunately for Mr. Powel’s son, he doesn’t seem to have the same support from his teachers as I had, which Mr. Powel blames on standardized testing. Mr. Powel believes that the emphasis on standardized tests has led to his son being labeled as a ‘basic’ reader by his school. This is quite unfortunate and the opposite of how schools should use test score data. If indeed the test scores are showing his son is currently a ‘basic’ reader then that school should look deeper into the test data to find out why he is struggling. As a special education student with an IEP that is what my school did with great success.

Of course, my school used more than test scores to make decisions as to what would be best for me just as schools now should do. And it is what good schools are doing for their struggling students. Test scores are extremely important tools in identifying student strengths and weaknesses but test scores by themselves will not improve achievement. That is up to the schools.

Mr. Powel is absolutely correct in pointing out that test scores do not predict a student’s future success, since test scores should be used to improve future student performance not predict it. This is why states and the federal governments need to provide more funds for professional development so our teachers, administrators, and support staff can learn to more effectively use the data they have to improve not only student test scores but their chances for success in life as my teachers did for me.-– Jim Hull

Filed under: Assessments,Reading,Testing — Tags: , , — Jim Hull @ 3:17 pm

December 6, 2012

The common core starts to get real

It’s been two years since the common core standards were released to the nation, and the 46 adopting states are starting to get serious about implementation. Up until now, CCS criticism has been rather muted. But this seems to be changing as administrators and teachers attempt to translate CCS language into classroom instruction.

The Washington Post this week reported on English teacher backlash to the common core standards in their field.  The CCS call for non-fiction texts to comprise 70 percent of high school students’ reading and define benchmarks for reading in history/social studies, science and technical subjects. The reporter spoke to several English teachers who don’t like it, lamenting that poetry and literature will be sent to the curricular backseat. Judging by the letters written in response to the story, a lot of people side with the teachers.

I believe their concerns, although real, are misplaced. First, there’s a good reason the common core goes so far to specify what kind of texts students should work with and how much.  U.S. students do well in international comparisons of reading literature, but their performance drops significantly when being asked to read for information.  Our 15-year-olds, for example, perform better than all but five OECD nations when reading to “reflect and evaluate.” In comparison, 14 countries outscore us in reading to “access and retrieve.”  U.S. fourth-graders do about the same.

Other issues have to do with implementation. In this regard, the English teachers are right to be annoyed for they were not intended to be the only ones teaching reading. The teachers of other subjects should be responsible for the ELA standards in their areas. Yet the English teachers quoted in the Post are clearly taking on the whole burden under the assumption that reading and writing is their job.

For their part, many science and history teachers fear that taking on the task of teaching the reading and writing standards will detract from teaching their “subject.” Nothing could be further from the truth, though, because it’s impossible to separate reading and writing from learning content. But as any good editor knows, there are specific rules of rhetoric for different purposes.

A university English department head once told me about a student he had, who managed to get to her senior year without taking the required freshman comp course and so ended up in his. She was by his account a very sharp psychology major. Still, he was constantly surprised at how awkward her essays were until one day he had an epiphany. He recognized that she was following the rules of structure and argument unique to psychology— not English lit. He also realized the university’s freshman comp course was not preparing students to read and write in the range of disciplines. As a result he initiated a major course overhaul.

The new ELA standards open a big role for higher ed. Teacher preparation programs need to be explicit about how to read and write in different subjects. They can also provide professional development for practicing teachers that is subject specific. Reading and writing belong in every classroom. Plus it will let us keep time for poetry in the English classroom.

Filed under: standards,teachers — Tags: , , , , — Patte Barth @ 3:31 pm

October 26, 2012

Spending Surge on ‘Non-Instructional’ Staff?

The recent Milton Friedman Foundation report makes it sound like school districts are wasting taxpayer money on central office staff that have nothing to do with classroom instruction. They do provide data to back up their claim, but if you dive deeper into the same data you see a much different picture.

The report finds that between 1992 and 2009 the number of administrators and other district staff increased by 46 percent while student enrollment increased just 17 percent. However, such increases do not mean funds were not going towards classroom instruction. A deeper look into the numbers shows a much different picture. In fact, the data shows that the greatest increases in administrative jobs came from the increase in the number of instructional coordinators and instructional aids. For these two groups between 1992 and 2009 their numbers grew 143 percent and 72 percent respectively. Although such employees are considered administrators they certainly impact classroom instruction.

Even so, the report makes the all too often repeated claim that even with the increased support there is no evidence that student achievement has improved. Again, they cherry picked data in an attempt to back up their claim. For instance they cite a study from James Heckman that found that graduation rates peaked in the early 1970’s. However, the study was conducted before the recent dramatic increases in graduation rates our nation’s high schools have made. As a matter of fact:

  • The estimated national on-time graduation rate improved from 68.8 percent to 73.4 percent between 2007 and 2009.
    • The actual high school graduation rate is really closer to 80 percent when students who take longer than four years to graduate are counted as well.
  • According to Education Week, the number of states with an estimated on-time graduate rate of at least 70 percent increased from just 26 states in 1999 to 40 in 2009.

The report also cites long-term NAEP scores that shows that scores for 17-year-olds have not changed between 1992 and 2008. However, long-term NAEP is not nearly as accurate a tool to evaluate the achievement gains of our nation’s schools over this time period. Main NAEP would be a much more accurate measure which showed significant gains in both math and reading during this time period. For example:


  • At the 4th grade level the percent of students reaching the proficiency benchmark more than tripled from 13 percent to 40 percent since 1990.
  • More than twice as many 8th graders scored proficient on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in 2011 (35%) than in 1990 (15%).


  • More than twice as many black 4th graders scored proficient on NAEP in 2011 (17%) than in 1992 (8%).
  • At the 8th grade level the percent of student reaching the proficiency benchmark increased by 6 percentage points for both black and Hispanic students.

The U.S. performance on international assessments showed similar gains. Such as:


  • The U.S. is among the world leaders in math gains between 1995 and 2007.
    • U.S. 8th graders made similar gains (16 points) as high achieving Korea (17) and made much greater gains than both Japan (-11) and Singapore (-16)
    • Only two countries (Columbia and Lithuania) made greater gains during this time period.
    • U.S. 4th graders (11 points) made greater gains than Japan (1) as well.


  • U.S. 8th graders made significant gains between 1995 and 2007
    • Only 3 countries made significantly greater gains than the U.S.
      • U.S. 8th graders (7) made greater gains than Singapore (-13) and Japan (-1) and similar gains as Korea (7).

While indeed the number of administrators has increased significantly between 1992 and 2009, student achievement has increased dramatically as well. During this time period school districts have invested heavily in improving classroom instruction by hiring instructional coordinators and instructional aids to support teachers with their instructional needs. So to claim that districts are simply swelling their central office staffs with ‘non-instructional’ staff would not be supported by the facts.— Jim Hull

February 21, 2012

Making sure students read by 3rd grade

As I discussed in the Center for Public Education’s Starting Out Right report, third grade reading is essential to a student’s future success. Recognizing this, policymakers around the country want to make sure all students do in fact know how to read before moving onto the fourth grade by proposing policies to retain third graders who fail their state reading exams.

These policymakers are correct to point out the need to ensure students can in fact read before entering the fourth grade. But research is also clear that students who are retained are much less likely to graduate, among other negative outcomes. So are policymakers simply stomping out the flames or pouring gas on the fire?

Unfortunately, there is no clear answer. Similar retention policies have been used in the past, with limited success at best. Yet, such policies always seems to come into vogue every decade or so.

Looking at past attempts at similar policies doesn’t provide a clear answer on whether retaining students will boost their future achievement or not, but I’d have to agree with John Wilson, a reading specialist, who wrote in EdWeek that interventions are the way to go, not retention. Of course, Wilson advocates for interventions by reading specialists when a third grader is unable to read adequately; that is, a response when there is already a problem. The best solution is to not just provide interventions when there is already a problem, but to prevent a problem in the first place.

Research is clear that expanding access to high-quality pre-k programs is one of the most effective solutions to improving third grade reading scores and other student outcomes. Unfortunately, many of our most disadvantaged students, who would benefit most from pre-k, have the least access to such high-quality programs. And while access has been improving over the past decade or so, the current recession has put a damper on the expansion of high-quality pre-k programs.

However, school districts around the country are still pushing hard to provide high-quality pre-k programs to their students, especially their neediest students. But budgets are tight. Many school board members are struggling to determine what would be best for their students: offering pre-k and retaining their half-day kindergarten programs, or expanding their half-day kindergarten programs to full-day programs?

The findings from our Starting Out Right report point to the fact that including pre-k along with half-day kindergarten provides a better chance for disadvantaged students to be able to read by the third grade than providing full-day kindergarten alone. Of course, offering both pre-k and full-day kindergarten is best, but when budgets are tight providing pre-k along with half-day kindergarten can be an effective intervention solution to increase the chances students know how to read when they start the fourth grade. Providing pre-k is a much more effective solution than simply retaining a third grader who can’t read.—Jim Hull

Filed under: Pre-k,Reading — Tags: , , , — Jim Hull @ 1:38 pm

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